P.J. Crowley
P.J. Crowley

On a day that marks a critical deadline in protecting our nation's ports, the Bush administration's failure to set priorities and adequately fund key homeland security programs is all too clear. Reforms and protections that exist on paper have yet to make it to the pier, America's 361 ports remain vulnerable to attack, and dangerous weapons and materials can still too easily find their way into the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security has touted July 1 as an important day – one when stricter standards for security go into effect under both DHS regulations and international maritime rules. In theory, as of today, ships not in compliance with U.S. and international security standards could be denied entry by the Coast Guard into U.S. ports. And in theory, our ports are more secure.

Reality is different. For while the Coast Guard has estimated that the program required under the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 will cost the nation $7.5 billion over ten years – and $1.3 billion in the coming year alone – the Bush administration has asked for only $46 million for fiscal 2005 to support states agencies and the private sector that operate the ports, facilities and vessels affected by these new regulations.[1] Rather than increasing federal assistance in the face of new security requirements, the Bush administration's port security grant request is actually a huge reduction from the still inadequate total of $500 million allocated for port security in the first three years of the Bush administration.

The Bush administration has not matched its homeland security rhetoric with the resources that actually make us more secure. As in other areas vital to homeland security, port security is an unfunded federal mandate. The administration talks the talk of a genuine public-private partnership involving federal, state and local governments and the private sector. However, it does not walk the walk. In the face of growing federal budget deficits, the Bush administration is attempting to push most of the cost of these new security standards down to states and the private sector. This is in stark contrast to the administration's approach to aviation security, where the federal government has largely assumed the security responsibility that the airlines used to perform and the cost as well. [2]

Port security needs to be a joint responsibility and port authorities and private operators must do their share. However, confronting an elevated terrorist threat against the United States that is inflamed by the current situation in Iraq, there is no substitute for federal leadership. U.S. ports operate on tight margins and can not easily absorb security costs, nor pass them along to customers in a competitive environment. Of the 153 public agencies that operate ports across the United States, in fact, only the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach make a profit. The rest require subsidies from states that are themselves strapped for cash. [3]

Ultimately, port security – and homeland security – can't be outsourced. The consequences of failure are enormous.

An attack on a liquefied natural gas storage facility at an urban port facility like the Port of New York and New Jersey risks mass casualties and chaos that could exceed what we experienced on September 11. Many of our major ports are near urban centers, military bases or other critical infrastructure.

An attack involving a dirty bomb or weapon of mass destruction smuggled through a port in a shipping container might force the president to order a temporary closure of U.S. ports, analogous to what was done with the grounding of commercial aircraft on September 11. Since our economy depends heavily on global trade and open ports, an extended closure would break just in time supply chains, interrupt manufacturing operations and have other cascading effects across the United States.

The attacks of September 11 created roughly $85 billion in economic losses, and they were directed only at symbols of our economic and military strength. A West Coast port strike two years ago generated a billion dollars a day in economic losses. A carefully coordinated terrorist attack involving multiple ports would cause damage orders of magnitude above that.

Or national strategy should be to adequately invest in port security before the next attack, not pay the piper afterwards.


  1. Remarks by RADM Larry Hereth at "Turning the Tide: Securing America's Ports," panel discussion sponsored by George Mason University Critical Infrastructure Protection Project at the National Press Club, June 29, 2004. A summary of port security funding is available in the Congressional Research Service Report, Maritime Security: Overview of Issues, updated December 5, 2003, p. 14, at
  2. The administration's FY 2005 budget includes $1.9B for port security, $1.7 of which is for the Coast Guard and another $160 million for container security programs. These are programs that have always rested with the federal government. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) plans to spend $5.3 billion on aviation security. Much of the responsibility for aviation security was previously done by the private airline industry.
  3. According to the Century Foundation, Reality Check: The "Red" States The ugly truth about state budget shortfalls, the 50 states face a cumulative budget deficit of $70 billion for 2004. Even with the improving economy, the projected budget for 2005 is $40 billion, with port security competing with other imperatives from Medicaid to education.

P.J. Crowley is a senior fellow and director for national defense and homeland security at the Center for American Progress. He is a retired Air Force colonel and served in senior positions at the White House and Department of Defense during the Clinton administration.

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