Center for American Progress

New Strategies to Protect America: Safer Ports for a More Secure Economy

New Strategies to Protect America: Safer Ports for a More Secure Economy

A review of security measures and policies at commercial ports in the United States reveals significant deficiencies despite changes mandated under law.

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A review of security measures and policies at commercial ports in the United States reveals significant deficiencies despite changes mandated under law. The Bush Administration has failed to set priorities based on the risks posed to our economy and society and it now proposes to eliminate the grants program that supports the implementation of port security plans. Adopting a risk-based approach – differentiating between sites and determining which ports are most in need of protection – can achieve greater security at a lower cost. Continuing on our current path carries with it the risk of grave consequences to our society and economy

The Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) was signed into law in the wake of the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States. The deadline for implementing MTSA was July 1, 2004. Unlike other areas of critical infrastructure security, where the Bush administration has been unwilling to set clear mandates for the private sector and push for meaningful change, the MTSA has been a catalyst for action. Unfortunately, in the face of unrealistic deadlines and disjointed implementation milestones, action on paper has not necessarily translated into greater security at the pier. The priorities established for maritime transportation security plans wrongly assume that all ports, facilities and vessels are equally vulnerable to attack and that all need to be protected to the same security standard. A risk-based approach that takes into account the actual terrorist threat that we face, and concentrates on risks that carry the gravest consequences to our society and economy, can actually achieve more security at potentially lower cost.

The United States is a maritime nation. We rely upon and profit from global commerce worth trillions of dollars. Any major disruption of these worldwide supply chains will instantly create billions of dollars in economic loss and create cascading effects in every corner of the world. Against this backdrop of risk, the Bush administration and its Department of Homeland Security have failed to dedicate sufficient resources to adequately protect the maritime transportation system that is vital to our society, economy and way of life. Port security is currently an unfunded mandate and that situation will deteriorate because the Bush administration plans to eliminate the specific grant program – poorly funded as it is – that supports municipal, state and private sector owners and operators as they attempt to implement security plans required by the MTSA.

The Center for American Progress proposes a four-point strategy that will lead to safer ports and make our people and economy more secure. The optimum strategy for protecting maritime transportation requires a risk-based approach to integrating security, consequence reduction, and emergency preparedness and continuity of business into comprehensive plans and programs for enhancing the resilience of the maritime transportation system. Its major features include:

  • Revising Coast Guard maritime facility security regulations and, if necessary, amending MTSA to emphasize risk assessments focused on the threat and consequences of a terrorist attack rather than vulnerability;
  • Increasing attention to risk mitigation, preparedness and continuity of operations to enable the maritime transportation security system to recover quickly in the event of a terrorist attack, reducing the economic consequences of a severe disruption, thereby denying attackers their central strategic goal;
  • Maintaining the existing Port Security Grant Program, creating greater program flexibility for an improved return on investment and increasing annual funding to a minimum of $500 million per year in order to eliminate the current mismatch between strategy and resources and make port security a funded federal mandate; and
  • Establishing a national port security trust fund by dedicating a specific percentage of customs revenue collected on goods flowing through our nation’s ports in order to ensure long-term sustainability of our maritime transportation system security.

This report focuses on security measures at or near U.S. shores. It is limited in scope to policies and issues directly related to MTSA implementation and its impact on the 361 commercial ports in the United States; roughly 3,700 maritime facilities, including cargo and passenger terminals, in those ports; and approximately 60,000 ships that arrive in U.S. ports annually, including about 8,100 foreign flag vessels. Although cargo, container and supply chain security are mentioned in MTSA, these very important issues will only be tangentially covered. Port security also encompasses what is termed “maritime domain awareness,” which includes security on the high seas and abroad. The emphasis is on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the agencies within it, particularly the U.S. Coast Guard, not other federal departments and agencies that play important but supporting roles.

President Bush repeatedly stresses that America must “stay on the offensive” against terrorism. However, overseas military operations alone cannot protect the United States from the threat of terrorism. The question is whether enough is being done now to make our homeland more secure. The answer is no.

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