Port Security

Port Security

Security of national ports has always been a concern for any great power, but between the War of 1812 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans tended to take such security for granted. Other than a thwarted German attempt to form an alliance with Mexico against the United States—an effort that brought America into World War I—and limited Axis attempts to infiltrate both coasts in World War II, no foreign power launched a successful attack on the contiguous United States prior to the al Qaeda bombings. Since September, 2001, the federal government has adopted much stricter standards for port security. Key elements in this undertaking are the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), the U.S. Customs Service, and the two agencies' parent organization, the Department of Homeland Security.

On September 24, 2001, less than two weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee issued a joint request to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta for a rapid response team to reduce the vulnerability of American ports to terrorist attack. In accordance with this request, Mineta requested additional funds for his department's leading antiterrorism service, the USCG.

At that time, several statutes already existed providing USCG with extensive enforcement powers. These included Section 89 of Title 14, U.S. Code, which authorized USCG to board any vessel subject to the jurisdiction, or operation of any law, of the United States in order to make inquiries or conduct examinations, inspections, searches, seizures, or arrests. The Ports and Waterway Safety Act of 1972 gave the Secretary of Transportation broad authority to regulate movements and activities of vessels subject to U.S. jurisdiction, with USCG as Transportation's operational arm in these undertakings.

Additional powers came from the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986, passed after a U.S. citizen was killed during the terrorist seizure of the passenger vessel Achille Lauro in 1985. Title XI of that law became known as the International Maritime and Port Security Act. The latter gave USCG authority to require inspections, patrol ports and harbors, establish security and safety zones, and develop contingency plans and procedures in an effort to combat terrorism.

USCG Responds to 9/11

As Mineta noted before the joint committees, USCG had launched "the largest homeland port security operation since World War II" in the aftermath of September 11. As part of Operation Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom, first phases of the effort to destroy al Qaeda, USCG deployed 55 cutters (small armed vessels), 42 aircraft, and hundreds of boats to establish port and coastline patrols. It also called up more than 2,800 reservists to support homeland security operations at the country's 361 ports.

At the ports of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, USCG developed a pilot armed escort initiative, the Sea Marshals program, whereby it provided armed escort to vessels during their transit through U.S. waters. USCG also established Naval Vessel Protection Zones, the maritime equivalent of no-fly zones, for a distance of 500 yards (457 m) around all U.S. naval vessels in the navigable waters of the United States.

Vital to these operations, and to future efforts to protect U.S. ports, were USCG Port Security Units (PSUs). Staffed primarily with selected reservists, along with a core of active duty personnel, PSUs had a mission of providing waterborne security, along with limited land-based protection, for shipping and critical port facilities both in U.S. waters and in theatres of combat. In the latter capacity, PSUs had been deployed to the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm in 1990, and to Haiti for Operation Uphold Democracy in 1994. In December, 2000, following the terrorist attacks on the USS Cole in Yemen, PSU 309 from Port Clinton, Ohio, was deployed to the Middle East to provide vital force protection for Navy assets.

Capable of deploying within 24 hours and establishing operations within 96 hours after initial call-up, PSUs had transportable boats equipped with dual outboard motors, along with support equipment to sustain activities for up to 30 days. Because the specialized training for PSU operations was not available within USCG, reservists assigned to PSUs were required to undergo a two-week basic skills course at the PSU Training Detachment, located on the U.S. Marine base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

The Maritime Security Act

On November 15, 2002, the House passed the Maritime Security Act, approved by the Senate two days earlier. Among other provisions, the new legislation extended USCG powers by giving its units authority to require background checks of some port employees; put in place a new tracking system for commercial ships; require all 361 nationwide ports to establish committees bringing together federal, state, local, and private security officers; establish marine anti-terrorism methods; set new standards to make container seals tamper-proof; and authorize the Sea Marshal program.

Congress appropriated $500 million to dispatch more security operatives to inspect cargo at its point of origin, and for other specific measures that included development of equipment to detect nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons hidden in containers. In securing the nation's 25,000 miles of navigable waterways, USCG called on the help of TRW Systems, to which it awarded a $31-million, five-year contract to assess security measures and assist in developing guidelines, as well as self-assessment methodology.

An example of new container security measures could be found at the busy port of Hampton Roads, Virginia, where U.S. Customs had installed radiation detection equipment to interdict hidden radioactive material. Hampton Roads authorities reported that the alarm sounded two or three times a week, each time for reasons that had nothing to do with terrorism: smoke detectors, for instance, have trace amounts of radioactive materials, as do some medications and plants. These false alarms caused only minor delays, and port security officials gave the $125,000 system high marks.

Likewise, maritime industry representatives attending a public hearing sponsored by USCG in San Pedro, California, in February, 2003, expressed approval of new plans for increased security in the local port. However, they did request federal assistance in raising the estimated $6 billion needed to put the new measures in place.

Funding issues were also a concern for Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC), former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and sponsor of the Maritime Security Act. He had hoped to raise several hundred million more dollars through users' fees on cargo and shipping companies, a move bitterly opposed by the shipping industry. Due to this opposition, Hollings had removed the fee from his original bill, but in March, 2003, his staffers told the Chicago Tribune that he intended to keep pursuing the idea.

Continuing concerns. A number of situations in late 2002 and early 2003 highlighted the need for increased port security measures. One of these was a war game staged in the fall of 2002 by some 85 officials representing the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of Homeland Security (as the new department was called prior to March 2003), and international trade businesses.

The premise was a terrorist plot to deliver weapons of mass destruction to the United States through one of its ports. In order to stop the attack, participants searched ports nationwide, yet they failed to find the "terrorists," who succeeded in smuggling their deadly cargo in a container through a port on the East Coast. Had these been real terrorists, they would have been free to explode a "dirty bomb" (radioactive material packed with explosives) in the middle of downtown Chicago, their target in the exercise.

A contract dispute between dock workers and employers on the West Coast in the fall of 2002 shut down ports for 10 days, causing a $1 billion impact on retailers—thus, illustrating the devastating economic impact a shutdown could have. Participants in the war games exercise calculated that, if U.S. ports had to shut down because of a terrorist incident, the Dow Jones industrial index could rapidly plunge and leave a dent in the economy measured in the tens of millions within a day.

Other real-life incidents and phenomena raised concerns during this period. A boatload of illegal immigrants from Haiti penetrated port security in Miami in early 2003, and periodically stowaways from China managed to get into the ports of the West Coast inside shipping containers. Far more ominous were reports throughout 2002 of al Qaeda "ships of concern," with U.S. intelligence estimating that the terrorist group had anywhere from 12 to 50 rogue vessels plying the world's seas.



Brand, Lois. "Helping Coast Guard Enhance Port Security." National Defense 87, no. 590 (January 2003): 45.

Haynes, V. Dion. "U.S. Works to Shore up Port Security; War Game Underscores Acute Risk." Chicago Tribune. (March 10, 2003): 8.

Mintz, John. "15 Freighters Believed to Be Linked to al Qaeda." Washington Post. (December 31, 2002): A1.

Schoch, Deborah. "Port Security Upgrade Welcomed, But Industry Asks Who Will Pay." Los Angeles Times. (February 6, 2003): B3.


Meeks, Brock N. Container, Port Security Seen Lacking. MSNBC News. < http://www.msnbc.com/news/888290.asp?0s=- > (March 29, 2003).

Port Security Units. U.S. Coast Guard. < http://www.uscg.mil/hq/g-cp/comrel/factfile/Factcards/PSUs.html > (March 29, 2003).

The Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Hearing on Port Security. House of Representatives. December 6, 2001. < http://www.house.gov/transportation/cgmt/12–06-01/12–06-01 emo.html > (March 29, 2003).


Coast Guard (USCG), United States
Customs Service, United States
Homeland Security, United States Department of
September 11 Terrorist Attacks on the United States

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