Jul. 25--Ever since terrorists toppled the World Trade Center towers, U.S. seaports have been preparing for an attack.
Fences are up, cameras and lights are on and a national computer system is crunching data on all cargo coming into the U.S. on ships.
But ports appear to have left at least one gaping hole in their security -- a hole so big you could ride a truck through.
We did, several times.
Simply by riding along with truck drivers coming to drop off and pick up cargo, this reporter easily penetrated the security of ports in Los Angeles-Long Beach and Seattle, two of the nation's largest port complexes.
In the only instance where identification was sought, flashing an expired driver's license was all it took before a uniformed guard waved us through the gate.
Past that point, we had access to secure areas where cargo ships tie up under giant cranes and where thousands of containers move into and out of the United States.
Terrorists could enter the same way. Indeed, with the lax controls we found, a half-dozen men and several thousand pounds of equipment or explosives could enter in a supposedly empty truck.
Attacks on U.S. ports might not cause large loss of life, experts say. But a conventional explosion -- or a "dirty" bomb that spreads radiation -- could halt the flow of goods and oil through these vital economic arteries, particularly if public panic ensued.
What measures are there to stop stowaways -- or a container packed with dynamite -- from getting into a port?
"Not much," said Ronald Boyd, chief of police for the Port of Los Angeles, the largest port in the United States.
"From the land side, everything pretty much moves freely and unobstructed."
Port officials nationwide know about this hole and say they are doing what they can. A new federal driver-identification system is planned over the next two years as one effort to secure "the land side."
In congressional testimony last year concerning that system and other port-security measures, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Craig Bone said "we must know and trust those who are provided unescorted access to our port facilities and vessels." A national coalition of maritime officials that includes the ports of Seattle and Tacoma says that currently, this is "a vital missing link in the chain of maritime security."
But meanwhile, port operators aren't taking seemingly simple steps such as checking the "condo" sleeping unit behind the driver's cab, where bunk beds could accommodate half a dozen men with equipment.
Entering trucks also aren't checked to make sure the containers they bring in are actually empty.
"You want to see?" the driver asked. "Come on."
It was a sunny Saturday in Los Angeles. The driver, an immigrant from Guatemala, was at a filling station.
I hopped into his blue Freightliner. Within minutes we were at the gate of the Pacific Container Terminal in Los Angeles-Long Beach, the nation's largest port complex.
I hid in the "condo," behind a curtain. But I didn't need to. No guard was visible on duty.
The driver picked up a black telephone receiver attached to a stainless-steel column. He gave his driver's license number and the number of the container he wanted to pick up.
A printed ticket popped out, like at a parking garage. With that, we rumbled through the gate.
We now had what's known as "unescorted access" to the terminal, a 256-acre concrete expanse of stacked containers, whirring cranes and waiting trucks, with massive cargo ships tied up at one side.
Unescorted access means no one checks where we go.
Moving around would be even easier when Longshore workers are on breaks or shift changes, said Michael Mitre, director of port security for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
"People coming off a ship could get in the cab and hide, or they could come into the terminal in the cab and get on a ship," he said.