Finding the Holes in Port Security

Seattle reporter tests controls at West Coast ports, results question whether port security is a misnomer


On the way out of the terminal, we drove through a radiation monitor, which checks outgoing trucks to make sure they aren't carrying materials to make a dirty bomb. The Department of Homeland Security says that by year-end, two-thirds of containers leaving ports will be checked by such monitors. Currently only about half are.

There is no such check on containers coming from the land side -- and no plan for one.

In Seattle, I rode into two terminals sitting in the passenger seat beside a trucker I'd just met, an African immigrant who has worked in the United States for 11 years. During two hours inside the secure facilities, no one asked who I was.

At the port rail yard on South Hanford Street, run by BNSF, a guard walked around our full container and issued a ticket from a handheld device.

And once again, we had unescorted access to a terminal.

A short time later, on a second trip, we brought an empty container into Terminal 18, the largest container dock in Seattle. The driver said we had to show ID, so I gave him an expired driver's license. He held both licenses out the window. From 15 feet away, a guard in a blue uniform waved us through.

The check was so casual, I asked if the guard knew the driver. "No. He doesn't know me. I just see him there," the driver said.

At a second checkpoint, the driver simply talked into a metal speaker box.

Does the driver think the ports are secure?

"Very, very, very," he said. After a pause, he added, "Compared to before."

Before, he said, guards didn't always ask for a driver's license.

Informed of my unauthorized entries, port officials in Seattle and Long Beach said they would see what additional measures they could take.

"This terminal should have had much better security," said Art Wong, spokesman for the Port of Long Beach. "This is something that we're going to have to take a look at."

Their power is limited, however.

Most ports lease their docks to private companies. Those tenants -- the terminal operators -- develop their own security plans, which are approved by the Coast Guard, the agency with overall security responsibility for port facilities.

A spokesman for the operator that runs both Seattle's Terminal 18 and Pacific Container Terminal in Long Beach said he didn't know what more it could do.

"We're doing exactly what's prescribed by the Coast Guard," said Bob Watters, vice president at SSA Marine.

SSA also has paid to put radio-frequency identification tags on 1,200 trucks in Seattle. The tags transmit the driver's name and company to the gatehouse operator.

Stephen Metruck, the Coast Guard captain in charge of Puget Sound, said that within the agency, "we pay enough attention" to land-side security. For instance, the Coast Guard spot-checks whether terminal operators are complying with their security plans.

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said cameras would catch anyone getting out of trucks and climbing on rail cars at its port facility.

The railroad also checks container seals and knows all of the drivers working the yard, about 60 a day.

"Our 40,000 employees are all on the lookout for trespassers," he said.

But port officials said they have no idea who the drivers are, nor the names of the companies that employ them, and that's not their problem.

"If the terminal manager is satisfied that this person is OK to be on the port, that's the standard," said George Cummings, director of security at the Port of Los Angeles. "But their check is only as good as a California driver's license or a government-issued photo ID."

In April, the Department of Homeland Security announced it was moving ahead with a plug for the hole: a new identity card that uses fingerprint readers to verify a driver's identity. It is scheduled to be issued to 850,000 workers over the next two years.

But some say the required criminal background and immigration checks, combined with high driver turnover, will create a labor shortage that snarls the flow of goods into the United States.

Better driver checks also won't solve the problem of empty containers, which account for three of every four containers entering ports from the land side.