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.
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.
Longshore clerks used to open containers to check for stolen cars or stowaways. But today, they work from an office, using video cameras and scales that weigh the trucks as they roll through the gate.
Clerks say the weight can vary by up to 5,000 pounds before it raises eyebrows. "You figure you're going to have a thousand of these tonight, why stop this one?" said a clerk who asked that his full name not be used.
Terrorists could pack explosives in a container and bring it in as an empty, said Mitre, the Longshore security director.
"It's easy to lose 1,000 to 2,000 pounds in a container of that weight," he said. "You'll never know there's something in it."
Even a modest attack could have widespread repercussions as ports close down in panic, Stephen Flynn, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted at a Seattle port security conference last week.
If a bomb blast showed security has failed, he said, "how can elected officials stand up and say we can continue shipping?"
Ports have taken some measures to prepare for attacks from within the U.S. Tacoma officials said the port used part of the $6 million it received in federal grants to add automated gates where trains enter fenced-off areas. Seattle got $12.4 million in grants and spent more than half on security at its cruise-ship terminals.
Officials at the Puget Sound ports would not discuss longer-range budgets or planning against terrorism, saying it would jeopardize security and violate federal laws.
By contrast, Los Angeles and Long Beach port officials were open to discussing their $400 million five-year plan, which includes building two major facilities: an inspection building where potentially explosive cargo can be safely unpacked, and a command center, where surveillance-camera feeds from terminals can be monitored by the Coast Guard, port police and other agencies.
Cosmo Perrone, director of security at Long Beach, said improving security is itself a great deterrent.
"Aren't you displaying the castle wall?" he said. "Why would you want to hide it?"
Port officials also say they lack funds to do much more for security, especially compared with what has been spent on airports. Of course, they added, fixes aren't always expensive.
"It isn't always the fancy gadget," said Rod Hilden, chief security officer at the Port of Seattle.
"Sometimes it's just going and looking at our facilities and seeing vulnerabilities."