There is no foolproof way to secure America's seaports against terrorism, so the government should focus more time and money on plans to revive the economy in the aftermath of an attack, a report released Tuesday said.
The recommendation by the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California was based partly on its finding that, almost five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, many of the nation's 361 ports are still highly vulnerable.
Cargo containers pose the biggest threat, yet only a fraction of the 10 million shipped to the country every year get fully inspected, according to the San Francisco-based institute's report. Limited staffing and funding have led to unclear priorities and uncoordinated strategies among port security authorities. And programs to credential port workers, buy new Coast Guard ships, planes and helicopters, and protect international cargo have lagged.
As such, the study's authors suggest this: make ports less attractive targets to begin with.
"The only reason terrorists would attack a port is the impact on the economy," said Jon Haveman, a contributing editor and a researcher at the institute. "But if you can reduce the economic damage, the less likely they are to attack."
To lessen any disruption to commerce following an attack, the government could devise better ways to sort safe cargo from high-risk cargo, as well as a system for prioritizing containers in the backlog of ships offshore, such as a bidding system. Companies, meanwhile, could maintain larger stockpiles of goods.
Authorities often cite ports as top terrorist targets, in part because al-Qaida has hinted that it wants to disrupt the nation's economy, the report said.
With about $807 billion worth of goods flowing across American docks in 2003 and hundreds of thousands of jobs dependent on harbors, even temporarily shutting down a major port could have a significant economic toll.
The report, for example, considered what would happen if terrorists blew up three highway bridges and one railroad bridge at California's Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, the word's fifth biggest harbor and the country's largest. The yearly economic loss: $45 billion.
Aside from insulating the economy from an attack, the study's authors recommended that authorities pursue new defenses such as several tracking, screening and inspection points for shipping containers; improving emergency response at ports; and strengthening terrorism insurance markets.
They also said the federal government should offer better policy guidance and set aside money and personnel based on actual risks, and consider boosting the amount of money spent on port security.