On some mornings, in the hour or so before
dawn, the Mississippi River just below New Orleans can be a dangerous
and scary place. The fog is like a thick blanket, smothering you,
dampening your hearing and blinding your sight. Sounds from the river
shift like the wind and when you hear the muddy water lapping against
something, it means you’re too close. But too close to what? A pier, a
bridge, another boat? And where is it? Even spotlights are useless. The
fog bounces them back into your face and blinds you.
You may feel isolated and alone—but you’re
not. You’re in the busiest shipping lane in the world and the boats,
tugs and barges on it rely on radar and radio to keep them apart.
It was on just such a morning, February 21,
2004, that something went wrong. Perhaps someone wasn’t watching the
radar, or walked away from the radio. The 534-foot ocean-going cargo
ship ZIM Mexico III slammed into a 180-foot offshore supply boat, the
Lee III,south of New Orleans. The Lee sank with all hands. By the time
the Coast Guard arrived, all they found ofthe Lee’s crew was an
abandoned lifeboat and a couple of empty liferings twirling atop the
The sinking of the Lee III shut down the
Mississippi River for five days while a salvage crew raised her off the
bottom and the Coast Guard recovered the bodies of the crew. Ships
trying to get out of the river stayed in port. Ships trying to get into
the river were forced to wait in the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually, there
were so many ships waiting in the Gulf, that in the words of one
official, “It looked like a parking lot out there.”
Andy Fobes of the Port of New Orleans said
the five-day shutdown of river traffic cost the port and related
businesses $85 million.
The February accident—and it was an
accident—worried FBI, Coast Guard and homeland security officials. It
demonstrated the vulnerability of the Port of New Orleans and its
shipping lanes, and it prompted them to take a fresh look at how to
close some of the city’s vulnerabilities.
Could a terrorist attack happen in New
Orleans? Could someone hijack or sink an oil tanker, a cargo vessel, or
even a cruise ship at the mouth of the Mississippi and shut down the
river for days, weeks, maybe months? Could such an attack crush the US
Louis Reigel, special agent in charge of the
FBI’s New Orleans office, acknowledges the threat. “I think the worst
case scenario would be something happening to a cruise ship that comes
into our port,” he says. “That is a serious concern.”
“Those are the types of scenarios that we
have to consider,” says Capt. Ron Branch, US Coast Guard commander for
the Port of New Orleans. He says that port security requires thinking
outside the box. “We’re facing an enemy who doesn’t play by the rules.”
So what he does is put himself inside the mind of his adversary and
asks himself, “If I was a terrorist, how would I attack the Port of New
Orleans—what would I do?”
After Capt. Branch prepares the port for that attack, he thinks of another one.
The Port of New Orleans spans 22 miles of
Mississippi River shoreline. It sits in the center of the busiest port
complex in the world. Each year, more than 6,000 commercial ships and
700,000 cruise ship passengers pass through. It also handles more than
35 million tons of general and bulk cargo a year.
The Mississippi River is the carotid artery
that feeds the US economy, and the river’s mouth opens American trade
to the rest of the world.
“If you shut down the river, you’ve shut down
commerce for three-fourths of the country,” says Capt. Kevin Newman,
homeland security coordinator for the Port of New Orleans Harbor Police
The US government has clamped down on
airports, but the nation’s 300-plus seaports are relatively wide open.
Like its sister ports, the Port of New Orleans has security—it always
has—and although that security has tightened significantly since 9/11,
it’s never going to be as stringent as security at US airports. It
can’t be. To seal the Port of New Orleans like an airport, the river
would have to be shut down to all but commercial traffic and every inch
of space on every cargo ship and in every container coming into or
going out of the port would have to be hand searched. It’s just not
But the threat ofa terrorist attack at or
near a seaport is very real. Oil tankers and cargo ships make up the
majorityof the traffic at the Port of New Orleans. Most of the ships
are foreign. Oil tankers have the potential to become floating bombs
and environmental catastrophes, and cargo ships can carry anything from
weapons to explosives and biological, chemical and nuclear materials.
A 2003 Rand Corporation study reported that
90 percent of all the cargo in the world is transported in shipping
containers. Shipping containers are steel boxes, usually 40 feet long,
eight feet wide and eight-and-a-half feet tall. According to the study,
of the 250 million containers shipped each year, fewer than 2 percent
are ever inspected. Government authorities around the world have no
idea what’s in 98 percent of the containers loaded onto cargo ships.
The Rand study concluded that it would be
fairly easy for terrorists to use shipping containers to transport
weapons or other dangerous materials. Or, in a not-too-hard-to-imagine
nightmare scenario, they could convert the containers themselves into
weapons of mass destruction.
In 2002, Congress passed the Maritime
Transportation Security Act (MTSA). Among other things, the MTSA
requires foreign commercial ships to give the Coast Guard 96 hours
advance notice of their arrival. Prior to the act, foreign ships had to
give only 24 hours notice. The act also requires ships trying to enter
the Unites States to provide the Coast Guard with a complete crew and
passenger list, a detailed description of the cargo, a list of previous
ports of call, and the ship’s US destinations.
The information is fed into a host of computer databases and intelligence analysts begin the search for terror links.
Authorities are also doing what they call
“pushing out the borders,” creating a buffer zone between American
territory and terrorist threats. For example, instead of inspecting
ships at the dock, the Coast Guard frequently boards incoming ships as
far as 20 miles offshore.
“These are dedicated security boardings,”
says Capt. Ron Branch. Once onboard the ship, the Coast Guard confirms
the crew list, verifies all required documentation, and often searches
Under the provisions of the MTSA, all US
ships, dock operators and ports were required to submit detailed
security plans to the Coast Guard by January 1, 2004. After the Coast
Guard approves the plans, the MTSA gives the ships, dock operators and
ports only until July 1 to implement those plans.
Foreign-flagged ships are also required to
have a security plan. After July 1, the Coast Guard will stop any ship
from entering the United States that is not carrying an International
Ship Security Certificate.
Because it’s impossible to search every ship
and every cargo container, Branch says, “We’ve got to be very random in
what we do and very unpredictable. At any time we could board any
vessel. It could be a recreational vessel, a cargo ship, or a passenger
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), part
of the Department of Homeland Security, is pushing the US borders even
farther out. In January 2002, CBP launched the “Container Security
Initiative.” The objective is to make America’s seaports, like the Port
of New Orleans, the country’s last line of defense instead of its
first. To accomplish that goal, CBP has stationed officers in 20
overseas ports to identify and search containers that might be
considered high-risk before they get shipped to the United States.
CBP officers also board each foreign vessel
making a port call in the United States. According to Todd Owen, CBP’s
area director for the Port of New Orleans, the officers interview
crewmembers and run their names through law enforcement and shipping
databases to confirm their identities and to look for terror suspects.
Owen says that as part of the
US-VISIT program, CBP will soon fingerprint and photograph everyone who enters the US through a seaport.
In New Orleans, CBP operates two gamma ray
imaging trucks. Using the trucks, inspectors can scan a 40-foot cargo
container in minutes, accomplishing what used to take hours to do with
hand searching. The imaging capability of the trucks is so
sophisticated, Owen says, that one of them recently detected handguns
stashed inside a boxful of fishing gear that was stored in a shipping
The ultimate goal of all of the port security
efforts, Branch says, is to achieve “maritime domain awareness.” Branch
calls it MDA, and says it’s a concept that permeates port security. He
explains that the idea of MDA is to know exactly what’s going on in
your port at all times, to know where the threats are, and to know
where to better position your security assets.
During a speech in March, Homeland Security
Secretary Tom Ridge said “The more we work to achieve maritime domain
awareness, the more terrorists we can stop in their tracks.”
It’s clear the White House recognizes the
threat to US ports. President Bush’s budget for 2005 includes $1.9
billion for US port security, a 13 percent increase over 2004 spending.
The president’s budget also includes $102 million for the Coast Guard
to enforce the MTSA.
Despite the partisan sniping and
fingerpointing that seemed to dominate many of its hearings, the work
of the 9/11 Commission highlighted one critical lesson: To fight
terrorism, the US needs better communication and cooperation among its
law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies.
According to experts, efforts to enhance
communication and cooperation between government agencies responsible
for the nation’s security were underway long before the first 9/11
commissioner was appointed.
One example of the new attitude toward
interagency cooperation is the expansion of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism
Task Force (JTTF) program. Since 9/11, FBI headquarters mandated that
each of its 56 field offices form a JTTF. Their mission is to spearhead
a multi-agency and multi-jurisdictional approach to combating
terrorism. In New Orleans, the task force is composed of members from
18 federal, state and local agencies, including the Coast Guard, CBP
and Harbor Police. One FBI agent on the New Orleans JTTF is assigned to
maritime security issues full time.
Other law enforcement working groups and
advisory committees sprang up in New Orleans soon after the 9/11 terror
attacks to specifically address the concerns of port security.
“The communication and cooperation between
the agencies is 500 percent better than it was before September 11,”
says Harbor Police Capt. Kevin Newman.
Yet despite the high level of cooperation
among agencies, the increase in funding and the enhanced security
measures implemented at US ports, experts say more work needs to be
done to raise the security level at the nation’s ports to a level
comparable to that at US airports.
“The ports are just as vulnerable, if not more vulnerable, than the airports,” says Capt. Newman.
According to Newman, one of the things
standing in the way of better security at US ports is the cumbersome
federal grant process. “It’s taking a while for the money to flow down
from DC to the different agencies,” Newman says.
Officials at the Port of New Orleans say they
need at least two patrol boats to fully secure the perimeter of the
port. Unlike other transportation facilities, ports can’t be completely
fenced in. While chain link fences, cement barriers and security
checkpoints protect the land side of the port, the river side is
unprotected and open to anyone with a boat. As the agency with primary
responsibility for physical security at the Port of New Orleans, the
Harbor Police want to close that gap—but so far they’ve been unable to
get the funding.
Another problem facing not only the Port of
New Orleans but also ports across the country is the delay in the
introduction of a uniform access control and identification system.
Under the provisions of the MTSA, all US ports were required to fully
implement their security plans by July 1, but so far the Transportation
Security Administration (TSA) has not approved its new identity card
system. As a result, according to Cynthia Swain, director of safety and
security for the Port of New Orleans, ports may be forced to spend
money to develop their own temporary identification procedures until
TSA works out the kinks in the new system. That money, she says, could
be better spent elsewhere.
Because ports present so many unique security
challenges, they require unique security solutions. They require what
US Coast Guard Capt. Ron Branch referred to as “thinking outside the
box.” They also require a bureaucratic support system that operates
“outside the box,” one not so bogged down with red tape that innovative
security initiatives can’t get implemented because of paperwork
Maritime attacks are nothing new. They’ve
happened in every war the US has fought; the war on terror is not
likely to be any different. What is different is our approach to
fending off those attacks. This time we’ve chosen to be proactive
rather than reactive. This time we’re reaching out—sometimes across
ocean—to stop the terrorists before they strike. What those responsible
for protecting US ports need is a streamlined support system that gets
them what they need, when they need it and where they need it. What
they don’t need is another stack of government forms to fill out. HST
Chuck Hustmyre is a
retired special agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
(ATF) and served on George W. Bush’s security detail during the 2000
presidential campaign. He is now a freelance writer based in Baton
Rouge, La. His work has appeared in publications such as Law and Order, Tactical Response, and Court TV’s Crime Library. He has two books coming out this year.
More than 60 years ago, Adolph Hitler understood the importance of the Mississippi River to the United States and the world.
In May 1942, Hitler unleashed his U-boats on
the American Gulf coast. When they reached the Mississippi River, the
U-boat commanders found a fertile, unprotected hunting ground. Despite
the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was unprepared to face
enemies lurking just offshore. Cargo and passenger ships steamed in and
out of the river with their lights blazing, many without armed escort.
Navy and Coast Guard patrol planes were almost nonexistent.The Germans
turned the hunting ground into a killing field. One U-boat even laid a
string of nine antiship mines across the mouth of the river.
“German submarines had the ability to strike
anywhere, at any time, without warning,” says Martin Morgan, a research
historian at the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans. “I see it being
very close, very congruent, with the terror threat today.”
It wasn’t until late 1943 that the US was
able to mount adequate security measures to protect the river and its
ships. By that time, the two dozen U-boats Hitler dispatched into the
Gulf of Mexico sent 56 ships to the bottom, damaged 14 more and took
hundreds of lives. During their terrifying campaign in the Gulf, the
Germans lost only one U-boat.