DAILY BREEZE                             

February 3, 2005

Stowaway episode at Port of Los Angeles gets lawmakers' attention

BY Toby Eckert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON --  The discovery of 32 illegal immigrants in a cargo container at the Port of
Los Angeles last month dramatized the continuing vulnerability of U.S. ports as
a potential target for terrorists, top lawmakers said Tuesday.

The lawmakers noted that it was a crane operator who spotted the Chinese
stowaways aboard the Panamanian-flagged freighter, exposing serious gaps in more
sophisticated port security procedures imposed since the Sept. 11, 2001,
terrorist attacks.

"If not for that astute crane operator, the cargo container would have
certainly made its way past port inspectors and into greater Los Angeles. That
cargo could have been a 32-man terrorist cell - 13 more than the 19 who attacked
us on 9/11," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-El Segundo. "Or, that cargo could have
been a shipment of a dozen SA-7 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles to use
against commercial airliners at Los Angeles International Airport."

Harman, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, spoke at a
hearing on emerging threats to national security.

Similar concerns were being raised on the other side of the Capitol. Senate
Homeland Security Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, highlighted the
incident at a confirmation hearing for President Bush's nominee to head the
Department of Homeland Security, federal judge Michael Chertoff.

"If the smugglers of the illegal aliens know to use the container system,
then surely al-Qaeda has identified that as a possible means of smuggling an
al-Qaeda cell into our country," said Collins, who recently toured the Los
Angeles-Long Beach port complex. "And despite all the high-tech cameras and
other surveillance techniques and the department screening programs, none of
those caught these illegal Chinese citizens."

Chertoff, a former assistant attorney general who worked on the Justice
Department's response to 9/11, said he wasn't familiar with the specifics of the
episode. But he told Collins, "I share your concern."

"Seems to me these are opportunities to learn. We need to go back and see
what this tells us about something that we're not doing. And then we ought to
make adjustments," he said.

Federal officials have launched several initiatives to try to improve port
security, including more stringent scrutiny of cargo manifests and ship
itineraries, a container screening program at major foreign ports and requiring
U.S. ports to develop comprehensive security plans.

But terrorism experts say ports remain vulnerable.

"The intelligence that underpins our (container) targeting is very frail"
because it relies to a large degree on self-reporting of cargo manifests, crew
rosters and other data, said Stephen E. Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander
who is now a national security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Port officials complain that federal funding for security initiatives is
woefully inadequate and dwarfed by the money spent since 9/11 on improving
aviation security.

Chertoff was pressed on the issue of funding priorities at the confirmation
hearing. While making no promises to increase port funding, he said security
spending should be closely tied to an analysis of threats facing the nation.

"My general philosophy on all of these issues of protecting our vulnerable
infrastructure is to be disciplined about identifying and prioritizing so that
we're not spending all of our effort on one type of infrastructure - for
example, aviation - and neglecting other parts such as ports and cargo," he
said. "I think we have to have a formula for funding and a formula for lending
assistance to state and local governments across the board that takes account of
the reality of vulnerabilities and risks in making sure that we're making a fair
allocation."