Security maven says that in an "incredibly fragile" low-cost, interconnected world economy, manufacturing and retailing sectors run risk of crushing "gridlock"
Steve Flynn is to the war on terror something akin to what State Department intellectual George Kennan was to the creation of the post-War strategy of containment of the growing Soviet Empire. A retired U.S. Coast Guard commander, Flynn served as director of the Council on Foreign Relations Hart-Rudman independent task force on homeland security—a group that sounded a clarion call about the dangers of stateless terrorism before 9/11.
More recently, Flynn’s word has been an obligatory point of reference for Capitol Hill policymakers, the media and others on homeland security issues ranging from transportation security and border control to international crime and the drug trade. His book, America the Vulnerable, released last year to critical praise, sounded the alarm about the curious inattention of official Washington to maritime and port security issues affecting a sector accounting for more than a quarter of this country’s gross domestic product.
On January 26, Flynn was an expert witness at the newly-empowered Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s first hearing of the year: “The Department of Homeland Security: The Road Ahead.” There, Flynn warned that “9/11 is how warfare will be directed against the United States in the 21st Century.”
Port Security News caught up with Flynn at the hearing to ask his opinion about issues ranging from the potential impact of a terrorist attack on one or more U.S. seaports, the controversy over the federal port security grant program, and his view of the new presidential security directive on maritime security. Here is what he said:
PSN: You have been critical of the fact the Administration lacks a plan for dealing with a potential terrorist incident at one of our seaports. In your view, what would the impact be on the U.S. economy of shutting down one or more ports?
FLYNN: Essentially we are talking about, within a matter of days, putting our manufacturing and retailing sectors in gridlock, but also, of course, our energy sectors. We live in an age where we have just-in-time refinements, so right now, in a cold winter, you have maybe five days of heating oil for all of the North East. So if you close the Port of New York/New Jersey to incoming ships while you are sorting out this terrorist attack, within a matter of days you won’t have the refined fuels to put into the barges and the rest that serves as heating oil, and people are going to get cold very quickly.
The Walmarts clearly won’t have things on the shelves. The Dell computers won’t have parts coming in. The automotive industry goes idle. This is a just-in-time system, where the warehouse is in the transportation system, and the bulk of the transportation system is maritime. And that is why the stakes are so enormous.
PSN: And, of course, when 9/11 occurred, the country was in much better financial shape—we had a surplus. So if something happened now, would the impact be even greater?
FLYNN: On 9/11 we effectively closed everything down. We closed our seaports, we effectively closed our borders by raising the alert levels so high that we couldn’t process what came through them, and we grounded all aviation. To cope with aviation we went through every single airplane—it took us three days as a government to go through every single aircraft to say, is there a terrorist or a means of terrorism on this plane? When there was an “all-clear” given, then we allowed aviation to get back on track.
The reason why we turned the maritime and surface transportation back on—our trucks and trains and ships—was simply because we figured it was too expensive. It isn’t because we suddenly had comfort levels that they didn’t pose a risk. We just realized that we had to get it moving again. So if the next attack comes, I fear, from the surface or maritime transportation community, and the reflexive response is that I have to inspect everything, because it likely came in what was viewed up until that point from a low-risk player, then within about two weeks the entire global transportation system goes into gridlock.
PSN: How is that?
FLYNN: If we close our seaports, the ships heading into our shores—and there are already backups in Long Beach and Los Angeles right now because of tremendous demand from Asia and not enough shore-side infrastructure to process that demand—so if we close it, then the ships are anchored out with no place to go. Because overseas terminals—like Hong Kong, and Singapore and Rotterdam—are 365 days a year, 24/7 operations, working six containers high, they are basically on the same footprint putting much more throughput; they have to close their gates almost immediately to all incoming trains and trucks because there is no place to stack the boxes, because the ships have no place to go. That means that the trains and trucks are stuck outside the gate with no place to go, and it means that all the factories and consolidateds that have goods to ship have nothing to ship them on.
PSN: So a shutdown would be like an expansive wave …
FLYNN: It’s that much of a ripple effect. We have an extraordinary system that’s made it possible for this low-cost, global connection world, but we also have a system that is incredibly fragile for this kind of thing.
PSN: You’ve talked about how legacy homeland security agencies like the Coast Guard suffered from a decade or more of neglect even before 9/11, and now they have not only their traditional duties, but also front-line responsibilities in the protection against terror. The Administration has justified its maritime and port security strategies by pointing out that it is giving money to the Coast Guard and other government agencies, but the seaports have come up way short. What’s your thought on where the responsibilities lie and who should be getting the money?
FLYNN: The issue is that we need to do both. We need to have a competent federal agency to manage the security environment within the maritime arena—that’s the Coast Guard. If it’s not equipped to do that, or if its infrastructure isn’t floating, you won’t have the part of the equation that when something goes wrong, someone can ideally prevent it by actions because they have the authorities and the means.
But there is no question that the ports have been shortchanged in terms of funding, in the sense of real national priority. And the issue really is because the way in which the Administration has set up the homeland security strategy. They say the core responsibility of the federal government is national defense and border security, but on critical infrastructure there is sufficient incentive for the market to take care of itself, and states and locals need to share the burden of protecting assets within their jurisdiction.
PSN: But for the port community …
FLYNN: What that translates into for our seaports, obviously, which are run by local and state authorities, and basically leased to private entities, the position of the Administration is that they in fact should bear the cost for securing their critical infrastructure.
My own view is that, given the role that the ports play in our national economy, that in a time in which we are re-thinking national security, we clearly should be thinking whether it should only be the property tax owners in the city and county of Los Angeles who are solely responsible for bankrolling the security of a port that provides 40-plus percent of all the containers that come into our country; and 25 percent of all the energy needs for everything west of the Rockies. I think that most Americans would say that that is probably not equitable.
PSN: What is your view of the new National Security Presidential Directive 41/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 13 on maritime security issued by President Bush in December?
FLYNN: The national security directive is a big step forward in the recognition in the top of our government that the collective federal effort is not all pulling together, and that the president needs to weigh in and ask hard questions—“Well, what is everybody doing?”—and whether or not it makes sense.
The way our government works well, when it works, is when a president convenes the inter-agency processes and says to report back to him. People have a sense that the answers have to be good ones. And so, I think this is going to help address a concern—certainly in the private sector and certainly in most communities—which is: What is the position of the federal government?
PSN: In others words, who is doing what …
FLYNN: The Department of Energy wants radiation portals. The Department of Defense is off with assets patrolling overseas, potentially boarding ships with Navy SEALs. The Coast Guard is developing an (International Ship and Port Facility/ISPS) Code. Customs is working bilateral containers. What’s the plan? It’s clear that all these initiatives, while well intended and in some cases quite constructive, are not coordinated. And this causes confusion for the private sector and confusion for our overseas trade partners.
So it’s a real opportunity—because there are tight deadlines—for this to get vetted at the top of our government and for real decisions to be made. And once the president makes them, they tend to have to have resources that go with them to execute them.
PSN: There’s been quite a bit of controversy over the past couple of weeks about port security grants. The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General seems to suggest that their administration is something of a mess, while the American Association of Port Authorities says the real issue is that there is just not enough money. What’s your view?
FLYNN: First, there has to be more money for port security. But the money that we’ve (gotten), we’ve done a terrible job of pushing it out. The most dysfunctional example is having the Port of Los Angeles having to propose separate grants from the Port of Long Beach, and having to compete with each other—when, of course, its one port complex.
Not being able to put joint proposals together, because the grant process says that you can’t divulge what each other is doing—that you are all competing for a limited pool of money.
The other (issue) is where we are putting those assets. When we look at the most critical ports in the nation, we can identify a few of them, we have not done a very good job of making sure we prioritize funding going into those ports. And when we get issues like funding for private oil facilities and others, you sort of pushing the issues there as well.
PSN: So how important are these problems?
FLYNN: We’re talking about such small sums, in the big scheme of things, that we shouldn’t get too wrapped up around the axle that there are signs that this hasn’t been well done.
The real issue is: how are we going to fund port security so that the United States ports are compliant with the very regime we have asked the rest of the world to pursue.
Martin Edwin Andersen can be reached via Mick_Andersen@Portsecuritynews.com