Thursday, April 24, 2008

Port Security: How Much Is Enough?

The Port of Los Angeles is testing a new "small craft intrusion barrier" designed to prevent small boats from approaching cruise and cargo ships while they are docked:

While the foam and steel cable obstacle might not look like much, port authorities say they hope it will serve as a deterrent to small boats that may pose a threat to cruise ships and cargo vessels passing through the port.

"The barrier stops the vessel, then forces it to bounce back," said George Cummings, director of homeland security for the Port of Los Angeles.

Port officials said they hope the new security device will prevent a terrorist attack similar to the one in Yemen that killed 17 American sailors and wounded 39 others when a small boat laden with explosives blew a large hole in the USS Cole on Oct. 12, 2000.
The idea of protecting docked ships has merit, of course. But what protective interventions are planned for ships that are underway? From an attacker's perspective, a ship in the channel may be a more tempting target than a docked ship anyway. If you can seriously wound or sink a ship, you might be able to block the channel and interfere with the port's operations for some time.

So while the small craft intrusion barrier is a legitimate protective intervention, does it really address the port's biggest risk? It wouldn't seem so.

They also conducted a host of other security interventions:
About 50 port police officers used the occasion to conduct a drill and test several other tools aimed at bolstering security.

The port's canine unit sniffed for explosives around the cruise terminal. Five dive team officers clad in black wetsuits plunged into the harbor's cold water to look for suspicious devices. A hazardous materials team used bio-sensors to search for contaminants.

Elsewhere, port police officers tested the new Long Range Acoustical Device, a loud alarm meant to deter wayward recreational boaters from entering restricted areas.
While a port needs a whole system of preventive interventions, the thing about all these is that they're "11th hour" interventions. They are effective only after a potential malicious actor has gone operational - i.e., planted the explosives or contaminants, taken the helm of a small boat to launch an attack. At this point an attack would be imminent, so you'd need excellent intelligence to detect the hazards or intercept a small boat. And of course an alarm wouldn't do - the terrorist would simply ignore it.

So while these may be elements of the port's security regime, there needs to be more than this.

I still like this as a proactive preventive intervention for port security, humble as it is.

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