WASHINGTON – America's seaports are vulnerable targets that have attracted interest from terrorists, an FBI counterterrorism (search) official told senators Tuesday.
"The intelligence we have certainly points to ports as a key vulnerability," said Gary M. Bald, inspector-deputy assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorism division. "I can't be more specific as to the threats of attacks. We have received information that indicates there is an interest."
Bald and officials from the Coast Guard and Customs Service (search) said they've made progress in securing the nation's 361 ports, which receive about 6 million cargo containers from overseas each year.
Robert Jacksta, executive director of border security and facilitation for the Customs Service, said 5.4 percent of cargo containers (search) entering the nation's ports in the 2003 fiscal year were inspected. He said that was nearly double the percentage from 2002 and "it's important to note we think this is the right 5.4 percent."
Jacksta said the inspections are getting results and have found contraband goods and evidence of inaccurate ship manifests.
Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who convened the hearing of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security, said more must be done. Measures to protect seaports and waterways have lagged behind efforts aimed at airports and airplanes since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"The ports are the soft underbelly of our nation's security," Feinstein said.
The Coast Guard still is assessing how many ships, ports, ferry terminals and fuel-chemical tank farms failed to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for submitting security plans, said the agency's director of port security, Rear Admiral Larry Hereth.
The latest estimates are that 60 percent of 5,000 facility plans and 75 percent of 10,000 vessel plans have been received, Hereth said.
Feinstein noted that in June, the commandant of the Coast Guard said the agency still needed an additional $70 million to implement the maritime security law enacted after Sept. 11. The Coast Guard didn't get the money, but Hereth said priorities had been shifted and the agency was prepared to deal with the security plans it was receiving.
He also said the Coast Guard (search) would meet an end-of-2004 deadline for getting security plans from the nation's 55 most critical ports.