Report

Trump’s Budget Would Leave U.S. Ports Open to Nuclear Threat

The administration is putting money toward a border wall, but giving short shrift to America’s other borders.

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President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would pour money into a wall on the southern border — while stripping funding from protecting ports against the threat of nuclear attack.

The administration’s proposed 2018 budget would halve funding for key counterterrorism programs at another kind of border: The 361 ports dotted across America’s 95,000 miles of coastline. The proposed cuts, leaving just $48 million in grant funding, have alarmed port operators, senators from both sides of the aisle, and counterterrorism experts alike.

“I’m seriously concerned that these budget cuts will weaken our ability to detect, prevent, and respond to future attacks,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), the ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, last month.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, one of security experts’ greatest fears was that terrorists would acquire nuclear or radiological weapons and use them against the United States. Analysts determined that if a weapon of mass destruction were to be deployed, it would likely be delivered in one of the 12 million shipping containers arriving in ports every year — a flood of cargo seemingly too big to search without disrupting global trade.

Determining that ports were “susceptible to large scale acts of terrorism,” Congress established the Port Security Grant Program in October 2002 to fund radiation detection scanners, security systems and maintenance, and training at maritime ports.

But even today, worries about port security persist. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry said last month at an event at the Hoover Institute that North Korea may not need the long-range missiles it is currently developing in order to deliver a nuclear payload to American shores. Pyongyang, he said, “might even be able to do terrible damage to the United States by delivering [nuclear weapons] in freighters.”

The Trump budget doesn’t just take aim at port security funding — it also would slash the U.S. Coast Guard budget, which provides layers of protection by tracking incoming vessels, scanning for illicit weapons, and making sure foreign ports have adequate security,

Additionally, a pair of crack Coast Guard units — the Maritime Safety and Security Teams and the Maritime Security Response Teams — could lose their funding entirely, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press in February. The Response Teams are the Coast Guard’s ace in the hole against terrorists, said Cmdr. Paul Frantz, of the Coast Guard’s Office of Deployable Specialized Forces, “designed to respond to the threat or event of a terrorist attack.”

This spring, nearly two dozen senators sent Trump’s budget director a letter warning against dismantling the Coast Guard units, warning that it would be “negligent and detrimental to our national security.”

When the September 11 attacks occurred, U.S. ports were wide open to possible risks. Years of funding have built up the capabilities of ports around the country to detect potentially nefarious activity, including any smuggled nuclear bombs. According to testimony submitted to a June 2014 Senate homeland security committee hearing, in 2001 Customs and Border Patrol had none of the big scanners — known as radiation portal monitors — that spot radiological hazards. By 2014, it had 1,387 at ports across the country, able to screen 99 percent of incoming cargo, essentially meeting the post-9/11 Congressional mandate that 100 percent of incoming shipping containers be scanned.

But these scanners require expensive maintenance and have a lifespan of 10 to 13 years, meaning those deployed after 9/11 will soon need to be replaced. Many ports don’t have the cash.

“There’s a lot about the border wall, but we’re borders as well,” said April Danos, director of information technology at the Greater Lafourche Port Commission in Louisiana.

The grants enable ports like Lafourche to install pricey security systems they wouldn’t have been able to afford, and to perform costly maintenance to keep systems operational.

“Those budget cuts would impact us greatly,” said Danos. “We would not be able to maintain these systems.”

The possible gutting of the grant program has port operators around the country up in arms. On June 12, the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) sent a letter calling on eight leading lawmakers to fully fund the grant program, highlighting that it is crucial in “helping seaports harden security and protect these vital transportation hubs and maritime borders.”

Congress needs to be reminded that “ports are international borders,” said John Young, director of freight and surface transportation policy at the AAPA, in a phone interview with Foreign Policy.

Used in collaboration with local law enforcement, said Young, port security grants “can do anything from fencing to cyber security assessments, to installing cyber equipment to purchasing equipment to help secure ports.”

Without the grant money, it’s not clear how ports and operators will be able to fully address ongoing vulnerabilities or identify new ones.

“It’s a big deal for us,” said Danos. “The gaps are going to be left wide open.”

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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