While politicians whip up fears about terrorists exploiting our immigration policies, a much bigger threat has gone largely unaddressed: the thousands of shipping containers from across the globe that are unloaded each day in our nation’s seaports.

According to Stephen Flynn, a political science professor and nationally renowned security expert, the problem lies in our mindset. Like a person looking for his keys on a street corner because that’s where the light is, we think of our borders as the only place to look for dangerous cargo because that’s the easiest place to look.

“We connect with the rest of world not at borders, but through systems,” says Flynn, co-director of Northeastern’s Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security. “We should be embedding safeguards throughout those systems.”

Stephen Flynn, co-director of Northeastern’s Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security

Stephen Flynn,
co-director of
Kostas Research Institute for
Homeland Security

A former Coast Guard officer, Flynn has worn many hats—Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow, lead homeland-security policy advisor on President Obama’s White House transition team, and principal advisor to a congressional caucus focused on port security. His positions attest to his expertise in devising strategies to safeguard the global network of seaports, shipping lines, railroads, and trucking companies that move products all over the planet.

That network constitutes a gaping hole in U.S. security—a point Flynn has made to Congress on numerous occasions. Most recently, in testifying before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Flynn outlined the following scenario:

A U.S.-bound container of name-brand sneakers is loaded onto a truck at a factory in Southeast Asia. But on the way to the seaport, the driver diverts the load to an isolated warehouse, where members of a terrorist group pry open the container door and replace one box of sneakers with a lead-shielded bomb loaded with radioactive material. The door is refastened, and the driver delivers the container to a trans-Pacific ship bound for Vancouver, where it is transferred to a train bound for Chicago. Once there, terrorists trigger the radioactive bomb. Beyond the loss of life and property, the successful explosion of a “dirty” bomb induces a panic that causes interoceanic commerce to be frozen for many weeks, if not months.

Because of our inattention to shipping security, Flynn says, that replaced sneaker box has become a “weapon of mass disruption” that could cripple the global economy.

Elaborating on the failure of security protocols in this scenario, Flynn says U.S. Customs and Border Protection would probably allow the container to pass through its border checkpoint without an inspection. It would likely be identified as cargo from a trusted manufacturer transported by a trusted shipping line, and therefore be deemed low-risk under CBP’s targeting formula.

Regardless, it is highly improbable that customs would examine the container before it reached Vancouver. In 2013, the agency examined 81 percent of shipments it deemed high-risk, but only after they arrived at a U.S. port. And the mere discovery that a dirty bomb had made it to a U.S. or a Canadian port would unsettle global commerce by raising questions about all North American-bound cargo.

The inevitable response would be to freeze the system until those questions could be answered and, in the process, freeze many billions of dollars worth of economic activity.

To prevent this scenario, says Flynn, we need to see the challenge as systemic—and make port security a matter of collaboration among all the players in the system, especially the global companies that operate the ports and the shipping lines.

Instead of limiting our extra scrutiny to U.S.-bound cargo, all interoceanic trade should be covered. Five companies operate the world’s major ports, and 25 shipping lines carry the bulk of the cargo, notes Flynn; negotiating security agreements with a couple of dozen CEOs is easier than dealing with myriad government officials from 185 countries.

Economies of scale, in turn, would hasten the introduction of high-technology security measures, such as sensors embedded in containers that send a signal when a secure container is opened in transit, and nonintrusive scanning technology to measure the density of cargo in a container.

Building that web of partnerships is also vital to the formulation of global response plans that will enable the system to recover more quickly if an attack does succeed.

“It’s really an issue of choreography,” says Flynn. “How do we coordinate; how do we think through the operations for doing this on a global scale? That kind of smart security requires systems thinking.”

Photo: Brooks Canaday