Among the 3,000 passengers aboard the companies newest and most luxurious cruise ship were 100 hijackers – who planned to sink the ship at sea after receiving $35 million in ransom from the French government and making their own escape.
That, in brief, was the plot of a cleverly crafted made-for-television mini-series, The French Atlantic Affair, that enthralled audiences in the late 1970s – and which, at that time, seemed to be highly implausible and perhaps impossible. Another movie released in the same general time frame, Juggernaut, envisioned the sinking of a transatlantic liner through the detonation of pre-set time bombs hidden deep in the bowels of the ship. Again, possible, but not very likely.
Today, almost anything is possible – including, for example, the transformation of fuel-laden passenger aircraft into flying bombs that could be used to crumple two of the world’s largest buildings into piles of rubble. Which, of course, is why the federal government has allocated billions of dollars in recent years to improve aviation safety.
The safety of the U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico also has been improved, particularly at the many legal crossings open to tourists and would-be immigrants. Additional funds also have been allocated for the interdiction of illegal migrants seeking to enter the United States, usually by land, but also by sea. The exact numbers are not known, but the 9/11 Commission estimated that approximately 500,000 illegal aliens enter the United States each year to join the 11 million illegal migrants already in the country. It has been established that at least some of the illegal migrants are, or have close ties to, terrorists, but no one knows the exact number.
Quick Fixes Possible, But Not Easy The House Committee on Homeland Security, chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) – the committee’s ranking member is Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) – is seeking to determine whether President Bush’s proposed $34.2 billion DHS (Department of Homeland Security) budget for fiscal year 2006 is too much, too little, or exactly on target (which is almost never the case, for any federal department, for any fiscal year). The committee already has determined, in its first-cut “Views and Estimates” statement, that there are a number of problems in the president’s budget plan as submitted. Some of the problems can be resolved both quickly and easily – usually by increasing the specific allocations provided for various programs and/or by improving the management of those same programs. The problem here, though, is that increasing the appropriations for one budget account would create shortfalls that must almost always, under congressional rules, be offset by funding reductions elsewhere in the budget.
Perhaps the most intractable problem the committee faces in its efforts to find an acceptable middle ground in the complicated homeland-security equation is how to improve port and maritime security both immediately and for the long term. Because there have been no real-life Juggernaut or French Atlantic catastrophes to take a stranglehold on public and media attention, the possibility of terrorism at sea – or, a more credible scenario in certain respects, from the sea –the nation’s sea borders have become the forgotten front in the land-sea-air triad of domestic preparedness.
One long-term fix that has been advocated – by the Heritage Foundation, for example – is to immediately, and massively, increase funding for the Coast Guard’s Integrated Deepwater program, an innovative plan to replace the service’s antiquated current fleet of cutters and aircraft over a period of 20 years. That is “too long to wait,” according to Ranking Member Thompson and his Democratic colleagues, who recommend that the program “be accelerated to be completed in 10 years.”
Compressing the Deepwater timeline would not only put more, and technologically superior, Coast Guard ships and aircraft into the active inventory much sooner, it also would generate an estimated $4 billion in savings over the life of the program, according to USCG estimates.
AAPA: The Hard Choices Facing Port Authorities An acceleration of Deepwater would do little to enhance U.S. port and maritime security in the short term, however. DHS and the Coast Guard have developed and are implementing several low-cost programs – e.g., putting sea marshals aboard large ships entering U.S. ports, starting the inspection of cargo containers overseas, and making it slightly more difficult for illegal migrants to enter the United States in the guise of foreign seafarers. But much of the financial and implementation burden has fallen on the U.S. port industry, which is already struggling to pay for the modernization needed to pay for an expected doubling of cargo throughput projected for the next 15 years.
The port of Miami, for example, “has absorbed $6 million in costs annually for the past three years to pay for additional security improvements,” according to Kurt Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA). “The federal government … mandated security enhancements for marine facilities,” Nagle said in a statement released in early January, but has not funded those mandates. The result, he said, is the imposition of “huge financial burdens on ports that have both security and economic consequences.”
Those consequences will affect all Americans, Nagle made clear. U.S. seaports now support two million jobs, and handle an estimated $2 trillion worth of cargo – not quite 30 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. To handle the massive additional tonnages of cargo expected will require huge expenditures for equipment, additional personnel, and infrastructure improvements. If those expenditures are not made, or are significantly delayed, according to the AAPA, the adverse effects will be felt in all sectors of the American economy.
The Achille Largo and USS Cole Precedents The security improvements cannot and should not be delayed under any circumstances, not only because they are federally mandated, but because the potential cost, in lives as well as in dollars, of not improving security could be much greater than the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers.
Cruise ships larger than the French Atlantic are already carrying an estimated seven million passengers into and out of U.S. ports each year – again, according to AAPA data. Al Qaeda would not need 100 willing martyrs to board a large cruise ship disguised as passengers and, later, to take whatever suicidal actions are needed to sink it – at sea, in the middle of the night, when immediate lifesaving help might not be available. The Achille Largo incident showed how easy it would be for just a small handful of dedicated and well-trained terrorists to take over a large cruise ship – or another commercial ship of any type.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Cole provides another illustrative example. A powerful, well-armed, U.S. Navy ship of the line, the Cole was refueling in Aden, Yemen, on 12 October 2000 when it was heavily damaged and almost sunk by an inflatable terrorist speedboat carrying a bomb. Seventeen members of the ship’s company were killed, and 39 others injured. A similar attack, in port or at sea, against a cruise ship could kill hundreds of passengers, and perhaps thousands.
There is a long list of other nightmare scenarios that DHS, the Coast Guard, U.S. port authorities, and other organizations and agencies working in the defense of the U.S. homeland have to think about – prior to a new terrorist attack, preferably, rather than afterward. The possibility of an attack, World Trade Center style, by a privately owned aircraft flying into a ship from a local airport, for example. The launching of guided missiles from a bridge, or from any of dozens of buildings ashore. The deliberate ramming of one ship into another.
The deliberate sinking of a large ship in the Panama Canal, or in the Saint Lawrence Seaway – as was deliberately done by Egypt in the Suez Canal both in November 1956 and in June 1967 (to keep Western ships from using the canal) – is another possibility that, although not as costly in lives, could do incalculable damage to the U.S. economy.
In the long run, the final choice will be up to the American people – who will have to decide, by putting pressure on Congress and the president now, whether to provide the funding needed to prevent other and perhaps more cataclysmic terrorist attacks – if prevention is even possible – or to take a chance, wait a while, postpone what many experts believe is inevitable, and pay a much higher price later.
If, indeed, the past is prologue to the present, the nation’s future could be extremely grim.