Responding to Real Threats

I know this guy who is a retired intelligence source. He was an intelligence gatherer for Uncle Sam in North Africa, Iran, the Middle East and other countries during his career.

I can't tell you his real name. So let's call him Douglas Garrow. He called me last week to tell me his concerns about national security and what he considers to be an overemphasis by Bush administration officials on "sigint."

In the intelligence community, there's an important distinction made between "sigint" -- intelligence gathered via codebreaking and eavesdropping -- and "humint," which is human intelligence gathering by way of sources on the ground.

Garrow says politicians' ooohing and aaaahing over the latest advances in information technology, combined with their penchant to line the pockets of defense contractors, blinds them (and us) to the fact that you can never beat human intelligence.

Cultural and linguistic knowledge, an ability to read body language, forging relationships with foreign assets, and so forth, can only be done effectively by human beings.

More specifically, Garrow says, there's not enough investment being made on "humint" and this is especially frightening when you consider the lack of physical security being provided at America's ports.

During the 9/11 Commission hearings, the head of the Seafarer's Union in Seattle testified that millions have been spent on port security but most of it has gone to pay for "experts" to study the problem.

Essentially, all that's been done in terms of physical security is to build a 10-foot fence around certain port facilities.

"There's very little physical security. There's not even motion sensors on the fences," Garrow laments. But what's even more frightening is the lax security at foreign ports.

But in order to understand the nature of the threat, you need to know a few crucial details. "These container ships carrying liquefied natural gas were built in the 1960s at the Quincy (Mass.) shipyard by General Dynamics. The container ships hold 125,000 cubic meters of LNG."

The main trans-shipment and compression terminals are in Algeria. The biggest facility is Hassi R'mel. From there, LNG is transferred by pipeline to oil ports in Algeria. From there, it's loaded onto tankers and taken across the Atlantic into Winthrop, Mass., which happens to be only several miles away from the Fleet Center in downtown Boston, where the Democratic National Convention is being held this summer. "It would be an ideal theater for terrorists to attack the country," Garrow says.

The containers are enforced with one-inch HY80 steel. "They are very well put together. But the weakness is where the loading and off-loading manifolds and pipes attach to these (domed) containers. A small explosive charge would knock one of those pipes off and the whole sphere would explode in a couple of seconds.

"LNG is more flammable than gasoline. So these ships are basically floating bombs," he said.

How would terrorists gain access to one of these containers? It's easy, says Garrow. "The on-loading facility in Algeria. There is no real security there. The crewman could easily put a small plastic detonation device on the tanker. If I were a terrorist, I would focus on a one kilogram depleted uranium projectile, which is a fancy name for a 2.2-pound bullet. Due to the mass and weight of uranium, it would easily penetrate the steel."

Depleted uranium is relatively easy to get. "You could probably buy it off the Internet. All you would need is about 5.5 kilograms of C-4 or its equivalent to drive the projectile. The whole thing would weigh about 30 pounds. One person could carry that onboard in an unguarded port overseas.

"At airports you have 90-year-old ladies having to take off their shoes. In a seaport, someone can get on a (container) ship with a simple access badge to the port. I think it's our weakest link right now."

What would happen if one of these container ships were detonated? "The energy released would totally destroy the storage facility. Everything within one mile -- completely leveled. Logan Airport -- gone. Within a two- or three-mile radius, there'd be horrendous fires."

It's a good thing the 9-11 Commission didn't get drawn into the Bush administration fog that led most Americans to think Iraq was involved in the planning and execution of the terrorist attacks. Let's hope they also heed Garrow's concerns about the real threats to our ports.

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