The port of Baltimore - the nation's eighth-largest - suffers from significant security shortcomings, including gaps in fences, unattended gates, alarms and camera systems that don't work or exist, and insufficient police patrols on land and sea, according to interviews with port police officers, eyewitness inspections and state documents.
What appear to be a pair of video cameras guarding one important marine terminal are actually blocks of wood on poles, while the state-of-the-art fiber-optic alarm system on the perimeter fence regularly malfunctions and is usually turned off, port police officers say. Inside the sprawling 1,100-acre port, only a handful of police may be on duty on some shifts, and two boats that monitor the port's 45 miles of shoreline have been routinely anchored for all but a few hours a day because of manpower shortages, officers say.
Senior state officials who oversee the port acknowledge some security vulnerabilities and say they are working hard to overcome them by drawing on $15.6 million in state and federal grants to add video surveillance, upgraded lighting and other security improvements at the port's eight public terminals, seven in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, and one in Anne Arundel County.
"It is our intent to have it surveilled to the extent that we wish it very soon," said F. Brooks Royster III, who took over as port director June 1. Royster said he had been unaware of the mock cameras, which remained in place Friday - two weeks after they were called to state officials' attention. He defended their use, saying he'd "rather have someone sweating whether they're real or not."
Thursday's coordinated attack on London transit systems - nearly four years after terrorist strikes on the United States - underscores the need for heightened vigilance at high-profile but difficult-to-defend targets such as the port of Baltimore. The port handles about 2,000 ships a year, carrying about 31 million tons of cargo annually. Some of the shipments - toxic chemicals and uranium compounds - require enhanced security.
The London attack prompted port officials to ratchet up the number of boat patrols and add more police officers as emergency measures. But officers who regularly patrol the port say they are usually short-handed and that much more needs to be done to shore up the security infrastructure.
"It doesn't take a genius to figure out - land-side or water-side - how to get into this port," said one of several port police officers who spoke to The Sun. The officers, members of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, said they spoke out because their internal complaints about poor security had been ignored by higher-ranking officials.
The port needs to "realize its mistakes and come up with some countermeasures to prevent something from happening," said an officer. "Would you rather have egg on your face now or blood on your hands later?"
The port's public terminals are operated by the Maryland Port Administration, part of the state Department of Transportation, which also oversees the port police. But the Coast Guard, as the lead agency in charge of port security nationwide, devises and enforces the port's security plan. Local police agencies also play a role in guarding the port.
Compared with four years ago, the port is "much more secure than it was before 9/11," asserted James F. Ports Jr., Maryland's deputy secretary of transportation.
"Are we 100 percent there? I would say no," said Cmdr. Jonathan Burton, deputy commander of the Baltimore sector of the Coast Guard. "I'm not sure we know what 100 percent is. We're certainly much further down the road than we were at 9/11."
Security challenges like those the port faces are widespread.
'A major concern'
"Ports and associated waterways are particularly vulnerable because of their size, accessibility and the many sites and facilities that could be targeted," said a report last year by the Government Accountability Office, calling the situation "a major concern."
A study completed this year by the Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security identified 66 of the nation's 359 ports as especially susceptible to terrorist attack. Baltimore, which ranks eighth in cargo value and 18th in tonnage, is one of those 66 ports, but others are rated more vulnerable, according to a law-enforcement source who has seen the study.
Gary McLhinney, chief of the Transportation Authority Police, said port police officers who registered complaints might not be aware of the extent to which the port cooperates with other agencies. "We are just a small component of security in the port of Baltimore," he said.
McLhinney criticized the officers who anonymously voiced complaints about the port, including staffing, saying that if they had raised their concerns within the chain of command, they would have been heard. "You've got to question their motives," he said.
The officers said they spoke to The Sun anonymously for fear of retribution.
The state bears primary responsibility for providing security for the eight terminals on state property but is benefiting from the city's newly operational police Watch Center, built with $1.3 million in homeland security funds. The system, which has night-vision capabilities and the ability to zoom in tightly on a target, is already providing enhanced surveillance of some parts of the port, but not all of it, for about 16 hours a day.
Watching on a bank of plasma TV screens at a command center, city police can monitor feeds from an undisclosed number of sophisticated $60,000 cameras mounted on buildings around the city. Police officials say they can see as far as the Key Bridge. A recent visitor to the center observed high-clarity, real-time pictures of ships unloading at one of the major state-owned terminals, which The Sun agreed not to identify.
But Maj. David Engel, commander of the criminal intelligence section of the Baltimore Police Department, emphasized that the city's role was "supplemental" and that the department primarily focuses on a half-dozen privately owned terminals that port police do not patrol. By fall, the city expects to monitor the public terminals around the clock.
Engel said city police would probably be called in to help with any serious incident at the state-run terminals. "What we realize is the necessity of the city of Baltimore to try to do its part," he said.
The state officers who patrol the port are members of a larger force, the 478-member Transportation Authority Police, which also has responsibility for Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels, the state's toll bridges and parts of Interstate 95.
A contingent of about 50 is assigned to guard the port on a regular basis, according to port police. Members of the force say that on night shifts only a handful of officers may be on duty, with even fewer actually patrolling a vast area in separate vehicles.
McLhinney would not comment on specific numbers but said that the staffing at the port "has never been higher."
"I'm comfortable, and the commanders are comfortable," he said. "If I thought I needed a single additional officer down there, I'd ask for it."
But Keith S. Prager, a nationally respected authority on port security who was told the nighttime staffing numbers, said the officers' assertions suggest that staffing is "not sufficient."
"It's a no-brainer," he said.
Prager, a consultant and retired assistant special agent-in-charge of the U.S. Customs Office in Miami, estimated that it would take three times that manpower to secure a port of Baltimore's size if the fences were in good condition and good surveillance were in place.
Private security lapses
The port police are augmented by a private guard force, hired under contract and stationed at port gates. These guards are unarmed and have no authority to make arrests.
In the past year, the Coast Guard has flagged two significant security lapses involving the private security guards. Last year, guards were found to have frequently strayed from their posts or fallen asleep at them. The findings prompted the state to dismiss its former security guard firm, Internal Intelligence Services, and to give the contract to Securitas Security Services.
As recently as May, the Coast Guard identified another problem: With the tacit approval of port officials, guards assigned to terminal gates would wave through military visitors and certain people they recognized.
Coast Guard petty officers noticed that they weren't being challenged as they entered the port, Burton said. So the port was ordered to strictly enforce a requirement that guards check the identification of each person entering the terminal grounds, with no exceptions for high-ranking officials or frequent visitors.
Prager said it was "mind-boggling" that port officials had to be told four years after the Sept. 11 attacks to check the credentials of all visitors.
Marine patrol boats
Some port police officers interviewed by The Sun believe that the state's new marine patrol boats, two of which are stationed at Dundalk, should be a larger component of the port's defense against a seaborne attack. Transportation Authority Police acquired three such boats, one of which is usually stationed at the Bay Bridge, for $900,000 in homeland security money last year.
Officers familiar with the workings of the 20-member Transportation Authority Police marine unit said the Dundalk boats, which cost a total of $618,000, are underused.
Patrol logs examined by The Sun show that the larger of the port police boats, a 36-foot SeaArk Dauntless model, spent about 100 hours patrolling in April. That works out to just more than three hours daily in the peak month, mostly in daylight hours.
The log shows no patrols by the 36-foot boat between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. At one point in April, its 360-degree night-vision light "fell off," forcing a suspension of evening forays.
The smaller boat - a 25-foot SeaArk - goes out on patrol fewer than 10 hours a month, records show, and has logged fewer than a dozen patrols this year.
McLhinney said the smaller boat is actually meant to be stationed at another location and is "only being berthed [at Dundalk] right now."
The boats typically go out on either the 7 a.m.-3 p.m. shift or the 3 p.m.-11 p.m. shift, but seldom do they patrol twice in one day.
In March, the two boats together logged about 50 hours. During one stretch, the boats went eight straight days without leaving the dock, the logs show. In May, the boats remained at anchor more days than they patrolled.
By contrast, the Baltimore Police Department - which has a much broader security mission - typically keeps two marine patrol boats in the water an average of 16 hours a day, seven days a week, according to Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Mayor Martin O'Malley. That works out to about 450 hours a month for each boat.
McLhinney said he's "very happy" with the amount of time the boats spend on the water, adding that security cannot be measured simply by the number of patrols.
"Enforcement needs to be targeted," McLhinney said. "It needs to be driven by intelligence. It needs to be random, and it needs to be unpredictable."
McLhinney said the boats were never intended to be used for routine patrols and are sent out when there's a specific need.
"It'll be ramped up based on the need," he said. "If I need that boat on the water 24-7, it'll be in the water 24-7."
For some law enforcement officials who protect ports around the country, nothing less is acceptable.
"Ideally, we'd like the boats patrolling 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Sheriff Bernie Giusto of Multnomah County, Ore., whose force helps guard the port of Portland, like Baltimore a major inland port that is on the list of 66 vulnerable ports. "Anything less makes me uncomfortable."
Prager, the marine security consultant, said there is merit in the notion of targeting the use of resources based on intelligence. He pointed out that the soaring cost of marine fuel is straining agency budgets around the country.
But when a police agency leaves a marine patrol boat sitting at a dock, he said, it's sacrificing the deterrent value of patrols.
"Waving the red, white and blue - you've got to have some of that too," he said.
At other ports around the country, law enforcement officials regularly complain that they lack sufficient staff as federal homeland security money for new equipment pours in. The federal government has provided $491 million for ports in the past three years, but that money cannot be used for hiring staff and can be spent only on equipment and training.
"We have more equipment than we have people to operate it," Giusto said. "It will probably take one more [terrorist attack] before they figure out we need to fund more bodies."
But federal officials are wary of providing a blank check for state and local governments, and key members of Congress oppose federalizing local law enforcement.
"This is a shared responsibility, and there has to be recognition that there is a finite amount of resources," said Marc Short, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. "We've supplied money for equipment, tools and training. We believe they [the local governments] should hire the personnel."
Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, co-chairman of the Congressional Port Security Caucus, doesn't support the federal hiring of local law enforcement, either. "When you get these federal grants they don't last forever," said the Maryland Democrat, whose district includes part of the Baltimore port. "Personnel is something the states need to pay."
Homeland security money also can't be used to hire private guards.
A report by the Maryland Port Administration in December to the General Assembly listed numerous projects "to address vulnerability concerns": $100,000 for new fencing at North Locust Point and South Locust Point marine terminals; $650,000 for perimeter improvements at Dundalk Marine Terminal, and $3.7 million for high-mast lighting at Dundalk.
An additional $11.1 million in federal funds is in the pipeline for a variety of other security improvements, the report said.
But despite the flow of money, port police said the Maryland Port Administration hasn't been able to provide something as basic as a working fence alarm at one terminal that handles some of the port's most sensitive cargo, including radioactive shipments.
Ports acknowledged that the fiber-optic alarm system was not working properly - or rather, he said, it "works too well sometimes."
"We're working with our security force now to make security improvements to that fence so we don't get the false alarms," he said.
Both Royster and Ports conceded that work remains to be done, as is evident in interviews with port police officers who must cope with security problems at ground level. The officers described multiple examples of porous security:
- Deteriorated fences at marine terminals. At one terminal, a gaping hole observed this spring was recently fixed - after The Sun brought the matter to his attention, Royster said. But a new hole had been cut in the fence - apparently so people who wanted to fish from state property could gain access.
- Train gates left open and unattended during the day at the same four terminals. On one recent day, a reporter watched from outside port property as a train crew opened a terminal gate for an engine; a half-hour later, the gate remained open, with no railway employees in sight.
- A truck gate left unattended at night at a terminal, with gaps underneath large enough for an adult to slip under or around it.
- A camera system mounted near a main gate - one of the few seen in the port - that has not been in operation for months.
- Fencing curling up at the bottom, raising the possibility that an intruder could push it up to gain entry.
- A lack of barriers to entry from the water at all of the terminals. At one terminal, an unsupervised boat slip allows easy access to a pier near the spot where hundreds of pounds of fireworks are loaded onto barges for Inner Harbor celebrations.
- Sound barrier-type walls where overhanging trees could be climbed to gain entry. There are doors in the wall, and officers say they have sometimes found them unlocked. At some points along the outer perimeter fence last week, dense vegetation provided cover for would-be intruders.
- At one terminal all that protects an important building is a gate with a rusty chain and a door with an ordinary key lock. Officers say that there's an alarm on the door but that an intruder could gain access to a sensitive ventilation system before police could respond.
The port's vulnerabilities are compounded at night, when the long shadows cast by dim lighting create countless hiding places. Some of them are in the areas where toxic chemicals might be stored.
One recent night - at a spot not far from an unattended truck gate - about a dozen large metal cylinders stood on a dark open lot. Placards on the cylinders showed that some were used to transport Toluene diisocyanate - a highly toxic, potentially explosive chemical used in the production of such products as paints and sealants.
Nearby, cylinders were labeled as carriers of industrial chemicals such as sulfenyl chloride, a corrosive inhalation hazard, and alkylphenols liquid, a potentially cancer-causing marine pollutant suspected of causing a disease that rots the shells of lobsters.
Other containers were marked with placards labeling their contents as flammable. The four-digit United Nations international code indicated that the contents included potentially explosive resins and adhesives.
Port police said they worry that such materials could become the target of an attack that would put them and other first responders at risk.
But Ports said such an event would be highly unlikely:
"Is it possible? Anything's possible. But is it probable? History has shown that it is not."
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