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From al Qaeda With Love 

Port security risks threaten Charlotte

They say we're fighting the terrorists on their own turf so they won't come here to kill us, and they're right. Terrorists don't have to come here to kill us. The state of North Carolina and the federal government will take care of that for them.

If terrorists decided to detonate a nuclear bomb or some other deadly weapon in Charlotte, all they'd have to do is package it in a container leaving a Saudi Arabian port. After that, they can count on the North Carolina State Ports Authority to personally deliver the bomb, chemical or biological weapon to a convenient detonation point off the Brookshire Freeway just a few miles from uptown.

Or, if they're particularly high-tech terrorists, they can even track their bomb using relatively simple GPS technology and detonate it as it passes by uptown for maximum effect. And they can rest assured that chances are remote that the container they ship it in will be scanned or searched.

Every day, shipping containers from terrorist hotspots and sketchy locales including Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Lebanon, the Ukraine, South Africa and Turkey arrive at North Carolina's ports. From there, much of what has come into the state is trucked or railed to two inland terminals -- one in Raleigh and one off Hovis Road in Charlotte.

Theoretically, the Bush administration and customs have already "screened" this stuff at foreign ports before it gets here. Problem is, they largely rely on pre-screening of shippers, not detection equipment, to determine whether containers are safe to ship. On top of that, the program is woefully understaffed. Last year, the five-person customs team in Singapore managed to verify the shipping records on only two-thirds of the 400,000 containers shipped to this country. As for verifying what was actually inside them, well, there just wasn't the equipment for that. Even if the shippers checked out OK, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, most cargo containers shipped out of Asia pass through more than a dozen intermediate points before arriving at a US port, which creates plenty of opportunity for a container from an approved shipper to be compromised along the way.

And some of that Asian cargo wound up at the terminal near uptown Charlotte. How frightening.

So what stands between ultimate disaster and us? A couple of nearly useless hand-held radiation devices that have about as much power as Geiger counters and often miss radiation because they can't distinguish between naturally occurring gamma radiation (emitted by everything from cocoa to kitty litter) and the far more lethal neutrons emitted by plutonium and weapons-grade uranium. Not that it matters. There's not enough time or personnel to use the devices to scan much of what comes into our state anyway.

Since September 11, Doug Campen, Director of Safety and Security at the state ports authority, has repeatedly requested funding from the federal government for more powerful portal radiation scanners. Customs has promised him one, but won't say when it's coming. Not that that matters, either. One portal scanner isn't enough to scan all the containers that come through and even if it were, the standard steel containers that shippers use can block the detection of radiation. Even if radiation is detected, since the average container is the size of a typical 18-wheeler's cargo container, it would take a team of four men three days to unpack and repack just one of the more than 300 containers that arrive in Charlotte every month. At present, customs has just one team of four men at the Wilmington port.

The only way to screen what comes out of our ports without slowing down commerce is to scan everything with both radiation portals and X-ray machines. And it would take several of each, plus a lot more manpower, not to mention additional space for disassembling suspicious cargo containers.

What's so pathetic about this is that the portals only cost about $280,000 apiece. A one-time, $10 million-dollar ports deck-out would more than give us all the machinery we need to properly scan everything that comes through. The staffing and renovation are another matter, but the machinery alone would go a long way.

Let's put that in perspective. Ten million dollars is just four percent of the $242 million incentives package the state just promised Dell Computer in exchange for locating a 1,500-employee plant in the Triad area. It's a third of the $31 million in Homeland Security grants the federal government gave the state last year to distribute to all its counties. Rather than lose that money, many rural locales bought an endless list of absurdities that included an $111,000 bomb-sniffing robot for Gaston County and millions of dollars worth of night vision goggles, infrared telescopes and fancy all-terrain vehicles for towns and counties that your average terrorist couldn't find on a map.

For about $500 million, which is less than what we spend in two days in Iraq, we could outfit every port of entry in this country with radiation portals. But the 2005 federal budget only allocated $43 million in its 2005 budget for the devices.

Something is very, very wrong here. What good is democracy in Iraq if terrorists manage to decimate the heart of a major banking center?

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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