Assessing Security at Ports Newark, Elizabeth

January 7, 2015 | Law & Public Safety, Politics

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson joined NJTV News’ Mary Alice Williams to have an in-depth conversation about the state of security in the U.S. today. This is the first of a series of reports addressing specific areas of security, beginning with port security. To watch the related Johnson interview segment, click here.

By Brenda Flanagan

Giant cranes offload millions of containers at Port Newark and Port Elizabeth. An advanced surveillance system now tracks movements through the facility. Staffers monitor activity 24/7, but it’s what’s inside these containers — imported from countries across the globe — that raises concerns.

“I would say that the ports are our weakest link,” said former FBI agent and security expert Manny Gomez. “There is no definite way of surveying all the containers to ensure that they’re all safe.”

Gomez calls the ports porous, says the containers provide terrorists with an easy MO.

“People could be smuggled in — al-Qaida operatives, ISIS operatives — anybody could be smuggled in to commit a terrorist act here on our shores. Furthermore, you could easily plant some sort of explosive device — whether it’s nuclear, biological or chemical — that could be easily planted in one of these containers and when it comes on board could be activated by somebody here who’s been planted for that purpose,” Gomez said.

“We should have port scanning in every single port of our country,” said Sen. Bob Menendez. “Scanning is when you through X-rays and other advanced devices, look at every single cargo to detect.”

Menendez introduced a law to require port security scanning but says the government dragged its feet.

“And my concern is that once a bio chemical or dirty bomb — a nuclear bomb — enters a port, it’s already too late,” he said.

The issue is not static. As more traffic moves through this port, security needs increase.

The two ports comprise a significant chunk of perimeter along New Jersey’s infamous corridor of possible terror targets, which also include Newark’s airport complex, the George Washington Bridge, the Turnpike, the Bayway Refinery and freight yards. The containers move through many — if not all — of these vulnerable areas. Port Authority officials say they do get examined.

“One hundred percent of the containers are screened using intelligence, and 100 percent of the containers are scanned for radiation,” said Port Commerce Security Ops. General Manager Bethann Rooney.

Rooney says before containers depart ports of origin overseas, Customs gets information from shippers and its own database. She says the push to scan every container needs closer examination, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

“There are technology issues, there are time issues, there are sovereignty issues. And right now the department has said it’s not ready for prime time,” said Rooney.

Rooney says once the containers arrive here, it’s too late for comprehensive scanning. And with commerce humming in these ports, anything that slows the pace of traffic costs time and that costs money.