Barriers to Common Sense 

The Port of Oakland's new $2 million security blockades take specially trained personnel hours to deploy. So how are they supposed to stop a truck bomb?

In an effort to deter illegal late-night street racing at the Port of Oakland not long ago, the Oakland Police Department asked port officials for a favor. The cops knew the port had obtained portable homeland security barriers that could be used to block off entrances, and asked whether it would be willing to close off access to certain racing hotspots at night. But deploying the barriers proved too unwieldy, according to OPD Captain David Kozicki. "There's a manual like this," he said in an interview, holding his thumb and index finger two inches apart to indicate the size of the operations manual for the barriers.

Indeed, "portable" is a relative term. "They're specialized barriers, not like ordinary traffic barriers," explained port spokeswoman Marilyn Sandifur. "They're quite substantial, and require certain equipment and trained personnel to move this equipment to deploy it. ... They're basically for use for one designated specific item, and that would be in the event of a threat to a specific port."

All of which raises the question of whether the concrete and steel structures, received last year, have any real value in protecting the port from would-be terrorists. The barriers are to be deployed if the port should receive advance warning of a truck bomb trying to enter. They consist of a metal plate supported by concrete blocks on either side, and are certified to stop a fifteen-thousand-pound truck traveling at about forty miles per hour. Each barrier covers one lane of traffic, and the port has enough of them to block all four of its entrances at once.

They're not cheap. The port secured $1.6 million from the Department of Homeland Security for the barriers, plus an additional $342,000 from the state's Office of Homeland Security for the equipment needed to move them. Installing the barriers takes a minimum of eight specially trained people, including an electrician, a forklift operator, and a foreman, in addition to three types of special equipment, Sandifur said.

The spokeswoman declined to disclose exactly how long it takes to deploy the barriers for "security reasons," and she and port security officer Mike O'Brien asked the Express not to divulge this information. Editors ultimately denied this request, deeming it a matter of public interest that the port's inability to deploy the barriers quickly would likely render them useless in thwarting a terrorist attack.

Tom Brigham, a spokesman for barrier manufacturer Delta Scientific, said deployment can take as little as three hours if the personnel are well trained and have practiced moving the units. Brigham noted that ports favor the portable barriers, as opposed to permanent ones built into the ground, because their roadways often change. Yet even the portables, he said, are meant to stay in place at all times, with the metal plate simply raised and lowered with a button to control traffic flow. The Port of Oakland's barriers, however, are moved into place only if officials are informed of a threat.

Port spokeswoman Sandifur insists that Brigham is mistaken, and the barriers are being used as intended in Oakland.

Regardless, the likelihood of port officials getting hours of advance notice before an attack seems slim to nonexistent to some security experts. The idea of a terrorist targeting a container port with a truck bomb is also far-fetched, notes John Pike, a national security analyst who runs the Web site GlobalSecurity.org. "I would say candidly that it's not something that I've stayed awake at night worrying about," he said. "There's essentially no recorded instance of a prewarned truck bomb attack. I'd be more concerned about identifying containers that are headed in our direction that don't have good pedigrees."

The major port security issue, in other words, is the potential smuggling in of something dangerous; the port itself, Pike noted, would make a lousy strategic target. "Even if it was a tractor-trailer rig, we're still talking about something that would pulverize an acre or so, but that's about it," he said. "It would certainly cause millions of dollars in damage and kill a half-dozen, maybe a dozen people, but it's not going to shut down a container port, shut down international commerce, or make a political statement."

Asked how the port might obtain advance notice of a truck bomb, Sandifur said it would result from intelligence gathering by the government, which would notify the port captain and determine if extra security was needed. "The way it usually works when you get to a heightened level of security is you have notification and time to implement your new procedures," the spokeswoman said.

Such a threat has yet to occur. The port has deployed its barriers only once, and that was part of a statewide exercise called Golden Guardian conducted last November. The annual exercise simulated five terrorist attacks in Northern California, including two at Jack London Square and one at the port, in which a fictional shipping container exploded, according to spokesman Chris Bertelli of the California Office of Homeland Security.

While the purpose of Golden Guardian was to test response capabilities of local agencies to a terrorist attack or event of similar magnitude, Bertelli said facilities were given advance notice. "We try to balance the need for them to be involved in the planning process with the element of surprise to achieve a result," he said. The report on the agencies' performance is not yet complete.

After 9/11, the federal government sought to protect facilities where a terrorist attack might disrupt national commerce. Last year, California ports received a total of $35 million from the Department of Homeland of Security. The Port of Long Beach, which handles 40 percent to 45 percent of the nation's container goods, got the lion's share of about $24 million, noted Bertelli, who disagrees with Pike's assessment of the threat. "Everyone makes the assumption that terrorists want to smuggle things into the port to get somewhere else, but the ports are part of this economic engine, and if you severely disable a port itself, you can accomplish your goals as a terrorist," he said. "The ports themselves are not only a conduit: They can also be a target."

In addition to the barriers, the Port of Oakland has monitors to detect radiation, and an array of security measures including fencing, surveillance cameras, and lighting. All aspects of security are important, Bertelli said in defense of the barriers: "You have to look at the whole picture, and I don't like to prioritize," he said. "It has to be a layered approach and a comprehensive approach."

Delta Scientific, a private Southern California company, has shipped fifteen thousand security barriers to eight thousand locations throughout the world, including the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the US Capitol building. Its portable barriers were first used by NATO troops in Kosovo. "If it wasn't for these types of threats, you wouldn't need something that substantial," Delta spokesman Brigham said. "Unfortunately, we have those threats now."

The real threat here, security analyst Pike said, might be homeland security contractors: "Money is being allocated willy-nilly," he said. "I fear a lot of this money is going into the budget not to benefit homeland security but some contractor. Maybe the problem it was solving is somebody figured out how to get free government money."

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