Friday, January 11, 2013



Terrorists could be in virtually any major City in the Eastern half of

America within a 24 hour drive from Gulfport on the Interstate network.
(Photo courtesy of the Mississippi State Port Authority at Gulfport)

Part I of a three Part Series on Port Security; a TBC Exclusive Investigation.

(Friday January 11, 2013.  Gulfport, MS.)  The Port of Mississippi here at Gulfport is a sprawling 204 acre intermodal facility with over 6000 feet of berth space.  Located just five nautical miles north of the Intracoastal Waterway and an hour’s sail from international waters, it is the third busiest port on the United States Gulf Coast.  Standing dockside here on a typical humid morning, the activity appears frenetic but is actually a well-orchestrated industrial symphony between looming gantry cranes, huge ocean travelling ships toweringly loaded with hundreds of 40 foot shipping containers, and a hoard of semi-trucks, yard jockeys, and empty chassis.  This is the picture of the global economy, of the vital supply chain in action.  The port at Gulfport handles over 2 million tons of cargo a year according to The Port Authority of Mississippi.  This is largely a “green port” meaning that the bulk of the incoming freight is edible perishables.  Both Dole and Chiquita Banana are prime customers of this facility.

While the activity here is impressive there is one notable absence at this vital point of entry into the United States – security.  With all the talk and concern in this post 9-11-01 age about all the many and varied facets covered under the rubric of Homeland Security, there is little security of any kind in evidence.  There are some cosmetics of security including fences and uniformed “guards” as well as a handful of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “agents” as well as a couple of US Customs and Border Patrol personnel who comprise a force that is so wholly inadequate given the scale and scope of the operations here that for all intents and purposes there is no security.  There are times when the only “security” personnel present are unarmed security guards from a local company.

The men and women employed by the myriad of companies who work here are all too willing to speak about this lack of security.  Many can rattle off a list of legislative measures taken in the name of Homeland and Port Security and can attest to the fact that all of them are just so many words printed on the never idle presses in Washington DC.  Some of their comments may come across as cynical, sarcastic or comical but the concerns they address are extremely serious and their worries are very, very real.  These are the people, crane operators, truck drivers, dock hands, forklift drivers and longshoremen who see all too clearly on a daily basis just how vulnerable this facility is.  Virtually anything can be inside one of the millions of containers that pass through here annually; even the casual observer is struck by the fact that it appears anyone can enter the port unquestioned, unimpeded, and unidentified.

After the unprecedented terrorist attacks perpetrated on September 11, 2001 every department, agency and division of our federal and state governments were badly shaken.  No one, it seems, ever realized just how vulnerable we were.  Sadly, but in true Washington DC fashion we are basically as vulnerable today as we were then despite the avalanche of legislation and regulation developed under the auspices of Homeland Security.

Congress was quick to act and signed George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s “Patriot Act” into law on October 26, 2001 thereby clearing the acreage needed to construct a huge, clumsy “Super Agency” which absorbed 22 separate federal agencies at least as dysfunctional collectively as most of them were individually. To trace the genesis of The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is akin to reading an Old Testament passage in the Bible. 

The DHS begat the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and as swiftly as wild rabbits breed there was spawned the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and a small legion of other alphabet agencies and a flood of legislation addressing security in factories and on farms, in food processing, warehousing and distribution.  The powers of the day saw that our nuclear facilities, power grid, vital infrastructure, airports, airplanes, borders, and ports were almost wholly unsecured.  Along with the now almighty DHS everyone jumped into the act from the DOT, FDA, DOE, DOJ, FBI, and even the hapless CIA was eager to ramp up their operations after their abysmal failures that allowed 19 men to successfully attack us on our own soil.  Concerns over the safety of our water supply, livestock and crops invited a level of regulation and accountability never before known in the agricultural industries and public utilities.  Actually, once it was realized plainly for anyone to see, it was utterly stupefying to realize that we had left so many components and elements of our country, economy, and people nakedly exposed as so many sitting ducks blithely paddling atop a still lake while a semi-obese, intoxicated camouflage adorned hunter aims his shotgun at them.

So Washington DC did what it always does and does best, they had an epic knee-jerk reactionary seizure and largely without thought or logic began to assemble this gawky apparatus of “security” agencies cheaply strung together by equally thoughtless and arguably unconstitutional legislation.  That there were enormous security challenges confronting us was not the issue; we were an amazingly open, unmonitored, unsecured nation.  But, in the efforts to provide security to facilities and industries that needed to be more secure, the legislation crafted in DC did not translate very well down to the rank and file workers and employees of these highly vulnerable potential “targets”.


The major American seaports that primarily receive imported goods from around the world are vast complexes covering thousands of acres.  Our network of distribution centers, industrial parks and warehouses are important links in the supply chain of virtually everything we use to live.  But the most obvious links in the supply chain that is the very lifeblood of our economy and way of life are mobile; they are the ubiquitous tractor-trailers traversing America on ribbons of cement and asphalt.  

An intermodal semi-truck running down the road.

the trailer is a shipping container mounted on a chassis.

One would be hard pressed to find an item in their home, office, school, local markets, shopping malls or anywhere else that did not spend some time from its point of origin to your home, business, school or local retailers on a truck.  That is a plain and simple fact.  Today there are an estimated 7 million semi-trucks in service in America with upwards of 3.8 million on the roads at any given time.  There is an approximate ratio of 1::7 meaning that for every power unit there are 10 trailers; so 70 million trailers are parked in most unsecured locales at any given time.  The trailers not connected to a power unit are dropped at terminals, carriers, shippers and receivers and are largely unattended.  Due to the advent of the “just in time” inventory management system at the wholesale and retail levels, semi-trailers have become de facto rolling warehouses for commodities and goods of every kind. 

As for shipping containers, exact numbers are notoriously difficult to come by however the best industry estimates report upwards of 27 million shipping containers being off loaded in American ports every year.  Of these, prior to 9-11-01 less than one percent were screened or scrutinized and since 9-11-01 that number has risen to near 1.4%.  Just think of these numbers for a moment and you get a picture of the enormity of the challenge when it comes to having even the most modest control of what is, is not, and what may be in a shipping container from some far flung port and just how easily a bomb of any kind or even nuclear material could be shipped into America.  The scanning process for nuclear material at our ports today is, according to one Port Manager at Port Elizabeth, New Jersey who asked to remain anonymous, “a freakin’ joke.  It’s like no one believes that we do so little to actually inspect what’s comin’ in here.  By some law most of the nuclear screening is supposed to take place at the port of origin but I doubt…screw that, I know, that is not the case.  What containers are run through the scanners here are a tiny fraction of what we receive.  The whole system is a fuckin’ joke and, mark my words, somebody is going to do some real damage to us using a device or material that was off loaded at an American port and sent on its way.”  These very same sentiments were expressed by dock mangers, port masters and longshoremen from Charleston South Carolina, to Long Beach California.


Mark Whetstine is an Operations Coordinator for a major refrigerated motor carrier serving their customers here at the Port in Gulfport.  A former long haul owner operator trucker with over 2 million miles driven without an accident to his credit, he takes a few minutes to express his many and varied opinions.  He is not a shy man by any means and he is a highly intelligent and observant port employee who daily witnesses the folly of “security” at the Port of Mississippi.  We spoke on a recent balmy Sunday afternoon.  Whetstine’s concerns transcend the glaring lack of adequate security and the many sanctioned “loopholes” that exist to circumvent even the paltry security measures in place in the port at Gulfport; he and his family live within 15 miles of the Port and he is acutely aware of the potential for some terrorist activity that could destroy the area he, his family and friends call home.

“I guess it was shortly after they passed the MTSA (Maritime Transportation Security Act) in 2002 that they came up with the idea of the TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Credential) card.  I had to pay $132, have the FBI do a background check, get fingerprinted, photographed and God knows what else so I could have a TWIC card.  Well, I got my TWIC card and let me tell you, TWIC card or not, anyone can bring anything they want into this port.  The TWIC card was just another revenue stream for the feds.”    

Technically, legally but actually just theoretically no one can enter the port without a valid TWIC card.  In reality, the very same federal agency that devised the TWIC program has built in a gapping loophole that anyone could literally drive a truck through. 

So it is by law that any and all truckers entering facilities covered under the TWIC card law must have undergone the tedious, costly, time consuming process of acquiring this card.  However, there is a legal way for virtually any truck driver to enter the Port here as well as others across the country without a TWIC card.  The existence of this particular loophole shows the idiocy of the entire “security” system at our ports and provides a free pass, or rather a $40 pass to any driver to enter any port.

In most ports as here at Gulfport there is a contract “escort service” available. These escorts are not of the sexual companionship variety although, as one Port employee here put it, this escort service could result in “a whole bunch of folks getting fucked and killed.”

A driver without a valid TWIC card can pay a mere forty dollars to America’s Security Escort Service, a company climbing to be “In compliance with the TWIC program.”  No doubt there employees who serve as escorts into our ports are in compliance.  The ludicrousness of this service is almost beyond belief and is actually advertised on this company’s web site.  America’s Security Escort Service functions much like the “mules” that help illegal aliens traverse the Rio Grande and the badlands between the United States southern border and Mexico thereby gaining entry into America.  Their boldly stated mission is: “To keep your company from the expense of $ 132.50 per person/TWIC card that belongs to the individual. This is crucial to your company due to the transient nature of this business.  To maintain your current workforce without interruption due to some personnel not being able to pass the stringent FBI screening process (i.e.)

    (a)  Individuals who lack certain immigration status.
    (b)  Have connection to terrorist activities.
    (c)  Have been determined to lack certain mental capacities.
    (d) Those who have been convicted of certain crimes will be ineligible.”

If you should happen to be a terrorist of some kind and have decided to wreak havoc in an American port or on a ship in a harbor, all you need to do is construct an explosive device, load it onto a semi-trailer or shipping container, arrive at your chosen port of preference, pay the escort fee, and they will guide you into the port for you to deposit a trailer containing a bomb, nuclear material, biologic or chemical warfare dispersal mechanism and you are in.  Your background will remain unknown to anyone.  The escort service makes the entire concept of the TWIC card an absolute joke and the card itself not worth the paper it’s printed on.  Yes indeed.  If you are a trucking company and have drivers who cannot pass an FBI background check, may be illegal immigrants, have connections to terrorist activities, lack certain mental capacities or have been convicted of a felony, there is no need to worry.  Just pay at the port and your driver and whatever it is he might be hauling is in.  This is what constitutes “security” at our already pitifully vulnerable commercial cargo ports.


In practice every semitrailer exiting the Port here is run through a scanning device that registers the presence of radioactive material in the hopes of finding nuclear material sent via shipping container for use in America.  The odd, almost bizarre inverse of this protocol is that nothing entering the Port is scanned.  The system, for lack of a better word, is akin to having a front door on a bank designed only to keep people in while allowing anyone to enter at any time.  One security consultant from BronxWest Consulting commented, “ That anyone can so easily circumvent the port entry process is cause enough for concern but, add to that the fact that a step by step set of instructions are provided to do so by this escort service, is so far beyond my comprehension that it almost seems to be a sick joke.  Add to these facts the irresponsibility of the federal agencies tasked with port security obviously condone, if not encourage these breeches of protocol, and it all amounts to criminal negligence. If this scenario does not meet the standards of dereliction of duty on the parts of those overseeing these agencies and operations than, I suppose, I do not know what does.” 


On October 12, 2000 while harboring and being refueled at the port of Aden in Yemen, the United States Navy guided missile destroyer, the USS Cole was severely damaged when a small water craft (no larger than a john boat) made contact with the hull of the ship detonating an explosion that left a 40’x40’ gash in the ship killing 19 Sailors and wounding 39.  The investigation afterwards revealed that the extensive damage to the billion dollar warship was caused by an estimated 400 – 700 pounds of explosive material molded into a shaped charge.  Essentially two terrorists in a rowboat equipped with an out board engine and a crude bomb came perilously close to sinking one of the most advanced US Naval ships in the fleet.  What would happen if a similar event were to occur in the Port at Gulfport or in the harbor?  What would be the economic, psychological, logistic, environmental and commercial shipping impact of such an event?  One long time maritime security analyst noted that such an attack on an inbound or outgoing freighter or a docked ship would be, “catastrophic in many ways.  It would render the Port unsuitable for use until the damaged or sunken ship could be salvaged and removed.  Psychologically it would be a victory for those who perpetrated the act and another blow to our national psyche and sense of security.”

The gaping hole in the port side of the USS Cole caused by

two men in a small boat and a homemade bomb.

The security breaches on the dockside of the operations and entry into the Port facility from the surface roads via the entry gates are just one component of the abysmal security at this facility.  The vulnerability and lack of security is just as serious from harbor side or from the water as demonstrated by the USS Cole incident.

Two local fishermen enjoying a Sunday afternoon within 20 yards of

the Port of Mississippi piers well within the harbor.

The United States Coast Guard Station Gulfport is located within one half of a mile from where the photo above was taken.  Virtually every Port employee commented that the Coast Guard presence is so infrequent in the Port and harbor that one would never know they “have a base right here in the Port, basically.”   The US Coast Guard personnel at Station Gulfport are reluctant to answer any questions regarding their “operations and security measures.”  They should be reluctant or ashamed to comment because for all intents and purposes they provide such a flimsy layer of security to this essential port that they may as well not even bother. 


Prior to the famous Battles of Lexington and Concord during our Revolutionary War against England, the Boston militia man and patriot, Paul Revere, devised a simple yet effective intelligence and alarm system to monitor the movements of the British forces.  He and a handful of others hung lanterns in church steeples to alert those within line of sight of the lanterns where the British were coming towards them from. It was a primitive relay system communicating that vitally important information from hamlet to hamlet, from cities to towns along the way. His “One if by land, two if by sea” quote is not only basic American history it is part of the lore of our fight for independence.

Unfortunately, despite far more sophisticated “intelligence and alarm” systems at our disposal, there will likely not be a counterpart to Paul Revere to alert us of the approach of terrorists.  This is our own fault and the fault of our elected leaders, appointed officials and those charged with oversight responsibility over all the constituent parts of our Rube Goldberg-like Homeland security apparatus.

We’ve had the last 12 years and have spent untold trillions on all aspects of Homeland Security, Intelligence gathering and analysis and possess the most powerful military force ever assembled but, we remain inconceivably unsecured with long standing, pre- 9-11-01 vulnerabilities and weaknesses remaining to be exploited. If rapid, reasoned, logical, practical actions are not undertaken by the federal government, the next terrorist attack is just a matter of time from being another devastating reality. 



Preview of Part II of this three part series:  We will take a closer look at the security arrangements provided by non-governmental agencies, private companies as well as the complicity on the part of certain locally elected officials, business leaders, and those making money from the DHS while providing inadequate services employing largely inept, unqualified, ill-trained personnel.

 Copyright The Brooding Cynyx 2013 © All Rights Reserved

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