SPECIAL REPORT: Transportation/trucking center stage as war looms

| 3/20/2003

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge this week announced "Operation Liberty Shield," which intends to increase security across the nation with an emphasis on trucking and transportation-related operations.

Officials think war with Iraq increases the possibility of attacks on U.S. soil or against overseas U.S. interests. Overall, the plan envisions close cooperation among federal, state and local governments, as well as private businesses such as chemical plants and banks.

However, a key focus is to protect the nation's transportation system. This includes enhanced ID checks for truckdrivers hauling hazardous materials, random searches of cars at airports, restricted airspace over certain cities, police or National Guardsmen protecting railroad bridges and more Coast Guard escorts of ferries and cruise ships.

The Coast Guard also is providing greater protection for petroleum and chemical plants near large cities. The General Accounting Office, which is the investigative arm of Congress, said in a March 18 report that some of these 15,000 plants "may be attractive targets for terrorists intent on causing massive damage."

Security also is being increased at nuclear power plants, electric grids, subway systems and government buildings. In addition, there's enhanced monitoring of the food supply, including more inspections of imported food and Agriculture Department action to encourage greater scrutiny of feedlots, stockyards and storage areas.

The U.S. Department of Transportation also plans to work closely with hazardous material shippers and carriers and encourage them to follow transportation security checklists and recommendations. Suggested measures include employee identification checks, communications plans and emphasis on operator awareness.

"We contacted all state governors, all state homeland security advisers and leaders from other state, county and local organizations, as well as the private sector, and reviewed these measures with them. I specifically asked the nation's governors to deploy National Guard and other law enforcement personnel at critical locations around their respective states," Ridge said.

He added: "We will increase security at our borders. There will be more Coast Guard air and sea patrols off our shores and in our ports, more escorts of passenger ships, and hundreds of more agents and resources on the border. We will strengthen security for our transportation systems."

U.S. and Canadian authorities also will coordinate cross-border hazardous material shipments.

Border concerns evident

In a related development, the British Columbia trucking industry is worried that war in Iraq will cause long delays at border crossings.

Even if the border remains open, there could be "significant" delays as inspections of trucks and other vehicles take longer, Paul Landry, president of the B.C. Trucking Association, said. The association and allied groups in Canada and the United States are lobbying Ottawa and Washington to ensure that if there are delays, more inspectors are provided.

"Our worst fear is that the border will actually be shut down at least temporarily," said Landry, commenting atCanada.com. "There's no question that security levels will rise to the highest level."

In press reports, Garrison Courtney, spokesman for the U.S. Homeland Security Department, said war would mean "higher and tighter" border security.

"We will still try to facilitate traffic flow and people through the borders, for commerce and trade and visitation," he said. "But we are going to have to remain vigilant and essentially be more alert as to who and what's coming through the borders."

Increased security will mean more vehicle searches and, initially, longer waits, he said.

States begin focus on trucking and security

In many states, truck inspections this week were stepped up, patrols around major cities were increased and utilities tightened security as the state followed the nation's lead to protect against possible terrorist attacks.

For example, the Ohio State Highway Patrol said it would reassign troopers for increased patrols around the largest cities and toughen security screenings at tractor-trailer weigh stations and state government buildings, including the Statehouse and governor's mansion.

In addition, troopers also are patrolling interstates circling the state's largest cities, and the state's 19 truck inspection sites are open 24 hours a day. Normally the hours are staggered because of tight budgets.

The red alert's 'true meaning'

Federal officials say the beginning of war by itself would not raise the homeland security alert level - currently at orange, or "elevated" - to red. A red alert, which has never been issued, probably would be local, based on specific intelligence that indicates an area could be a target of terrorists.

Meanwhile, Cid Caspersen, New Jersey's director of the office of counterterrorism, recently briefed reporters in the company of Gov. James E. McGreevey about the true meaning of a "red alert" - the government's highest readiness alert.

If there's a red alert, citizens will be assumed by authorities to be the enemy, should they venture outside home, Caspersen told Gannett News. A red alert would also strip virtually all personal freedoms to move about and associate.

"Red means all noncritical functions cease," he added.

In addition, a new terrorism pamphlet says, "The state will restrict transportation and access to critical locations."

"The government agencies would run at a very low threshold," Caspersen said. "The state police and the emergency management people would take control over the highways. You literally are staying home is what happens, unless you are required to be out - no different than if you had a state of emergency with a snowstorm."

A specific threat

In some cases, a "red alert" triggers certain measures only if a specific terrorist threat existed locally.

Here's what states typically might do:

  • Close all state and federal government buildings - including the Statehouse and post offices - to the public.
  • Security teams would monitor highways, railways, airports - and redirect or stop traffic if necessary.
  • National Guard troops would patrol specific facilities, including protecting the entrances to state and federal office buildings and courthouses.
  • Security would be stepped up at all high-risk targets, such as nuclear power plants and locations that store weapons-grade plutonium and hazardous waste.
  • States would set up command centers and coordinate security efforts from there.
  • All vacation time for state and federal government employees may be canceled.

--By Dick Larsen, senior editor