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Researchers seek to shore up shipping security

During a press con­fer­ence fol­lowing the March 2014 Nuclear Secu­rity Summit in the Hague, Pres­i­dent Obama noted that his biggest secu­rity con­cern wasn’t Russia—or any other regional superpower—but rather “the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

With that in mind, we must con­sider exactly how that scenario might tran­spire, said Stephen E. Flynn, co-​​director of Northeastern’s George J. Kostas Research Insti­tute for Homeland Secu­rity. “How would a nuclear weapon actu­ally get into Man­hattan?” asked Flynn, also the founding director of the Center for Resilience Studies and a professor of political science. “The most likely way in which it would potentially come to a major U.S. city is not on the tip of a missile but in the belly of a ship,” he said, noting that his long-​​held posi­tion has been openly val­i­dated by the intelligence community.

“The reality is we do very little checking of what comes in on ships, yet we watch our air­space pretty closely,” he said. That hasn’t always been the case: During the early days of the cold war, before Russia had mis­siles or the means to fly to the U.S., the safety of the country’s shipping infra­struc­ture was one of the fed­eral government’s prime con­cerns. But today, Flynn said, the industry has become enor­mously vul­ner­able to smug­gling of contraband.

Flynn and an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team of researchers—which also includes Sean Burke, Exec­u­tive Director of Northeastern’s Center for Resilience Studies, and Peter Boynton, co-​​director with Flynn of the Kostas Research Insti­tute for Home­land Security—are attempting to improve the resilience of the ship­ping industry and study ways to bol­ster private-​​sector counter-​​proliferation efforts in the global supply chain by facilitating con­ver­sa­tions between industry, acad­emia, and gov­ern­ment. The two-​​year project, sup­ported with funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion, aligns with Northeastern’s focus on solving global chal­lenges in secu­rity, one of the university’s core research themes.

The grant is one of 10 the MacArthur Foun­da­tion announced ear­lier this year in an effort to help pre­vent nuclear terrorism and strengthen nuclear secu­rity around the globe.

“It’s a tricky thing to do since these com­mu­ni­ties often don’t spend time working together in a col­lab­o­ra­tive way,” Flynn said of convening experts in three dif­ferent fields. “We think that we’ll be able to be helpful at North­eastern because we’re able to straddle these com­mu­ni­ties rea­son­ably well.”

Northeastern’s project will include broad-​​scale events in Sin­ga­pore and Seattle, home to two of the world’s largest port hubs. “We’ll be bringing in government and industry players to ask what can be done to enhance the vis­i­bility and account­ability of what flows through this net­work and what can be done col­lab­o­ra­tively between the government and industry capa­bil­i­ties,” Flynn explained.

In 2007, Con­gress passed a law requiring all over­seas cargo con­tainers to be inspected before they’re loaded on a U.S.-bound ship. But that law has never been enforced, Flynn said.

“Should we have a secu­rity breach, I don’t think con­gress will repeal the law. Instead what they’ll likely—almost certainly—do is insist the law be enacted imme­di­ately,” he said. “So let’s think about how we address what congress was trying to do in a way that industry can live with versus hoping nothing ever happens and this law never gets enforced.”

In this sense, Flynn said, industry should view the new collaboration as an oppor­tu­nity to help mold the future of this infra­struc­ture to insure busi­ness con­ti­nuity instead of being forced by gov­ern­ment to make unrealistic changes.

He also noted that the majority of other resilience efforts should dupli­cate his team’s approach to solving prob­lems. Instead of let­ting research, stan­dards for­ma­tion, and policy changes unfold in a linear sequence over a 20-​​year period, con­vening all the stake­holders in one room allows for simulta­neous progress on mul­tiple fronts. That’s impor­tant, Flynn said, in part because “how you develop standards can inform your research pri­or­i­ties and the eco­nomic incen­tives issue can inform what stan­dards are most rel­e­vant for the marketplace.”

– By Angela Herring

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