Colombo Bay sounds like it might be a novel by Joseph Conrad. It is instead a story by Richard Pollak about his voyage from Hong Kong to New York on a container ship named the Colombo Bay, which indeed stopped at the capital of Sri Lanka. The Colombo Bay also reveals just how badly the real war on terror has been compromised by the Iraq war.
We've all seen railroad flatcars loaded with freight-truck containers. These are carried to ports and loaded on thousands of container ships, which carry them around the world. The Colombo Bay carries more than 3,000 such containers, and it is not the largest of the container ships.
These vast ships are the tramp steamers of our era. They travel from port to port at speeds of 22 knots, unloading some containers and picking up other containers. Their turnaround times are much less leisurely than in Conrad's era, although the similarity to his stories is striking. Container ships have become the lifeblood of global trade and have added a trillion dollars to the U.S. annual business inventory. We couldn't do without them.
But think of the possibility for terrorists in those 3,000 containers on The Colombo Bay. When it docked off New York, the crew discovered that the seal had been broken on a container that carried missile warheads manufactured in Germany and shipped by rail to a French port for transit to the Raytheon Corp. The French authorities had broken the seal to inspect the contents and (with characteristic French efficiency) had placed a makeshift lock on the container and made no annotations on the shipping papers.
The Coast Guard spent two days clearing the container. Pollak comments that the Coast Guard's equipment is obsolescent (helicopters 20 years old) and its computers a generation behind -- and unable to communicate with the computers of the FBI, CIA and INS. Terrorists would have seen that a proper seal was on one of their containers.
Pollak adds that in 2003, Sen. Ernest Hollings, author of the Maritime Transportation Security Act, requested $1 billion for the Coast Guard for port security as an amendment to the $87 billion appropriation for the war in Iraq. The amendment was rejected. It was a classic example of how the administration's distraction with Iraq interfered with a critical component of homeland security -- which is not the same thing as President Bush's Frankenstein monster Department of Homeland Security.
The president talks about homeland security but, under the malign influence of the vice president and the ''neo-con'' intellectuals, he has made the war in Iraq a substitute for the real war on terrorism. Almost three years after the World Trade Center attack, O'Hare Airport does not have the equipment necessary to inspect checked luggage because the Transportation Safety Administration does not have the money to pay for the equipment.
But $25 billion more is going to his criminal war. The public still gives the president high marks on his success in the war on terror, mostly because they are judging by the war in Afghanistan and the early success in Iraq. However, our airports and our seaports are still not safe. How many more years will it take?
And how many years to straighten out the messes at the FBI and the CIA? A recent estimate was six years. When will that start?
Thus, despite all the talk about security during the years since the bombing of the World Trade Center, very little has been done to improve the security of our republic, other than talk. The majority of Americans expect another attack. They are wise to do so.
Because the terrorists will almost certainly try something before the presidential election, the container ships and airport checked baggage are perfect targets -- and not much better defended than was Logan Airport in September 2001. Think of a ''dirty" bomb exploded in New York or Long Beach Harbor.
If all the time and money and energy expended on finding ''weapons of mass destruction'' and capturing Saddam Hussein had been spent on protecting this country by measures besides harassing air travelers, the country would be much safer.