January 15, 2002
Congress has yet to address port security vulnerabilities
By TOBY ECKERT
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON -- Despite the widespread concerns voiced about port security after Sept. 11, Congress has yet to pass a comprehensive plan to address the vulnerabilities.
With aviation security commanding lawmakers' attention, the Senate delayed passing a port security measure until the eve of Congress' current monthlong recess.
House leaders promise the issue will be a priority when lawmakers re-convene later this month, though they have not yet scheduled hearings on a particular bill.
In the meantime, officials in Los Angeles, San Diego and the nation's 359 other ports have taken their own steps to tighten security, aided by the Coast Guard and other federal agencies.
Some of them are wary of the congressional effort, raising concerns about costs, the impact on commerce and a one-size-fits-all approach.
Observers say a number of factors have delayed action on legislation, including the fact that lawmakers are virtually starting from scratch in devising uniform regulations for ports, which are largely controlled locally.
""Airports already have a tremendous amount of security compared to seaports. You're coming close to starting at zero with seaports,'' said F. Amanda DeBusk, a former top Commerce Department official who served on a federal commission that examined port security in 1999 and 2000.
""At airports they're seizing toenail clippers. At many seaports, there's no law against having firearms,'' she said.
In the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks, DeBusk and other experts testified at numerous congressional hearings on the vulnerability of ports to terrorism. They highlighted shortcomings like the paltry 2 percent inspection rate for the 14 million cargo containers that pour through the ports each year, the relatively open access to the sprawling facilities and the fragmented efforts of the numerous local, state and federal agencies that have some jurisdiction at seaports.
They also pointed to reports that Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, may have ties to up to 20 merchant vessels.
Sen. Ernest ""Fritz'' Hollings, D-S.C., the chief sponsor of the Senate bill, called the ports ""perhaps the most vulnerable link in our transportation system.''
""Our agents at the Mexican border near Tijuana will tear the seats out of a car to search for drugs, while a crane just up the coast in Los Angeles lifts thousands of truck-sized cargo containers onto the dock with no inspection at all,'' he said.
Hollings' bill, which has been endorsed by the Bush administration, would require ports to submit comprehensive security plans to the Transportation Department, conduct background checks on port employees in security-sensitive areas and restrict vehicle access and firearms.
It also would require ships to electronically send cargo manifests and passenger information before entering ports; formalize the Coast Guard sea marshal program in place at Los Angeles, San Diego and other ports; extend U.S. territorial jurisdiction to 12 miles off shore from 3 miles; and require the Transportation Department to set up maritime safety and security teams to respond to terrorist threats.
Similar legislation has been introduced in the House.
Port officials say they welcome the federal attention -- particularly the $1.2 billion the legislation authorizes for security upgrades, cargo screening equipment, additional customs agents and other security measures over the next five years. But they also voice concerns.
The American Association of Port Authorities, for instance, worries that the bill's $390 million in direct grants to ports and $166 million for loan guarantees won't be enough to cover the ports' security tab. (A defense spending bill signed by President Bush also contains $93.3 million for security grants to ""critical national seaports.'')
""We are very much supportive of anything that reduces the flow of contraband into our port. However, we do have concerns about what the costs are, the flow of traffic and how it could possibly be interrupted by increased security measures,'' said Jim Hutzelman, assistant director of community services for the Port of San Diego.
Others are concerned about the degree of federal control over local security plans.
""One size doesn't fit all. A Big Brother approach toward port security is not going to be that effective,'' said Noel Cunningham, the Los Angeles harbor police chief and co-chair of a security task force at that port. ""Those people who know best are the local people who can devise a system that can keep commerce moving but provide some sense of security.''
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union is opposed to background checks for port employees.
Hollings spokesman Andy Davis said the legislation allows for plenty of local flexibility. He also said that Hollings understands the ports' sensitivity to anything that could slow commerce.
""But at the same time, in a post-Sept. 11 environment when we know the threat risk, we know the vulnerabilities, security has to take priority,'' Davis said.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee intends to take up the issue after Congress re-convenes on Jan. 23.
""It remains a priority for the chairman. He intends to address the issue thoroughly. We hope to act on the issue quickly,'' said a spokesman for committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska.
While DeBusk, the former Commerce Department official, and other experts say legislation like Hollings' would go a long way toward improving port security, they add that the U.S. needs to look across the water to truly ensure better safety. That will require a diplomatic effort by the White House.
Stephen E. Flynn, a Coast Guard commander and national security expert at the Council on Foreign relations, told lawmakers last month that if a handful of ""global megaports'' through which most cargo passes could agree on a common cargo security regimen, ""those standards would become virtually universal overnight.''
""Seaports cannot be separated from the international transport system to which they belong,'' he said. ""...The last place we should be looking to intercept a ship or container that has been co-opted by terrorists is in a busy, congested and commercially vital seaport.''