Union Tribune

February 3, 2002

Congress heads into uncharted waters
Legislators crafting security plan for ports from scratch


February 3, 2002 

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 after
the airborne attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon, the Senate delayed passing a port security bill until
the eve of Congress' monthlong Christmas recess.

House leaders say the issue will be a priority for their chamber
this year, though they have not yet scheduled hearings on a
particular bill.

In the meantime, San Diego and the nation's 360 other ports
have taken their own steps to tighten security, aided by the
Coast Guard and other federal agencies. Some ports are wary of
the congressional effort, raising concerns about costs, the effect
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 such as the 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 San
Diego and other ports, extend U.S. territorial jurisdiction to 12
miles offshore from three 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 during 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-chairman 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.

It is now up to the House to wrestle with those issues.

"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.