March 17, 2005

Harman: ID cards are critical to port security
Representative is co-sponsoring legislation that would create a $400 million security grant program funded by customs fees

By Toby Eckert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Congress could make a port security plan "significantly more effective" if it beefed up provisions for port user IDs, overseas cargo inspection and the national coordination of security systems, the former chief of the Los Angeles Port Police said Thursday.

"Access control and overseas screening are foundational to supply-chain security," Noel Cunningham, who is now a security consultant, told a House Homeland Security subcommittee. "Until shortfalls such as these are rectified, the security of the entire supply chain must be called into question."

Rep. Jane Harman, D-El Segundo, who is co-sponsoring the legislation, indicated it was still evolving. She said a uniform transportation worker identity card was "absolutely critical" to port security.

Harman called the hearing "a legislative miracle," coming as it did just two days after the proposal was unveiled. Port security was getting relatively little attention until a Middle Eastern company announced plans to buy terminal operations at several ports, igniting a firestorm in Congress that ultimately forced the Dubai-based company to abandon the deal.

"The committee is putting this legislation on a fast track," said Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, who introduced the bill with Harman and is leading a congressional delegation today to the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex.

Experts and lawmakers who represent port areas complain that maritime security has been overlooked since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The legislation would create a $400 million security grant program funded by customs fees; require the names of workers in secure port areas to be checked against terrorist watch lists; speed up the placement of radiation detectors; order security standards for cargo containers; and establish legal standards for cargo security programs, including one that places U.S. personnel in foreign ports.

Bush administration officials who testified at Thursday's hearing did not take a stand on the legislation. But they defended steps that already have been taken to improve port security.

Customs and Border Protection Assistant Commissioner Jay Ahern described a "layered defense strategy" that includes scrutiny of cargo manifests, a system to target suspicious containers for inspection, the deployment of more than 180 radiation monitors and the ongoing expansion of the Container Security Initiative. The latter allows for the scrutiny of cargo at foreign ports that account for 74 percent of U.S.-bound containers, Ahern said.

But some lawmakers complained that those initiatives fall far short of what is needed. They cited the ease of forging cargo manifests and a shortage of personnel to verify security plans under a program that allows importers to escape some inspection requirements.

Cunningham said the legislation should be expanded to address technology for scanning cargo for chemical and biological weapons, and portable detection equipment that can be used aboard ships. It should also require security training for port workers, he said.

"The only solution, I believe, is layers and layers of security. We're years away from having 100 percent inspection" of cargo, Cunningham said.

Eugene Pentimonti, a senior vice president with Maersk shipping, which operates at the Port of Los Angeles, expressed concern about impacts the proposals could have on commerce.

U.S. trade partners might impose their own strict security measures, the legislation may "add unnecessary layers of bureaucracy" and Customs' security arrangements with shippers "should remain voluntary and not subject to governmental rule making," he said.

Pentimonti added that Maersk "strongly supports" doing more inspections at foreign ports and creating a uniform ID for transportation workers.