Closing the Door at the Ports
A flurry of money, research, and law aims to close a gap in the U.S. security net
But there's been a surge of activity on the port security front since February, when public anxiety was stoked by a proposed $6.8 billion business deal that would have given a firm run by the government of the United Arab Emirates leases to operate terminals in six U.S. ports. The company later agreed to sell the U.S. assets, and American International Group said recently that it had reached a deal to buy them. But the controversy "breathed new life into port security ideas that had seemed dead as a doornail" for months, says a Capitol Hill staffer.
Reform. In September, Congress passed the SAFE Ports Act, which mandates that DHS provide the 22 largest U.S. seaports with enough radiation detectors to scan all containers by 2008. The bill also eases the customs staffing crunch by using contractors to review trusted shippers. "We're also finally giving the ports the money they so desperately need," says Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a lead SAFE Ports author. The bill requires DHS to hand out $400 million in port grants in each of the next five fiscal years. Seaports have gotten about $800 million total since 9/11 despite U.S. Coast Guard estimates that $5.4 billion is needed just for basics like security cameras and protective fencing.
Most experts cite SAFE Ports as the most substantial piece of maritime legislation in years. But a new Congress will have its own ideas. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has boasted that she has "even tougher proposals" than the 9/11 commission on port security and plans to push a measure early next year to "screen 100 percent of [maritime] containers long before they reach U.S. shores." Critics say such plans could cost billions. And since current scanning protocols, requiring both radiation and X-ray screening, can take up to 20 minutes per container, pursuing the initiative now could "create massive backlogs," Collins says. The SAFE Ports Act takes a different approach: It requires DHS to try 100 percent inspection in at least three foreign ports next year to learn more. DHS Chief Michael Chertoff said last month that he would launch trial runs in six countries, including Pakistan and Oman. The earliest tests begin in February.
Another issue that could resurface in the new Congress: what to do about America's 750,000 workers who require access to secured areas of U.S. ports. South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint pushed this fall to have SAFE Ports ban a wide array of felons-including those guilty of rape, kidnapping, and robbery-from working in U.S. ports for seven years after their convictions. The final bill bars only those convicted of treason, espionage, sedition, or acts of terrorism. DeMint says that leaves open the possibility of bribery and smuggling "in a place with a lot of money flowing around, like seaports." A DHS study of New York and New Jersey suggested nearly half of the 9,000 truckers with access to the ports may have criminal records. So implementation of DeMint's proposed standard, almost identical to requirements for aviation screeners, "could be chaos for us," says Curto.