President Visits Port Of Baltimore

Bush urges Congress to extend Patriot Act

Trip emphasizes protecting transportation infrastructure

July 21, 2005|By Michael Dresser and Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Michael Dresser and Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN STAFF

President Bush came to the port of Baltimore yesterday to deliver a forceful defense of the USA Patriot Act and to demand that Congress extend 16 expiring provisions without modification.

Standing before several uniformed law enforcement officers at the Dundalk Marine Terminal's cruise ship terminal, Bush described the Patriot Act as a vital tool for fighting terrorism. The act gave law enforcement and intelligence agencies broad new investigative powers while letting them work more closely together.

Bush made it clear that he wants Congress to make all of its provisions permanent without change.

"The Patriot Act helps us defeat our enemies while safeguarding civil liberties for all Americans," he said. "The Patriot Act hasn't diminished American liberties, it has helped defend American liberties."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions inaccurately characterized the number of uniformed law enforcement officers present at President Bush's speech Wednesday at Dundalk Marine Terminal. In fact, there were more than 100 officers in attendance.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The president contended that the act -- adopted by Congress with near-unanimity in the aftermath of the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001 -- has led to much of the progress made in counterterrorism efforts since then.

But in a photo opportunity before the speech, Bush passed up a chance to inspect a powerful symbol of that progress -- a state-of-the-art container-screening technology across Colgate Creek at the Seagirt Marine Terminal -- and instead watched a demonstration of an older-model machine at Dundalk.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who accompanied the president, threw a measure of confusion into the occasion when he mistakenly told the crowd that Bush had viewed the Eagle -- the new, highly penetrating X-ray machine designed to detect nuclear weapons and other dangerous cargo.

What Bush actually viewed was a Mobile VACIS system -- a technology that dates to pre-9/11 days. The White House said Ehrlich "misspoke." A spokesman for the governor had no comment.

The Customs and Border Protection agency said the Eagle is an advance but that VACIS has been updated since 9/11 and is more representative of the equipment currently deployed in America's ports.

State of the art or not, the device appeared to impress Bush.

"It's sophisticated," he told a crowd that included many members of the Ehrlich administration. "You can look inside the truck. You don't even have to get in it. That's called technology. And it's working."

The setting for the speech, at one of the nation's largest ports and the closest to the nation's capital, underscored Bush's emphasis on protecting U.S. transportation infrastructure. But the port of Baltimore has been the subject of questions about its security procedures and infrastructure, as described in a recent article in The Sun.

As Bush took part in a photo opportunity at the marine terminal, patrol boats operated by the Maryland Transportation Authority Police could be seen offshore. One of the findings in the article was that the boats have been used sparingly when special events, such as the presidential appearance, are not taking place.

The article detailed other security problems in the port, including alarms that don't work, damaged fencing, vast areas that are not covered by surveillance cameras and wooden decoys posted in place of real cameras.

By the time the president visited yesterday, the dummy cameras had been removed.

Bush, who was accompanied on his visit by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, vowed to step up spending on homeland security, including measures to protect the nation's ports.

Bush said he is proposing $2.3 billion in spending in next year's budget for maritime security -- an amount he said was 10 times greater than pre-9/11 levels.

Bush's focus on port security brought a harsh reply from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who issued a statement saying the issue has not been a top priority of the president.

"We don't need port photo ops from the President; we need dollars for port security. Even this year, the President's budget included no specific funding for port security grants," the Maryland Democrat said.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who received an invitation to the event late Monday, sidestepped a question about whether he was surprised to have been included. "I'm honored to be included today, and the president of the United States is always welcome in the city of Baltimore," he said.

But O'Malley expressed reservations about Bush's claims of progress in making the country safer. "We have yet as a nation to set standards or assign responsibility for actually determining whether progress is being made," the mayor said.

Meanwhile, Bush's insistence on a permanent extension of the full Patriot Act was drawing criticism from within his own party.

Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who worked to attach a 10-year "sunset" clause to two of the powers granted by the measure, said this week that constituents are concerned that the legislation could be put to political use.

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