Plans for port safety on deck

Many proposals fall short, experts say

Problems seen in safety plans


WASHINGTON -- The uproar over foreign management of U.S. ports has created momentum to close their yawning security gaps that is likely to outlast the emotional outburst on Capitol Hill, say White House officials and members of Congress.

But the proposals under discussion will not fix those problems, security experts warn. And the push to fortify U.S. seaports poses a dilemma for President Bush, who has called for a pared-down budget that could leave little money for delivering costly security measures.

"It's a difficult budget climate," said James Loy, who stepped down last year as deputy secretary of homeland security. "Where one comes up with the extra dollars to make a concentrated investment in port security is a very serious question."

The global supply chain and ports system -- designed for efficient delivery of products -- has historically placed little emphasis on security beyond minimizing theft. The system has few checks to verify that goods en route to the United States are what their shippers claim they are. Security procedures at overseas and domestic ports vary widely, and U.S. ports do not conduct background checks on those who work in their facilities.

Only 5 percent to 10 percent of all cargo is inspected before entering the United States.

"We now have an opportunity, while attention is focused on it, to actually turn what has been a pretty divisive situation into a much more constructive one" focusing on port security, Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Stewart Baker said.

Security experts said, however, that the many plans circulating on Capitol Hill would make only minimal improvements while ignoring some of the most gaping security holes, such as the ease with which outsiders can enter port facilities. And some would do great economic damage.

A leading Senate proposal is a bipartisan bill that would spend $800 million annually to create fast-track status for shipping companies that meet certain security requirements and allow their cargo to be scanned at overseas ports so they could continue shipping in the event of a terrorist attack and widespread port shutdowns.

The proposal, sponsored by Republican Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, would also include port-security grants, establish joint centers for port officials from different jurisdictions to work together, and require more information to be collected on shipments. A House subcommittee will hold a hearing this week on a similar bill.

Another bipartisan measure would set standards for screening cargo, mandate random inspections of containers at U.S. ports and dole out port-security grants based on a port's potential risk. Other proposals include a requirement that all incoming cargo be inspected, and a demand that foreign countries allow American officials to inspect U.S.-bound containers.

Lobbyists working on the issue said talks are under way to marry elements of several measures into one giant port-security package.

For example, a measure to reinstate port-security grants could be linked to a proposal for new inspection and scanning requirements, as well as incentives for shippers to submit to tougher security checks.

The most promising method for tightening port security, experts said, is to obtain far more, and better, information about the goods and people involved.

One initiative that would make a marked improvement in port security, said Loy, a retired admiral, would be to screen all cargo at overseas ports, collect identifying information, and funnel the data into a computer system to identify threats. A test version is under way in Hong Kong, and two House Democrats have proposed that the system be expanded to all overseas ports with a requirement that U.S. inspectors review the screened images before the cargo leaves the port.

The current proposals, however, are either so aggressive that they will cause grave economic damage or too incremental to have a major impact, said Stephen Flynn, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who designed the Hong Kong program.

"There are none yet that will make a qualitative difference in addressing the threat," he said. "There are a lot out there that would do more harm than good."

Collins and Murray's proposal, he said, holds the most potential but is too modest. But it could become a "Christmas tree" on which to hang more muscular measures, he said.

Among those likely to do damage, analysts said, are the proposals to require inspection of all cargo at U.S. ports.

Because there is no mechanism to inspect everything efficiently -- and because most cargo is safe -- such requirements would short-circuit the global shipping system, said James Lewis, a security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Companies such as auto manufacturers that rely on just-in-time delivery would be severely crippled, sending shock waves throughout the U.S. economy.

"This is a policy based on Tom Clancy," Lewis said.

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