Shipping news

April 28, 2006

The big announcement out of the Department of Homeland Security this week is that the names of port facility employees will soon be checked against terrorism watch lists. No, that's not a misprint. This is how far behind the curve the nation's port security continues to be. The average citizen could hardly be blamed for reacting to this news with an incredulous, "You mean this wasn't already done?"

If the shameful Dubai Ports World episode accomplished anything, it was to underscore Washington's poor grasp of port security issues. Members of Congress pontificated themselves into a dither this year because a United Arab Emirates company was going to take over operations - mainly the supervision of American laborers who load and unload ships - at about two dozen ports, including Baltimore's. But nearly lost in the fulmination was that ports face far greater security threats.

One of those is simply making sure port workers are who they say they are.

In 2002, Congress passed legislation mandating a standardized credential for most transportation workers. Such IDs would be issued to workers who pass a security background check. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says checking workers' names is the first step toward this goal. But if so, it's a small step. Eventually, DHS is supposed to issue IDs to 750,000 people nationwide, including 20,000 who work at Baltimore's port. That's a lot of background checks.

Checking terrorism watch lists is unlikely to catch many evildoers. But it should be an embarrassment to the Bush administration that this wasn't being done already. The lapse can be forgiven - if DHS moves with far greater dispatch on the worker ID program. The required background checks are far more likely to uncover security risks. The Dubai Ports World deal might have caused less of an uproar if people could have been assured that all its employees had been screened by the federal government.

But members of Congress continue to posture on this issue. Some Democrats are pushing for the inspection of every shipping container headed into the U.S., a proposal that is, in a word, irresponsible. While the U.S. probably ought to inspect more than the 7 percent of containers checked today, 100 percent inspection is an expensive and potentially unwieldy proposal that could seriously disrupt trade. A Republican plan to beef up radiation screening is more sensible.

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