Port security gets pre-election push

Senate expected to pass bill this week on background checks for workers, expansion of screenings for `dirty bombs'

September 12, 2006|By Richard Simon | Richard Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- When a state-owned Arab company attempted to take over the management of some U.S. port facilities this year, the result was a bipartisan uproar in Congress and a wave of initiatives aimed at tightening security on the waterfront.

Most of the proposals have foundered. But now, with Republicans and Democrats jostling for the upper hand on national security as the November midterm elections near, a port security bill is headed for approval.

The measure, which the Senate is expected to pass this week, would, among other things, impose deadlines on background checks for port workers, expand a program to screen for "dirty bombs" and authorize $400 million to help ports bolster anti-terrorism defenses.

Republicans have made port security legislation a priority since February, after Democrats seized onto the Bush administration's approval of Dubai Ports World's takeover of some U.S. port facilities to highlight what they contended was the continued vulnerability of ports to attack. In response to the political furor, the Dubai company backed off.

The House and the Senate have approved legislation requiring greater scrutiny of foreign investments in the United States. But there might not be enough time left in this congressional session for the two chambers to reconcile the substantial differences between their bills.

Other proposals that grew out of the Dubai issue also appear doomed for the year, including one that would prohibit foreign companies from controlling facilities determined to be crucial to national security.

Asked what happened, Chris Koch, president of the World Shipping Council, said, "Some people took some deep breaths and became rational."

The Dubai issue put the spotlight on the vulnerability of ports, which some say was shortchanged by the focus on protecting airliners from hijackers after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Stephen E. Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander and a port security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, called port security legislation a "good step forward" but added that "we still have a ways to go."

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, expressed skepticism that the Republican- controlled Congress would back up the legislation's pledges of tougher security measures with appropriations.

Pointing out that the port security bill that the Senate is considering this week would authorize programs that would need to be funded, Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin said, "His concern is that this Congress has said, `Oh, look at what great things we have done' and then failed to put the money in place" to fund programs.

The bill being considered is part of a package of security- related legislation that GOP leaders, concerned about losing control of the House in November, want to pass before the midterm elections.

The port security bill is expected to be amended to include a $1.2 billion rail security measure and an expansion of the emergency warning system so that alerts about disasters or terrorist attacks could be sent out on cell phones and BlackBerries.

Democrats are expected to make a renewed push to require screening of every cargo container destined for U.S. ports. But they face long odds because of strong opposition from business groups.

One business group warned in a letter to senators that a "mandate of 100 percent scanning has the potential to do significant damage to the flow of goods and to the U.S. economy."

The bill would set up an experimental program at three foreign ports to screen every cargo container headed to the United States. A small fraction of containers are physically inspected now, although customs officials check cargo lists and target suspicious containers for a closer look.

"What we have tried to do with this bill is very carefully balance the need for effective, improved security with the need to ensure that we are not crippling our international trading system," said Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican who is chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and a co-author of the port security bill.

Aaron Ellis of the American Association of Port Authorities, an industry lobbying and advocacy group, said the bill includes a number of components that are "pretty darn good."

Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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