Ports in perspective

May 11, 2007

It's a safe bet that members of al-Qaida weren't waiting to find out how Baltimore would fare in federal port security funding and hatch their nefarious plots accordingly. This year's reported 60 percent drop in funding for the port of Baltimore (meaning $2 million less than what was awarded last fall) could just as easily have been expressed as a 90 percent increase in funding from fiscal 2005, when it was just $1 million.

Looking at year-to-year security funding as a win-or-lose proposition for local government - as if this were just another matter of Washington pork-barrel spending - is exactly the wrong way to judge matters of national security. The consequence of a funding shortfall for Baltimore is that security personnel might not get some of the high-tech equipment - card scanners, intelligent video surveillance and other screening tools - needed to keep track of traffic at the gates as swiftly and accurately as possible.

What's far more consequential than the size of Baltimore's slice of the security pie is just how small that pie is to begin with. Over the past five years, port authorities have sought more than $4.3 billion to protect the nation's seaports from terrorists and received just $876 million from the federal government - or about 20 percent of the requested amount.

The result has been slow progress in securing the ports - one of the nation's most obvious security vulnerabilities. Airline passenger footwear is more closely inspected than the contents of the thousands of tractor-trailer-size containers that are routinely handled by the ports each day. Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration has struggled to implement even a standardized ID card for port workers, a much-delayed program that was ordered by Congress nearly five years ago and has cost taxpayers about $100 million.

Yet President Bush's proposed budget for next year would cap the port security program at $210 million, the same amount appropriated for this year and about half what Congress recommended. Considering that the administration anticipates an 8 percent overall growth in spending for the Department of Homeland Security, it's obvious that port security is still not a top priority.

Until more resources are allocated, the goal of 100 percent scanning of containers coming into the U.S. seems far off, indeed. And considering the possibility that a weapon of mass destruction or other threat could be smuggled in one, that's what should really worry our elected officials.

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