Port security battle rages

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Congress, agency argue over plan to use supplies from U.S. firms

August 02, 2008|By Bradley Olson and Michael Dresser | Bradley Olson and Michael Dresser,Sun Reporters

The Department of Homeland Security is attempting to bypass a congressional mandate that equipment bought for port security with federal grants be purchased from American companies, according to members of Congress and documents obtained by The Sun.

The move, which DHS officials said does not violate Congress' instructions, immediately drew sharp criticism from organized labor groups and "Buy American" sympathizers on Capitol Hill, who in recent years have repeatedly instructed procurement authorities to spend billions in federal funds on American-made goods.

Many expressed outrage at the department's directive, given the potential boost the purchases could provide to American companies in fragile economic times, and they also worried that in some cases, equipment and supplies bought from foreign companies or countries could represent a major security risk - a possibility procurement analysts say is remote.

The port security grants are used to plug potential vulnerabilities and security lapses, from security cameras to monitoring equipment. Congress has kept a watchful eye on such funding and business activities since 2006, when a Dubai-based company attempted to take over port operations in Baltimore and other U.S. cities. The department this year more than tripled its federal funding to the Baltimore port compared to last year, issuing more than $6.6 million to help strengthen protections against potential terrorist attacks and beef up security measures.

"We are constantly told as members of Congress ... that companies operating out of China are actively seeking to do business in this arena in the U.S., and this effort by the department represents a real vulnerability," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. "It's clear that with this directive, they've decided to thwart the intent and the wishes of Congress."

Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the department, said the language in the bill authorizing grant funding does not require compliance with the "Buy American Act," a 1936 law that requires that federal procurement money be used on American-made products and companies.

"This is schizophrenia," he said, noting that DHS officials had met twice with Thompson's staff and agreed to "clarify" the grant guidance for state and local authorities. "Now, he sends a letter in opposition? What's it going to be? Conflicting messages aren't helpful."

Thompson said his staff met with department officials to ask about the change but did not contribute in any way to the new policy.

After reviewing updates to spending guidelines recently sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to grant recipients declaring that they are "not required to follow the standards identified in the Buy American Act," Thompson sent a letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff complaining that the new guidance constituted a "blanket waiver" of something Congress had gone out of its way to ask for.

"Our ports should only buy equipment and materials produced outside of the United States if such is unavailable within the United States or of the purchase of such material and equipment domestically would not be in our country's best interest," Thompson wrote.

The congressman said in an interview that he doubted very much whether the department could show this to have been the case.

A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley did not return a call seeking comment yesterday.

After reviewing Chertoff's memo and Thompson's letter, the Maryland Port Administration released a statement last night saying: "Congressman Thompson raises some valid points and we will be interested in Secretary Chertoff's reply."

Jacques S. Gansler, who leads the University of Maryland's Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise and who served as a senior Department of Defense procurement official during the Clinton administration, said he could think of few purchases that might pose a security risk, such as embedded software. Otherwise, he said the department's effort was the right step.

"When an American product will satisfy the need, then they clearly should buy that," he said.

"But if there's a product that is better and cheaper, we need to get the best that's available anywhere. In many areas, technology is now global ... The majority of defense weapons systems have foreign parts in them. In many areas the United States is not on the leading edge, and we want to make sure we buy the best products for our security," Gansler said.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs a congressional subcommittee dealing with port security issues, said he knows of many qualified U.S. companies that have been frustrated by an inability to break into the contracting arena with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies.

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