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Saturday, May 06, 2006

House Passes Bill for Protecting U.S. Ports from Terrorist Attack

Vote prevented on provision requiring foreign inspection of cargo.

By Bruce Odessey
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The House of Representatives has passed a bill aimed at improving U.S. seaport security that would require equipment at 22 major U.S. ports to detect nuclear and radiological weapons.

The bill, however, would not require inspection of all U.S.-bound cargo at foreign ports, a provision proposed by some members of the Democratic Party but opposed by U.S. business groups.

These measures won't become law until the House and Senate pass a final version which will then be signed by the President.

By a 421-2 vote May 4, the House passed the SAFE Port Act, aimed at enhancing port security in a number of ways.  A Senate committee has approved a companion measure.  For a bill to become law, the House and Senate must pass a final version of the bill, which then must be signed by president.

While the federal government bolstered security on aircraft and at airports after the September 11, 2005, terrorist attacks in 2001, it has been criticized by lawmakers and some security experts for not doing nearly enough on seaport security. 

Congressional investigators testified they were even able to sneak radioactive material through some ports without detection.
Congressional interest in port security surged after the Bush administration approved a deal for a Dubai-owned company to operate a number of terminals at major U.S. ports.  The company later agreed to divest its interest in the deal after a political uproar in Congress.

The House-passed bill would authorize spending about $5 billion through 2012 on a number of port security programs, including $400 million in grants each year to secure the most vulnerable ports against terrorist attacks.

Currently, agents of the Department of Homeland Security physically inspect or scan for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons only about 5 percent of inbound cargo shipments.

To target high-risk cargo, agents use risk analysis based on cargo manifests supplied before the ship's arrival at a U.S. port.
Under the House bill, by October 2007 the department would have to use electronic radiation detectors on shipments once they arrive at 22 U.S. ports -- representing 98 percent of incoming containers -- before the cargo is transferred to rail and truck for transportation inland.

The bill contains several other provisions, including a deadline for requiring a biometrically enhanced identification card for anyone entering a U.S. port and a requirement that the department develop plans for restoring commerce after a port disaster.

It would also require Homeland Security to evaluate technology for scanning and sealing cargo at foreign ports before shipment to the United States. Deployment at foreign ports of an effective, commercially available technology would then have to be negotiated with foreign governments.  The bill would authorize the department to refuse cargo from ports in any country that declines to cooperate.

Missing from the House bill is an amendment sponsored by Democrats that would have required scanning and sealing of all cargo containers at foreign ports before entering U.S. ports -- within three years for large ports, five years for all others. House Republican leaders declined to allow a direct vote on the amendment.

Here is the argument for and against the amendment:

Supporters of the amendment argued that 100 percent prior scanning would prevent detonation of weapons of mass destruction at U.S. ports.  They said they are only promoting the kind of equipment already deployed at two Hong Kong ports.

"All it takes is one atomic or radiological bomb to make 9/11 look like a firecracker," said Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat.

Opponents of the amendment argued that the technology used in Hong Kong has not yet been proved effective.  They said imposing such a requirement on foreign ports would discourage foreign cooperation and ultimately impose high costs on U.S. consumers.

"To have 100 percent screening of every container is not at all practical and will, in fact, shut down our ports and undermine the strong economy that we have today," Representative John Boehner, the Republican majority leader, said in debate.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:


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