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House Backs Port Security Bill in Fight on Terrorism

June 05, 2002|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Now that Congress has enacted laws to secure the nation's air travel system from terrorists, the House approved legislation Tuesday designed to protect Americans from attack at the nation's 361 ports.

But protecting the waterfront from terrorists could prove far more complicated than safeguarding the skies.

While the air travel system has received far more attention, security experts worry about the vulnerability of ports to an attack that could cripple the U.S. economy. Of special concern are the thousands of cargo containers arriving every day that could be used to sneak terrorists or dangerous weapons into the country.

The House bill would authorize U.S. security sweeps of foreign ports, expand the Coast Guard's authority to direct ships and provide $225 million in security grants to U.S. ports. Some of that is expected to go to the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, the nation's busiest with more than 1 million passengers, 5,500 commercial vessels and $170 billion in commerce annually.

The bill also would put in place a number of measures to better screen the 6 million cargo containers that arrive in U.S. ports every year. Only a fraction of the 20- to 40-foot-long metal boxes are physically inspected, although customs officials check cargo lists and target suspicious containers for a closer look.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 11, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 211 words Type of Material: Correction
Port security--A caption accompanying a photograph of the Los Angeles-Long Beach port in Section A on Wednesday referred to a Coast Guard patrol boat that had been cropped out of the picture.

Rep. James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, said the bill would close "another hole" in America's defense shield. "We have 95,000 miles of coastline in the United States. We have to protect that coastline and our ports."

While aviation security legislation was approved about two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, port security has been more difficult.

Lawmakers want to increase security at ports but do not want to slow down the U.S. economy and impair the ability of businesses and farmers in their states to reach global markets.

And ports are difficult to protect because of their size and immense operations. "Look at the Port of New Orleans," said Coast Guard Capt. Mike Lapinski. "It stretches up one side of the river and down the other side about 100 miles."

The House bill is similar to a measure passed by the Senate last year, virtually ensuring that a port security bill will be sent to the president soon.

But one issue that still needs to be resolved is whether individuals who have served time for felony convictions, such as a drug offense, will be barred from working in secure areas.

The Senate bill is patterned after the aviation security bill, which denies workers security-sensitive jobs if they have been convicted of any of more than two dozen felonies. Industry officials say dockworkers should be held to the same standard as airport workers. The House bill, which the unions prefer, would let federal transportation authorities decide what crimes to consider in determining whether a worker poses a terrorist threat.

Although port officials were pleased with progress on the legislation, they said it did not provide enough money.

The House measure would give $225 million to ports for security improvements, the Senate bill $390 million. (The Senate measure in total provides slightly more than $1 billion, but much of it goes to hiring additional customs agents and purchase of screening equipment.)

The amount going directly to ports is far less than the $2 billion that an anti-crime commission said was needed to secure ports before Sept. 11. And, when the Department of Transportation recently invited ports to apply for $93 million in security funds allocated in December, the agency received requests for almost $700 million.

Still, the American Assn. of Port Authorities, which represents public port authorities, applauded the House vote. "Greater resources for continued improvements in security at our nation's ports are critical," said Kurt J. Nagle, the association's president.

Officials at the Los Angeles port declined to comment, noting that the city had not yet taken a position on the legislation.

The House bill also would set a June 30, 2003, deadline for authorities to develop an "anti-terrorism cargo identification and screening system" for cargo containers.

No one expects every cargo container to undergo the kind of screening planned for airline baggage. But the measure requires shippers to transmit cargo information to U.S. authorities before the cargo reaches port, something that most shippers have been voluntarily doing since Sept. 11.

Customs officials are also moving to assign inspectors to foreign ports in an effort to intercept suspicious cargo bound for the United States. On Tuesday, Singapore became the first port outside North America to announce plans to work with the U.S. Customs Service in screening U.S.-bound cargo.

Although customs does not physically inspect every container, it does use the information to single out suspicious cargo. Customs officials say they are beginning to use "e-seals" on cargo that send out an alarm if a container is opened, and they are exploring electronic systems to track containers.

The legislation also requires ships to electronically transmit passenger and crew manifests before arrival. Coast Guard officials say the manifests now are often handwritten and faxed, making it difficult for authorities to read them and check names against FBI and INS databases.

Times staff writer Jessica Garrison in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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