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Hahn Calls for U.S. Funds to Shore Up Waterfront Security

The mayor responds to an investigation by ABC News in which it smuggled uranium into Los Angeles Harbor on a ship from Indonesia.

September 12, 2003|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

An ABC News investigation of port security practices in Los Angeles and overseas created a stir even before it aired Thursday night, as some elected officials called for more stringent searches of incoming cargo.

Mayor James K. Hahn called on Washington to provide more money to shore up security at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation's busiest container seaports. "This incident makes it abundantly clear that the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex needs a dramatic infusion of funding and support from the federal government," Hahn said in a statement.

The story is the latest wrinkle in ongoing talks about how to prevent terrorists from shipping bombs and other weapons through the nation's seaports -- a task made even more difficult because most modern cargo is shipped in large metal containers. Three million containers enter the country annually through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Only an estimated 2% to 4% of those containers are opened and searched by hand, but federal officials say that measures set in place since 9/11 have made hand searches of all containers unnecessary.

The ABC story, featured on "Prime Time Thursday," showed how security safeguards at the Port of Los Angeles failed to detect a suitcase containing depleted uranium that ABC News had shipped in a container from Jakarta, Indonesia.

The ABC piece called the failure a noteworthy security breach, but federal security officials said depleted uranium is harmless and is not a valid substitute for weapons-grade uranium. The container arrived in Los Angeles on Aug. 23, and while inspectors used an X-ray scanner to survey its contents, neither the scanner nor radiation pagers detected the depleted uranium. Nor did inspectors open and search its contents.

Some federal officials sharply criticized ABC News, saying the network might have committed a crime by not declaring that the shipment contained uranium.

In response, ABC released a letter to President Bush from U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee. Picking up on media reports that ABC could be the subject of a Department of Justice prosecution, Boxer wrote: "Instead of having your attorney general investigate those who exposed the problem, our limited resources would be better spent actually trying to solve the problem."

Homeland Security Department spokesman Dennis Murphy pointed out that port inspectors had targeted the container for X-ray scanning, a process reserved for a fraction of containers that catch the attention of security officials.

"If we never touched this container, and let it come straight through, without doing anything with it, then I think we would have failed," he said.

But ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider countered that the container still had cleared port security systems with the depleted uranium undetected.

"What the test showed is that, at a port in Jakarta, without much effort, you can get someone to fill a container with anything you want, send it halfway around the world, and it clears customs," he said.

The federal government has dramatically stepped up security measures at seaports nationwide since 9/11, and has installed a series of new hurdles overseas to prevent hazardous cargo from arriving in the United States. For instance, manifests listing the contents of containers must be submitted to federal officials 24 hours before those containers are loaded onto ships.

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