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The Nation

Port Security Bill Set to Clear Senate

The legislation would allow $400 million in anti-terrorism grants and start up an experimental cargo screening program.

September 12, 2006|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When a state-owned Arab company attempted to take over the management of some U.S. port facilities this year, it caused a bipartisan uproar in Congress and set off a wave of initiatives aimed at tightening security on the waterfront.

Most of the proposals have foundered. But now, with both parties jostling for the upper hand on national security ahead of November's midterm elections, a port security bill is headed for approval.

The measure -- expected to pass the Senate this week -- would, among other things, impose deadlines on background checks for port workers, expand a program to screen for "dirty bombs" and authorize $400 million to help ports bolster anti-terrorism defenses. A good chunk of that money is likely to go to the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex.

Republicans have made port security legislation a priority since February, after Democrats seized on the Bush administration's approval of the takeover of some U.S. facilities by Dubai Ports World to highlight what they contended was the continued vulnerability of ports to attack. In response to the political furor, the Dubai company backed off from taking over the facilities.

The House and Senate also have approved legislation requiring greater scrutiny of foreign investments in the United States. But there may not be enough time left in the current congressional session for the two chambers to reconcile the substantial differences in those bills.

A stack of other proposals that grew directly out of the Dubai controversy also appears doomed for the year, including prohibitions on foreign companies controlling facilities determined to be crucial to national security.

Asked what happened, Chris Koch, president of the World Shipping Council, said: "Some people took some deep breaths and became rational."

The Dubai controversy put the spotlight on the vulnerability of ports, which some say was shortchanged by the focus on protecting airliners from hijackers after Sept. 11.

Stephen E. Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander and port security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, called port security legislation a "good step forward," adding: "We still have a ways to go."

But Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) expressed skepticism that the Republican-controlled Congress would back up the legislation's pledges of tougher security measures with appropriations of money.

Noting that the port security bill that the Senate is considering this week would authorize programs that still would need to be funded, Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin said, "His concern is that this Congress has said, 'Oh, look at what great things we have done' -- and then failed to put the money in place" to fund programs.

That measure is part of a package of security-related legislation that GOP leaders, concerned about losing control of the House in November, want to pass before the midterm elections. The port security bill is expected to be amended to include a $1.2-billion rail security measure, as well as language to expand the emergency warning system so that alerts of disasters or terrorist attacks could be sent out on cellphones and BlackBerries.

Democrats are expected to make a renewed push to require screening of every cargo container destined for U.S. ports. But they face long odds because of strong opposition from business groups.

One business group warned in a letter to senators that a "mandate of 100 percent scanning has the potential to do significant damage to the flow of goods and to the U.S. economy."

The bill would set up an experimental program at three not-yet-selected foreign ports to screen every cargo container headed to the United States. Currently, only a fraction are physically inspected, although customs officials check cargo lists and target suspicious containers for a closer look.

"What we have tried to do with this bill is very carefully balance the need for effective, improved security with the need to ensure that we are not crippling our international trading system," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and a co-author of the port security bill.

Aaron Ellis of the American Assn. of Port Authorities, an industry lobbying and advocacy group, said the bill included a number of components that were "pretty darn good."

"This will be the first time that there has been legislation that actually puts a number of how much should be appropriated for the port security grant program," he said.

The bill would authorize $400 million in port security grants. By the end of this month, the federal Department of Homeland Security will have provided $876 million in port security grants since the Sept. 11 attacks -- about 20% of the $4.35 billion in federal aid that ports have sought.

A similar bill has already passed the House. House-Senate negotiators are expected to agree on a final version to send to the president's desk before lawmakers recess this month or early next month.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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