- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

Congress plans to introduce a bill Tuesday intended to prevent an attack that could shut down the nation's ports the way the September 11 attack shut down airlines.
It is carefully worded to avoid putting some dockworkers convicted of felonies out of work.
The bill follows testimony showing fewer than 2 percent of the 17,000 cargo containers entering the United States daily are inspected, making them easy vehicles for importing lethal biological, chemical or radioactive materials.
A large bomb could easily fit into one of the containers, allowing it to either explode at the port or be transported by trucks and railroads to other targets in large cities, witnesses told a subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee at hearings in recent weeks.
"With six million containers entering the United States annually, looking for a terrorist weapon in a container may appear to be like looking for a needle in the haystack," Rep. Corinne Brown, Florida Democrat, said this week.
The bill would allocate $75 million a year for the next three fiscal years to help ports acquire screening technologies and implement security plans. It also would require dockworkers to undergo background checks and to carry identification cards for restricted areas.
The Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard would oversee any new security programs after making assessments of each port's vulnerabilities.
The House bill from the subcommittee on Coast Guard and maritime transportation closely follows a similar Senate bill approved in December.
The greatest controversy about the different bills involves the background checks for dockworkers.
The Senate bill would exclude workers with a wide variety of felony convictions from gaining access to ports. The felonies include assault, rape, willful destruction of property, arson, robbery and kidnapping.
The House bill would exclude only workers with felonies directly associated with terrorism, namely treason, espionage, sedition, smuggling and support of a terrorist organization.
"This bill is set up more for terrorism prevention instead of a law enforcement bill," said Nick Martinelli, spokesman for Miss Brown, ranking member of the House subcommittee.
During the hearings, Miss Brown expressed concern that many dockworkers would lose their jobs because of bar fights or similar offenses despite years of loyal service at the ports.
"Labor was obviously concerned about it," Mr. Martinelli said. "They thought the criteria was too comprehensive. They don't have a problem with what we have in there now."
During one hearing, John Bowers, president of the International Longshoremen's Association, said any restrictions on access to ports "must not be crafted in terms of any prior run-ins with the law that in essence have no realistic relationship to an individual's proclivities for committing terrorism or crimes of opportunity on the waterfront."
Otherwise, workers who often are breadwinners for their families could lose their jobs, he said.
The $75 million in the House bill would add to the $93.3 million in emergency funds the federal government already has allocated to approximately 140 ports nationwide. The first Transportation Department grants are scheduled to be awarded in June.
Part of the money would be used to increase the number of cargo inspections.
Shipping industry officials warned that too much vigilance too quickly could have serious economic consequences.
Richard Larrabee, port commerce director for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said increasing the inspection rate in New York to only 5 percent from the current 2 percent would require 400 additional inspectors and cost an added $1.2 million monthly. Otherwise, at least 4,500 containers a month would be delayed.
Shipping industry officials also said new technologies and methods could reduce the need for more inspections.
Customs officials are developing a computer database for profiling suspicious ships and cargo.
Last summer, customs agents at the nation's busiest ports started using a drive-through mobile X-ray that can scan the interior of containers without opening them, similar to the X-ray machines for luggage at airports.


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