- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Senate voted without dissent yesterday to tighten security at U.S. seaports by scanning nearly all incoming cargo for nuclear weapons or “dirty bombs.”

The bill, approved 98-0 in a pre-election push on national defense, would increase safeguards on the rail systems that pick up cargo from ports and authorize 1,000 new agents to screen containers coming off ships.

But the legislation does not go as far as some Democrats demanded in requiring inspections for all U.S.-bound cargo before it leaves foreign ports. Almost 11 million containers are shipped annually to the United States.

The plan, which authorizes spending $835 million next year, “works toward a goal of getting to 100 percent screening” of cargo leaving foreign ports, said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, one of the bill’s authors.

Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, said the measure, similar to one the House approved in May, was “the most comprehensive approach to border security we have taken to date.”

The bill requires inspections of high-risk cargo at foreign ports. It also sets up a pilot program to scan for nuclear or “dirty bomb” materials in all U.S.-bound containers at three to-be-determined foreign ports. The trial would help determine whether mandatory inspections would bottle up commerce and drive up costs, as Republicans fear.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said that could be too late to prevent massive explosions at U.S. ports or in harbors outside large cities.

“We don’t want to be in a situation where we say, ‘What if? What if we had done more?’” Mr. Schumer said.

Responded Sen. Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican: “This is about the practicality of making sure that we have something that works.”

Noting the politics of the issue, Mr. Coleman added: “The election season is upon us. It’s getting very close. … Let us step away from the sloganeering.”

The president’s homeland security chief has said that nuclear weapons are the gravest threat to the country, and specialists fear they could be smuggled easily into the United States in shipping cargo. Such weapons create huge fireballs fed by nuclear chain reactions.

“Dirty bombs,” in contrast, are conventional explosives laced with radioactive material. A dirty-bomb blast probably would not cause many deaths, specialists say, but the fear of contamination could spark panic and land and buildings hit with radioactive particles might be unusable for years.

The White House said it largely supports the Senate plan. The administration has spent about $10 billion on port security since the September 11 attacks. About 65 percent of cargo is screened for nuclear or radiological materials.

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