- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

In a congressional session marked by partisan strife and gridlock in so many areas, one bill looms like a beacon of achievement ready to dock. The Senate’s unanimous approval of the “Port Security Improvement Act of 2006” in early September, following on the House passage of similar legislation in May, puts the Congress on the cusp of a substantive and political victory.

Now is the time for the congressional leadership and the numerous committees involved in cargo and port facility security issues to reach consensus on the core issues in the bill, jettison unrelated issues that are controversial, and travel to the White House for a well-deserved bill signing ceremony.

Ironically, the quality legislating exhibited over the last four months arose out of the embarrassing overreaction to the Dubai Ports World purchase of several terminal operations in the U.S. To be fair, Congress largely had ceded the program developing cargo and port security to the Department of Homeland Security after passing the Trade Act and the Maritime Transportation Security Act in 2002. DHS has aggressively moved to implement innovative international programs like the Container Security Initiative run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the International Ship and Port Security codes implemented by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The DPW dust-up, though, demonstrated that without congressional engagement in supply chain security, there was little political buy-in for the risk assessment model utilized by DHS. The temptation to abandon that model for politically attractive sound bite solutions seemed destined to succeed as congressional leaders announced plans to develop legislative responses to the public furor over DPW.

Instead, both the House and Senate have passed bills that recognize the importance of building upon the foundation for improving cargo chain security that has been built since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Both bills strengthen cargo security by improving upon the established multi-layered risk assessment model used by government agencies to identify and inspect the most high-risk cargo containers. The legislation would expand the breadth of the data DHS collects from shippers on all U.S.-bound containers. It would facilitate and encourage cooperation between the government and private-sector stakeholders operating in the cargo supply chain every day, who are often the first to identify potential vulnerabilities.

The bills would authorize additional funds to strengthen the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) and CSI programs. Also, an important provision would require development of plans for the smooth resumption of commerce in a transportation security incident, ensuring government agencies at all levels coordinate with each other — and with the business community — to limit the economic damage that would occur if trade ground to a halt.

As important as what is in the legislation is what was rejected. The House and Senate appropriately resisted the temptation to undertake promises that capture headlines and score political points but would fail to actually improve security. It is particularly significant that both chambers turned away efforts to mandate universal deployment of screening technologies, such as density X-rays, that have not yet been shown to work in real-world environments and generate real-world law-enforcement responses. Many new screening technologies show great promise, but it is essential that new high-tech security products and systems are tested before deployment and supported by government personnel so we do not needlessly squander valuable resources collecting information we cannot understand or use.

So in an era of partisan rhetoric, how did we get this far? Credit must go to the bipartisan groups of senators and House members who worked closely with DHS and the private sector to develop realistic legislation. Sens. Susan Collins, Norm Coleman, Ted Stevens, Chuck Grassley, Joe Lieberman, Daniel Inouye, Max Baucus and Patty Murray navigated through very difficult jurisdictional terrain, with help from Sens. Bill Frist and Harry Reid, to produce a base bill that survived efforts in the Senate to add 100 percent screening proposals. Reps. Peter King, Dan Lungren, Bennie Thompson and Jane Harman had shown the way with a solid bipartisan effort in the House.

So where do we go from here?

c First, the Congress needs to iron out the minor differences between the House and Senate bills before they leave for the campaign season. Our international cargo trading system carries risk by its very nature and the improvements the legislation would require cannot wait. If that means postponing action on unrelated issues that the Senate added to the bill, so be it.

c Second, Congress and DHS need to look long and hard at the current and planned deployment of radiation detection equipment to foreign and domestic ports. Although DHS is on schedule to screen nearly all cargo on arrival in the U.S., that screening should be shifted as much as possible to ports of departure through CSI and the Energy Department’s Megaports initiative.

c Third, DHS needs to redouble its efforts to harmonize risk assessment models with other agencies’ financial investigative tools and passenger screening.

It began with a fluke and has survived procedural and political hurdles, but Congress has a major accomplishment within its grasp. For the sake of our foreign relations, our economy and, most importantly our security, Congress should finish the job now.

C. Stewart Verdery Jr. is president of the Monument Policy Group LLC and was assistant secretary of homeland security for border and transportation security policy and planning, 2003-05.

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