By  on May 16, 2006

WASHINGTON — U.S. and international ports, cargo containers and supply chains are still highly vulnerable to a terrorist attack, but the intense renewed focus on global maritime security in recent months has prompted action by the Bush administration and Congress to strengthen and improve the multilayered approach.

While it's difficult to gauge the degree to which ports and cargo containers are safe, most experts concur that the U.S. government and private sector need to take giant steps to improve security along every point of the way to prevent a catastrophic event from shutting down global commerce. However, vast differences remain among security experts, lawmakers, administration officials and businesses over how to strengthen existing systems and where to invest in new programs.

Retailers and wholesalers imported $89.2 billion worth of apparel and textiles to the U.S. last year and are concerned about the potential for Congressional intervention in global commerce. Domestic textile executives, however, continue to press Congress to increase funding for U.S. Customs and Border Protection to step up physical inspections of containers for illegally transshipped goods, which would thereby bolster security.

Port and cargo security became a key political issue with the collapse earlier this year of a deal backed by the Bush administration that would have given a firm owned by the government of Dubai control of terminal operations at six key U.S. ports.

The House passed a port security bill in early May and a companion bill is pending in the Senate. The bipartisan bill in the House authorizes more than $5 billion for port security and requires the government to finish installing radiation screening equipment at 22 U.S. ports by the end of the 2007 fiscal year, which lawmakers maintain will cover 98 percent of incoming containers.

A Senate panel has approved a bill that would take security one step further, to foreign ports, requiring U.S.-bound cargo to be screened overseas or be turned away from U.S. ports, but does not set a deadline for enforcement. It also would create a pilot program at three foreign ports to test and establish a 100 percent integrated-screening system within one year.

But the lightening-rod issue in the Congressional debate is over a proposed measure for 100 percent inspection of all U.S.-bound cargo. Retailers and apparel wholesalers formed a coalition and so far have lobbied successfully against such a measure.

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