WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of House lawmakers, capitalizing on the political opening created by the collapse of the Dubai Ports World deal, introduced a bill Tuesday that would allocate $4 billion for port security over five years.
“The legislation is intended to prevent [terrorist] threats from ever reaching United States ports through layered security measures,” Rep. Dan Lungren (R., Calif.) said at a news conference here. “If there is any silver lining [from the Dubai ports deal], it has given us an opportunity, which is rare these days, for Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate to work toward a single goal to secure our nation’s ports.”
The Security and Accountability for Every Port Act would for the first time establish multiyear funding for security, instead of allocations that must be set annually. In addition, it would require all shipping containers to be scanned for radiation by mandating that the Department of Homeland Security complete deployment of radiation portal monitors at ports, establish a director of cargo security, set minimum security standards for all cargo containers entering the U.S. and conduct checks of all port employees with access to secure areas.
The act would also bring together federal, state, local and private sector partners to establish a joint operations center, require the Homeland Security director to develop protocols for resuming trade after a security breach and make permanent two port security programs under which foreign cargo is screened. Half of the proposed five-year funding would come in the form of grants, and the other half would come from other sources, the lawmakers said. Port security grant funding has only been about $700 million since the Sept. 11 attacks, they said.
“We’ve known for a long time that port security is [our] Achilles heel,” said Rep. Jane Harman (D., Calif.) “We’ve been shouting from the rooftops and container tops to do something about it.”
Dubai Ports World is owned by the government of Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates. The company was poised to take over operations at terminals in six major U.S. ports, but abandoned the effort last week and said it would transfer those properties to an American-owned company in reaction to a firestorm of criticism.
The aborted deal has brought port security to the top of the Congressional agenda and a dozen bills have been introduced to strengthen it. Lungren and Harman predicted that their plan would quickly move to a vote on the House floor. A companion bill in the Senate was introduced by Sens. Susan Collins (R., Maine), Norm Coleman (R., Minn.) and Joseph Lieberman (D., Conn.).
“We spent so much time on aviation security and everyone seems to agree we must do something on ports,” Lungren said. “Dubai was the exclamation point … We were moving in that direction and it gave us impetus and accelerated the process.”
He said the bill also has the support of Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and should gain the backing of other GOP House leaders.
“What you have here is an agreement in principle that this piece of legislation must be passed in some form,” Lungren said. “You have that in the Senate and the House.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection launched several initiatives after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, including a program under which U.S. agents examine high-risk cargo at foreign seaports. A total of 42 foreign ports participate and the government predicts the number will grow to 50 by the end of the year.
Customs has also created a public-private program through which foreign cargo is prescreened before entering the U.S. so that shipments can be expedited. The effort involves some 5,800 companies, including most major U.S. retailers and apparel manufacturers such as J.C. Penney, Gap, Limited and Liz Claiborne.