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Congress Presses Officials on Port Security

Members of Congress have been questioning officials responsible for security at U.S. seaports and airports about efforts to guard against possible future terrorist attacks. Hearings on Capitol Hill come amid impatience with steps to ensure the safety of shipping containers entering the United States and concern about lapses in background checks for airport screeners.

Among steps Congress took after the September 2001 terrorist attacks was passage of a law called the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA).

It was aimed at strengthening maritime security, while seeking to avoid adverse impact on the U.S. economy and the flow of goods to and from the United States.

Some 360 ports in the United States handle 95 percent of U.S. overseas trade. However, most of that moves through five ports, the largest being in Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, New York-New Jersey, and Seattle-Tacoma in Washington state.

As New Jersey Congressman Frank LoBiondo notes, ports are especially vulnerable to those who would do harm to the United States. "Generally our ports are very often open and exposed, and they are susceptible to large-scale acts of terrorism that could cause catastrophic loss of life and economic disruption," said Mr. LoBiondo.

In a recent hearing, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta was asked by lawmakers to identify the weakest link in the security chain in terms of future terrorist threats. "The most vulnerable would be the maritime ports," he responded, noting "the number of containers coming into this country. We really don't have a good handle on what is in those containers."

Under the new maritime law, vessels and port facilities including vessels under foreign flags, must conduct assessments and come up with detailed plans to deal with any security weaknesses.

However, currently under International Maritime Organization rules, vessels heading to U.S. ports could bypass close examination by the U.S. Coast Guard of their security plans, which may also be in foreign languages.

Lawmakers are concerned about this and more generally about what they see as lax standards in the global shipping industry, that in the view of one Congressman, Peter DeFazio, should not simply be accepted by U.S. authorities.

He suggested "requiring more rigorously that we review - not some foreign government subject to bribery or others - a vessel's security plan, so that we know who is on those ships, what is on those ships, who owns those ships, and why they are coming to the United States."

The head of the Coast Guard, Admiral Thomas Collins, said it is working aggressively to reduce chances of a terrorist incident against the maritime system, which he said would have a serious and long-lasting impact on global shipping, trade and the world economy.

However, the admiral was pressed by one lawmaker, Congressman James Oberstar, on the question of foreign port security, who asked him, "How in God's name are you going to know that a port is not maintaining effective anti-terrorism measures if you simply accept their plan and say, salute! sail on!"

"Our intention is create a foreign port security team," replied Admiral Collins, "a central team that would be based in Washington and that would be exportable to the various ports, to do the audit, an assessment-audit, of the security regime in each one of these ports."

Admiral Collins acknowledges however, that there is currently no money budgeted to pay for such a specialized team.

In another hearing Tuesday, the head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), retired Admiral James Loy, defended his agency against allegations of incompetence.

Lawmakers are unhappy with recent media reports about TSA lapses that led to some individuals with criminal backgrounds being hired as security screeners at some key airports.

The agency met tough congressional deadlines to hire more than 50,000 new screeners in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, but still has not completed background checks for more than half of the personnel.