Congress has given final approval to a homeland security bill that seeks to improve preparedness against future terrorist attacks, speed up responses to natural disasters, and strengthen port security. The measure may be supplemented by a separate action providing several billion dollars for the nation's ports and railways.
From lessons learned as a result of the government's poor response to Hurricane Katrina last year, to continuing steps linked to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the measure for the 2007 fiscal year covers a range of security priorities.
At nearly $35 billion, $2 billion above last year's levels, it directs funds to the nation's borders, coastlines and ports, as well as immigration and programs to protect against chemical and biological attack, and improve air and rail security.
Highlights include the addition of 1,500 border patrol agents, and funding for the US-VISIT program involving biometric screening methods at points of entry.
After a year in which the issue of security and foreign companies operations in U.S. ports became controversial, the measure provides over four-billion dollars for cargo inspectors, coast guard operations, and radiation detectors at ports.
Funding is also directed at helping the Department of Homeland Security ensure it can meet goals to have all containers screened at overseas ports, and eventually all machine-scanned for content at U.S. ports.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff spoke about this in a recent appearance before Congress. "We expect to have deployed by the end of this year, radiation portal monitors that cover 80 percent of the [container] cargo coming into this country and we will be at almost 100 percent by the end of next year," he said.
In approving the measure, which was the product of House-Senate negotiations, lawmakers underscored the need to learn lessons from the past.
Congressman Harold Rogers of Kentucky recalled the security gaps revealed by the September 2001 al-Qaida attacks on the U.S. "Since that tragic day, a vigorous national debate over our vulnerabilities, fueled by historic levels of illegal immigration, has resulted in one very clear conclusion: We must do all we can to gain control over our borders and our coastlines, to preserve the sovereign integrity of our immigration system, and preserve the strength of our economy," he said.
The bill attempts to address some of the problems plaguing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), sharply criticized in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, refers to provisions calling for a comprehensive structural overhaul of the agency. "This bill fixes and improves FEMA, with the leadership, authority and resources necessary to respond effectively to the next disaster," he said.
The legislation includes $3.5 billion for state and local first responders, such as firefighters and emergency workers who would react to disasters or attacks.
On transportation security, about six billion dollars goes to passenger and baggage screening, improving explosive detection, and air marshals.
On rail security, still cited by lawmakers as the most vulnerable part of the transportation system, $13.2 million goes for inspectors and explosive detection.