Secure ports seize agenda in Congress

After Dubai, Congress is seeking more control and greater scrutiny of cargo.

When seacoast senators Susan Collins (R) of Maine and Patty Murray (D) of Washington called for tougher port security last year, Washington all but yawned.

Those 9 million containers entering US ports every year were just another terrorist target - competing with trains, subways, nuclear facilities, bridges, dams, and (of course) tall buildings and airplanes for scarce federal dollars.

But the outcry over the Dubai ports deal, now defunct, showed lawmakers that voters care about ports - and Congress is scrambling to move new legislation and funding streams to reassure the public that security at ports is a top priority.

"It's been difficult to generate much enthusiasm for ports," says Senator Collins, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "We always tend to be focused on the last threat," she adds - referring to the focus on airport security after 9/11. "The silver lining on the Dubai ports deal could be comprehensive security legislation."

As a first priority, lawmakers want to reassure the public that Dubai Ports World will - as it promised last week - fully divest control of terminals at six US ports to a "United States entity." Last week, the House Appropriations Committee voted 62-2 to scuttle the takeover, and members on both sides of the aisle are eager to register their opposition to the moot deal in a floor vote expected this week.

Democrats, meanwhile, are demanding the release of all documents related to the Bush administration's approval of the proposal. A report by the Associated Press Monday that Dubai Ports World may not sell its interest in Miami's seaport also fueled Democratic concerns. "These new revelations make it clear that the administration and the foreign government-owned company have not been forthcoming with the American people," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Luis Miranda.

The Dubai fiasco is also driving efforts to step up congressional oversight of all future foreign business acquisitions. Lawmakers in the House and Senate are targeting the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a multiagency panel, chaired by the Treasury Department

Critics say it focuses too much on commercial aspects and not enough on national security. House GOP leaders are preparing a bill to require congressional oversight of all foreign investment. After a recess next week, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs will mark up its version of the bill.

At the same time, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California, who chairs the House Armed Services committee, is proposing a new law that will force foreign owners to divest control of all infrastructure deemed critical to national security.

A second front in the drive to improve port security focuses on funding. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate are challenging the Bush administration's plan to eliminate targeted funding streams for ports and other facilities in favor of a $600 million Targeted Infrastructure Protection program.

Instead of leaving decisions on how that money should be spent to a bureaucratic process, Senators Collins and Murray are calling for $400 million to be earmarked for port security grants. Their Green Lane Maritime Cargo Security Act aims to secure the entire supply chain: using technology and information to track packages from factories overseas through arrival.

"We will know what is in each of those containers, who has handled it, whether it has been tampered with, and if it needs more security," said Senator Murray, when she introduced the bill last November. "Once a container is in our ports, it's too late," says Senator Collins.

Along similar lines, Rep. Dan Lungren (R) of California, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Economic Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Cybersecurity, opens hearings Thursday on a port security bill he is sponsoring with Rep. Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Like the Senate bill, it gives the Homeland Security Department only 180 days to complete its review of minimum standards for securing containers.

Only 17.5 percent of high-risk cargo is inspected overseas, according to the Government Accountability Office. Both House and Senate bills authorize the Homeland Security Department to loan equipment to overseas ports to improve inspections.

Democrats say the political fallout from the Dubai deal could extend to fall's midterm elections. National security is giving Democrats "lots of traction," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid at a briefing Monday.

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