(CNSNews.com) - The controversy over a proposal to allow Dubai Ports World to operate terminals at some major U.S. ports may have hurt President Bush's approval rating, but it could be helping some members of Congress move legislation they believe is needed to better protect U.S. seaports from terrorist threats.
Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Economic Security, Infrastructure Protection and Cybersecurity, believes most Americans are now more aware of port security deficiencies than they were even a month ago.
"If there's anything we learned in the last couple of weeks with the Dubai incident, it was the importance of this issue," Lungren said. "There was a lot of give-and-take on that. There was a lot of political fallout from that but, if there was any silver lining, it was the focus that that incident placed on the need for security of our ports."
Rep. Jane Harman, who returned from New York after the birth of her first grandchild Tuesday to announce the proposal with Lungren, agreed.
"As Dan said, this is the silver lining in the Dubai issue," Harman said. "We've known for a long time that port security is the Achilles' heel of our national security and we have been shouting from the rooftops or, maybe, the container tops to do something about it."
Harman's district includes the Port of Los Angeles, which along with the Port of Long Beach is the largest shipping container complex in the U.S. More than 14 million containers are moved through those two facilities each year, totaling approximately 42 percent of the country's shipped goods.
"The idea of a dirty bomb or a group of terrorists smuggled into one of our big ports in a container keeps me up at night," Harman said.
Harman recalled a recent labor dispute at the Port of Long Beach, which cost the country as much as $2 billion per day in lost commerce. She believes the results would be similar, if not worse, from a successful terrorist attack on any major U.S. port.
"We know the economic consequences of this and we know that al Qaeda is looking to do some sort of harm that would cause grave economic consequences," Harman said. "Unfortunately, this vulnerability that we have is a 'logical' al Qaeda opportunity."
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) warned that the current port security system makes it unlikely that officials would discover a terrorist plot to exploit weaknesses prior to a ship docking in the U.S.
"I think most Americans would be shocked to learn that, this long after 9/11, we still have an honor system for cargo and ships coming into the United States of America. We really don't know what's in those containers" DeFazio said. "Not only do we not know what was actually loaded in the containers, but we [also] aren't safeguarding the containers after that loading point in a way that we can be certain that nothing else was inserted."
The "Security and Accountability for Every (SAFE) Port Act," which was introduced late Tuesday, seeks to address those concerns. The bill proposes a three-tiered program to defend U.S. ports and foreign shipping facilities, from which goods depart en route to the U.S.
Stateside requirements would include monitoring all seaports for incoming containers bearing radioactive material and comparing the names of all port workers with access to secure areas with the all terrorist watch-lists and resolving any potential conflicts within 90 days. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would also be responsible for developing a plan to resume port operations as quickly as possible after any major disruption.
Overseas, the bill would encourage U.S. officials to work with governments in cooperating countries to help prevent hazardous materials from being secretly introduced into cargo containers. It includes funding to lend detection equipment to those countries that need it and to provide necessary training on its use.
From origin to destination, the proposal would fund efforts to track containers bound for the U.S., to deter the introduction of contraband into previously checked containers after they leave foreign ports. Additional money would be provided to develop new technology to securely seal and track cargo containers.
"We all agree, Democrat, Republican, members of the committee and others in this Congress, that it's essential that our nation take a global approach to the way that we thwart terrorist attacks and protect U.S. ports," Lungren said. "This legislation - by taking a layered approach to maritime and cargo security - will help to insure that our country's ports are the last line of defense."
Lungren said the fact that Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, supports the bill, and that similar legislation is also moving through the Senate make passage of some form of the bill likely. Lungren's subcommittee will hold a hearing on the SAFE Ports Act Thursday.
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