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Screening Out a Problematic Port Provision

By Norm Coleman

Last week, the Senate rightly rejected an amendment by Senator Schumer to the "Improving America's Security Act of 2007" requiring that every single cargo container shipped to an American port be scanned overseas within the next five years. While many of the provisions the Senate is debating are in line with the 9-11 Commission's recommendations, this significant proposal is not. In fact, you will not find a recommendation to undertake 100 percent screening of cargo containers anywhere in the text of the 9-11 Commission's Report. Although this concept may sound good on the surface, the unintended consequences of the Schumer amendment could severely cripple the economic activity at our ports and ultimately put the terrorists one step closer to their stated goal of bankrupting the United States. It would simply be bad policy and we need to instead give an alternative program - called the Secure Freight Initiative - a chance to work.

Last year, as a result of numerous hearings and considerable debate, Congress overwhelmingly passed the SAFE Port Act, a bipartisan law that addressed many of my Subcommittee's concerns and will improve port security. In considering that legislation, my colleagues on both sides of the aisle rejected an amendment that was virtually identical Senator Schumer's amendment mandating that 100 percent of cargo be scanned before leaving foreign ports for the United States. The fact remains that, while this concept may be popular political rhetoric, the technology, manpower and funding do not yet exist to make this effective security policy, especially on an arbitrary deadline. Further bolstering my argument is the fact that Senator Lieberman, Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee voted against the Schumer Amendment.

I don't say this as a distant observer but as someone who has had his hands deep in the soil on this issue for a number of years. As Chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, I directed the Subcommittee's three-year effort to bolster America's port security and supply chain security. The challenge was clear: Many experts believe that a maritime container is the ideal platform to transport nuclear or radiological material or a nuclear device into the United States. As the 9-11 Commission put it so succinctly, "opportunities to do harm are as great, or greater, in maritime or surface transportation." Since 90 percent of global trade moves in maritime containers, we can not allow these containers to be utilized to transport Weapons of Mass Destruction. The consequences of such an event would be devastating to our way of life and our economy. Instead, we must secure our supply chain before we pay the high price of an attack, and seek the appropriate balance between two often competing priorities: security and speed.

This does not mean that scanning 100 percent of cargo should not be our goal. In that vein, the SAFE Port Act included my bipartisan measure to develop a pilot program to test scanning technology in a real-world environment at six foreign ports throughout this year. This program, the Secure Freight Initiative, was recently unveiled by the Department of Homeland Security and we are on the verge of its implementation. I am very encouraged by this public-private partnership and its vision "to create a globally networked array of detection equipment that will be configured to enable real-time streaming of container images and radiological detection data to other countries engaged in maritime trade." I am gratified that numerous major U.S. companies, including several Fortune 500 entities, have signed this document along with the Departments of Homeland Security, Energy and State.

Adequately testing and implementing new technologies at these ports will enable us to work out the kinks before expanding on a much broader scale. This will allow other countries to get an idea of what the system will look like and how it will be deployed on their shores. Importantly, for foreign-based screening to succeed, the cooperation of other nations will be essential. Simply put, aggressively forcing the door open will not make 100 percent scanning a reality any faster and will severely hurt global trade and the American consumer. There is not lack of resolve; There is no lack of will; There is no bureaucratic hold ups. We are moving forward here in a rational matter - aggressively as possible but not playing to fear and demagoguery.

Once this testing is complete, the Department of Homeland Security will report to Congress on results. If the Secure Freight Initiative proves successful, then a move towards full-scale implementation of the program would follow expeditiously. It is imperative that we complete the pilot project to know what's possible, before mandating a wide-ranging requirement that is impossible to meet. We know what the consequences will be if we fail to address our port security problems. Let's move beyond the issues we have already addressed and pass bi-partisan security legislation based on sound policy rather than simply giving in to political sound bites and shenanigans.

Norm Coleman is a U.S. Senator from Minnesota.

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