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Outcry over port deal obscures real security issues, experts say

WASHINGTON—Port security has gone from a backwater concern to a big issue since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. But now, experts say, the controversy over the Bush administration's approval of a Persian Gulf-based firm to run operations at six U.S. ports is diverting attention from real port security issues.

Officials who run America's ports say the ports are much safer than they used to be. But they also say they aren't getting enough money to keep them safe, and they charge that the federal government is dragging its heels on a much-needed background check and identification card program for 6 million transportation workers.

"Ports around the country have increased their security significantly, but none of us are where we want to be," said Luther Kim, the chief of the 13-officer armed security force at the port in Corpus Christi, Texas." A lot of that is because security improvements are expensive."

"The real issues are funding, threat intelligence and dissemination, and improved security at (foreign) ports of origin," said Kim Petersen, the president of SeaSecure, the oldest port security consulting firm in the United States. "There really isn't a lot of funding when you consider the magnitude of what's needed to support our ports. ... If al-Qaida can disrupt the flow of container shipments going into and out of the United States, we're talking about tens of billions of dollars."

In the past 4 { years, the Bush administration has installed more than 1,200 large or hand-held radiation detectors to scan for nuclear materials being smuggled into the nation's ports. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, inspects and boards ships at 42 foreign ports before they send goods to America.

Still, only 5 percent of the 8.6 million shipping containers that flow into U.S. ports every year are opened and inspected, and a 2005 DHS inspector general's report concluded that nearly 80 percent of the port security grant money isn't being spent.

The DHS on Tuesday issued a fact sheet that brags about how it uses "a risk-based strategy to review information on 100 percent of all cargo information entering U.S. ports."

But the artful wording obscures the fact that paperwork, not containers, is being inspected, said Randolph Hall, the co-director of the CREATE Homeland Security Center at the University of Southern California.

The Homeland Security Department's Container Security Initiative tries to inspect most at-risk containers before they leave foreign ports based on a complicated formula, said homeland security spokesman Brian Doyle.

"You cannot inspect every container—you would stop business in its tracks," Doyle said. "The programs put in place for port security have been pretty massive."

"We're living on borrowed time," said Jerry Hultin, president of New York's Polytechnic University and a former Clinton administration Navy undersecretary who studies port security. "The ports have become a very appealing target."

Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served on the U.S. Commission on National Security, writes that the system for screening containers remains a "house of cards" because it's been done piecemeal.

The American Association of Port Authorities estimates that ports need $5.4 billion over 10 years to upgrade security, but the Bush administration has budgeted $708 million. And this month, the administration took grant money for port security and combined it with other transportation security grants. That means ports will have to compete against mass transit for security funds, said Bernard Groseclose, the organization's chairman and the president of the South Carolina State Port Authority.

The federal government also is more than 18 months behind on a background check and identification card program for 6 million port and other transportation workers, such as airport personnel and truck drivers, Groseclose said.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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