Lawmakers fret about potential terrorist attacks at US ports

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Lawmakers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee fretted on Tuesday about the potential vulnerability of U.S. ports to dirty-bomb attacks, citing reports of recent attempts to smuggle radioactive material by terrorists that have been thwarted. 

“The United States has an Exclusive Economic Zone spanning 3.5 million square miles, 95,000 miles of open shoreline, over 360 ports, and numerous small harbors across the country,” Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who is chairman of the panel’s Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, said during a hearing on port security on Tuesday. 

“Our maritime border is unique compared to our land or air borders due to its sheer size and the potential ease of moving large quantities of materials undetected,” he continued.  “Interdiction efforts are about more than the seized contraband. Understanding the pathways used by the smugglers is a critical part of the process.”  

Democrats on the panel said they were worried about the potential for terrorist attacks at U.S. ports, calling for an increase in the amount of cargo that is screened when it comes off of ships that are docking at the nation’s freight terminals. 

“When people ask me what keeps me up at night? A dirty bomb at the Port of Los Angeles,” Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.) said. “Since 9/11, our nation has strengthened aviation security but our ports have not received the same scrutiny and remain incredible vulnerable to what could be a devastating attack.”

Hahn said only three percent of the cargo that is shipped through U.S. ports is scanned for contraband materials like explosive devices, despite a 2006 mandate from Congress that all packages be reviewed. 

“I have said it once and I will say it again, we need 100 percent scanning at our ports,” she said. “The risks are too high not to.” 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials told lawmakers that they are doing all they can to ensure the safety of the nation’s ports and waterways. 

“As the lead [Department of Homeland Security] agency for border security, CBP works closely with our domestic and international partners to protect the nation from a variety of dynamic threats, including those posed by containerized cargo and commercial conveyances arriving at our air, land, and sea ports of entry (POE),” CBP Office of Field Operations Assistant Commissioner Todd Owen told the panel in testimony submitted ahead of Tuesday’s hearing. 

“CBP’s security and trade facilitation missions are mutually supportive: by utilizing a risk-based strategy and multilayered security approach, CBP can focus time and resources of those suspect shipments that are high-risk which, in turn, allows CBP to expedite legitimate trade,” he continued. 

Owen added that the border patrol agency “works closely with host country counterparts to build their capacity and capability to target and inspect high-risk cargo. 

“Today, in addition to weapons-detection, many [Container Security Initiative] ports are now also targeting other illicit materials, including narcotics, pre-cursor chemicals, dual-use technology, stolen vehicles, weapons and ammunition, and counterfeit products,” he said. “Furthermore, advancements in technology have enabled CBP to increase the efficiency of CSI operations without diminishing effectiveness by conducting more targeting remotely at the [National Targeting Center-Cargo].” 

Port industry groups told lawmakers that they needed to increase funding for agencies like the border patrol if they wanted to ensure the safety of the nation’s water entry points. 

“A fully funded and staffed Customs and Border Protection Agency is the first step in fighting the threat of dirty bombs,” Massachusetts Port Authority Director of Maritime Security Joseph Lawless said in testimony submitted on behalf of the Association of Port Authorities (AAPA). 

“CBP and ports rely on Radiation Portal Monitors or RPMs to detect dirty bombs in containerized cargo shipped into this country,” he continued. “What we hear repeatedly from our member ports is, the lack of clarity in funding and administering the RPM program, has become a real hindrance in how we protect our ports.” 

Republicans on the panel said they wanted to see more planning from the Obama administration for thwarting potential terrorist attacks at U.S ports before they increased funding for federal agencies. 

“It is concerning that the administration’s whole-of-government approach does not appear to include foreign nuclear policy,” Hunter said. “For an administration that proclaims to be anti-nuclear proliferation, we are heading down a path where our adversaries will have greater access to nuclear material.  While this hearing is about preventing, deterring, and interdicting threats from coming into our ports, it is important to be aware of how our foreign policies may conflict and potentially disrupt enforcement measures to keep our country safe.” 

Democrats countered that is essential to increase the number of cargo packages that are scanned before they moved off of ships that are docking at U.S. ports, however. 

“Although some have insisted that scanning all cargo would slow down port operations, Dr. Gregory Canavan, Senior Fellow, Los Alamos National Laboratories, a witness at today’s hearing, said that technologies could be implemented that would not impede the flow of commerce,” Hahn’s office said in a statement released after the hearing on Tuesday. 

“Rep. Hahn agrees and has introduced the SCAN Act, which would initiate a pilot program for 100 percent scanning and test its practicality at two of our nation’s ports,” the statement continued.

Tags Duncan Hunter Janice Hahn Port security Ports U.S. Customs and Border Patrol

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