Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Democrats want more cargo inspection abroad

Democrats want more cargo inspection abroad
By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats in Congress took the offensive on port security on Tuesday by urging that a bill require all U.S.-bound cargo containers to be inspected for items such as dirty bombs.

Seizing on anxieties raised by the recent Dubai ports deal, Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and other Democrats said Republicans should accept his plan to show they are genuinely concerned about port security.

The shipping industry rejects the idea of insisting on full inspections of all containers before they are loaded at foreign ports as unworkable.

Markey said he would try to get the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee to approve his amendment when it votes on a $2.4 billion bill to enhance port security on Wednesday. His proposal has already been rejected by a House subcommittee.

"If the Republicans are serious about Dubai, then they must be serious about ensuring that every single ship, every single container is inspected around the world," Markey told reporters on Capitol Hill.

In the Dubai ports saga, a United Arab Emirates-owned company announced last month it would unwind its deal acquiring some U.S. port operations after an outcry from both parties in Congress, who said they were worried about the UAE's track record on terrorism. Two of the September 11 hijackers came from the UAE.

Another Democrat who appeared with Markey, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, said he wants to get more port security funding for cargo inspection approved as part of an emergency spending bill moving through the Senate this week.


New York Republican Rep. Peter King, one of the biggest critics of the Dubai ports deal, suggested Markey's plan was largely a public relations exercise.

"There's no sense in putting something in the bill if it's not realistic," King said. "We want a real bill, not a headline."

King chairs the House Homeland Security panel that will vote on the enhanced port security bill. The legislation, which has bipartisan support, would require the government to deploy nuclear and radiological detection systems at all U.S. seaports.

The Markey amendment would require all shipping containers bound for U.S. ports to be fully inspected abroad by radiation detectors and X-ray machines, then closed with electronic tamper-proof seals before they enter U.S. waters.

Markey demonstrated for reporters with scissors how easily seals now being used could be broken. Another Democrat, New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, estimated Markey's amendment would cost about $100 per cargo container.

The World Shipping Council has criticized the Markey amendment, saying it would cripple American commerce and create disputes with trading partners. Other business groups have also lobbied against it.

Separately, the Department of Homeland Security announced it was doing background checks on 400,000 U.S. ports workers and developing biometric-based identity cards for them.

(additional reporting by Peter Kaplan)