Tech factors in port protection

The House passed legislation June 4 that would give the Coast Guard greater powers in the war against terrorism and would rely on the Customs Service to help protect U.S. ports, using technology to do it.

The Maritime Transportation Anti-Terrorism Act authorizes $83 million annually in grants for enhanced facility security at U.S. ports for the next three fiscal years. These grants will help cover the cost of anti-terrorism improvements and fund projects to determine which technologies will improve port security the best.

"Shipping containers are particularly adaptable to use by terrorists," said Rep. Ken Bentsen (D-Texas). "Our port security gap is as simple as not enough equipment, men and inspections. Improving this security situation will cost a large amount of money."

The legislation, approved by voice vote, would give the Coast Guard the authority deny entry to vessels from foreign ports with inadequate security and dispatch "sea marshals" to respond to terrorist threats. The bill still must be reconciled with a Senate bill passed in December, but lawmakers appear intent on tightening security at the nation's ports.

The government must do more to protect "the nation's largest and perhaps most vulnerable border," said Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Coast Guard panel.

Customs and law enforcement officials currently check about 2 percent of the containers arriving at the nation's 361 ports. The legislation requires the government to develop anti-terrorism cargo identification and screening systems for container cargo, a program already under way with the Customs' modernization program.

Also on June 4, the Customs Service announced an agreement with Singapore under which it will inspect U.S.-bound cargo containers in Singapore's seaport. Customs already has a similar arrangement with Canada and has worked out deals with major manufacturers to quicken the pace of border crossings in exchange for their cooperation in conducting their own security checks.

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