Pork Security: Report says
Pretend for a moment that you're a terrorist. Your mission: to plant a dirty bomb inside a cargo container at a major U.S. port.
While you're aware that the death toll from such a mission wouldn't approach that of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, you're confident that the economic impacts would be overwhelming. Every seaport in the nation would shut down, disrupting the flow of goods into and out of the country. Shock, fear and panic would be widespread. The nation's economy would grind to a halt.
Now, pretend that you're the director of the Department of Homeland Security. Your mission: Spend the hundreds of millions of dollars that Congress has provided since Sept. 11, 2001, in the most effective manner possible to protect ports.
Faced with such a monumentally important assignment, logic would dictate that the bulk of the money be directed to the most critical and vulnerable ports - the ones that terrorists are most likely to target.
But that's not what has happened. A recent report by an inspector general shows that the Department of Homeland Security has done appallingly little to make this nation's vital ports more secure. As a result, the nation's 10 largest ports, which handle nearly 80 percent of the country's international commerce, remain frighteningly and unnecessarily vulnerable to terrorist attack.
By last September, a full three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, less than one-fourth of the $517 million in available port security grants had been spent, the report said.
It gets worse: Instead of focusing the dollars on the nation's major ports such as New York, Seattle/Tacoma and Los Angeles, the department distributed the money as widely as possible across the country, funding improvements at tiny ports in places such as St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, Ludington in Michigan and six outposts in Arkansas - none of them exactly hot spots in the war on terrorism.
The report supports allegations that port security grants have been allocated on the basis of political and geographic considerations - call it "pork security" - rather than on the basis of actual risk or vulnerability. By spending taxpayer dollars to install video surveillance systems at resort marinas, the department has neglected the urgent security needs of the nation's largest, busiest ports.
Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, have introduced legislation that would remedy this situation. It would require the Department of Homeland Security to allocate security grants based on three considerations: a port's physical vulnerability, potential consequences of an attack and the actual threat as assessed by intelligence officials. The bill would also tighten existing laws and create new sanctions for criminal activity at ports.
Congress should approve the Feinstein-Cornyn bill. It should also increase funding for port security. So far this year, Congress has approved only a third of the money that port operators say is the bare minimum needed to cover security expenses for the current year.
Since Sept. 11, it's become apparent that the federal government failed to heed earlier warnings about the vulnerability of the nation's airlines. Now, it remains to be seen if it will heed warnings about the need to safeguard its ports.
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