Money for security

Money for security

Operation Safe Commerce appeared last month to be on its way to becoming a casualty of the Transportation Security Administration's budget shortfall. That was until lawmakers and regulators intervened late last month to protect it. The experience shows two things - that transportation security is commanding respect in high places, and that the TSA is still struggling to achieve adequate funding for initiatives beyond aviation.

"Port-security funding remains a crucial challenge for the TSA and a crucial commitment," said Brian Turmail, a TSA spokesman. "The deadlines given to TSA by Congress when it passed the Homeland Security Act were almost all for aviation security. Our challenge this year is to build on those aviation-security commitments while working to improve security across the transportation spectrum."

The challenge won't be easily met, and Operation Safe Commerce is an example why. Operation Safe Commerce is a TSA-funded project that is coordinated through the three largest U.S. container load centers - Los Angeles-Long Beach, New York-New Jersey and Seattle-Tacoma. The project's purpose is to evaluate "best practices" within the shipping industry to secure ocean container cargo from origin to destination. Unlike the federal port-security grants awarded to individual ports to bolster security in and around port premises, the goal of Operation Safe Commerce is to fashion a plan to secure ocean container supply chains from beginning to end.

Congress approved money for Operation Safe Commerce in two installments - $28 million in the fiscal 2002 supplemental funding that passed in July 2002 and another $30 million in February 2003. On May 13, the TSA's administrator, James Loy, told the Senate appropriations subcommittee that he couldn't guarantee the project would receive the full $58 million. The following week the TSA said it planned to reroute $28 million to explosives-screening technology at airports.

The funding diversion outraged port executives and members of Congress who have already been critical of administration strategy on international trade security. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., "hit the roof," according to spokesman Todd Webster. Murray dashed off a letter to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge saying she had "no intention of quietly watching your agency divert funds that are critically needed to ensure the security of our trade lanes in order to make up for the administration's irresponsible action in this area."

At a May 20 meeting at the offices of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, representatives from the TSA, the Department of Transportation, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection and Congress met with Operation Safe Commerce supporters to assure them funding would be forthcoming. Beth Rooney, port security manager for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said government officials promised that the money is available and would be awarded soon. "There has not been a commitment as to how much money is available and that is still the issue in question," she said.

J. Michael Zachary, director of port planning and logistics at the Port of Tacoma and the Operation Safe Commerce program manager for the Seattle-Tacoma load center, said the TSA wants to complete the program's test phase of selected projects before discussing the program's long-term future. He said Operation Safe Commerce is still likely to receive the full $58 million, but expressed disappointment that all of the money hasn't been disbursed. "This money was supposed to be on the street last September," he said. "I understand that TSA has other priorities, but this has be-come a hot priority as we've seen from the reaction."

The underlying cause of the scramble is what Loy called a "structural shortfall" at the agency, official-ese for saying there's not enough money to go around. Loy said the problem meant the agency would be forced to "reprogram," or redirect, funding from some projects to others.

Webster traced the origin of the shortfall to July 2002, when Congress passed an emergency spending bill to ensure funding for homeland security. The House and Senate were divided on the amount of money to go to the TSA. The Senate allotted $4.4 billion and the House, $3.85 billion. The Office of Management and Budget pushed for the lower amount, which was eventually passed. Webster blames the Republican administration for shortchanging the TSA. "They talked tough and said they don't need the funding," he said. "Now they do need the funding, and they're playing games to get it."

The Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of the TSA, disputes the contention that it's not fulfilling its responsibilities. Turmail said the TSA is still meeting congressionally imposed deadlines for the aviation security. He noted that the Department of Homeland Security awarded another $75 million in port security last month. The extra funding illustrates "the commitment from the department that we are addressing critical port security issues," Turmail said.

National security analyst Frank Hoffman sees merit to both sides of the argument. Hoffman worked on the Hart-Rudman Commission's 2000 report assessing national security threats, and now works for the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities. Hoffman said the TSA is right to keep the focus on aviation in the near-term but said the agency is battling significant problems.

"TSA still has major leadership issues and its own budget shortfalls related to its primary mission," he said. "I'd be very leery of TSA expanding to its full charter until it resolves the problems at airports. Major funding shortfalls exist at just the air function, and we really have not moved to the commercial freight side, just the passenger business."

Hoffman, however, is optimistic about the TSA's future. He said its position within the Department of Homeland Security puts the agency in a position to take charge of intermodal security, and he predicted the agency would do a solid job provided it receives adequate leadership and funding support.