End the hysteria

End the hysteria

Now that Democrats have won control of Congress, can we get them to tone down the rhetoric about port security?

Democrats have been using port and maritime security to bludgeon the Bush administration and the Republican majority in Congress at least since the beginning of the 2004 campaign. Remember October 2004, when John Edwards, Democratic candidate for vice president, used a container ship at Port Elizabeth, N.J., as the backdrop to declare the system's vulnerability?

"We're screening today about 4 to 5 percent of these containers," Edwards said. "If you're al-Qaida . . . you know if you put (a weapon) in one of these containers, it's got a 95 percent chance of getting here." It takes more than a sound bite to explain Customs and Border Protections' layered approach to screening and inspection, so the Republicans never found an easy way to refute the Democrats' argument.

Scroll forward to 2006. In February, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., was one of the first to raise the security alarm when DP World tried to acquire U.S. terminals. The hoopla led to the Security and Accountability for Every Port Act. Schumer in the Senate, and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., in the House fought to the end to include language requiring 100 percent scanning of containers at foreign ports.

Schumer issued his scan-all call because he had seen the Integrated Container Inspection System in operation at two terminals in Hong Kong, according to his press secretary. Customs contends that ICIS makes for a nice photo-op, but the system lacks a critical interpretation component that would make it useful as a security tool. Schumer, Markey and their colleagues believe the time for testing is over.

When Congress overwhelmingly passed the SAFE Port Act, the majority of Democrats went along with a compromise that called on the Department of Homeland Security to set up "integrated scanning system" pilot projects at three foreign ports. The DHS has until about Jan. 13, 2007, to identify the ports for the pilot program, and another year to have them up and running. That's a tight schedule, especially when it's one among many tight deadlines that the SAFE Port Act obligates the DHS to meet.

For the time being, the Democratic congressional leadership likely will allow the DHS to follow the schedule in the SAFE Port Act, while it turns its attention to other priorities, like rail and transit security. If the DHS begins to lag, it's a sure bet that Schumer, Markey and the rest of the scan-all contingent will be waiting to speak out again.

R.G. Edmonson is Washington bureau chief at The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at (202) 355-1143, or at bedmonson@joc.com.