The Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday grilled senior Department of Homeland Security officials for nearly two hours on gaps remaining in the country’s security grid.
Primary targets for the senators were 100 percent scanning and the threat of attacks on ships and port facilities by small watercraft.
Senators made it clear that the 100 percent scanning issue hasn't gone away. In 2007, Congress gave Customs a 2012 deadline for having all ocean containers scanned at foreign ports before they're loaded aboard U.S.-bound ships. It's a portion of the law that DHS and Customs have stubbornly resisted, citing the cost and angry backlash from foreign capitals.
At a hearing billed as a discussion on reauthorizing the 1906 Safety and Accountability for All Ports (SAFE Port) Act, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., focused on the scanning deadline.
Lautenberg noted that Customs' scanning rate for import containers has never exceeded 5 percent. “We're still well behind the objectives we set for ourselves. You have a deadline – 2012 – for 100 percent scanning of all incoming shipping containers, but you're a long way from that point. Do you think we can possibly meet that standard?”
“Five percent is unacceptable. If the law says 100 percent, then we have to get towards 100 percent,” Lemieux said. “It's your job to get there. If you can't get there, and that is an unreasonable requirement, then we need to change the law.”
Bersin told the senators that the department is working on a report that documents the actual costs and logistics of carrying out the law, something that was recommended by the Government Accountability Office.
“Frankly senator, I think we need to develop an alternative approach that provides us with the security of the sort of 100 percent scanning, but to do so in a way that you incorporate risk management,” Bersin said.
Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., focused on a threat that may be even more difficult to defend against, attacks on ships and port facilities by small watercraft.
Rockefeller tried to elicit candor from Alan Bersin, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, and Adm. David Papp, commandant of the Coast Guard.
“I'm a little bit frustrated, because there's a lot of intelligence-speak, security-speak, government-speak going on here,” Rockefeller said. He said that most Obama administration testimony is reviewed and watered by several layers of bureaucracy before witnesses arrive on Capitol Hill. He was looking for straight talk from the officials responsible for the two DHS front line agencies responsible for port, maritime and supply chain security.
Papp told Rockefeller that small boat security has been a difficult problem, given the 17 million small craft in the United States. He said the Coast Guard is using America's Waterway Watch to recruit a volunteer force of boaters who can watch and report any suspicious activity.
Rockefeller dismissed the program as “driver's education” for law-abiding citizens, “I'm not interested in outreach, I'm interested in terrorism.” He said that terrorists could be law-abiding boaters and never draw attention, and still carry out attacks on the waterfront.
Rockefeller also warned the agencies to do the best with the resources they had. “We're going into an era when we have to deal with a new toughness about reducing budget deficits. You have to make what you are doing work.”
-- Contact R.G. Edmonson at email@example.com.