April 26, 2006

House panel rejects US-bound container inspection

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A House of Representatives committee
on Wednesday rejected a Democratic proposal to require overseas
inspection of all U.S.-bound marine containers but approved a
plan for more screening in American ports and possibly abroad.

The legislation from the Homeland Security Committee
authorizes $7.4 billion to require the government to finish
installing radiation screening equipment at major U.S. ports by
the end of 2007. It also would let the United States, if it
decides to beef up security checks abroad, deny entry to
containers from countries that refuse to cooperate.

Democrats seized on the security issue after the Bush
administration ran into a storm of controversy for its decision
to approve a state-owned Dubai company's plan to manage six
U.S. port terminals. The plan has since been aborted.

But Republicans counter that Democrats are making
unworkable demands and bristle at insinuations that Republicans
are the handmaidens of industries that oppose higher shipping

"I'm not a lackey for anybody," said Rep. Dan Lungren, a
California Republican and co-author of the legislation.

Only a fraction of the millions of cargo containers that
enter U.S. ports each year now are inspected upon arrival or
before entering U.S. waters.

The cargo screening gap has prompted warnings from some
U.S. lawmakers and security experts that sea cargo is still one
of the nation's most serious security vulnerabilities more than
four years after the September 11 attacks.

"We know from intelligence, their (terrorists') highest
goal would be to bring a nuclear device to our shores," Rep.
Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, told the committee.

The Republican-led panel rejected, on a mostly party-line
vote of 16-18, a Markey amendment to require overseas
inspection of all U.S.-bound cargo and tamper-proof seals. It
was strongly opposed by the shipping industry.

Republicans said the Markey plan was unrealistic and the
technology was still being developed. Such a measure also could
backfire with trading partners making new demands on U.S.
ports, they said.

"We don't check (containers) when they are sent overseas,"
said Connecticut Republican Rep. Chris Shays. "We are about as
hypocritical as you can get."

Instead of Markey's plan, the committee approved one by
Florida Republican Ginny Brown-Waite to have the U.S.
government evaluate nuclear and radiological detection systems.
When it finds the right technology, Washington would work with
other countries to deploy it and scan "all cargo possible."

The United States could refuse to accept containers shipped
from countries that won't cooperate, although the proposal is
silent on who would pay for the scanning gear.

The Dubai company had offered to pay for and implement
radiation screening on U.S.-bound containers at dozens of ports
it manages around the globe, during its failed attempt to make
U.S. lawmakers comfortable with its U.S. acquisitions.

The World Shipping Council commended the committee for its
action. "We need to work cooperatively with other governments,
not summarily dictate that they must do infeasible things that
the U.S. itself doesn't do to its own exports," it said.