By DAN LAMOTHE, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - The Department of Homeland Security has taken steps to improve port security by creating interagency operations centers to monitor port activity, patrolling harbors and developing plans for terrorism prevention, but more challenges lie ahead, according to a report released Tuesday.
But the 52-page Government Accountability Office report said federal agencies still must establish shipping container security procedures and initiate other plans called for in the SAFE Port Act, which became law one year ago this week.
The report does not reference Maryland, but it calls for increased federal funding for a variety of changes that would affect operations at the Port of Baltimore, which ranked 15th in the U.S. last year in tonnage handled.
"In our post 9/11 environment . . . the potential security weaknesses presented by these economic gateways have become apparent," the report said. "Sprawling, easily accessible by water and land, often close to urban areas, and containing facilities that represent opportunities for inflicting significant damage as well as causing economic mayhem, ports present potential terrorist targets."
The report was released and vetted Tuesday during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman,
ID-Conn., said he was pleased to see the "demonstrable" progress DHS has made in the last year, but is concerned about improving other aspects of maritime security not addressed.
"Twenty-one thousand containers enter U.S. ports every day, and we are still physically inspecting just 5 or 6 percent of them," Lieberman said.
The two pending plans that would affect U.S. ports most directly are the Container Security Initiative and the Transportation Worker Identification Credential Program, which are behind schedule. CSI calls for the scanning of 100 percent of all shipping containers entering U.S. ports, while TWIC calls for new ID cards for port workers that require extensive criminal background checks.
No timetable has been released for either program in Baltimore, but the two programs are beginning at other ports, said Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Homeland Security.
TWIC began Tuesday in Wilmington, Del. A list of 11 other ports expected to start the program this year has been released, but the Department of Homeland Security has not told state officials when it will begin in Baltimore, said Richard Scher, port spokesman.
Scher said about 20,000 public and private Port of Baltimore employees would be affected by TWIC, but state officials are waiting to see what guidelines they are expected to follow.
"A lot of it right now is wait and see," Scher said. "We have to have the right balance between having a secure port and having a secure port with free commerce running through it."