Senate bill beefs up federal oversight of port security

Legislation passed by the Senate last month would put the federal government in charge of regulating security at the nation's 361 seaports. The bill (S. 1214) does not give Uncle Sam operational control of seaport security, a move that would involve taking jurisdiction from port authorities, which fall under the jurisdiction of state and local governments. Instead, the legislation requires the Transportation Department to approve security plans drawn up by the nation's seaports. The bill also earmarks more than $150 million to the two federal agencies with a role in seaport security, the Coast Guard and the Customs Service, to hire new personnel. The federal government must have oversight powers to create a nationwide maritime security strategy, according to Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla. "Essentially, where seaports are concerned, we have abrogated the federal responsibility of border control to the states and the private sector," Graham said on the Senate floor Dec. 20. The House has no counterpart to the Senate bill, but the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will likely craft its own seaport security bill, according to Baird Webel, legislative director for Rep. John Cooksey, R-La., who sits on the committee. The Senate bill requires seaports to form security committees chaired by the Coast Guard captain of each port to carry out their new security plans. Committees must meet four times a year and conduct field security exercises at least once every three years. The legislation also guarantees up to $3.3 billion in loans to help seaports upgrade their security infrastructure. The bill authorizes $13 million for the Coast Guard to hire more sea marshals, who board and inspect ships that are 12 miles or more offshore to make sure they are safe to enter ports. The Coast Guard would be able to hire 150 new sea marshals with these funds, according to Capt. Mike Lapinski, an agency spokesman. But the Coast Guard needs more funds to put sea marshals at each of the nation's busiest ports, according to Webel. "From the research we did, we think you would need more [sea marshals]," said Webel. Rep. Cooksey has introduced a bill (H.R. 3432) that would allow the service to hire 1,000 new sea marshals. Currently, only the ports of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego have armed sea marshals. Most of these officers come from the Coast Guard Reserve or from ships that are currently at port, according to Lapinski. If the Senate bill becomes law and the Coast Guard hires 150 new marshals, the service will send out a departmentwide e-mail asking for applicants, he said. Sea marshals must have the rank of petty officer or higher, since they are law enforcement personnel. The bill provides $145 million to the Customs Service for new personnel. Customs could hire 1,200 new seaport inspectors and 300 agents with these funds, according to the Senate report on the bill. Customs is already preparing to hire hundreds of new inspectors as a result of other legislation. The defense authorization bill, which President Bush signed into law Dec. 28, included $245 million for new border patrol hires, which should allow Customs to hire 700 inspectors, 550 agents and 25 canine enforcement officers, according to figures from the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 12,000 Customs employees. The Treasury-Postal appropriations bill included funds to hire 285 new Customs inspectors.