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Official says more work is needed on port, cargo security

President Bush's assertion that the country is safer but not safe enough describes the current state of Homeland Security Department efforts to secure the nation's ports and cargo, a key department official said Tuesday.

"It's a puzzle we're building," Homeland Security Deputy Secretary James Loy said at a maritime and port security conference sponsored by Defense Today. The department is "just beginning to crack the surface" of knowing the enemy, and it is not something that will happen overnight.

Academia and the private sector will assist in that quest, he said. The private sector owns 80 percent of U.S. critical infrastructure, Loy noted.

Homeland Security soon will establish a fifth center of excellence that will focus on social services like bioterrorism or nuclear information flow, he said. The centers are partnerships with universities that focus on multi-disciplinary research key to homeland security.

A single response plan to port and cargo security also is critical, Loy said, but the department cannot develop one without the help of those who encounter security issues every day.

Loy was critical of state lawmakers addressing the issue. "The last thing we need is 50 different regimes" that will only result in confusion, he said. "Singularity of game plan" should be the ultimate goal, he added.

The quick reorganization of resources after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks confounded the issue, Loy said. Before those attacks, some 3 percent of the budget went to homeland and port security, and within 48 hours of the attacks, that number jumped to 57 percent, he said.

The solution is to "be about the business of establishing a core template of intent for the federal system to standardize across the board [and] to leave room for unique challenges," Loy said. He pointed to Florida's seaport security committee as a good example of "pushing the envelope."

Loy acknowledged that there is "no doubt our country can be, on its very best days, very impulsive" with its spending. The country has a history of reacting to a tragedy with a "relatively emotional piece of legislation" that later takes three to five years to sort out, he said. He pointed to the 2001 anti-terrorism law known as the USA PATRIOT Act as one example of legislation that we "will be sorting through, not only for resources, over the next few years."

Before approving such legislation, "it's an imperative that we truly understand the psychological nature of the enemy," he said.

To aid in that task, the department in December will host a summit to more adequately articulate a national cargo security strategy, Loy said. He said he has never backed the notion that the department's programs are the "ultimate answer" to security, and he wants to hear additional ideas. "We've done an awful lot of good work, [but it's] incomplete," he said.

Some critics note that despite all the steps taken to improve port and cargo security since the 2001 attacks, only 5 percent of cargo containers entering U.S. ports are inspected.