Homeland Security to expedite port security regulations

Department will pursue rulemaking for areas not covered in bills moving through Congress.

The Homeland Security Department is planning to issue new regulations to improve cargo and port security beyond what Congress might require through legislation, the department's policy chief said Friday.

Stewart Baker, assistant Homeland Security secretary for policy, said the department generally likes what it sees in legislation moving through Congress to improve cargo and port security but will pursue rulemaking for areas not covered by the bills. "We would like to move out pretty currently," Baker said after a keynote speech during the 2006 Counterterrorism Conference in Washington. "Congress is moving swiftly on legislation; we have an obligation to move out quickly on things that we can do without legislation."

He was not forthcoming about the specific rules now under consideration.

During his speech, Baker said the department wants foreign ports to do a better job of screening cargo before it is loaded on ships bound for the United States, and is also "looking hard" at whether new mechanical or electronic seals can be used to secure containers. Baker said a private-sector initiative at the Port of Hong Kong that was developed to improve cargo screening appears to be working but has limitations.

Through the initiative, every container moving through two port terminals is screened by a radiation detector, a gamma ray X-ray and an optical character recognition system. Data about each container, including the images of what is inside, is stored in an electronic database for inspectors to review.

Baker said the initiative shows that a lot of cargo can be moved through an advanced screening system effectively, but added there is no process now to review information collected from the screens. "If there's a way to solve the problem of actually getting all that information together and getting it in the hands of somebody who can make a useful decision [with it] then it's a promising possibility," he said. "There's promise in that, but a lot of unanswered questions as well."

The two bills in Congress gaining the most support are the "Greenlane Maritime Cargo Security bill" in the Senate and the "Security and Accountability For Every Port bill" in the House. The bills would not mandate specific actions that must be taken with regard to screening abroad or container seals.

Instead, the bills would require Homeland Security to develop a comprehensive strategic plan within six months "to enhance international supply chain security for all modes of transportation by which containers arrive in, depart from, or move through seaports of the United States." The bills would also direct Homeland Security to study technology for container seals.

The bills would also require Homeland Security to maintain a specific grant program for improving security at U.S. ports. Baker said the department does not agree with having a specific port security grant program.

Instead, the department wants to create a Targeted Infrastructure Protection grant program, under which states would compete for funds to pay for improvements in all modes of transportation. The department asked Congress last year for permission to establish the TIP program, but Congress rejected it.