Candidates at odds over port safety

The 9th District hopefuls clash over the progress made with security since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Published September 19, 2006

TAMPA - Are we safer?

The question became a recurring refrain amid the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - the focus of commemorations at ground zero, policy debates on Capitol Hill, and a recent campaign stop at the Port of Tampa.

The answer inevitably varies, depending on expectations, gauges of progress, and - for candidates in a tight midterm election - party affiliation.

"I don't feel safer," said Phyllis Busansky, the Democratic candidate for the 9th Congressional District, last Wednesday afternoon. "We're always behind. We're not proactive. We're just waiting."

Her Republican opponent said he believes otherwise.

"I think we're safer. I think we're definitely safer," said Gus Bilirakis, adding that there has not been another attack is "proof."

"I think that we're doing a good job," Bilirakis said. "This should be our top priority: homeland security and protecting our cities."

"If I have any complaints," he said, pausing, "I think we would need to make sure ports are more secure and our borders are safe."

Busansky said Republicans' tough rhetoric puts the bar of expectation too low.

"I believe (Americans) are not only tough, but we're smart," she said.

Five years after Sept. 11, the administration's "incredible amount of incompetence" is evidenced by our porous borders, mishmash of driver's license protocols and ex post facto preoccupation with lipstick at the airports, Busansky said in front of a gaggle of cameras last week.

The former Hillsborough County commissioner was joined by fellow Democratic congressional candidate Kathy Castor, and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. In the background, beyond the expanse of crisscrossing layers of fence, ships moved in and out of Florida's biggest seaport.

To Graham, it is a tell-tale sign of the Bush administration's failure to protect Americans from terrorists.

"The question is not whether we're vulnerable to another 9/11 attack. It is when, where and how," said Graham, former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who stepped down for a short-lived presidential bid in 2004.

Graham said he was forced to keep quiet about his take on the intelligence failures leading up to 2001 and the war with Iraq, because much of the gaps involved classified information. But now, retirement and the drumbeat of public disclosures unleashed by multiple investigations have enabled him to join the chorus of administration critics.

Graham said the pace of security upgrades at seaports has lacked "the sense of urgency that the threat to America justifies."

Yet, even as he stood beside the two candidates last week, Graham's former colleagues were knocking heads over a port security bill on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

The bill, which had been floundering in Congress, took on renewed urgency last winter in the wake of the controversy over the turnover of a major domestic port to a Dubai-based company.

Industry experts estimate the nation's seaports collectively handle more than 90 percent of international trade. But only between 5 and 10 percent of incoming cargo is fully inspected, and a small fraction of American ports are equipped with scanners that screen for nuclear and radioactive materials.

The Senate legislation aims to shore up gaps in the web of local, state and federal agencies and private entities that oversee port security. It provides $400-million for grants, adds 200 full-time Customs and Border Protection inspection officers and clarifies chain of command and requirements for emergency response plans.

The bill also requires radiation detection portals by the end of next year at the 22 largest seaports, which collectively handle about 98 percent of the nation's incoming cargo.

The following day, the bill passed the Senate 98-0.

Yet, the debate was stalled as Democrats aired discontent over what they called major shortcomings, such as lack of a hard time line for installing scanners at the other domestic ports or implementing screening for high-risk cargo at foreign ports before it gets close to American shores.

They also laid out more fundamental criticisms about the repeated failures of the administration and Republicans to provide coherent policy or adequate funding for homeland security, and reluctance to implement recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

Back in Tampa, Graham said the vulnerability of the port is a "particularly dramatic case."

"This is probably a seaport that is closer to the center of population than any other seaport in the country," he said. "You've got all those chemical facilities out there, which unfortunately would be a very enticing target of someone who wished to attack the Port of Tampa."

Graham compared our progress with practices at the port of Amsterdam.

"They were doing things 10 years ago there that we aren't doing at our major ports today," he said.

Graham said there were unaddressed problems at chemical plants and water supplies, but conceded the port bill seemed to mark a modest beginning.

Yet, the implications seem particularly ambiguous when it comes to the Port of Tampa.

Tampa Port Authority officials said they are already far ahead of most ports in terms of security. Last spring, Tampa became one of the first places where Customs and Border Protection installed radiation portal monitors, which scan every incoming container, said John Thorington, senior director of communications.

He said the scanning has not produced notable delays, in part because only 2 percent of cargo the authority handles is in containers.

The rest is bulk cargo, mainly petroleum products and fertilizer chemicals - specifically, sulfuric acid and anhydrous ammonia, which he said is not addressed by the legislation.

Thorington said the Port Authority invested about $50-million to upgrade security since 2001, $10.6-million of which came from federal grants.

"We do not expect impact from the legislation on the Port of Tampa at this time," he said.

A spokesman for the Customs and Border Protection also said he did not anticipate the new law to have much of an effect on Tampa operations. Now, he said, inspectors physically open up and dig through between 5 and 10 percent of containers.