5 years after attacks, port security bill becomes law

WASHINGTON – It took five years, but a bill to improve security at ports in Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Ore., and across the country is finally law.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., began pushing for the law shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, figuring the measure would be enacted within months.

“I thought the nation would rally ‘round, understanding the danger ports face,” Murray said, noting that all but a few of the 11 million shipping containers that enter the nation each year are uninspected.

“That didn’t happen,” she said Friday, after President Bush signed the SAFE Port Act, or Security and Accountability for Every Port.

The law calls for radiation detectors at most big ports and requires background checks for port workers. It also approves development of high-tech inspection equipment so customs agents can check cargo containers for dangerous materials without having to open them, and authorizes up to $2 billion over five years for risk-based grants for training and exercises at ports.

The ports bill finally gained traction after Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, took an interest in it, Murray said. Collins visited Seattle in February, in the midst of a congressional outcry over a buyout that put a company in the United Arab Emirates in control of some operations at six U.S. ports.

The Dubai company, DP World, promised it would sell the U.S. operations to an American business. The sale is pending.

“Frankly, the Dubai ports deal got the nation’s attention,” Murray said, adding that the need for improved security was clear years before the controversy.

Murray said she was especially pleased that Bush signed the bipartisan bill “in an extremely political month,” with midterm elections just a few weeks away. She was the only Democrat in attendance at the signing ceremony.

The new law “is going to make a difference. Tonight, for the first time in many years, I’m going to sleep well,” she said.

Collins called the bill landmark legislation that will help close “a dangerous gap in our homeland security.”

Each of the 11 million containers that enters U.S. ports has the potential to contain a squad of terrorists, a nuclear device, a biological or a chemical weapon, Collins said.

“The bill that the president signed and that we all worked on makes that far less likely,” she said.

Washington state is among the clear winners under the new law, Murray said, noting the state’s economy has long been dependent on trade. Not only does the bill require more cargo screening, its puts into place specific procedures to resume trade if a terrorist attack should ever occur.

“That is critically important,” she said.

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