Port security? They're for it, except when they're against it

Caving to business interests, House Republicans oppose a plan to subject all incoming cargo containers to inspection.

Tim Grieve
April 26, 2006 7:39PM (UTC)

When the Bush administration paved the way for Dubai Ports World to take over operations at U.S. ports, no one screamed louder than Peter King, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. King said that the president was taking the risk that terrorists could infiltrate U.S. port operations and putting Americans' security in the hands of a company from "the heartland of al-Qaida."

So you figure that King and his fellow Republicans on the Homeland Security Committee are pretty concerned about port security, right? Well, sometimes they are. While you're standing in line for the metal detectors at the airport -- my 4-year-old daughter's teddy-bear-stuffed backpack was subjected to "supplemental screening" the other day -- 95 percent of the cargo containers that enter this country come in without undergoing much inspection at all. As Newsday reports today, House Democrats like Jerrold Nadler and Edward Markey are pushing legislation that would require every cargo container entering the U.S. to be checked by speedy high-tech scanners.


But as the American Prospect reports, industry groups are opposed to 100 percent scanning, and King and his Republican colleagues have gotten in line against it. King says the Democrats' plan is politically motivated, and that he prefers a proposal that would require 98 percent of the containers to undergo tests for nuclear materials but would allow most containers to come in without inspection or further scanning.

Under King's plan, only those containers coming from areas that present a high threat of terrorism would be subjected to additional inspection. We're not sure which areas those are; if King's criticisms of the Dubai Ports World deal are to be taken seriously, there's a terrorist threat whenever that company is involved in the shipping process -- which is to say, just about everywhere in the world. And really, if Osama bin Laden wants to sneak weapons or personnel or whatever into the United States, don't we all think he'd be smart enough to ship his package from somewhere other than, say, Iraq or Afghanistan? The 9/11 hijackers didn't board their flights in Kabul or even Riyadh; they went through security in Maine and Massachusetts and Virginia and New Jersey.

Nadler says that scanners currently being tested in Hong Kong could check most incoming cargo containers in a matter of seconds. That's a lot less time than my daughter spent watching a TSA employee paw through "Night-Night" and "Nazzie Bear" the other day, but Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff says it's still entirely impractical. "To call for physical inspection of every container is like saying we ought to strip search everybody who gets on an airplane," he said.


To which we say, don't give them any more ideas.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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