Bush promotes port security efforts during Baltimore visit
With the House and Senate ready to negotiate a final version of the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill for 2006, President Bush paid a visit to the Port of Baltimore to highlight the continuing risk from terrorists and the government’s efforts to protect the country from attack.
Bush said the government has “made dramatic advancements in port security” in the past four years, including the creation of the Container Security Initiative to station U.S. inspectors at certain foreign ports for pre-departure cargo exams and the disbursement of $700 million in grants to help port users control access and close other vulnerabilities at their facilities. Baltimore has received $15 million in port security grants, according to a copy of Bush's speech.
Critics in Congress and industry have said the port security grants awarded so far are a fraction of the amount marine facilities have requested to plug urgent needs and that less than 1 percent of inbound containers are inspected overseas through CSI.
Bush said the port has taken steps to upgrade security, such as deploying non-intrusive cargo inspection systems that can protect the city from terrorists who would use a container to smuggle a weapon of mass destruction or its components.
The president was expected to view a demonstration of the new Eagle container scanning system, but the Baltimore Sun reported that Bush instead opted for a photo opportunity with a mobile Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS) at the Dundalk cruise ship terminal where he spoke. VACIS machines use gamma-ray technology, which is better for mobile units that can operate all over a port but produces lower resolution, or less crisp, images.
Baltimore is one of only three ports to operate the new, high-powered Eagle system, which can penetrate a foot of steel. CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner traveled to Baltimore in early June to promote the capabilities of the $6 million Eagle system, which can take an image of the container’s contents in about one minute. CBP has deployed about 170 VACIS detection machines at ports of entry.
Bush, who was accompanied by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, praised the system he saw.
“It’s sophisticated,” he told a crowed at the port that included state officials. “You can look inside the truck, you don’t even have to get in it. That’s called technology. And it’s working, it makes a big difference. I mean, we’re really good at technology and we might as well be using that technology to protect the American people.”
Bush said his fiscal 2006 budget includes $2.3 billion for cargo and port security, an amount he said was 10 times greater than spending before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., issued a strong statement rebuking Bush for not doing enough to protect the nation’s ports.
Port security “hasn’t been a top priority for the president, who failed to provide one penny for port security grants for three years in the aftermath of 9/11. I fought for funding during each of those years, but when the president doesn’t support these investments it’s an uphill battle. We don’t need photo ops from the president; we need dollars for port security. Even this year, the president’s budget included no specific funding for port security grants,” she said in a statement that referred to a catchall infrastructure grant program.
Meanwhile, the administration continued its port security public relations campaign with a visit by Bonner to the Port of Los Angeles to promote the rollout of radiation detection monitors at the port.