updated 5/26/2005 7:42:09 PM ET 2005-05-26T23:42:09

Assurances that the government is taking steps to tighten port security against terrorist threats brought skeptical comments from lawmakers Thursday.

“The administration has failed on port security,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., at a hearing of the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations.

“These gaps in security may well be too wide to ignore,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, referring to low participation in two Customs and Border Protection programs that were criticized in recent Government Accountability Office reports.

The programs are the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, known as C-TPAT, which allows importers to get quicker clearance through customs in exchange for voluntary security measures, and the Container Security Initiative, known as CSI, which posts U.S. customs inspectors in 36 foreign ports to look for suspicious cargo.

The GAO, Congress’ investigative arm, found that only about 10 percent of the certified members of the C-TPAT program had been validated through an actual physical inspection by the agency. The rest had been certified through paperwork applications. And it faulted the CSI program for lacking minimal technical requirements for inspection.

The agency commissioner, Robert C. Bonner, told the panel he had made several changes including tightening requirements for the quick-clearance program.

Warnings of  ‘the unthinkable’
But the subcommittee chairman, Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman, told Bonner that critics “will be pointing right at you” if the program fails.

“I think it’s going to be tough to respond if, God forbid, the unthinkable happens,” Coleman said.

Bonner stressed that the programs, which were implemented after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, were meant to supplement the security of U.S. ports, so that U.S. borders were the last line of defense, not the first.

“These initiatives are working,” he said. “I am convinced that America is safer today because of them.”

Discrepancy over inspected cargo
Bonner called the CSI program a revolutionary idea since it meant cooperating with host countries to inspect outbound shipments. He said host countries inspected 90 percent of the suspicious cargo flagged by U.S. officials, although the GAO put the figure at 72 percent.

In any event, Bonner said, any high-risk shipment not inspected overseas is inspected at U.S. ports.

Asked about establishing minimal technical standards at the CSI-monitored ports, Bonner said that the X-ray equipment at those ports was equal or better than U.S. equipment, with one exception which he declined to identify.

“And we’re working on that country,” Bonner said. “But they’re paying for the equipment — we’re not buying it for them. So there’s a certain amount of chutzpah to say, ’You have to do X, Y and Z.”’

“I don’t think it’s too nervy,” responded Lautenberg.

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