Democratic presidential rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama joined seven U.S. senators Friday to urge Wal-Mart, the nation's largest importer, to drop opposition to a bill that would require scanning of all U.S.-bound cargo containers for possible terrorist nuclear bombs.
Nine senators, 21 members of the House of Representatives and a group of relatives of 9/11 victims signed letters to Wal-Mart Chief Executive Lee Scott as part of a campaign by WakeUpWalMart.com, a union-funded group critical of the retailer.
WakeUpWalMart.com said it was "mind-boggling" that Wal-Mart would oppose strengthening port safety and accused the retailer of putting profits before national security.
Wal-Mart said it supports enhanced port security but that it continues to oppose the scanning mandate because the technology has not been tested.
At issue is a provision of a homeland security bill passed by the new Democratic House majority in January that is not included in the bill now before the Senate. The House version would require that, within five years, foreign ports scan all U.S.-bound cargo containers for nuclear or radiological contraband.
"As America's largest importer of foreign goods, Wal-Mart is uniquely poised to advocate and to advance new standards for the scanning of U.S.-bound cargo containers. Unscanned containers pose a substantial risk to our homeland security, threatening our ports as well as the larger American public," the letter from Clinton, Obama and seven other Democratic senators said.
Clinton formerly served on Wal-Mart's board of directors.
Retailer accused of thwarting screening
WakeUpWalMart.com urged the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer to drop its opposition by Monday and lobby for the provision. It said Wal-Mart and The Retail Industry Leaders Association, known as RILA, have been running an "aggressive lobbying campaign" to thwart the scanning measure.
Wal-Mart and RILA have argued the proposed requirement is not technologically feasible and would snarl the flow of imports for U.S. consumers.
Wal-Mart said it supports port security and backed a Safe Ports Act passed by Congress last year that included a pilot program to test scanning at three foreign ports.
"We believe it would be responsible to learn from the pilot project before Congress mandates untested technology be deployed around the world," Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar said.
Tovar said the 9/11 Commission, whose recommendations Democrats say they are implementing with the new security bill, did not recommend 100 percent scanning but instead called for "the most practical and cost-effective way" of focusing on the areas of greatest risk.
Wal-Mart worried abut delays
The senators wrote to Scott that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks showed that "those intent on destroying our American way of life are keenly focused on exposing our vulnerabilities."
The House letter, which was spearheaded by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.; Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.; and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said Wal-Mart was wrong to worry that the scanning would slow down the flow of imports to the States. They said tests of a scanning system in Hong Kong showed it worked without delaying traffic.
Wal-Mart's Tovar said the Hong Kong test only covered about 10 percent of U.S.-bound containers at two terminals in the huge Asian harbor.
Wal-Mart has led the Journal of Commerce annual Top 100 Importers rankings for years and the lead is widening. In 2005, the latest available ranking, Wal-Mart's imports as measured by containers were more than twice those of No. 2 Target Corp.
According to the Journal of Commerce, Wal-Mart in 2005 imported 695,000 20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs, an industry standard for cargo volume. One 40-foot ocean container equals 2 TEUs.