Friday, October 13, 2006

Bush to sign port-security bill

WASHINGTON - President Bush gets a chance to promote fellow Republicans as America's tough-on-terror protectors with a bill passed by the GOP-controlled Congress that aims to enhance port security and close a loophole in anti-terror defenses.
Bush also was set to enact into a law an unrelated provision the bill contains that seeks to put teeth into laws that forbid most online gambling.

But the president was not planning to mention the Internet gaming provision during Friday's White House signing ceremony, which was expected to draw lawmakers from both parties.

Instead, Bush's remarks were to focus on the multiple ways the legislation could reduce the likelihood that terrorists could sneak a nuclear, chemical or biological weapons device into the country in one of the 11 million shipping containers that enter the country each year, many without any inspection.

Congress approved the bill two weeks ago, one of its last acts before lawmakers left to campaign for the Nov. 7 midterm elections in which national security, the war in Iraq and terrorism are expected to be major factors.

The administration has spent about $10 billion to enhance security at the nation's ports since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. About 65 percent of cargo, that considered most high-risk, is screened for nuclear or radiological materials. The Homeland Security Department aims to increase that number to 80 percent by the end of the year and to almost 100 percent by the end of 2007.
The issue became a particular priority for Congress after a fight in February over a buyout that put a Dubai company in control of some operations at six U.S. ports. The outcry led the Dubai company, DP World, to promise it would sell the U.S. operations to an American company. The sale is pending.
Democrats favored the bill, but said it failed to address rail and mass transit, other areas considered highly vulnerable to terrorist attack. The bill was approved on a 409-2 vote in the House, and by a voice vote in the Senate.

The legislation approves $400 million a year over five years for risk-based grants for training and exercises at ports. It requires the nation's 22 largest ports, which handle 98 percent of all cargo entering the country, to install radiation detectors by the end of next year.

Pilot programs would be established at three foreign ports to test technology for nonintrusive cargo inspections. Currently only one foreign port, Hong Kong, scans all U.S.-bound cargo for nuclear materials.

Background checks and credentials will be required for workers at the nation's 361 ports, and the Homeland Security Department would set up protocols for resuming operations after an attack or incident. It is feared that a terrorist attack, such as a nuclear device set off by remote control, could cripple the entire economy as well as cause massive casualties.
Preferential cargo processing is offered to importers who meet certain security requirements.

The Internet gambling provision tackles the difficult task of enforcing bans by prohibiting players from using credit cards, checks and electronic fund transfers to settle their online wagers.

The measure's supporters include the National Football League as well as conservative and antigambling groups. Some banking groups have lobbied against it.
Federal officials have made recent arrests involving offshore companies operating Internet gambling sites. The Internet gambling industry is headquartered almost entirely outside the United States, although many of its customers live in the U.S.