I am often asked whether I think America is safer today than it was before the September 11th terrorist attacks? My answer is... yes, but we are still not safe enough. Although we have come a long way in the past five years in terms of protecting our country, there is much more that can and must be done to help prevent a future terror attack.
|Senator Susan M. Collins represents the State of Maine in the U.S. Senate.|
The U.S. Senate took a major step in the right direction earlier this month when it unanimously passed a bill that will help close dangerous gaps in our ability to protect our seaports from attack. As chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, I was pleased to be a coauthor of The Port Security Improvement Act. Its Senate passage is the result of many years of hard work by myself, and several of my colleagues, particularly Senator Patty Murray of Washington, that resulted in a groundbreaking, bipartisan measure that will greatly improve our protection against terrorist threats without crippling the operations of our ports.
Those of us who live in Maine are keenly aware of the importance of our seaports to our national economy and to the communities in which they are located. Maine has three international cargo ports... Eastport, Searsport, and Portland, the largest port in New England by tonnage. All of Americaís 361 seaports are vital elements in our nationís transportation network - responsible for moving more than 11 million shipping containers a year.
In addition to our portsí economic significance, the link between maritime security and our national security is obvious, and the vulnerabilities of our ports worrisome. Shipping containers are a special source of concern. If used to convey a squad of terrorists or a dirty bomb, a container could be a 21st-Century Trojan horse. The container has also been called "the poor manís missile," because a low-budget terrorist could ship one across the Atlantic or the Pacific to a U.S. port for a few thousand dollars. And the contents of a container donít have to be as complex as a nuclear or chemical weapon. As former Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner told The New York Times last year, a single container packed with readily available ammonium sulfate fertilizer and a detonation system could produce ten times the blast that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Whatever the type of weapon, an attack on one or more U.S. ports could cause great loss of life, damage our energy supplies and infrastructure, cripple retailers and manufacturers dependent on incoming inventory, and hamper our ability to move and supply American military forces. Without adequate plans in place, a successful port attack would likely trigger a security lockdown of all of our ports, so the damage would swiftly spread all across the country.
My legislation will provide the structure and the resources needed to better protect the American people from attack through seaports that are both vulnerable points of entry and vital centers of economic activity. It is a comprehensive approach that addresses major aspects of maritime cargo security. It establishes clear and measurable goals for better security of commercial operations from point of origin to destination. It also will establish mandatory, baseline security standards and provides incentives for additional voluntary measures to secure the supply chain.
Perhaps most important, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security would be required to develop protocols for the resumption of trade in the wake of an attack. Without adequate plans in place, a successful port attack would likely trigger a security lockdown of all our ports, so the damage would swiftly spread across the country. The Pacific coast has given us a glimpse of the economic damage a port attack could cause. The West Coast dock strike of 2002 was - unlike any terror attack - peaceful and anticipated. But it caused an estimated billion dollars a day in economic losses for each of the 10 days it lasted.
I am pleased that the Senate recognizes that Americaís vast network of commercial port complexes remain a weak point of our homeland security effort - our Achillesí heel - and present a ripe target for terrorists planning their next attack. I am hopeful that the differences between the Senate version, and a similar version of the bill that recently passed in the House of Representatives, will be worked out quickly so that this important legislation can become law. This will go a long way in addressing a major vulnerability in our homeland security and ensuring the safety of our ports and our people.