U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson called on Congress and the administration to do more to sufficiently fund port security or risk a potentially devastating attack at one of the nation's coastal sites believed to be highly vulnerable to terrorists.
Without more funds for seaport security, Nelson told port officials in Tampa today, the United States won't be able to significantly increase the inspection rate of arriving shipping containers, which is now at just 3 percent.
"The administration and Congress have known for some time that our nation's ports are attractive targets for terrorists," Nelson said."But our ports still aren't getting the assistance they need to protect assets critical to the country's economy."
Nelson, like Florida's senior U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, believes that the nation's 361 ports remain among its most vulnerable assets. On Friday, he met with port officials to discuss the president's new budget proposal for port security.
That proposal was just blasted by another of Nelson's key Senate colleagues, U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, of South Carolina, who says it is reflective of the administration's general approach to port security - a low priority given insufficient funding and attention.
In the president's budget, he asks for about $1.9 billion for port security, which sounds close to the $2 billion sought by the Senate last year. But Nelson and others say it's not.
The reason: almost all of the $1.9 billion goes not directly to ports but to the U.S. Coast Guard and could be spent on Guard activities such as interdicting drug runners at sea and search-and-rescue missions that aren't directly related to port security or fighting terrorism.
Port officials in Florida and elsewhere are unhappy with the money for public ports. The American Association of Port Authorities, for example, says Congress so far has appropriated only about one-fourth of what ports need for tighter security.
The association notes that ports had to file new anti-terrorism plans by Dec. 31, or face $10,000 fines. And the plans were just prerequisites for tighter security measures required by July 1. Ports that don't comply then face more fines of up to $25,000.
Part of the blame for insufficient port funding may rest with the U.S. House. Last year, the House defeated an amendment to a budget resolution that called for $2 billion for port security. The amendment had passed the Senate.
Despite growing concerns over port security, Nelson agreed with Tampa's officials that Florida's 14 seaports are safer since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He also commended the Port of Tampa for being among the safest.