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Public Statements

Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions S. 1587

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Location: Washington, DC

STATEMENTS ON INTRODUCED BILLS AND JOINT RESOLUTIONS

S. 1587. A bill to make it a criminal act to willfully use a weapon, explosive, chemical weapon, or nuclear or radioactive material with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person while on board a passenger vessel, and for other purposes; to the Committee on the Judiciary.

Mr. BIDEN. Mr. President, I rise today to introduce, along with my colleague Senator Specter, the "Reducing Crime and Terrorism at America's Seaports Act of 2003." About a year ago, the Independent Task Force on Homeland Security Imperatives, co-chaired by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman and sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, released its report in which it concluded that "America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil." The report received considerable media fanfare and inspired eloquent proclamations about the need to strengthen America's domestic security agenda—but sadly, in the ensuing months, we have done little to protect one of the key vulnerabilities identified by the task force, this nation's seaports.

The 361 seaports in the United States serve essential national interests by facilitating the flow of trade and the movement of cruise passengers, as well as supporting the effective and safe deployment of U.S. Armed Forces. Yet, our attention to the security needs of seaport facilities and other marine areas, which cover some 3.5 million square miles of ocean area and 95,000 miles of coastline, has been inadequate—especially when you consider the sheer volume of traffic that moves through our seaports and along our waterways each year.

Annually, U.S. seaports handle more than 141 million ferry and cruise ship passengers and unfathomable amounts of waterborne commerce, more than 2 billion tons of domestic and international freight and 3 billion tons of oil. Each year, millions of truck-size cargo containers are off-loaded onto U.S. docks—yet, as the Hart-Rudman Report noted, "only the tiniest percentage of [these] containers .    .    .    are subject to examination—and a weapon of mass destruction could well be hidden among this cargo." Indeed, only about 2 percent of the nearly 6 million cargo containers that pass through the U.S. are inspected each year—and, according to some expert reports, only 30 percent of that cargo contains material that matches the cargo manifest.

The 2002 Hart-Rudman Report was both timely and important in that it shed new light on these glaring vulnerabilities and, in the process, re-energized the debate surrounding America's national security needs. However, the report's findings were hardly new. Two years earlier, the Interagency Commission on Crime and Security at U.S. Seaports, a blue-ribbon government panel, had similarly noted that seaports and the "maritime mode" were especially vulnerable and that they did "not exhibit a substantial security or anti-terrorism profile, particularly when compared with the emphasis commercial aviation places on these activities." The Interagency Commission concluded that "terrorism, serious crime and inadequate cargo control are the most obvious threat vectors in seaports today."

With that in mind, last Congress, Senator Specter and I introduced legislation designed to update Federal law to address critical security issues at U.S. seaports. We have re-tooled and re-focused that legislation, making important improvements and taking account of recent changes in the law. Today, we re-introduce the "Reducing Crime and Terrorism at America's Seaports Act of 2003," which addresses all three threats identified by the Interagency Commission—terrorism, serious crime and inadequate cargo control.

Here is a summary of some of the pressing vulnerabilities that the legislation would address directly: First, the Interagency Commission concluded that "control of access to the seaport or sensitive areas within the seaports" poses one of the greatest potential threats to port security. Such unauthorized access continues and exposes the nation's seaports, and the communities that surround them, to acts of terrorism, sabotage or theft. In response, the Biden-Specter Bill would double the maximum term of imprisonment for anyone who fraudulently gains access to a seaport or waterfront.

Second, an estimated 95 percent of the cargo shipped to the U.S. from foreign countries, other than Canada and Mexico, arrives through out seaports. Accordingly, the Interagency Commission found that this enormous flow of goods through U.S. ports provides a tempting target for terrorists and others to smuggle illicit cargo into the country, while also making "our ports potential targets for terrorist attacks," In addition, the smuggling of non-dangerous, but illicit, cargo may be used to finance terrorism. Despite the gravity of the threat, we continue to operate in an environment in which terrorists and criminals can evade detection by underreporting and misreporting the content of cargo. In one review by the U.S. Customs Service, nearly 20 percent of the carrier arrivals in the sample were discrepant, i.e., carried more or fewer containers than were listed on the manifest. In an earlier review, Customs found a 53 percent discrepant rate. Even where this improperly-reported cargo is legitimate, it needlessly diverts precious resources and attention away from the job of detecting terrorists and serious criminals. To deter this problem, the Biden-Specter Bill would increase penalties for noncompliance with certain manifest reporting and record-keeping requirements, including information regarding the content of cargo containers and the country from which the shipments originated.

Third, the Coast Guard is the main Federal agency responsible for law enforcement at sea. Yet, its ability to force a vessel to stop or be boarded is limited. While the Coast Guard has the authority to use whatever force is reasonably necessary, a vessel operator's refusal to stop is not currently a crime. The Biden-Specter Bill would make it a crime for a vessel operator to fail to slow or stop a ship once ordered to do so by a federal law enforcement officer; for any person on board a vessel to impede boarding or other law enforcement action authorized by Federal law; or for any person on board a vessel to provide false information to a federal law enforcement officer.

Fourth, The Coast Guard maintains over 50,000 navigational aids on more than 25,000 miles of waterways. These aids, which are relied upon by all commercial, military and recreational mariners, are critical for safe navigation by commercial and military vessels. Accordingly, they are inviting targets for terrorists. The Biden-Specter Bill would make it a crime to endanger the safe navigation of a ship by damaging any maritime navigational aid maintained by the Coast Guard; place in the waters anything which is likely to damage a vessel or its cargo, interfere with a vessel's safe navigation, or interfere with maritime commerce; or dump a hazardous substance into U.S. waters, with the intent to endanger human life or welfare.

Fifth, each year, thousands of ships, including cruise ships, whose numbers have swelled enormously over the last half century, enter and leave the U.S. through seaports, Smugglers and terrorists exploit this massive flow of maritime traffic to transport dangerous materials and dangerous people into this country. The Biden-Specter Bill would make it a crime to use a vessel to smuggle into the United States either a terrorist or any explosive or other dangerous material for use in committing a terrorist act.

Sixth, under current Federal law, it is a crime to destroy an aircraft or aircraft facilities. Incredibly, there are no equivalent Federal prohibitions in the maritime context. Given the magnitude of the threat against America's seaports, we should provide the same protection to seaports that we do for airports. The Biden-Specter Bill would make it a crime to damage or destroy any part of a ship, a maritime facility, or anything used to load or unload cargo and passengers; commit a violent assault on anyone at a maritime facility; or knowingly communicate a hoax in a way which endangers the safety of a vessel.

Seventh, according to the Interagency Commission, "at many seaports, the carrying of firearms is not restricted, and thus internal conspirators and other criminals are allowed armed access to cargo vessels and cruise line terminals." Currently, Federal law prohibits carrying firearms into airports, which is a sensible step to protect against possible terrorist attacks or other criminal activity. We should provide the same protections currently afforded to airports to our seaports and passenger vessels. The Biden-Specter Bill would prohibit the carrying of a dangerous weapon, including a firearm or explosive, at a seaport or on board a vessel.

Eighth, as a consequence of the vast amount of waterborne commerce, cargo theft has become a major problem. Yet, there is no national data collection and reporting system that captures the magnitude of serious crime at seaports. Given the importance of free-flowing commerce to our nation's economy and the reported trafficking and sale of contraband to fiance terrorist activity, it is especially important that we work to assess and correct the problem. The Biden-Specter Bill would require the reporting of cargo theft offenses. It would also instruct the Attorney General to create a database containing the reported information, which would be made available to appropriate governmental officials while respecting important privacy protections. Importantly, organizations like the American Institute of Marine Underwriters and the Inland Marine Underwriters Association have specifically expressed their strong support for this provision.

And, ninth, the Interagency Commission concluded that existing laws are not stiff enough to stop certain crimes, including cargo theft, at seaports. The Biden-Specter Bill would increase the maximum term of imprisonment for low-level thefts of interstate or foreign shipments from 1 year to 3 years and expand the statute to outlaw theft of goods from trailers, cargo containers, warehouses, and similar venues. The American Institute of Marine Underwriters and the Inland Marine Underwriters Association also have expressed strong support for this provision.

This comprehensive anti-crime and anti-terrorism legislation is the product of informal collaborations with ports, industry and labor groups, as well as interested federal agencies. As a result of the contributions by these groups, we believe that we have developed a strong, bipartisan bill that, once passed, will significantly improve federal criminal law; expand the array of tools available to investigators and prosecutors; and ensure that federal resources are appropriately invested.

We are delighted to have the support of organizations, like the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), with special knowledge and expertise in seaport and cargo security. In fact, the AAPA, which represents more than 150 public port authorities in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, has sent me a strong letter endorsing the legislation—a copy of which will appear in the record at the end of my statement.

In closing, in the aftermath of September 11th and given the ongoing and escalating terrorism perpetrated around the globe, surely we recognize that the conclusions contained in the Hart-Rudman Report were not mere hyperbole—but a clarion call for action. Needless to say, a terrorist attack against any one of this Nation's seaports would not only jeopardize human life, but could also bring the otherwise free flow of commerce to a screeching halt—exacting a heft toll on the U.S. economy, world shipping, and international trade. That impact could be both devastating and far-reaching, and that is not even considering the effect of America's military readiness which depends on quick access to certain strategic ports in order to ensure effective mobilization and deployment of U.S. Armed Forces.

Given the threat, we must undertake to do all that we reasonably can to discourage and/or frustrate such an attack. This legislation, while not a cure-all, is an important step in the right direction. I implore my colleagues to join our effort and move quickly to enact this bill into law. America will be better for it.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill and the letter from AAPA be printed in the RECORD.

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