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Public Statements

Improving America's Security Act of 2007

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


IMPROVING AMERICA'S SECURITY ACT OF 2007 -- (Senate - February 28, 2007)

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Mr. DeMINT. Madam President, the amendment I have offered, No. 279, is very simple. It codifies the recent regulations issued by the Department of Homeland Security which bans certain criminals from gaining security access to our seaports. My amendment is needed to protect these regulations from outside groups that may challenge them in court, as well as from future administrations that may repeal or weaken them.

My amendment is also bipartisan and should not be controversial. It was unanimously adopted by this body last year as part of the SAFE Port Act which passed 98 to 0. Unfortunately, it was gutted by the conference committee behind closed doors, and that is why I am offering it again today.

As my colleagues know, the Maritime Transportation Security Act requires the Transportation Security Agency, TSA, to develop a biometric security card for port workers at our seaports that can be used to limit access to sensitive areas within a seaport.

The security card is called a transportation worker identification card or, as we sometimes call it, a TWIC.

The law requires that the Secretary issue this card to any individual requesting it unless the Secretary determines that the individual poses a terrorism security risk or if the individual has been convicted of treason, terrorism, sedition, or espionage. To clarify who poses a security risk, the Department of Homeland Security recently issued regulations that bar certain serious felons from receiving these TWICs. Specifically, the regulations permanently bar from our ports criminals convicted of espionage, sedition, treason, terrorism, crimes involving transportation security, improper transport of hazardous material, unlawful use of an explosive device, bomb threats, murder, violation of the RICO Act, where one of the above crimes is a predicate act, and conspiracy to commit any of these crimes.

The Department of Homeland Security regulations also bar recent felons--defined as those convicted within the last 7 years or incarcerated in the last 5 years--from gaining access to our ports if they have been convicted of any of the following felonies: assault with intent to murder, kidnapping or hostage-taking, rape or aggravated sexual abuse, unlawful use of a firearm, extortion, fraud, bribery, smuggling, immigration violations, racketeering, robbery, drug dealing, arson, or conspiracy to commit any of these crimes.

These regulations were developed after an extensive process that included consultation with the Department of Justice and Transportation to identify individuals who have a propensity to engage in unlawful activity, specifically activity that places our ports at risk. These regulations governing who can gain access to our seaports are nearly identical to the regulations that govern those who can gain access to our airports as well as those who can transport hazardous material in our country.

These prohibitions are crucial because individuals who engage in this type of unlawful activity have a greater likelihood to engage in these acts or in acts that put American ports and American lives at risk. Our law enforcement officials understand this risk. They understand the threat our ports face when traditional criminals, particularly organized criminals, work with terrorists. For example, the FBI recently apprehended a member of the Russian mafia attempting to sell missiles to an FBI agent who he believed was acting as a middleman for terrorists.

Joseph Billie, Jr., the FBI's top counterterrorism official, recently commented that the FBI is continuing to look at a nexus between organized crime and terrorists, and they are looking at this very aggressively. The threat not only comes from criminals working directly with terrorists, it also comes from criminals who may look the other way when a suspect container comes from a port. Joseph King, a former Customs Service agent and now a professor at the John J. College of Criminal Justice, outlined the concern very clearly: ``It is an invitation to smuggling of all kinds,' he said. ``Instead of bringing in 50 kilograms of heroin, what would stop them from bringing in 5 kilograms of plutonium?' The nightmare scenario here is where a criminal at one of our ports who may think he is just helping a friend smuggle in drugs inadvertently helps smuggle in a weapon of mass destruction. That is a risk we cannot take.

I offered this amendment last year to address this threat and to ensure that serious felons are kept out of our ports. My amendment codified in statute the then-proposed TWIC regulations. As I said earlier, my amendment was unanimously adopted and was included in the Senate-passed version of the SAFE Port Act that passed 98 to 0. Unfortunately, my amendment was also completely gutted behind closed doors in the conference committee. The provision went from addressing a list of 20 serious felons to a list of just 4. These 4 felonies are so rare that the conference committee made the provision almost meaningless.

I am extremely disappointed by the stealth opposition to this measure. I cannot understand who would oppose banning serious felons from gaining secure access at our American ports. While no Senator has been willing to publicly oppose this measure, the longshoremen's labor union was more than happy to take credit for gutting the provision. Late last year, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union claimed credit for killing the provision in the SAFE Port conference committee. They stated in their newsletter:

We have heard rumors that Senator DeMint is particularly angry with the union's successful lobbying effort to strip his anti-labor provision. He may attempt to amend another piece of legislation, so the union will stay on guard to protect its members' interests.

Apparently, this union has stayed on guard because it was able to get five Senators to object to this vital homeland security measure when I tried to pass it the second time late last year.

I wish I could say that the unions would stop at fighting this legislation on the Senate floor, but they are also gearing up to mount a legal battle against Department of Homeland Security regulations. In response to a Wall Street Journal editorial on the subject, the union stated that the TWIC security regulations were `` ..... double jeopardy and unconstitutional.' This is a clear indication that they have a legal challenge in mind. It seems clear that once longshoremen start applying for TWIC cards and some members are rejected because they are convicted felons, the labor unions are going to take the Department of Homeland Security to court and try to bog the regulations down in lengthy legal battles. The consequence will be that as we continue to fight this global war on terror, America's ports will be staffed by serious felons who cannot be trusted.

Some of my colleagues may be tempted to come to the defense of the longshoremen. They will say that the individuals in question have paid their debt to society and barring them is gutting our port workforce. They may also claim that the crimes listed in the Department of Homeland Security regulations are somehow not related to homeland security. These objections are just plain wrong.

I don't disagree that convicted felons should be given a second chance. I hope they get back on their feet and become productive members of their communities. What I disagree with is that we should give serious felons a pass, literally and figuratively, to access the most secure areas of America's port infrastructure. When they are fresh out of prison, we should not trust them with the most vulnerable areas of our ports. The stakes here are simply too high.

As for the concern that barring these individuals will empty the ranks of the port workforce, the facts don't agree. When the Department of Homeland Security issued nearly 350,000 ID cards for hazmat truckdrivers and subjected them to the same background check that is required by my amendment, only 3,100 were rejected. That is less than 1 percent. The fact is, we are talking about an isolated group of serious felons here, and the workforce in the United States is dynamic enough to supply the few thousand longshoremen who may be needed to replace those we let go.

Finally, some may say these felonies do not represent serious crimes. To that, I would ask any of my colleagues to tell me which individual he or she wants working at our ports where security is so important: Murderers? Extortionists? Drug dealers? Bomb makers? I just want to hear the rationale for trusting these criminals with our national security.

The bottom line is this: My amendment applies nearly the same protections to seaports that are already applied at our airports. It will make us safer by keeping individuals who have shown a willingness to break the law outside our ports. This is extremely important. We can spend all the money in our Treasury trying to screen cargo, but if we don't screen the people who
work at our ports, we cannot expect to be safe.

I do wish to thank several people for supporting this important policy. First, I thank the Senator from Maine, Ms. Collins, who was very helpful to me during the debate on the SAFE Port Act last year. I also thank the Senator from Connecticut, Mr. Lieberman, for his support. I should also say that the Senator from Hawaii, Mr. Inouye, was also helpful in getting this provision into the bill.

This is a bipartisan proposal, and it should not be controversial. Americans expect us to check and verify the nature of the people who work at our seaports, and we have a responsibility to ensure that happens even if it upsets a labor union that feels compelled to protect the jobs of a small group of serious felons. My amendment codifies in statute these important security regulations, and I hope all of my colleagues will support it.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this important measure, and I will be happy to work with the bill managers to arrange a time to come back to the floor if further debate is needed.

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Mr. DeMINT. Madam President, if I can make a couple of comments about the modification, many will recall that this amendment is focused on our ports and the security of our ports. I think all of us are well aware that as a nation we see that our ports of entry, whether they be in Seattle, New York, or Charleston, SC, could be our most vulnerable points when it comes to smuggling in a weapon of mass destruction. We have committed many resources and lots of technology to try to detect radiation and other types of weapons that might be smuggled into our country that could hurt Americans and destroy American cities, and we are making some progress. But there is a lot more to be done.

All the spending, all the technology, all the equipment in the world will make no difference at all if we don't have the right people working in the secure areas of our ports. We need to make sure those people are the most trusted we have, just as we do in our airports. Our responsibility, whether it is homeland security as an administration or we as the Congress, is to make sure these people are screened and that we have the best and the most trusted individuals working in our secure areas. This is very important.

My amendment focuses on just that subject. It prohibits convicted felons from working in the secure areas of our ports. This is common sense to most Americans, and I think it is common sense to most in this Senate because when this exact same amendment was offered last year, when we were dealing with port security specifically, everyone voted for this amendment in the Senate. Unfortunately, that amendment was stripped out when we had a conference with the House.

Many of my colleagues have encouraged me to reintroduce this amendment, Republicans and Democrats alike, and that is exactly what I have done. I understand the Senator from Hawaii is considering introducing a modification that would allow the Secretary to eliminate some of these felonies that we have listed in our amendment. Please keep in mind that the listed felonies are the exact same ones that homeland security has listed in the regulation that they have put in force at their agency. So this amendment puts in law what homeland security has already put into regulation.

The importance of putting it in law is that we already suspect this legislation will be contested; that there will be delays, there will be challenges, and we need to make sure that our ports are secure. The modification of my amendment would allow the Secretary to add felonies in the future which may become important but that are not now listed. We think it would be a huge mistake if we put in law something that allowed future administrations to eliminate felonies that are specifically laid out in regulation and in this amendment I am offering.

If anyone in the Senate would like to eliminate some of the felonies that we have listed, I would encourage them to come to the Senate floor and let's discuss those that they would like to eliminate. Maybe they would like to have some of these folks working in the secure areas of our ports, folks who have committed espionage, sedition, treason, terrorism, crimes involving transportation security, improper transport of hazardous material, unlawful use of an explosive device, bomb threats, or murder. These are specifically listed. If there are some of these that we think should be eliminated, let's discuss them.

Homeland Security has evaluated this and has listed these, just like we have for our airports, to keep our ports secure.

I am offering this modification that would allow our Secretary to add felonies but prohibit the elimination of these felonies which we think are so important to our security.

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Mr. DeMINT. I thank the Senator. I appreciate the Senator fitting me in. Again, I am speaking on the second degree to my amendment that is related to port security.

As we talked about here several times on the floor, and actually passed last year, it is important that the people who are working at our ports are people we can trust to use the equipment and technology they are given to keep the people of America safe.

The amendment I have offered is consistent with--in fact, it is identical to--the regulations that the Secretary and the homeland defense agency have put together so that we will not have convicted felons working in our ports around this country, so that we know the people who are operating our most secure areas are people who have not proven to be susceptible to crimes.

Senator Inouye is offering a second degree to my amendment that would allow the Secretary to change some of these crimes or felony convictions or to modify the rules. The Secretary of Homeland Security has not asked for this. In fact, he is supporting the amendment we have. I cannot imagine any future Secretary or future administration wanting to eliminate some of these felonies. The whole point of having this amendment and putting it into law is so that our agencies are not subject to lawsuits and constant harassment to change the criteria for working in the secure areas of our ports.

So I appeal to my fellow colleagues, a vote for this second-degree amendment is a vote to gut my amendment. It is a vote to allow in the future any administration or this administration to eliminate certain felonies that would keep convicted criminals from working in our ports. I encourage my colleagues not to vote for this second degree. Vote for my amendment, which everybody in this body has voted for unanimously in the past.

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Mr. DeMINT. I thank the Senator from Hawaii. I need to make an important point. The whole point of my amendment is to put a regulation in law so it cannot be changed and contested. The amendment offered by Senator Inouye basically guts the amendment and eliminates the reason for the amendment. It moves from being a law to something that is subject to the whims of any future administration or Secretary.

Our job here is certainly to be fair to workers, but our first priority is to protect the American people. Please, let's not allow convicted felons to work in our ports. Our job is to protect our ports. The second degree completely guts the whole idea of an amendment that makes this law.

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