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Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Location: Washington, DC



By Mr. BIDEN (for himself, Mr. SPECTER, Mrs. FEINSTEIN, Mr. KYL, and Mr. ALLEN):

S. 378. A bill to make it a criminal act to willfully use a weapon 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 the Reducing Crime and Terrorism at America's Seaports Act, along with the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee Senator Specter, and the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Terrorism Subcommittee, Senators Kyl and Feinstein. My colleagues and I have worked on this legislation for the past four years and I am hopeful this package of common-sense criminal law improvements will be approved by the Senate early this Session.

The bipartisan legislation we introduce today should be familiar to my colleagues. It was introduced as S. 2653 in the 108th Congress, where I worked closely with the then-Chairman of the Committee Senator Hatch and Senator Leahy to ensure they were comfortable with the bill's provisions. The language has been reviewed by the United States Coast Guard, the American Association of Port Authorities, the American Institute of Marine Underwriters, the Inland Marine Underwriters Association, the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay, the Transportation Security Administration, and the AFL-CIO. Senator Kyl included this language in his Tools to Fight Terrorism Act of 2004 and it was the subject of a hearing in the Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism on September 13, 2004. This Congress, identical language was introduced by Senator Gregg at Title IV of S. 3, the majority's Protecting America in the War on Terror Act of 2005.

Our bill will double the maximum term of imprisonment for anyone who fraudulently gains access to a seaport or waterfront. The Interagency Commission on Crime and Security at U.S. Seaports 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. Our bill will help deter those who seek unauthorized access to our ports by imposing stiffer penalties.

Our bill would also 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. An estimated 95 percent of the cargo shipped to the U.S. from foreign countries, other than Canada and Mexico, arrives through our 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. Increased penalties can help here.

The legislation we introduce today would also 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. 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. This bill would create that offense.

In addition, 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. They could be inviting targets for terrorists. Our legislation 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.

Each year, thousands of ships 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. This legislation 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. The bill would also 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. In addition, the Interagency Commission concluded that existing laws are not stiff enough to stop certain crimes, including cargo theft, at seaports. Our legislation 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.

These are improvements we should make to our criminal code. I am under no illusion, however, that enactment of our bill will guarantee the security of our seaports. We need to dramatically increase the financial assistance we are giving our ports so that they can harden their own facilities against potential attackers. I was disappointed to read in the Administration's budget that the President wants to eliminate the Department of Homeland Security's dedicated port security grant program. His budget instead will force our ports to compete against all other transit systems for scarce federal funds. We've spent only about $750 million to secure seaports since September 11th--the Coast Guard reports that is not nearly enough to meet the requirements of the Maritime Transportation Security Act. We also need to increase the number of inspections of ships and shipping containers that are coming into our ports. But the amendments to Federal criminal law that we propose here will provide an important deterrent effect and they will give Federal prosecutors new tools to go after terrorists who would target our seaports. I urge my colleagues to support our bill, and I look forward to its prompt consideration.

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