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Ports beef up security but more is needed

MIAMI, March 24 (UPI) -- Federal authorities are taking steps to reduce the vulnerability of the nation's ports to terrorism attacks, including those generated by the war in Iraq, but there is a long way to go.

Three unlicensed security guards have been arrested for improper licensing in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and new technology is being tried in Philadelphia.

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A Senate committee was told last week, however, that the government has done little to improve security since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The threat of an attack using cargo containers is serious and immediate," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Homeland Security officials said they are stepping up security.

Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security undersecretary of border and transportation security, said agents are trying to get better information about cargo before it leaves foreign ports.

In Philadelphia, tests on a system called RISK Alert began last week and are scheduled to last into May. The system tracks cargo and provides picture and data on crew members of cargo ships.

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The system tracks ships, their crew and their cargo from their origin all the way to their destination. If they are not where they should be, when they should be, law enforcement is alerted.

Joe Alkus, a 25-year Customs agent who helped design the system, said it is intended "to analyze situations, coordinate a response and commit more resources to suspicious vessels."

RISK Alert stands for Rapid Information Security Knowledge Alert, and was developed by the Delaware River Maritime Enterprise Council, a nonprofit agency established by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Funding came from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

"We were not off in a corner saying, 'this is what we think you need,'" said Susan Howland, executive director of the council. "Law enforcement came together as a team. We didn't have the FBI in one corner, the Coast Guard in another and Customs in another. All of them came into one room and helped do this."

At Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Edward Ebmeier, 57, the president of Port Services International Inc., supervisor Almeida Cetoute, 50, and employee Fritz, 38, were charged with using unlicensed guards to provide security screening for cruise ships.

Six unidentified employees also were detained for immigration violations, and all 203 employees were replaced by federal agents.

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"Our investigation uncovered that these suspects knowingly concealed the fact that they were using unlicensed, unqualified security guards to conduct security checks for 11 cruise lines and one cargo line operating in the port," said Miami U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez.

"They also offered bogus identification cards and credentials in exchange for cash," Jimenez said.

On the nation's West Coast, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, two of the three largest in the nation, are pleased with the security they have been able to provide despite the failure so far of the federal government to provide financial help.

"This is the largest port complex in the country," said Coast Guard Capt. John Holmes, commanding officer for the Long Beach and Los Angeles Ports. "I think that is also the safest port complex in the country."

Searches of containerized cargo entering the ports have been up 300 percent since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But Long Beach city officials say more money would help. The federal government has committed to $3.5 billion for homeland security, but it has yet to arrive.

"It's a critical issue," said Roger Haley, a spokesman for the city of Long Beach. "I think that would add a level of enhanced security for our city."

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