WASHINGTON, May 6 (UPI) -- Democratic senators hammered a senior Homeland Security official Tuesday, saying his budget for next year did not set aside enough money to toughen security at the nation's ports, which are seen by many experts as the United States' Achilles' heel.
"We have veritably no security whatever," Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., told Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for borders and transportation in the new department, at a meeting of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.
More than 5.5 million containers pass through the nations 361 ports every year, and customs officials physically inspect only 2 percent of them. A U.S. Coast Guard study last year estimated that it would cost a total of $6 billion over 10 years -- $1.4 billion immediately -- to make the ports secure against terrorist attack.
The Homeland Security budget for 2004 sets aside $4.8 billion for the Transportation Security Administration. But only $86 million of that is for maritime and land security.
"Mr. Secretary, why is the security of our ports ... such a low priority in your budget?" Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., asked Hutchinson.
Hutchinson replied that the department prioritized its work and its spending based on the congressional mandate to get aviation security systems in place, and "upon (the) threats and the vulnerabilities we assess."
But Byrd accused him of preparing for the last terrorist attack, rather than the next: "Is it because there hasn't been a terrorist attack (through a port) yet? The terrorists' track record is to exploit vulnerabilities ... I think we should have learned from this to address all of our vulnerabilities and not just those that the terrorists have used most frequently."
One congressional staffer was more blunt about the vulnerabilities of U.S. ports. "That's the glaring weakness in the president's plan for border and transportation security," he said.
Hutchinson said that $62 million of that $86 million would be used to complete an ongoing review of security at the nations 55 largest ports, "so we know exactly ... how it should be invested."
"I think it's important not to measure success simply by the dollar amount that is invested," he added, "but also by the strategy that is being implemented."
Senators also criticized Hutchinson for not releasing money already appropriated by lawmakers for port security grants last year and this. The 2002 supplemental included $105 million to be doled out to ports, and the 2003 omnibus appropriations bill added $150 million.
But Byrd said neither had been doled out yet, despite the fact that the department had received over a billion dollars worth of grant applications.
"We need that money," Hollings told Hutchinson, "we need it right away."
That sentiment was echoed around the country by those at the sharp end of rising costs of securing ports.
"I'm surprised and disappointed," Mayor Beverly O'Neill of the city of Long Beach, Calif., said of Hutchinson. "I thought that he would have a better understanding of the needs of the ports."
Forty percent of the nation's sea-borne imports come through Long Beach, she told United Press International, but the port authority has received nothing from the federal government to help offset the costs of tightened security.
"They haven't even received the money they were promised last year," said O'Neill. "There's been no money for personnel or for surveillance equipment."
She said the city had to pay to get two boats in the water and train personnel because the waterfront had to be kept under surveillance, and no funding was forthcoming for the port.
"Our own city budget is millions in arrears and the gap between the revenues and expenses is growing. We've spent millions meeting security needs since Sept. 11. We're the first responders in this case, and like our counterparts around the country, we've had to absorb the cost of this."
And it's a cost that's constantly changing, adds Don Wylie of the Port of Long Beach. "Security evolves. If anyone says it's going to cost X amount of dollars to make ports safe, I don't see how you can do that, because when you put a security system in place, the bad guys are going to work out a way round that ... If there's an attack at a seaport, all the rules are going to change again."
One congressional staffer told UPI that the administration is holding onto the money congress set aside for port security because they may need it to cover a shortfall in the aviation screeners' account.
"They hired too many screeners, basically," he said. The White House Office of Management and Budget was "busy looking at (that port security money) to be taken away and reprogrammed to cover the shortfall in their aviation security account," he said.
"(The department has) been telling us for months that they have a significant shortfall in their operating budget, and instead of sending up a supplemental request to cover it, they've just swept it under the rug."