WASHINGTON, May 13 (UPI) -- Officials from the Department of Homeland Security sent a mixed message Tuesday to lawmakers concerned about port security funding, promising to release one set of funds but warning that another might have to be used to meet cost over-runs in other areas.
At issue were two sets of monies set aside by Congress to improve the security of the nation's seaports -- port security grant funds, and a separate pot of cash for a project called Operation Safe Commerce.
Adm. James Loy, chief of the Transportation Security Administration, which was rolled into the Department of Homeland Security, told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security that the TSA's budget for 2003 was, as he put it, "in a billion dollar hole" because of overspending.
Loy warned that might mean the $58 million allocated by Congress for Operation Safe Commerce would not be used as intended.
The nation's 361 ports, and the 6 million cargo containers that pass through them every year, have long been regarded as the United States' Achilles' heel. Currently, customs authorities physically inspect only about 2 percent of containers, and officials say it would be hard to increase that significantly without drastically impacting the flow of commerce and hiring many, many thousands more inspectors.
Operations Safe Commerce was set up by Congress and funded in the 2002 and 2003 budgets. It is designed to fund pilot projects at the country's three largest ports -- Seattle, Long Beach-Los Angeles and New York-New Jersey -- developing technologies to help authorities monitor cargo containers from their foreign port of origin into a U.S. port, and onto their final destination.
None of the money has so far been spent.
"Can you assure me that all $58 million will be spent on (Operation Safe Commerce)," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., one of the authors of the initiative, asked Loy, "and that it won't be diverted to some other program under TSA?"
"I cannot assure you of that as we speak here this morning," he replied, adding, "The structural shortfall in the TSA budget for '03 offers us, unfortunately, the challenge of looking for funds in places that have the potential for reprogramming."
"Well, I just have to say that's really disconcerting," replied Murray, who later called it "unacceptable."
The news was greeted with dismay by representatives of Seattle port, in Murray's home state of Washington.
"We were disappointed to hear that," spokesman Mick Shultz told United Press International. "We feel very strongly that that money needs to be used for seaport security. That's what Congress appropriated it for."
He said that Seattle has developed 12 projects -- priced at $49 million -- that currently are awaiting funding decisions that already have been delayed twice.
"Since no other source of funding is contemplated for these projects, they will likely not go ahead if this cash is diverted," said Shultz, adding that the country "would be much more vulnerable if that happened."
Loy denied suggestions that his department had deliberately put off distributing the Operation Safe Commerce money to divert it for other uses. However, neither he nor Robert Bonner, who heads the department's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, could offer the committee any other real explanation for the delay.
"I don't know that I can tell you -- speak to the delay per se," said Bonner.
It was a different and -- for the Democratic lawmakers concerned that port security is under funded -- much happier story with the port security grant monies.
This cash is doled out in response to applications from all of the nations 361 ports, and is used to secure the port itself, rather than cargo.
"This is for stuff like new fencing, new surveillance systems ... anything that would improve landside security at a shipping port," TSA spokesman Robert Johnson told UPI.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., accused officials of sitting on a billion dollars worth of grant applications for cash from the fund.
"We have every intention of distributing all the port security grant monies for '03," Loy told him.
Loy admitted that the department was still unclear about how it was going to meet its congressionally mandated tasks to secure the nation's airplanes, ports, road and rail system against terrorism within its budget.
"Week by week we juggle both the job description and the budget," he said.
"(H)ere we are essentially a year and a half (after being established) grappling with, I'll call it, the sticker shock associated with what it takes to get the work done that the Congress has stipulated in the original legislation," he added later.