Answering criticism about security gaps at U.S. seaports, the Bush administration said Tuesday it will conduct background checks on an estimated 400,000 port workers to ensure they do not pose a terrorist threat.
Names of employees who work in the most sensitive areas of ports will be matched against government terror watch lists and immigration databases, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. Additionally, the Homeland Security Department will issue tamper-free identification cards to roughly 750,000 workers - including truckers and rail employees - who have unrestricted access to ports.
The added scrutiny, however, will not immediately include a criminal background check for workers, although Chertoff said that might happen in the future. The Transportation Security Administration - and not the FBI - will conduct the background checks, he said.
"We may expand the number of databases," Chertoff said. "Our first step is to do terrorists watch lists and immigration status."
The new safeguards are part of what Chertoff called a "ring of security" around U.S. ports.
"We're going to focus on those who could potentially be the greatest risk to our security," he said at a news conference in Washington.
The Bush administration has been under fire for months about what critics call gaping holes in security measures at ports, which were highlighted after a Dubai company's purchase of a British firm gave it control of six American ports. An outcry in the Congress led the Dubai company, DP World, to decide to sell the U.S. operations to an American firm.
Democrats have lambasted Homeland Security for failing to screen and inspect all cargo that enter the United States at seaports.
At a separate news conference earlier, Democrats pushed for legislation by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., which would provide $185 million more in port security funding as part of a massive spending bill the Senate is considering. That legislation also would require that Homeland Security submit a plan to Congress laying out how it would accomplish 100 percent scanning of cargo containers within five years.
Homeland Security treats port security like a "neglected stepchild," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Chertoff bristled at the suggestion that port security is not a priority. He said the administration has proposed up to $9 billion in spending to protect ports through the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection and state grants.
Two-thirds of all containers will undergo radiation screening for nuclear materials by the year's end, and 80 percent of cargo entering the United States comes from foreign ports with rigorous inspection standards, he said.
But Chertoff said it was impossible to physically inspect every single cargo container without snarling port commerce.
"To call for all physical inspection of every container is like saying were going to strip search everybody who gets on an airplane," he said. "In theory, that would make us safe. I think that it would destroy the airline industry. So we're not going to strip search people, everybody getting on an airplane, and I don't think it's wise to physically inspect every container."
Associated Press writer Donna De la Cruz contributed to this report.