WASHINGTON (AP) - A Senate committee chairman suggested creating a trust fund for port security improvements financed through fees assessed on importers, as a new report cited delays in security clearances for key port officials as a major factor in flawed information sharing between agencies.
"Why shouldn't these imports contribute to the cost of this security, why should we constantly tax the people?" Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, asked port and shipping industry officials at a hearing.
Noting that an aviation trust fund is paid for by fees on air cargo, Stevens said, "I'm seriously considering asking this committee to create a trust fund for port security ... There's no question the system needs more money."
He said imposing a 4.3 percent fee like the one imposed on airline passengers could bring in more than $1.7 billion (euro1.35 billion) annually for more security measures.
Officials with the American Association of Port Authorities and the World Shipping Council responded cautiously to Stevens' suggestion, noting shippers at the nation's 300-plus seaports already pay various local fees, though they don't pay a federal security fee.
"If there are specific things that the government needs to assess a fee on for enhanced security I think shippers would look at that," said Christopher Koch, the World Shipping Council's president and chief executive.
Stevens' proposal came as a Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday said security clearance delays were a major barrier to information sharing about vulnerabilities and Coast Guard safety measures at ports. That's because much of the federally generated information on port security is classified.
The GAO found that of 359 nonfederal officials who need security clearances because they are members of maritime security committees recently established by the Coast Guard at each port, only 28 had submitted paperwork for a background check as of February. That was more than four months after the Coast Guard developed a list of nonfederal port officials needing the clearances.
"The lack of security clearances may limit the ability of state, local and industry officials ... to deter, prevent and respond to a potential terrorist attack," the report said.
Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger of Maryland, a co-chair of the Port Security Caucus, told the committee he plans to introduce legislation to create a help desk to assist people in navigating the security clearance process. He said some 850,000 people overall are waiting for security clearances and it takes more than a year on average to get one.
"Al-Qaida is not going to wait until workers get clearance to attack our country," he said.