Battle rages over Baltimore port security

Published 4 August 2008

Congress mandates that port security equipment purchased with DHS grants must be produced in the United States; DHS argues that if better equipment is produced by non-U.S. company, it should be allowed to buy it; the debate intensifies

DHS is attempting to bypass a congressional mandate that equipment bought for port security with federal grants be purchased from American companies, according to members of Congress and documents obtained by the Baltimore Sun. The move, which DHS officials said does not violate Congress’s instructions, immediately drew sharp criticism from organized labor groups and Buy American sympathizers on Capitol Hill, who in recent years have repeatedly instructed procurement authorities to spend billions in federal funds on American-made goods. Baltimore Sun’s Bradley Olson and Michael Dresser write that many expressed outrage at the department’s directive, given the potential boost the purchases could provide to American companies in fragile economic times, and they also worried that in some cases, equipment and supplies bought from foreign companies or countries could represent a major security risk — a possibility procurement analysts say is remote.

The port security grants are used to plug potential vulnerabilities and security lapses, from security cameras to monitoring equipment. Congress has kept a watchful eye on such funding and business activities since 2006, when a Dubai-based company attempted to take over port operations in Baltimore and other U.S. cities. The department this year more than tripled its federal funding to the Baltimore port compared to last year, issuing more than $6.6 million to help strengthen protections against potential terrorist attacks and beef up security measures. “We are constantly told as members of Congress … that companies operating out of China are actively seeking to do business in this arena in the U.S., and this effort by the department represents a real vulnerability,” said Representative Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi) who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. “It’s clear that with this directive, they’ve decided to thwart the intent and the wishes of Congress.” Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the department, said the language in the bill authorizing grant funding does not require compliance with the “Buy American Act,” a 1936 law that requires that federal procurement money be used on American-made products and companies. “This is schizophrenia,” he said, noting that DHS officials had met twice with Thompson’s staff and agreed to “clarify” the grant guidance for state and local authorities. “Now, he sends a letter in opposition? What’s it going to be? Conflicting messages aren’t helpful.” Thompson said his staff met with department officials to ask about the change but did not contribute in any way to the new policy.