New fears arise over security at state ports

Jun 13, 2011

The following article was published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on June 13, 2011:

New fears arise over security at state ports

By Sally Kestin

Florida’s seaports move cruise ship passengers by the boatload and tons of cargo every day largely without incident, but some say security will soon be less assured.



Repeal of 11-year-old law concerns many
former state officials

The Legislature, with the support of Gov. Rick Scott, repealed an 11-year-old law that required state criminal background checks for maritime workers, unannounced port inspections and the deployment of law enforcement officers.

“We have lessened the security in Florida ports,” said Bill Janes, a former director of one of the state agencies that oversaw port security, the governor’s Office of Drug Control. “I think the state is taking a huge step backwards.”

Supporters of the repeal, including the authorities that operate Florida’s 14 ports, including Port Manatee, say the state law hurt commerce and duplicated security measures imposed by the federal government after 9/11.

“There was never any evidence that this additional background check did anything but cost more money,” said Mike Rubin, vice president of the Florida Ports Council.

But Janes and other former state officials involved in port security told the Sun Sentinel that the Florida law added a layer of protection that will no longer exist.

“The ports can now cut back on the amount they spend on security,” said Bruce Grant, director of the Office of Drug Control from 2009 until it was abolished by Scott in January. “That’s got to be detrimental. There’s no way it can’t be.”

Estimates for how much Port Manatee, Manatee County’s seaport, may save were not readily available during the weekend.

Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, however, now expects to spend $300,000 to $400,000 a year less on security, mostly by reducing employees at its ID processing center. The port is also looking at automating a manned security gate and may decrease the number of Broward sheriff’s deputies assigned to the grounds, said Glenn Wiltshire, deputy port director.

“Bottom line is the port will be as safe tomorrow and secure as it is today,” Wiltshire said.

“I totally disagree that it’s going to lessen the security of the seaports,” said Ken Hern, the Port of Palm Beach’s security director.

Florida became a national pioneer with passage of the 2000 law. It grew not out of a concern for national security but because of rampant crime and drug smuggling in the cocaine cowboy days.

By the end of the 1990s, more than half of all the cocaine in the U.S. came through Florida, much of it concealed in hidden compartments on cargo ships arriving in the state’s ports. As many as 60 percent of the dock workers at the Port of Miami had felony arrests, according to testimony before a 2000 statewide grand jury.

Ports “are virtually unlocked, if not wide open, to traffickers and money launderers, not to mention thieves, terrorists, and dealers in all manner of contraband,” the grand jury concluded.

Florida’s security law required criminal background checks for port entry and access to restricted areas. Ports had to meet specific security requirements and pass snap inspections by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Many ports and maritime businesses objected because “the more security you had, the slower the goods moved and the more money you had to spend,” said James McDonough, a former national drug policy adviser who started Florida’s Office of Drug Control in 1999. “From the get-go, those that worked at the ports didn’t like the idea. They never let go of that view.”

It’s difficult to tell how effective the state law was. FDLE hasn’t kept any crime statistics for the ports. Drug smuggling in Florida is down, partly because of a shift in the importation routes to the southwest U.S.

Opposition to the state law grew after federal security ramped up because of terrorism concerns. By 2008, port workers needed a federal ID based on an FBI background check in addition to the clearance from FDLE.

The ports came to consider Florida’s requirements redundant, an argument the former Drug Control directors reject. “The background check that Florida did was much more thorough than what the feds did or do now,” Janes said.

The reason: an FDLE criminal history search picks up offenses that are not included in the FBI check because not all state arrests make it to the national database. Florida also retained fingerprints and could detect new arrests — a capability the federal system lacks.

Potentially more worrisome, say Janes and others, are shortcomings with the federal ID, known as the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC).

Only the most serious security-related crimes such as espionage or treason bar someone from being approved for a TWIC. Other crimes are not disqualifying, and even applicants with records for murder, drug smuggling and possession of an explosive device can be cleared through a waiver.

As of last September, the Transportation Security Administration had issued credentials to more than 460,000 port workers with criminal records, according to a May report by the Government Accountability Office. Undercover government investigators were able to obtain credentials by presenting fraudulent information and entered ports with counterfeit TWICs.

The main argument for repealing Florida’s law came down to money and the hardship on ports. The cost for a state security clearance was about $50 a year for each worker at Port Everglades, and slightly more at some other ports.

That added up to about $3 million annually for all of the state’s port workers and put Florida at a competitive disadvantage, according to the Ports Council.

The Office of Drug Control commissioned a study that last year concluded the dual regulations were unnecessary.

Scott agreed and signed the bill last month, saying repeal of the law will reduce “burdensome and expensive regulation.”

McDonough, a retired Army colonel and the state’s first Drug Control chief, said, “I think what we’ll see is a return to the bad old days of more drugs coming into the state of Florida.”

Even with both state and federal security requirements, federal agents in December busted a ring of longshoremen that imported millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine, heroin and marijuana on cargo ships arriving at Port Everglades and the Port of Miami.

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