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June 24, 2008 10:00 AM, EDT

Customs Not Likely to Meet Deadline for Screening All U.S.-Bound Containers

By Eric Miller, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the June 23 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

The federal agency charged with preventing weapons of mass destruction from entering the United States likely cannot meet a 2012 deadline imposed by Congress and requiring that 100% of all U.S.-bound cargo containers be scanned by imaging and radiation equipment before leaving foreign ports, a top Bush administration official told lawmakers.

Besides questioning whether that screening mandate made economic sense, Jayson Ahern, deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said that, even if all containers were scanned before reaching the United States, the public could not be fully assured they were safe from an attack.

“No one should be led to believe that 100% scanning with the current technology that’s out there, or anything we see on the horizon, is going to provide 100% security,” Ahern told the Senate Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Subcommittee at a June 12 hearing.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), chairman of the subcommittee, said he conducted the hearing to check the progress of the Secure Freight Initiative, a federal program designed to meet the July 2012 container inspection deadline mandated by legislation Congress passed last year.

Lautenberg said he believed the Bush administration’s “layered” approach to U.S. ports’ security is leaving the nation and economy vulnerable.

“The administration’s approach to securing our ports is unacceptable,” Lautenberg said. He did not specifically address Ahern’s admission that Customs would likely not meet the 2012 screening deadline.

Ahern said security officials believe that a “layered, risk-based” approach is the best way to ensure that terrorists do not smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States from any of the 700 foreign ports that ship 11.5 million containers to the U.S. each year.

“To most effectively manage multiple threats to our country, we must direct resources to areas of greatest risk,” Ahern said. “This approach ensures that cargo is regularly assessed and that security does not rely on any single point that could be compromised.”

He also said the 100% screening requirement could cause delays in the movement of containers through the ports, seriously disrupting the free flow of trade between the United States and its trading partners.

CBP’s layered strategy includes stationing the agency’s personnel at 58 foreign ports to collect intelligence and automated risk assessment information. It also includes forming voluntary partnerships with companies known to have effective supply chain security practices.

Since 2003, the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Megaports” program also has been developing a system for radiation portal scanning of containerized cargo for potential weapons of mass destruction. The program is operational in 12 ports and in various phases of implementation at 27 other ports, said David Huizenga, a DOE assistant deputy administrator.

CBP is conducting a pilot project to screen all containers sent from three foreign ports — Puerto Cortes, Honduras; Port Qasim, Pakistan; and Southampton, United Kingdom. It has plans to deploy scanning equipment in four other foreign ports. Between October 2007 and May 2008, the agency scanned 170,000 containers leaving the three ports, Ahern said.

A CBP report to Congress on the 100% scanning pilot project made public June 12 said that officials in 27 foreign ports expressed concerns the policy will “negatively impact container processing, increase operating costs, infringe on state sovereignty, and unnecessarily burden security organizations.”

CBP said that Singapore, one of the foreign ports that agreed to participate in the pilot project, requested that all scanning equipment be removed within six months.

In an April letter to CBP Commissioner Ralph Basham, Robert Verrue, director general of the European Commission’s Taxation & Customs Union, said he viewed the 100% scanning policy with “great apprehension.”

“Firstly, 100% scanning is unlikely to improve security; it might even create a false sense of security and undermine security by diverting scarce resources from other essential measures,” Verrue wrote. “Secondly, 100% scanning has a high potential to disrupt trade and transport, with the EU and worldwide, unnecessarily, at high cost.”

Several countries said that if their outgoing shipments are scanned, they will request that U.S. shipments entering their countries also be scanned 100%, said Ahern.

Perhaps the biggest inspection challenge facing federal customs officials is the scanning of transshipment containers — those that are loaded from one ship to another ship in a foreign port and never enter or leave though a gate where they can be run through an imaging machine, said Huizenga.

“Since transshipped containers do not pass through an entry or exit gate, there are no clear choke points at which radiation portals and the imaging equipment can be deployed,” he said.

Stephen Caldwell, director of the Government Accountability Office’s homeland security and justice division, told the subcommittee that CBP is at a “crossroads” in trying to maintain a risk-based strategy when Congress is asking it to go in the opposite direction.

“I think most of the observers think the 100% scanning strategy is contrary to risk management,” Caldwell said.