An endless pursuit?

Enough is enough. That is the view of many in the U.S. trade community toward the seemingly never-ending and increasingly problematic obsession in Washington with the marine container as the embodiment of the terrorist threat.

At some point, a realization has to occur that enough has been done to secure the container system. The protections already in place must be trusted to do the job. For any number of reasons, we know that day is a long way off. The Democratic Congress just passed and the president signed a 100 percent overseas container scanning law vigorously opposed by the trade community and probably impossible to fully implement.

If any consolation can be taken from the fact that the scanning law's deadline is five years away and can be postponed by the secretary of homeland security, yet another indication of the container obsession is just around the corner in the form of the so-called 10+2 rule likely to be officially unveiled this fall; it's already in draft form and reportedly being reviewed outside of Customs and Border Protection. The rule would require importers and ocean carriers to transmit new data about each shipment to Customs prior to cargo being loaded at a foreign port, filling out the portfolio of information Customs uses for risk assessment but creating an entirely new and complex data stream. Overall, it's hard to imagine focus on the container abating amid the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and terrorist threats to Western cities.

Importers are not blind to this environment, and they seem largely resigned to the reality of scanning and the 10+2 data rule, even though the regulations promise to add days and significant cost to the average supply chain. The data rule will be difficult to implement, as it will represent the most significant operational change importers will have had to make since Sept. 11.

The trade community can only hope that Customs will allow 10+2 and formal entry data to be combined into a single entry filed earlier in the supply chain, but there is no guarantee. All understood, and fair enough. The data is important for security screening and, because it's impossible to physically open and inspect every box, a heavy layer of traditional information-based risk assessment must be part of the security apparatus.

The problem is what comes next. Is the underlying political sentiment that rammed the 100 percent scanning law through all reasonable opposition still so strong that the administration and Congress will not be satisfied until more steps are taken to address container security? Will Homeland Security view the scanning rule and additional 10+2 data as the final components of an already multilayered, successful security system?

Or will it seek to go further, possibly by building out the still ill-defined global data exchange proposed by DHS Secretary Michael Jackson as part of the Secure Freight Initiative? In other words, is there an end game, or merely waypoints along an endless, meandering road toward the mythical destination of 100 percent security? The possibility that there is no end game, just a continuum, has people justifiably concerned.

"Congress, in its zeal to protect us, is passing legislation just to pass legislation," said Curtis Spencer, president of IMS Worldwide, a trade consultant, and a member of COAC, the private-sector advisory committee to the DHS. "The legislation appears on the outside to be positive for protecting the county, but it begs two questions: Do I need more protection in container security, and how much more secure can that part of the supply chain possibly get?"

Concern is justified because the trade community is essentially powerless to influence the result. We know more about this business than anyone else, yet we seem like the last people anyone turns to for advice. Voices of reason were lost in the din during the DP World fiasco, and even respected voices for smart policymaking in Congress were shunted aside as the 100 percent scanning bill careened toward passage in recent weeks.

The container debate, though ostensibly about security, is not unrelated to the overall trade debate in which pro- or free traders have been on the retreat for more than a decade. The trade picture is bleak - there is currently no fast-track authority, no WTO deal, certainly no Free Trade Area of the Americas and a string of bilateral trade agreements that many believe do more to complicate trade than to promote it. That's the reality we're dealing with.

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