Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, led a delegation to Honduras during last month's congressional spring break to check progress on the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Freight Initiative pilot project at the Port of Cortes.
Thompson was not impressed. He complained that the paint was still drying when they arrived. He hoped to see "a more robust rollout," and doubted that Customs and Border Protection would meet the deadline Congress ordered in the SAFE Port Act to have a three-port pilot program under way to test "integrated scanning systems."
While Thompson has his doubts, Customs officials do not. Al Gina, acting executive director of Secure Freight and executive director of the Container Security Initiative, is confident that Customs will be screening all U.S.-bound containers from three ports by the law's first anniversary in October. Those ports are Puerto Cortes, Honduras; Port Muhammad Bin Qasim at Karachi, Pakistan; and Southampton, England.
Secure Freight is the direct descendent of the Integrated Container Inspection System experiment that began in 2004 at two Hong Kong terminals. All containers arriving at the gate were checked for radiation, had their contents inspected by X-ray and their serial numbers recorded electronically.
Congressional Democrats latched on to ICIS as the solution to container security, but the DHS and Customs argued that the system lacked a means of analyzing the images that ICIS captured. When Congress debated the SAFE Port bill, Democrats pushed for 100 percent scanning of containers at foreign ports. A pilot program to field-test the technology was the compromise.
Gina said the Secure Freight pilot program will provide hard data to guide policymakers. "It will add significantly to the debate of what's the proper way forward. I think coming back to that conversation with tangible evidence and lessons learned will significantly enhance the decision-making over the next couple years."
Since CSI began in 2002, Customs has stationed its own personnel at foreign ports to examine high-risk cargo with the cooperation of the host country's customs administration. For Qasim containers, Customs personnel in Virginia will do the screening and analysis. Gina said the installation will include high-speed transmission equipment to send data, scanned images and live video to analysts. At Qasim, Pakistanis hired by Customs will handle work on the ground.
Gina said the Pakistani government spent $3.5 million to build the Secure Freight facility on five acres of vacant land at Qasim. The DHS and the Department of Energy have provided the scanning and radiation-detection equipment worth some $5.5 million. Once the facility clears U.S. containers, they will be stored on site until they are loaded aboard ship.
At Puerto Cortes, all containers will be screened as they go through the gates. Gina said the Honduran government has purchased the hardware and will use the data for its own customs control while providing it to Customs inspectors at the port. The U.S. investment is about $3.5 million, mostly radiation detectors from the Department of Energy.
One of the biggest unanswered questions is how much time it will take to analyze containers. Gina said the pilot program will give Customs an idea of how many people will be needed to scan every container. The pilot also will test the capacity of equipment of different manufacturers.
The ports will check containers at the gates, but transshipments remain a problem. According to data from PIERS Global Intelligence Solutions, a sister company of The Journal of Commerce, Puerto Cortes shipped more than 127,000 TEUs to the U.S. in 2006, but 35,129 TEUs originated in other countries. Qasim shipped more than 35,000 TEUs to the U.S. last year, but only 2,700 TEUs were shipped directly.
"As we go to larger locations, where do you strategically place the equipment to capture the transshipments that never go outside the gate?" Gina said. Customs will require space on ports for staging and scanning boxes. "When you start going to these larger ports like Hong Kong, they've run out of real estate."
Gina said Customs will meet the congressional deadline because of the support from its host countries. "We have no authority in the country, so we're counting on our counterparts to partner with us," he said. "It requires a human capital commitment, facilities and infrastructure adjustments or improvements. We had host government commitment; that's a significant hurdle. They have agreed to work with us to meet this target date."