The Senate isn’t giving up on scanning all maritime containers arriving in the U.S., but lawmakers appear willing to ease the law to make it more palatable to opponents at home and abroad.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, last week introduced the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2010. The bill, which would reauthorize the 2006 Security and Accountability for Every Port Act, extends the Department of Homeland Security’s deadline to 2015 from 2012 to achieve 100 percent scanning, while also substituting an “or” for an “and” in a critical paragraph.
The law now calls for containers to be scanned by nonintrusive imaging and radiation detection, but the new bill would change the language to allow ports to use either technology to satisfy the requirement.
Time will tell if that change makes everyone happy, particularly foreign governments that opposed the law on the grounds that it threatened their sovereignty. Foreign ports complained that bulky container X-ray machines didn’t fit and that being required to move all U.S. boxes through them would disrupt the orderly pattern of moving containers from shore to ship.
Radiation detection equipment is smaller and possibly more abundant already. As a companion to Customs’ Secure Freight Initiative, the Department of Energy launched the Megaports program, which intends to install radiation detection equipment at 200 ports by 2015, and the DOE already has installed equipment at 30 high-volume ports.
At home, 100 percent scanning has met resistance within the DHS, Customs and Border Protection, and the commercial trade community. On July 15, the Advisory Committee on Commercial Operations of Customs and Border Protection, known as COAC, approved a report to the DHS calling for repeal of the law. The report noted 100 percent scanning “failed to account for the operational and political hurdles that needed to be addressed and evoked a strong negative response from many key U.S. trading partners.”
Earl Agron, director of security for container shipping giant APL and chairman of the COAC committee that drafted the report, put it more pointedly. One hundred percent scanning is “akin to a perpetual splinter in our fingers, a royal pain, especially when we are in front of our global trading partners, or any other international forum,” he said.
Customs and DHS officials have stood up to Congress more than once. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in December told the Commerce Committee a 100 percent scanning program would cost some $168 billion to cover 2,100 shipping lanes and 700 ports that ship goods to the U.S.
On July 21, Customs Commissioner Alan Bersin told the committee, “We need to develop an alternative approach that provides us with the security of the sort of 100 percent scanning, but to do so in a way that you incorporate risk management.”
Bersin said the DHS, acting on a recommendation by the Government Accountability Office last October, is working on a report documenting the actual costs and logistics of carrying out the law. Napolitano’s testimony indicates the DHS did some of its homework.
But it’s unclear if Bersin was referring to new analysis or the work the DHS did last year. Stephen Caldwell, director of the GAO’s homeland security and justice issues, said he was unaware of ongoing efforts by Customs to study the feasibility of 100 percent scanning, or estimate what it would cost to implement the program.
Two key members of the Commerce Committee, Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and George Lemieux, R-Fla., were not impressed with progress toward meeting the 100 percent target. Lautenberg said in the July 21 hearing that Customs currently scans only 5 percent of inbound cargo, a statistic that’s been around for nearly 10 years.
“We’re still well behind the objectives we set for ourselves,” he said. “You have a deadline — 2012 — for 100 percent scanning of all incoming shipping containers, but you’re a long way from that point.”
Lemieux added, “Five percent is unacceptable. If the law says 100 percent, then we have to get toward 100 percent. It’s your job to get there. If you can’t get there, and that is an unreasonable requirement, then we need to change the law.”
In December, Rockefeller said Congress should take another look at the 100 percent scanning requirement. “I don’t want to do it, but it’s something that can’t realistically, and in some ways responsibly, be done — and in some cases does not need to be done.” On July 21, Rockefeller said his bill called for no repeal of the law.
The Rockefeller-Hutchison bill would give the DHS three more years to reach 100 percent scanning, while giving the department the option of extending the deadline if it can demonstrate the goal is not doable with existing technology. But with only a few weeks left in the 111th Congress’s calendar, time is running out for the legislation to come to a vote, let alone for a companion bill to be worked out in the House.
Contact R.G. Edmonson at email@example.com.