Security’s Shifting Tide

As the eighth anniversary of the September 11 attacks came and went last week, a question came to mind: Is government policy toward container shipping finally shifting from an attitude of “what should we do next?” to “let’s make what we have work”?

If that were indeed happening, the importing community could heave a big collective sigh of relief. Importers could move on to other emerging burdens — in food and product safety, packaging and other issues they are being forced to contend with.

In the eight years since the attacks transformed the container into a media star, companies have weathered a barrage of requirements meant to plug the actual and psychological gap in U.S. port security — requirements that have gone far beyond those imposed anywhere else. As each new security requirement came along, it strengthened the impression that the profound sense of insecurity about the container following September 11 could only be soothed by an endless stream of new security programs, whether they were realistic or not.

But as this anniversary passes, the impression is that things are changing. A grudging understanding is taking hold that perfection is not achievable, but that a workable, multilayered system is, and that other problems are more urgent. It may be the case that one era is passing while another begins.

That is only an impression, because no one can rule out a push in Congress to rig every container with a GPS device on the outside and an atmospheric sensor inside, able to detect minute traces of bad stuff, and charging importers for the privilege of having such devices escort their containers into the country. Neither can anyone rule out the possibility of another attack and how that could shift the debate.

But ask those who follow container security most closely what is coming, and the answer is a lot less clear than it has been at any point since this all began nearly a decade ago.

Evidence suggests the debate is indeed settling down. The 100 percent scanning requirement in 2007’s 9/11 recommendations bill serves as a case in point. Ignoring arguments that implementing the idea is virtually impossible, Democrats rammed through the requirement that all containers be screened at port of embarkation by 2012. But no sooner did it become law than the smoke cleared to reveal an effort that was at its heart political rather than practical, Democrats advancing an agenda based on fear-mongering that bore little relationship to what was practically feasible.

Now, with the realization that foreign countries can’t be forced to scan U.S.-bound containers, and the fact congressional Democrats no longer have a Republican in the White House to embarrass, the issue is fading. No one expects the rule to take effect in its current form and, more importantly, no one seems overly upset over this possibility. That is a good sign.

Meanwhile, an initiative that represents the height of practicality — the 10+2 Importer Security Filing rule — is on an unobstructed path toward implementation. A last-ditch effort by some trade associations to derail the program failed, and even the structured review that Customs agreed to prior to launching the enforcement phase in January will not yield significant changes to the requirements.

By greatly expanding the visibility Customs has on imported containers, the program takes a huge step toward strengthening the strategy of risk assessment. That is what importers want: data used to pick out high-risk shipments rather than a one-size-fits-all approach that has the potential to impact the flow of all container shipments, not just those that may pose a problem.

This is good news for importers. If the focus of the nation is moving on to health care, cap-and-trade and other priorities, the work done in container security over the last decade could be enough to allow attention to shift elsewhere. That, at least, is the hope of the importing community.

“Since 9/11, there have been a multitude of supply chain security programs that have been implemented,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation. “It is time to take a step back and, instead of adding additional layers, evaluate what is currently in effect and determine if there are gaps that still exist. It’s about trying to improve programs currently in place rather than re-create the wheel or put forward new unproven initiatives.”

Peter Tirschwell is senior adviser for The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 973-848-7158, or at ptirschwell@joc.com.

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