How not to start the year

How not to start the year

An often-repeated analysis of the November election went like this: The Democrats won control of Congress not because Americans embraced their agenda but because of colossal failings by the Republicans on ethics and Iraq. Watching how 2007 has begun to play out on Capitol Hill, that analysis is holding up well: Democrats are being forced to score points with the public not by advancing meaningful reforms, but by exploiting fear.

Exhibit A, of course, is homeland security. How else to explain the leadership's insistence on passing legislation - as it did with fanfare last week - to require 100 percent inspection of marine containers?

It is simply extraordinary that this is occurring. Virtually everyone in the international trade field and Department of Homeland Security believes this is a misguided strategy, this after more than five years of intensive study and debate on this very question. A balanced piece of security legislation, the SAFE Port Act, was passed last year with the trade industry's support.

Yet the Democrats appear oblivious to any of this, and in some ways that shouldn't be a surprise. Last week's passage of the absurdly named "Implementing the 9-11 Commission Recommendations Act of 2007" bears a striking resemblance to last year's DP World fiasco - brought to us courtesy of Democrats - in which the issue was sparked and driven by fear-mongering and, as everyone in the industry knows, was completely untethered from reality. The same goes here; nowhere in the 9-11 Commission report does there exist a recommendation for 100 percent container inspection, yet Democrats cynically used the stature of the commission to lend credibility to a completely discredited idea. It's a sad state of affairs when the media have transformed the container into the modern-day Trojan horse, serving it on a platter for an aimless Democratic party casting for an issue to exploit. Since when does a trucker who fails to provide documentation at the Port of Miami become national news?

"The whole thing (the legislation) is about securing political points with an ignorant public and will do absolutely nothing for security. It will actually undermine security because it diverts money and resources from dealing with the actual threats," said Rob Quartel, chief executive of FreightDesk Technologies and a former member of the Federal Maritime Commission.

As Bob Edmonson reports on Page 24, the legislation may well run into a brick wall in the Senate, which was responsible for the SAFE Port Act and whose members are generally much better informed on trade and logistics issues than their counterparts in the House.

Let's hope that happens. But nevertheless, the situation brings to mind the feeling immediately after 9/11 that if Americans have to adjust their lifestyle to protect themselves, the terrorists have won the war. This situation is no different; a policy of container inspection driven by fear is just as much of a victory for the terrorists because it forces us to waste money.

The legislation passed last week does not call for every box to be opened, which many Democrats even acknowledge is impossible. Instead it envisions a system of nonintrusive scanning through which every inbound box must eventually pass. Yet the idea remains deeply, probably fundamentally flawed. Huge technological and logistics issues are unresolved and thus any benefits exist in the realm of theory. There are also basic questions of strategy, as Quartel notes. A lot has been done to secure the container system, yet other vulnerabilities exist and are not being focused on.

"Most of what most people on the Hill and in the public think they know about maritime security is wrong," he said. Nuclear material "is more likely to be placed in something other than a container, because it has a fractional percentage of being found in a container, and no probability of being found at all in a tanker, car carrier, grain ship, nice yacht or oceangoing barge, because we have no means of detecting it. Radiation detectors, even the most sophisticated ones, are unable to detect shielded material from anything other than the closest distance, and secondly these vessels are too big to physically inspect.