The inertia at Homeland Security

The inertia at Homeland Security

Here is a disturbing notion that's becoming all too real. The massive effort to secure U.S. international supply chains from terrorism achieved Step 1 virtually overnight. Step 1 is defined here as the process of screening ocean cargo prior to loading at the foreign port, and other cargo before it arrives at U.S. land borders or airports, supported by agreements with foreign governments and voluntary security audits by companies. It's getting beyond Step 1, however, that is proving to be the much-stickier challenge.

Let there be no doubt that the job is far from complete. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner, his agency and the thousands of companies that have made changes and investments in pursuit of security should be applauded for their efforts in getting us to where we are today. It's light years from the security wasteland that existed prior to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But as much work and money has gone into this effort to date, no one I've spoken to - from Bonner to trade association chiefs, to rank-and-file workers in the trade field - is comfortable at a gut level with the system as it functions today. It was erected in a hurry because that is what the nation demanded.

But there remain too many unknowns. It's unknown if people are being truthful on their manifests - in other words, what's really inside the containers coming into the country. It's unknown where trucks carrying containerized cargoes go between the factory and the seaport. It's unknown whether an intact seal really means a container hasn't been compromised. It's unknown whether or not the people involved in stuffing and sealing a container are terrorists. And so on.

As good as Customs has become in spotting anomalies, what is in place today is not a true anti-terrorism infrastructure. The Democrats intuitively understand this, which is why they feel comfortable making it a political issue.

Part of the reason getting to Step 2 is difficult is that it involves technology. Step 1 really didn't. C-TPAT is a process, while the bilateral agreements under the Container Security Agreement are simply agreements negotiated by government officials. Implementing the 24-hour advance manifest rule required adjusting existing legacy systems to accommodate the requirements, but not in most cases developing new technology.

Consider the problem of ensuring a box hasn't been compromised after it's been loaded and sent on its way - a central issue in cargo security. The needs for technology need to be spelled out, for example, that a sensor must pick up changes in light, atmosphere, temperature or movement. Then companies must develop or adopt devices that accomplish that, keeping in mind that they can't be too expensive. Then the sensors must be deployed on a mass scale according to a set of requirements for how they should be monitored in the field.

The concern isn't that technology that accomplishes that or any of a thousand other tasks isn't being developed. Hundreds of technology companies are in various stages of developing or introducing solutions to various security problems. There is, in fact, a free-for-all under way where, seemingly, every technology company under the sun insists its software or hardware is exactly what the government needs.

The problem is that the U.S. government, specifically the Department of Homeland Security, is becoming a victim of this free-for-all rather than taking control of it the way it should. Not only is it slow to come up with the standards for technology solutions to security problems, but, even more importantly, it can't seem to decide who within the department should oversee this task.

There is no more relevant example of this than the secret proclamation issued last month by DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, apparently giving the Transportation Security Administration some kind of coordinating role in cargo security. As we report in this issue, no one really knows what it says or means. What we do know is that a confusing situation just got more confusing.

The agency has evidence of what can be accomplished when lines of authority are clear. Bonner implemented the Step 1 initiatives virtually alone because he had the go-ahead to do it. But his authority in proceeding to Step 2 is less clear, and as a result things have slowed down considerably. Operation Safe Commerce, with the TSA playing a coordinating role, is a prime example of the confusion that reigns.

There are, unfortunately, bottom-line ramifications to this inertia. If another attack occurs and is linked to the trade system, it will be shut down the way it was after Sept. 11, and perhaps for longer. And none of us can afford to see that happen.

Peter Tirschwell is editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at (973) 848-7158, or via e-mail at ptirschwell@joc.com.