Secure Freight

Secure Freight

Companies often seek out reports on some markets or operations to learn things they don’t already know. A new report on the U.S. government’s attempts to scan all the cargo containers coming into the country is a bit different because it discloses information that’s pretty much common knowledge in private industry: that is, there is really no way yet to scan every shipping container entering the U.S.

Now, we’ll admit that’s not 100 percent true, technically. You can scan all the containers coming into the country, but it would mean reducing the volume to a fraction of current import levels and adding a few days, give or take, to the clearance process.

That physical reality isn’t the legal reality, however, so the Department of Homeland Security still is working under the 9/11 Act requirement to implement a program to screen 100 percent of inbound cargo containers at foreign ports of origin by July 2012.

But July 2012 actually means July 2014, because the DHS already has conceded it can’t meet the mandate by this summer. The agency instead will report to Congress in May on what is assumed will be a blanket extension to all ports.

The DHS simply is taking an untenable situation and pushing it off to a later, seemingly far-off date — don’t let anyone in Congress hear about this tactic — which is about all the beleaguered agency can do. The trouble is, that’s not helping to make shipping more secure, not helping to provide certainty to supply chain planners and not really advancing the idea of greater security in the broader world.

Even the Government Accountability Office, in a report released last week, comes close to saying that even as that government auditing office tries to avoid the reality between the lines. “Uncertainty persists over how DHS and (Customs and Border Protection) will fulfill the mandate for 100 percent scanning given that the feasibility remains unproven in light of the challenges CBP has faced implementing a pilot program for 100 percent scanning,” the GAO writes in the report.

What sort of challenges?

“Logistical, technological and other challenges,” the report says, “prevented the participating ports from achieving 100 percent scanning, and CBP has since reduced the scope of the (Secure Freight Initiative) program from six ports to one.”

It’s not as if security officials haven’t been doing anything. Customs in 2009 implemented — and carriers, logistics operators and shippers complied with — the stronger information requirements under the Importer Security Filing.

The ISF, or 10+2, requirement didn’t slow the movement of goods nor require the invention and widespread use of new technology. Instead, it advanced the use of information and intelligence in cargo security, working within existing shipping procedures to provide security agencies deeper, better information about the flow of goods.

Intelligence work is what helped intercept the bombs shipped out of Yemen through air express networks in October 2010, and we’ve seen a lack of intelligence about international shipping as Iran has imported materials to advance its nuclear capabilities.

Raising the levels of transparency in information regarding international shipping will take hard work and diplomacy. That’s a challenge worth undertaking.

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at Follow Paul Page on Twitter,