Security’s Unending Line

Security’s Unending Line

With the election and football seasons upon us, it must be time for political football — and the container is being used as the ball. The point, after all, seems to be to score political points.

Democrats on Capitol Hill, positioning themselves as hawks on homeland security, rammed through a law in 2007 requiring 100 percent scanning of inbound containers by 2012. They saw the traction achieved in derailing DP World’s attempt to acquire U.S. marine terminals.

Now some see fresh political benefit in blaming the Obama administration — their own party this time — for failing to make progress in implementing the 100 percent-scanning mandate. As Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said in a statement last month, the third anniversary of the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act, “The millions of unscreened maritime cargo containers that enter our ports daily are a glaring vulnerability and a potential delivery device.”

And Rep. Jerold Nadler, D-N.Y., added, “If the mandate is postponed or, God forbid, ignored altogether, we are faced with the ongoing threat of a catastrophic breach of security in American ports.”

It is tiresome to have to continue to engage in this debate, but we have to do it for as long as necessary.

One hundred percent scanning of containers would be a waste of time and money. It would impose huge costs on the supply chain without offering commensurate benefit. Statements such as those above represent simple fear mongering and not the basis for sound public policy.

I am hardly the only person saying this. The reason the Department of Homeland Security “has made no measurable progress” in implementing the mandate, according to Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, is that it is impossible to accomplish unless the U.S. is willing to suspend direct trade with nations that don’t allow us to conduct noninvasive screening at its ports, as the law requires.

I’m not sure it’s within the power of the DHS to upend our commercial relationships and add untold millions to the cost of importing goods. What if China declined to let us conduct screening at its ports? China accounted for 48 percent of all containers imported into the U.S. in 2009, according to PIERS Global Intelligence Solutions, a sister company of The Journal of Commerce. That is why Homeland Security secretaries from the Bush and Obama administrations have said the law is impractical to implement, certainly by the 2012 deadline but likely beyond that as well.

The law rightly allows the DHS secretary to seek two-year extensions to the deadline if the mandate is impossible to implement or would disrupt trade.

But a look at the reality of cargo transport and security shows the arguments for this mandate to be shallow, with barely a nod toward the facts of what has happened at ports and in supply chains since the September 11 terror attacks.

Radiation screening is almost universally in place for cargo entering the United States, addressing what is far and away the biggest concern regarding containers and other cargo entering the country. Customs and Border Protection “screens” 100 percent of containers through extensive new data it collects as part of the 24-hour cargo manifest rule and the 10+2 Importer Security Filing.

It is a canard that containers enter the country unscreened. The ability to create that data and make it available to Customs in a timely manner for analysis was the culmination of a huge and costly effort from industry. The private sector, from shippers to carriers, cooperates in the security effort through the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. The air cargo industry recently met its own mandate for 100 percent screening of cargo on passenger planes in part through the certification of more than 1,000 sites managed by private companies — shippers, forwarders and carriers — under a Transportation Security Administration security program.

All of this industry cooperation is built on the principle that cargo security needs to be smart. The idea of imposing a 100 percent screening rule on maritime cargo is aimed instead at soothing public insecurity by creating the impression that X-raying a container will make a threat somehow disappear. That is dangerous and wishful thinking: It would impose a bloated and static solution on a dynamic challenge, one already being addressed through a multilayered, intelligence-based strategy rooted in the realities of trade and cargo flows.

“I think what you are seeing is a lot of political storm and fury, but the reality is (the mandate) is way too expensive, way too difficult, way too invasive for governments. And, quite frankly, the U.S. couldn’t do it reciprocally, so I am still convinced that this isn’t going to happen,” said Sam Banks, a former Customs deputy commissioner now with Sandler and Travis Trade Advisory Services in Washington.

The container as the embodiment of all threats is a stereotype that is only perpetuated by the continued focus on 100 percent scanning. The container isn’t the only threat; others need attention, too.

As Banks said, “We still have problems to solve with people trying to do harm to aircraft. We still don’t have good enough control over small boats and small aircraft, so I still believe that the investment of scarce money can be spent on something a lot more worthwhile then scanning 100 percent of the containers.”

Peter Tirschwell is senior vice president for strategy UBM Global Trade. Contact him at ptirschwell@joc.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/petertirschwell.