Sending a message

Sending a message

Nature abhors a vacuum. That was the first thought that came to mind last week when Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins. R-Maine, introduced their GreenLane Maritime Cargo Security Act, designed to improve security in the ocean container system.

As long and hard as officials at the Department of Homeland Security have worked to establish a viable cargo-security system for international containers, and as much progress as they have made since Sept. 11, there remains a feeling in the industry that the job is far from complete. As Murray said last week in a statement that sounded alarmist but contains elements of truth, "Too often, we don't know what's in these cargo containers. We don't know who's handled them. We don't know if what's written on the cargo manifest actually matches what's inside the container. And we don't know which containers need extra scrutiny.

"The vulnerability is clear, and the possible danger is overwhelming, but today our cargo-security efforts are falling short," she added.

The DHS would respond, as it has many times to attacks of this kind, that it is doing plenty to secure the system. Through its targeting system, it scrutinizes every container entering the country and says it is able to differentiate risky containers needing to be searched from those that can safely be allowed into the country.

But that is beside the point. The DHS, largely through the initiatives of Customs and Border Protection, has indeed put in place the foundation of a long-term container-security system, and since there have been no attacks since Sept. 11, it's hard to find evidence that it's not working. That foundation is the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program, the 24-hour advance manifest rule and anti-nuclear screening of containers. The programs are no small accomplishment.

But what Murray is saying - and, in doing so, reflecting the sentiments of many in and out of the international trade community - is that the agency has been unable to build on the initial foundation by taking container security to a significant new level. For example, outside the voluntary C-TPAT, the agency has not proposed a regulation requiring container seals on every container, something it has talked about for more than a year, or incorporated shipment data obtained directly from importers into its pre-loading security assessments, a direction in which Secretary Michael Chertoff hinted over the summer that he would like to go. Michael Jackson, deputy secretary of the DHS, raised that idea again in a recent Trade Symposium speech, when he called for a private-sector or nonprofit entity to collect a wealth of information on each container shipment.

But still, weeks, months and even years go by, and the type of major, concrete security initiatives that change the way people do business and inspire confidence in the system - as the 24-hour rule did in 2003 - don't seem to emerge. No one is suggesting these are easy problems to solve. Container loads originate in other countries, where the U.S. has no jurisdiction and where importers have limited influence over their suppliers. Cargo security will therefore always be an inexact science that will never fully satisfy everyone.

But even so, there is a feeling that momentum in this area needs to be re-established. Thus, with the DHS moving at a pace that at times seems agonizingly slow and unclear, it's not surprising that others have jumped into the void. They have done so either to develop new technologies designed to benefit logistics and security, as Maersk Logistics and IBM have done in recent months, or to propose entire new policies, as the bipartisan group of senators did last week.

The bill they introduced would do a number of things, among them creating an office of cargo-security policy within the DHS and intensifying the incentive-based C-TPAT framework to incorporate tracking and sealing technology throughout the supply chain. Its premise is the potential for catastrophic loss, to people and the economy. Murray cited the potential for 50,000 to 1 million deaths in the event of a nuclear detonation and a cost to the economy of $58 billion from a 12-day shutdown of U.S. ports.

I have no idea what chance the Murray-Collins bill stands of becoming law, but in some ways it doesn't matter. The point is that it expresses frustration, not just on the part of industry, but on the part of the public as well. Let this bill at least convey that message.

Peter Tirschwell is vice president and editorial director of Commonwealth Business Media's Magazine Division. He can be contacted at (973) 848-7158, or at ptirschwell@joc.com.