Maritime cargo scanning mandate extended

A federal provision that requires 100 percent scanning of all U.S.-bound maritime cargo for radiological and nuclear threats has been extended for an additional two years. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson informed Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) of his decision to extend the deadline in a letter last month.  

Passed in 2006, the Security and Accountability for Every Port (SAFE Port) Act requires the scanning of all cargo containers by radiation detection equipment and non-intrusive imaging systems at foreign ports prior to being loaded onto U.S.-bound ships. In the letter, Johnson said that the use of currently available technology to scan shipping containers would have a detrimental impact on trade capacity, as well as the flow of cargo. Additionally, Johnson said that such systems cannot be “purchased, deployed or operated” by foreign ports as they do not have the physical capabilities to support them.

“I have personally reviewed our current port security and DHS's short term and long term ability to comply with 100% scanning requirement. Following this review, I must report, in all candor, that DHS's ability to fully comply with this unfunded mandate of 100% scanning, even in long term, is highly improbable, hugely expensive, and in our judgment, not the best use of taxpayer resources to meet this country's port security and homeland security needs,” wrote Johnson.

Johnson added, however, that he has instructed the agency’s employees to “undertake a better, good-faith job” of complying with the mandate’s “underlying objectives.” These include working to increase the percentage of containers scanned abroad with an increased focused on those deemed as high-risk cargo; improving and refining U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s targeting algorithms and rules within its Automated Targeting System to better identify high-risk containers; engaging industry stakeholders and other partners in scanning U.S.-bound cargo, as well as enhancing the public sector’s participation in the scanning process; and, addressing other potential vulnerabilities aside from radiological/nuclear threats.

A group of 70 various business organizations, including the National Retail Federation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to Johnson earlier this month, lauding his decision to extend the screening mandate deadline.

“The statutory provision calling for 100% container scanning has always been, and remains, impractical and does not actually improve security. If implemented, this provision would have a significantly negative impact on global commerce and cause significant conflict with the governments of our foreign trading partners, many of which have stated their opposition to the requirement previously,” the letter to Johnson stated.

The letter also praised CBP’s efforts in working with importers, exporters and shipping companies to develop an “impressive and effective risk-based strategy” to screen container shipments.

“Unlike the 100% scanning mandate, this strategy does not impair the efficiency of the global supply chain,” stated the letter. “The risk-based strategy enables CBP to use state of the art screening systems and scanning technology to identify and thoroughly inspect any and all containers that it finds to be high risk or that warrant a closer examination. This strategy is fully embraced by industry as well as our foreign trading partners and has proven to be highly effective.”

At a Senate hearing held earlier this week, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), raised questions about the potential for terrorists and other criminals to exploit certain vulnerabilities in shipping supply chain, as well as the money that has already been invested by the government in meeting the 100 percent scanning requirement.

“As Sen. Carper mentioned, 100 percent scanning isn’t viable or may not be viable, but we need to have a better approach than two to four percent scanning that we’re seeing today,” said Coburn. “We have spent $2.1 billion on CBP cargo programs on a scanning mandate that we are told will never be met.”

Also during the hearing, Coburn posed the hypothetical situation of someone attempting to sneak contraband into a cargo container in transit between a foreign port and the U.S. and asked if there was any way to currently detect an act of this nature. Kevin McAleenan, acting deputy commissioner for CBP, testified that there are several measures in place to help protect against that type of threat.  

“One, the import security filing gives us the stow plan for a vessel, so we know where each container is on a vessel, whether that’s going to be accessible during a voyage or not. We do see drug smugglers attempt to use what we call ‘rip loads’ where they break the customs seal, put a load just inside the doors of the container and lock it back up,” said McAleenan. “That’s really only doable on a vessel in transit around the deck area, so we know which containers could be accessed. Then we do routine seal checks upon arrival to see whether those containers have been tampered with - whether those doors have been opened.”

McAleenan testified that 85 percent of shipments identified as potentially high-risk are examined before they’re placed on U.S.-bound cargo vessels and that 100 percent of containers deemed high-risk are examined before their allowed on U.S. soil. Additionally, McAleenan said that they are currently scanning 99.8 percent of all arriving containerized cargo. “Just about everything arriving at a seaport is scanned through a radiation portal monitor with sophisticated, sensitive technology for identifying radiological and nuclear material,” he said.

Although studies have shown that it could cost as much as $16 billion to implement the necessary equipment at foreign ports to meet the 100 percent scanning mandate, Coburn said that doesn’t seem like a lot of money when compared to the estimated $1 trillion impact that a catastrophic attack could have on one of the nation’s largest ports.

 “The challenge is there are 800 or so initial ports of waiting for containerized cargo destined for the U.S. And that scope just makes it very challenging to get to that level. There are a lot questions on who pays, who is responsible, how is it monitored and so forth,” said McAleenan.

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