Maritime cargo scanning mandate extended

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson says agency's ability to comply with 100 percent screening requirement 'highly improbable'

“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.