Cargo screening law sparks debate among lawmakers

WASHINGTON_A 2012 deadline to screen all U.S.-bound shipping cargo for radiological and nuclear materials is unrealistic, a Bush administration official told lawmakers Thursday.

A law passed last year mandates that the Homeland Security Department screen all cargo headed for the U.S. Among the major obstacles to meeting the deadline: Trained U.S. officials would need to be deployed to more than 700 foreign ports to operate screening equipment.

The benefits of screening all cargo bound for the U.S. has long been challenged by the Bush administration. Jay Ahern, deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, told lawmakers that the plan is not a good use of taxpayer money.

About 11.5 million containers come into the U.S. each year. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, said that knowing what is inside them could prevent a disaster.

"An attack on a U.S. port, or even a foreign port, would affect our entire economy, not to mention the safety of surrounding communities," Lautenberg said in a statement. "I am deeply concerned that - more than six years after 9/11 - the Bush administration is back once again to report on more problems."

In an interview with The Associated Press, Ahern compared the screening process to how a medical technician operates X-ray machinery - a trained eye must be present to see what is being screened. No technology allows a computer to do all the screening, he said.

Total screening also could significantly slow commerce at busy ports, Ahern said, and at least 27 countries and major industry associations have significant concerns with the law.

Ahern said it makes sense to do such screening in high-risk countries, such as Pakistan, but not in every country that ships to the U.S. The "layered" approach to security that the administration already has in place is more effective, he said.