The Right Kind of Security

Thursday, June 1, 2006

IT WAS THE Dubai port uproar that didn't roar: When a House committee voted this spring against an amendment that would have required all cargo containers bound for this country to be individually inspected in their ports of origin, Congress temporarily put to rest what could have been yet another hyped-up wave of politically motivated anxiety about American port security. Although the House later passed a bill that provides extra funding for nuclear screening and other measures, Democrats vowed to bring up the inspection issue again -- and ran advertisements around the country attacking Republicans who oppose it. Before the "inspect every container" mantra becomes a national war cry, it's important to point out that this is a terrible idea.

Someday, perhaps, advanced X-ray technology may be developed to the point where it's possible to beam a scanner at each one of the 11 million U.S.-bound containers at every port in the world and obtain an instant assessment of what's inside. But while some promising technologies are available, none is perfect, and all of them require a human being to analyze the scans. This not only takes time but also presumes the existence of thousands of trained scan readers around the world. In the absence of such workers, U.S. port and customs authorities examine information about each container -- where it's coming from, which shipping company is carrying it -- and determine whether it is risky enough to merit inspection, either here or abroad. In practice, this results in inspections of about 5 percent of all containers. Even now, U.S. customs officers must rely on the cooperation of foreign authorities to carry out this many inspections.

Homeland security officials could do more. Only about half of incoming containers are subjected to a radiation scan, a number that should rapidly be brought up to 100 percent, as the new House bill requires. Ports are also vulnerable because drivers and dockworkers are not thoroughly screened. Raising the number of U.S. inspectors in foreign ports could also make the inspection system safer. But "inspect 100 percent of containers" is a slogan, not a solution, and we hope lawmakers resist the temptation to use it in the election season to come.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company