US Tasked to Scan Millions of Containers
Thursday, August 23, 2007; 8:05 PM
WASHINGTON -- The specter of a nuclear bomb, hidden in a cargo container, detonating in an American port has prompted Congress to require 100 percent screening of U.S.-bound ships at their more than 600 foreign starting points.
The White House and shippers maintain that the technology for scanning 11 million containers each year doesn't exist, and say the requirement could disrupt trade. Current procedures including manifest inspections at foreign ports and radiation monitoring in U.S. ports are working well, they contend.
Nonetheless, President Bush earlier this month signed the measure into law, praising its shift of funds to states and cities at higher risk of terrorism attack and saying he will work with lawmakers to ensure the cargo screening provisions don't impede commerce.
Scanning containers at their point of origin in other countries is a highlight of that law, intended to fulfill recommendations of the 9/11 Commission for safeguarding the United States from terrorist attack. It sets a five-year deadline for having the system in place but _ recognizing the technology might not be ready _ gives the Homeland Security secretary the authority to extend that deadline by two-year increments.
"If a terrorist manages to conceal a weapon of mass destruction in a shipping container, it must be discovered long before that container reaches our shore," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in support of the measure.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a chief proponent, said the costs and complexity involved in the new system pale beside the devastating effect of a nuclear attack launched from a big city port. "The truth is, we cannot afford not to do it."
The White House issued a statement strongly opposing the scanning requirement, saying it was "neither executable nor feasible." Opponents warned that it could cause huge backlogs at the nation's seaports, which handle some 95 percent of goods coming into the country.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says "it would be wonderful" if all containers were inspected before they left foreign ports. "But it's got to be done in a way that reflects reality and also reflects the fact that we're not the only players in this pool."
Industry groups that lobbied against the 100 percent screening asked whether Congress intends to cut off trade with small-volume ports that can't install the needed technology. They also warn of foreign governments retaliating by requiring U.S. ports to set up the same inspection regimen.
"You have to have the permission of all these foreign points," said James Carafano, a defense expert at the Heritage Foundation. "There are a lot of people around the world who are going to be really teed off about this."
The Bush administration argues that its current risk-based, layered approach to port security is a success. That approach has several main components:
_Under the Container Security Initiative, teams from Customs and Border Protection now review manifests at some 50 ports covering more than 80 percent of the container cargo shipped to the United States. Containers identified as high risk are subjected to X-ray and radiation scanning. Markey argues that this is nothing more than a paperwork check that relies on descriptions of content supplied by shippers. Less than 5 percent of containers get scanned, and only a fraction of those are opened up and inspected.