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Authors of Cargo Screening Mandate Upset Over Lack of DHS Action

In a Tuesday New York Times column, three Democratic lawmakers took the Homeland Security Department to task for failing to carry out a 2007 congressional mandate that all U.S.-bound cargo be scanned for weapon-usable radioactive materials and other threats prior to leaving foreign seaports (see GSN, June 12).

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks heightened fears that extremists might attempt to smuggle into the United States via its port system a nuclear weapon or another form of weapon of mass destruction. To respond to this danger,  lawmakers directed the Homeland Security Department to by July of this year ensure that all U.S.-bound shipping containers are prescanned for nuclear or radioactive materials.

"But the Obama administration will miss this deadline, and it is not clear to us, as the authors of the law, whether it ever plans to comply with the law," according to Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.)

The department has taken advantage of the option provided by Congress to delay full implementation of the mandate until July 2014, the lawmakers asserted.

"For the past five years, the Department of Homeland Security has done little to counter this threat and instead has wasted precious time arguing that it would be too expensive and too difficult, logistically and diplomatically, to comply with the law. This is unacceptable," they wrote in the Times.

They criticized as inflated DHS projections that it would take a minimum of $16 billion to fully implement the law, arguing the estimate is based on the assumption the U.S. government would have to shoulder all costs of purchasing, utilizing, and sustaining the necessary resources.

"In contrast, Stephen E. Flynn, an expert in terrorism and port security at Stanford, has said a scanning system could be implemented in every major container port in the world at a cost of $1.5 billion, and that the costs could largely be absorbed by companies doing business at the ports," the representatives wrote.

The Homeland Security Department's current practice of employing a "layered, risk-based approach" to check those shipping containers judged to pose the greatest threat is insufficient, they stated.

"Recent advances in screening technologies have undermined Homeland Security’s contention that the technology is not available to scan all cargo containers without disrupting commerce. An effective high-volume container screening system was installed in the Port of Hong Kong in 2005. Trials of new, American-made technology have demonstrated that scanning all containers would be feasible at many ports. The world’s largest marine terminal operators have offered to work with the department to put the law into effect," Markey, Thompson and Nadler noted.

The legislators accused the department of misusing the deadline extension in order to "exempt itself from any meaningful compliance with the law" and not, as it was intended by Congress, to overcome serious operational or technical hurdles related to implementation (New York Times, June 26).

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