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Homeland Security to Extend Cargo Nuclear Scanning Deadline

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

Wheat is unloaded in 2000 from a ship docked at Pakistan's Port of Qasim, today the only seaport still participating in a pilot program on scanning all U.S-bound cargo for weapon-usable radioactive materials. The U.S. Homeland Security Department is expected to seek a four-year extension to a July deadline for all inbound shipments to undergo such scanning, a Government Accountability Office official said on Tuesday (AP Photo/Zia Mazhar). Wheat is unloaded in 2000 from a ship docked at Pakistan's Port of Qasim, today the only seaport still participating in a pilot program on scanning all U.S-bound cargo for weapon-usable radioactive materials. The U.S. Homeland Security Department is expected to seek a four-year extension to a July deadline for all inbound shipments to undergo such scanning, a Government Accountability Office official said on Tuesday (AP Photo/Zia Mazhar).

WASHINGTON -- The Homeland Security Department does not appear to be trying to meet a congressional mandate that by July all U.S.-bound cargo be scanned for weapon-usable radioactive materials before leaving foreign seaports, a senior congressional investigator said on Tuesday (see GSN, Dec. 3, 2009).

Instead, the agency anticipates it will extend the deadline for all ports to be ready by July 2014, Stephen Caldwell, a maritime security specialist with the Government Accountability Office, said in a prepared statement to a House subcommittee.

Department officials acknowledged in their own written testimony to the panel that only one port is participating in a pilot program to test the viability of the requirement, even though six docks were earlier expected to take part.

They made no mention of a deadline extension, but Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has made it clear in previous comments that one is in the offing. The officials did highlight complications to be overcome and the billions of dollars necessary to put the full-scope program into place.

“Have you given up on 100 percent screening?” Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) asked during a hearing of the House Homeland Security Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee.

“We are continuing to operate under the law,” responded David Heyman, assistant Homeland Security secretary for policy.

Lawmakers acknowledged the difficulty or potential impossibility of covering the roughly 700 ports that ship cargo directly to the United States. Some, nonetheless, made it clear they are not satisfied by the current situation.

Homeland Security “has failed to make an honest effort to implement the mandate,” said Representative Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), a leading backer of the measure. “We’ve heard a litany of reasons that 100 percent scanning cannot or should not be done. … Of course, the surest way to fail is not to try at all.”

The potential for terrorists to use the global shipping system to smuggle a nuclear or radiological weapon into the United States is one of many threats the Bush and Obama administrations have sought to address in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks. A nuclear strike on the country is considered a low probability but high impact event, with the potential to cause devastating human and economic costs.

The Sept. 11 Commission law passed by Congress in 2007 set a July 1, 2012, deadline after which no cargo container would be allowed to enter the United States unless it had been checked by radiation detection and nonintrusive imaging technology. The law allowed for extensions of the mandate in two-year increments, accompanied by advanced notification to Congress.

Roughly 5 percent of cargo containers undergo the demanded physical scanning today either at the foreign port of departure or upon arrival in the United States, according Kevin McAleenan, acting assistant commissioner for field operations at DHS Customs and Border Protection.

One lawmaker who pressed for inclusion of the screening measure in the legislation said scanning containers overseas is crucial to ensuring the United States is protected against cargo-carried weapons. Catching a nuclear bomb at a U.S. port “may very well be too late,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

“Reading the cargo manifest is not enough. Trusting certain shippers is not enough,” he testified during the hearing on global supply chain security. “We must verify the contents of the containers at the point of origin, before they are loaded on a ship bound for America. And so the law is designed to do just that.”

The SAFE Port Act approved in 2006 called for a pilot program to determine whether 100 percent scanning could be reasonably implemented. The Homeland Security and Energy departments in December of that year launched the Secure Freight Initiative, which deployed technology to ports in Honduras, Hong Kong, Oman, Pakistan, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

None of the test ports were able to scan all U.S.-bound cargo, putting into question the viability of the congressional demand for 100 percent screening, Caldwell said. While relatively “low-volume” sites in Honduras, Pakistan and the United Kingdom checked most containers heading to the United States, busier shipping sites in Hong Kong and South Korea scanned only about 5 percent of the cargo, he stated.

Both Caldwell and the Homeland Security officials identified a number of issues that hampered the test program, including safety worries, malfunctioning scanning technology and inferior images. The Sept. 11 act also failed to specify who could lead the scanning efforts at foreign ports and who would provide funding for the technology and scanning activities under the 100 percent demand, the GAO official said.

While the U.S. Congressional Budget Office assessed early on that foreign governments or port operators would bear the cost of the program, Customs and Border Protection said it was not clear that other governments would accept those terms, Caldwell told Global Security Newswire on Thursday.

The Homeland Security branch “documented numerous challenges associated with implementing 100 percent scanning including diplomatic challenges, international trade opposition, the need for port reconfiguration, potential for reciprocal requirements on the United States, and lack of available technology to efficiently scan transshipped cargo,” according to a joint statement to the subcommittee from McAleenan, Heyman and Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft.

The Port of Qasim in Pakistan is today the only facility still involved in the Secure Freight Initiative. Homeland Security and CBP officials did not respond to requests for details on why the other ports are no longer participating.

Hong Kong withdrew from the program in April 2009, after 16 months, due to issues related to the expense and loss of efficiency in expanding scanning from one to all nine of the port terminals, Caldwell said in his statement.

“CPB’s budget documents and public statements from DHS and CBP officials, along with the elimination of SFI operations at all but one port, indicate that DHS and CBP are no longer pursuing efforts to implement 100 percent scanning at foreign ports by July 2012,” Caldwell stated.

Congress must be notified of any anticipated extension to the deadline by May 2 of this year, he said.

The test programs at the six ports cost close to $120 million over a period of roughly three years, McAleenan said. Multiply that to deploying corresponding technology at 700 ports worldwide and the cost would rise to the neighborhood of $16.8 billion, he testified.

“That is quite cost prohibitive,” according to the CBP official.

Roughly 80 percent of cargo shipped to the United States comes from just 58 ports, the DHS officials said in their written comments.

The Secure Freight Initiative is one component of a wider federal effort to safeguard the cargo supply chain and curb the illicit movement of potential terrorist resources, the Homeland Security officials testified. The ports that exited the Secure Freight effort remain involved in the Container Security Initiative, a Customs and Border Protection program that uses technical means to identify high-risk containers.

“We’ve been aggressively pursuing the layered approach, focused on the targeting and intel, the coordination through [the Container Security Initiative] with our foreign partners to conduct those exams on high-risk shipments before they’re loaded,” McAleenan told lawmakers.

The U.S. customs agency since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has fielded 1,388 radiation portal monitors at U.S. border crossings. The systems have examined more than 679 million cargo containers and vehicles carrying goods and people in the last 10 years for illicit radiation sources, producing in excess of 2.8 million alarms, the officials said. None of the alerts turned up material intended for dangerous purposes.

Homeland Security has faced setbacks in its radiation detection operations, including the 2011 cancelation of a program to develop a next-generation portal monitor (see GSN, July 26, 2011).

The department’s recently issued National Strategy for Global Supply Chain Security did not address the 100 percent scanning requirement, Caldwell said. He added that Customs and Border Protection has not pursued a 2009 GAO recommendation to study the viability of the 100 percent rule, or other options for meeting the goal of increased security at foreign ports.

Heyman acknowledged that the feasibility study had not been done, but that a report was available on the steps taken toward meeting the 100-percent scanning demand.


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