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Homeland Security Poised to Breach Port Cargo Screening Mandate

A mobile radiation detector scans cargo containers in 2006 at Port Newark in New Jersey. The Obama administration is set to miss a legal deadline established five years ago for screening all U.S.-bound international cargo for weapon-usable nuclear and radioactive substances (AP Photo/Mike Derer). A mobile radiation detector scans cargo containers in 2006 at Port Newark in New Jersey. The Obama administration is set to miss a legal deadline established five years ago for screening all U.S.-bound international cargo for weapon-usable nuclear and radioactive substances (AP Photo/Mike Derer).

The U.S. Homeland Security Department remains in noncompliance with a 2007 congressional directive to ensure by July of this year that all U.S.-bound cargo is checked for weapon-usable nuclear and radioactive substances prior to departure from foreign seaports, the Washington Post reported on Sunday (see GSN, June 29).

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told lawmakers in May that an overly expensive and unwieldy examination process prompted her to issue a 24-month waiver of the mandate for all non-U.S. seaports. She cited a $16 billion price tag for establishing detection systems at close to 700 international shipping facilities sending goods to the United States, Napolitano said.

Congress five years ago gave the department the option to delay full implementation of the mandate until July 2014.

Homeland Security in 2009 dropped exploratory initiatives aimed at comprehensive vetting of shipments after deeming the process to be unacceptably expensive and complicated to execute. Rather than meeting the mandate, Homeland Security now employs data collection and assessment to single out "high-risk" freight boxes for scrutiny prior to placement on carrier vessels.

The practice is in place at 58 non-U.S. facilities that send fourth-fifths of the nation's imports, and it subjects less than one of every 200 such shipments to examination ahead of their transfer to the United States. Drugs and other illegal goods have emerged during such audits, but authorities have yet to disclose any related discovery of an illicit atomic transfer.

“Our layered and risk-based approach provides that, at a minimum, 100 percent of high risk containers are examined through a number of measures, including screening, scanning, physical inspection, or resolution by foreign authorities,” Napolitano said to legislators in a May 2 written statement referring to the 24-month waiver.

The Homeland Security Department is dedicated to guaranteeing the safety of U.S.-bound shipments by numerous means such as cooperating with foreign officials, employing detection systems and directing human inspectors to carry out audits, spokesman Peter Boogaard said.

The vetting process resulted in examinations of 45,500 freight boxes of concern last year, according to Kevin McAleenan, acting assistant commissioner for field operations at DHS Customs and Border Protection. The quantity amounts to roughly two such boxes on a daily basis at every one of the 58 seaports taking part in the initiative.

A number of legislators and independent specialists, though, have questioned if the federal government has given short shrift to the danger such a transfer would pose.

“I personally do not believe they intend to comply with the law,” Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.) told the Post.  “This is a real terrorist threat, and it has a solution. We can’t afford to wait until a catastrophic attack.”

The department might be overstating the expense and complexity of meeting the congressional mandate, according to Markey and a number of other antiterrorism specialists. Present procedures could enable comprehensive examination of shipments at significantly less expense, according to analyses by University of Pennsylvania academics. Separately, less costly detection gear is under preparation at multiple private firms.

All but 1 percent of international shipments undergo radioactivity checks upon reaching the United States, according to the Homeland Security Department. Still, the detection equipment is not sufficiently accurate to spot atomic systems or highly refined uranium, which generate relatively little radioactivity, specialists said.

In addition, imported goods frequently stand in port for days prior to examination, according to the Post. The potential activation of a nuclear explosive at a shipping site could produce fatalities and cost billions of dollars, U.S. congressional investigators said in a February report. Such a strike at a large cargo hub could absorb tens of billions of dollars and as much as $1 trillion, projections indicate.

"The current system is woefully inadequate for stopping any determined adversary who wants to get a weapon of mass destruction into the United States,” former Coast Guard officer and shipping safeguards expert Stephen Flynn said.

It is demanding and expensive to verify the contents of shipping holders, which can each carry over 30 tons of materials, the Post reported. Over 3,000 such boxes from hundreds of senders and a numerous facilities of origin can fit onto a sizable freight ship, and each box can accommodate goods from various clients.

A freight box has a greater probability than a missile of bringing in a nuclear payload, said nonproliferation expert Graham Allison, who heads the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. Still, the analyst admitted the high cost of averting a nuclear or radiological strike and said countermeasures are uncertain to succeed.

“The game between hiders and seekers is dynamic, and there is no 100 percent solution,” Allison stated by e-mail. “The cost-benefit trade-off is the toughest issue” (Douglas Frantz, Washington Post, July 15).

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