Cargo Scanning Requirement Should Be Reconsidered, U.S. Official Says

(Apr. 2) -Then-Assistant Commissioner of U.S. Customs Jayson Ahern speaks with former President George W. Bush at the Port of Baltimore in 2005 (Jim Watson/Getty Images).
(Apr. 2) -Then-Assistant Commissioner of U.S. Customs Jayson Ahern speaks with former President George W. Bush at the Port of Baltimore in 2005 (Jim Watson/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- A senior U.S. Homeland Security Department official told lawmakers yesterday it is time for Congress to reconsider a legal mandate created by Democratic lawmakers that requires all cargo containers to be scanned for weapons of mass destruction at foreign ports before they are shipped to the United States (see GSN, March 19).

The mandate, which Democrats put in a massive 2007 homeland security bill with much fanfare, requires the department to ensure that all U.S.-bound containers are scanned abroad by 2012. At the time, critics complained that the mandate was a "bumper-sticker" security solution that was unrealistic.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told lawmakers in late February that meeting the deadline was not feasible, mainly because technology does not exist to do such comprehensive scanning and because obtaining political agreements with other countries is problematic.

Jayson Ahern, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, told the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee yesterday that the mandate "needs to be thoughtfully reconsidered." As it is written into the law, the department still must work toward achieving it, taking time and resources away from other priorities, Ahern said. He said the risk that a weapon of mass destruction would be smuggled by a ship container is "minimal" and the department has "more significant vulnerabilities" to address. He added that there is also "a significant amount of international churn" by other countries about what U.S. policy on scanning containers will ultimately be.

Lawmakers said they have many questions about how best to secure cargo containers but did not scold Ahern over his comments, indicating a growing acceptance on Capitol Hill that the mandate needs to be relaxed. Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Price (D-N.C.) said "the dilemma" presented by Ahern is "compelling" and needs to be addressed by Congress.

"The question is, absent a '100 percent solution,' are current programs adequate to mitigate risk?" Price asked. "If not, what needs to be done?"

He added "there's no question" that ensuring cargo security "is a serious issue."

April 2, 2009
About

WASHINGTON -- A senior U.S. Homeland Security Department official told lawmakers yesterday it is time for Congress to reconsider a legal mandate created by Democratic lawmakers that requires all cargo containers to be scanned for weapons of mass destruction at foreign ports before they are shipped to the United States (see GSN, March 19).