By Chris Strohm
April 1, 2009
A senior Homeland Security Department official told lawmakers on Wednesday 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.
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 on Wednesday that the mandate "needs to be thoughtfully reconsidered." Because 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."
On another front, Price also said he wants the department to submit detailed information on its strategy to prevent illicit cash and weapons from being smuggled from the United States to Mexican drug cartels. Ahern said the department is scanning all trains heading into Mexico and has not found any contraband. But he said inspecting vehicles driving into Mexico is much more challenging, especially because U.S. border checkpoints were never set up to facilitate southbound inspections. He noted that Congress provided $720 million in the economic stimulus bill to improve border crossings, but said the money is "only a fraction" of what is needed.
By Chris Strohm
April 1, 2009