Official outlines three-pronged security plan at borders

A top Homeland Security Department official on Friday outlined for industry representatives the developing strategy for securing U.S. borders while also ensuring the steady flow of commerce.

"The debate continues to rage on whether we're doing a sufficient amount" to bolster security on goods entering the country, said Asa Hutchison, the undersecretary for border and transportation security, adding that it is impossible to inspect 100 percent of all U.S.-bound cargo. Instead, the department's strategy is focused on "technology, targeting and partnerships," he said.

"This is the direction we're going," the undersecretary told a panel of experts that advises the department on commercial operations. He said the White House has "not signed off" on the developing strategy and emphasized the need for industry feedback.

Hutchison said the department is deploying more radiation-detection equipment at domestic and foreign seaports and giving more cargo inspectors personal detection monitors. But it needs "more detection capabilities," he added.

"We have to continue to develop more technology," he said, noting that the department has technology to verify immigrants' identities but not for the commercial sector. The department is looking at radio-frequency identification tags to verify goods at land borders.

On targeting, Hutchison said checking 100 percent of cargo would be the "wrong" approach. He noted one estimate that said it would take six months to inspect the estimated 13 million shipping containers at U.S. ports annually. "We want to inspect 100 percent of the containers that pose a risk," he said of the department's "targeting" approach.

Hutchison also highlighted the importance of partnerships with the private sector, touting programs that would allow the department to validate a company or manufacturer's security measures to expedite cargo through the inspection process.

Before the meeting began, one industry representative said more outreach to industry is needed for the programs to be effective. Sandra Scott, who sits on the panel and represents commercial drivers, said the Free and Secure Trade program -- which allows pre-screened drivers to quickly cross U.S. borders -- only works if the importers of the goods participate in the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program.

"We need more importers," argued Scott, who planned to emphasize that point during panel discussions later Friday.