Napolitano to reset deadline for foreign cargo scanning

By Chris Strohm

December 3, 2009

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano confirmed Wednesday that her department will not be able to ensure that all maritime cargo entering U.S. ports will be scanned by 2012, and instead will take advantage of a loophole in the law to push the deadline back by at least two years.

Democrats put a legal requirement in the first bill they passed after taking control of Congress in 2007 that the Homeland Security Department must ensure that all cargo being shipped from foreign ports to the United States is scanned by nonintrusive inspection equipment by 2012.

Many Republicans said at the time that the requirement would be unworkable.

Napolitano told the Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday that the requirement is not realistic for several reasons, including cost, the lack of adequate technology and the inability to secure agreements with foreign governments.

The department plans to take advantage of a provision in the 2007 legislation that allows it to push the deadline back by two years, Napolitano said.

But she added that the government has multiple programs to help secure cargo and prevent a nightmare scenario in which a weapon of mass destruction is smuggled into a U.S. port via a shipping container.

"We should not believe that 100 percent scanning equates to 100 percent security," she said.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report Wednesday concluding that the department does not have a plan to scan all containers abroad. GAO added that the department plans to issue a blanket extension to all foreign ports by July 2012 to be in compliance with the law.

"Without a better understanding of the feasibility of such a policy to international commerce and security, a mandate of global proportions was unquestionably well intended, yet premature," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

The department believes the likelihood that a weapon of mass destruction could be smuggled in a cargo container is low. But the ramifications of a successful attack at a large port would lead to economic losses estimated at between $58 billion and $1 trillion, the GAO report said.

"The bottom line here is that the requirement to scan all U.S.-bound cargo, regardless of risk, at every foreign port is misguided and provides a truly false sense of security," said Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine.

"This GAO report highlights the substantial challenges we face with attempts to scan U.S.-bound cargo containers at foreign ports with X-ray technology," she added. "While we know this procedure will be disruptive of trade, we don't know whether this technology will work. It has yet to be proven effective at detecting radiological material."

GAO recommended that Homeland Security complete feasibility and cost analyses for scanning all cargo abroad and submit them to Congress.

By Chris Strohm

December 3, 2009