Five years after Congress set a deadline for requiring all U.S.-bound shipping containers to be X-rayed overseas for nuclear weapons, customs officials have all but given up on the goal.
Customs and Border Protection officials scanned with X-ray or gamma-ray machines 473,380, or 4.1 percent, of the 11.5 million containers shipped in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, according to the agency. That’s essentially the same percentage of containers that were scanned in 2007, the year a Democratic-controlled Congress mandated that agents start vetting every container.
Screening 100 percent of incoming containers would be nearly impossible to implement now, cause huge delays and be less cost-effective than focusing only on suspicious cargo, customs officials say, even as the law’s supporters insist the mandate is the only way to ensure the safety of the shipping system.
“It’s not necessarily a good use of resources to spend time and effort on ships that pose no risk,” said Jayson Ahern, the agency’s acting commissioner until January 2010.
Earlier this year, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who oversees the customs agency, granted a two-year waiver from the requirement. Defending the decision last month before the House Homeland Security Committee, Napolitano said the mandate isn’t “practicable” or “affordable” now.
The secretary’s comments signal a willingness to challenge the wisdom of the screening requirement, said Jessica Zuckerman, a research associate at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based policy group.
The agency does “not see 100 percent as a feasible or a common-sense strategy,” she said.
Lawmakers favoring the mandate say they’re concerned about terrorists detonating a nuclear or dirty bomb at a port, killing workers and rendering the facility and surrounding area uninhabitable for years.
The selective approach “will not prevent all potential attacks inside the U.S., as it is not comprehensive and is subject to human error and weaknesses in our defense systems,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who co-sponsored the scanning mandate.
Customs officials and business lobbying groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have said X-raying all containers would be too expensive, require cooperation from foreign countries that isn’t forthcoming and delay the flow of shipments.
Napolitano at the House hearing cited a lack of agreements with some foreign countries to X-ray cargoes overseas.
“There are a lot of foreign ports it’s just physically not available to us to do that,” she said.
As of June 30, customs had scanned 342,527, or 3.8 percent, of the 9 million containers shipped so far this year.
Officials are now getting better information to help them zero in on containers that might have contraband, said Joanne Ferreira, a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman.
“Targeting has become more refined,” Ferreira said.
Information about the targeting’s success isn’t public for security reasons, said Ian Phillips, a customs spokesman.
Still, the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general, its chief internal investigator, found problems with the system, including a lack of uniform procedures and data needed to decide if a shipment should be cleared or held.
So much commerce flows through ports that any interruption stemming from an attack would reverberate throughout the worldwide supply system, said Stephen Flynn, founding co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University in Boston.
“I could come up with few scenarios that could be as profoundly disruptive to the global economy as this one,” he said.
A major port shutdown would be an additional drag on a U.S. economy struggling to expand and create jobs. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2006 that a yearlong shuttering of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the biggest ports in the Western Hemisphere by container volume, would cost $70 billion, or as much as .55 percent of gross domestic product.
More recently, University of Southern California researchers, as part of a study on the potential damage of a tsunami caused by an offshore earthquake, estimated port closures could cost the West Coast region as much as $40 billion.
At the Port of Virginia’s newest facility in Portsmouth recently, workers finger joysticks that remotely stack containers hauled in by 18-wheelers. The containers are placed so closely together that it would be difficult for someone to break into them, said Ed Merkle, director of the port’s security and emergency operations.
Port-security and customs officials say they’re taking all the precautions they can. Every container coming into the country must be scanned for radiation before it leaves the U.S. port. Trucks line up at the Portsmouth port to pass through a toll-booth-like structure containing the radiation monitor.
The devices’ sensors sometimes flag a container with items such as bananas that have naturally occurring radiation, Virginia port officials say. The monitors can’t always detect a nuclear or dirty bomb sheathed in lead, they say.
An X-ray produces an image that gives customs authorities a better idea if a container conceals a bomb, Flynn said.
If the current system of taking suspicious containers to a separate X-ray facility were expanded to just 7 percent of all cargo, delays of 70 hours could occur, requiring a two-acre lot to stack the backlogged freight, according to a 2011 University of Pennsylvania study co-authored by Flynn.
A system in which less sensitive X-ray machines scan trucks as they drive through the entrance of an overseas port facility could be used for all cargo without delays, the report said.
Flynn said he’s on the advisory board of Decision Sciences International Corp., a Chantilly, Virginia-based company that’s testing such a device.
Napolitano warned in December 2009 of “steep challenges” posed by the 100 percent screening mandate. Available technology is limited, she told a Senate hearing, and meeting the requirement “would either severely slow trade or require a redesign of the port.”
Customs in 2009 began requiring importers to submit a list 48 hours before a container is loaded that includes information on its contents, the manufacturer, the seller, the buyer and the final destination. The agency then uses mathematical formulas on a computer system to pinpoint questionable containers.
A 2010 Homeland Security Department inspector general report found that of 391 shipments identified as “high risk,” 57 didn’t have enough documentation to justify custom officers’ decisions to inspect the containers or let them go through.
The Government Accountability Office will complete its own investigation of the tracking system in October, said Stephen Caldwell, director of homeland security and justice issues at the congressional auditor. Without 100 percent scanning, customs must rely “very heavily on the targeting system,” he said.
Al-Qaeda is aware of the mayhem it could cause by breaking just one link in the global supply chain. In 2010, explosives made by the group’s Yemeni affiliate were found concealed in printer-toner cartridges loaded on two cargo-plane flights.
Ports are less vulnerable because al-Qaeda is more focused on planes than ships, said Stewart Baker, a former assistant secretary for policy at the Homeland Security Department.
“It’s hard to kill a lot of people in mechanized modern ports,” said Baker, a partner at the Steptoe & Johnson law firm in Washington. “Terrorists’ enthusiasm for causing economic harm by blocking port infrastructure has been limited.”