However, the Department of Homeland Security waived the 100 percent scanning law for the third time, which was originally scheduled to be implemented four years ago in reaction to 9/11.
By Eric Kulisch |Thursday, August 18, 2016| American Shipper
International shippers and freight transportation providers can be forgiven for assuming that the 2007 U.S. congressional mandate to scan every inbound ocean container at a foreign port before loading on a ship had quietly died.
The Department of Homeland Security this spring used its right to waive the requirement for the third time and extend the inspection deadline another two years. Officials have consistently maintained that the law cannot be implemented because of logistical, technological, diplomatic, environmental, funding and other challenges associated with convincing foreign terminals and border authorities to set up non-intrusive imaging equipment and drive-through radiation detection machines in overseas ports to check every cargo box. Besides costing billions of dollars, such a security regime would dramatically slow cargo processing, increase costs, and disrupt trade, experts say.
The 100 percent scanning law, originally scheduled to be implemented four years ago, was passed in reaction to 9/11 and concerns that terrorists would use containers to smuggle nuclear weapons, radiological materials, explosives, or fighters themselves into the United States for an attack. The threat of smuggled radiological materials, or nuclear weapons, falling into the hands of terrorists is growing as ungoverned spaces and entrenched corruption in many regions of the world create terrorist safe havens, massive migration from parts of the Middle East overwhelms governments and their border controls, and Russia’s decision to halt most nuclear security cooperation with the United States leads to concerns about ongoing security of materials in that country, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration.
In the years following enactment of the scan-all law, many lawmakers softened their stance and appeared to accept the DHS position that implementing across-the-board container inspections was unrealistic given the millions of containers moving through U.S. ports each year.
But it’s an issue that won’t go away, to the chagrin of many in the business community.
A handful of vocal House Democrats are insisting that DHS follow through with implementing the comprehensive inspection mandate for ocean cargo, saying that department explanations for postponing action ring hollow.
At a July joint committee hearing, Rep. Janice Hahn, who represents the district where the Port of Long Beach is located, said she did not believe administration claims that technology doesn’t exist to efficiently run all inbound containers through X-ray and radiation detection machines.
“I believe there is technology that exists today that will keep us safe, but will not slow commerce down,” she said. “Our ports are some of our most vulnerable entry points in our country. Until we act on what Congress decided, I don’t think we’re going to have the safety and security that we need.”
Todd Owen, executive assistant commissioner for field operations for Customs and Border Protection, pushed back hard on Hahn’s assertion, stating there was no silver bullet at the moment.
“I have not seen a piece of X-ray technology that has yet to offer automatic anomaly detection. Every piece I’ve seen still requires intervention from an operator to identify where the anomalies are, and that takes time,” he said, adding that conducting mass inspections under the circumstances would increase congestion up and down the supply chain.
CBP only has 10 pieces of non-intrusive imaging equipment for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and couldn’t inspect thousands of containers per day, the former Los Angeles area field director said.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated it would cost $22 billion to outfit foreign ports with the necessary equipment, but that figure doesn’t include what it would cost the government if other nations insisted on reciprocal inspections for containers headed to their shores, Owen said.
“If we had to scan every container leaving the United States… there would be a detrimental impact on the throughput of our ports,” because the process remains so manual, he said.
“I just don’t buy that,” Hahn countered. As long as DHS continues to throw cold water on the concept, technology vendors are unlikely to invest in experimental new technologies that could better protect the homeland, she said.
Hahn introduced legislation two years ago that would allow two ports to receive federal funding for advanced inspection technology to demonstrate that implementation of 100 percent scanning of containers for dangerous material is possible.
Rep. Norma Torres, also of California, endorsed Hahn’s position and said, “It is alarming to me that we have continued to ask for extensions… I understand that there are technological challenges, but at some point we need you to deliver on what Congress asked you to do.” Rep. Bennie Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, said DHS’s implementation excuses are “simply unacceptable.”
While many lawmakers agree that inspecting all containers before vessel loading is not achievable, Congress has formally urged DHS and CBP to articulate plans to provide a similar level of security against nuclear weapons and other terrorist-related contraband.
CBP uses a risk-based strategy that depends on advance manifest data and other information from ocean carriers, plus advance importer filings with data about the origin, destination, and transport of the cargo, to make threat assessments about each shipment. The data is funneled through the agency’s Automated Targeting System, a mathematical model that uses weighted rules and algorithms to assign a risk score to shipments, and matched against intelligence databases. Imports handled by companies that belong to the voluntary Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program typically receive low scores because the firms have strong security processes in place that have been approved by CBP.
High-risk shipments are sequestered for non-intrusive exams. Most scans are conducted by CBP officers at U.S. ports, but through the Container Security Initiative some containers are inspected at 60 overseas ports where CBP has agreements to station personnel and collaborate with foreign counterparts to check cargo before it is loaded on a vessel.
According to Owen, CBP currently scans 3.7 percent of the roughly 11 million containers entering the United States each year. About 1 percent of that total, or 104,000 exams, are checked at overseas ports.
All containers pass through passive-detection radiation portal monitors as they are trucked to the exit gates or intermodal yards in a port.
The Government Accountability Office in recent years has faulted CBP for not thoroughly analyzing whether updates to its targeting rules actually improve effectiveness for identifying containers with “red flags,” and for not always examining high-risk shipments, but says that CBP has made policy changes to improve in those areas.
Customs does require 100 percent inspections in two narrow cases where container volumes are very limited, the threat is extremely high, the local government supports the effort to maintain trade with the United States, and there is dedicated space to locate equipment without hindering the flow of cargo.
Under the Secure Freight Initiative, all containerized cargo leaving Port Qasim in Pakistan is scanned by Pakistani Customs and local staff using U.S.-donated X-ray and radiation detection equipment. The images and radiation readings are transmitted to CBP’s National Targeting Center in Northern Virginia to determine if any boxes should be physically examined, and the entire operation is remotely monitored by CBP officers via live video feed to ensure no mistakes are made.
Only 65,000 containers came to the United States through Port Qasim in 2015.
In July, CBP began a similar inspection regime at the Port of Aqaba, Jordan, using trained and vetted foreign nationals.
One of the biggest drawbacks to 100 percent inspections, Owen noted, is that many major ports handle transshipment traffic (ship-to-ship or rail-to-ship). Cargo would have to be rehandled multiple times to get it on and off vehicles that could go through the inspection stations. And most wharves and railyards don’t have the space for inspection equipment and lines of traffic that would result.
DHS appears sensitive to the congressional mood. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the law is an unfunded mandate, but that he is exploring how to address Congress’ intent. Earlier this year, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office within DHS issued a request for information on how to increase the amount of U.S.-bound maritime cargo scanned overseas. DNDO is evaluating about 30 responses it received, and expects to hold meetings in September with successful respondents about testing those ideas, Acting Director Wayne Brasure said.
The scope of the RFI includes non-containerized maritime cargo too.
Companies engaged in international trade broadly support the DHS extension of the 100 percent scanning mandate, but in a June 20 letter to Johnson, more than 100 trade associations questioned how the RFI dovetails with the department’s risk-based strategy for supply chain security.
“We are concerned that DHS is seeking ‘quick wins’ without identifying what the ‘immediate payoffs’ should be or clarifying that such a recommendation should not impose a greater burden on the larger trade community,” the letter said.
It urged the administration to recommend to Congress that the scan-all law be repealed, so the department can work with industry and U.S. trading partners on a long-term, workable solution for plugging security gaps in ocean supply chains.
Next-Gen Scanner. DNDO is also pilot testing next-generation technologies that could be applied to comprehensive container inspection. One such effort is taking place at the Port of Boston in cooperation with the Massachusetts Port Authority and the United Kingdom’s Home Office.
A Boston-based company called Passport Systems, under a DNDO contract and supported by other grants, is erecting a fully enclosed structure on the Conley Terminal designed to automatically detect fissionable radioactive material in cargo containers, even if it is shielded, as well as explosives and other contraband. Trucks will pull into the scanner and the driver will get out of the vehicle while machine takes a 30- to 40-second scan. If the system detects something suspicious, the sled on which the vehicle rests will back up, another scan will be taken, and Customs inspectors will be notified.
Early next year, DNDO will begin testing the system for about six months and then turn it over to CBP for a one-year demonstration under real-world operating conditions, Steve Korbly, Passport Systems’ vice president of research and development, said in a mid-July presentation to a port industry security seminar outside Washington, D.C.
The Passport machine is different because it builds a 3-D map of the cargo container by both density and atomic number, almost like a computed tomography (CT) scan used at airports to inspect checked baggage. It fuses high resolution imaging (using a top-down X-ray beam instead of the typical side beam), a passive radiation detector, and isotope-identification technology. The system can determine if the fission readouts match commodities on the manifest or radiological material that can be weaponized.
The system can interrogate a particular region of the container to determine the elemental fingerprint of a material. That ability allows inspectors to get more information up front, and minimizes the need to manually strip the container, Korbly said.
As currently configured, the system has a throughput of about 20 containers per hour—similar to existing vehicle inspection systems on the market. At that rate, it would be difficult to use for 100 percent inspections, Korbly said, but using automated guided vehicles for moving containers around, as is being done at the Port of Long Beach’s modernized Long Beach Container Terminal, would eliminate the need for drivers to exit and enter tractors, and allow the process to move four to five times faster. The system would also work faster if it is only searching for fissionable or nuclear material.
“If looking for every type of contraband under the sun, then it’s going to slow everything down,” he said.
During the hearing, Rep. Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Coast Guard and maritime transportation, said, “I think what DHS will do is try to get the perfect solution, which will take them a decade and take billions of dollars. And they’ll try to find everything from weapons to cocaine and weapons of mass destruction, instead of narrowing it down to WMD, which is what I think they should focus on.”