Watchdog: DHS Should Test Feasibility of 100 Percent Cargo-Scanning Mandate

By Joseph Straw

In 2007 Congress mandated that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) achieve 100 percent scanning of U.S.-bound, shipborne cargo containers by 2012. Within a little more than a year, DHS informed Congress that it could not meet that deadline.

Now after a fresh review of agency progress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has recommended that DHS evaluate whether 100-percent scanning is feasible regardless of the time frame.

At three low-volume foreign ports, GAO found that between 54 and 86 percent of U.S.-bound containers were scanned by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the DHS unit responsible for the effort.  At two large-volume ports, however, only 3 to 5 percent of U.S.-bound containers were scanned.

GAO has further recommended that DHS renew cost estimates for fulfilling the mandate, conduct a cost-benefit analysis, and report its findings to Congress along with proposed alternatives to 100 percent container scanning.

Stakeholders consulted by GAO echoed an argument CBP officials and other experts made repeatedly before Congress: that the 100 percent mandate flies in the face of the risk management approach to border security, under which limited resources are focused on the elements of the supply chain that are most likely to be exploited by terrorists:

Officials at international organizations and foreign governments we spoke with have raised concerns to CBP about 100 percent scanning, stating that that the new requirement is inconsistent with the risk-based strategy adopted in international standards for supply chain security that CBP uses in its existing programs. The officials also stated the new requirement will diminish security by reducing resources available to focus on high-risk containers.

CBP’s efforts build on programs such as the Megaports Initiative, a program conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to spot radiological smuggling, regardless of destination.  GAO reported that together, CBP and DOE have spent roughly $100 million on container scanning efforts.

Prior to Congress’ 2007 mandate, CBP employed a risk management approach, screening all U.S. shipping containers for risk and physically scanning those assigned a high risk value. All shipping containers entering the United States are scanned for radiation upon arrival.

U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which produced the 2007 law, acknowledged the value of a risk-based approach.

“I am confident that [DHS] Secretary [Janet] Napolitano understands these challenges,” Lieberman said.  “ I look forward to working with her to use risk based approaches to improving security in our supply chains – on land borders, in the air, and in maritime domains, as well.”

Absent broader reforms DHS is expected, with Congressional authorization, to grant a blanket two-year extension on the 2012 deadline for ports that ship containers to the U.S.

♦ Photos of shipping containers at the Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/WikiMediaCommons


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