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, Ms. Napolitano
said the mandate isn't "practicable" or "affordable"
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
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 Rep. Jerrold
Nadler, D-N.Y., 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.
Ms. 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," Ms. 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. …