DHS to miss 2012 deadline to scan containers for radiation

Goal of 100 percent sea cargo scanning remains elusive

The Homeland Security Department will miss a July 2012 deadline for radiation scanning of all containers bound for U.S. seaports, and will have to seek an extension, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said today.

“Prohibitive challenges” will require DHS to seek more time to implement a program to scan 100 percent of cargo bound for the United States with non-intrusive imaging and radiation detection equipment before it leaves foreign ports, Napolitano told the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

In February, she said an initial review had indicated that the 2012 deadline wouldn’t be met. DHS’ Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency is responsible for the security of cargo containers.

The 100 percent requirement was imposed in a 2007 law and allows for the possibility of extensions on the deadline. The requirement has raised logistical, technological and diplomatic concerns from shippers, carriers, port and terminal operators and foreign governments.

Many countries around the world are resistant to the requirement, but in some respects are offended that the United States would require radiation scanning at their ports, Napolitano testified. She cited insufficient technology, a high rate of false positives, port logistics, negative effects on the flow of shipments, high costs to deploy scanning equipment and the predicted increases to shipping costs as barriers to putting the program in place.

“DHS would need significant resources for greater manpower and technology, technologies that do not currently exist, and the redesign of many ports,” she said.

In fiscal 2008, 9.8 million containers bound for the United States were shipped from 611 ports, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). DHS, and the State and Energy departments formed the Secure Freight Initiative (SFI) pilot program in 2007 to test the overall feasibility and efficacy of 100 percent scanning.

Napolitano told the committee that the pilot program that's been deployed at five non-U.S. ports has “encountered a number of serious challenges to implementing the 100 percent screening mandate.”

Meanwhile, a report released today by GAO said, “CBP has made limited progress in scanning containers at the initial ports participating in the SFI program, leaving the feasibility of 100 percent scanning largely unproven.”

GAO said CBP doesn’t have a plan to scan 100 percent of U.S.-bound container cargo by 2012 because agency officials say problems identified in SFI suggest it would be difficult to achieve worldwide. Instead, CBP has a strategy to expand SFI to select ports seen as posing the greatest risk, the report said.

However, GAO said CBP should do a feasibility analysis of expanding 100 percent scanning in light of the challenges encountered during the SFI pilot to help determine the most effective next steps. CBP should also do a complete cost estimate and a cost-benefit analysis for achieving 100 percent scanning, GAO recommended.

In response, DHS concurred fully with three of GAO’s four recommendations related to developing a feasibility analysis and a comprehensive cost estimate to improve analyses. Meanwhile, DHS although agreed that a cost benefit analysis of 100 percent scanning would better inform Congress, it said the Congressional Budget Office should handle it.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Wed, Dec 16, 2009 edmond hennessy united states

Have been involved directly/indirectly with this key initiative for several decades - from the technology perspective - from improving the effectiveness of airport security/baggage inspection systems to rolling out technology to support the Cargo Transport threat.No doubt, this is a monumental task and the article points out challenging areas that continue to be obstacles to achieving the 100% factor. Understand the reference to false positives and the state of today's technology, however do not believe that is the key element causing the delay and stumble. Would look more at dealing with political resistance and budget/funding allocation priorities and utilization. The Cargo Transport threat has been tauted, as an Achilles' Heel that could result in catastrophic proportions. Not preaching here, however a two-year delay is hard to swallow for openers - what message and assessment will we get in 2012 about the state of affairs on this key initiative?

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