Commerce versus security
A seemingly endless sea of red, blue and green containers lined the Virginia Port Authority’s Norfolk International Terminals on a recent June morning, all waiting to make their way by rail and truck to destinations nationwide.
The Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency had been using nonintrusive scanning devices and a complex data-mining system for identifying high-risk targets to monitor each container for days before it ever arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
More than 1.2 million containers pass through the Virginia Port Authority’s terminals each year, and they represent just a small fraction of the more than 11 million containers that enter the country through seaports annually. Keeping tabs on them is not a logistical challenge — it has become a security imperative since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
CBP authorities have the task of ensuring the security of hundreds of U.S. seaports and the containers that arrive from more than 700 foreign ports — and doing it without disrupting global trade.
Hiccups in the global supply chain can disrupt commerce worldwide like a line of toppling dominos. And with the lion’s share of U.S. imports arriving by sea, a disruption in global shipping would be felt quickly on Wall Street and Main Street.
“It takes about 72 to 96 hours before the U.S. consumer knows that the maritime transportation system has slowed down or stopped,” said Ed Merkle, director of Port Security and Emergency Operations at the Virginia Port Authority, who was a high-ranking Coast Guard official in New York in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But authorities must balance the desire to keep the wheels of commerce turning with the need to ensure that freight is safe for entry. The possibility that a weapon of mass destruction or nuclear material might slip into the country through a seaport represents a sum-of-all-fears situation, much more than a simple glitch in the supply chain.
To strike that balance between trade and security, funding for port security jumped by 700 percent in the five years following the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to CBP. Congress has also passed a slew of measures aimed at bolstering supply chain and port security.
But finding the proper balance remains an elusive goal, as evidenced by the wide range of opinions on new container security measures required by Congress.Layered approach favored
Current CBP-led efforts include risk-based programs that use technology to screen and identify high-risk cargo; perform radiation, X-ray and gamma-ray screening using nonintrusive inspection equipment; and transmit and share information long before the containers arrive at U.S. ports, a process called targeting.
The agency is also forging partnerships with foreign governments and the private sector to bolster port and supply chain security. For example, the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) is a voluntary program that has rewarded more than 8,000 companies with reduced levels of CBP scrutiny of their shipments in return for meeting minimum container and shipping-security requirements.
CBP officials say such programs represent the layered, risk-based security strategy that they favor.
Under the so-called 24-hour rule, cargo data is submitted electronically at least 24 hours before the cargo is loaded onto ships in a foreign port.
CBP officials use the data to assess risk and determine which cargo requires further scanning at the departure port — if those capabilities are present — or at the U.S. port on arrival.
The manifest data is used by CBP’s Automated Targeting System — a system that a 2006 Privacy Impact Assessment described as “the intranet-based enforcement and decision support tool that is the cornerstone for all CBP targeting efforts.” Off icials say CBP officers’ intuition also plays a part in making determinations. The system screens 100 percent of all U.S.-bound cargo.
The National Targeting Center in Virginia and local targeting centers at ports analyze the data submitted.
CBP officers stationed at international ports also help decide whether certain shipments are high-risk and require X-ray, gamma-ray or radiation scanning before departing on ships bound for the United States. They are there under agreements between the United States and host governments as part of CBP’s Container Security Initiative (CSI), which began in 2002.
“It’s a risk-based approach in CSI,” said Richard DiNucci, director of secure freight initiatives at CBP’s field operations office.
Todd Horton, director of CBP’s international container scanning division, said the 58 ports in CSI account for about 85 percent of all containers bound for the United States. He added that 1.5 percent to 2 percent of cargo is scanned in foreign ports before heading to the United States. National Targeting Center officials might also decide that scanning is required after the container reaches a U.S. port.
In Baltimore, about 10 percent of the more than 160,000 containers arriving each year are targeted for scanning based on trade violation or terrorism concerns, said Walter Simmons, CBP’s assistant port director at Baltimore.
In addition, CBP has deployed radiation portal monitors at ports nationwide that scan 98 percent of all containers for radiation before they leave a U.S. port. Critics want more scanning
A homeland security law signed in 2007 requires CBP to go much further than the current risk-based approach.
The Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 requires that by 2012, CBP must be able to scan and take images of every U.S.-bound container before it leaves a foreign port
The new 100 percent scanning requirement in the act has raised logistical, technological and diplomatic concerns from CBP, shippers, carriers, port and terminal operators, and foreign governments.
Previously, the Security and Accountability for Every Port Act of 2006 created a test program called the Secure Freight Initiative (SFI) to test the feasibility of scanning 100-percent of United States-bound cargo. The SAFE Port Act also codified the CSI and C-TPAT initiatives.
CBP has been working with the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to conduct SFI tests at three foreign ports — Southampton, U.K.; Puerto Cortes, Honduras; and Port Qasim, Pakistan.
As part of the government’s layered security strategy, NNSA’s Megaports Initiative works with foreign governments to supply ports with advanced radiation-detection equipment. NNSA hopes to have 75 ports worldwide in the program by 2013.
DHS and the Government Accountability Office have outlined the challenges of 100 percent scanning in recent reports.
“In terms of practically bringing this to bear by 2012 when we are already in 2008 — [it will be] very, very difficult, to say the least,” DiNucci said.
DHS’ report to Congress showed that 100-percent scanning was feasible under certain conditions, including cooperation from the host country, substantial U.S. funding, and low-volume ports that do not transfer cargo from ship to ship or pier to pier, called trans-shipping. However, questions about who would bear the cost, how it would play out at larger-volume ports and how it would work in transshipments remain unanswered.
The report and the revelation that the 2012 deadline might be untenable upset Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security Subcommittee, which heard testimony on the SFI test program June 12.
After the hearing, Lautenberg and three Democratic senators introduced legislation that would require monitoring of cargo from the time it is packed in containers abroad until it reaches its destination in the United States.
“It’s been seven years since 9/11, and President Bush has still not secured our ports,” he said.Challenges of 100-percent scanning
CBP is preparing to test the next phase of 100-percent scanning with SFI tests at terminals in Hong Kong; Salalah, Oman; Port Busan, South Korea; and Singapore.
Agency officials say the next semi-annual 100 percent scanning report due later this year will focus on how the mandate would affect high-volume ports, such as Hong Kong and Busan, and those that focus on transshipments, such as Salalah.
However, the first report discussed last month in the Senate said initial SFI test results showed that technical and operational solutions are not yet available to capture data on transshipped cargo
“When you talk about moving thousands and thousands of containers a day in not the most environmentally friendly conditions, [and] on top of that you are talking about equipment that is not going to be treated with kid gloves, I’d say the technological questions are still unanswered to a large extent,” DiNucci said.
On land, radiation scanning is done by large Radiation Portal Monitors that containers pass through on trucks or trains, handheld portable radiation detectors, and radiation isotope-identifying devices.
X-ray and gamma-ray scanning is done by nonintrusive inspection equipment.
Steve Flynn, a port security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he and colleagues have been working on a study that uses modeling to determine the maximum percentage of cargo bound for the United States that could be scanned using current technologies without delaying virtually all the containers.
The study examined two high-volume ports and found that only 2 percent and 7 percent of the respective ports’ containers could be scanned under the current model without missing delivery schedules.
Flynn said this shows that detection must be better integrated in ports’ business processes. He added that the focus needs to be on cargo determined to pose the greatest security threat. “It’s not to find the needle in the haystack but to eliminate as much of the hay as possible,” he said.
Experts also cite unique port layouts and varying worldwide economic models as further challenges to implementing a 100 percent scanning system.
“Not every country is going to be as welcoming to this proposal as others, [and] not every port will be able to accommodate the physical layout needed to do this sort of thing,” said Charles Diorio, director of government affairs at the World Shipping Council, which represents the liner shipping industry.
In addition, industry officials say the $60 million that DOE and DHS contributed to the first SFI test phase is more than some countries can spend on systems, especially developing countries with limited technology and port infrastructure.
Michael Schlitz, director of compliance and facilitation at the World Customs Organization, which includes the United States and 172 other countries, said that price might be far too much for many members. Also, some of WCO’s members view the United States as an exporter of goods that concern them, raising questions of whether this type of arrangement would be reciprocal.
SFI government partners, terminal operators and other foreign governments submitted reports that were appended to the recent CBP report to Congress.
The European Commission said it disagrees with the 100 percent scanning approach because it is unlikely to improve security, has a high potential to disrupt trade and transport, and “could have serious repercussions for [United States/European Union] maritime transport and trade.”
“The focus right now is…conversation with the Hill [on] strategy to help this thing out moving forward,” DiNucci said. “There is still a lot of conversation to be had.”
Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.