As Chairman of the Safe Commerce Coalition, I’ve spoken to a number of audiences lately about the issue of cargo and supply chain security. I find myself often having to remind folks that when we stood up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, we had a two-fold mission when it came to border security. First was to secure the borders. The second mission, which is sometimes forgotten, is to maintain the free and efficient flow of commerce and people.
At events such as the forum on cargo security that was sponsored by the Heritage Foundation earlier this month, I have been surprised by the fact that the second part of the DHS mission is increasingly forgotten on Capitol Hill. There is an alarming policy drift in Congress to attempt to provide “100 percent” security — however that might be defined — in many areas of homeland security. The most visible, and potentially damaging, is legislation passed last year by Congress to mandate the physical scanning of 100 percent of all cargo coming into the United States.
To give you a little perspective: About 12 million cargo containers enter the country every year.
Aside from the staggering financial costs to implement such a program, most security experts agree such a security model is wrong-headed. Cargo is most vulnerable to exploitation during times when it is not in motion – when it is sitting on the docks waiting to be moved, for example. The inefficiencies associated with the backups that will result from an effort to scan every container will ensure that more cargo is left in vulnerable positions for longer periods of time. Moreover, by focusing the huge amount of resources that will be required for such a program – not just financial, technical and equipment resources but human labor – will necessarily result in a deterioration of resources dedicated to other key (and more effective) security needs. It will also simply alert terrorist and criminal organizations to adapt to such a lumbering and predictable model by simply avoiding formal cargo containers as means of moving dangerous products. For example, the vast majority of narcotics that enter the United States don’t come through formal Customs inspections. They are smuggled into the country via a bewildering spectrum of routes.
Most importantly, the “100 percent” model ignores the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission (ironically, the supporters of this mandate included it in a bill referred to as the “9/11 Commission Act”). However, the 9/11 Commission expressly urged a greater reliance on risk-based and intelligence-driven strategies – including, quite specifically, cargo security.
The effort by current Members of Congress to drive the country away from this risk-based strategy not only goes against the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission; they go against the consensus of security experts as well as the strategic model on which the Department of Homeland Security has operated since its founding.
Perhaps it is good political rhetoric. When certain individuals raise the alarm that we are “only scanning 5 percent” of the cargo that enters the country, it sounds frightening indeed. It’s simply inaccurate, though, to suggest that 95 percent of the cargo entering the country without scrutiny. DHS screens – through a mixture of physical scanning, intelligence gathering, private-sector coordination and risk-based assessments – fully 100 percent of the cargo entering the country.
While the current trend towards 100 percent scanning may make for good politics, it does not make for good security.