The Government Accountability Office released a study this month on the merits of last year’s legislation mandating that 100 percent of all cargo containers be scanned before entering the United States. Much of the opposition to and public debate about this mandate has centered around the fact that the technology does not yet exist. That’s not really the salient point. No, the technology to do the job correctly does not yet exist, but it likely will at some point. The problem with 100 percent scanning goes much broader and deeper than mere technology.
The most glaring problem with the “100 percent” model is that it goes against the globally accepted consensus that a risk-analysis and layered approach is a far more comprehensive and effective security model than the concept of “100 percent scanning.”
The “100 percent” model would focus on a single vulnerability (in this case cargo containers that enter through official channels at our ports); by narrowly focusing limited resources on an effort to search, scan and analyze every single container, no matter how unlikely the chances it would contain dangerous materials, we would reduce resources and focus on other security vulnerability points, many of them more critical than container security.
Not only would this dramatic shift in our approach to homeland security undermine the Department of Homeland Security’s established security strategies, it would upend international security practices by mandating foreign ports to also implement these less effective tactics.
Noting that our international partners – including the full spectrum of government, security and industry organization – assert that 100 percent scanning is “inconsistent with widely accepted risk management principles,” the GAO report concludes our allies around the globe also believe that “the requirement could potentially reduce security.”
Indeed, the World Customs Organizations said flatly that the mandate is “tantamount to abandonment of risk management.”
The Association of German Seaport Operators came to similar conclusions with an April 2008 white paper asserting that implementing 100 percent scanning “would undermine mutual, already achieved security successes and hinder maritime security by depriving resources from areas that present a more significant threat and warrant closer scrutiny.”
Congress has passed a potentially dangerous law with its 100 percent scanning mandate by undermining more effective security strategies already in place. It goes against the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to implement risk-based security strategies (despite the irony of having been passed with the so-called 9/11 Act). There is still time to revise the law in such a way as to meet everyone’s concerns, but that window of opportunity is closing.