By Jena Baker McNeill
Homeland Security Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation

Today, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on the topic of transportation security. What she said about cargo security was something lots of folks in the homeland security community have been saying for the past two years. There are a number of serious challenges that stand in the way of the 100 percent scanning mandate.

The private sector has known this for a while. These innovators understand that you can’t be perfect (i.e., scan 100 percent of cargo) without the right technology. And Napolitano backed them up in today’s hearing emphasizing a distinct lack of technology to “effectively and automatically detect suspicious anomalies within cargo containers that should trigger additional inspection.”

But the private sector isn’t alone. Intelligence community members repeatedly downplayed the likelihood of the commonly touted “nuke in a box” scenario—the scenario widely touted as the reason this mandate was needed. Napolitano also backs up this assertion, stating “the likelihood of an attack is difficult to determine…there is little evidence our adversaries have made a significant advancement toward that goal.”

Select members of Congress, like Senators Collins and Lieberman, have been saying it. Collins has rightly recognized that making Americans believe that 100 percent of cargo will be scanned without the right technology to ensure this will happen “is misguided and provides a false sense of security.”

Napolitano also emphasizes that this mandate could be a killer for an ailing economy and is likely to cost as much as $8 million per shipping lane. Congress must assume the American taxpayer or the private sector will incur these costs—a pill that is quite difficult to swallow.

The Secretary should be applauded for her leadership on the matter and her recognition that when it comes to regulatory schemes, an accurate idea of the risk the country faces must be at the crux of the debate. But what she didn’t say is something more fundamental. This mandate was a bad idea to start with. We don’t need more timelines, money, extensions or mandates to make this happen. We need to rethink the approach altogether. There is a lot of good, risk-based stuff happening in the maritime domain like C-TPAT, 10 Plus 2 and the Proliferation Security Initiative. But this mandate isn’t one of them. It is time for Congress to cut and run on 100 percent scanning, and fast.

  • Chris Battle

    Hi Jena, thanks for the update on the Secretary's position on cargo scanning. Most of her focus seems to be on maritime scanning; however, some of the same problems technology problems described above also apply to air cargo — with much more urgent deadlines. Any idea on what the Secretary' position is here?