US lawmakers Tuesday panned resistance at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to meet a mandate to scan 100 percent of US-bound seagoing cargo, while the department claimed significant progress on a separate requirement to screen air cargo coming into the country.
On the third anniversary of the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 (Public Law 110-53), three congressmen, led by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), criticized the lack of a DHS plan to meet the sea cargo scanning requirement, which is intended to detect illicit smuggling of radiological threats onboard US-bound vessels.
"When Congress approved the 100 percent scanning mandate, the potential loss of life and economic disruption that would result from the detonation of a dirty bomb at a busy US port was foremost in our minds," said Thompson, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, in a statement.
"Three years later, the agency charged with implementing this important security provision has made no measurable progress. Instead, the Department of Homeland Security has expended its resources on campaigning against the 100 percent scanning mandate, a vital provision of the 9/11 Act that then-President [George W.] Bush signed into law," he added.
Thompson and Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano Tuesday to decry the department’s continued push to extend or override the 2012 statutory deadline for 100 percent scanning of cargo containers leaving foreign ports for the United States.
The lawmakers argued that DHS under the Bush administration, led by Michael Chertoff, actively campaigned against the scanning requirement rather than working to achieve it.
Napolitano has done no better, they lamented. The secretary and Alan Bersin, commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, have consistently said that DHS could not meet the seaport-scanning mandate.
"Rather, it is our understanding that DHS is seeking to extend the deadline by two years for all ports worldwide without developing a plan to implement the scanning requirement by a date certain pursuant to the statute," the lawmakers wrote.
As such, the congressmen requested that DHS provide them, by August 17, with a detailed list of challenges existing at each individual foreign port that ships cargo containers to the United States. The list should include specific justifications for providing each port with a deadline extension.
They further requested to receive, by Sept. 30, a plan for implementing the 100 percent foreign cargo-scanning requirement along with a schedule for carrying out the requirement at each foreign port. The plan should include projections on funding and employees required to meet the 100 percent scanning mandate.
The plan also should include information on how DHS might capitalize on the resources of the Container Security Initiative and the Megaports Initiative to achieve 100 percent scanning at the ports covered by those programs, they said.
To date, CBP estimates that it is scanning only 5 percent of US-bound sea cargo, CBP Commissioner Bersin told the Senate Commerce Committee July 21.
But CBP also collects extra data, certifies cargo inspectors, and checks the highest risk cargo coming to the United States, Bersin stated in defense of his agency’s efforts.
"And we also have more sophisticated targeting rules which incorporate threat streams so that we can actually both separate out that cargo that presents low risk from that cargo that is either high risk or about which we know very little," Bersin testified.
While DHS respects that the 100 percent scanning mandate remains the law, DHS would soon present Congress with an alternate plan, which if enacted would also guarantee the security of US-bound cargo, Bersin contended.
"I know the secretary appreciates the threat and also the fact that 100 percent scanning is the law. And that in fact being at 5 percent there is a huge gap there, and it’s been actually an issue that’s been delayed and deferred each year as the legislation permits," the commissioner commented.
The SAFE Port Reauthorization Act of 2010, introduced by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), would relieve CBP of the obligation to meet the July 2012 deadline.
"Until x-ray scanning technology is proven effective at detecting radiological material and not disruptive of trade, requiring the x-raying of all US-bound cargo, regardless of its risk, at every foreign port, is misguided and provides a false sense of security. It would also impose onerous restrictions on the flow of commerce, costing billions with little additional security benefit," Collins said on the Senate floor July 27.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) meanwhile touted its success Monday in meeting a different requirement of the 9/11 Act to screen all air cargo for similar threats.
As of August 1, the agency said, it was ensuring the screening of 100 percent of all air cargo on domestic US passenger aircraft.
TSA Administrator John Pistole said in a statement, "TSA has taken another step forward in strengthening the security of air travel. Screening all cargo on domestic passenger aircraft adds another layer to our already robust security system and ensures that TSA is doing everything possible to ensure the safety of air travel."
TSA lacked the resources to manually screen the cargo itself, so it implemented its Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP) to authorize US facilities to screen cargo passing through them before it reaches an airport. More than 900 such facilities received CCSP certification prior to August 1. CCSP facilities maintain physical security around cargo, guard it with trained personnel, and ensure that no inappropriate people have access to cargo, according to TSA.
Despite the TSA milestone, the agency projects it will not screen 100 percent of all US-bound cargo from foreign ports (rather than domestic points of origin) until sometime in 2013.
Presently, TSA screens roughly 60 percent of international cargo, including all cargo that represents the highest risk, officials say.
"International air cargo is more secure than it has ever been," Pistole said in his statement. "TSA continues to work closely with our international partners and is making substantial progress toward meeting the 100 percent mark in the next few years."
The 9/11 Act required TSA to achieve 100percent scanning of all air cargo by this year, however.