DHS Doesn’t Want to Scan Shipping Containers

In 2007, Congress passed the 9/11 Act mandating the government implement the remaining recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. As part of this, they required that, by 2012, all shipping containers be scanned before they get to the United States. Only, DHS is balking at this, calling it unachievable. So GAO did a study of efforts to scan shipping containers to see whether DHS really knows whether it is achievable or not. The study shows that DHS has basically refused to even figure out whether 100% scans is feasible, and instead plans on just granting all ports a waiver from this law.

Basically, DHS is refusing to follow the law because it doesn’t want globalized trade to pay for the costs of making such trade secure.

As a reminder, the 9/11 Commission recommended scanning all shipping containers for WMDs (really, nukes, since they’re not doing chemical or biological scans). But scans would be valuable, as well, for hindering the importation of other things–drugs, arms, and people. Basically, scanning shipping containers would address one of the security risks of globalized trade that all sorts of illicit groups are currently exploiting. It would be asking importers to pay the full cost of importing foreign goods.

But no one wants to do this. GAO describes the complaints about the mandate to screen shipping containers.

Both DHS and CBP, as well as foreign governments and customs organizations, have expressed serious concerns regarding the feasibility and efficacy of the 100 percent scanning requirement. In April 2009, the Acting Commissioner for CBP testified that much had been done to enhance the security of cargo containers relative to other modes of transportation, and added that the area of maritime security should not be overemphasized to the detriment of other transportation modes. He also emphasized that the threat of a significant nuclear weapon in a container remains remote and requested that the scanning requirement be thoughtfully reconsidered by Congress. In January 2009, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security also stated that any requirement regarding container scanning from Congress must be achievable and affordable and noted that the July 2012 deadline for 100 percent container scanning appeared to be unattainable. In April 2009, the Secretary determined that CBP would focus deployment of the SFI program to foreign locations of strategic importance in a way that will maximize security benefits given its limited resources. In addition to DHS’ concerns that the requirement to scan all U.S.-bound cargo containers cannot be met, foreign governments and customs organizations have expressed their opposition to the requirement. For example, in June 2008, members of the WCO unanimously endorsed a resolution expressing concern that implementation of 100 percent scanning would be detrimental to world trade and could result in unreasonable delays, port congestion, and international trading difficulties.10 Similarly, in May 2008, the European Parliament issued a resolution calling for the United States to repeal the 100 percent scanning requirement.

Now, the GAO explains a number of real impediments to scanning all shipping containers at other ports: governments at those ports don’t want to do the scans, the scan technology is not yet robust or effective enough to work well. And, of particular concern, there are safety concerns for drivers that drive the shipping containers through scanners.

And thus far, the federal government has paid most of the costs of the scanning–to the tune of over $100 million. In effect, the federal government is paying to ensure the security of outsourcing production overseas. Other governments have threatened to impose scanning requirements at US ports if required to scan at their own ports. And other governments have complained that this law was imposed unilaterally.

So there are real challenges to scanning all shipping containers coming to the US. But rather than figuring out how to solve these challenges, DHS has basically decided to implement different, selective checks on shipping containers. It has basically decided it won’t implement the law, but will instead give blanket extensions to all ports.

DHS officials told us that the department had made a decision to grant a blanket extension to all foreign ports rather than on a port-by-port basis since some of the conditions listed in the 9/11 Act as a basis for granting extensions can be applied systemically to all ports. Specifically, DHS believes the last two conditions—that the use of the equipment would significantly impact trade capacity and the flow of cargo, and that scanning equipment does not adequately provide automatic notification of an anomaly in a container—could apply to all foreign ports and, thus, warrant the use of a blanket extension because two conditions are sufficient to justify an extension under the statute.

Now, GAO concludes that DHS should actually do some studies to see whether following the law is feasible. And DHS has agreed to do some of this, though it also claims incomplete reports it has already done are enough.

But the bottom line is this. After 9/11 the government did what it took to not only test everyone’s laptop and shoes for risk. But it also checks our behavior as we board airplanes. DHS checks each and every passenger that boards an airplane (and has gotten other countries to not only check its own in-bound passengers, but also get biometrics on non-US persons). But it refuses to do the same for the cheap shit Wal-Mart is importing from China.

19 replies
  1. PJEvans says:

    Because shoes and bottled drinks and nail files are so much more dangerous to the country than the potential nuke in a large steel box. /s

    They can’t figure out a way to scan the containers without scanning the drivers of the trucks? That shows a lack of intelligence, or something, on their part.
    (I can think of a couple of possible ways to deal with scanning containers-minus-drivers, off the top of my head.)

  2. codpiecewatch says:

    ‘DHS doesn’t want to scan shipping containers’ – and maybe I don’t want to pay their salaries or federal benefits if they don’t do their freaking job.

  3. Gitcheegumee says:

    Foreign firm to run nuclear tests at port – Security- msnbc.comMar 24, 2006 … The Bush administration is finalizing a contract with a Hong Kong company that marks the first time a foreign company manages a radiation …
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11991755/ – Cached

    This is a VERY interesting piece.

  4. Jim White says:

    If only nukes are being sought no X-ray based “scanning” should be needed. Radiation detectors don’t emit radiation, so no risk to drivers as they drive through a detector system. Attempts to defeat detection through shielding (which requires very dense metals) could be achieved with a higher level of scrutiny for containers above a certain weight.

  5. bmaz says:

    This country is fine with the 1% doctrine for invading other countries and killing mass numbers of their people, but not a 100% doctrine for scanning freight coming into the country? That seems a little unbalanced.

    • fatster says:

      This country is also fine with scanning passengers boarding airlines, but then that’s just us citizens being scanned, not important import stuff impacting the economy and all.

    • emptywheel says:

      Only second-hand, as far as I can tell. The port owners WANT to do this. But they’re not going to give the same kind of transparency. (Right now, CBP can see the scans they get of containers in the US; I gather taht wouldn’t be available if the ports ran the scanners.)

      • Rayne says:

        It was the expense issue, I should have been more clear. Without any specification in 9/11 Act as to who will pay for the equipment and process, and no deadline in the SAFE Ports Act for implementation, and with both foreign ownership and now a possible bankrupt owner, how’s this going to get fixed?

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I accept that this business is complex and of very high volume and that even short delays can be extraordinarily costly. But the US isn’t even scanning a statistically significant percentage of inbound containers. So much for security. I wonder if organized crime at a thousand ports or the world’s top 25 is a problem.

    I once thought Bush didn’t want to do it because, for him, it was throwing away money, that is, spending it in ways that brought no votes, only greater security.

    I still think that checking containers is a variation on the Good Samaritan problem. You can look away without liability. That’s what the FDA does by strenuously avoiding testing cattle for BSE or meat for e. coli. If you help, you’re on the hook and obligated to do a professional and competent job. Negligence or worse, it’s your neck, not the shipper’s when something evil or contraband passes through.

    That’s the brand of argument Bush used when claiming that FDA approval of a drug precluded tort liability for its later use. That argument was dangerously wrong, but that never stopped Bush.

  7. TarheelDem says:

    DHS acts like reciprocation by scanning exports from the US at US ports is a big problem. What’s the problem?

    So we have the WTO nations balking at our unfunded mandate that they scan shipping containers going to the US. And we are too chintzy to fund our own security agents to set up scanning facilities at points of origin. Wonder how much that has to do with the party who has ownership of a shipment under different trade payment agreements. Because that could very well affect jurisdiction. Passengers OTOH don’t get shipped FOB, COD, or any of the other ownership transfer arrangements.

    Autarky is looking more and more attractive.

  8. sailmaker says:

    Now, the GAO explains a number of real impediments to scanning all shipping containers at other ports: governments at those ports don’t want to do the scans, the scan technology is not yet robust or effective enough to work well. And, of particular concern, there are safety concerns for drivers that drive the shipping containers through scanners.

    Put the scanners on the cranes that pull/lift the containers off the ships. Geiger counters for starters, then move onto better technology. Have drug sniffing dogs patrol the yards. Weigh the containers for accuracy to detect arms/people (they didn’t do this when I was working for an American flagship company). Simple stuff. Work up to better technology.

    Make it the shipping and port companies’ responsibility to perform (don’t let them pass the buck to the feds like the airlines did and do).

  9. dakine01 says:

    But it refuses to do the same for the cheap shit Wal-Mart is importing from China.

    As we all know, trade is far more important than the actual people.

  10. Gitcheegumee says:

    a basic scan of all cargo bound for U.S. seaports could be accomplished using imaging ….. Hong Kong implemented a 100% cargo container scanning process as part of a pilot … Does “100% cargo scanning” apply to containers leaving the …

  11. Gitcheegumee says:

    I wonder if the resistance to scanning may be a concern that the scanner could damge the RFID on some of the goods?

    • PJEvans says:

      I doubt it. The steel would more likely block the RFID signal, anyway. (RFIDs don’t usually have the kind of strength to get through containers, and their range is usually inches to a few feet.)

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