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US politicians seem set on the requirement that every US-bound container should be scanned at the export port prior to loading on the departing vessel, a notion that is absurd to anyone with even a passing acquaintance of the practicalities of international container transportation.

This week the US House of Representatives subcommittee on Homeland Security offered up to Congress the revised draft of its SMART Port Security Act, itself a reauthorisation of the 2007 SAFE Port Act.

The crucial element here is that despite intensive lobbying by US shippers such as the National Retail Federation, as well as recommnedations from Department of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano herself that no one would be ready, the revised legislation failed to remove the clause in the original SAFE Port Act which ruled that 100% scanning should be brought in on 1 July – a mere three weeks away.

It is utterly inconceivable that there will be anything near 100% scanning at that point – given the sheer numbers of containers being brought into the country on a weekly basis from every corner of the globe, 1% might – might – be a more realistic target. In 2011, for example, 17.4 million teu came into the country. That’s a lot of boxes.

Even if there was the global capability to scan more containers, it is unclear under what jurisdiction US lawmakers have that would force foreign ports to scan 100% US-bound boxes. The legislation will do nothing other than hobble their own importers by barring them from using a port that does not 100% scan. And given that absolutely none do, where does that leave some of the world’s largest box shippers?

True, it makes the global container supply chain more secure, but only insofar as the supply chain will ground to halt altogether.

And at what point did countries shift the onus of border security to foreign, and largely private, commercial companies – which is essentially how the US seems now to intend to defend its borders?

What makes the reasoning even harder to comprehend is that the new legislation allows the DHS to recognise other countries’ trusted security regimes, such as the tried and tested known shipper programmes.

In air freight, the whimsical and costly reactions of the DHS are well known. But in air freight, there are considerably fewer volumes, and there is also a proven risk of terrorism while so much air cargo travels in passenger aircraft bellyholds – very different from the less headline-creating mode of sea freight.

Of course, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has reset its deadline for the 100% screening of inbound air cargo into the US for December 2012, which heralded far fewer complaints than when the idea was first mooted – because the industry was given time to prepare.

Interestingly, despite this increased concentration on cargo security, it looks as if the TSA (which doesn’t deal with sea freight) is about to be considerably slimmed down. At yesterday’s House Committee on Homeland Security hearing, entitled, perhaps rather provocatively, “TSA’s efforts to fix its poor customer service reputation and become a leaner smarter agency”, TSA Administrator John Pistole was forced to deny the agency was “bloated”. (For Mr Pistole’s written testimony, go <a href=”” target=”_blank”>here</a>.)

Republican Mike Rogers, chairman of the subcommittee, said: “Mr Pistole, I believe you are too bogged down in managing an oversized workforce to mitigate the next potential threat.” He suggested the 46,000-strong TSA should be cut by 30 or 40%, (you can read the story <a href=”” target=”_blank”>here</a>).

It would seem that Congress’s attempts to cut costs are aligning rather nicely with the TSA’s poor public image – and politicians are seeing a rather easy win. The subcommittee is suggesting the TSA moves faster towards a risk-based approach to screening – an argument made all the more powerful when former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger underwent a routine airport screening.

One feels a little sorry for Pistole, who pointed out that the TSA has in the past been accused of moving too fast.

Either way, the US seems to want to have its cake and eat it. It wants to be secure, and it wants to cut costs. No one wants to see another terrorist incident. The irony is that one DHS subcommittee – the one that ultimately is responsible for passenger safety and arguably holds more lives in its hands – is arguing for a more intelligent, risk-based approach; while another DHS subcommittee – overseeing the comparatively human-free mode sea freight mode – is saying that risk-based approach is not enough on its own.

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  • A.J. Dutari

    August 24, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    US Congress Lawmakers propose X-Ray scanning of all containers inbound to US ports, prior to loading on ships. Goodbye to US Trade & Competitiveness ! Cost cutting goes against security. One DHS overseer subcommittee on air freight accepts risk based approach ramdom checking, while another on sea cargo wants 100% screening. Who pays for this? A Coherent Mission Approach Policy is required. Deadline approaches.