Back in 2006, before George W. Bush’s approval ratings dropped through the basement into somewhere around the fourth circle of hell, it made political sense for the Democrats to attack the Republican administration on cargo security. They were fighting to regain control of Congress and had to show that they, too, were capable of protecting the American people from another terrorist attack. They found themselves an effective--if inaccurate--sound bite in accusing the administration of screening a mere 5 percent of cargo coming into the country.
Like Lyndon Johnson’s wildly effective nuclear mushroom ad against Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Democrats of 2006 painted a scary picture of a “nuke in a box” scenario. What was needed, they asserted, was the screening of all cargo coming into the country--the screening of all air cargo on passenger planes and the actual physical scanning of all maritime cargo. What is baffling, and disturbing, is that many Democrats are still clinging to this politicized message to scare the public.
Now that the 100 percent screening mandate for air cargo has come and gone, the usual suspects are turning their attention to maritime scanning. In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (again) accuses the department of ignoring the will of Congress and not even trying to meet the requirement to scan all cargo coming into the country.
The effort to ignore the ludicrous intent of Congress has been bipartisan, starting with both secretaries under President Bush (Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff) and now Napolitano under President Obama. The reason for trying to ignore the congressional mandate--according to all three secretaries, the thousands and thousands of professional security officers working in DHS, and most independent security experts--is that it is impossible to meet and, more importantly, less effective than the risk-based, layered security model on which the Department of Homeland Security was founded.
But why let most of the security experts in the world get in the way of the will and superior wisdom of Congress?
In an excellent piece by Rob Margetta of CQ Homeland Security, some congressmen are claiming that the aviation community has met the screening requirement, and that there is no reason the maritime community cannot do the same. This is hardly accurate. The 100 percent requirement went into effect just this month, and it is impossible to tell at this time whether it has been effectively met or what its impact on the air cargo supply chain will be.
These same congressmen were only recently also accusing TSA of ignoring the will of Congress, too--setting up that hallowed institution as the Rodney Dangerfield of homeland security. Seems nobody will give it any respect. TSA, though, deserves a lot of credit for trying. In order to meet the nearly impossible air cargo mandate, TSA underwent a herculean effort to work with the private sector to implement a voluntary program (the Certified Cargo Screen Program) that would allow shippers to screen their own cargo as a way to avoid the certain backups at airports, not to mention third parties opening crates and rummaging their products.
Rep. Ed Markey--the chief Dangerfieldist--dismissed TSA’s program as “the system developed by the Bush administration” (you can almost hear the spittle as he says it). It was--here comes the chorus--skirting the will of Congress, and he threatened “additional legislation.” His eagerness to federalize air cargo security is palpable.
Now that it is convenient to point to air cargo as an example of DHS saying it couldn’t meet the mandate but in the end meeting it nonetheless, one of Markey’s staffers is suggesting that the same will play out with maritime scanning: Lots of hollow complaining and then, dragged along by Congress, the private sector and Customs and Border Protection will in fact be able to meet their mandate, too.
- Nevermind that the air cargo mandate has not been met. It’s unclear how much of domestic cargo is being screened, and, more important, absolutely no international cargo is being screened.
- Nevermind that 95 percent of all cargo enters the country through our maritime ports, a massive difference from the small amount of cargo transported by air.
- Nevermind that the cargo containers used in maritime shipping are massive, holding large manufacturing and shipping products, compared to the small-item shipping of air cargo transport.
- Nevermind that foreign governments have made it clear that they see the 100 percent model as a lousy one and do not intend to bow to the dictates of the U.S. Congress.
- Nevermind that there are some 700 international ports that would have to participate, and that many of them are not configured to handle the technology and additional resources necessary to scan all cargo--and likely never will be.
- Nevermind that the law requires maritime cargo to be physically scanned, as opposed to only screening for air cargo.
- Nevermind that a proven scanning technology required to achieve this goal has yet to be developed.
To give you an idea of how far into left field Thompson and Markey and other proponents of 100 percent scanning are, they are not only sticking to the requirement for 100 percent inspections but they are also sticking to the 2012 deadline. Why not dictate that NASA build a colony on Jupiter? By 2015?
These congressmen are claiming that DHS has provided no alternatives, which is untrue. Customs and Border Protection has long been working on the Secure Freight Initiative that integrates physical scanning and risk-based, layered security into a comprehensive security model. Experts in the United States and around the world say such a model is more effective than a 100 percent model--which would not only require a massive redeployment of limited government resources but would also give a false sense of security that nothing will get into the country. Ports are hardly the only route for smuggling. Ask the cartels who are running a billion-dollar enterprise sneaking drugs across our land borders. Even the members of the 9/11 Commission called for a risk-based approach to cargo security.
Experts be damned, say the Dangerfields. There are campaigns to be run.
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