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Cargo shipping draws congressional scrutiny

From May 2006 Government Security News

A new shipping container security program, meant to help U.S. consumer and industrial goods companies shore up their overseas supply chains, is taking on water even before it is established. The House overwhelmingly passed on

May 4 a bill that originated in the Homeland Security Committee and would establish a container security initiative (CSI) and other supply chain programs that would set standards for tracking all consumer and industrial product containers arriving through normal and accelerated-entry “GreenLanes” at U.S. ports. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed a similar bill on May 5.

But, one week after the House passed the Security and Accountability For Every (SAFE) Port Act (HR 4954) by an overwhelming vote of 421-2, a key House appropriations subcommittee passed a Department of Homeland Security budget bill for fiscal 2007 that would cut the CSI funding by $60 million.

In addition, the appropriations bill reduces funding for the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) program by $5 million to $70.1 million. C-TPAT, for example, has been the vehicle for establishing GreenLanes procedures. After the appropriations subcommittee acted, the top Democrat on that panel, Rep. Martin Olav Sabo of Minnesota , aid, “It is a good reminder that authorization bills passed in the House have very little relation to budget realities.”

In explaining its own rational, the SAFE Port Act says: “Significant enhancements can be achieved by applying a multi-layered approach to supply chain security, in a coordinated fashion.”

The House bill -- and the pending Senate bill – try to accomplish that goal by establishing a number of programs aimed at forcing foreign ports to screen all U.S.-bound containers for radiological and nuclear presence, by providing eligible U.S. companies with additional supply chain information through a new, secure electronic data interchange system and by setting standards for both container seals and advanced container intrusion detection systems. Use of the latter would enable U.S. importers to use GreenLanes in American ports.
The emerging dispute between congressional authorizing and appropriating committees about the proper level of federal financial commitment to any new cooperative private-public seaborne supply chain program seems to fly in the face of the Dubai Ports World firestorm earlier this year and indications that current U.S. shipping container monitoring programs are highly ineffective. But Congress will put some new container security/supply chain verification program in place if for no other reason than extreme frustration with the DHS’s inability to get a program up and running on its own.

“DHS is long overdue in establishing cargo security standards and transportation worker credentials,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the sponsor of GreenLanes legislation in the Senate. “We need to hold DHS accountable, and our bill provides the infrastructure to ensure accountability and coordination.”

As both congressional bills traveled through the House and Senate, the key issue motivating legislators was the fact that currently only six percent of the 27,000 containers reaching U.S. ports every day are inspected to determine whether they contain weapons of mass destruction or other deadly cargo (including terrorists themselves.)

In the recent past, officials of the DHS have argued that Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Automated Targeting System (ATS) is so precise that the U.S. knows which containers arriving on foreign docks are “high risk.” So, potentially most dangerous containers are theoretically inspected at those foreign ports. ATS profiling is based on paper filings of cargo waybills and an extensive historical risk scoring algorithm derived from years of data about containers and inspections.

But Clark Kent Ervin, former inspector general of the DHS, told the House Homeland Security Committee last April that foreign inspectors often refuse to inspect containers that the CPB deems to be high-risk. “Less than a fifth of the containers that we believe should be inspected abroad -- 17.5 percent to be precise -- are in fact inspected by foreign ports,” Ervin said.

That’s why members of Congress believe it is important to know whether container seals -- and eventually all six sides of a container -- have been breached in transit.

The House and Senate bills at this point have some important differences. The House bill seems to be the tougher one, and unequivocal at that. It would force the secretary of DHS to set standards for container seals within 180 days of enactment. Two years from enactment, the DHS secretary must require the enforcement of those standards on all containers entering the United States. In the report accompanying passage of the bill, the House committee voiced its concern “that the state of current technology in this realm is currently insufficient.” The House bill sets a de facto standard which states: “It is critical that new technologies for securing containers minimize false positive readings, and ideally incorporate a false-positive of less than one percent.”

The Senate bill (S 2459) seems more limited, requiring container security devices only for importers participating in a pilot program involving three foreign ports, which would be named in the future. Importers’ containers, loaded on ships in those foreign ports, would be subject to “integrated” scanning, including the use of container “security or sealing devices.” Presumably, that CSI pilot would eventually be rolled out to other foreign ports.

The Senate bill also has a provision setting up GreenLanes at U.S. ports. The use of those lanes would be contingent upon an importer utilizing a more advanced container security device specified by the DHS. The House bill also includes a GreenLanes program (called Tier Three) whose cost of entry would be the use of “container security devices, policies, or practices that exceed the standards and procedures established by the Secretary…”

The thought of Congress delivering a kick in the pants to DHS on container security devices has made retail and consumer product associations nervous. Both the Chamber of Commerce and the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) pleaded with both House and Senate committees this spring to go slowly. Jonathan Gold, vice president for global supply chain policy at the RILA, stated, “Congress should outline policies and goals and let DHS find the smartest and most effective way to meet those goals rather than being forced into deploying unproven gadgets.”

But there is near unanimity in Congress that DHS’s marathon foot-dragging must come to an end