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Crate Expectations for Cargo Security Strategy

In a draft national cargo security strategy, the Department of Homeland Security sets a “zero-tolerance policy” toward the arrival of weapons of mass destruction at U.S. borders. The goal is to inspect 100 percent of “designated high-risk” cargo.

But the question is: How sure can you be that a cargo container not designated as high risk wasn’t the box a terrorist chose as the perfect hiding place?

Basing screening on risk is tricky, says the Homeland Security Institute (HSI), a federally funded think tank. It writes in its assessment of DHS’s cargo strategy that screening only high-risk cargo could be “catastrophic.”

The report states: “Simply put, there is no truly secure substitute for 100% checking of all cargo for WMD, particularly given the adaptive and shifting strategies of terrorists.” 

Inspection of all high-risk cargo is one of five missions laid out in the national cargo strategy, which is currently being revised to reflect the comments from industry and HSI. The others include enhancing the physical security of the supply chain via such means as mechanical seals on in-bound shipments, identifying high-risk cargo through data analysis, partnering with business and the international community, and making the international cargo-transportation system more efficient.

International security standards for cargo security are in the offing, as well. In the draft strategy, DHS notes that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been discussing the issue with the World Customs Organization and the European Union. The standards would be part of a broader intermodal approach to cargo security that might include ships, ports, trains, and trucks.

Security standards have limited value if they’re not enforced, however. In that vein, HSI urges DHS to create a “real and not theoretical” competitive advantage for companies that comply with standards.

DHS has tried that, promoting programs such as “green lanes,” which allow companies to expedite processing of secure containers that can be tracked.

But wouldn’t such programs undermine the goal of 100 percent inspection laid out by HSI? HSI’s Jennifer Crook emphasizes that HSI doesn’t endorse such programs; rather, it uses them as an example of government incentives that lack teeth. HSI hasn’t recommended an incentive that would be consistent with its 100-percent-screening approach.

In any case, CBP won’t have its “green lanes” program operational until the end of 2005.  King Rogers, a member of the board of directors of the International Cargo Security Council, says Customs took a lot of heat at a recent cargo security summit for not yet having the green lanes program running.

Despite these issues, Rogers is enthusiastic about the strategy. “The strategy as written and presented was an absolutely great first start,” he says. “It’s not a be-all and end-all, but it’s a basis that can be built upon to really make a comprehensive secure cargo security strategy.”