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Outlook for Container Scanning

CONGRESS PASSED A LAW last year requiring 100 percent scanning of nonpassenger cargo carried in the bellies of airliners by 2010, and 100 percent scanning of all imported shipping containers by 2012. While the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has indicated that it is on track to meet the airliner deadline, Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—the agency charged with meeting the container requirement—recently told a congressional committee that it faces a number of obstacles.

The agency’s concerns arise from the initial findings from the pilot test being conducted on its Secure Freight Initiative (SFI). The test is ongoing at seven of the 700 foreign ports from which shipping containers headed for the United States originate.

One issue that CBP cited is the challenge of staffing the thousands of scanning monitors that would be required at ports. Another is a lack of physical “choke points” where large numbers of containers can easily be scanned on their way through ports. Additional concerns include the use of widely varied systems and technologies at different sites and the difficulty of scanning at ports where containers are transferred between ships via cranes and shuttle vehicles.

This diverse range of challenges “will likely continue to be encountered, to varying degrees, as SFI deploys to additional locations,” CBP Deputy Commissioner Jayson Ahern told members of the Senate Commerce Committee.

The CBP assessment was seconded by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which arrived at the same findings in its own independent study. Stephen L. Caldwell, GAO’s director of homeland security and justice, who led its evaluation of SFI, noted that CBP probably can’t meet the law’s 2012 deadline. Instead, it will likely take advantage of provisions in the law allowing CBP and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to seek two-year extensions on behalf of individual ports if the agency can demonstrate the existence of any of six broad conditions preventing effective implementation. Currently SFI works with the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Megaports Initiative, a collaborative, international effort launched in 2003 to prevent illegal trafficking of nuclear materials through seaports, regardless of intended destination. As of this spring, the program operated radiation-scanning portals at 12 ports, with 27 more planned, and a goal of 75 total within five years.

That goal, according to the testimony of NNSA administrator David Huizenga, could allow scanning of 50 percent of the world’s total container cargo in five years. Why then, is 100 percent scanning of U.S.-bound containers one year earlier said to be so difficult?

Caldwell explains that the Megaports Initiative scans for only one trait: radioactivity. Doing so requires only passive, automated portal scanners, which sound an alarm when a passing container, usually atop a tractor-trailer, emits radiation.

There is, even with this initiative, a potential critical shortcoming, notes Caldwell. Megaports’ technology, called radioactive isotope identification devices, could miss a threat smugglers have encased in lead.

CBP’s requirement for 100 percent scanning is much broader. It must not only scan all cargo destined for the United States, but it must also scan for a range of suspect items, including chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive threats.

That type of scanning cannot be fully automated; it requires a person viewing x-ray scan images, ideally aided by software, to detect complex threats. Those complex threats might include an exceptionally dense substance, like the aforementioned lead.

Another difference between the two initiatives is that Megaports, as indicated by its name, requires scanning only at large facilities, whereas the newer U.S.-import-scanning mandate applies to hundreds of smaller ports around the world.

DHS has long asserted that it screens 100 percent of U.S.-bound cargo containers. That never meant a physical examination of each container, however. Rather, it referred to a risk-based screening, beginning with a review of all U.S.-bound container manifests at their ports of departure for information that indicated elevated risks. Only in cases where documentation gave reason to suspect elevated risk would a container be subjected to physical scanning or inspection.

DHS opposed the provision in the law requiring full physical scanning. In his testimony, Ahern indicated that the outgoing administration still supports directed, risk-based, rather than universal, scanning.

“[W]e could be neglecting other areas of concern that potentially pose greater risk and vulnerability to the country,” Ahern told the committee. “Again, a risk-management approach to security has to be driven by our informed judgment about the totality of potential risks to the country, not just risks to a single vector.”