100 Percent Cargo Container Scanning: A Global Disaster

Report Homeland Security

100 Percent Cargo Container Scanning: A Global Disaster

September 4, 2008 3 min read
Jena Baker McNeill
Jena Baker McNeill
Senior Associate Fellow

Jena Baker McNeill is a homeland security policy analyst.

The path towards 100 percent scanning of cargo containers has hit yet another stumbling block. A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that blanket scanning is not only bad for trade but hinders the ability of the international community to improve supply chain security worldwide.

This report is not the first round of bad news for 100 percent scanning, and indications are that it will not be the last. Congress must recognize the disastrous consequences of 100 percent scanning and begin examining alternatives that would maintain economic viability while protecting Americans.

GAO Says No

The 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 requires foreign seaports to scan 100 percent of the cargo entering the United States by 2012. This legislation was enacted in the face of clear indications that 100 percent scanning would not work. In fact, Congress ordered a test, called the Secure Freight Initiative, that later determined blanket screening was wildly unrealistic and unfeasible. But Congress passed the legislation before the test even occurred. Congress marches blind, undeterred by logic, steadfast toward disaster.

Currently, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) uses two means by which to screen and scan cargo containers set for the U.S. The first is the Container Security Initiative (CBP) which places agents at foreign seaports to ensure that high-risk cargo is scanned prior to departing for the U.S. The second is the Customs-Trade Partnership against Terrorism, which works to develop voluntary partnerships among the international community, including private companies that negotiate for benefits (such as reduced cargo inspection) in exchange for providing cargo information for screening and improving internal security practices.

The report took a holistic view of efforts by CBP to work with the international community to develop a framework for supply chain security. The report's conclusion was that while CBP is making valiant efforts toward development of international supply chain standards, the 100 percent scanning initiative has emerged as a glaring roadblock. Furthermore, U.S. dedication to blanket scanning seriously compromises the following:

  1. Trade. The report cited concerns by the international community that 100 percent scanning could seriously affect the flow of commerce, especially with developing countries. Over 11 million ocean going containers are shipped to the U.S. annually. Serious disruptions in the flow into the U.S. could produce enormous backups, rippling throughout world commerce. Besides the simple logistical problems, our trading partners consider the unilateral move toward 100 percent scanning as trade protectionism. Retaliatory measures have been considered, and the U.S. should be concerned;
  2. Security. The report highlighted concerns that blanket scanning actually provides less security because of the rate of error associated with attempting to scan the massive amount of cargo headed to the U.S. everyday. The issue is one of quantity over quality-the more cargo scanned, the less attention given to each piece of cargo-opening the door to serious security breaches; and
  3. U.S. International Posture. Currently, CBP is a leader in the development of international standards. The new mandate, however, runs counter to prior multilateral efforts on the supply chain security issue. If the international community views the mandate as backpedaling by CBP, countries may begin to look for new leadership with less baggage.

Next Steps

Alternatives exist, and some CBP efforts glitter in the darkness of 100 percent scanning. The report cited international praise for the Framework of Standards to Secure and Facilitate Global Trade (SAFE Framework), which allows the U.S. to partner with countries we trust, eliminating the need for CBP agents at member country seaports. The SAFE Framework gives a thumbs-up to member countries that follow the right steps with regards to container security. Congress should continue to look for programs modeled after this approach that accomplish U.S. security goals while furthering the U.S. image internationally.

Prior to choosing the next path, Congress should establish an independent, bipartisan commission to look at the mandate of 100 percent scanning. This commission must examine the tangible threats-recognizing that the widely touted "nuke in a box" scenario is more Hollywood than reality-and produce sound alternatives to 100 percent screening.

Finally, future alternatives cannot ignore the trade consequences of 100 percent scanning. Congress should separately and comprehensively address this issue. As the economies of Russia and China continue to expand exponentially, the U.S. can ill afford to mire its ability to participate in trade markets.

Recognizing the Real Consequences of 100 Percent Scanning

Homeland security is directly affected by our ability to cooperate with our friends and allies abroad, because terrorism does not limit itself to geographic boundaries. Our economic vitality is similarly couched in our ability to work with different nations to improve the flow of commerce. Allowing poor legislation to interfere with this work is a disservice to the international community and jeopardizes the security and economic prosperity of all Americans.

Jena Baker McNeill is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.


Jena Baker McNeill
Jena Baker McNeill

Senior Associate Fellow