Note: James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.,
visited Hong Kong and examined its port operations in January
In 2006, Congress mandated the Secured Freight Initiative to
test the efficacy of inspecting 100 percent of shipping containers
coming from overseas for terrorist threats. The current system, set
by the Container Security Initiative, scans only "high-risk"
containers. In 2007, Congress proceeded to mandate 100 percent
inspection even before the tests had started. Hong Kong currently
has a pilot 100 percent inspection lane, and it shows why the
policy makes little sense from a security or economic standpoint.
Congress should study the issue more closely and revisit the
mandate in 2009.
Lessons from Hong Kong
The pilot study being conducted in Hong Kong is limited to one
terminal. A public-private partnership--made up of the terminal
operator, Hong Kong Customs, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection
agents--is giving it the old college try, attempting to conduct 100
percent screening as effectively and efficiently as possible.
U.S. traffic from Hong Kong peaks at about 6,000 containers a
day and accounts for about one in every five containers that leaves
the port. A look at the pilot program gives a rough approximation
at what it would require to screen every container entering the
U.S. from Hong Kong.
The configuration of the terminals means that operators would
have to spend more time weeding out the containers that are bound
for the United States. It is logical to predict that Hong Kong
Customs would have to add upwards of 500 agents. The terminal
operators would have to buy and maintain two sets of equipment--one
for the containers coming by truck, and one for containers coming
by barge. Furthermore, Hong Kong terminals operate 24 hours a day
all year round, stopping only for killer typhoons. The terminal
cannot afford to stop loading if the scanners break down, so
back-up sets of equipment would also be necessary. Every terminal
would also need its own control center and monitoring
The substantial cost of this new infrastructure would be
transferred directly to port operations and eventually to
consumers. In the end, Americans would pay a lot more for goods and
services and would gain little in terms of security. The current
system of scanning "high-risk" containers has proven to be
perfectly effective and costs much less.
Also, shippers may respond to the new mandate by shifting their
operations to less expensive ports in China--ports that do not
share Hong Kong's reputation for safety and security. As a result,
the inspections might actually make Americans less safe by driving
business to third-world ports that are easier for terrorists to
What Congress Should Do
Congress should establish an independent, bipartisan commission
to study the results of the Secure Freight Initiative and the
mandate for 100 percent screening of shipping containers and air
cargo. The commission should assess the likely threats and look
into alternatives for securing global supply chains. The commission
should report its findings after the 2008 presidential elections.
Congress could then return to the issue in early 2009 with the
politics of the election behind it. Based on the results of the
commission's recommendations, Congress should then modify the 100
percent mandate so that U.S. policy bolsters security and
prosperity equally well.
James Jay Carafano,
Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis
Institute for International Studies and Senior Research Fellow for
National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah
Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage