WASHINGTON - Homeland security officials promoted this month multimillion-dollar X-ray machines, gamma-ray imaging and radiation sensors now being deployed to inspect cargo at seaports from Savannah, Ga., to Long Beach, Calif.
Yet as tens of thousands of shipping containers arrive each day from abroad, the government has yet to take one of the most basic security steps -requiring each cargo box to have its doors bolted by a simple metal seal that costs no more than $1.
Amid concerns that a devastating weapon might be hidden in one of these 40-foot metal containers, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been testing high-tech seals with electronic monitoring capabilities.
The government is even developing "smart" shipping boxes that could detect dangerous materials and send radio alarm signals.
But with most of these high-tech solutions in the testing phase, a debate continues over a long-promised federal requirement that all incoming containers be sealed at least by mechanical bolts that meet an international standard for strength.
Government officials, shipping groups and security experts agree that's a logical starting point for safeguarding the shipping network.
"It's not a panacea, but it is part of an overall strategy to better secure containers literally from the point of origin overseas to arrival in the United States," said Customs and Border Security Commissioner Robert C. Bonner during a recent visit to the port of Baltimore.
The idea is to seal each container where it is loaded with goods. Each seal would have an identification number, enabling it to be verified when the container is off-loaded at a U.S. dock.
Industry groups publicly support a federal standard.
"The container seal is one part of the security puzzle," said Jonathan Gold, an official at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents 500 companies engaged in global trade. "Unfortunately, there are no guarantees," he added, acknowledging that someone can remove door hinges or cut into a container without disturbing the seal.
Gold served on a business panel that gave the government recommendations on cargo seals last summer. He has some concerns about who will pay the costs and who will verify the seals as the cargo is in transit.
So far, only companies participating in a voluntary security partnership with the government are required to use secure seals.
At the Coalition for Secure Ports, former Oakland, Calif., port director Tay Yoshitani said the "good guys" in industry have a vested interest in a rule that covers all shippers.
"The industry would like a handful of standards that everybody can live with and that the government endorsees and blesses," Yoshitani said.
That course is also urged by Stephen Flynn, a retired Coast Guard officer and author of the book America the Vulnerable.
Flynn said he finds "an incredible reluctance by the federal government" to set rules for global shipping, which involves a complex chain of foreign suppliers, transportation modes and contradictory national laws, not to mention companies that are looking to hold down costs.
"If the government sets a rule, then the marketplace adjusts," Flynn said. "If you leave it to the marketplace, that fuels a lot of inertia."
Flynn favors a strategy that would push private companies to move from simple mechanical bolts toward seals with electronic capabilities, such as radio frequency identification that would broadcast a container's identification number, perhaps its contents and whether it has been tampered with.
At the World Shipping Council, President and chief executive officer Christopher L. Koch said his group favors a mechanical seal requirement. He predicted that it would spur the industry to move to electronic seals, which can provide lists of the items in each shipment that can be "read" by automatic scanners.