Time for action on the missing piece of the port security puzzle

The Baltimore Sun

One of our government's most-feared terrorism scenarios involves the hiding of components for a nuclear or radiological bomb inside one of the more than 10 million shipping containers that pass through our seaports each year. Unfortunately, the port of Baltimore, one of our nation's busiest seaports, is a potential target and remains vulnerable.

Here's why: Six years after 9/11 and despite government approval of some far-reaching efforts to combat this danger, there remain fruitless debates over the costs of a national effort and a tendency to let the best be the enemy of the good.

At the same time, as this summer's London/Glasgow terrorist incidents and the recent National Intelligence Estimate make clear, al-Qaida-inspired terrorists remain a very real and imminent threat to our peace and security, and those of the entire world. Should terrorists manage to exploit the continued vulnerability of our seaports and shipping containers, the true costs of this continuing delay would become all too apparent.

After the 9/11 attacks, as the federal official overseeing the United States Customs Service, I approved a plan for securing seaborne containers that involved three complementary layers of action. Today, two of those layers are in place. But the third - and possibly the simplest to implement - is stalled.

The plan was to slam shut terrorist access to shipping containers by simultaneously partnering with private industry and foreign governments.

First, the Customs Service enlisted industry to secure the points at which they pack containers. More than 7,000 companies now participate in the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. Second, the Customs Service increased security at overseas ports to identify and inspect high-risk shipments before those containers set off for the United States. This Container Security Initiative recently announced participation of its 50th international port.

The third layer would have had the Customs Service using commercially available technology to track whether and when containers were tampered with in transit. This strategy, called "Smart Box," has yet to be implemented. This, despite findings like that of an oft-cited study by RAND Corp. that estimates damage from a weapon of mass destruction imported into and detonated at a U.S. seaport at more than $1 trillion - not to mention a staggering loss of life.

What's holding up Smart Box? Shortsighted interest groups that have taken over the port security conversation and put a halt to our progress.

After our auspicious beginning, the dialogue quickly shifted to whether good solutions that are ready today were good enough, or whether we should wait for something more perfect down the line.

The customs agency's original vision involved a simple device that would send a signal when a container's doors had been opened in transit. The signal would tell customs officials which containers posed a potential security problem and warranted an inspection. Such devices are on the market now, and they cost only dollars per container shipment.

Industry groups will tell you that even a few dollars per container quickly becomes prohibitively expensive. But even though participation in the Smart Box system is voluntary, the choice is not between paying a few dollars per container and paying nothing. The real choice is between the cost of simple container-security devices that will lead to faster, more predictable customs processing, or the cost of unpredictable customs clearances and delays while we wait for something more perfect down the line.

The good news is that U.S. Customs and Border Protection is expected to publish its recommendations for container security devices by the end of the summer. This would be a roadmap for completing the vision of a secure loop among trusted shipping companies, trusted ports and trustworthy transportation. Better port security could soon be realized using today's technology and at reasonable cost, without slowing the continuous flow of global maritime trade.

Bureaucratic delay and indecision are the terrorists' friends. The government needs to quickly finish the job started almost six years ago, to secure our nation's seaports from a deadly and economically devastating terrorist attack.

Jimmy Gurule, professor of law at Notre Dame Law School, was undersecretary for enforcement for the Treasury Department, 2001-2003. His e-mail is jimmy.gurule.1@nd.edu.

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