Cargo Security Screening Deadline Won't Be Met

March 5, 2009
In testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the 2010 deadline for cargo screening won't be met.

“To me, the process of producing results begins with a prompt assessment of the state of DHS’s programs,” Secretary Napolitano told the House Committee on Homeland Security. Saying that, she later commented that her department was reviewing improvements in process as well as technology and, where appropriate, it will take a fresh look including shifting to a more functional approach.

An example of this approach is implied in her comments that, “DHS is considering cases where, because of climate and geography, some specialized technology may need to be developed or modified in order to protect the northern border while mitigating unnecessary impacts on our extensive trade with Canada.”

Secretary Napolitano continued, “In an effort to assess security across all forms of transportation, I directed the review of transportation security in the surface, maritime and aviation sectors. The review identified a number of areas where risks to transportation security could be reduced. Resources such as explosives detection systems and transit, rail, and port security personnel contained in the recently passed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 will enable the Department to accelerate the mitigation of risk in these areas.”

The secretary added, “Our border security efforts, port screening, transportation security, customs processes, immigration programs, and preparedness and interoperability efforts could all benefit from a strong push to develop new technologies and implement them in the field.” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) pointed out that $720 million in the stimulus package was to go to the Dept. of Homeland Security and the General Services Administration and added that 88% of goods that come to the US pass through land ports and 40% of all trade between the US and Mexico moves across the land port of Laredo—accounting for 13,500 trucks and 1,200 rail cars daily. He asked what were the personnel and infrastructure needs? The Secretary responded, “Land ports of entry are absolutely key. I was delighted that the Congress did include $720 million which will allow us to accelerate pre-identified projects to enlarge and modernize those land ports. Many of them haven't been improved since the 70s and the amount of trade that goes back and forth has exploded in the meantime.” She noted a process change she feels will help. A joint GSA/Customs planning office was created for improvements in those ports, she said, as opposed to processing the projects sequentially between the two groups. Though she didn't offer specific manpower numbers, she did say technology improvements should allow DHS to adjust downward the manpower needs, “So,” she said, “There is going to be some flexibility there.”

Rep. Laura Richardson (D-CA) acknowledged the importance of the land ports and offered comments on the areas of “national significance,” such as the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. A dirty bomb there, she said, could affect half a million people in minutes. “There are risks everywhere,” the Secretary responded, including risk to trade, risk to basic infrastructure, risk to gasoline supply system and risk to the food supply system. We have to be judicious, very acute about risks that if they materialize would cause undue risk to lives, commerce and the like and the ports, the port that you describe is a key critical port to our nation. There are some things that require more attention than others.” After discussions of communications interoperability and some immigration issues, James Himes (D-CT) asked the show stopper: the status of the 100% cargo screening requirement.

“I think the 2012 deadline for 100% screening is difficult if not possible to obtain, given where we are on screening right now,” responded Secretary Napolitano. “There are many issues. For example, there are literally hundreds of agreements that would have to be reached with foreign countries to get to a 100% screening regimen. That being the case, what I'm doing is looking at, well, what really needs to happen? How fast can it happen? What's it going to cost to happen? What's the value added to our security, if it happens? How do we protect the lives and the people of the United States? And I cannot give you a timeline on when that review is going to be complete. What I can tell you is I know that it is a key concern of this committee, so I have asked a number of people to get involved in that so we can move it right along.”

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