Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 16, 2012

Scanning Cargo Containers: A Sticky Issue

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on July 16, 2012

On July 1st:

The Obama administration has failed to meet a legal deadline for scanning all shipping containers for radioactive material before they reach the United States, a requirement aimed at strengthening maritime security and preventing terrorists from smuggling a nuclear device into any of the nation’s 300 sea and river ports.

The Department of Homeland Security was given until this month to ensure that 100 percent of inbound shipping containers are screened at foreign ports.

Since this requirement was passed into law, the Secretary of Homeland Security (irrespective of political party) has given it a pass:

But the department’s secretary, Janet Napolitano, informed Congress in May that she was extending a two-year blanket exemption to foreign ports because the screening is proving too costly and cumbersome. She said it would cost $16 billion to implement scanning measures at the nearly 700 ports worldwide that ship to the United States.

This has been the general response to this mandate by Chertoff and Ridge before Napolitano.  Paul Rozenzweig, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy in DHS, captures the essence of the issue in a blog post at Lawfare:

The delay of the scanning requirement is, frankly, a good thing.  It is another example of the inability of our system to effectively communicate and manage risk.   The right answer to multiple threats has to be the risk based allocation of resources.  We can’t protect against all things at all times — the costs, in resources and lost liberties would simply be too high.  Instead, DHS allocates its inspection resources based on a judgment about risk.  Dollars spent on 100% scanning are dollars NOT spent on some other threat (cyber?  bio?).

What he doesn’t address is that if the concern is the possibility of a nuclear weapon being smuggled into the country in a shipping container, the better use of resources would be to lock down the limited amount of fissile material required to construct a bomb at the source.  The Washington Post article I cited in the beginning of this post is likely cherry-picking the interview of one of the leading proponents of this approach when it states:

Graham Allison, a Harvard University political scientist and author of a best-selling book on nuclear terrorism, said that a nuclear device is more likely to arrive in a shipping container than on a missile. But he acknowledged that preventing such an attack is expensive and that there is no guarantee prevention measures will work.

“The game between hiders and seekers is dynamic, and there is no 100 percent solution,” Allison said in an e-mail interview. “The cost-benefit trade-off is the toughest issue.”

What Graham is saying is that with the Cold War over, the greatest nuclear threats we face are asymmetric in nature. Nation states with the capability to field nuclear-armed ICBMs would be deterred by our own nuclear force.  It is terrorists and perhaps “rogue” regimes (but only those that fail or are pushed up against the wall) that might attempt to smuggle in a nuclear weapon.  Yet I’d bet that his email correspondence likely pointed out that if a terrorist group were to acquire a nuclear weapon, they would be pretty reluctant to stick it in a shipping container out of their control and pray that it reached the intended target.

Instead, I imagine he’d argue that the resources proponents of 100% cargo screening wish to expend on the issue would be better spent on locking down highly enriched uranium and plutonium, as well as the nuclear weapons in fragile states (*cough* Pakistan *cough).

A sticky issue that just won’t go away.

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