The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee recently approved a major maritime security bill that would start the Department of Homeland Security down the road to 100 percent scanning of cargo containers. There have also been attempts in the House to add requirements for radiation scanning and the use of seals on all containers before they enter the United States. These approaches are misguided.
These approaches are efforts to thwart a nuke-in-a-box scenario, but the nuke-in-a-box is an unlikely terrorist tactic. If an enemy wanted to smuggle a bomb into the United States, an oil or chemical tanker, roll-on/roll-off car carrier, grain or other bulk vessel, or even private watercraft would be a more logical and secure way to transport it, either directly to the target (e.g., a port) or indirectly by landing it in Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean and then moving it across a remote section of the U.S. border. Indeed, logic suggests, and most experts believe, that a port is more likely to be attacked from land than from sea, especially given the lack of visibility into the domestic trade network, the lack of protection on the landward side, and the ease of constructing explosive devices with domestic resources. Terrorists would likely construct smaller items (e.g., biological agents) domestically and then deliver them through FedEx or a similar carrier.
While nuclear smuggling is possible, so are dozens of other attack scenarios. Overinvesting in countering one tactic when terrorists could easily employ another is dangerously myopic. Spending billions of dollars and deploying thousands of personnel to screen every container is an extremely inefficient and expensive way to stop terrorists from using cargo containers, especially since they would probably use other means. Choosing to screen every cargo container creates an easily bypassed bottleneck that gives people a false sense of security. Furthermore, even if these were good ideas, much of the technology, especially with regard to seals, is fairly immature. Admittedly, the Senate legislation asks for only three test sites, but why waste money on testing a bad idea?
There is no apparent viable business case for many of the proposed solutions for “hardening” shipping containers, conducting 100 percent container scanning, or requiring expensive tracking or monitoring devices. These measures would provide only minimal utility at the cost of billions of dollars in new duties, taxes, and operating costs. Such efforts would distract resources from solutions that could measurably strengthen maritime security, such as watching the back door of American ports through which trucks, trains, and barges travel daily.
To safeguard the flow of global maritime commerce, the United States needs to expand Coast Guard capabilities, improve the sharing and use of commercial information, and enhance international cooperation.
Inspecting every container that is shipped to the U.S. makes no sense. Doing so would cost billions of dollars and drown authorities in useless information. Moreover, it is not clear why every container would require inspection. The “nuke-in-a-box” scenarios deployed to justify such drastic measures are highly implausible. Scanning and sealing every container will not make Americans much safer but will increase the cost of just about everything that American consumers buy. Already, the United States evaluates every container coming into the country and inspects the suspicious ones. It is not a perfect system—it can be improved—but it is a reasonable precaution and reasonable deterrent.
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