The Blog

A Container Security Plan to Copy

3:35 PM, Jan 15, 2008 • By JAMES JAY CARAFANO
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Hong Kong
Last year, Congress congratulated itself for passing a law that purported to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. The act included a requirement that overseas ports scan 100 percent of containers shipped to the United States. Before applauding, let's review a few facts:

  • The 9/11 Commission never recommended 100 percent screening.
  • There is no threat that justifies 100 percent screening. (Think about it. What self-respecting terrorist would let a smuggled nuclear weapon out of his positive control by packing it into a container? There are much more dependable ways to smuggle nuclear weapons, dirty bombs, or whatever into the U.S. And ports are just as easily attacked from land as from the sea.)
  • Existing technology can't possibly screen fast enough or accurately enough to meet the 100 percent requirement.
  • The current system, the Container Security Initiative, which inspects "high risk" containers before they leave foreign ports for the U.S. works perfectly well -- i.e., Congress "fixed" something that wasn't broken.

Every official I've talked to here in Hong Kong agrees that inspecting every container is ridiculous proposal. I just wish they would tell Washington. And Washington should listen. After all, Hong Kong is the busiest container port in the world and one out of every five containers it ships out is headed to the United States.

Here are three things Hong Kong's port security pros ought to tell the amateurs in Washington:

1. "Don't worry about us." The terrorist threat from Hong Kong is near zero. It houses no known terrorist network -- something pretty much necessary for any plot to smuggle weapons in containers.

2. "Speed is your friend." Hong Kong's biggest advantage is time. It moves stuff in and out of port faster than anybody else. A 100 percent screening requirement would really slow things down. That, in turn, would make the port less competitive, and business will shift its cargoes where it can be handled cheaper -- i.e., to ports with much lower safety and security standards. That will not make America safer.

3. "Get real." The 100 percent requirement is divorced from reality. For example, about 37 percent of the containers transshipped through Hong Kong travel via barges. Nobody has figured out an economical way to offload, scan and reload these containers. The port has neither the time nor the space to do that.

Congress has saddled the Department of Homeland Security with an impossible and unnecessary mandate. As a result, there will be tons of money spent and time wasted before we finally throw in the towel and acknowledge that it cannot -- and never could be -- done. The sooner we reach that point, the sooner we can start investing in anti-terrorism measures will actually accomplish something.