Daily Breeze

March 31, 2006

United States officials evaluate port security system
Proponents say it should be implemented, but others worry about delays and costs. Radiation and outlawed items are checked at prototype plant in Hong Kong
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By Toby Eckert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- As lawmakers concerned about U.S. port security rush to embrace technology that is screening every cargo container at two Hong Kong terminals for radiation and other contraband, Bush administration officials are evaluating the program and warming to it.

Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Michael Jackson told senators Thursday that he was "highly optimistic" about the technology, which some see as the most promising answer yet to the dilemma of how to inspect more containers without impeding commerce.

Jackson's boss, Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff, will look at the operation on Saturday, and Customs and Border Protection officials are examining how it "can be used to strengthen our inspection capabilities," Jackson said.

Several Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who have made their own trips to Hong Kong, already are sold on the Integrated Container Inspection System, or ICIS, which was developed by San Diego-based SAIC. Containers move through the prototype system, which scans their contents and checks for radiation, at about 10 miles per hour.

"You can screen cargo at the busiest port in the world without bringing commerce to a halt. This has to be done worldwide," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

But in the House, Republicans rejected a Democratic amendment to port security legislation that would have required all U.S.-bound cargo to be screened. The legislation is being co-sponsored by Rep. Jane Harman, D-El Segundo, and was approved by a House subcommittee Thursday.

"The technology already exists," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who proposed the amendment and cited the Hong Kong project.

Others said numerous issues must be addressed before the technology can be used more widely. They include how the millions of data files generated by the system would be transmitted, stored and shared; determining when suspicious containers would require a thorough physical inspection; and how false alarms would be handled.

The cost, and who covers it, is another major consideration. One widely cited cost estimate is $10 to $20 per container.

"The technology is conceptually very attractive, but a real-world evaluation of the technology, its effect on operations and its integration into and use by the government is clearly needed," said Christopher Koch, president of the World Shipping Council, an industry group.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks stoked fears that terrorists could use a cargo container to enter the United States, smuggle a nuclear weapon or launch a direct attack on a port. But with thousands of the boxcar-size containers pouring into U.S. seaports and across land borders every day, officials have struggled to come up with ways to inspect more of them without slowing commerce.

Jackson spoke Thursday at a hearing on a new report that documents major shortcomings in inspection efforts here and abroad. Only 2.8 percent of containers are scanned for radiation before they enter the United States, and .38 percent have their contents X-rayed.

Once the containers are here, those figures jump to 40 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively. But most experts say it is best to do the screening abroad.

Citing a Congressional Budget Office study that concluded an attack on the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex would cause economic losses rivaling the 9-11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said, "We cannot afford the devastation these findings imply."

The Integrated Container Inspection System has been used at two of the world's busiest marine terminals in Hong Kong since last year, under a program sponsored by container terminal operators there.

Every truck entering the terminals' main gates passes through the system, which has generated a database of 1.5 million images, said Gary D. Gilbert, senior vice president of Hutchison Port Holdings, which operates one of the terminals.

Homeland Security Department officials are reviewing 20,000 of the container scans and radiation readouts.