Shippers Resist Efforts to Toughen Port Security

Shippers Resist Efforts to Toughen Port Security

Shippers resist efforts to toughen port security
By Samuel Loewenberg

Citing flaws in the Bush administration’s port security program, some coastal senators, backed by local port officials and unions, are pushing for tougher security.

But they face resistance from retailers and shippers who say that the current voluntary system is effective and that the new security measures approved after the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks should be given time to work.

At issue is the Bush administration’s port security program, which centers on voluntary compliance.
Critics say that is not enough.

“Almost seven years after 9/11, cargo containers entering our ports remain a gaping hole in our homeland security,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). “One chilling report after another has documented shortcomings with the current screening and inspection policy. Hopefully a new administration will move quickly to correct this.”

Under the voluntary program set up by the Homeland Security Department, some 8,000 importers, representing about 30 percent of all incoming cargo containers, are allowed to bring their goods to the United States under somewhat lighter oversight in exchange for adhering to enhanced security measures along the shipping routes.

A report by the Government Accountability Office found numerous companies that participated in the program had not been fully screened by DHS. The report found that customs did not always “maintain adequate internal controls” in monitoring which companies had complied with the security protocols.

The retail industry maintains that the existing program is very effective. “There’s definitely a disagreement on the way forward on supply chain security policy,” said Allen Thompson, the vice president for global supply chain policy at the Retailer Industry Leaders Association. “The disagreement is not on the goal; it is on the means to get there.”

The industry is concerned about legislation introduced by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), chairman of Senate Commerce’s Surface and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, that essentially would make the voluntary security program mandatory for all importers. His legislation would require that all containers shipped into the United States have a security seal — preferably a traceable electronic one — affixed at the shipment’s origin.

The industry believes that new security provisions should not cover all containers but, instead, focus on the most vulnerable aspects of the supply chain.

“Having a device on your container does not guarantee safety,” Thompson said.

The impetus for the new legislation was a finding that DHS could not comply with a requirement that all containers entering the United States be scanned for weapons of mass destruction. Last year, Congress approved implementation of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which included a 100 percent scanning mandate by 2012.

But DHS said in a hearing last month that it will not be able to comply with the deadline. Jayson Ahern, deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the deadline is not realistic, considering that the millions of containers that enter the U.S. ship from 700 ports around the world.

An estimated 11.5 million cargo containers are brought into the United States by sea every year, and now only about 5 percent of them are scanned.

Ahern said the administration favors a layered, “risk-based” approach rather than the congressional mandate for screening all containers. “One-hundred percent scanning does not equal 100 percent security,” Ahern testified. “No single layer or tool in our risk-based approach should be overemphasized at the expense of others.”

He has an ally in Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, who says the equipment is not yet available to screen cargo without causing major disruptions to trade.

“Requiring the scanning of all U.S.-bound cargo, regardless of its risk, at every foreign port is misguided and provides a false sense of security,” she said.

Collins praised the voluntary programs. Such systems encourage “the private sector to secure their supply chains,” she said, and they “could be negatively affected if the U.S. required all containers to be scanned.”

But many local port officials see things differently. A report by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was critical of the risk management approach favored by importers. Instead, it urged uniform standards across the supply chain and called for more money for port security.

Risk management is “largely misunderstood” by both industry and government, the report said, and “it is extraordinarily difficult to make defensible, risk-related decisions” that focus only on individual facilities.

Public port authorities and private port companies around the country are pushing Congress for increased security requirements. Shipping officials from San Francisco to Texas City, Texas, to Ponce, Puerto Rico, have hired lobbying firms to follow the legislation, according to the Senate Office of Public Records. The hired guns include former Rep. James Hayes (D-La.), former senior Democratic leadership aide Moses Mercado and Wayne Berman, who served as the assistant commerce secretary for policy in the administration of George H.W. Bush.

The International Longshoremen’s Association and the Seafarers International Union, among other labor organizations, are also pushing for tighter port security.

Meanwhile, among the retailers and importers, Wal-Mart, Heineken USA and Lockheed Martin are lined up to lobby the issue.

The retail leaders association is taking notice, having brought on three principals of Black Swan: Andrew Shore, a former chief of staff for the House Republican Conference; James Jochum, a former assistant commerce secretary for import administration; and Marguerite Trossevin, who served in the Commerce Department as deputy chief counsel for import administration.

But adding new provisions now is not the way to go, Thompson said. “We need to let the law right now work its course,” he said.

Source: Politico, July 15, 2008

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