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US container security: feasible or fantasy?

27 Feb 2008
A growth in global containerised shipments has placed an increased burden on US security concerns

A growth in global containerised shipments has placed an increased burden on US security concerns

Former US Senator Warren Rudman's recent concerns over port security should not be taken lightly given his history as co-chair of a bi-partisan committee assigned to investigate the threat of international terrorism after the September 11 attacks and his role in setting up the Department of Homeland Security.

In an interview with Congress Daily and National Journal in December 2007, Senator Rudman stated that port security remained a major unsolved problem, and that the domestic ports were effectively "wide open". But how can the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency effectively monitor the estimated 70,200 truck, rail and sea containers that it processes each day?

The growth in containerised shipments is placing an increased burden on the ports of entries' ability to effectively monitor cargo for security concerns. As a result, the US government pushed for more strenuous inspections at overseas ports, thereby potentially creating congestion and cost pressures in major export countries.

The US government's solution to the problem was the Container Security Initiative, or CSI, which aims to increase container security while simultaneously decreasing port congestion through the inspection and certification of imported cargo prior to its arrival on domestic soil. While the US stations CBP agents at foreign ports to oversee the inspection of US-bound containers identified as potential threats, the host ports are responsible for supplying the necessary screening and detection equipment. Since the program screens containers and conducts any targeted scans in the period between the arrival of the container at the port and its loading onto the container ship, there is theoretically no delay in the transportation of goods. The programme has thus far been successful, with 58 ports that account for approximately 90% of all transatlantic and transpacific US imports currently CSI certified.

CSI places the burden of security and associated congestion at these overseas ports, impacting all traffic from those ports regardless of destination. And since CSI is a partnership program, it is not unlikely that foreign governments will increase pressure on ports, American or otherwise, to enhance the inspection process of exported containers, reallocating the burden of container security once more. In fact, nations participating in CSI may send their own agents to American ports in a reciprocal manner. While there is little information on the effectiveness of the programme, there are few reports of any increased delay or burden placed on ports or shippers.

What is needed is a global solution to container movements that distributes the inspection and certification process equitably, effectively, and efficiently. International organisations have committed themselves to the CSI process, with both the World Customs Organization and European Union passing resolutions or agreements to certify ports or develop new programmes modelled after CSI. The issue is whether such programs go far enough to ensure the security of container shipments.

It would be both logistically impossible and financially infeasible to inspect each and every container that passes through all the ports of the world. If we include transhipment boxes that amounts to over 400m containers. The CSI approach targets only those containers that are deemed to be potential threats. Numerous technological solutions to the dilemma have been presented at various conferences, but few, if any, promise to effectively scan 100% of the containers that pass through the world's ports. Even if such a solution was found to work, who would support the cost of a global roll-out? Ports would pass the costs on to shipping lines, who in turn would shift the costs to the importers and exporters as they already have with their per container security surcharge. Ultimately consumers end up paying for the increased protection.

The questions that remain unanswered are: what is the real cost of security if we go to the 100% inspection policy; and who will pay for the development and implementation of a system that will theoretically close the hole in the international shipment of containers?

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US container security: feasible or fantasy? Port Strategy: A growth in global containerised shipments has placed an increased burden on US security concerns

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