Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday sparred with Democratic lawmakers over the feasibility of scanning cargo for nuclear materials at foreign ports before ships depart for the United States.
Mr. Chertoff told the House Homeland Security Committee that total screening is unrealistic and that other measures are being implemented to protect U.S. ports from such terrorist threats.
Cargo is screened by manifest and cargo lists, but is not scanned for radiation until it reaches U.S. ports, where Mr. Chertoff said the goal is to screen 80 percent of the cargo by year's end.
"Why can't we do it on the other side of the ocean before they depart?" asked Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon. "Why has there been resistance on the part of the administration and the majority here, to screening all the containers on the other side of the ocean?"
In response, Mr. Chertoff said, "For one thing, we don't own foreign ports, Congressman."
The hearing focused on the department's goals for 2007, including border protection, and members on both sides of the aisle asked that grants to various cities, including Washington, be increased.
Mr. Chertoff said U.S. and foreign officials soon will conduct some screening at the ship's point of departure, but the answer did not satisfy Mr. DeFazio.
"We retain the right of sovereignty in international trade and we can refuse the entry of any cargo," said the Oregon Democrat. "The Chinese regularly do this for commercial purposes; we can sure as heck do it for homeland security purposes.
"Anybody who isn't cooperating with us, we say, 'Well, that's fine, but guess what? Nothing's leaving your port to the United States of America anymore.' It's pretty simple."
Such action, Mr. Chertoff said, would cut off 75 percent of international trade and lead to a depressed economy.
Mr. DeFazio proposed a three-year period to implement such a strategy, but Mr. Chertoff balked and called it an "artificial deadline" that would be "as unrealistic as passing a law that says in three years cancer has to be cured."
Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, called Mr. Chertoff's statements "a terrible message."
"You are saying that after the terrorists are in the air coming to the United States from another country that it's already too late, that the same thing is also true with a nuclear bomb in a ship heading for a port in the United States," he said.
The Homeland Security secretary said officials are meeting with shippers and foreign governments to better secure cargo.
One constraint is that some ports are on land already "full of radioactive material" that would constantly set off false alarms.
"We all would desire to have radiation scanning before things are loaded on ships," Mr. Chertoff said. "But I'm not going to sell the American people pie in the sky. I'm going to give something that's realistic, actionable and produces real results."