- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OP-ED:

As President Obama and his security team settle into their roles in the new administration, they are evaluating what we have done right and what we have done wrong over the last several years. Clearly, the new administration will take different approaches to a variety of homeland and national security challenges.

One area where the administration should stay the course is in maintaining a risk-based security model. With limited resources, we cannot execute a so-called “100 percent” model that attempts to reduce the risk of security threats to zero. A good example of policy based upon this misguided model is the congressional mandate to scan 100 percent of all cargo entering the United States.

This month the first deadline arrived, requiring that 50 percent of all air cargo be screened. Next year, the aviation industry will be required to screen 100 percent of air cargo. Following on the heels of the 2010 deadline, all maritime cargo entering our borders is required to be scanned in 2012 - all 12 million containers’ worth.

Despite a growing body of research challenging the effectiveness of the 100 percent model - including from Congress’ own Government Accountability Office - certain quarters on Capitol Hill continue to push for earlier deadlines and more intensive scanning regulations.

The Washington Times published an article Jan. 26 by the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon lamenting that the deadlines for 100 percent scanning are still too far off and that the scanning mandates “may not be an adequate substitute for actual inspection.”

During my years of services in the government, I have spent a great deal of time studying and managing the spectrum of threats to our borders, as well as the diverse ways in which those threats are moved across the border. Based on this experience, I can tell you that by focusing our energies on inspecting all cargo entering our country - indiscriminately, no matter whether it is shipped by known secure trading partners or by high-risk unknowns - we will be forced to divert resources and attention from the highest-risk cargo.

Is the threat of components of weapons of mass destruction being smuggled through a port via a shipping container greater than the threat of such components being smuggled in via mule along one of the unsecured regions of our southern or northern land borders? Both are of equal concern and we must focus resources on targeting those carriers.

Moreover, efforts to scan - much less physically inspect - every single container will result in massive delays across the supply chain, leading to backups of cargo left waiting to be transported. Consider those vulnerability hours. Both customs agents and security experts will tell you that cargo is most susceptible to exploitation when it is not in motion.

Besides these troubling national security concerns, there is an additional reason to hesitate at implementing this questionable regulation: national economic security.

Our nation is struggling through a global economic crisis. As we learned after President Herbert Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley tariff at the outset of the Great Depression, vibrant international trade is a key component to economic recovery; hindering trade is a recipe for disaster.

The supply chain disruptions that will assuredly result as shippers line up their cargo for scanning will, in the words of World Shipping Council President Christopher Koch, result in unimaginable “chaos costs.” By chaos costs, Mr. Koch referred to the as-yet unexplored (and perhaps unquantifiable) costs to manufacturers, retailers, restaurants, medical patients and other Americans who depend upon just-in-time delivery of goods.

This mandate will also harm our relationships with key trading partners, some of whom perceive this “security” program as thinly veiled trade protectionism given that the United States is demanding that all cargo be scanned before entering its borders, but is not proposing to do the same for cargo it is exporting.

Carrying out new regulations that have questionable security value and will assuredly disrupt the global supply chain process and further undermine American commerce, jobs and the economy at large seems like a remarkably bad idea.

When I was involved in the initial creation of the Department of Homeland Security, we were given a clear twofold mission. The first part of the mission was to secure our borders. The second was to maintain the free and efficient flow of commerce and people.

It continues to surprise me how often this second mission is forgotten. If the scanning mandates genuinely improved homeland security, then perhaps they would be worth the damage they will inflict to our economy. But they won’t make us safer. They will only provide a false sense of security.

Asa Hutchinson is chairman of the Safe Commerce Coalition and was the Department of Homeland Security’s first undersecretary of border and transportation security.

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