- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Recently, Dulles International Airport outside the nation’s capital began scanning all incoming air cargo for radiation in an effort to prevent terrorists from smuggling radioactive or “dirty” bombs into the United States onboard commercial jets. This Homeland Security Department pilot project is the forerunner to an even more hotly contested mandate that will affect the more than 1 billion metric tons of cargo that reach the U.S. by ship each year.

The Sept. 11 Commission Act of 2007 requires that, beginning in 2012, all U.S.-bound containers loaded onto ships in foreign ports be imaged (i.e. X-rayed) and scanned for radiation before embarking for the United States. This requirement - known as the 100 percent scanning rule - has ignited a new and heated debate around the best way to ensure the safety of inbound cargo without impeding the free flow of commerce.

The debate has centered on the tradeoffs associated with implementing a 100 percent scanning mandate at this time. Radiation scanning and imaging technologies (which capture images of a container’s contents without physically unloading it) have played an essential role in our nation’s approach to cargo and port security. Selective use, however, has been key to their success.

The current generation of radiation detection and imaging solutions cannot, alone, eliminate all threats. Today’s solutions are not fail-safe and require significant time to analyze images and interpret the results, which could have a severe negative effect on trade in a 100 percent scanning environment.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has pursued a layered approach to port security intended to ensure the integrity of the supply chain from the point of container loading to arrival in the United States without hindering the flow of commerce through ports.

Under the layered security system, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) determines risk by carefully analyzing various data sources - including ship and cargo manifests, information on shippers and cargo points of origin, as well as classified intelligence. Cargo determined to be of higher risk is flagged for further investigation, a process that often involves scanning and imaging its contents, and, in some cases, physically inspecting the cargo.

Scanning and imaging systems have delivered solid security returns on investment for our nation, and will become even more valuable as technology evolves. To date, however, their value has been realized in environments in which a small percentage of containers are scanned or in those environments in which physical inspection is required only after port personnel or customs officers identify a container as high risk.

The equation simply does not yield the same results for 100 percent scanning using current-generation technology. Some scanning processes can take several analysts working in tandem upward of 5 minutes to review and certify the contents of a container. When one considers that the world’s busiest ports receive thousands of containers daily, this additional processing time (using current technology) would severely constrict throughput and, ultimately, international trade under a 100 percent scan regime.

As technology evolves to enable efficient 100 percent scanning, the benefit of imaging and scanning systems will expand beyond increased security to more streamlined trading and even potential reductions in other illicit activities such as smuggling, theft/pilferage and various types of commercial fraud.

To help ensure that 100 percent scanning will, ultimately, improve security without hindering the flow of trade, port operators are wise to begin planning today. For example, they may want to start documenting their requirements for scanning equipment and associated staffing based on projected business volumes. They can also begin to plan for the additional resources and new operational work flows to accommodate 100 percent scanning of cargo within their jurisdiction.

At the same time, the U.S. government and private organizations can continue the quest for improved port security by building on the success of the layered approach. For example, the CBP’s 10 plus 2 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking - which would provide additional information on the location at which a container was loaded, container movements, and its location on a vessel - is one initiative now under way. Expanded integration and more sophisticated analytic capabilities are also essential to increased security.

These capabilities provide CBP and other agencies the intelligence they need to make informed decisions regarding the level of cargo risk, determine which merit additional scanning and investigation, and help get information to the field personnel who will act on it.

The layered approach to port and cargo security has served us well. As technology advances, new opportunities will emerge to extend its effectiveness and ensure even higher levels of security without impeding the flow of trade.

Radiation scanning and imaging technology has the potential to advance this vision. As port operators await advancements in scanning technology, they can and should begin to lay a foundation for the rapid adoption of new technologies at both current and planned terminal locations, which will have the power to advance security without stifling trade.

Ted Langhoff is practice director of cargo and port security practice, Unisys. Nishant Pillai is director of cargo and port security practice, Unisys Corp., Blue Bell, Pa.

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