Going Overboard

Despite the protests from around the world, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) moved forward with its three overseas pilot projects with the intention of presenting the results to Congress on May 8th. The results of those three projects will be a factor in the US decision on how to proceed with the controversial scheme.

The pilot projects involved 100% scanning of all containers using X-ray or gamma-ray imaging systems and radiation detection instrumentation. The U.S. legislation to make scanning mandatory was signed off in August 2007, before the pilots were finished, and compliance will be demanded by the year 2012 from all ports that ship containers to U.S. territory. The U.S. administration reported that one of the pilot projects – in the UK port of Southampton – “seems to be successful”.

The measure is being fiercely resisted by the European Union’s (EU) ports and shipping industry. Alfons Guinier, secretary general of the European Community Shipowners’ Association, said that the pilot projects “will not give the complete picture” because they are too small-scale to reveal the problems that would face large ports, especially since containers frequently arrive by rail, road, and waterways. In addition to the cost and logistical difficulties, he said that the scheme “doesn’t have much added value anyway”.

This argument is backed by the European Commission. Robert Verrue, the director-general of the Commission’s custom department, set out the “strongest concerns” in an April letter to the DHS, emphasizing Commission doubts about “the effectiveness of this measure in improving security as well as its economic efficiency”. (Cf. our Vol. XV, Art. 10 – “Reciprocating Engine”)

The Commission has calculated that the cost of scanning each container exceeded $ 500 in the Southampton pilot, and argued that the legislation would divert officials from other customs operations, such as fraud, smuggling and counterfeiting, as well as ensuring the security of other kinds of cargo. The Commission also maintains that such scanning fails to detect chemical or biological weapons. That’s just a minor failing in the program, however.

Only 58 of the world’s 647 ports are being forced to scan US-bound containers thereby allowing would-be terrorists to operate almost unimpeded in the other 589. No wonder the world is protesting. Here’s how we finished up our Vol. XV, Art. 10 commentary. It’s worth repeating.

“If national security is to be assured, it can be obtained only by means of installing our patented shipboard system aboard container ships. We described it earlier as a system which makes it possible to retrieve any single container regardless of its location on the vessel, but even more important, the system allows for the scanning/inspection of every container while the vessel is en route to one of our ports. The procedure can be completed in less than a week’s time and prior to the vessel’s arrival in the U.S. Every safe container would be granted clearance and suspect containers could very well be jettisoned. The likelihood of a watery grave would discourage subversive operations in all 647 overseas ports , not in just 58 spotlighted ones.”