Securing Our Ports

But the Bush administration needs to embrace the goal of 100 percent security against nuclear terrorism by making cargo screenings at overseas ports mandatory.

The Department of Homeland Security announced yesterday the implementation of the first phase of the Secure Freight Initiative which will enable U.S. Customs and Border Protection to better monitor the flow of shipping containers to the United States. That’s a welcome first step, but Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff needs to endorse 100 percent scanning of global shipping containers—a critical piece of a broader effort to prevent the smuggling of a nuclear device or radiological materials into the United States.

This pilot program, supported by Congress in the SAFE Port Act of 2006, will require shipping containers from six foreign ports—Port Qasim, Pakistan; Puerto Cortes, Honduras; Southampton, England; Port Salalah, Oman; Port of Singapore; and the Gamman Terminal at Port Busan, South Korea—to flow through both a radiation portal monitor and giant x-ray machine before being loaded on vessels bound for the United States. The SAFE Port Act of 2006, a bipartisan measure passed by Congress in September, was signed by President Bush in October.

The installation of equipment in this initial phase will cost $60 million (up to $10 million per port) and should be completed by the end of 2007. But in comments to the media after announcing the initiative, DHS Secretary Chertoff declined to endorse a near 100 percent global radiological and x-ray scanning goal. He suggested that such a mandate would be unenforceable unless all U.S. trading partners agreed to participate.

If the ultimate goal of such security measures is to prevent global nuclear proliferation, then the world should not be given a choice on the matter. Any nation that wants to engage in meaningful trade with the United States and the industrialized world should join this key proliferation mandate. Chertoff’s narrow perspective is at odds with broader U.S. policy objectives, which is to improve international accounting of nuclear technology and materials and keep them out of the hands of rogue states or groups.

His comments also belie the success of the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act. The MSTA established clear security standards for U.S. port facilities and cargo vessels entering U.S. waters, and most of this regulatory framework was adopted by the International Maritime Organization in its International Ship and Port Security Code.

In short, the United States set a high bar for security and convinced its major trading partners to play by the same set of rules. The same approach is required to protect the United States and the world trading system from nuclear terrorism. This is a global challenge that requires multilateral, not bilateral, action.

If the results of the pilot programs at these six foreign ports are positive—generating useful data that enhances the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Automated Targeting System—then the United States should work with the International Maritime Organization and World Customs Organization to incorporate this technology into the cargo flow at all major global ports. Shipping containers that do not flow through such scanning and radiological detection equipment should be subject to more stringent security measures, including physical inspection.

The Bush administration should be preparing the regulatory framework for new global supply chain security standards. More standards should be mandatory, not voluntary. If done properly, with the full cooperation of our major trading partners and global shipping interests, then security and efficiency can both be improved. Further, if done properly, major port operators around the world will not only be willing participants, they will also pay for it.

To get in touch with P.J. Crowley on this topic, please contact:

For TV, Sean Gibbons, Director of Media Strategy 202.682.1611 or For radio, Theo LeCompte, Media Strategy Manager 202.741.6268 or For print, Trevor Kincaid, Deputy Press Secretary 202.741.6273 or

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.