Who’s Protecting Our Ports?

Not Homeland Security, Says GAO

Unreliable radiation detector devices at US ports will cost us $1.2 billion. That's inexcusable. Consider CAP's plans to protect our homeland.

A report from the Government Accountability Office released earlier this week says that the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to spend $1.2 billion on new radiation-detection devices for America’s ports and border crossings is premature. The devices DHS plans to purchase may not detect radiological material hidden in shipping containers, nor adequately differentiate dangerous nuclear material from harmless material that naturally emits radiation

This is the second time since 9/11, reports the Washington Post, that the Bush administration moved forward with plans to deploy radiation-detection devices at U.S. ports, only to discover they may not do what is needed. Yet last week, President Bush signed into law a $3.4 billion port security bill, including money for the initial rollout of these new faulty radiation-detection devices.

Greater emphasis on nuclear detection at ports of entry is certainly warranted. A nuclear or radiological device smuggled into the United States in a shipping container is a legitimate nightmare security scenario. The DHS cost-benefit analysis used to justify the purchase was suspect, yet another indication of weak management that has plagued DHS since its inception.

Congress, lacking confidence in DHS’s leadership, wisely wrote into the legislation that the money could not be spent until the devices were proven to be workable. Alas, the GAO says the manufacturers have a long way to go. The report said that the devices could not detect enriched uranium 90 percent of the time.

There’s no doubt that the S.A.F.E. Port Act is an important step forward for American maritime safety, especially in the wake of the failures of  The Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, enacted after September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, that earlier legislation wrongly assumed that all ports, facilities, and vessels are equally vulnerable to attack and therefore need equal security standards and protection.

Fortunately, Congress listened to these concerns, including those expressed by The Center for American Progress, which last year urged Congress to consider a risk-based approach to port security. The plan, detailed in New Strategies to Protect America: Safer Ports for a More Secure Economy, takes into account the actual terrorist threat that we face, and concentrates on risks that carry the gravest consequences to our society and economy. This is the approach that Congress followed in the recently enacted S.A.F.E. Port law, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Consequently, we urge Congress upon its return next month to study not just the GAO report on the faulty radiation-detection devices but also the Center’s  five-point strategy to security and the economy:

  • Revise Coast Guard maritime facility security regulations to emphasize risk assessments focused on the threat and consequences of a terrorist attack rather than vulnerability;
  • Increase attention to continuity of operations to enable the maritime transportation security system to recover quickly in the event of a terrorist attack, reducing the economic consequences of a severe disruption, thereby denying attackers their central strategic goal;
  • Maintain the existing Port Security Grant Program with annual funding of $500 million per year, compared with the current level of $150 million. This can be achieved through the establishment of a national port security trust fund by dedicating a specific percentage of customs revenue collected on goods flowing through our nation’s ports.
  • Introduce better technology, including radiation detection, global positioning, and the scanning of smart shipping containers at the world’s leading ports to prevent the nightmare scenario – a nuclear bomb in a box.
  • Require all companies involved in global trade to join the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) program and strengthen enforcement of supply chains through no-notice Customs inspections and annual third-party security audits.

Read the full report:

For more details on the Center’s proposals to secure our homeland from terrorist attacks please go to the Homeland Security page on our website or go directly to our detailed reports on the topic, including:
To contact one of our experts please call/e-mail Sean Gibbons, Director of Media Strategy, at 202-682-1611 or

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