WASHINGTON — The current and former U.S. Customs commissioner raised strong objections Wednesday to a proposal before Congress that mandates 100 percent scanning of U.S.-bound cargo containers at foreign ports, repeating industry warnings that it could cripple global trade and hurt the economy.

In addition, U.S. Customs & Border Protection commissioner W. Ralph Basham said at a conference on container security devices here that one of his top priorities this year will be the development and testing of "smart" devices that alert authorities if containers are tampered with en route to U.S. seaports.

Retailers and apparel vendors, who imported $89.2 billion worth of clothing and textiles last year, oppose the 100 percent scanning requirement, arguing that even the slightest delay in clearing Customs in a foreign or U.S. port could interrupt their entire supply chains.

"To try to legislate a requirement that all 11 million containers [coming to the U.S. annually] must undergo image scanning and radiation-detection monitoring prior to leaving a foreign port just does not make sense," Basham said. "The impact on the flow of commerce would be enormous and the result would be lower profits and higher transportation costs for U.S. importers, at a minimum."

Robert C. Bonner, the agency's former commissioner and the architect of its post-9/11 maritime security and antiterrorism strategy, argued that 100 percent scanning "probably is not feasible from a technological point of view…without a massive disruption to global trade, but it could have a very significant, disruptive effect on the U.S. economy and the economies of our trading partners."

Their statements came two days after Congress convened a conference committee to begin the difficult task of reconciling two bills passed by the House and Senate this year that would implement some of the findings of the 9/11 Commission. The independent bipartisan panel made 41 recommendations on initiatives to strengthen national security and prevent another terrorist attack. It also came a day after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he had a "gut feeling" that terrorists will attempt an attack this summer in the U.S.

The House bill would require foreign port authorities to scan 100 percent of U.S.-bound cargo containers for radiation and nuclear materials, as well as x-ray them for suspicious materials. The House legislation includes a phased-in application of the technology at large foreign ports within three years and at small foreign ports within five years. It also requires containers to be sealed, as technology becomes available, with a device that would sound an alarm if it was tampered with and notify U.S. officials. The Senate bill does not contain those elements.Democrats, with majorities in both chambers, have argued that the estimated 5 percent scanning rate of the almost 12 million containers entering the U.S. annually was dangerously low and could give terrorists the opportunity to attack congested seaports that are typically located in highly populated areas.

Customs officials contend they have in place an effective operation that targets "high-risk" containers for possible terrorist threats, as well as other layers of public-private supply chain partnerships.

"Congress should be willing to wait until we have the results of an overseas pilot project that is currently under way in three [foreign] ports," Basham said. "That pilot will give us the information on the technological feasibility of 100 percent scanning, the impact on the supply chain, security gains, if any, and the costs to both the public and private sectors."

Basham said one of his main objectives is to set the agency's requirements on container security devices "very soon" and then test the available technologies within 60 to 90 days. He stressed that the use of devices by importers, who are concerned about the increased costs, would be voluntary.

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