By  on June 13, 2008

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration told lawmakers Thursday it will not meet a Congressionally mandated deadline for scanning all U.S.-bound cargo containers for radiation and nuclear weapons at some 700 foreign ports.

Jayson Ahern, deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs & Border Protection, told the chairman of a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee that a July 2012 deadline set by Congress last year would not be met because of several significant challenges based on results from a pilot project currently under way at three foreign ports.

Customs delivered a 247-page report to Congress outlining significant challenges with 100 percent scanning, arising from the pilot project.

"Thus far, the deployment of container scanning equipment at each of the [test pilot ports in Honduras, Pakistan and the U.K.] has presented certain operational, technical, logistical, financial and diplomatic challenges that will likely continue to be encountered, to varying degrees, as [the initiative] deploys to additional locations," said Ahern.

Among the problems he cited at the three test ports were: extreme weather conditions that negatively affect scanning equipment; exponential costs for U.S. and foreign governments in implementing and maintaining the scanning equipment; addressing health and safety concerns of foreign governments and trucking and labor unions; identifying who will share the costs for operating and maintaining the scanning equipment; staffing implications, and nonexistent scanning software.

Ahern's remarks were echoed at the hearing by other panelists, including officials from the General Accounting Office and the National Nuclear Security Administration. All three government officials stressed the best strategy available to minimizing another terrorist attack is the current multiagency, multilayered, high-risk targeted approach.

Ahern acknowledged the scanning of all U.S.-bound maritime containers in a foreign port is possible "on a relatively contained scale." But he said overlapping mandates by Congress in two separate pieces of legislation that were enacted have created a "conflict" for the agencies trying to coordinate the development, testing and implementation of technologies and systems to scan about 11.5 million cargo containers entering U.S. ports annually.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) made 100 percent scanning of all cargo containers a top legislative priority when the Democrats won the majority in the House and Senate in 2006.Democrats and proponents of tougher security measures argued the estimated 5 percent scanning rate of the 11.5 million cargo containers entering the U.S. was dangerously low and could provide a window of opportunity for terrorists trying to create chaos at U.S. ports. Retailers and apparel vendors that imported $96.4 billion worth of clothing and textiles last year participate in supply chain security programs with the government but vigorously opposed the 100 percent scanning measure. They argued that the technology was not available and that even the slightest delay in clearing Customs in a foreign or U.S. port could interrupt the entire supply chain.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) pressed Ahern on whether a 100 percent scanning mandate would negatively impact importers and shippers and hurt global commerce.

"It would bring commerce to a halt," Ahern said.

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