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WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House committee overseeing the Department of Homeland Security has accused the agency of trying to “thwart” efforts to meet a Congressional deadline for scanning all U.S.-bound cargo containers for radiation and nuclear weapons.

This story first appeared in the August 12, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

House Homeland Security Committee chairman Bennie Thompson (D., Miss.) sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff last week outlining his accusations and concerns about the agency’s focus on “high-risk trade corridors” in a pilot project launched more than a year ago to test the capability of foreign ports to meet a 100 percent scanning deadline.

The Bush administration told lawmakers in July that it would not meet a July 2012 deadline set by Congress last year because of significant obstacles based on the results of the pilot project, dubbed the “Secure Freight Initiative,” at three foreign ports. U.S. officials said they would spend their resources on studying “high-risk” ports, instead of 100 percent scanning of cargo containers at some 700 foreign ports.

“Leaving aside the fact that the department has not defined what a ‘high-risk trade corridor’ is, the unilateral decision to ignore the 100 percent scanning mandate runs afoul of the [law] and puts our ports at risk,” Thompson wrote. “Moreover, it is out of step with the desire of the American public that our nation’s vulnerability to dirty bombs and other terrorist threats be addressed through 100 percent scanning.”

Thompson said the agency’s focus on high-risk ports has “significantly damaged our nation’s relationship with several key countries and the private sector,” noting that two countries and one port operator — all unidentified — have already pulled out of the pilot program because of a “lack of clarity” about whether the agency intends to implement the 100 percent scanning requirement.

“Statements from top departmental officials over the past 18 months indicate active opposition to the 100 percent scanning mandate that the president signed into law and raise questions as to whether the department ever intended to try and meet the statutory deadline,” Thompson wrote.

Chertoff had not responded to questions from Thompson about the agency’s strategy.

The Bush administration has stressed that the best way to minimize another terrorist attack is the multiagency, multilayered, high-risk target approach.

In a 247-page report to Congress, U.S. Customs & Border Protection outlined serious problems with the pilot program at three major ports: extreme weather conditions that hamper scanning equipment, high costs for U.S. and foreign governments in implementing and maintaining the scanning equipment, identifying who will share the costs of operating and maintaining the scanning equipment and nonexistent scanning software.

The next president will face the challenge of trying to meet the Congressional deadline.

Neither of the presumptive presidential nominees, Sens. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) and John McCain (R., Ariz.), has focused on port security during the campaign. However, Obama joined other senators last year in pressuring Wal-Mart president and chief executive officer H. Lee Scott to support the 100 percent scanning proposal.