Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Implementing the 9/11 Comission recommendations

One of the Democrats' "100 hours" promises was to implement all of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations, notably a push to screen every cargo container that enters the country, plus mandates to distribute security funds by need rather than geography.

The latter is a no-brainer, and it has been a badge of shame for Congress that up until now such spending has been subject to the same "every Congressmember gets a share" mentality that has so poorly served the country.

On cargo inspection, however, conservatives are pushing back.

The bill requires that within three years, all cargo on passenger jets be inspected for explosives, as checked baggage is now. The House bill also requires that within five years all ship cargo containers headed to the United States be scanned overseas for components of a nuclear bomb.

Homeland Security Department officials say there is no proven technology for such comprehensive cargo screening, at least at a reasonable cost or without causing worldwide bottlenecks in trade. The screening for air cargo is estimated to cost $3.6 billion over the next decade, and ship inspections could cost even more. “Inspecting every container could cause ports to literally shut down,” said Russ Knocke, a Homeland Security spokesman.

First off, reasonable cost? We've spent or authorized about $400 billion on Iraq thus far, with credible estimates putting the long-term cost at up to $2 trillion. $3.6 billion for a decade of cargo screening is a bargain by contrast.

Maybe conservatives are bad at math.

The more credible criticisms are whether 100 percent screening should be a mandate rather than a goal, and whether the proposed methods would actually work efficiently.

I totally understand cumbersome bureaucracies using ineffective technology: consider the Transportation Security Administration. It would be pointless to spend billions installing a system that doesn't work. For instance:

The radiation detection equipment now in use, for example, probably would not pick up a crucial radioactive substance for a nuclear weapon if the material was shielded. And even if all cargo containers were checked, terrorists could find other ways to smuggle weapons into the United States, including on private boats or ships that carry cars, which would not be not covered by the inspection mandates.

But that's a criticism of a specific technology. And smuggling in radioactive materials in cars or boats opens would-be terrorists to detection by other means, as well as simply making it more difficult. A working nuke, even a small one, weighs a ton and fits in a pickup truck bed. That's a difficult thing to transport, much less move across the border undetected.

In any event, such reservations should be an excuse to ignore the gaping cargo hole in our security net.

Is it worth several billion to improve cargo inspections? Yes. Can we do it without shutting down international commerce? Yes, even if we have to resort to such low-tech methods as hiring thousands more inspectors to physically search more containers, both randomly selected and those identified as suspicious based on port of origin, destination, the shippers involved, paperwork problems, etc.

Such inspections would pay other dividends as well, helping fight both smuggling and illegal immigration. So the cost could be justified on broader grounds than "finding nukes."

Speaking of bureaucracy, consider this beauty:

Homeland Security Department officials said they were researching ways to inspect more air and sea cargo. The agency has tests planned this year at three ports in Pakistan, Honduras and England, where all ship containers headed for the United States will be checked for radioactive substances or dense objects that might be hiding a bomb.

Got that? Five years after 9/11, the agency is researching ways to inspect more cargo. Way to go, guys. Nimble and flexible, that's you.

I'll accept that 100 percent screening should be a goal rather than a mandate. But intermediate steps -- say, 50 percent or 75 percent -- should be mandates, with the specific methodology and timetables emerging after discussions with Homeland Security. Such a two-pronged approach would provide increased security now and the promise of a more thorough and efficient process later as technology matures.

Update: Here's a nice explanation of the difficulties involved in detecting enriched uranium. Plutonium's easy; uranium, much less so.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's my understanding that we already scan 80% of our cargo. And even if we scanned 100%, it doesn't guarantee all explosives would be found. It's not a matter of costs as much as it's deciding where best to spend the money and get the most results. IMO, we should spend more on getting people trained in the language and getting them to infiltrate these terrorists cells to find out the plans and stop them there.

Most of the 9/11 Commission recomendations have already been put in place by Republicans. The Democrats have given the false impression that none of them have been. And that is wrong.


1/09/2007 8:47 PM  

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