Even as the Transportation Security Administration improves its techniques for patting down airline passengers and ferreting out blue-haired, little old lady terrorists the danger to the United States, its citizens and its international commerce as a result of unscreened cargo containers grows. Cargo containers are employed by criminals and smugglers to move all kinds of contraband around the world. A terrorist organization could use one, just a single container among hundreds aboard a large ship, to slip a nuclear or biological weapon into a U.S. port. Five years ago, Congress passed a law requiring the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to screen 100 percent of maritime cargo heading for the United States no later than July 2012.
DHS recently announced that it would miss this deadline. Actually, the problem is worse than simply a delay in meeting the law’s requirements. DHS has utterly failed at the task assigned to it. Most cargo containers proceed on their way to U.S. destinations unscreened. What passes for screening involves old and inadequate systems that are easy to spoof. Even as the technology to remotely screen cargo containers undergoes revolutionary improvements, DHS continues to dither. In part this reflects the department’s utter failure to create the internal procedures and methods needed to develop advanced technologies and security systems. But it also reflects a lackadaisical approach to many critical tasks. For example, DHS is just beginning to invest in unmanned aerial systems to patrol our borders and sea approaches, even though the U.S. military has demonstrated the value of these capabilities during ten years of conflict.
This situation is tragic because there is technology available that would allow for rapid, highly accurate cargo screening. An operational test of a new system, the privately-developed Multi-Mode Passive Detection System (MMPDS) is about to begin at Freeport, the Bahamas. The MMPDS uses naturally-occurring high energy particles as its source. The vehicle or container carrying the nuclear material passes between two detector arrays which measure the change in the path of the particles caused by their interactions with the material inside the container. Denser materials such as uranium or plutonium cause greater changes in the paths compared to less dense materials. The MMPDS can detect nuclear material even if it is hidden within a lead and steel shielded container placed in a cargo bin with other naturally radiating materials. The MMPDS is fast, relatively cheap, extremely accurate and easy to operate.
Congressional leaders such as Jerrold L. Nadler, Edward J. Markey and Bennie G. Thompson recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times criticizing DHS’s lack of action or apparent interest on the problem of cargo screening. These gentlemen and anyone else interested in protecting the nation’s ports and sea commerce should get themselves to the Bahamas to see how the problem could be solved.
Find Archived Articles: