The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing today on container security. The bottom line was that 100 percent scanning of containers is not possible or practical much to the surprise of Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ). This conclusion was made after the Department of Homeland Security finished their report on the pilot program Secure Freight Initiative, where they employed scanners at three selected ports. Simply put, 100 percent scanning is not possible because the technology doesn’t exist. Not all shipments go through a gate at a port; many go through a process called transshipment, where the containers are transferred from one ship to another, without passing through a gate. This fact was supported by all three witnesses.

Of course this information would have been a lot more useful, if Congress didn’t jump the gun and mandate 100 percent scanning before hearing the results of the Secure Freight Initiative. Senator Lautenberg at first asked whether DHS would meet the 2012 deadline. After Assistant Commissioner Ahern repeatedly expressed there was no way to tell because the technology doesn’t exist, the Senator switched tactics. He began claiming that DHS had said 100 percent scanning was possible during the debate prior to the bill. As Ahern prominently noted, that was never the case.

Despite not being technically possible, witnesses spelled out a long list of reasons why 100 percent scanning was not favorable to enhancing security. The costs are not worth the gain. Even by scanning 100 percent of containers, Americans do not become 100 percent secure. It has already cost DHS, and DOE $30 million each to run this pilot program in 3 ports. There are well over 700 ports in the world. Meanwhile, other countries would have to pay $8 million per lane a year. The port in Hong Kong has 10 lanes. If that wasn’t enough to deter somebody, these costs don’t reflect those imposed to commerce. If the DHS were to implement 100 percent scanning, “commerce would come to a halt” as Ahern noted. In addition, countries have claimed that if the U.S. were to require 100 percent scanning, there would be reciprocity. Meaning the United States would have to scan every outbound container.

With the excessive amount of information available about the capabilities and costs of scanning, Congress should reevaluate its decision on container security.