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U.S. Congress “paralysis” blamed for security delays

WASHINGTON, DC: The head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in a letter to Congress, appears to concede that scanning all U.S.-bound ocean containers is impossible.

The SAFE Port Act of 2006 requires all TEUs destined for the U.S. to be screened in their origin port using "non-intrusive inspection and radiation detection equipment". The deadline for compliance was July 01, 2012 but the DHS invoked a two-year waiver saying it didn't have the technology, money or manpower.

DHS agentsAt the time, DHS estimated that deploying sufficient scanning equipment would cost US$8 million per lane for 2,100 shipping routes from 700 foreign ports – and this didn't include the cost to governments and industry.

Last month DHS head Jeh Johnson told Congress that not only was it was necessary to extend the deadline by another two years but that 100 percent compliance was unlikely at any time. His statement follows a 2013 Congressional Research Service report that concluded the most effective security strategy would be to invest in personnel to improve intelligence gathering.

Johnson said the DHS will continue to use existing programmes including the Container Security Initiative which identifies and screens high-risk containers and operates at nearly international 60 ports that handle about 80 percent of U.S. ocean container imports.

The move comes as 61 former security chiefs have urged Congress to reform the way it oversees homeland security, saying that the current "dysfunctional" system leaves the U.S. vulnerable to cyber-attacks, bioterrorism and other threats.

The bipartisan group includes the three past secretaries of Homeland Security; all the members of the 9/11 Commission; former heads of the FBI, CIA, NSA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff; former members of Congress, and former homeland security advisors to U.S. presidents.

According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, vulnerabilities not being properly addressed include the screening of passengers and luggage at private airports; a lack of knowledge by federal authorities as to what is in the cargo holds of small ships; legislation to address cybersecurity currently caught between competing Congressional committees; and a lack of priority given to the federal government's list of 75 biological threats to ensure the most dangerous ones get greater scrutiny.

The group of security experts says a Congressional "tangle of overlapping committees" that claim jurisdiction over the DHS has resulted in the current political paralysis and "the nation is not as safe as it could and should be".

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