Skip to content

Scanning Cargo Containers is More Important than Scanning Emails

The United States has built huge internet surveillance infrastructures, but failed to implement its own 9/11 law about maritime cargo security.

The risks of an attack at a US port or the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction (or their components) in shipping containers are big. Compared to the importance of scanning more cargo containers, the benefits of scanning emails appear quite small. What is needed is a serious debate about the right priorities for counter-terrorism and cost/benefit analysis of current policies.

While US and other Western governments claim that internet surveillance has prevented several terrorist attacks, it could also be argued that internet surveillance catches only some of the stupid terrorists, who can only pull off relatively minor attacks. (But not all of them, e.g. not the Boston bombers.)

Smart terrorists like Osama bin Laden, who have the brains and resources to kill tens of thousands of people, do not communicate over the internet. (Or they use very serious encryption, which the NSA computers won’t break in time.) They might plan sophisticated operations for American, French, Dutch or German harbors.

The 9/11 Commission concluded in its report in 2004: “While commercial aviation remains a possible target, terrorists may turn their attention to other modes. Opportunities to do harm are as great, or greater, in maritime or surface transportation. Initiatives to secure shipping containers have just begun.”

In 2007 Congress passed the “Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act” and mandated that by July 2012 no cargo container would be allowed to enter the United States unless it had been checked by radiation detection and nonintrusive imaging technology.

The Department of Homeland Security missed that deadline and gave itself a two-year extension, which the law allowed. The Nuclear Threat Initiative wrote in February 2012: “Roughly 5 percent of cargo containers undergo the demanded physical scanning today either at the foreign port of departure or upon arrival in the United States, according Kevin McAleenan, acting assistant commissioner for field operations at DHS Customs and Border Protection.”

Representative Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi said in the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security on February 7, 2012:       

I am a pragmatic person. I was a proponent of 100 percent scanning mandate, but understood that fulfilling the requirements would be no easy task. However, those of us who supported the provision hoped to spur significant advances in cargo security by this point, even if the initial 2012 deadline was not met. Instead, in the nearly 5 years since the law was enacted, DHS has failed to make an honest effort to implement the mandate. We have heard a litany of reasons that 100 percent scanning cannot or should not be done. In testimony before this committee, Secretary Napolitano expressed opposition to the mandate, indicating that the 100 percent requirement is not achievable by 2012, and instead advocating for a risk-based approach to maritime cargo security. Of course, the surest way to fail is not to try at all. Equally troubling is the fact that in recent years, some of DHS' existing cargo security programs have become stagnant or have been scaled back. For example, the Container Security Initiative, CSI, is operational in the same 58 ports that were active before the enactment of the 9/11 Act. Over the past 5 years, CSI has not been expanded, despite the fact that at least 700 ports ships goods to the United States. The number of overseas personnel deployed to the 58 ports has plummeted.

Mr. Thompson also wrote op-ed Cargo, the Terrorists’ Trojan Horse, together with Jerrold L. Nadler and Edward J. Markey, the Democratic representatives from New York and Massachusetts, published on June 26, 2012 in the NYT:

Over the years, terrorists have shown themselves to be frighteningly inventive. They have hidden explosives in printer cartridges transported by air and embedded explosives in the shoes and underwear of airline passengers. The cargo containers arriving on ships from foreign ports offer terrorists a Trojan horse for a devastating attack on the United States. As the Harvard political scientist Graham T. Allison has put it, a nuclear attack is “far more likely to arrive in a cargo container than on the tip of a missile.”

But for the past five years, the Department of Homeland Security has done little to counter this threat and instead has wasted precious time arguing that it would be too expensive and too difficult, logistically and diplomatically, to comply with the law. This is unacceptable.

An attack on an American port could cause tens of thousands of deaths and cripple global trade, with losses ranging from $45 billion to more than $1 trillion, according to estimates by the RAND Corporation and the Congressional Research Service. Anyone who doubts these estimates should recall the labor strike that shut down the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for 11 days in 2002. Economic losses were put at $6.3 billion or more. Homeland Security says it would cost $16 billion or more to meet the mandate, but that projection assumes that the department would pay to acquire, maintain and operate scanning equipment and related operations, without any offsetting fees from companies in the global supply chain. In contrast, Stephen E. Flynn, an expert in terrorism and port security at Northeastern University, has said a scanning system could be implemented in every major container port in the world at a cost of $1.5 billion, and that the costs could largely be absorbed by companies doing business at the ports.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released the report “Combating Nuclear Smuggling: Megaports Initiative Faces Funding and Sustainability Challenges” on November 28, 2012 (All emphasis in bold in this article was added):

As of August 2012, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) had completed 42 of 100 planned Megaports projects in 31 countries and, as of December 2011, NNSA had spent about $850 million on the Megaports Initiative. NNSA’s Initiative has equipped these seaports with radiation detection equipment, established training programs for foreign personnel, and created a sustainability program to help countries operate and maintain the equipment. However, the administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal would reduce the Initiative’s budget by about 85 percent, and NNSA plans to shift the Initiative’s focus from establishing new Megaports to sustaining existing ones. As a result, NNSA has suspended ongoing negotiations and canceled planned deployments of equipment in five countries.

Are the Obama administration and other Western governments setting the right priorities in counter-terrorism? Or are they neglecting expensive port security in the hope that cheaper NSA surveillance of internet traffic will uncover terrorist plots? I think such a rationale would be wrong. The political costs of massive internet surveillance are significant, while the benefits are doubtful. Companies should pay for the costs of port security.

If I am correct in assuming that only stupid terrorists with limited capabilities are likely to be caught by communication surveillance, then we need to debate whether the cost of privacy invasions is worth the benefit of preventing relatively minor terrorist attacks. I have not fully made up my mind on this.

Neither data privacy nor security should be seen as absolute values. Accepting any terrorism as a risk of life in “The New Normal” seems to be blasphemy for many US politicians and pundits, although they have accepted domestic gun violence (like the Connecticut elementary school shooting) for decades. These crimes as well as spontaneous “do it yourself”-terrorism like the Woolwich stabbing cannot be prevented by internet surveillance anyway. If we want our governments to protect rather than invade our privacy, then we should not watch/read media that regularly freaks out at every terrorism report, because that sends the wrong message to our politicians about our priorities.

What do you think? More focus needed on low-probability high impact risks (like dirty bombs smuggled in shipping cargo) rather than high-probability low impact risks? I appreciate feedback!

Endnote: Today is the 8th anniversary of the London bombings. On July 7, 2005, a series of bomb attacks on London's transport network has killed more than 52 people and injured 770 others.

Shortly afterwards, the “We Are Not Afraid” website went up, but seems to be down now. “It is a worldwide action for people not willing to be cowed by terrorism and fear mongering. The historical response to these types of attacks has been a show of deadly force; we believe that there is a better way. We refuse to respond to aggression and hatred in kind. Instead, we who are not afraid will continue to live our lives the best way we know how. We will work, we will play, we will laugh, we will live. We will not waste one moment, nor sacrifice one bit of our freedom, because of fear."

Joerg Wolf works for the Atlantische Initiative as editor-in-chief of the open think tank He founded the Atlantic Review in 2005 and blogs here and on Facebook in his free time on transatlantic issues ranging from security to economics and pop culture. Joerg is a Berliner, a Fulbrighter, and an Atlanticist. Follow him on Twitter.


No Trackbacks


Display comments as Linear | Threaded

No comments

Add Comment

E-Mail addresses will not be displayed and will only be used for E-Mail notifications.

To prevent automated Bots from commentspamming, please enter the string you see in the image below in the appropriate input box. Your comment will only be submitted if the strings match. Please ensure that your browser supports and accepts cookies, or your comment cannot be verified correctly.

Form options