WASHINGTON (CN) – Maritime security experts told a think tank on Monday that securing the global supply chain to prevent terrorist attacks was one of the nation’s top security priorities.
“Today is Sept 10, 2001,” said Michael Barrett, former White House Homeland Security Council and lead intelligence officer for the Secretary of Defense said at the Heritage Foundation. Barrett said a terrorist attack along the supply chain would affect “practically everyone in the U.S.”
The global supply chain, which consists of 140 million shipping containers, faces unique challenges, Barrett said, because in addition to the sheer mass of traveling cargo, materials move by ship, rail and truck, making it hard to secure. Also, the United States has 12,000 miles of coastline, making it hard to funnel cargo through a limited number of entrances. Barrett said a nuclear weapon delivered via the supply chain could be an “existential threat.”
Currently, security officials inspect only 6 percent of all cargo coming into the United States, he said. “If you double that, we still have a long way to go,” Barrett said. “If you triple that, we still have a long way to go.”
Barrett said if a security incident were to occur along the global supply chain, the chain would have to be shut down, which he compared to the Obama administration placing a moratorium on deepwater drilling after the BP spill. “How else could you respond politically?” Barrett asked.
But while the BP spill directly impacted 9,000 jobs, halting the global supply chain would impact far more.
Experts said inspecting 100 percent of containers is not the answer.
“Not everything can be secure, not everything can be scanned,” Barrett said.
In 2007, lawmakers passed a bill that requires port officials to scan 100 percent of cargo coming into the United States. The international community, the World Customs Organization and the U.S. business community opposed the bill, said Adam Salerno, Senior National Security Manager at the Chamber of Commerce.
Salerno said the current technology is lacking. The scanning equipment available now picks up such benign things such as kitty litter while letting more dangerous materials go undetected, he said.
Cost is also an issue. It would cost each port $6 million to install the new scanning technology, Salerno said. In the European Union, it would cost more than 430 million euro in initial investment, not including infrastructure costs, and more than 200 million euro for annual maintenance. The initial costs to continue trade between the European Union and the United States would equal a 10 percent increase in costs for businesses, which, in an already down economy, would effectively bar trade.
“Something that has little to no security benefit is not worth the risk to our economy,” Salerno said. “Issues like this hit businesses terribly hard,” he said, “yet it remains law.”
Panelists said in order to improve the system, they must first recognize that there is no “100 percent security.” Then, government and the private sector could focus on increasing security at certain ports or on certain cargo loads, discouraging people from trying to get something dangerous through.
Col. Steven Bucci, former Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary, explained that the maritime officials were currently operating under a “Swiss cheese” model of maritime defense, which he called “imperfect.”
He said the goal for security officials is to “get the holes in the Swiss cheese as small as they can get them.”
Vice Adm. Terry Cross, former Coast Guard Vice Commandant, said the situation could be helped by adding more people to the Coast Guard. Cross said he agreed with Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen’s assessment that the Coast Guard could “meaningfully employ” 10,000 additional people.
“The American people put us at a pretty high standard, by the way,” Bucci said, “like, perfect.”