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Tilting at Windmills

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April 27, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

PORT SECURITY....Is 100% scanning of all containers coming into American ports an unrealistic goal? Republicans may think so, but experts say otherwise:

This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. Since January 2005, every container entering the truck gates of two of the world's busiest container terminals, in Hong Kong, has passed through scanning and radiation detection devices.

Images of the containers' contents are then stored on computers so that they can be scrutinized by American or other customs authorities almost in real time.

....If they agreed to impose a common security fee of roughly $20 per container, similar to what passengers are now used to paying when they purchase airline tickets, they could recover the cost of installing and operating this system worldwide. This, in turn, would furnish a powerful deterrent for terrorists who might be tempted to convert the ubiquitous cargo container into a poor man's missile.

Hong Kong's pilot program has scanned 1.5 million containers in the past two years and officials there report that it hasn't slowed down operations in any way. The cost to install high-end scanners at ports worldwide would be around $1.5 billion, and not only would it improve port security immediately, but the resulting database of scanned images would be useful for both intelligence agencies and law enforcement.

So why are Democratic proposals to require 100% scanning routinely voted down by Republicans as they were once again yesterday? Because it's unrealistic? Or because Republicans are afraid to tell their campaign contributors that they're going to have to pay a security fee of $20 per container?

Kevin Drum 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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Comments

Why couldn't this kind of fee be easily passed on to the consumer? This is not rocket science.

Posted by: Hedley Lamarr on April 27, 2006 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

Just require peep holes on each side of the containers so radiation detectors of much lower cost can just be poked into the containers.

Of course, you still have the problem of a container within a container. What do you do about lead lined containers within?

Posted by: Matt on April 27, 2006 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

All the billions we've lost in Iraq, and we can't afford even this? Ridiculous.

Posted by: Ringo on April 27, 2006 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

I would imagine lead lined containers might send up a few red flags.

Posted by: nutty little nut nut on April 27, 2006 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

Just require peep holes on each side of the containers so radiation detectors of much lower cost can just be poked into the containers.

Plus CO2 detectors to detect smuggling.

What the Repukes are afraid of is that we might raise fees enough so that their offshoring investments might become less profitable, and they might have to start employing US citizens again.

THis is another way to throw stones into this very smooth trade machine, where we trade our jobs for cheap Chinese plastic toys.

Posted by: POed Lib on April 27, 2006 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

And it's another example of the Bush/Republican "war without sacrifice, not even a nominal one".

Posted by: Ringo on April 27, 2006 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know how many containers come through U.S. ports every day, but $20 per container does sound like an awful lot of money over the course of a year. I think security is not only beneficial but necessary, but man, that sounds like beaucoup dollars there.

Posted by: jhupp on April 27, 2006 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

None of this matters, because Clinton once said one thing or did some other thing.

Posted by: craigie as tbrosz on April 27, 2006 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

Where did that $1.5 billion number come from? Even a mobile truck scanner is about a million dollars, and the pass through ones are much more expensive.

Posted by: tbrosz on April 27, 2006 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

That's because according to the GOP, the only appropriate sacrifice for the war against terror is your civil liberties. Surely the market will fix its own security problem. We can't possibly have any entrepreneur-killing big-government regulation that would *wink* harm consumers *wink* *wink*.

Posted by: Jon Karak on April 27, 2006 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

jhupp,

a $20 fee added to each container would be trivial when passed onto the consumer, it would be in the pennies per hundreds of dollars on most items.

Posted by: Eric on April 27, 2006 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

Or we just wait untill one blows up and we can spent 20 billion on Haliburton to clean up the mess. DUH!!!

Posted by: Booo on April 27, 2006 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

tbrosz,

Do you want to secure the US or not? Given the massive amount of money we've put into Iraq, this is a pittance even at double the stated price. And the rewards are significantly greater - the ports of entry to the US are a perfectly reasonable place to think that WMD and other terrorist materiel might enter the country.

Rather than carp about what you percieve as errors in details, try addressing the larger point. Do you want the US to be safer?

Posted by: phleabo on April 27, 2006 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

We made a mistake trying to outsource our port management to the UAE. Obviously Hong Kong would have been a better choice.

Posted by: alex on April 27, 2006 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

Pass the costs on to consumers, and the costs of offshore production go up. Good for the American producers, even if bad for consumers. But do we really need all that Chinese junk? On balance, it would probably help us more than hurt from an economic standpoint, in addition to the obvious security benefits. And it highlights once again how the GOP's god is really Mammon, not security or the other one.

Posted by: Mimikatz on April 27, 2006 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

Anybody else remember how, during the last census, Republicans indulged in their usual hysteria over the Census Bureau's proposal to use statistical sampling, rather than attempting to count every citizen? Kinda funny how they're willing to lean on probability when it comes to trivia like smuggled weapons.....

Posted by: sglover on April 27, 2006 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

None of this matters, because Clinton once said one thing or did some other thing.

Really have the giggles now!

Posted by: shortstop on April 27, 2006 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

Of course, you still have the problem of a container within a container. What do you do about lead lined containers within? Posted by: Matt

Unless you've got aid on the other side in the port, which is conceiveable, all container are weighed. The "bad guys" would have to be awfully careful coming and going because of this.

If the Bush administration was really all that serious about the "global war on terror," and of course they've proved for almost five years straight that they aren't, spending through the Department of Homeland Security would have increased ten-fold for ports, airports, all energy facilities, and all chemical facilities. Senators in states with major ports had to fight for miniscule increases that aren't even a bandaid for the problem. As it was, we still ended up with appropriations that was giving more money per captia to Wyoming than New York, Washington, California, etc., etc. And we waste hundreds of billions of dollars destroying Iraq.

You're doing a heck of job, Bushie!

Posted by: JeffII on April 27, 2006 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

Do you want to secure the US or not?

Maybe I should have been clearer. I support putting scanners and other similar equipment at our ports of entry. I also support increased barriers and controls on our southern border, and it would be kind of stupid to be for one and against the other.

I was just looking for the source of the numbers, which seem a bit low to me.

I wonder if the key phrase in this controversy is the "foreign port" requirement. What's involved in mandating scanners in other nations? It might not be as simple as putting scanners on all our own ports would be.

Posted by: tbrosz on April 27, 2006 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

Scanning outbound U.S.-bound cargo at ports abroad seems just as important as getting it all scanned once it's here. I know Kevin's cost estimate for "ports worldwide" was intended to take that into account. Still can't help but think $1.5 billion sounds more than a bit low. How many ports are we talking about? How feasible is it going to be to have image scanning and analysis going on everywhere and information shared across the system? We can't even solve these kinds of problems within our own government.

Posted by: nandrews3 on April 27, 2006 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

This is exactly the sort of question that virtually every Democrat running for federal office should ask to their Republican opponents.

Posted by: Brian on April 27, 2006 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

tbrosz sez:
Where did that $1.5 billion number come from? Even a mobile truck scanner is about a million dollars, and the pass through ones are much more expensive.

Are you not familiar with the concept of economy of scale? In this case, as with many others, it's cheaper per unit to build many, than to build one or five.

Posted by: kenga on April 27, 2006 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

Why is the US flirting with the same walled mentality the Russians gave up nearly a generation ago? Short answer is that it is just political theater (The narrative du jour is America under assault), other short answer is just stupid leadership. Unlike the Soviet Union, the United States, the worlds greatest debtor nation, will pay for its walls and fears with borrowed money. And no matter what system is set up and how much money is spent, it will be fantastically porous. The US is just too large and dependant on all those containers with foreign goods- unlike the Soviet Union. And is someone really going to ship "The Bomb" over like some kind of jack-in-the-box? Just nuts.

No way a continent-size nation of 300 million people who are dependent on foreign goods and credit can close itself to the world. Couldnt do it in 1920s or on the eve of the Great Depression (remember the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930?) certainly cant do it now.

Posted by: bellumregio on April 27, 2006 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans are against this because it would impede smuggling, of course. And it would create a bad precedent, a law-enforcement program that actually works without increasing brutality.

Posted by: cld on April 27, 2006 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

And it would create a bad precedent, a law-enforcement program that actually works without increasing brutality.

That's a good point. Perhaps they would vote for a bill that required the torture of all ship captains, so that we could find out which ones were smuggling in nukes.

Posted by: craigie as tbrosz on April 27, 2006 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

100% scanning is a good idea.
Would stuff comming through Mexico and Canada be scanned as well?

Posted by: JOe on April 27, 2006 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

$1.5 billion does seem a bit low to provide this sort of scanning globally, albeit not domestically.

There actually aren't that many ports in the United States. From "The Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Hearing on Foreign Operations of U.S. Port Facilities", March of this year:

The 361 ports in the United States handle more than 2.5 billion tons of trade annually. This involves approximately 11 million shipping containers. The Department of Homeland Security, primarily through the activities of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S. Coast Guard run many programs to secure the ports.

Posted by: S Ra on April 27, 2006 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

That's because according to the GOP, the only appropriate sacrifice for the war against terror is your civil liberties. Surely the market will fix its own security problem. We can't possibly have any entrepreneur-killing big-government regulation that would *wink* harm consumers *wink* *wink*.

Of course, if a port was rendered unusuable by detonation of a WMD, that would pretty much solve the problem of stopping WMDs from entering that port in the future. At that point the remaining ports will take security seriously as the cost of not doing so will outweigh the costs of business as usual. Not the method I would prefer, but I'm sure the market will be just fine with it.

That's the problem with the market - it doesn't really give a damn about human beings. Useful, sure, but certainly not deserving of our trust, much less our worship.

Posted by: moderleft on April 27, 2006 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

The cost to install high-end scanners at ports worldwide would be around $1.5 billion, and not only would it improve port security immediately, but the resulting database of scanned images would be useful for both intelligence agencies and law enforcement.

Everybody that follows American politics already knows the answer. first, it will not improve port security "immediately", but will take time; secondly, it will cost more than $1.5 billion to the US, not to mention "worldwide".


That said, if the Democrats really want it, make a more realistic proposal, and push it consistently instead of their usual ADHD approach to security, then they can probably get it. It's a good idea. As with the Department of Homeland Security, Democrats can overcome GOP resistance and get this if they push this hard.

Posted by: republicrat on April 27, 2006 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

It isn't just mafia or drug-cartel type smuggling that would be impaired.Corporate medievalists smuggle things in and out of the country on a grand scale, they move whole factories under the counter.

If a system like this were implemented in the US it would put a huge dent in the high end of the black market.

Posted by: cld on April 27, 2006 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

Kenga:

I was just looking for a source. The $1.5 billion number wasn't in the article that Kevin linked to, at least not the free portion.

Posted by: tbrosz on April 27, 2006 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

Why not scan all containers, because it is a lousy idea, that's why.

Suppose we spend a few billion on this. Okay, we have people and trucks streaming over our border from Mexico and we can't stop those so the nuclear bomb carrying terrorists would just go there. Fence the Southern border? Okay then come in through Canada where there are hundreds and hundreds of miles of open border.

Finally, since this scanning would only detect radiation and certain explosives (would not detect most biological agents) it would be pretty useless given the fact that you can buy a few hundred pounds of fertilizer and some diesel fuel like McVeigh did and bring down a building.

The only trick, and gee I think the terrorists might be able to figure this out. Is that you have to buy the fertilizer one or two bags at a time.

The scan every container idea sounds nice and it might give some people a sense of security, but its an illusion.

Posted by: tde on April 27, 2006 at 3:14 PM | PERMALINK

but $20 per container does sound like an awful lot of money over the course of a year

We could call it a "Freedom Tax" and Bush could dress up like a pilot and announce it from the
flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

Then tbrosz would promptly tell us what a great idea it is.

Posted by: Stephen on April 27, 2006 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

$1.00 per bag of peanuts?! My god! Think of all the millions of bags of peanuts! That $1 is actually a lot of money!

$20 per container is nothing. That container could hold ten thousand widgets that retail for a buck a piece or it could contain one giant fun blob from ronco worth ten grand. Either way, if $20 is tacked on to the contents it's nothing.

Great googely-moogely. $20 per container is big money the same way 3 cents to each stamp is.

Posted by: The Tim on April 27, 2006 at 3:19 PM | PERMALINK

"The scan every container idea sounds nice and it might give some people a sense of security, but its an illusion."


Ahhhh. The heart of 21st century political thinking: This one ______ doesn't solve every single problem so therefore it/he/she is pointless.

It's saviour or nothing!

Posted by: The Tim on April 27, 2006 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

We could call it a "Freedom Tax" and Bush could dress up like a pilot and announce it from the
flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

Brilliant. Karl, is that you?

Posted by: craigie on April 27, 2006 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

What makes the profits obscene is the price in blood, American and Iraqi, that is being paid for those profits. Soldiers and Iraqis are dying and being horribly maimed to secure the flow of oil while the CEO of Exxon is given a half billion payout. The oil industry profits obscenely from this sacrifice without enduring any pain or consequences itself. They are asking others to give their lives while they enjoy their luxuries and opulence.

Posted by: bblog on April 27, 2006 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

I would like to place my order for the $10,020 Ronco Fun Blob(tm) right now, please.

Posted by: S Ra on April 27, 2006 at 3:44 PM | PERMALINK

Please excuse-wrong thread.

Posted by: bblog on April 27, 2006 at 4:01 PM | PERMALINK

S Ra -
I suggest you have a look here:
http://www.crayolastore.com/product_detail.asp?T1=CRA+08%2D0001%2D0%2D001&.

I mean, who DOESN'T need a 5 lb lump o' Silly Putty?

Posted by: kenga on April 27, 2006 at 4:02 PM | PERMALINK

It is impossible that a savings-short asset-dependant American consumer who is experiencing downward pressure on income because of globalization and a reduction in discretionary spending because of higher oil prices and interests rates will be able to pay taxes for new national security mega-projects. Especially in an already indebted nation engaged in a major war and addicted to tax cuts for the wealth. Even current obligations cannot be met. May as well be talking about angels on the heads of pins.

Posted by: bellumregio on April 27, 2006 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

My, that's a lot of mighty fine words there. I'll need time to parse it all out...

Posted by: craigie on April 27, 2006 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

Fascinating to read that the wingers who post here have no problems giving up their inalienable civil rights but protest the costliness and impracticality of something that is low cost and practical. Color me surprised.

Posted by: SavageView on April 27, 2006 at 4:55 PM | PERMALINK

When I returned to the US in 2004 after living in Europe to a couple of years my household goods were shipped by an international mover. I received a call from the mover's rep here that my container was going to be scanned and the cost was over $400. I had no information beyond that and no choice except to pay to ransom my furniture. I have no idea if the container was actually scanned or not.

Posted by: Rev. Sharon on April 27, 2006 at 5:02 PM | PERMALINK

This, in turn, would furnish a powerful deterrent for terrorists who might be tempted to convert the ubiquitous cargo container into a poor man's missile.

Personally, I'd love to inspect a poor man's missile!

Posted by: Jeff Gannon on April 27, 2006 at 5:30 PM | PERMALINK

Companies already help pay for ports, in the form of Harbor Maintenance Fees on all imports via ocean. I can't remember the amount off the top of my head, but it's pretty low. Those sorts of fees (HMF, MPF) are usually charged as a percentage of the cargo value with an upper limit. Considering the average cargo container shipment will cost thousands of dollars in freight and hundreds of dollars in fees, additional ones for good reasons would probably be fine.

holes in the containers, however, would be incredibly bad. Most of the product is packaged in cardboard and travels on the decks of ocean ships. I once had a shipment that got wet and $40,000 worth of equipment smelled like dead fish for weeks.

Posted by: Hillary on April 27, 2006 at 5:40 PM | PERMALINK

I guess I'm in the camp that finds the 1.5 billion surprisingly inexpensive, at least compared to all the billions we've sunk into Iraq.

It's certainly legitimate to question where they got that number, but if it is accurate, then I can not see why Republicans would oppose this of all things.

I just saw an ad today urging people to contact the WH and Congress on this issue, so it isn't something they're going to be able to ignore without paying a price.

Posted by: Ringo on April 27, 2006 at 5:58 PM | PERMALINK

I once had a shipment that got wet and $40,000 worth of equipment smelled like dead fish for weeks.

How much is the sea bass stench discount on a flat screen t.v.?

Posted by: Ringo on April 27, 2006 at 6:01 PM | PERMALINK

Eventually, we figured out that it was just the packaging that smelled, and reboxed everything, after letting the product air out. :-)

Posted by: Hillary on April 27, 2006 at 6:04 PM | PERMALINK

A fraction of the money spent in Iraq, perhaps even the amount we know has been defrauded, would easily pay for this.

Posted by: Jimm on April 27, 2006 at 8:01 PM | PERMALINK

This is just stupid.

Obviously at a massive port like the ones in HK with a well trained technical workforce you can set something like this up and get big economies of scale and have it managed well.

You need to realize though that a lot of our trade goes through much smaller ports.

A buddy of mine just arranged a bulk load of over 10,000 tons of nickel ore out of a corporate container terminal in the Philippines out near a mine site that is so primitive they don't even have a computer system to manage things - they still run their business on Excel.

Want to imagine getting a scanning set up instituted there? Don't make me laugh.

That then leads to a simple question... if we just take the lowlying fruit - major ports like the ones in HK, Shanghai, Dubai, etc. to what extent do we benefit? Is it easy for terrorist to switch to other ports? If so, should we bother or should we devote resources to other areas?

And BTW, $1.5 billion is not chump change. It's $5 per American per year. A billion here a billion there and pretty soon you are talking real money.

Posted by: Michael Friedman on April 27, 2006 at 8:26 PM | PERMALINK

What Michael says is right on. So Hong Kong can do this? Great. Can we do it at the 20-30 major ports for the United States? And does that really stop the intent of any one group from smuggling in a 55-gallon drum of (fill-in-the-blank) on a fast speed boat or even a slow trawler?

Posted by: J. on April 28, 2006 at 8:33 AM | PERMALINK

Michael Friedman,

$1.5 billion?! OhmiGod. Compared to the Iraq war that's HUGE. We can't afford *that* for improved security!

Nuh uh.

Posted by: Tripp on April 28, 2006 at 12:08 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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