Politics & Policy

Security Theater

Absurdist drama on Capitol Hill.

Kip Hawley, head of the Transportation Security Administration, recently dropped his agency’s questionable effort to ban butane lighters from airplanes. Untold dollars and hours were wasted as TSA screeners were busy confiscating more than 22,000 lighters a day.

#ad#Never mind that there are plenty of other ways to detonate a bomb, like matches, which are conspicuously not banned. Or batteries. (Try confiscating batteries from parents with game-crazed kids, and our airports may face an all new kind of terror.)

Hawley recognized that security personnel were being diverted from more strategic approaches to screening by chasing after every conceived threat imagined by certain members of Congress — who were, after all, the ones who insisted on banning lighters after terrorist Richard Reid was caught trying to light an explosive device in his shoe several years ago.

In an interesting turn of phrase, Hawley referred to such misguided but politically popular mandates as “security theater.” He noted that such theater trivializes security operations while doing little to protect Americans.

Well, get ready for a whole new act of absurdist drama in Washington.

Congress Friday passed a new homeland-security bill that mandates the scanning of every single piece of cargo before it enters the United States. Every container. That’s more than eleven million a year, a number that is expected to dramatically increase in the coming decade.

Such a mandate is expected to initially cost about 1.3 billion dollars each year — for the massive amount of labor and the technology required alone.

However, as World Shipping Council President Christopher Koch put it, that billion-plus price tag is only a “fraction” of the overall economic costs compared to the “chaos costs” that will result from massive disruptions in the supply chain. A Rand Corporation study concludes that scanning 100 percent of cargo would result in five-and-half-hour delays for every container scanned.

What’s five-and-half times 11 million?

The current grandstanding by Congress is all the more baffling considering that — just last year — it passed legislation in the SAFE Port Act that called for testing the theory of total cargo scanning in order to evaluate its effectiveness. A report on three pilot sites is due to Congress next year.

By why wait for a report Congress demanded last year when it can score political points this year?

Those who drove this provision, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, tell us that the bill merely implements the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Except that the commission never recommended that we unwisely focus massive resources on one particular vulnerability — to the detriment of shoring up others.

To the contrary, the 9/11 Commission report calls for an intensified effort to track and screen “high-risk” cargo through more practical and sophisticated tactics. It recommends a layered strategy of security that integrates intelligence gathering, risk assessment, and foreign government and private-sector engagement to identify potentially dangerous cargo for closer inspection.

Does the government need to focus more resources on vulnerabilities in our ports? Absolutely. But Congress’s indiscriminate approach to cargo security will result in a grievous diversion of limited resources. Instead of confiscating cigarette lighters, as Congress mandated TSA’s security personnel to do, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials will find themselves managing a global effort to scan the millions of containers being shipped from ports throughout the world.

What’s to stop terrorists from smuggling dangerous materials into the country the same way that drug traffickers do it every day — by slipping it illegally across our vast and still-vulnerable borders?

This latest congressional mandate is, as Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Ralph Basham put it, a “fundamentally flawed” approach to a complicated security dynamic. His warnings echo Kip Hawley’s complaints.

Unlike the relative ease with which the lighter ban could be dropped, however, the damage caused to America’s security as well as economic competitiveness could be irreparable.

Christopher Battle is former chief of staff for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security. He leads the Homeland Security Practice for Adfero Group, a Washington-based strategic communications firm.

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