As deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection in the Bush administration, Jayson Ahern was the primary target of Congress’ ire when it came to a yet to be fulfilled mandate to screen 100 percent of all shipping containers bound for the United States for nuclear materials.
The Department of Homeland Security under then Secretary Michael Chertoff made no secret that it did not agree with the SAFE Port Act of 2006 requirement that all containers must be screened at foreign ports by 2012. The law came in reaction to the 9/11 attacks and the belief that a terrorist group may try to smuggle a nuclear weapon in one of the approximately 11 million shipping containers that come through U.S. ports every year.
After millions of dollars spent on technical solutions that have not panned out, and studies showing that placing scanners in foreign ports would be phenomenally expensive, that deadline appears to be unfeasible, and the goal seems as elusive as ever.
Ahern in testimony to Congress always maintained that a risk-based approach, where data mining would reveal which containers should be singled out for inspections, would be less costly.
After spending a year serving as the acting CBP commissioner in the Obama administration, Ahern retired in January, and has recently sharpened his criticism of Congress and the act. It is an example of the mistaken belief that there can be a 100 percent solution for every threat, he said at the National Defense Industrial Association homeland security symposium.
The “nuke in a container” scenario would be a high consequence attack, and the “sum of all fears,” but “if you actually look at the intelligence,” there is a low probability that it would happen, he said.
It’s unlikely that a terrorist group — if it could actually put its hands on a nuclear device — would allow it to leave its control by placing it on a shipping container where it would be handed off to a trucking company, a freight forwarder, terminal operator, vessel operator and longshoremen in the United States.
“It could happen, but it’s less likely,” Ahern said.
A more attractive scenario for a terrorist organization is a nuclear weapon smuggled in on a small vessel sailing into U.S. waters. In that case, the weapon would remain in the group’s control. Congress has not addressed the small boat threat, Ahern maintained.
“It’s a matter of making sure we look at all threats and not fixating on a particular one as our Congress did,” said Ahern, who is now an advisor in the Chertoff Group.
The law should be “repealed entirely or amended substantially,” he said.