US, EU seek consensus on securing cargo shipments from terrorists

(By Deutsche Welle) Washington views commercial cargo shipments as a potential source of terrorist attacks, if strict monitoring standards are not implemented. US Homeland Security chief Napolitano is in Europe to advocate the US position.

Washington does not currently plan to implement a congressional requirement that calls for every single container to be screened at its port of departure before shipping off for the United States, US Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano said as she toured Europe to discuss trans-Atlantic security cooperation.

“We believe the so-called 100 percent requirement is probably not the best way to go,” Napolitano said Wednesday in Rotterdam.

In the decade since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Washington has sought to implement its own stringent security standards at airports and commercial ports around the world in order to counter the perceived threat of another impending terrorist strike.

In reaction to this threat assessment, the US Congress passed a provision in 2007 that called for all containers to be screened at their ports of departure by 2012, sparking controversy in Europe.

Many European officials argued that the measure would have a direct impact on Europe’s internal market, unfairly diverting goods to ports that had implemented Washington’s security standards.

“Obviously the US feels much more threatened than the European Union,” Patryk Pawlak, an expert on homeland security issues in the US and EU, told Deutsche Welle.

Last October, British authorities intercepted a parcel bomb of Yemeni origin at the East Midlands airport. The explosive-filled computer printer ink cartridge was addressed to a Jewish synagogue in Chicago.

“The attempt with the ink cartridges for printers last year really shows that the European Union is a potential territory for the transit of such tools, so that’s why the US is trying to motivate the European side,” said Pawlak, a scholar at the Paris-based European Union Institute for Security Studies.

Unilateral implementation

In the political fallout from the failure to prevent the September 11 attacks, elected officials and policymakers in Washington mobilized to prevent another attack, creating the Homeland Security Department to coordinate an interdepartmental effort to fight terrorism at home as well as abroad.

“After the attacks they have had a number of policy initiatives that they introduced unilaterally and then tried to sell them to the international partners,” Pawlak said.

The Container Security Initiative (CSI), which covers 50 ports worldwide, sent US officials to commercial ports around the world to screen containers to make sure that they were safe to arrive in the US.

The Customs Trade-Partnership against Terrorism (CTPAT) was established to facilitate the business of private-sector companies that implemented the security standards set in Washington.

Nightmare scenario

Although the perpetrators of September 11 manipulated lax airport security to carry out the attacks in New York City and Washington D.C., many officials in Washington began to perceive a whole spectrum of risks across America’s transport infrastructure.

Congress and the executive branch began to view international shipping as an area that had not been integrated into Washington’s growing security apparatus. The sheer volume of commercial cargo made monitoring the contents of containers difficult.

“With cargo shipments you don’t know whether in the containers that are destined for the United States you don’t have a nuclear bomb or a biological weapon that is being smuggled or a whole container, let’s say, of five terrorists who are trying to get into the US illegally,” Pawlak said.

One of the nightmare scenarios for officials in Washington was that an atomic weapon or radiological “dirty” bomb could be loaded into a container, shipped to New York or San Francisco and then detonated.

“The problem with any kind of situation like this is even if the probability is very low, the consequences of an attack using cargo might be much bigger than any other attempt and actually nobody is willing to take this risk,” Pawlak said.

Security state

Washington originally sought to implement its 100 percent screening requirement at European ports, but political divisions within the EU complicated the US effort.

Although EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström has been more receptive to the US position, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding as well as the European parliament often take positions that lean more toward upholding civil liberties.

In turn, Pawlak says the US has largely backed away from its unilateral push for 100 percent screening and instead sought to convince its trans-Atlantic partners that Washington’s threat assessment is the correct one.

Homeland Security chief Napolitano has said that Washington will now take a more “layered” approach, which will include better cooperation between countries and more intelligence sharing.

A “layered” approach, however, does not mean that Washington is softening its position toward security and counterterrorism. And according to Pawlak, the EU is adopting its own security measures that look increasingly like those originally formulated in Washington.

“We will either have the same level or even stronger security requirements coming from the United States, but I don’t think any US administration will ever go down,” Pawlak said.

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