The Homeland Security Department (search) hasn't settled on a final plan to keep freight shipping safe from terrorism, but it has concluded that a top priority is faster deployment of more sophisticated radiation detectors at airports, seaports and border crossings.
Officials released a draft cargo security (search) strategy Thursday that stated its most important objective is to intercept any weapon of mass destruction at the U.S. border.
Among the other objectives are identifying high-risk cargo by analyzing data about shipments and requiring mechanical seals on all containers coming into the United States to prevent tampering.
Intelligence indicates it's unlikely a terrorist would send a weapon of mass destruction (search) in a container shipped from overseas, the paper said.
But the prevalence of smuggling and the horrible consequences of an attack involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons led the Homeland Security Department to conclude that it must do more to prevent terrorists from using legitimate shipments to launch such an attack.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge acknowledged the complexity of protecting a system that begins with shipments of raw materials to factories and ends with customers buying finished products.
Adding to the challenge: Supplies change hands constantly as they move by truck, rail and ship through ports, terminals and border crossings around the globe.
"We need to set standards, we need to identify best practices, and we need to call upon the companies and the individuals responsible for cargo security to help us develop that strategy," Ridge told several hundred government and business representatives convened at Georgetown University to discuss the draft strategy.
"It's absolutely critical to the parents who must have that Dancing Elmo doll delivered in time for Christmas," he said.
More than 20,000 shipping containers pass through U.S. ports daily, Ridge said.
Nearly two years after the Homeland Security Department was formed, only ad hoc measures have been adopted to protect cargo shipping, Ridge said.
Confusion within the department - especially among Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard - has stymied development of a national cargo security plan.
"During the two years since DHS was established, this has frequently led to questions of 'who's in charge?'" the draft strategy noted.
Deputy Secretary James Loy acknowledged the delay, saying, "This session is already a year late."
The lack of coordination among government agencies is delaying the shipment of goods, said some summit participants.
At the Texas border, trucks are stopped by three different agencies that check the same paperwork, said Maria Luisa O'Connell, president of the Border Trade Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates improving cross-border trade.
"They're not talking to each other," said Rosa Hakala, vice president of international supply chain at Home Depot. "It translates to a double expense."
Gary Gilbert, chief security officer for Hutchison Port Holdings, the world's largest marine terminal operator, said it's high time that radiation detection equipment is deployed in ports around the world.
Ports and terminals have been hardened into fortresses against terrorists, he said, "but every box that come into our facilities is a Trojan horse."
"We've got to move beyond power point here," Gilbert said.