WASHINGTON - The Department of Homeland Security will miss an initial deadline of July 12 to comply with a sweeping federal law meant to thwart terrorist attacks arriving by sea, frustrating border security advocates who worry that the agency has not done enough to prevent dangerous cargo from coming through the country’s ocean gateways, including the Port of Boston.
Only a small fraction of all metal cargo containers have been scanned before arriving at US ports, and advocates for tighter port security say all maritime cargo needs to be scanned or manually inspected to prevent terrorists from using ships bound for the United States to deliver a nuclear bomb.
The scenario might be straight out of a Hollywood script, but the threat of terrorism is not limited to airplanes, according to Homeland Security critics, including Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts. Markey accuses the agency of not making a good-faith effort to comply with a 2007 law he coauthored requiring all US-bound maritime shipments to be scanned before departing overseas docks.
“We’re not just missing the boat, we could be missing the bomb,’’ the Malden Democrat said. “The reality is that detonating a nuclear bomb in the United States is at the very top of Al Qaeda’s terrorist targets.’’
Only about 5 percent of all cargo containers headed to the United States are screened, according to the government’s own estimate, with some shipments getting only a cursory paperwork review.
Homeland Security officials argue that wider screening would be cost-prohibitive, logistically and technologically difficult, and diplomatically challenging. While acknowledging the threat as real, they are exercising their right under the 2007 law to postpone for two years the full implementation of the congressionally mandated scanning program. That would set the new deadline for July 2014.
Critics say the consequences of delay could be catastrophic. Terrorists have long sought to obtain uranium or plutonium to construct a nuclear bomb, global security analysts say. Government officials, including President Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, have worried that terrorist cells could be plotting further devastation in the United States, perhaps through radioactive explosives called “dirty bombs.’’
Homeland Security “has concluded that 100 percent scanning of incoming maritime cargo is neither the most efficient nor cost-effective approach to securing our global supply chain,’’ said Matt Chandler, an agency spokesman.
Homeland Security “continues to work collaboratively with industry, federal partners, and the international community to expand these programs and our capability to detect, analyze, and report on nuclear and radiological materials,’’ Chandler said, adding that “we are more secure than ever before.’’
The agency has used what it calls a “risk-based approach’’ to shipments. As a result, Homeland Security has focused on cargo originating from 58 of the world’s busiest seaports, from Hong Kong to Dubai. Last year, US agents stationed at those ports inspected 45,500 shipments determined to be high risk, according to joint testimony by Homeland Security, Coast Guard, and US Customs officials in February before the House Homeland Security Committee.
Republicans have been wary of forcing the agency to comply with the scanning mandate because of the presumed cost, perhaps at least $16 billion - a figure disputed by Markey and others who cite estimates that the program could cost a comparatively modest $200 million.
Representative Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House subcommittee on border and maritime security, was more inclined to accept the estimate from Homeland Security officials. In light of the country’s budget troubles, “we have to try and prioritize,’’ she said.
Scanning cargo “100 percent would be optimal,’’ she conceded, “but it’s not workable.’’
Still, she acknowledged the need to secure the country’s borders, whether by air, land, or sea.
‘We’re not just missing the boat, we could be missing the bomb. . . . Detonating a nuclear bomb in the [US] is at the very top of Al Qaeda’s terrorist targets.’Representative Edward Markey
There is no dispute that a terrorist attack at a major port could be catastrophic to the global economy. Much of the world’s products - T-shirts sewn in China, designer shoes from Italy, and other foreign-made products - arrives in the United States in large, metal cargo containers.
While some countries have voluntarily improved cargo screening, others have not. Large retailers have opposed measures that could increase their costs. Without full scanning compliance, it is often difficult to determine if shipments have been inspected because cargo is sometimes transferred from ship to ship offshore.
“The existing system has some real problems,’’ said Stephen Flynn, the founding codirector of the Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University.
“We should be focusing on how to improve the system,’’ he said, “and that’s really not happening.’’
November will mark a decade since Congress approved the sweeping maritime law that put in place standards and procedures for screening cargo. In 2007, Markey and other Democrats won approval of the 100-percent scanning program, opposed by Homeland Security officials but ultimately signed by President Bush.
“They don’t agree with the law. They think we should run the risk of nuclear devastation,’’ said Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat.
“This is a huge threat to the country.’’
Because of those threats, ports across the country, including in Boston, have tightened security at facilities, including more rigorous background checks of dock workers.
Earlier this year, the federal government awarded Massachusetts $21.7 million in Homeland Security funds, part of which will be used to further enhance security at the Port of Boston.
In 2009, the Boston area was elevated to Tier 1 status by federal authorities. That acknowledged the city’s high risk for terrorist threats, particularly because of its stature as a large port city and its distinction of having one of the country’s busiest storage facilities for liquefied natural gas.
“Port security is always a high priority,’’ said Joseph Lawless, director of maritime security for the Port of Boston and chairman of the security committee for the American Association of Port Authorities.
Boston Port officials are especially sensitive to acts of terrorism because of the tragic connection to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Two airplanes used in the deadly attacks originated from Logan Airport.
“Obviously, we’d love to see a 100 percent screening put in place,’’ Lawless said. “But we also realize that there are legal, logistical, and diplomatic impediments to get things accomplished. The risk-based method of looking at cargo is a sound alternative.’’Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter @GlobeCalvan.