Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told lawmakers Wednesday that the agency cannot meet its 2012 deadline for radiological and nuclear screening of all cargos coming into the United States.
At her first hearing before the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, Napolitano said the 2012 deadline set by Congress is not going to work.
"To do 100 percent screening requires agreements with many countries," Napolitano said, echoing a position taken by officials in the former Bush administration.
A law passed by Congress in 2007 requires the Homeland Security Department to screen all cargo headed for the United States by 2012. About 11.5 million containers come into the country each year.
Total screening also could significantly slow commerce at busy ports, and at least 27 countries and major industry associations have found significant problems with how they would be affected by the law.
Among the major obstacles to meeting the deadline is deploying trained U.S. officials to more than 700 foreign ports to operate scanning equipment.
Napolitano said the agency currently screens almost all cargo containers considered suspicious. She has said she agrees with the concept of catching threats before they reach the United States.
Earlier, Napolitano discussed the department's role in preparing for threats. Deviating from her prepared remarks, she said that terrorism is among those threats.
Unlike her predecessors, Napolitano used less terror-specific rhetoric when discussing the agency. At one point she said the issue for the department when dealing with terror is "How do we respond and recover with resiliency and efficiency?"
A comparison of her prepared remarks with those of her two predecessors found that Napolitano is the first security chief to leave out the words "terror" and "vulnerability" in testimony before the committee.
Tom Ridge, who headed the agency when it was launched in 2003, mentioned terrorism 11 times in his prepared statement at his debut before the oversight committee. And in 2005 Michael Chertoff, Ridge's successor, mentioned terrorism seven times, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.
Napolitano mentioned "technology," "border" and "protect" most often and talked about holding department employees accountable and spending federal money wisely, although she made clear that the department's responsibility is protecting the nation against terror.
She is the first secretary to use a Congressional testimony debut to talk about hurricanes and disasters, a sign of the department's evolving mission after Hurricane Katrina. That massive storm in 2005 caused catastrophic damage to New Orleans, Louisiana, and the government's response was considered ineffective at best.
The committee's top Republican, Rep. Peter King, said he was struck by Napolitano's omission of terrorism from her prepared remarks.