Along America's lengthy land and water borders lie some 361 legal ports of entry, almost all needing more security than they now have.
Indeed, a recent report by the investigative arm of Congress finds that despite some progress in better securing US ports against terrorist entry or attack, "an effective port security environment may be many years away."
Some 90 percent of the world's cargo, and half of US imports, are shipped through ports in containers big metal boxes, easy enough for a bomb, or a terrorist squad, or some other potential agent of destruction to be hidden inside, according to the General Accounting Office report.
Additionally, ports often are located at or near major cities, and with 200 million such containers moving between global ports every year, the need for more rigorous inspection is obvious.
Yet only 2 percent of the 6 million truck-ready containers that enter US ports each year are physically inspected. Of course, it would be impossible to check every box, especially with exports and imports expected to double over the next five years. But a lot more could be done.
In April, a gamma-ray machine that "sees" through cargo containers was installed in a pilot program in Seattle. It can "inspect" 11 containers per hour. But at $1.2 million per machine, and with Seattle alone moving 1.3 million containers a year the price tag seems prohibitive. Other options are needed.
A federal Container Security Initiative should help. It recognizes the international nature of the problem and involves stationing US inspectors in foreign ports at the point of origin, working closely with local officials to help keep better track as cargo changes hands in transit through the world's ports.
Unfortunately, Congress failed to reconcile House and Senate versions of a maritime security bill before it recessed. That means no maritime policy is yet in place, 10 months after 9/11. The need is urgent, and the bill should be high on Congress's list when it returns in September.