The Weak Spot in Air Security: Cargo Screening

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Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Airline workers load cargo into an All Nippon Airways passenger plane at Los Angeles International Airport

The printer bomb plot broken up last week by Saudi and British authorities took on a more ominous cast Monday, as Qatar Airways confirmed that one of the bombs had traveled as cargo on two passenger flights before being discovered. The smaller of the two bombs, hidden in a desktop printer, traveled in passenger jets from the Yemeni capital Sana'a to Doha, and again from Doha to Dubai, the officials told reporters in the region.

The U.S. and the U.K. grounded all cargo shipments from Yemen over the weekend, and major cargo carriers also canceled flights from the country. Washington deployed a team of inspectors to assess Yemen's cargo-screening procedures. On Sunday, U.S. counterterrorism chief John Brennan said that the U.S. believes the bombs were targeting the planes that carried them rather than "the locations in Chicago that have been associated with synagogues" to which they were addressed. And the problem for American aviation security officials is just beginning.

Of the 7.3 billion pounds of cargo transported on U.S. passenger flights annually, about 42% travels on flights arriving on American soil from foreign destinations. Foreign governments and airline companies inconsistently employ a combination of screening techniques, including X-rays, chemical testing and human and canine inspections, to screen the cargo for threats and to deter attempted bombings.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) relies on the word of the foreign governments about the extent of screening undertaken in their countries. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in June found that the TSA had little idea how much actual screening is performed by foreign governments. "If a country requires that 100% of its cargo be screened," the report found, "TSA counts all the cargo coming from that country as screened."

The TSA in August missed a congressionally mandated deadline, set three years earlier, to begin screening all inbound cargo on passenger planes. In late June, one month before the deadline, TSA's John Sammon testified that the TSA would miss it because international enforcement of the screening mandate "ultimately relies on foreign government cargo programs and inspectors." At the same hearing, a GAO watchdog reported the TSA had only begun collecting information on foreign screening techniques earlier that month.

The GAO report did find some areas of progress by the TSA: domestic cargo is now 100% screened, and the TSA claims that at least 65% of inbound cargo from abroad is also screened. Further, TSA administrator John S. Pistole said late Sunday, "Even before this incident, 100% of identified high-risk cargo on inbound passenger planes was being screened." TSA officials declined to say whether the bombs, which were in printers addressed to the Chicago synagogues from putative Yemeni educational institutions, qualified as "high-risk cargo" by TSA definitions.

And it is not clear just how safe so-called screened cargo really is. British officials claim that all cargo arriving on their shores has been screened; TSA officials admit that the printer bomb that arrived in East Midlands, England, last week could have been allowed on a U.S.-bound passenger plane as screened cargo.

The question of screening has been a contentious one for the TSA, Congress and the air-cargo industry. Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association, says complying with the congressional mandate to provide 100% cargo screening has cost "hundreds of millions of dollars." Much of the domestic screening undertaken to comply with the mandate has been done voluntarily by the air-cargo companies and by freight handlers.

The TSA has started other programs internationally and is trying to tighten the international standards for screening air cargo. But the GAO report found that the TSA still "has not yet determined how it will meet the screening mandate as it applies to inbound cargo." At the hearing in June, the TSA said it would need at least until 2013 to meet the congressional mandate. Doing so just became a lot more urgent.