Ashcroft Takes Aim At Cargo Security

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Screening cargo in airplanes, on the aviation security back burner since Sept. 11, is about to explode off the stove. According to aviation sources, Attorney General John Ashcroft next week will hold his first ever press conference on an aviation security issue. The topic: The high vulnerability of materials placed on the nation's passenger and cargo planes.

Ashcroft will announce the details of a frightening breach of airline safety, a case in which hazardous material was illegally put on a plane run by Emery Airlines, a cargo airline that went out of business in 2001 (A plea agreement in the matter has been reached with the Justice Department). Though Ashcroft may not explicitly link hazmat and terrorists, aviation specialists say the frightening prospect is that terrorists will get their hands on hazmat and try and to get it on cargo planes.

Security experts say getting cargo on planes without being inspected is far too easy. Critics have been asserting for two years that the government has focused on screening passengers and their belongings and not taken the potential threats to cargo seriously. Virtually none of the cargo carried on passenger planes is ever inspected, and dedicated cargo planes — the largest aircraft in the skies — often fly with huge loads that have never been checked.

Ashcroft's attention comes at a crucial time. On Oct. 1, an industry group will present its recommendations for improving cargo security to the Transportation Security Administration. Those proposals are expected to further enhance the 'known shipper' program, which allows the overwhelming majority of packages through without checking merely because companies say they 'know' the shipper.

Capt. Paul Rancatore, deputy head of the Allied Pilots Association Security Committee and a participant on the industry group, is disappointed with the TSA process and the results. Although he refused to speak about the discussions of the group or the recommendations specifically, Rancatore says improving the known shipper program does virtually nothing to improve cargo security. "Cargo is still completely vulnerable." Rancatore, and other participants, tried to get a layered approach in which all cargo inspected and packages 'profiled.'

Admiral James Loy, the head of the TSA, says while checking 100 per cent of high risk cargo is a goal, the technology does not yet exist to make screening all cargo practical. Republican Congressman Christopher Shays is tired of waiting. "In the worst case, any plane with uninspected cargo has the risk of having a bomb on board. That is unacceptable." Loy says the TSA is expected to have a strategic plan completed by Oct. 31 and new rules published by the end of the year.