WASHINGTON -- The Transportation Security Administration anticipates that by December all international U.S.-bound passenger aircraft will have their cargo scanned for weapons of mass destruction and other threats prior to liftoff (see GSN, March 11, 2011).
Congress, in taking up the recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission, five years ago directed the Homeland Security Department branch to establish by August 2010 programs for screening all cargo on passengers planes heading to the United States from other nations.
The agency missed that deadline and an extended schedule to December 2011 as it grappled with the challenge of enhancing security checks without undermining international commerce. However, it met the congressional demand to ensure examination of all cargo on domestic and outbound international passenger flights by 2010 (see GSN
, Aug. 5, 2010).
The October 2010 discovery of explosives packed by Yemen-based al-Qaeda operatives into printer cartridges on cargo flights bound for the United States threw a spotlight on security gaps in air freight screening. The Transportation Security Administration responded by attempting to speed up inbound cargo security efforts.
The actual screening of cargo on passenger planes is carried out by air carriers and approved private partners prior to takeoff and not by the Transportation Security Administration, which handles checks for carry-on and checked luggage. The DHS agency is charged with protecting passenger aircraft and other forms of transit in the United States.
Government agencies contacted for comment on this story declined to provide detailed specifics about WMD screening methods for air cargo, citing the need to maintain secrecy around national security programs.
TSA Administrator John Pistole last week said his agency, with cooperation from the airline industry and foreign regulatory counterparts, anticipates having 100 percent of cargo on inbound international flights screened “by the end of this year.”
“Working with industry we believe over 80 perhaps 90 percent of all cargo on U.S.-bound passenger planes is currently being screened,” Pistole said at a National Press Club event.
The Transportation Security Administration is seeking and reviewing feedback from the airline industry on its proposed enhanced security measures, which tentatively could go into effect on Dec. 1, according to TSA spokesman James Fotenos.
“If the current strategy is adopted, all cargo on international inbound passenger aircraft will be required to undergo physical screening for explosives,” Fotenos stated by e-mail to Global Security Newswire. “Cargo designated as higher risk will receive enhanced screening, while lower risk shipments will undergo baseline physical screening.”
Cargo is determined to be high risk based on available intelligence and other analyses, Fotenos said, while declining to provide further specifics for security reasons.
Pistole underlined the impossibility of removing all security risks associated with flying: “We are not in the business of eliminating all risk. … Risk is inherent in virtually everything that we do. Our objective is to mitigate risk, to reduce it as much as possible.”
There are “significant economic benefits to strengthening aviation security, most notably in the area of cargo security and our ability to facilitate the secure movement of goods,” Pistole said. “The interconnectedness and interdependence of the global economy requires that each and every link in the global supply chain be as strong as possible.”
At present, “100 percent of identified high-risk international inbound cargo” is subjected to screening, Fotenos said.
Within the United States, cargo checks are carried out by airlines and those companies that voluntarily participate in the agency’s Certified Cargo Screening Program
Under the program, TSA inspectors certify that freight facilities in the United States are authorized to screen cargo on company grounds before sending it to passenger airlines for shipment. The DHS branch has certified more than 1,200 facilities in the country and more than half of all air cargo shipped in the United States is screened through the program, which is not available to companies overseas.
The Transportation Security Administration presently has in excess of 500 inspectors deployed throughout the country and abroad to verify adherence is maintained with U.S. screening mandates.
One major aspect of U.S. government efforts to thwart the potential for weapons of mass destruction or their related components to be smuggled on board planes bound for the United States is the placement of radiation detectors at international airports and other sites.
At present, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Second Line of Defense Program
has installed monitors capable of detecting nuclear and radiological substances at 82 foreign airports, according to information provided by the semiautonomous Energy Department agency.
In the event that radiological materials are somehow secreted onto U.S.-bound flights, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents on the ground are furnished with personnel radiation detectors they can use to scan passenger baggage and cargo for the presence of radiation, CBP spokeswoman Jenny Burke said.
Airports in the United States are also equipped with more sensitive equipment that can determine the type of radiation source encountered, she said. Further specifics on the kinds, quantities and employment of radiation detectors at U.S. airports could not be provided on security grounds. “We don’t’ need the bad guys getting an idea of what we have out there,” Burke said.
In 2009, GSN
reported that as many as 30 U.S. airports that handle 99 percent of all U.S. airborne cargo could be equipped with cargo-scanning radiation detectors (see GSN
, Jan. 30, 2009).
Even as Homeland Security moves to meet the 100-percent goal for air cargo, it is expected to set to extend by two years to July 2014 the congressional mandate for scanning all cargo entering the United States with radiation detection and nonintrusive imaging technology (see GSN
, Feb. 9).