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Air cargo still vulnerable to terrorists

Published 25 November 2009

DHS’s inspector general says there are many problems still with the TSA’s program to stop terrorists from sneaking a bomb into any of the tens of thousands of cargo packages carried each day in the bellies of passenger planes

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is failing to ensure the security of boxed cargo in passenger planes, leaving the airplanes at risk for a terrorist attack, according to a government report obtained by USA TODAY. “Air cargo is vulnerable,” says a report by the DHS’s inspector general.

Thomas Frank writes that the report cites repeated problems with the TSA’s program to stop terrorists from sneaking a bomb into any of the tens of thousands of cargo packages carried each day in the bellies of passenger planes.

Investigators were able to slip into supposedly secure warehouses where cargo is stored before being loaded onto airplanes and walk around unchallenged, the report says. Inspector General Richard Skinner also found some workers who handle the cargo had not received required background checks or training.

The TSA “has not been effective” in making airlines and freight-handling companies comply with security rules for cargo, Skinner said in his report.

In a response attached to the report, TSA acting administrator Gale Rossides said agency leaders “are in agreement” that the problems should be addressed. The report’s six recommendations, including improved employee training, “will provide additional benefit to TSA,” Rossides wrote.

TSA spokeswoman Kristin Lee said agency inspectors are focusing on airlines and companies deemed “higher risk” because of past problems.

The report raises “legitimate concerns,” as the TSA is under congressional mandate to tighten scrutiny of the twelve million pounds of cargo carried each day alongside luggage in passenger planes, said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman  (D-Mississippi).

The report shows the TSA does not have enough personnel to handle new rules for screening cargo, he said. Passenger planes carry everything from produce and medical supplies to computers and auto parts.

Unlike luggage, airplane cargo is not screened by the TSA. The agency oversees airlines, freight handlers and manufacturers who pack and transport cargo, and ensure its security.

The oversight process “has not effectively ensured” that those companies comply with TSA regulations, the inspector general said. The report noted that the TSA’s own inspectors had found repeated violations of agency rules but said “there are repeat patterns of violations that the TSA has been unable to resolve.”