Air cargo securityOnly 20 percent of U.S.-bound cargo screened for bombs

Published 4 November 2010

About 20 percent of the nine billion pounds of air cargo that comes from overseas each year is physically checked for bombs; at some overseas airports, cargo is checked for bombs before being put on planes, but that screening could be below U.S. security standards, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO); the TSA may start forcing airlines to inspect suspicious cargo before a plane takes off from overseas. the agency is studying whether the tracking system can target certain U.S.-bound air cargo for screening prior to departure

Billions of pounds of packages bound for the United States each year are delivered on passenger flights in which cargo is checked with an electronic system that does not screen for bombs, lawmakers and security experts said earlier this week.

DHS uses computers to identify possibly dangerous cargo, usually after flights are already in the air and en route to the United States. Many of those flights are passenger planes carrying cargo in the hold.

That’s too late. A bomb will go off while a plane is in the air,” said aviation security consultant Glen Winn, a former United Airlines security chief.

USA Today’s Thomas Frank reports that the tracking system is under scrutiny following last week’s plot to sneak bombs into U.S.-bound planes using cargo packages sent from Yemen. At some overseas airports, cargo is checked for bombs before being put on planes, but that screening could be below U.S. security standards, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Robert Bonner, former head of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), said, “It makes sense to have the (cargo) information pre-departure so you can not only deny entry on arrival but can potentially deny access to the airplane.”

About 20 percent of the nine billion pounds of air cargo that comes from overseas each year is physically checked for bombs, according to the Transportation Security Administration, which says the tracking system picks out all “high risk” air cargo.

Representative Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), said he worries about cargo that is high-risk but not identified “because that’s where the real threat will come from.”

Frank writes that after the 9/11 attacks, CBP began receiving electronic manifests listing each cargo package coming to the United States by ship, truck, rail, and airplane. The lists show each shipment’s contents, origin, destination, and other information that is run through a database filled with shipping histories and intelligence.

Maritime companies must send the lists twenty-four hours before a ship sets sail from a foreign port. Suspicious cargo is inspected overseas with X-ray machines and radioactive detectors, Bonner said.

 

The TSA may start forcing airlines to inspect suspicious cargo before a plane takes off from overseas, the GAO said. The TSA is studying whether the tracking system can target certain U.S.-bound air cargo for screening prior to departure.

That could improve security while the TSA figures out how to make sure that all U.S.-bound air cargo traveling on passenger planes is physically inspected, as Congress has ordered, the GAO said.

Bonner said the tracking system is as effective as screening all cargo because it focuses scrutiny. “You have a better chance of inspecting in a thorough way things that are truly risky instead of inspecting everything,” Bonner said.

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