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Yemen packages: Air cargo was a target before. Why is it still vulnerable?

Long before explosive packages were shipped on flights out of Yemen, terrorists eyed air cargo as a means of attacking the US. Yet millions of tons of air cargo bound for the US still are not screened.

By Staff writer / November 2, 2010

A cargo plane is loaded at the FedEx distribution center at the International Cargo Airport in Cologne, western Germany, Monday. Mail bombs headed for the US were not the first of their kind. Terrorists have eyed air cargo as a means of attacking the US for years.

Martin Meissner/AP

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The discovery last week of explosive devices sent from Yemen to Chicago via FedEx and UPS sent governments scrambling to discover whether other bombs are headed for the US in the international air-cargo shipping system.

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But using the air-cargo network to attack the US is clearly not a new idea.

After a terrorist plot to blow up a dozen 747 airliners in 1995 failed, one of its chief planners, Ramzi Yousef, decided on a new tack: hiding bombs in cargo shipments carried aboard airliners headed for the United States. He tried twice before his arrest.

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Echoes of Mr. Yousef's efforts emerged last week in Europe with the discovery of potent bombs disguised as printer cartridges – once again in air-cargo shipments. One possible goal: blow up a US-bound passenger airliner or air-cargo jet over a US city.

The episode highlights an old and glaring gap in air-transport security that Congress and federal officials have known about for years – but have failed to close: Millions of tons of air cargo bound for the US from overseas still are not screened or, when cargo is screened, it is may not be according to exacting federal government standards.

While the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says it now screens 100 percent of the air cargo on domestic passenger flights, only an estimated 65 percent of total US-bound cargo coming in from abroad on passenger airline flights was screened as of August, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.

Compliance at issue

Congress has mandated that the TSA screen 100 percent of air cargo on all passenger flights entering the US. The TSA has a working relationship with Canada, Britain, and some other governments – but still is far apart with others. Some international air carriers have also been unwilling or unable to follow US standards – which accounts for most of the 35 percent of cargo on passenger airlines not screened, the GAO and others say.

Add to that exception all-cargo freight flights. Nearly twice as much air cargo is carried into the US aboard those windowless all-cargo jets of FedEx, UPS, and other carriers. None of that cargo is required by law to be screened by the TSA or to its standards, although some carriers say they screen it themselves.

Even so, air cargo aboard international passenger flights and the all-cargo flights may be about to get tougher scrutiny from Congress.

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