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.

Martin Meissner/AP
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.

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.

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.

RELATED: Top 5 attacks linked to Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki

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.

“Friday’s incident shows that Al Qaeda is well aware of this loophole in the system, and they fully intend to exploit it," Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts said in a statement. He ruefully promised to offer new legislation to plug the air-cargo screening gap, noting that his efforts to require all air cargo to be screened were blocked in 2007.

But that only hints at the short, tortured history of air-cargo screening.

After 9/11, Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001. It required screening of "all passengers and property transported on passenger planes," including air cargo aboard those planes – about 7,500 tons per day.

By mid-2007, the TSA had improved passenger screening, but still wasn't doing the job with air cargo on passenger planes, the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General found. In a report titled "Transportation Security Administration’s Oversight of Passenger Aircraft Cargo Security Faces Significant Challenges," the inspector general’s office said the TSA oversight "does not provide assurance that air carriers are meeting congressionally-mandated goals" and that "consequently, the process increases the opportunities for the carriage of explosives, incendiaries, and other dangerous devices on passenger aircraft."

Other experts noticed the gap, too.

Political pressures

"TSA in its first five years of existence has been caught between competing political philosophies of more active and smaller government," according to a study titled "Keeping bombs off planes: Securing air cargo, aviation's soft underbelly," by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. The report includes a major section titled: "International air cargo carries the greatest risk." Despite evidence that terrorists were targeting air cargo, TSA focused most of its efforts on screening passengers, the study said.

"Under-funded relative to its mission, TSA has too often been forced to rob Peter to pay Paul – for example, by cutting research on explosives detection to pay employee salaries," the center’s study said.

To fix such problems, the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 mandated that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) physically screen at least 50 percent of passenger aircraft cargo on both domestic and incoming foreign passenger flights by February 2009. All cargo was to be screened by August.

Today, projections are that it will still take years until all cargo on incoming passenger flights from overseas is screened – mainly because it requires bringing scores of nations' air carriers into compliance with US rules. The TSA could simply refuse flights that are not inspected to its standards, but that would produce acute economic hardship for passengers who would have to pay more to fly to the US without the economic bonus of cargo in the hold beneath their feet.

"There's been all sorts of improvements in air cargo screening," says one expert who works in the industry but requested anonymity to avoid alienating customers. "The TSA would have to be a miracle worker to get around the problems they face."

Air-cargo companies acknowledge that legislation mandates only screening of cargo on passenger planes, with no similar provision covering all-cargo aircraft. Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association, which represents air-cargo companies, said that carriers do have a security program “based” on TSA rules.

"Airforwarders are committed to ensuring the safety of the traveling public and actively engaged in screening freight," he said in a statement.

'High risk' cargo targeted

TSA officials say they are improving cargo security on passenger flights originating in other countries. Currently the agency requires 100 percent of "high risk cargo" to undergo screening – denoting those packages with uncertain or suspect senders.

"Even before this incident, 100 percent of identified high-risk cargo on inbound passenger planes was being screened," TSA Administrator John Pistole said in a statement Monday. "Further, all cargo flying to the US on passenger or all-cargo planes is held to TSA security standards that include specific requirements."

Those requirements, he said, include how cargo is accessed, cargo-screening procedures, employee training, and the vetting of personnel with access to cargo. Cargo manifest information must be provided to the Customs and Border Patrol. TSA is working with foreign governments to "harmonize" screening systems with European Commission countries, Canada, and Australia, the GAO found.

"We continue to work with our international partners and the private sector to meet these screening mandates," Mr. Pistole said. Indeed, international air cargo groups show signs of interest in cooperating with the US.

“Defining coordinated security responses with collaboration between industry and government have made more progress in the last 10 months than at any time since the tragic events of 2001," Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said Tuesday at a conference in Frankfurt. "Governments and industry are now aligned with a common goal."

But that may not be enough to satisfy the likes of Representative Markey, who authored the amendment that required 100 percent of passenger aircraft cargo to be screened and who says that business interests at the time prevented the inclusion of a screening mandate for all-cargo planes.

“It is time for the shipping industry and the business community to accept the reality that more needs to be done to secure cargo planes so that they cannot be turned into a delivery systems for bombs targeting our country," he said.

"Following this recent foiled cargo bombing plot from Yemen," he said, "now is the time to finish the job."

RELATED: Top 5 attacks linked to Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki

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