Questions About TSA Plan to Meet 100% Screening of Air Cargo

Thursday, 10 April 2008

'There are important issues that need to be resolved to ensure TSA’s plans comply'
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee and the primary author of the legislation that was signed into law last August requiring 100 percent screening of air cargo, Thursday said he is troubled by reports that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) may try to meet the mandate by requiring companies that pack cargo shipments to perform the screening.

“I worked for four years to pass the law closing the air cargo loophole and requiring 100 percent screening of cargo carried in the belly of passenger planes,” Markey said, but pointed out that while “TSA appears to be working seriously to implement a screening program to meet the new higher security standard” there nevertheless “are important issues that need to be resolved to ensure that TSA’s current plans will comply with the new law.”

Markey said in a statement Thursday that “if cargo is screened before it reaches the airport, which appears to be a central element of TSA’s plans to comply with the law, how will it be sealed to prevent tampering? It remains unclear whether a secure chain of custody can be established to make certain that bombs or other dangerous items are not inserted into cargo after screening occurs.”

Markey said “TSA is in the preliminary stages of testing its approach, but if TSA’s plans ultimately fall short, Congress will need to take steps to ensure that the air cargo security mandates in the 9/11 Commission law are met.

Continuing, Markey said “I continue to closely monitor TSA’s progress, and I have been in touch with TSA Administrator “Kip” Hawley about TSA’s plans. Earlier this year, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson and I requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) study TSA’s plans to determine whether they will meet the standards in the new law.”

GAO is expected to begin studying the matter during the upcoming months.

“I look forward to the results of its work,” Markey said.

In August 2007, the legislation implementing recommendations of the 9/11 Commission was signed into law as Public Law 110-53. A provision negotiated by Markey requires that within three years all cargo carried on passenger planes be screened at a level of security commensurate to the security applied to airline passengers’ checked bags.

Less than four months earlier, GAO released a damning report in which it identified gaps in DHS policies for ensuring the safety of commercial cargo carried on US-bound passenger planes.

The revelation came at a time when it's being predicted that there will be a massive expansion of air cargo as a result of economic globalization treaties and developing nations' increasing competition for oil. Indeed, the International Air Transport Association forecasts demand for air freight will grow by 5.3 percent a year between 2006 and 2010. And over the next 20 years, the air freighter fleet size is forecast to nearly double, to 3,563 in 2025 from 1,789 in 2005.

The implications and impact on security are clear.

In response to that report, Markey said it was “a wake-up call for the Bush administration, which has failed to take the actions needed to close glaring cargo security loopholes.” The report provided ammunition for garnering support on the Hill for Markey's100 percent cargo screening bill.

GAO confirmed the “concerns we have repeatedly raised about dangerous cargo security gaps, including the fact that not all of the cargo packed on passenger planes and flown into our country is ever inspected for explosives or weapons of mass destruction before it is loaded onboard.

Markey said, "Instead, the Bush administration claims that rubber-stamped paperwork checks and random inspections that exempt many types of cargo are sufficient. The reality is that this kind of security doubletalk and half measures provide an open invitation to a terrorist or troubled individual intent on using a bomb in a cargo box to destroy an airplane in flight."

The GAO audit of DHS security policies, "Federal Efforts to Secure US-Bound Air Cargo Are in the Early Stages and Could Be Strengthened," concluded that the "Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) “are only beginning to implement inbound air cargo security programs and opportunities exist to strengthen these efforts,” adding that TSA "has not yet assessed which areas of inbound air cargo are most vulnerable to attack and which inbound cargo assets are deemed most critical to protect."

For more on the heated arguments over the pros and cons of 100 percent cargo screening that took place during the debate over Markey's legislation, see this earlier report.

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