Plane cargo security ‘easily circumvented’

Greg Schneider,WASHINGTON, The Washington Post

Security for cargo carried on passenger planes is “easily circumvented,” the Transportation Department’s inspector general has warned in a draft report that has yet to be made public.

The risk of a terrorist bomb in air cargo has increased because the federal government is focused almost exclusively on screening passengers and luggage, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staffers and consultants concluded in similar reports.

Both sets of documents, obtained by The Washington Post, describe an air-cargo system that includes no routine scrutiny of packages and serious gaps in efforts to make sure shippers follow security procedures.

The inspector general’s draft report was completed in January but has not yet been issued to Congress. TSA staffers followed up in March by laying out urgent plans for improvement, according to the documents and interviews.

But the steps they outlined have not been put into action as the agency scrambles to meet congressional deadlines for screening passengers and luggage.

“Cargo is likely to become — and may already be — the primary threat vector in the short-term,” one of the internal TSA reports said.

There is a 35 percent to 65 percent likelihood that terrorists are planning to put a bomb in cargo on a passenger plane, another TSA document said, citing year-old intelligence reports.

The agency needs to “improve (cargo) security and reduce risk as soon as possible,” the TSA’s “Cargo Security Discussion Document” said, boldfacing the last four words.

The most obvious solution is to physically inspect all cargo as it comes into an airport, but both the inspector general and the TSA determined that would be impossibly expensive and time-consuming. According to TSA computer models, breaking down all containers, inspecting and reassembling them would allow airports to process only 4 percent of the freight they receive daily.

The TSA documents and the inspector general’s report caution that changes causing expense or delay in the air-cargo system could cause widespread disruption to U.S. business.

The TSA’s discussion document and a follow-up titled “Short-Term Cargo Security Enhancement Plan” lay out a series of less-disruptive steps to begin addressing the issue of cargo security. Those methods include performing high-profile “blitz audits” of lax freight companies and immediately subjecting 5 percent of all air cargo to physical searches.

Instead, agency leadership have decided to pursue a more methodical route, devising methods for measuring cargo security, painstakingly building up a staff of inspectors and awarding contracts for developing databases to monitor companies.

“There is certainly no hesitation or lack of intent or even moving slowly on the part of TSA on cargo security,” spokesperson Mary Kay Eder said. “It is a high priority for an agency that is brand new and has multiple high priorities that it is addressing simultaneously.”

The agency has made a decision to focus first on gathering information about the relationships among the entities that send and handle packages, said Bill Wilkening, who recently joined the TSA after 13 years working in cargo security at the Federal Aviation Administration.

Physically screening the cargo put into passenger planes is an enormous task that will take much more time — and resources — to study, he said. But the agency may come under pressure to move more rapidly on screening; its lawyers are determining whether the transportation security act Congress passed last year requires that cargo be subjected to the same end-of-the-year deadline for explosives screening that checked baggage must meet.

Almost all passenger flights carry cargo alongside luggage in the belly of the plane. It can be anything from pallets of computer chips to refrigerated cartons of chicken; roughly 22 percent of all air cargo loaded in the United States in 2000 was carried on passenger flights, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Airlines are financially dependent on cargo, which carries far higher profit margins than passengers, who need costly extras like leg room and hot meals.

The air-cargo system involves numerous participants that all require some level of security oversight. Generally, a shipper takes packages to a freight forwarder, who consolidates packages from many shippers into containers. The forwarder then uses trucks — his own, or hired — to deliver the bulk freight to commercial air carriers for transport.

The government oversight system is based on something called the “known shipper” regime, which means the person or business sending a package has an established reputation.

The government banned unknown shippers from commercial airlines immediately after Sept. 11. Inspector General Kenneth Mead told Congress that was a significant step, but he has urged the TSA to go further.