The security week that was: 07/09/10 (Air cargo screening)

Ready or not for 100% air cargo screening

I have had mixed thoughts and a lot of questions about the push toward 100 percent cargo screening mandate pushed by TSA. To be clear, it's best to qualify this mandate. First, it applies to commercial passenger airplanes, not all cargo. So we really should be calling it 100 percent commercial passenger airplane cargo screening, but you get point.

Let's give a little history. Air cargo screening became mandated by the 9/11 Commission Act (2001), and it required that 50 percent of the commercial cargo going aboard commercial passenger jets be screened by February 2009. That was the first deadline. The second deadline is at the beginning of next month, August 2010, and it requires that 100 percent of commercial cargo aboard these passenger jets be screened. In between those two deadlines, there was also an expectation that 75 percent of cargo be screened by May 2010.

The mandate doesn't specify the method of screening and allows for actual hand screening (physical screening) or "non-intrusive" screening using X-ray and other scanning types of systems. The mandate requires that the screening for this cargo basically be the same as the TSA expects for passengers' bags and carry-on items.

We're closing in on the August 2010, 100 percent screening requirement deadline, and this is serious business. It's a major commercial enterprise that means cargo shipping companies are investing in high-end scanning technologies.

The GAO doesn't think that the TSA will meet this August 1, 2010, deadline. Here's what the GAO lists as likely impediments:
1. Staffing – The GAO predicts the TSA is not staffed properly and hasn't done the staffing studies to be able to staff properly
2. Technology – While there are scanning technologies for smaller shipments, some of the largest shipments come on pallets, and there is not yet an approved technology for screening pallet-style shipments. Of course, pallet style shipments would be the most difficult to hand-screen, so technology is the most obvious route.
3. Contingency planning – If they can't meet the 100 percent air cargo screening requirement, the GAO thinks that TSA needs a contingency plan on how to handle this unscreened cargo. And, according to the GAO, the TSA doesn't have such a plan.

I noted in the beginning of this column that I have had mixed thoughts and questions about 100 percent cargo screening. Years ago, when this was first proposed and when the TSA was ramping up to do 50 percent cargo screening, I asked a number of aviation security experts if 100 percent screening of air cargo was really practical, and most said that they felt that it wasn't. At the time, there wasn't a full array of automatic scanning technologies, and clearly the processes and personnel weren't in place to handle such a task. Some of that has changed, even if the GAO is saying the changes aren't yet enough for 100 percent screening.

What some of these aviation security experts told me is that it would be better for the TSA to implement a targeted screening program, one that focused screening on cargo that was more likely to be a security risk. Perhaps that would include undeclared cargo, or maybe it would include cargo from nations known to have security and/or terrorism problems. Maybe it would include cargo from shippers that weren't as trusted as their peers. That line of thought seemed to make a lot of sense, and I suspect that it's still the kind of approach that will have to be used in some sort of contingency plan if the TSA is not able to complete 100 percent screening.

But the more stories I hear about problematic cargo, the more I think that requiring 100 percent screening is a very good idea, because it takes out the human element of deciding whether or not to screen a parcel. Take, for example, the story of a cargo shipment of mostly depleted uranium that was sent aboard a passenger flight to Logan International Airport (Boston) in 2008. The shipping source for the uranium shipment was two Indian companies, and it was destined for a U.S. firm that was going to use the uranium for laboratory type testing devices. The catch, of course, is that uranium was not to be allowed aboard the airline's passenger jets as cargo. The shipment was listed as "undeclared", and cargo screening in India didn't detect the radiation (it's not clear whether radiation detection was used on the in-bound side of this shipping network). The shipment made it aboard a British Airways plane and found its way to the U.S. where it cleared Customs before the shipment was found to have included uranium. Depleted nuclear materials have long been a worrisome national security threat, largely for the possibility that they could be used in a dirty bomb which could then be shipped into the U.S.

What concerns me about this story is that clearly the prerogative to screen this cargo wasn't acted upon, even though it seems like an "undeclared" designation would put the cargo high on the list for screening. This was in 2008, so already our nation was implementing 50 percent screening and presumably they had options to screen any additional cargo that was suspect. It also raises the question about how we enforce screening in other nations on in-bound jets. The TSA has gone on the record to say that it should be able to meet the Aug. 1 deadline in terms of screening cargo shipments on domestic jets for explosives, but admits that it likely will not meet that deadline for the in-bound cargo. The story also raises a question about technology implementation, both at home and abroad, as to whether we'll even be able to successfully detect materials like low-level radiation. So while I was initially hesitant to believe in the practicality of 100 percent air cargo screening, I'm of the opinion now that it's something to which we really must commit. Sure, it is expensive; certainly it is difficult. Clearly there are technical challenges and also staffing issues. But if we don't close this known hole in air security, we shouldn't be surprised if it is exploited to the detriment of our nation.

If you're interested in this issue, here's some suggested reading material: 1) Testimony from GAO's Stephen Lord regarding GAO's take on the implementation of this mandate, 2) The official GAO report on 100 percent screening mandate (web article version or PDF version), 3) The inbound uranium story, and 4) House Homeland Security Subcommittee comments on 100 percent air cargo screening.

Remembering a friend
Mourning the passing of Tonja

We'd like to express our sorrow for the passing of Tonja Jenkins, the associate executive director for the Electronic Security Association. Tonja was a good friend and exceptional business partner to all of us here in the Cygnus Security Media group of publications and was vital to the efforts of the ESA and its support of the association's membership. The family is asking that, in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the Jenkins Funeral Trust, P.O. Box 613305, Dallas, TX 75261-3305.

In other news:
Aviation security documentary reviewed, Vehicle barricade failure, Cruise ship security legislation

As I promised last week, we published Billie Vincent's review of the "Please Remove Your Shoes" documentary about aviation security. You can also watch the movie's trailer on SIW. … There is new cruise ship security legislation awaiting Obama's signature, as reported by SIW Assistant Editor Joel Griffin in his blog Industry Surveillance. … We presented the story of Diebold's entry into the fire detection and protection business. … A failure of a vehicle barrier to stay lowered led to the injury of a judge entering a court parking complex.