Concerns About the Safety of Cargo

Ack Ook, flickr

As details emerge about the recent terrorist plot originating in Yemen to send explosives in a U.S.-bound UPS airline cargo container, officials at Homeland Security agencies are scurrying to make sure policies in place are worthy of the new playing field.

"It's definitely a game-changer," said one Transportation Security Administration executive who asked not to be identified. "We're not sure what new policies will come from this but there are plenty of people talking at this moment."

Whether it's the averted Christmas Day disaster that involved an undetonated device in a passenger's underwear last year, an undetonated car bomb in Times Square, or the recent placement of explosives inside boxes containing printer cartridges -- which may have detonated without Saudi Arabian intelligence information -- the threats are real and the consequences inevitable says Fran Townsend, former chair of the Homeland Security Council and now a partner at Baker Botts LLP.

"In some ways we're a victim of our own success," said Townsend at a recent forum at the Aspen Institute. "We haven't seen a major attack in the United States since 9-11. It's not a matter of scaring people, but it's a matter of emphasizing that the threat continues to be real."

The good news is, though the threat may be real, the U.S. is good at thwarting these threats and minimizing the potential damage. TSA head John Pistole told attendees at an aviation and security conference in Frankfurt, Germany, this week that although additional measures are being taken in light of last week's events, "We have a delicate balance to strike. The flow of global commerce is key to economic recovery. Security cannot bring business to a standstill."

"Even before this incident, 100 percent of identified high-risk cargo on inbound passenger planes was being screened," said Pistole. "Further, all cargo flying to the U.S. on passenger or all-cargo planes is held to TSA security standards that include specific requirements covering how facilities and cargo is accessed, the vetting of personnel with access to cargo, employee training and cargo screening procedures. All international inbound aircraft carrying cargo must provide cargo manifest information to our partners at Customs and Border Protection prior to arrival on long-haul flights and at wheels-up on flights from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, for additional screening upon arrival in the U.S."

Pistole comes to his job after spending 26 years at the FBI, and he sees the ultimate benefit in putting together a counter-terrorism focus through intelligence and cutting edge technology. Technology using the somewhat controversial "saran wrap" approach, which allows screeners to see explosives like those used by the underwear bomber, has been deployed at some 70 airports in the U.S. A screening method called Automated Target Recognition (ATR), or auto-detection software is already in use at Schiphol, the airport in Amsterdam, and is being tested elsewhere. The new equipment would make screening more efficient and would eliminate most of the privacy concerns. X-ray units that use advanced technology to distinguish between liquids that present a threat and those that do not are also on the horizon.

"As I learned at the FBI, and as we've seen demonstrated over the last week, accurate and timely intelligence is the best tool we have in our fight against terrorism. They constantly evolve their methods and tools -- and it's our job to stay ahead of them," he added.

Townsend emphasizes the importance of managing intelligence through all the myriad agencies that collect it -- possibly devising one single repository system for that valuable information.

Townsend believes intelligence data, whether from local law enforcement or government agencies must go into a single system. Currently, she says, "All the systems are present, but they are not integrated into a single system, because the agencies who own that data won't permit that to happen. There is a vulnerability that's inherent in putting them into a single system. [But] I think the benefit to the country, in terms of identifying patterns is worth the risk. And the risks can be managed and mitigated," says Townsend.

At the conference in progress in Germany, Giovanni Bisignani, director-general and CEO of the International Air Transport Association, noted how the events in Yemen have put cargo security at the top of this week's agenda. Airfreight drives the world economy, representing 35 percent of goods traded internationally. "Transporting these goods safely, securely and efficiently is critical," said Bisignani.

"The entire supply chain, from manufacturer to airport, has a responsibility for secure shipments. The supply chain approach must be driven by government and industry cooperation on investment, processes, technology, and risk assessment. Airport screening cannot be our first line of defense but it is an effective complement to intelligence and supply chain solutions.

"Currently, there is no government-certified technology to screen standard size pallets and large items. There is some promising technology but it is taking far too long to move from the laboratory to the airport. We must speed up the process," said Bisignani.

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