Screening of all U.S.-bound air cargo still years away

It could take the Homeland Security Department another two years to ensure that all cargo is screened for weapons of mass destruction before being flown into the United States on passenger airplanes, much longer than originally estimated, a senior department official told lawmakers Thursday.

A 2007 law that Democrats wrote as soon as they took over Congress required the Transportation Security Administration to ensure that all cargo aboard passenger flights is screened for weapons of mass destruction by August 2010. The deadline applies to flights originating inside the United States and those from other countries.

But the deadline for incoming international flights will be missed, Gale Rossides, TSA's acting director, told the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

She said the agency might be able to ensure that only 65 percent of cargo on international flights is screened. But TSA will meet the deadline for screening all cargo aboard passenger flights originating inside the United States, she added.

TSA officials have been saying since last year that meeting the August deadline for incoming international flights most likely would not be possible. But the need for another two years is the longest estimate to be disclosed so far.

Rossides said the biggest challenge is getting cooperation from the governments of 20 countries where nearly 85 percent of all cargo comes from.

On another front, Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rep. David Price, D-N.C. and ranking member Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., pressed Rossides on TSA's plan to buy and install 1,000 whole-body imaging machines at U.S. airports by next year. They questioned whether doing so is the best use of limited resources.

Rogers said the department's fiscal 2011 budget request seeks $250 million for 500 machines and another $314 million for more than 5,000 airport screeners to operate those machines.

"My position on enhancing aviation security is one of cautious urgency. For too often, government overreacts in the wake of a crisis," Rogers said.

"Let me be clear -- I'm not saying there isn't some merit in what TSA is proposing for fiscal 2011," he added. "Rather, my concern is that this costly proposal appears to be a short-term fix, not a long-term, sustainable solution that effectively balances legitimate travel, needed security and limited resources."

Price and Rogers demanded that TSA submit to Congress its spending plan for fiscal 2010 so they can better evaluate the budget request.

Rossides said TSA has determined that whole-body imaging machines offer "a significantly greater" capability and are more effective and efficient than having airport screeners physically pat down passengers. TSA does not expect that using the machines will increase wait times at airport checkpoints, she added.

But she acknowledged that the machines would not detect explosives carried inside someone's body.

TSA bought 150 whole-body imaging machines last fall, but none of those have arrived at U.S. airports yet. The department plans an announcement today of 11 airports that will receive machines in coming weeks.

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