Officials move to beef up air cargo screening

By Chris Strohm

November 4, 2010

Top U.S. Homeland Security officials are ramping up efforts to prevent terrorists from transporting package bombs through the international aviation system, including holding a high-level meeting in Yemen where last week's terrorist plot was hatched.

The head of the Transportation Security Administration, John Pistole, met with Yemeni officials - including Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi - Wednesday after last week's discovery of explosives bound for Jewish centers in Chicago that were being hauled on commercial cargo aircraft.

The U.S. government has feared for some time that terrorists might try to ship bombs in cargo planes. Indeed, TSA acknowledged Wednesday that it conducted an exercise with air carriers in August that included a scenario focused on bombs aboard commercial passenger and cargo planes.

While in Yemen Wednesday, Pistole also was briefed by TSA cargo inspectors who were dispatched to that country after last week's failed bombing attempt. "I am pleased with the work of our TSA inspectors and the cooperation of Yemeni officials to improve cargo security practices," Pistole said. "We face a determined enemy, one who modifies their actions looking for any opportunity to exploit security. Working closely with counterterrorism officials here and abroad, TSA will continue to use the best intelligence, leverage the latest technology, and remain vigilant to address evolving threats."

On Monday, Pistole traveled to Germany to sign an international aviation security agreement, TSA said. TSA would not release a copy of the agreement.

"The U.S. and Germany have worked together to enhance the sharing of aviation security best practices," the agency said in a statement. "This cooperative partnership will help facilitate mutual aviation security goals to harmonize measures that continue to ensure the safety of travelers."

By law, TSA is required to ensure all cargo on passenger aircraft in the United States or destined for the United States is screened for explosives. The agency has largely met the 100 percent screening mandate for flights originating in the United States, but has fallen short on cargo carried by planes coming from other countries.

And there is no mandate requiring packages on cargo-only flights to be screened. Instead, TSA says it works with shippers to put security standards in place. The U.S. government has not announced any new mandates on shippers in response to last week's plot.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano held telephone calls Wednesday with officials from major cargo shipping companies, including United Parcel Service, DHL and FedEx.

"During the call, Secretary Napolitano underscored her commitment to partnering with the shipping industry to strengthen cargo security through enhanced screening and preventative measures, including terrorism awareness training for personnel," the department said in a statement.

Napolitano also called the director of the International Air Transport Association, Giovanni Bisignani, regarding collaboration between the U.S. government and the shipping industry to identify and disrupt threats.

"She also reiterated her commitment to ongoing coordination with the airline and shipping industries to uphold TSA security standards, including the vetting of personnel with access to cargo, employee training, and cargo screening procedures," the department said.

Click here to get a glimpse of National Journal's new website.

By Chris Strohm

November 4, 2010