TSA Chief Concedes Gaps in Air-Cargo Security
Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010
WASHINGTON — The U.S. government would not have detected bombs concealed in cargo packages from Yemen without an intelligence tip-off from the Saudi Arabian government, the director of the Transportation Security Administration told a Senate panel yesterday (see GSN, Nov. 3).
Air-cargo carriers are not now required to submit manifests to the U.S. government containing detailed information about shipments destined for the United States until four hours before a flight arrives in the United States, TSA chief John Pistole told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The hearing was held to examine how the government is changing its air-cargo rules in response to the failed attempt late last month to ship bombs disguised as printer cartridges from Yemen to a Jewish center in Chicago.
Committee ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine) asked Pistole whether the government’s system for screening cargo would have led to the bombs being found absent intelligence from Saudi Arabia.
“In my professional opinion, no,” Pistole said.
Collins questioned why the U.S. government cannot require cargo shippers to send their manifests sooner. She noted that companies that ship maritime cargo have to submit their manifests 24 hours before a vessel sets sail for the United States.
“The four hours strikes me as something that you could change immediately,” Collins said.
Alan Bersin, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, conceded that receiving manifests four hours before cargo lands in the country “does little to help prevent dangerous cargo from being loaded aboard.” He also observed that the U.S. system for screening parcels is not designed to identify high-risk cargo before it is put on planes abroad and that there are concerns about international mail, which is not subjected to the same kind of safeguards and risk determinations as cargo.
Requiring earlier submission of air-cargo manifests is under consideration, Bersin said. “We expect we will be coming up with a revised recommendation in the near future,” he said.
Pistole said TSA is talking to the air cargo carriers. “The question is, Are the carriers capable of doing that today?” he asked. “Clearly the intent is there. It’s how do we make it happen?”
The TSA chief, who is scheduled to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee on aviation security, said it is his understanding that between 66 percent and 80 percent of cargo shipped on passenger planes flying from other countries into the United States is screened for weapons of mass destruction. But he added that TSA is unable to validate the estimate, which comes from private shipping companies.
Collins, along with Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) urged Pistole and Bersin during Tuesday’s hearing to do more to fill air cargo gaps.
“In the most recent attempt, terrorists hid bombs inside the toner cartridges of printers and sent them to the United States as air cargo,” Lieberman said. “We need to anticipate the terrorists’ next move, not just react to the last one.”