U.S. tightening air cargo security

By Derek Kravitz and Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The United States tightened on Monday security on cargo shipments flown from abroad, banning "high-risk" cargo from flying on passenger planes after last month's discovery of a plot that originated in Yemen to send bombs in shipped packages.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also extended last week's ban on air cargo from Yemen to include Somalia. She also limited to less than 16 ounces the size of toner or ink cartridges that can travel in checked or carry-on baggage, a response to the discovery at an airport in England of a bomb disguised as a toner cartridge and shipped as cargo.

All packages carried aboard passenger planes have been screened very much like checked baggage. But in a world of express shipping, in which speed means profit, cargo-only aircraft have been subject to less-stringent inspection.

"The threats of terrorism we face are serious and evolving," Napolitano said in a statement. "And these security measures reflect our commitment to using current intelligence to stay ahead of adversaries."

The new rules also affect items deemed high-risk that are shipped on cargo planes. Napolitano said such cargo will go through additional screening before it is loaded.

A spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) declined to define "high-risk" cargo, other than to say it is not limited to that shipped from countries that have been linked to terrorist activity. But the increased screening will probably include a variety of new measures, including canine examinations and advanced X-raying.

Analysts and shippers questioned whether the measures could be effective in the complex world of shipping packages.

"They were using toner cartridges. How would anyone classify that as high-risk cargo?" said Larry DePace, senior vice president of Security Storage of Washington, which operates a 130,000-square-foot screening and shipping facility near Dulles International Airport. "I just don't know what they characterize as 'high-risk,' but I certainly don't think things like that would fit."

Arthur Hulnick, a former military and CIA intelligence officer, said additional screening makes sense but banning toner cartridges does not.

"Terrorists will just find some other form of device to use as a bomb," said Hulnick, an associate professor of international relations at Boston University. "The U.S. always seems to be trying to stop the last event after it has already happened."

The rules will probably most affect smaller, "occasional shippers," which have not been fully vetted by federal authorities, said Brandon Fried, executive director of theAirforwarders Association, which lobbies on behalf of the air cargo industry. Screening alone isn't enough, he said; it must be performed with other intelligence.

Souped-up data mining of potential high-risk packages is one possibility, Fried said.

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