U.S. tightening air cargo security

By Derek Kravitz and Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; A01

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.

"If a package is addressed to a synagogue, and the label is funny-looking, and it's coming from Yemen - well, that's a red flag. That's just common sense," he said.

Currently, cargo bound for passenger planes must pass through a TSA-certified screening program at one of 1,200 facilities. For inbound international cargo planes, detailed manifests must be filed on takeoff for planes flying within the Americas, and four hours in advance of arrival for those coming from overseas.

Under the new rules, inbound international mail coming to the United States also will be individually screened and must be certified to have come from an "established postal shipper," Homeland Security officials said. That includes mail on both passenger and cargo planes.

Napolitano said Monday her agency is working with the airline industry on a plan for handing over cargo manifests more quickly, so that authorities could scrutinize a plane's contents more closely.

Responsibility for keeping cargo bomb-free falls principally on the airlines, although the TSA sets the standards and monitors operations. The choreography must be accomplished before Chilean grapes rot and Colombian flowers wilt, and without delaying a vital widget needed to get an assembly line moving.

"We have a delicate balance to strike," TSA Administrator John S. Pistole said after the bomb plot was discovered."The flow of global commerce is key to economic recovery. Security cannot bring business to a standstill."

All packages are screened before they are put on board both domestic and inbound international passenger flights from high-interest countries: Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen. But finding the bomb among the millions of tons of crates and packages that are flown into the United States is a hectic security challenge in a global economy that moves at hyper speed.

The bomb discovered in England on Oct. 30 had been mailed in Yemen and was destined for an address in Chicago. It was found based on a tip from a Saudi informant. A second mail bomb was intercepted at a FedEx facility in Dubai.

Britain responded by banning air cargo from Yemen and Somalia, another terrorist haven.

Technology that scans large amounts of cargo and detects explosives is costly.

An $8 million "Pulsed Fast Neutron Analysis" scanner was installed at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport in 2005 as part of a federal pilot program. The machine could detect substances such as nerve gas or cocaine in a package by analyzing its base atomic makeup. The program lasted a few months before TSA funding ran out.

"From a technology perspective, you can provide an ample level of screening to scan everything," said Peter Kant, executive vice president of Rapiscan Systems, a global company based in Arlington County that developed the scanning technology. "But it's big and it's expensive."

One such scanner is in use in the United States, at the Mexican border in El Paso, where it is used to inspect fully loaded truck containers. Airports in Hong Kong and Singapore also use the machines.

Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) last week urged that the TSA begin screening all cargo from countries of interest. Whether the new Congress will be of a mood to shoulder the cost of that and other new security measures is unclear.

A move by the TSA to increase security on international cargo planes could cause delays in the arrival of freight, said Brian Clancy, a managing director at Logistics Capital and Strategy, an Arlington-based advisory firm specializing in cargo transportation.

Improving security also depends on the will of other countries to enforce programs.

"TSA can't tell other countries which cargo regulations to have, and it can't go out and enforce them," Clancy said.

The Obama administration is working with major corporations in the $100 billion global air freight industry to shore up security. Napolitano called four of the country's biggest shipping companies last week to discuss improvements.

"The writing is very clearly on the wall," said Leo J. Schefer, executive director of the nonprofit Washington Airports Task Force. "They're going to have to adapt and deal with the costs."

kravitzd@washpost.com halseya@washpost.com

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