Explosives concealed in cargo on international U.S.-bound passenger planes could go undetected, since the Transportation Security Administration has apparently failed, for the second time, to meet a deadline for scanning all parcels on overseas planes, House Democrats warned TSA officials in a letter demanding an explanation.
A year ago, U.S. officials found bomb-making materials hidden in packaged printer parts that were headed from Yemen to the United States. At the time, federal officials acknowledged the Transportation Security Administration was unable to comply with a post-Sept. 11 mandate requiring that 100 percent of cargo on international inbound passenger planes be screened by August 2010. TSA officials set a new deadline for the end of 2011, partly due to technological challenges. A year later, the agency is reportedly screening only "identified high-risk" parcels and lawmakers are demanding to know if TSA is sidestepping the law, according to the Oct. 31 letter.
A TSA spokesman did not answer specific questions from Nextgov about factors complicating screening efforts or a new approach, saying the agency would respond directly to the House members. In a statement, he elaborated slightly on June comments made by TSA Administrator John Pistole at a committee hearing and statements that appear on the agency's website.
"TSA continues to work closely with our private sector and international partners to further risk-based screening of international inbound air cargo on passenger and all-cargo aircraft," TSA spokesman Greg Soule said. "Air cargo is more secure than it has ever been with 100 percent of cargo on flights departing U.S. airports and 100 percent of identified high-risk international inbound cargo undergoing screening."
As for what "high risk" means, he expanded on Pistole's June statement, saying that the Homeland Security Department and air cargo industry are engaged in a pilot program that processes predeparture cargo information about shippers to "focus more intensive screening resources on cargo we know least about."
Soule said, "In coordination with stakeholders TSA will continue to take steps -- including ongoing efforts to test, evaluate and qualify air cargo screening technologies -- to strengthen our security posture."
The letter and the screening rule address only passenger planes, not international all-cargo planes. The explosives originating from Yemen were concealed aboard all-cargo, passenger and interchangeable passenger-cargo planes, an aide for one of the lawmakers said.
In the correspondence, the provision's author, Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass.; Homeland Security Committee ranking member Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss.; and Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, ranking member of the committee's transportation security panel, asked Pistole to explain the holdup in following the law.
"What were the factors involved in the decision to delay implementation of the 100 percent cargo screening mandate? Which TSA officials were involved in this decision? When was this decision made?" stated one set of questions.
The message requests that Pistole supply a timeline for fulfilling the mandate, as well as the criteria for the evidently new screening strategy. "If TSA plans to use a 'risk-based' approach, how will TSA determine whether inbound air cargo is 'high-risk' and therefore must be screened?" it stated.
Screening cargo overseas, in general, is difficult because some international partners have not digitized their cargo lists and do not have X-rays or other scanning devices for identifying explosives, TSA and lawmakers have acknowledged.
When the law was enacted, "we understood that ensuring the screening of all air cargo loaded on planes departing for the U.S. could prove challenging, insofar as TSA lacks the authority and resources to unilaterally require implementation by foreign governments," the letter stated. "That said, we believed then -- and we continue to believe today -- that screening 100 percent of U.S. bound air cargo -- as is done for all cargo shipped on domestic point-to-point aircraft -- is critical to guarding against evolving terrorist threats."
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the full committee said, "We have been in regular contact with TSA on this issue and will continue to work with [DHS] Secretary [Janet] Napolitano and Administrator Pistole to improve cargo security."