Air cargo screening lacks advanced intelligence, DHS testifies

First details provided on technological protections used in aftermath of attempted bombing of planes originating in Yemen.

Homeland Security Department officials on Tuesday told lawmakers they do not have enough intelligence about the contents of cargo on aircraft -- before they depart foreign countries -- to ensure that dangerous devices are not aboard planes headed for the United States.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee called DHS officials to testify on the gaps in cargo screening that allowed individuals with al Qaeda ties to conceal explosive materials in U.S.-bound cargo flights originating from Yemen.

"Despite having a robust targeting system and the ability to quickly locate and inspect shipments of concern, the recent air cargo incidents have highlighted the challenges that remain in the air cargo environment," Alan Bersin, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, and John Pistole, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, said in joint testimony to the committee. "Specifically, receiving air cargo manifest data once a plane has already departed for the United States does not prevent dangerous materials from being loaded onto aircraft."

By law, carriers are required to submit manifest data only four hours before an aircraft arrives at a U.S. airport, or at "wheels up" for flights arriving from Canada, Mexico, Central America, points in South America north of the equator, Bermuda and the Caribbean. DHS relies on this data to identify high-risk packages and planes. The department's Automated Targeting System matches descriptions of goods that are listed in the data against other screening information, intelligence and known patterns of illicit activity.

Ranking Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine asked officials whether they could require advance notice of air cargo contents earlier than four hours before a plane lands. "A flight may be already en route," she said. "The four hours strikes me as something you could change immediately."

The men responded that they are working on obtaining the information sooner, but overseas companies and governments do not yet have the resources to quickly supply it.

"I could issue a security directive today and say eight hours," Pistole said. "The question is, are the carriers capable of implementing that today? Many carriers are not fully electronic. The intent is there. The question is, how do we make that happen? "

Until Tuesday, government officials had declined to offer details on what DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano meant last week when she said her department is working with international and private sector partners "on the expansion of layered detections system, including technology and other measures."

At the hearing, Bersin and Pistole explained that to thwart the attack, DHS officials and industry intercepted all cargo shipments from Yemen to hold the items for examination "using all the inspection technology at our disposal -- including X-ray systems, explosive detection canines and explosive trace detection equipment -- in addition to manual physical inspection."

In the days after the incident, the government tapped data from the intelligence community on the supply chain to instantaneously pinpoint which packages merited closer inspection.

Customs and Border Protection "adjusted the targeting rules in the Automated Targeting System to be more responsive to current threats," the officials testified. "All shipments of concern now automatically are placed on hold and are examined upon arrival. ... In recent days, we have met with key leaders in the air cargo industry and sought their assistance in identifying what data is available predeparture, which parties have the data and how early in the process the data can be provided to CBP for security screening."

Before the foiled bomb plot, procedures for examining high-risk cargo when it arrives in the United States already included a mandatory radiation scan. Also, CBP had previously partnered with some carriers to screen cargo for radioactive materials before the shipments leave a foreign airport.

The U.S. government, however, does not screen all U.S.-bound cargo in foreign countries. Current law requires only that all cargo on U.S.-bound passenger planes be screened, and DHS has yet to fulfill that mandate -- per a post--Sept. 11 law. The officials on Tuesday testified that CBP currently is coordinating with TSA to screen 100 percent of inbound cargo transported on passenger aircraft.