U.S. tightens rules on screening air cargo
Directives follow warning on terrorist threat
By Beth Lewandowski
A Ukrainian cargo jet unloads at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Foreign cargo carriers will have to submit their security plans to the TSA.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The government will start requiring inspections of air cargo on passenger and cargo planes flying within, into and out of the United States, security officials announced Monday.
Directives issued by the Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration will require air carriers to randomly inspect their freight cargo.
Inspections will begin as soon as possible and will include the use of trained dogs and explosives-detection machines, as well as checks of cargo manifests, a TSA official said.
TSA inspectors will "ensure the inspections are completed properly," according to a statement released by the agency.
Currently, virtually no domestic air cargo is electronically screened or inspected for explosives, and only about 5 percent of air cargo from other countries is checked, according to government officials.
Instead, the TSA relies on the "known shipper program," which prohibits air carriers from accepting cargo from shipping agents that do not register with the government and meet its security requirements.
TSA spokesman Brian Turmail said the agency's inspectors will spot-check air carrier and cargo operations to make sure they are doing the random inspections properly.
Foreign all-cargo carriers coming into the United States will also be required to submit their security plans to the TSA for approval in order to continue operations.
The TSA said the plans must include details on how the cargo carrier "will verify the identities of persons with access to planes and ensure the security of parked aircraft."
The TSA said it will also be implementing a plan to augment the known shipper program through better database management with the goal of ensuring that all cargo deemed "higher risk" is inspected.
The TSA also said it will accelerate development of technology to screen air cargo and will evaluate the use of explosives-detection systems being used to screen passenger bags to detect bomb residue in larger cargo crates.
The security directives follow a warning last week to cargo carriers and law enforcement officials that terrorists might try to use cargo planes to hit critical infrastructure targets such as nuclear power plants, dams and bridges.
FBI and Homeland Security officials also suggested that terrorists might try to hijack cargo planes outside of the United States and direct them to targets inside the country.
Reaction to the TSA cargo security announcement was mixed.
"The Bush administration should not be playing Russian roulette, or more appropriately in this case, 'al Qaeda roulette' with the security of passengers on American airplanes," said Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a Democrat and senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee who was author of a defeated bill that would have required electronic screening of all cargo on passenger planes.
"This holiday season, American families should not have to rely on random security checks. Comprehensive inspections of 100 percent of the cargo on passenger planes is needed, just like 100 percent of the passengers and luggage is screened at security checkpoints," he said.
UPS spokesman David Bolger said the company was still awaiting the fine print from the TSA and did not know how it would be affected by the mandatory inspections.
"It depends on the level of inspections -- what percentage of cargo must be screened and where -- we still don't know," Bolger said Monday.
Seattle, Washington-based air cargo consultant Ned Laird welcomed the TSA move.
"It's optimum. It's reasonable. It creates fear in the mind of a terrorist that he will get caught," Laird said.
In a widely publicized incident in September, a 25-year-old New York shipping clerk was able to ship himself in a crate as air cargo across the United States in a 15-hour trip during which he eluded security at five airports.
The man, Charles McKinley, was caught when a deliveryman dropping the crate off at his parents' home noticed him moving inside.
McKinley pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor stowaway charge in federal court earlier this month and awaits sentencing. He could receive up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.