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CNN probe finds weak link in air security

From Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston

A former member of the 9/11 Commission says very few air cargo loads are thoroughly inspected.



Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
Air Transportation
Transportation Security Administration

(CNN) -- Nearly four years after 9/11, Americans flying on passenger planes remain vulnerable to another terrorist attack in the air because of lax screening of the millions of tons of cargo loaded into the belly of aircraft, a three-month CNN investigation shows.

While screening of passengers and their luggage has been shored up dramatically since hijackers commandeered four planes and crashed them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, little has changed regarding the security of cargo, according to an FAA inspector and the vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission.

On most of the flights that the FAA inspector observes, almost none of the cargo is inspected.

"In respect to cargo, we're probably as vulnerable or more vulnerable," said the inspector, who insisted on not being identified for fear of employer retaliation. "Cargo still has a lot of loopholes where something could get on an airplane."

Former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, the vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said the airline industry and the federal government have failed to seriously address the security of air cargo, a multibillion-dollar industry.

"I think this is a point of real vulnerability for America, for the traveling public," Hamilton said. "We are not doing the kind of safety measures that we should be doing to protect the American public."

CNN crisscrossed the country, traveling from one airport to another, and saw firsthand how easy it would be for a terrorist to slip an explosive or lethal chemicals onto an airplane because of holes in the cargo security network.

At airport after airport, CNN observed cargo containers, known as unit load devices, sitting unattended and unsecured on airport ramps where many people had access to the cargo. Some trucks carrying loads had doors wide open with the cargo within easy view and easy reach.

And for three straight days, outside Chicago's busy O'Hare International Airport, at the U.S. Postal Service Chicago International/Military Service Center, CNN found gates unlocked and wide open, and open containers left at the side of the road. CNN correspondent Drew Griffin was able to walk right up to the containers with a camera rolling. No one stopped him to ask what he was doing.

Two weeks later, CNN returned to the same facility, and again found the gates unlocked and open for anyone to walk or drive through. Some cargo containers once again were left unattended and open by the side of the road.

Asked about the lax security, Jim Ruck, public affairs director for the Postal Service's Chicago region, said the Postal Service doesn't consider the area to be a security risk. He said the Postal Service relies on employees to report suspicious activity, adding that while security cameras are scattered around the grounds, no one regularly monitors what is being recorded.

Ruck added that the gates are left open for convenience because so many airlines require access to the facility to pick up and drop off cargo.

Suitcases screened more than cargo

Hamilton said the nation is not doing enough.

"People get on airplanes every day by the tens of thousands, and they expect that trip to be safe," he said. "We are not doing all we should be doing four years after 9/11 to assure the safety of this cargo."

The FAA inspector told CNN that a passenger's suitcase gets more scrutiny than cargo. Much of the cargo is trucked to airports and those routes are not secure, the inspector said, adding that any terrorist could follow drivers and tamper with their cargo loads.

Another veteran airline employee -- who does not handle cargo but who has spent years on the tarmac working for a major airline -- said he rarely sees anyone inspecting the freight.

"The only government agency that I ever see on a consistent basis that would inspect freight is if it's livestock related, there's someone from the USDA," said the airline employee, who also asked not to be identified.

He said he's never seen anyone X-raying the crates or using bomb-sniffing dogs: "I'm not saying it's not there, but I've never seen it in my time doing this and I've been doing this for many years."

start quoteIn respect to cargo, we're probably as vulnerable or more vulnerable.end quote
-- FAA inspector

The lack of security involving air cargo is not new to federal agencies charged with airline safety. For more than a decade, government commissions, congressional panels and federal agency reports have pointed out the pressing need for more security in the cargo holds of planes.

When the 9/11 Commission turned its attention to the issue, it concluded nothing had changed.

"It created a huge risk for the American traveling public because we thought it was quite easy really, to get explosive devices into air cargo," Hamilton said.

CNN asked the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) what percentage of air cargo is being inspected and was told the information is not available to the public because of security reasons.

"The figure we had, and this is now two or three years old, was that 5 percent or less of air cargoes were being inspected," Hamilton said. "I hope more than that are being inspected now, but I don't think it's anywhere near 100 percent."

Backbone of the system

An airline industry representative said 100 percent of cargo is screened.

But that does not mean 100 percent of the cargo is inspected, said James May, president of the Air Transport Association, a lobbying group that represents the major U.S. carriers.

What the airline industry does say is that 100 percent of cargo is screened through the air industry's "known shipper" program.

Thousands of trucks carry cargo to U.S. airports every day.

"In some cases, it'll be physical inspection, in some cases it will be explosive detection, in some cases it will be canine," May said. "In other cases, (the cargo) comes from a 'known shipper' program. It will be screened through the 'known shipper' program."

The "known shipper" program is the backbone of air cargo security. Mark Hatfield, federal communications director for the TSA, said more than 400,000 companies certify their cargo is safe through the program.

"It's a process by which the airlines, the carriers, actually are required to go through a series of steps to identify and know and vet the shippers so that there's not any kind of mysterious entity out there," Hatfield said.

The shippers certify that their cargo is safe, so the airlines therefore assume cargo from those shippers is safe. The TSA then maintains the whole system is safe.

Even Hatfield said no agency can make such guarantees with such a massive system.

"No agency can, which is why it is vitally important that we are partnered with industry," Hatfield said.

Critics argue the "known shipper" program is little more than a paperwork check-off: If the paperwork's good, the cargo gets on the plane, no questions asked.

The FAA inspector that CNN talked with sees flaws in the system. Some carriers are so lax in handling cargo, the inspector said, that the inspector actually avoids flying on them.

"I know about this and I can choose which airlines and which planes I want to fly on," the inspector said. "The general public doesn't know that there should be some serious concerns about how cargo is handled."

The TSA's Hatfield said the agency has 200 federal inspectors nationwide. But they don't actually inspect any cargo, they just make sure the airlines are following the rules.

Both the TSA and the air industry admit the system is far from foolproof, but say they are working on improvements. Neither expects cargo to ever get the same level of scrutiny as passengers and their bags.

"I would love to be able to sit here and tell you that we've got the technology and that we're doing that," said May. "That is the gold standard. But, against millions of dollars of investment right now, we don't have the technology."

Technology may be the long-term solution. In the short-term, CNN's investigation found that common sense and more vigilance -- not expensive technology -- could ease the problems of open gates, unattended cargo containers and unsecured truck routes.

The TSA was ordered by Congress to tighten up air cargo security by mid-August, but one official said that deadline won't be met and predicted new rules would likely go into effect by the fall.

The TSA has proposed screening the estimated 63,000 people at airports who have access to cargo, which would go a long way toward making cargo areas at airports as secure as the passenger terminals.

Agency officials concede there is little TSA can do to tighten security at all 400,000 of the "known shippers" who handle cargo, although it plans to take over control of the "known shipper" list to add more accountability to the system.

CNN's Sara Lane contributed to this report.

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