Center for American Progress

Improve Security of International Air Cargo System
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Improve Security of International Air Cargo System

Last week’s attempted terrorist attack using the international air cargo system illustrates the need for more vigorous and urgent action to confront threats to this system.

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Last week’s attempted terrorist attack using the international air cargo system illustrates the continuing vulnerabilities of that system despite efforts since 9/11 to improve its security.

Details are still being uncovered, but it appears the terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula sent bombs disguised as printer components via UPS and FedEx to Chicago synagogues. This is the same Al Qaeda branch believed to be responsible for the attempted underpants bombing last Christmas and an assassination attempt on a member of the Saudi royal family. John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor, said the bombs were designed to detonate in flight.

The air cargo system’s vulnerabilities have been apparent for years. The Center for American Progress’s 2007 report on air cargo security noted, “Placing a bomb in a commercial shipment via global supply chains is an obvious and feasible means to bring down a U.S. airliner without having to board it or even enter the United States.”

Shortly after we issued our report, Congress passed legislation in August 2007 mandating 100 percent cargo screening within three years with an interim goal of 50 percent 18 months after passage. The 100 percent goal, however, was not met by the August 2010 deadline. The New York Times recently reported that only 65 percent of incoming air cargo is inspected, and that only includes cargo coming in on passenger flights. Dedicated freight aircraft are not subject to the inspection mandate. Moreover, the legislation does not mandate TSA’s direct involvement in inspections—only that it establish a system for the airline and air cargo industries to screen according to TSA standards.

Last week’s attempted attack illustrates the need for more vigorous and urgent action to confront threats to the international air cargo system. That action includes more resources for TSA to properly and directly inspect cargo entering the United States, and a concerted push to establish a more rigorous and robust international air cargo inspection regime.

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