NEWS

Air Cargo Vulnerable to Tampering Before Loading, Report Finds

By Matthew Harwood

Terrorists could introduce a bomb or other destructive device into cargo destined for the belly of a passenger plane before it's loaded onto the aircraft, says a new U.S. government report.

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (IG) reports says that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a DHS component agency responsible for aviation security, "could improve its efforts to secure air cargo during ground handling and transportation" before it's loaded onto a passenger aircraft. According to TSA estimates, 12 million pounds of cargo are loaded onto passenger planes everyday.

In the first three quarters of 2008, TSA performed 6,767 cargo security inspections. Thirty percent of the time, the agency discovered vulnerabilities in three areas: access controls, security threat assessments, and security training and testing requirements.

During fieldwork at five major U.S. airports, IG investigators accompanied TSA cargo inspectors as they performed their job. Investigators discovered they could walk around secure cargo areas without being challenged by employees and in one instance investigators tripped an alarm at a freight forwarder, which bundles together different cargoes and delivers it to the airlines. No employees responded to the alarm, leaving investigators with access to multiple storage rooms, one in which cargo had already been screened and was due to ship that evening.

"Without regular vigilance, practice, and enforcement of access controls, TSA and the regulated entities provide opportunities for individuals to introduce explosives, incendiaries, and other destructive items into air cargo, potentially creating risks for the traveling public," the report stated.

According to TSA regulations, any individual that works for a regulated entity and has unescorted access to air cargo must undergo a security threat assessment (or background check) before he handles or transports cargo. Nevertheless, the IG's investigators identified 731 instances where the regulated entities did not conduct or did not provide evidence that individuals had undergone the appropriate background checks. One freight forwarder had five drivers that had never undergone the proper screening for handling and transporting cargo.

Investigators also found an inefficiency in the background check application: providing a Social Security number is voluntary. This can either hold up or prevent the processing of the application. "The verification of a Social Security number with the applicant's identification would reduce the risk of false identification," the report states.

TSA regulations also mandate that employees with unescorted access to cargo undergo security training and testing when they're hired and then every year after that. Each time, employees must pass the exam with no less than an 85 percent.  This was the most often violated requirement, the IG's investigation found.

"TSA inspection reports identified 1,655 violations related to the security training and testing requirements," the report says. "We determined that 24 out of 104 (23 percent) truck drivers had not completed or could not provide evidence to satisfy this requirement."

According to the report, most regulated entities did not know about the TSA training and testing requirement or that they needed to keep documentation to present to TSA upon request.

The IG report had six recommendations for TSA to improve cargo security before it's loaded onto passenger planes. The TSA concurred with all six.

According to a statement, quoted by Bloomberg.com, TSA says, "The very fact that our inspectors are finding these issues and enforcing regulations in this regard is indicative of a robust and thorough program.”


♦ Photo of cargo loaded onto an airplane by Erwyn van der Meer/Flickr

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