July 14, 2008 | WebMemo on National Security and Defense

Congress Set to Open the Air Cargo Security Sore

On July 15, the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection will examine air cargo security and decide whether the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is effectively implementing the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007. A particularly contentious element of the act-a 100 percent screening mandate-remains a sore marring this legislation. Subsequently, Congress should use tomorrow's hearing to reexamine this deeply flawed measure.

Moving in the Wrong Direction
Several measures of the act are directed at the aviation sector. For instance, the act demands-within three years-screening of 100 percent of the cargo transported on passenger aircraft. Three years is an incredibly short time considering that current screening is relatively minimal and not based on any pre-set screening level. At least 7,500 pounds of air cargo are transported on passenger planes daily.

The idea that the U.S. can prevent all threats to cargo security by instituting a 100 percent screening mechanism is unrealistic. Members of Congress are using the 100 percent screening mandate to score cheap political points by framing themselves as champions of homeland security. Yet, by championing an unreachable mandate, legislators are providing the public with a false sense of security. Indeed, an argument could be made that, by directing so many resources toward an impossible goal, certain members of Congress are extracting political gain at the expense of national security.

Regardless, DHS has-at least on paper-made some headway toward satisfying the mandate, such as the development of a strategic plan. However, such superficial progress still does not prove that 100 percent screening can succeed on a tangible basis. Thousands upon thousands of pounds of cargo moves through the skies everyday; to demand 100 percent screening of such volume is short-sighted and guarantees DHS's failure.

Real Reform for the Real World

Instead of reiterating the flawed policies of the 9/11 bill, tomorrow's hearing should be used to change the act to include measures that would:

  • Base screening on risk: Instead of the current system of blanket screening for all cargo, Congress should adopt a system where inspection is commensurate with risk, meaning that cargo is prioritized based on starting point, declared contents, etc. This type of prioritization is currently used successfully in Britain and should be a model for U.S. screening.
  • Reform congressional oversight: Tomorrow's hearing will undoubtedly fail to address the issue affecting all homeland security measures: congressional oversight of DHS. Not only is there an urgent need for consolidation, but the system is currently plagued with reactive and politically driven oversight. The present system anticipates failure while attempting to implement politically "feel good" measures by Congress; the 100 percent measure is merely one such example.
  • Increase public awareness of the general aviation industry: Congress should be careful that the hearing's tone does not further distort the skewed public perception of the aviation industry. Measures such as the 100 percent screening requirement result from unwarranted anxiety over security incidents-specifically in the general aviation domain. There is a need to educate the public regarding to the general aviation industry and the realistic risks and challenges facing the sector.

Congress will do America a favor if it uses tomorrow's hearing as an opportunity to reexamine-rather than reiterate-current policies. Putting politics over security provides political boons to members of Congress who seek to monopolize on the DHS failure. The safety of the skies, however, is dependent upon sound policies and realistic expectations.

Jena Baker McNeill is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Jena Baker McNeill Senior Policy Analyst, Homeland Security
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy