June 21, 2010 | Backgrounder on Homeland Security
Abstract: In 2007, Congress mandated that the Transportation Security Administration must screen 100 percent of all cargo carried by passenger planes by August 2010. Screening each and every piece of cargo—approximately 7.6 billion pounds are transported by U.S. air carriers every day—places a tremendous burden on an already struggling economy, not to mention American taxpayers. While security must be the utmost priority, there are ways to protect Americans from cargo-related terror attacks without harming the economy. With the August deadline looming—and the total-screening goal far from being achieved—Heritage Foundation national security analyst Jena Baker McNeill lays out a plan that boosts security and sound fiscal management.
In 2007, Congress enacted legislation that would require the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to screen 100 percent of all cargo loaded onto passenger aircraft by August 2010. With 7.6 billion pounds of cargo transported on U.S. air carriers each day, roughly 20 percent of which is carried on passenger aircraft, screening each and every item of cargo would place a tremendous burden on an already struggling economy. As Congress is highly unlikely to repeal its mandate altogether, TSA must find a workable solution that meets the mandate in the near future.
Keeping the economy vibrant creates jobs, facilitates wealth creation, and makes all Americans prosperous. At the same time, there is a legitimate need to protect Americans from the daily threat of terrorism. The best way to achieve both of these goals, while meeting the mandate set in place by Congress, in terms of air cargo security, will be for Congress to allow the TSA more creativity and flexibility to meet the 100 percent screening mandate in a way that is cost-effective, feasible (in terms of logistics and available technology), and reflective of supply chain realities. To do so, Congress and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should:
From the Factory to the Shelves
Beginning at manufacturing facilities, products may be shipped to stores in any number of ways. The benefit of shipping goods by air is a matter of timing. Trucking, for instance, is likely to take several days to transport goods from California to South Carolina; by air the goods can arrive in a matter of hours. This quick delivery is especially important for perishable goods.
There are two ways that manufacturers ship goods by air. The first begins at the companies themselves, where goods are directly tendered to air carriers. Another option is for the company to tender the items to freight forwarders (also known as indirect air carriers) who consolidate shipments into containers and pallets and then pass on these items to the over 300 air carriers and 450 airports that transport air cargo throughout the United States. Once in the hands of the air carriers, cargo is then transported to sorting or handling facilities where it is loaded onto either passenger planes or cargo planes.
While the majority of air cargo is transported on cargo planes, air-cargo security measures have largely centered on the 20 percent of cargo that is transported on passenger flights, due to concerns over passenger safety.
Over the past 30 years, air cargo transport has offered a means by which to expeditiously move cargo from points of production and manufacture to points of distribution and sales. “Since 1980, the freight mileage [tons of freight carried per mile] of goods shipped by air has increased by 240%” with roughly 7.6 billion pounds of air cargo transported by air today. Without this extensive system of air cargo shipping, many of the products on store shelves, from produce to pharmaceuticals to electronics, would not arrive at their destinations in a timely and cost-effective manner.The TSA’s Risk-Based Approach
The terrorist attacks of 9/11, as well as subsequently foiled plots, are indeed a reminder of the risk to human life from the detonation of a bomb or incendiary device on a passenger flight. Cargo containers could potentially serve as a conduit for such an attack. The TSA (and its predecessors) have been attempting to deal with this vulnerability long before September 11, 2001, in the form of the “known shipper” program (KSP). This program is one in which air carriers and freight forwarders are allowed to accept shipments only from those companies designated by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as “known” shippers. In order to become a known shipper, a company must have an established and documented business history with a U.S. or international air carrier or freight forwarder, as well as customer records that clearly verify the validity of a company (providing a proven address, phone number, and sources of payment or credit history).
Collecting this information and achieving “known” status for their shippers is the responsibility of the air carriers and freight forwarders that work with that shipper. All KSP information is submitted and screened through a centralized database, the Known Shipper Management System.
The KSP recognizes that a majority of the cargo moving through the supply chain is legitimate and indeed not a threat to the United States, and that by figuring out who the “good guys” are, TSA will have more resources to focus on real threats. No cargo or packages that are from unknown shippers are permitted on passenger planes. In general, packages from anyone, known shipper or not, who has refused to give consent for search or inspection of cargo will also not be transported into the United States. All known shipper cargo is further subject to random screening by TSA and the airlines, as well as additional screening if cargo is identified to be high-risk, due to some sort of actionable intelligence obtained from CBP that demonstrates that the cargo could be used to conduct an act of terrorism.
Beyond the Known Shipper Program, TSA has increased personnel and physical security at airports. While the most effective strategy to prevent an attack on an airliner begins before a terrorist plants a bomb or embeds radioactive, biological, or chemical agents in a particular piece of cargo, security measures and well-trained personnel can have some impact on the safety of airports and decrease the need for the 100 percent screening approach. In fact, there are 420 Transportation Security Inspectors (TSIs) around the country who focus solely on inspection of cargo deemed to be high-risk. Assisting these inspectors are 85 canine explosives detection teams dedicated to cargo inspection at the nation’s 20 highest-volume airports, with more canine support to come in the FY 2011 federal homeland security budget.
In addition to these efforts, TSA has thousands of personnel working at airports nationwide. Given the high volume of traffic through these airports, TSA has been working to ensure the security of cargo by demanding that airports perform more stringent criminal history record checks (as required by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act) of all employees who have unescorted access to cargo facilities, as well as stronger physical security measures around such facilities. To further support these measures, the TSA has also developed the Air Cargo Watch program, which teaches airport personnel to identify and report suspicious activity surrounding the air cargo supply chain.
The 100 Percent Mandate
Despite the existence of this robust security framework, Congress insisted on regulating the industry further. In 2007, the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act was enacted, which required that 100 percent of all cargo transported on passenger planes be screened by August 2010, with an interim requirement of 50 percent by February 2009. The level of security and screening provided by such measures was to be commensurate with levels provided by the full screening of checked baggage as already conducted by TSA—meaning at a much more extensive level. It was also further required that such screening was to be conducted by x-ray technology, explosive detection systems (the current technology used in baggage screening), explosive trace detection, canine teams, or manifest verification coupled with physical searches. While the TSA was given the ability to develop other approved security measures, simple manifest verification or vetting programs, such as the Known Shipper Program, were no longer sufficient security measures in and of themselves.
The first half of this mandate was considered by the TSA to be the “low hanging fruit,” meaning the easiest benchmark to achieve, because the TSA was already close to meeting this screening under the risk-based model. Therefore, when the deadline for that level of screening passed in February 2009, the TSA was able to cite it as a success (even so, the TSA lacks the means by which to verify that the 50 percent benchmark has been achieved due to the lack of a reporting system for air carriers to submit this data to the government security personnel).
To try to achieve 100 percent screening, since October 2008 the TSA has focused its efforts on narrow-body airplanes (those with a single aisle). About 96 percent of passenger airplanes are narrow-bodied, which has helped the TSA make some progress on achieving the mandate. However, achieving 100 percent screening with both wide-bodied and narrow-bodied planes remains a significant challenge for the following reasons:
The TSA Solution
The TSA, recognizing the challenge of 100 percent screening, has developed a program to carry out this mandate while taking the pressure off the private sector and giving industry more flexibility— the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP).
CCSP is a voluntary program that seeks to distribute the responsibility of 100 percent screening throughout the supply chain. Any manufacturer, shipper, distribution center, or freight forwarder who transports cargo directly to an air carrier may apply to become a Certified Cargo Screening Facility (CCSF). These applicants are vetted for compliance with TSA-mandated security protocols, and once approved are allowed to screen cargo directly at their location before it is transported to an air carrier facility—allowing significantly more time to perform the inspection, and ensuring that goods are not damaged or tainted in the process, among other liability concerns.
In 2008, the first phase of the program began at 18 of the major cargo airports in the U.S. with shippers in nine of these locations and freight forwarders in all 18 (also known as the Indirect Air Carrier (IAC) Screening Technology Pilot Program). These 18 airports account for 96 percent of cargo that is transported on the larger, wide-bodied planes (those with more than one aisle), and 65 percent of all cargo transported on all passenger planes in general. Already, roughly 487 facilities have been certified in the CCSP.
Allowing screening to occur at different points in the supply chain has offered various benefits. CCSFs are fully responsible for the screening, allowing the TSA to better focus its limited resources on high-risk cargo and that which is not yet being screened by program participants. Industry partners, likewise, receive the benefit of being able to screen their own cargo, or trusting a freight forwarder to do so, reducing the risk that third parties would damage or taint the goods as well as other risks from disassembling and screening cargo at airports, and decreasing potential clogs in the supply chain. Goods can be screened before they are ever put on a shipping pallet—eliminating the need for disassembly.
The IAC has allowed the TSA to begin testing cargo screening technology in 18 cities to determine the best screening technologies to help achieve the mandate. IAC is open to all high-volume indirect air carriers, or freight forwarders, in the select cities. The TSA provides limited funding to such companies to purchase screening technology, and the companies report data on cargo commodities and technology effectiveness. There are currently 600 CCSP participants. However, CCSP only services half of the problem because only domestic participants can qualify.
A Congressional Roadblock. One of the largest roadblocks to the use of CCSP as a way to meeting the 100 percent screening mandate has been Congress. In fact, the trouble with Congress began in the earliest stages of implementation. The TSA originally interpreted the 100 percent screening mandate as applying only to domestic flights. Congress emphasized that the mandate was meant to cover all cargo, both domestic and international, and that the TSA would have to work with international partners to ensure compliance—an extremely difficult task. As the TSA has sought to find screening methods that would allow more flexibility for the private sector, Members of Congress have grown increasingly uncooperative. This is especially the case with CCSP, as relations between Congress and the TSA have become so combative that Congressman Ed Markey has threatened to federalize the air cargo process altogether—a move that would add senseless bureaucracy and waste millions of taxpayer dollars on an effort that can be accomplished efficiently by the private sector. In fact, the TSA has not been able to assure the private sector that Congress will see full CCSP compliance as a fulfillment of the mandate.
These threats have made the private sector reluctant to join CCSP. TSA for its part has been reluctant to voice much frustration about meeting the mandate, fearing the legislative repercussions that could result from such complaints. Congress needs to listen to TSA and resolve these differences quickly so that the private sector has a clear idea of which steps must be taken to meet the law.
A New Era of Air Security
The problem with the 2007 mandate has always been that it left the private sector out of the process. Making the mandate work in the future will require flexibility by Congress—and that flexibility should be based on supply chain realities and the voices of the industry participants that are subject to the new requirements. Of course, future efforts should also be based on the actual threats from terrorists. Next steps for Congress and DHS should be to:
The 100 percent screening mandate deadline is approaching. While Congress can sit back and watch the TSA flail about trying to meet the mandate, Americans would be better served by a solution that will achieve security while allowing the private sector the flexibility to maintain the supply chain. The American people deserve both security and economic recovery.
—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. Jessica Zuckerman, a Research Assistant in the Allison Center, contributed to this paper.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration, “Air Cargo: Transportation Sector Network Management,” at http://www.tsa.gov/what_we_do/tsnm/index.shtm (June 8, 2010).
Bart Elias, “Aviation Security: Background and Policy Options for Screening and Securing Air Cargo,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress No. RL34390, February 25, 2008, at http://fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/RL34390.pdf (May 28, 2010).
Elias, “Aviation Security,” p. 6, and U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Aviation Security: Preliminary Observations on TSA’s Progress and Challenges in Meeting the Statutory Mandate for Screening Air Cargo on Passenger Planes,” GAO-09-422T, March 18, 2009, at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09422t.pdf (May 28, 2010).
Government Accountability Office, “Aviation Security: Preliminary Observations on TSA’s Progress and Challenges in Meeting the Statutory Mandate for Screening Air Cargo on Passenger Aircraft,” p. 3.
Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, Public Law 110-53.
“As Deadlines for 100% Cargo Screening Loom, Many Roadblocks Still Exist,” Supply Chain Digest, March 24, 2009, at http://www.scdigest.com/assets/On_Target/09-03-24-3.php?cid=2346&ctype=content (May 28, 2010).
Transportation Security Administration, Programs and Initiatives, “Air Cargo: Narrow Body Screening Amendment,” at http://www.tsa.gov/what_we_do/tsnm/air_cargo/programs.shtm (June 8, 2010).
Elias, “Aviation Security,” p. 3.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration, “TSA is Concerned About Lack of US Shipper’s Impact Awareness About 100% Screening Issues,” June 5, 2009, at http://www.tsa.gov/assets/pdf/ccsp_at_a_glance.pdf (May 28, 2010).
James C. May, “100% Air Cargo Screening: Can We Secure America’s Skies?” testimony before the Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection, Committee on Homeland Security, U.S. House of Representatives, March 18, 2009, at http://homeland.house.gov/SiteDocuments/20090318144726-73418.pdf (May 28, 2010).
Elias, “Aviation Security,” p. 21.
 Ibid., p. 22.
Brandon Fried, “100% Air Cargo Screening: Can We Secure America’s Skies?” testimony before the Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection, Committee on Homeland Security, U.S. House of Representatives, March 18, 2009, at http://homeland.house.gov/SiteDocuments/20090318144639-43303.pdf (May 28, 2010).
Edward Kelly, “100% Air Cargo Screening: Can We Secure America’s Skies?” testimony before the Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection, Committee on Homeland Security, U.A. House of Representatives, March 18, 2009, at http://homeland.house.gov/SiteDocuments/20090318144700-36589.pdf (May 10, 2010).
Scott Powers, “New Rules Could Delay Air Cargo,” The Columbus Dispatch, December 2, 2009, at http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/business/stories/2009/12/02/airline_cargo.ART_ART_12-02-09_A8_5DFS0DK.html?sid=101 (May 28, 2010).