TSA Takes Hits on Air Cargo, Transit Grants

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) took two significant hits Thursday–one over its air cargo security procedures, another over transit security grants.

The inspector general (IG) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) delivered its criticism first–TSA faces gaps in its air cargo screening procedures that could allow terrorists to smuggle explosives or other dangerous substance onto passenger aircraft.

"We identified vulnerabilities in thecargo screening procedures employed by air carriers and cargo screening facilities to detect and prevent explosives from being shipped in air cargo transported on passenger aircraft," the DHS IG said in its report, Evaluation of Screening of Air Cargo Transported on Passenger Aircraft.

That wasn’t the first time the IG office criticized the TSA air cargo screening procedures. It delivered two previous sets of recommendations–the first regarding vulnerabilities in TSA access controls to cargo holding areas and the second regarding background checks for individuals handling air cargo. (See TSA’s Oversight of Passenger Aircraft Cargo Security Faces Significant Challenges in July 2007 and Security of Air Cargo During Ground Transportation in November 2009.)

This time around, the IG report made five recommendations with the intent of improving TSA’s screening and security measures to stop terrorists from placing explosives onboard air cargo traveling via passenger aircraft. The recommendations, however, were classified, as were TSA’s response to them.

The latest report critical of TSA’s air cargo screening procedures comes after TSA declared it had met a congressional mandate to screen all air cargo shipping within the continental United States domestically by August. The agency has said it will require several extra years to screen all US-bound air cargo traveling from foreign points of origin, despite a congressional order to do so by this year.

However, TSA reports that more than 75 percent of all air cargo transported on passenger aircraft undergoes screening at present.

To meet the mandate to screen air cargo, TSA certified shippers to screen the cargo on its behalf at approved facilities. Cargo then disembarks from those facilities to various air carriers for delivery.

Certified shippers can employ four distinct methods to screen cargo, as appropriate. They can employ explosive trace detection (ETD), using devices to detect explosive particles; X-ray device, capturing images of the cargo content; physical searches, opening boxes or crates to study their contents; or TSA-certified canine teams, allowing dogs to sniff out dangerous materials.

The IG report examined the first three methods: ETD, X-ray, and physical searches.

TSA transportation security inspectors check up on the screening conducted by the shippers to ensure compliance and to provide guidance.

Although the precise response from TSA remains classified, the IG office reported that the agency would consider its findings as part of its assessments to improve air cargo screening onboard passenger aircraft.

"The agency acknowledged that improvements can be made in the air cargo screening process to prevent the introduction of explosives into air cargo on passenger aircraft," the report stated.

Passenger aircraft carry about 7.6 million pounds of cargo to US destinations daily. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 (Public Law 107-71) first tasked TSA with screening of cargo carried aboard passenger aircraft; the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 (PL 110-53) further ordered TSA to screen 100 percent of air cargo on passenger aircraft starting in August 2010.

Congressional ire

Later in the day Thursday, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) and other California lawmakers announced their displeasure with changes TSA made in its Transit Security Grant Program (TSGP).

Essentially, the lawmakers objected to an apparent TSA proposal to boost transit grants in the northern and eastern regions of the United States in fiscal 2011, while cutting those funds for other regions of the country. Southern California, in particular, would suffer under this distribution plan, the representatives complained.

Sanchez said the TSA plan would allocate transit security grants only to a select top 50 critical transportation systems, cutting most Western cities out of the grant funds. Only the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco would receive grant guarantees under the adjustments to the program, the lawmakers said.

As such, Southern California, especially, would become more vulnerable with less resources being made available to assist first responders in securing transportation systems, Sanchez charged.

"These grants are a vital part of ensuring transit security," Sanchez said in a statement Thursday. "These proposed changes seem to come from a deeply flawed idea that threats to US transportation can only happen east of the Mississippi. Southern California should have the same access to these funds as any other region of the United States."

The lawmakers sent their letter, dated Oct. 6, to TSA Administrator John Pistole and copied Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee.

They noted that the grant funds have been allocated based on risk, based on intelligence estimates of likely targets in the past. The transit security grants for fiscal 2010 already provided the lion’s share of funding to transportation in the North and East, they said, with those regions receiving 76 percent of total transit security funds and Southern California receiving only 4 percent.

"Although specific distribution details have yet to be announced, transit systems and projects which do not receive funding through the ‘Top 50’ target list will be forced to compete nationally for any TSGP funds that remain," the representatives wrote. "This will leave many transit systems throughout the nation vulnerable, even though they have already been identified by DHS as high risk systems with significant needs.  Further, the regional allocations that have fostered collaboration and joint partnerships in the past are not being proposed as part of the new FY 2011 program."

The members concluded their letter with a specific request that TSA not implement the proposed changes to the transit security grants but rather allocated them as they have in the recent past.

In addition to Sanchez, signatories to the letter included Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), and Bob Filner (D-Calif.).

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