The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will miss a congressionally mandated deadline to screen 100 percent of US-bound air cargo by next month, lawmakers lamented Wednesday.
In addition, TSA relies too heavily on a voluntary shipping program to ensure the compliance of private companies in the 100 percent screening requirement, said the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in a new report. GAO recommended that TSA develop contingency plans to address shortfalls in voluntary participation but the agency objected.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, characterized the report as demonstrating mixed progress at TSA.
"TSA’s ability to conduct appropriate oversight, inspection and regulation of the screening program raises serious concerns," Thompson said in a statement Wednesday. "While it has developed several initiatives to implement the 100 percent cargo screening mandate, its programs rely too heavily on private sector participation and self reporting of data.
"I applaud TSA for its continued commitment in working towards meeting the deadline and concurring with GAO recommendations; however, in order for TSA to meet this mandate it must implement a robust compliance program to ensure accuracy and accountability," he added.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), one of the lawmakers who requested the GAO report along with Thompson, said the 100 percent screening mandate was an important recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, which suggested that terrorists could ship illicit goods into the United States without a monitoring program.
The GAO report "calls into question whether TSA’s system will be capable of meeting the August deadline without impeding commerce," Markey said in a statement. "TSA will also miss the law’s deadline for screening all cargo on passenger planes entering our country from overseas.
"This is particularly troubling given the threats posed by terrorists like the Christmas Day underwear bomber, who was attempting to enter our country on a passenger plane which originated overseas. We must resolve all outstanding issues to ensure that we are focused not only on the safety of passengers in airline seats, but of the cargo just beneath their feet," he said
Congress set the deadline of August 2010 for screening 100 percent of US-bound air cargo in the Implementing the Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 (Public Law 110-53).
The GAO report on the matter, Aviation Security: TSA Has Made Progress but Faces Challenges in Meeting the Statutory Mandate for Screening Air Cargo on Passenger Aircraft, determined that TSA should set up a staffing study for the program, verify the accuracy of screening data, set up a contingency plan for screening domestic cargo, and produce new plans for meeting requirements for screening cargo originating from overseas.
"TSA has made progress in meeting the air cargo screening mandate as it applies to domestic cargo, but faces challenges in doing so that highlight the need for a contingency plan," the report stated. "TSA has, for example, increased required domestic cargo screening levels from 50 percent in February 2009 to 75 percent in May 2010, increased the amount of cargo subject to screening by eliminating many domestic screening exemptions, created a voluntary program to allow screening to take place at various points in the air cargo supply chain, conducted outreach to familiarize industry stakeholders with screening requirements, and tested air cargo screening technologies."
But meeting the 100 percent screening deadline by next month could place burdens on trade, the GAO report warned.
The participation of cargo shippers in TSA’s voluntary screening program has been lower than TSA sought, the report found. TSA also has not conducted a study to figure out how many inspectors it requires to staff the screening program; therefore, it cannot know how many personnel it will require to carry out the program with varying levels of participation by industry.
TSA also has not approved of any technology capable of screening large pallets and containers of cargo, although such technologies exist. The lack of certification by TSA, however, suggests the agency may have to take another approach to screening large pallets, the report cautioned.
Finally, TSA does not verify data submitted by companies who submit voluntary reports on their screening efforts.
"Several of these challenges suggest the need for a contingency plan, in case the agency’s current initiatives are not successful in meeting the mandate withoutimpeding the flow of commerce," the GAO report stated. "However, TSA has not developed such a plan. Addressing these issues could better position TSA to meet the mandate."
TSA agreed with many of the GAO recommendations but only partially agreed to verify screening data. No means exist to cross-reference screening logs to carrier-level reports. Requiring manual cross-checks would prove to be a significant burden on industry, Jerald Levin, director of the GAO liaison office at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) wrote in response to the report. TSA instead will conduct random inspections to verify data.
Furthermore, TSA completely disagreed with the need to produce a contingency plan.
"Effective August 1,2010, 100 percent of all cargo transported on passenger aircraft from US airports will be required to be screened; to develop a contingency plan that suggests otherwise is unnecessary," Levine wrote. "TSA contends that there is no feasible contingency plan that can be implemented by TSA that does not compromise security or create disparities in theavailability of screening resources among airports and/or commodity sectors."
Estimates of inbound cargo suggest 50 percent of it is being screened, TSA officials told GAO, but those estimates are not based on actual data. TSA has not determined how it will meet the requirement to screen 100 percent of air cargo originating from foreign ports, so it should develop such a plan, GAO recommended.