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Cargo Vulnerabilities Persist

Many counterterrorism experts say that last October’s “printer plot” was at least a partial success for the al Qaeda affiliate that tried to blow up planes over the United States because the plot reached its operational phase, even though ultimately fairly specific intelligence prevented its execution. By contrast, 2009’s Christmas Day plot reached execution but failed due to amateurism and the decisive actions of bystanders.

While they differed in how they were thwarted, it may be more instructive to examine their similarities. Both plots highlighted persistent gaps in intelligence information collection and the sharing of that information with regard to two major units of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

In the case of the Christmas Day attack, a litany of factors and failures combined to allow suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board a U.S.-bound jetliner in Amsterdam, only to have CBP officials flag him for scrutiny after departure. They awaited him in Detroit, planning to question him before allowing entry. That clearly would have been too late if his intent was to ignite a bomb in flight. As a result, DHS now seeks to provide TSA analysts earlier and expanded access to such data in hopes of keeping would-be attackers off U.S.-bound flights.

A similar scenario played out the last week of October. CBP, which is responsible for border but not aviation security, assigns risk scores to shipments headed for the United States based on factors such as country of origin. Shipments like the printers from Yemen—the base of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—would have been subject to scrutiny on arrival in the United States, CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin told lawmakers investigating the incident. Again, this would have been too late if the cartridge-contained bombs had exploded in flight as planned. 

It’s clear that the solution has to be implemented before flights take off. One option, Bersin explained, may be application of the security methodologies already applied to imports in maritime shipping containers. CBP requires that import shippers submit data on containers and their contents 24 hours before they are even loaded onto U.S.-bound ships at foreign ports. The containers are then assessed for risk and “targeting,” in CBP lingo. The highest risk containers may be searched overseas or barred from import before departure, a reflection of the agency’s goal of pushing the country’s “borders” as far outward as possible.

“We should be looking at those same techniques in the aviation context, and we have begun that,” Bersin told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, further explaining that TSA counterparts will be formally involved in that targeting process.

Current manifest submission requirements are less stringent for air cargo. At the time of the printer cartridge plot, air carriers were required to submit their cargo manifests for U.S.- bound international flights four hours prior to scheduled arrival, which in many cases means the flight is already airborne. During the hearing U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) pressed Bersin on why CBP could not double or triple that time requirement.

“The [shipping industry] will tell you that it’s been perceived that it would unduly interfere with the commerce of the world,” Bersin said.

Levin, however, disagreed, alluding to the controversy surrounding the TSA’s enhanced passenger screening procedures. “This is easier than a patdown. This does not bring business to a standstill. It just slows it down.”

Former airline security director Douglas R. Laird Sr., CPP, now a consultant, similarly questions the burden earlier submission would place on the shipping sector. Shipments, he tells Security Management, “don’t just show up at an air cargo facility…. You know what it is from the moment it’s checked in.”

CBP spokeswoman Jenny Burke says the agency is in talks with air carriers about more advanced manifest submissions, and the “discussion has been positively received from the carriers.” Of course, this all assumes that the parties involved will be forthright in these manifest submissions and that a new twist, such as the printer-cartridge bombs, would somehow raise suspicions or trigger the “high risk” red flag—not really a foregone conclusion.

The printer plot further shed light on the TSA’s documented failure to meet Congress’ mandate for 100 percent air cargo scanning. As of August 2010, the TSA had achieved 100 percent scanning of U.S.-originating air cargo, but only 60 to 80 percent of foreign cargo was being scanned when the printer cartridge incident ocurred.

Pistole repeated to lawmakers TSA’s contention that the agency scans 100 percent of “high risk” foreign cargo, but the agency does not provide further detail on the volume of cargo that is deemed high risk or what merits that designation. Pistole acknowledged, however, that many countries do not have the technological capability to satisfy the requirement, calling it “a critical challenge to leverage other countries to screen cargo to our standards.” Many of those same countries, such as in Central Asia, are also known or suspected extremist hot spots.

After the printer plot, the TSA imposed new cargo rules, including a ban on high-risk cargo in the bellies of passenger planes, a ban on air cargo from Yemen and Somalia, and a ban on toner cartridges larger than 16 ounces on passenger flights.

These types of case-by-case policies are criticized as reactive. As for whether TSA policy addresses past threats at the expense of those to come, Pistole testified that the agency seeks to be “informed by prior attempts but not [to] dwell on them.”