TSA missed Deadline to Screen International Cargo

Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal when Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole announced that his agency would miss a December 31 deadline to begin screening 100 percent of all cargo arriving via international flights, but that the agency was pursuing a risk-based strategy that would focus resources on “high risk” shipments.

The mandate to screen 100 percent of arriving international cargo came from Congress, in the wake of last year’s attempt by al Qaeda operatives to send bomb-laden printer cartridges into the U.S., on board a flight that had originated in Yemen.  While Congress’ intent may have been laudable, a closer analysis shows that the mandate is neither feasible nor warranted.

For one thing, treating every piece of cargo the same, and demanding across the board screening ignores the simple reality that some cargo poses a greater threat.  Forcing airport personnel to screen obviously low-risk shipments from known shippers diverts precious resources from focusing on riskier shipments from unknown or flagged sources.  Instead, the TSA should be allowed to explore options for a “trusted shipper program.”  Business groups including the International Air Transport Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce support a process, whereby companies would be certified as trustworthy – and emphasis would be given to suspicious packages and shipments from unknown businesses.

And worth noting is the fact that the U.S. is not the first country to think about screening international cargo.  For example, the United Kingdom has maintained an international screening program for many years that incorporates a trusted shipper component.  Other countries, including Israel, have had success at implementing screening programs, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The 100 percent mandate also ignores political reality.  TSA Administrator Pistole has spoken out about the difficulty of reaching agreements with foreign nations, basically asking them to agree to implement U.S. standards in their airport practices.  Pistole says that agreements have been reached with countries that account for roughly 80 percent of all incoming cargo, but the remaining have so far eluded him.

In a recent blog post, security industry expert Chris Battle wrote that Congress was “arrogant” in thinking it could dictate policy to the nearly 100 countries from which it imports air cargo.   “Certain members of Congress continue to demand that the U.S. government, via TSA, somehow force other governments to follow U.S. regulations.”  Battle adds: “TSA Administrator John Pistole skirts having to state the obvious – that mandating other governments to do what the U.S. Congress says to do isn’t practical.”

Congress’ mandate to screen 100 percent of all international cargo was a knee jerk reaction to al Qaeda’s attempt to send contraband into the U.S.   Congress clearly over-reached in attempting to legislate – in a year’s time – the creation and implementation of a screening system that would be accepted across the globe. While all parties certainly share Congress’ goal of border security, a more strategic, risk-based approach that drew upon current “best practices” clearly could have provided a more expeditious route.  Hopefully the TSA’s missed deadline will allow the agency some breathing room to develop such a system, with the support of international partners and key domestic audiences.