Res Publica

Cleared for Take-off and Landing: Incoming Air Freight Still Not Screened for Terror Threats

by David Trumbull -- April 8, 2011

The Advisory Committee on Commercial Operations of Customs and Border Protection (“COAC”) will meet on Tuesday, April 12, 2011 in Washington, D.C. The meeting will be open to the public. This committee advises the Secretaries of the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) on the commercial operations of Customs and Border Protection and related DHS functions.

The Committee has a full agenda for the meeting, with eight items, any one of which could be the subject of considerable discussion. One item caught my eye, number five: Enhancing Air Cargo Security. According to a February 1, 2011, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress titled Transportation Security: Issues for the 112th Congress, “Inbound international cargo poses a particular challenge... While all cargo traveling on domestic passenger flights is now being screened, full compliance for inbound international flights may not be achieved until August 2013.”

Yup, that’s right, cargo coming to the U.S. from foreign countries—or at least some of it—is not examined in anything like the way that your personal bags are screened at the airport.

I’m pleased to see that air cargo security is on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting. But I wonder what will be the quality of advice this committee can give our government on this topic. I checked out the membership of the committee and see little representation from entities for whom homeland security is a top priority.

The Port Authority of New York New Jersey, owners of the destroyed World Trade Center, New York, is on the Committee and surely has a keen interest in air traffic security. However the rest of the Committee membership is made up of entities whose interests are importing goods into the U.S. as quickly and cheaply as possible with no slowdowns or added cost related to security measures.

In addition to the Port Authority, COAC is made up of six companies that import manufactured goods and ten entities (freight handlers and logistics providers and law or consulting firms) that serve companies seeking to maximize imports at the lowest cost. These are not the best experts to consult if the question is how to make us safer.

What is needed is clear Congressional direction to the Department of Homeland Security requiring 100% screening of cargo, just as we do 100% screening of passengers. According to that February Congressional Research Service Report: “On November 16, 2010, Massachusetts Representative Edward J. Markey introduced the Air Cargo Security Act (H.R. 6410, 111th Congress) to require screening of all cargo transported on all-cargo aircraft, including U.S.-bound international shipments, in a manner commensurate with the screening requirements for passenger checked baggage. On November 17, 2010, Senator Bob Casey, Jr. of Pennsylvania introduced a similar measure (S. 3954, 111th Congress) in the Senate.”

Both those bills were referred to, and died in, committee. Let’s hope the 112th Congress can move this important issue forward.

By the way, I’ll be in Washington on Tuesday for another meeting, so just maybe I can pop in for part of the COAC meeting.