Defense Media Network

100 Percent Air Cargo Screening Exits Without Fanfare

Did you hear about the recent deadline to screen a million tons of foreign-borne air cargo before takeoff? No? Yeah, me neither.

After five years of congressional hearings, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) programs and outreach, millions of dollars in private sector investments, several delays, and much industry handwringing, the final deadline for satisfying Congress’ 100 percent screening rule is now in effect … and no one seems to care.

On Dec. 3, TSA supposedly began enforcing a rule that all air cargo flown from abroad on passenger planes must be screened for explosives. This was a portion of a 2007 federal law mandating all air cargo flown on passenger planes in U.S. airspace be screened for explosives “at the piece level.” That means every pallet, crate, ULD container, coffin, and any other cargo would be individually screened.

Unloading JAL 747 for air cargo screening

Unloading cargo from a Japan Air Lines 747 in 2008. Photo by Dtom via Wikimedia Commons

The congressional deadline to meet the law arrived in 2010. Within the United States, TSA began enforcing the mandate, and because of close work with industry, there was no disruption to the domestic supply chain, as had been feared. On the international level, however, TSA didn’t even try to enforce the mandate, because they have no authority to do so. Short of putting TSA screeners in every world airport or denying entry to planes with unscreened cargo, there was no way TSA could do what Congress asked.

However, TSA found a solution. The 2007 law demands 100 percent screening, using only that word. The legislative text defines screening as “a physical examination or non-intrusive methods of assessing whether cargo poses a threat to transportation security.” The examples provided in the law are explosives detection technology, canine teams, or a physical search, which are all actually scanning techniques. Domestic tactics have focused on physical inspection at some point in the supply chain, but achieving this level of scanning for international cargo is not possible.

Fortunately, the law doesn’t restrict TSA to the scanning examples provided in the text. Screening means using a variety of sources to evaluate risk, such as intelligence and documentation, as well as scanning. In recent years, TSA has pursued a risk-based approach toward air cargo screening, which is far more efficient because it draws on data and other intelligence and does not rely on physically inspecting every piece of cargo.

Many foreign security regimes reject the 100 percent security philosophy and favor the risk-based approaches TSA now promotes. Because the U.S. screening approach is becoming better aligned with some of America’s largest trade partners, TSA has been able to sign agreements with Canada, Switzerland and the European Union stating those countries’ respective air cargo security programs are commensurate with those of the United States. Thus, all cargo leaving their airspace must be as safe as any cargo in U.S. airspace.

Et voilà … 100 percent screening.

Well, sort of. The recent agreements cover numerous major airports serving U.S. destinations, but they only account for a handful of countries. Are there agreements with China or Brazil or the UAE? If there are, they haven’t been reported to the public.

TSA’s approach toward screening cargo from Europe and Canada is ingenious. It provides a path toward sound security strategy while also satisfying the letter of Congress’ unreasonable law. Continuing to improve air cargo security in this way is a good idea. But there was an updated TSA-set deadline to screen as the law demands, and it arrived a week ago.

Since the deadline has passed, TSA is now presumably enforcing the mandate, and all air cargo from abroad is being screened in full. There have been no reports of disruptions to the supply chain, nor any reports from TSA about how the enforcement is going, nor any new reciprocal security agreements announced. The more-than-five-year debacle that was 100 percent air cargo screening has ended without a whisper.

It’s just as well. As I have written previously, it was a stupid idea anyway.


Justin Hienz writes on counterterrorism, violent extremism and homeland security. In addition to his journalistic...