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100 Percent Cargo Screening Was a Stupid Idea

Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade, no matter who you’re talking to. Dear Congress, 100 percent cargo screening was a stupid idea.

In 2007, Congress passed the Implementing the Recommendations of the 9/11 Committee Act (9/11 Act), in which it mandated that by 2010, all air cargo – whether domestic or foreign in origin – flying on passenger planes in U.S. airspace be screened for explosives and other threatening items. Congress offered little direction and no funding, heaping the burden of their ill-conceived law squarely on America’s air carriers and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

At first, few in the industry believed the mandate would be enforced. After all, it was such an enormous demand, which posed significant threats to a functioning supply chain, to say nothing of the hefty costs industry would be required to bear. TSA, however, was under no such illusion. This was federal law, and there was no question what Congress demanded. That is not to say they liked the idea (though TSA folks were consistently and professionally tight-lipped in expressing their personal opinions). In time, it became clear that indeed the mandate would be enforced, and industry had better get on board because the deadline was coming whether they believed it or not.

When the deadline arrived in 2010, TSA and the logistics industry met the mandate … domestically. Carriers, air forwarders, shippers, and many others collaborated under the banner of the Certified Cargo Screening Program, and the deadline came and went without much disruption to the supply chain.  International cargo was another story. For the last two years, every time cargo arrived in the United States from another country without being screened for explosives, it broke federal law.

Advocates (foremost among them Congressman Edward Markey) continued beating the 100 percent screening drum, apparently without any consideration for real-world circumstances like business models, timetables and the free flow of commerce. To be sure, human life is much more important than an LD-3 container of watches from Switzerland or blueberries from Ecuador, but chasing after a 100 percent metric doesn’t necessarily achieve total security (which most in the security field would consider unobtainable). Rather, the effort primarily strained industries (aviation and logistics) already facing steep challenges in a difficult global economy.

Under congressional pressure, TSA announced last year that by Dec. 31, 2011, all air cargo arriving from abroad would be screened. Shortly after, in the face of industry input, TSA decided that probably wasn’t a feasible deadline and pushed it off. Now, the deadline is back on – Dec. 3, 2012 – except this time, there’s a good chance the mandate will be met, not because of major advances in screening funding and technology, but because of semantics.

 

New Agreements, Same Old Screening

Keeping threatening cargo out of the supply chain is in everyone’s best interest, no matter the country. Bombs going off in midair is not only devastating to human life; it disrupts commerce, degrades public confidence and adds fuel to the terrorist fire. That’s why countries all over the world have made significant time and resource investments in improving their security standards and processes. Air carriers and others have made major investments in screening training and technology; international associations have released best practices and recommendations for global standards; security agencies (beyond just TSA) have developed innovative and effective programs that pull high-risk cargo out of a mass of otherwise safe, legitimate shipments.

Yet, despite the effort, it still falls short of Congress’ 100 percent screening mandate. Either it meets the legal definition outlined in the U.S. mandate or it’s against the law. But here’s a secret few outside the industry (including many in Congress) understand – screening ain’t scanning.

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