On Tuesday, January 29th, the Global Security Newswire carried the following:

Quote of the Day: The Bush administration appears intent on politicizing every scientific decision possible, against the recommendations of the nation’s scientific experts and ignoring the clear intent of the law.

—U.S. Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.), after the White House waived a rule requiring distribution of an anti-radiation drug to anyone living within 20 miles of a nuclear power plant.

If this comment had come from anyone but Congressman Ed Markey, I might have taken it more seriously. But to come from the person who has all but ignored the recommendations of professional security officials about the ineffectiveness of scanning each individual item/container of cargo, the statement reeks of hypocrisy. Rep. Markey has demagogued the cargo security issue for years, purely for political reasons it seems to me. Given the body of evidence that requiring physical inspection of each piece of air cargo will not measurably add to improved security, yet it will certainly add significantly to the costs to the customer, one wonders if Representative Markey is aware of how hollow his comments seem to be?

(If 100% inspections of air cargo were made mandatory as some have proposed, TSA estimates that this could result in a cost of more than $650 million in the first year of implementation, and would likely total $3.6 billion over 10 years. Fn.85 Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration. “Air Cargo Security Requirements; Proposed Rule;” and Jeff Bliss, “Air-Cargo Screening ‘A Disaster Waiting to Happen,’ Critics Say,”, November 29, 2005.)

Four years ago, during the time of another presidential election campaign, Air Cargo World ran a story about 100% cargo inspection. What they said then applies with equal force today, I believe:

The TSA “is well on its way to implementing a layered approach for cargo security,” said Elaine Dezenski, director of cargo and trade policy for DHS and chair of last year’s industry/government cargo security group that issued recommendations to the TSA.

She emphasizes that this approach will not include screening all belly cargo.
“You’re not going to see 100 percent physical inspection,” said Dezenski. “We have infrastructure shortcomings that preclude that. But we’re also concerned that it wouldn’t be the best security approach. … A security program focused on one point, for example 100 percent screening, is not the best approach. We want to identify high-risk cargo and ensure 100 percent of high-risk cargo is screened.”

The U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, which has its own set of rules on prior notification of international shipments going to and from the United States, agrees. “It makes absolutely no sense for us to screen everything coming into and going out of the country,” said Jason Ahern, assistant commissioner of the CBP. “We need to screen 100 percent of what needs to be screened and let the rest of the cargo go though expeditiously. One hundred percent screening would just choke travel and trade. We’re not out to disrupt business practices.”

But in the super-charged political environment of a presidential election year, Congress may impose its own ideas on the DHS. “Our determination that 100 percent screening isn’t the way to go doesn’t preclude Congress from changing its mind,” said Dezenski. “So we need to get the message out that 100 percent screening isn’t the best system.

“This is a presidential election year, so anything can happen. There’s still a lot of interest [in Congress] in 100 percent screening. We’re still not out of the woods on that yet. We’ve made a case as a department about why we don’t want to go in that direction, but we have to continue to educate the public and Congress.”
Air Cargo World, April, 2004 .

In fact, something DID happen and led by Congressman Markey, last year Congress imposed a 100% inspection requirement on all passenger and cargo airlines when it passed H.R 1, the so-called 9/11 Commission Recommendations Act. If following scientific evidence and the “clear intent of the law” was really something that motivated Rep. Markey, then I believe he would be a stronger advocate of doing something that actually added security instead of simply adding costs and that he would heed the advice of security experts.

Now I am not suggesting that improving transportation security isn’t a worthy goal, or that cargo security isn’t an area where security and safety could be improved. And I am quite mindful of the terrible effects of the explosion, at the hands of terrorists, of Pan Am Flight 103 in December, 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland, where 270 people died. But when I see comments like the one made by Rep. Ed Markey last week and know that his approach does not offer any significant security solution, it seems to me that Congressman Markey is not interested in improving safety and security as much as he is interested in political chicanery and creating fear.

Noted security commentator Bruce Schneier popularized the term “security theatre,” to describe actions that add little actual security but are used to create a perception of activity to do something that sounds worthwhile. It sure seems to apply here, don’t you think?

David Olive focuses his blogging primarily on the “business of homeland security” — the interaction of the private sector with the Department of Homeland Security and other national security agencies. Read More