The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released its review of the Transportation Security Administration’s Air Cargo Screening program. The report, requested by several members of Congress, audits the TSA’s program for achieving the Congressional mandate to screen 100 percent of all cargo carried on passenger aircraft by August 2010. For anyone in the business or closely following the issue, the report offers no surprises. (For those unfamiliar with this security challenge, check out the roundtable discussion on air cargo screening that I moderated in May.) If anything, the report illuminates the major hurdles TSA continues to face in achieving the 100 percent screening threshold.

What the report doesn’t do – what it wasn’t intended to do – is determine whether TSA’s program to screen all air cargo improves security. Assuming that the directive to screen every single piece of cargo improves aviation security may be a misplaced assumption.

What the report doesn’t conclude may be more illustrative of the problem with our government’s attitude towards homeland security. A more instructive use of the time and resources that went into generating this report would have been for the GAO to audit the quality of the nation’s air cargo screening program.

One way to accomplish this would be to start with a risk assessment – threat, vulnerability and consequence. Indentifying the weaknesses in the existing process for sending freight by air on passenger aircraft would instruct TSA where to focus its resources. It would also ensure that any weaknesses could be strengthened. And it could also help to develop objective metrics to test the security measures’ effectiveness.

Of course, the law is the law, and GAO’s audit merely considered whether TSA would meet the mandate. Not surprisingly, TSA most likely will not meet the mandate. And even if it does, there are still problems with key areas of the program, like the certification of screening technology, the authenticity of the methodology for calculating the percentage of cargo screened, and the screening of cargo coming from outside the United States.

The report found that TSA’s voluntary Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP) has failed to attract most of the shippers that would benefit from participation. The CCSP isn’t well populated and participation levels aren’t what they should be to inoculate the industry against more invasive and harmful regulations. A strong showing by shippers over the next several months will be needed to provide evidence that the industry is serious about achieving the mandate.

The report certainly hits on all the areas where TSA needs to make improvements to satisfy the law. Overall, this is instructive for complying with the law. Whether each of these efforts reduces the risk of passenger’s being harmed is uncertain.

Jeff Sural serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP. He will focus his practice on homeland security and transportation matters on Capitol Hill and in federal government agencies. Read More