Reports are that the air cargo industry is nervous about regulatory or legislative responses to the recent terrorist attempt to send package bombs to the United States on cargo aircraft. It should be. Reactionaries in Washington don’t rest.
Almost a month before the thwarted plot pushed air cargo back to the front of the news cycle, the “Air Cargo Security Act of 2010″ (HR 6275) was introduced. The bill establishes “federal air cargo screening centers” operated by TSA at every airport in the United States.
Last week’s package bomb attempt provides an opportunity for policy makers to take seriously the bill’s provisions. Recent quotes from legislators suggest that the bill’s provisions, as with current mandates, should be enforced globally for cargo-only aircraft. Federalizing the security of the supply chain serves as blunt instrument, a reactionary’s tool of choice, to the problem.
Current Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection efforts to secure cargo on air cargo-only aircraft have made great strides. But TSA is struggling to crack the code on how to physically screen cargo around the world. It is an impossible task.
The current mandate to screen 100 percent of all cargo on passenger aircraft preempts a risk-based approach. Expanding that mandate to cargo-only aircraft, as suggested, further dilutes efforts to implement a risk-based security system by focusing resources and attention on accomplishing the mandate – a simple number – instead of building a layered security system and resilient supply chain.
What will be overlooked during the on-going analysis of this event are the mechanisms of the system that did work properly to thwart the plot. Most security experts will readily admit intelligence is the best counterterrorism tool we have. In reaction to last week’s attempt, many pundits have implied that the plot may have succeeded if only for the Saudi intelligence apparatus.
This characterization dismisses one of the most important tools we possess in fighting terrorism – intelligence. It also disregards the importance of the cooperation with foreign governments and allies. No matter how many mandates we place on the global supply chain or demands on foreign governments, we won’t have a robust security system without partnerships that encourage information sharing.