The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is informing industry that the requirement to screen 100 percent of cargo on passenger planes inbound to the United States will be met by December 31, 2011.

Did I miss something? Was there a leap forward in international relations and TSA’s authority whereby foreign governments are either compelled to enforce 100 percent screening or have been working overtime to implement infrastructure changes, technology acquisition and regulation?

Here’s some context: In August 2010, a mandate to screen all cargo on passenger planes went into effect. Domestically, much of industry and the TSA have cried victory in achieving what many thought was an impossible task – impossible because the complex international supply chain is a delicate system, optimized to make sure goods arrive on time and unharmed.

While the 9/11 Act of 2007 called for industry to screen all cargo on passenger planes, it did not provide the method or requisite funding by which this could be accomplished. The burden to screen this cargo fell directly on the air carriers, but carriers do not have the capacity, infrastructure or workforce to screen all cargo while also ensuring it lifts off when it is supposed to. In the months leading up to the mandate, the feared result was thousands of tons of cargo stacked at the airport, waiting to be screened by companies who could only move so fast, and not fast enough to maintain supply chain efficiency.

TSA developed the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP), which offers certification to shippers, forwarders, carriers and other supply chain stakeholders to screen and move cargo at a level the mandate requires. By this, the burden of screening is distributed throughout the supply chain, and cargo is already screened before arriving at the airport.

The viability of this program depended on voluntary participation. Many in industry scoffed at this program and the mandate, believing the law would be repealed or that it would not be enforced. But they were wrong.

After much effort by TSA and several major players in the air cargo industry, enough shippers, forwarders and others achieved CCSP certification (and there were other innovative approaches as well) that when the August deadline arrived, the supply chain did not come to a crashing halt. In fact, by all accounts, everything is going well.

Well, that’s if you believe the numbers reported by industry to TSA on just how much cargo is being screened. TSA does not have the resources to verify what is reported, and the story these numbers tell leads to one of two ends for those tasked to screen cargo: either the mandate has been met or they are in violation of federal law. Ask yourself, would you rather fudge the numbers or admit to the federal government that you are breaking the law? Certainly there are those in the cargo industry who have met 100 percent screening head on and have satisfied the law. But some is not all, and I remain skeptical about the accuracy of the numbers presented to TSA.

The 100 percent screening mandate applies not only to domestic cargo – it applies to international inbound cargo as well. Before cargo can lift off from transfer points on its way to the United States, it must be screened at the level Congress demanded three-plus years ago. There were no illusions in August 2010 – that part of the mandate could not yet be met. Why? Because it means foreign authorities would enforce a U.S. security policy with which many governments do not agree. The U.S. government, to say nothing of TSA, has little pull in enforcing 100 percent screening for inbound cargo.

That’s why Assistant Administrator John Sammon told Congress in June that screening all inbound air cargo was not yet possible; 2013 was a more realistic goal. But now TSA is saying 100 percent screening for international cargo will be achieved by the end of the year.

In a message to industry, TSA said:

“The data provided by industry…indicates that air carriers are currently screening a high percentage overall of cargo inbound to the United States. Many air carriers, including a high number of wide-body operators, are already at or close to 100 percent screening of air cargo inbound to the United States.”

The data provided by industry…you mean that unverified data that should be taken with a grain of salt? I wager some of that data comes with a high gloss, and if TSA is using that as its yardstick for how quickly 100 percent screening on inbound cargo can be achieved, it might think again.

Maybe I’m too cynical. Perhaps there have been massive strides in achieving 100 percent screening, spurred in part by the bombs shipped from Yemen in October.

So again, I ask, did I miss something? What has happened over the last six months that makes TSA think inbound cargo will be 100 percent screened by 2012? There’s aggressive action and then there’s unrealistic optimism.

I welcome input from TSA and those in the know. Set me straight if I’m off track. There are many supply chain stakeholders who harbor the questions and doubt outlined above.

Editor’s note: After this piece was published, the Christian Science Monitor reported that, with regard to inbound cargo, “TSA ordered a ban on any cargo designated as ‘high risk.’ Other safeguards, meanwhile, heavily restricted small packages sent by mail, which often travel in the cargo holds of passenger aircraft.” This offers some insight on TSA’s new timeline for 100 percent screening.

Justin Hienz is Editor for Security Debrief. He blogs primarily on radicalization, aviation security, religious and Middle Eastern affairs, and communications. Read More
  • Aasqsq

    TSA for those who dont know is copying everything the old Customs service was doing and claiming they invented it. Old employees who jumped ship are the rising stars in TSA and have everyone fooled.