In the excitement over bin Laden’s death, sober commentators have urged our homeland security establishment to stay the course. That course should include plugging vulnerabilities regarding air travel, which has been a preferred al-Qaeda target.
Seven months ago, intelligence organizations uncovered an attempt to bomb airliners by putting explosives in cargo. The cargo holds of planes are where commodities are stowed – next time you turn on your LG appliance, for example, you can thank air cargo supply chains. The process for screening these stowed commodities is much less robust than for passenger baggage. The cargo bombing plot highlighted the absence of effective cargo screening systems for air cargo being flown into the United States. And Al-Qaida proudly announced that the plot cost so little that they would try it again: it was a “good bargain,” they proclaimed.
We are a long way from effectively addressing this vulnerability. That’s primarily because it’s a difficult problem to solve. In foreign airports, where U.S.-bound cargo is loaded, the U.S. government does not exercise direct control over cargo screening. So how can the U.S. government better ensure that security standards are sufficient?
There are three basic approaches to solving the problem: (1) certify foreign governments to conduct the screening; (2) certify foreign private companies to conduct the screening; and/or (3) use a data collection system to enable the U.S. government to identify high-risk cargo, and then have foreign governments or private companies scrutinize high-risk cargo.
The problem with the first option is that trying to certify the screening processes of dozens of foreign governments is likely to take decades. Even if a foreign government’s process looks good on paper, many of the governments would resist efforts by the U.S. government to audit their screening processes.
The second option is a bit better: many logistics companies that would do the screening are global companies that operate in the United States. The U.S. government can insist on high security standards for these companies globally and can inspect their operations in the United States and possibly in foreign countries as well. But many of the companies that would be relied upon to screen inbound cargo do not have a U.S. presence, and it would be much harder for the U.S. government to get sufficient comfort with those companies. So the second option is not a complete solution.
The third option is a risk rating regime that, rather than requiring physical inspection of all inbound cargo, relies instead on analyzing data such as the origin and destination of the cargo, the transit route, the companies involved in packing, etc. That data can be collected from airlines or logistics companies and analyzed in the United States. Cargo that appears from the analysis to be high risk – a small percentage of the total – then can be subjected to physical scrutiny. Of course, that physical scrutiny still would depend on foreign governments and/or foreign private sector personnel. So option three exhibits similar flaws as options one and two, but to a much lesser degree.
The U.S. government should ditch option one – certification of foreign governments – because it is not going to happen within any reasonable time. The Chinese government, for example, is not going to allow U.S. government auditing of their security practices anytime soon. The government should move expeditiously with regard to options two and three. It would be unforgiveable if a plot that al-Qaeda tried once and publicly committed to trying again resulted in mass casualties because the U.S. government moved too slowly.