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100 Percent Cargo Screening Was a Stupid Idea

In 2007, Congress passed a mandate to screen all cargo on passenger planes. It was an enormous demand of industry and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), one that shows a clear lack of understanding for real-world issues like business models and a functioning supply chain. Five years later, TSA and industry are still working to meet an unrealistic mandate. TSA has set a deadline to screen all air cargo on passenger planes arriving in the United States from abroad by December 2012. While there is good reason to think the deadline will be met – and the last aspect of the 100 percent screening rule is finally put to bed – it is not for the reasons Congress intended back in 2007. Put bluntly, 100 percent screening was a stupid idea that has not made America more secure.

Here is a piece I wrote on air cargo screening for Defense Media Network. I would hope some in Congress read it, but I doubt they can hear reason over their incessant bickering.

100 Percent Cargo Screening Was a Stupid Idea – Defense Media Network

Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade, no matter who you’re talking to. Dear Congress, 100 percent cargo screening was a stupid idea.

In 2007, Congress passed the Implementing the Recommendations of the 9/11 Committee Act (9/11 Act), in which it mandated that by 2010, all air cargo – whether domestic or foreign in origin – flying on passenger planes in U.S. airspace be screened for explosives and other threatening items. Congress offered little direction and no funding, heaping the burden of their ill-conceived law squarely on America’s air carriers and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

At first, few in the industry believed the mandate would be enforced. After all, it was such an enormous demand, which posed significant threats to a functioning supply chain, to say nothing of the hefty costs industry would be required to bear. TSA, however, was under no such illusion. This was federal law, and there was no question what Congress demanded. That is not to say they liked the idea (though TSA folks were consistently and professionally tight-lipped in expressing their personal opinions). In time, it became clear that indeed the mandate would be enforced, and industry had better get on board because the deadline was coming whether they believed it or not.

When the deadline arrived in 2010, TSA and the logistics industry met the mandate … domestically. Carriers, air forwarders, shippers and many others collaborated under the banner of the Certified Cargo Screening Program, and the deadline came and went without much disruption to the supply chain. International cargo was another story. For the last two years, every time cargo arrived in the United States from another country without being screened for explosives, it broke federal law.

Advocates (foremost among them Congressman Edward Markey) continued beating the 100 percent screening drum, apparently without any consideration for real-world circumstances like business models, timetables and the free flow of commerce. To be sure, human life is much more important than an LD-3 container of watches from Switzerland or blueberries from Ecuador, but chasing after a 100 percent metric doesn’t necessarily achieve total security (which most in the security field would consider unobtainable). Rather, the effort primarily strained industries (aviation and logistics) already facing steep challenges in a difficult global economy.

Under congressional pressure, TSA announced last year that by Dec. 31, 2011, all air cargo arriving from abroad would be screened. Shortly after, in the face of industry input, TSA decided that probably wasn’t a feasible deadline and pushed it off. Now, the deadline is back on – Dec. 3, 2012 – except this time, there’s a good chance the mandate will be met, not because of major advances in screening funding and technology, but because of semantics.

Read the rest of the article on Defense Media Network.

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

    And yet we think 100% screening of passengers is a GOOD idea? What about all the expense and logistics of that not to mention the plain old fact that it just doesn’t work?

    Add to that the fact that innocent American citizens are sexually harassed, demeaned, abused, robbed, threatened, and deprived of their constitutional rights in the process.

    Why not scan the luggage? It doesn’t have any genitals to violate.

    • Justin Hienz

      Scanning/screening 100 percent of anything is foolish. Scan everything, see nothing. Aviation security is critical, but the public (including Congress) needs to come to terms with the fact that there is a measure of risk in flying.

      I’d add that all luggage is scanned before it is loaded onto the aircraft and has been for some time. That specific example was the basis for the air cargo screening mandate.