- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2005

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has yet to follow through on a two-year-old plan to find and plug holes in air cargo security and doesn’t have a schedule for completing it, congressional investigators say.

A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) being released today says the TSA won’t be able to protect cargo-carrying planes from terrorists unless it understands where they are vulnerable.

“According to officials, limited resources and competing priorities have delayed agency efforts to conduct such an assessment,” said the GAO report, which was obtained yesterday by the Associated Press.

Critics say it makes no sense to screen people and luggage carefully but not the cargo on passenger planes. Last year, about 6 billion pounds of cargo — a quarter of the cargo shipped by air in the United States — was flown aboard passenger airplanes.

Critics also say cargo planes need to be protected because terrorists could use them as weapons. Late in 2003, Homeland Security Department officials said intelligence indicated that al Qaeda might hijack cargo planes and attack nuclear plants, bridges or dams.

Since the September 11 attacks, several stowaways have been discovered in the holds of cargo aircraft.

Air cargo loaded onto passenger aircraft must be shipped by a company that has registered with the TSA. Cargo airlines have security plans and some cargo is randomly inspected.

But the report noted that the TSA collects information on fewer than one-third of the registered companies that ship goods on passenger planes, and that information may not be reliable.

The TSA also has exempted certain kinds of cargo from inspections because it doesn’t view it as a risk, the GAO said. The report noted that visits to four airports showed that “a considerable amount of cargo” being loaded and unloaded on passenger airplanes was exempt from inspection.

TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark said the agency required airlines to triple the number of random inspections of cargo, hired 100 cargo inspectors and began testing new security technology.

“TSA has established a strong layered system of security in the air cargo arena and recognizes the need to do more,” Miss Clark said.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who requested the report, said it confirms the concerns he has raised about loopholes in cargo security.

“GAO’s report blows away the Bush administration’s smoke screen that paperwork checks, random inspections and other half measures keep Americans safe,” Mr. Markey said.

Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican who also asked the GAO for the report, said it is time to implement tougher inspection regulations.

“Uninspected cargo is a risk to air passengers,” Mr. Shays said.

The TSA, which is part of Homeland Security, promised regulations to plug holes in air cargo security by the end of 2003. Congress gave the agency an August deadline to devise the rules. The TSA has yet to do so.

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