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"Even now, gaping holes in airport security"
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Even now, gaping holes in airport security
By Scot Lehigh, Globe Columnist
The Boston (MA) Globe
LAST WEEK provided not just a welcome counterterrorism success, but a
wake-up call as well.
Smart intelligence work averted a terrorist plot that could have resulted in
But with the thwarted scheme reminding everyone yet again of the peril from
implacable foes, it's time to plug the remaining gaps in airport security,
for this plot shows that current measures haven't deterred terrorists' hopes
of targeting passenger planes. Instead, it has them searching for ways
around security procedures.
It's notable that the liquid-explosives idea is not a new one. Indeed, back
in January 1995, Al Qaeda had plans to use liquid bombs to target 12
jetliners over the Pacific. That plot was discovered after a fire led
authorities to the plotters' Manila apartment-turned-bomb-factory.
Yet until last week, our airline security had not adjusted to deter a scheme
based on a liquid bomb assembled aboard a plane.
It's high time to address other vulnerabilities in our security system as
Airports have worked hard to make sure that, in addition to carry-ons, all
checked bags are now screened. There, Logan Airport has done admirably. It
became the first major US airport to have an in-line system that
automatically routes checked baggage to screening rooms.
But one well-known hole in security is the cargo shipped in the belly of
passenger airliners, only a fraction of which is screened.
``Cargo is the last big gap in airport security," says Thomas Keane,
chairman of the 9/11 Commission.
Under federal regulations, so called ``known shippers" -- established
companies that regularly ship freight -- are allowed to send unscreened
cargo on airlines. That program is meant to ensure that cargo comes from
reputable firms that have filled out necessary paperwork, but ``on the other
hand, they [the Transportation Security Administration] have no idea who
packed it, or who you have hired in the last six months in your plant to do
the work," points out US Representative Edward Markey, the third-ranking
Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. ``They are depending on
you having security in your facility."
And there's another troubling loophole. Packages that weigh under 16 ounces
can be shipped without even filling out any paperwork, Markey says. ``It is
just, `Give us the money and you can put it on,' " the Seventh District
The plastic explosives that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie,
Scotland, in 1988 weighed less than 16 ounces, says Markey, as did the
explosive that shoebomber Richard Reid had in his sneakers in his December
2001 attempt to bring down American Airlines Flight 63.
It makes little sense to have mounted a major effort to screen all passenger
bags but to continue to allow unscreened cargo to be loaded on the same
plane -- cargo that, if small enough, doesn't even require paperwork
identifying the shipper.
So why hasn't that happened?
The principal reason is that the federal government doesn't require it. The
Bush administration, like the airlines themselves and the cargo-shipping
companies, opposes such a mandate, mainly because of cost concerns.
It's not that there is no examination of airline cargo. Random screening is
done, even on small packages, the transportation agency says. Still, almost
all of the 6 billion pounds of cargo shipped each year on passenger
airliners goes unscreened, says Markey.
Without a federal mandate, the system clearly has a serious weakness.
Meanwhile, airlines are reluctant to move beyond the letter of the law,
analysts say, because by doing so they might assume responsibility they
otherwise wouldn't have.
``If an airline says, `we are going to 100 percent check all of our air
cargo,' and there is no federal mandate or standard, they assume a liability
they don't currently have," says one airport security specialist.
We clearly need federal action here. Markey has introduced legislation to
require that, within three years, all such cargo be screened.
Yes, it would cost more, but this is no time to be pennywise and pound
And actually, estimates aren't that bad: perhaps $10 billion to set up cargo
screening at airports nationwide, and then $1.5 billion or so a year to
operate it, Markey's office says. Some other nations, such as Israel, Great
Britain, Singapore, and the Netherlands, screen all or most of airline
With the United States a primary focus of Islamic extremists' ire, it's time
that we followed their lead.
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