By Reporter
msnbc.com

The Transportation Security Administration on Wednesday received dozens of recommendations from industry groups aimed at increasing air cargo security that has escaped the sharply focused, federally mandated inspection procedures for passenger baggage since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Among the recommendations is a provision that would allow cargo from unknown shippers to be screened by private companies, bypassing any direct federal scrutiny, as long as those companies adhere to standards set by the TSA. Critics of the TSA’s handling of air cargo security quickly assailed the new proposals as weak and inefficient.

The TSA received the new proposals from three working groups it commissioned to study ways to stop known vulnerabilities in air cargo handling. The agency said it would decide which recommendations to adopt by the end of October and announce formal implementation of new rules by the end of the year.

Of the estimated 12.5 million tons of air cargo shipped each year, 2.8 million tons or 22 percent, is carried by passenger planes; the remainder is carried on cargo planes, according to TSA figures. All that cargo receives little or no physical inspection.

Current regulations subject air cargo to a federal paper trail audit dubbed the “Known Shipper” program. This program certifies shippers based on their own in-house screening procedures. Once air cargo has passed through a “known shipper,” it no longer receives any security checks.

The “known shipper” program got a boost Wednesday with the signing of the Department of Homeland Security’s budget for fiscal year 2004. That budget includes $30 million to beef up the program using a “risk-weighted” screening system to identify high-risk pieces of cargo and tag them for closer inspection. The budget also includes money to hire 100 workers to perform more in-depth audits of shipper compliance with the “known shipper” program as well as $55 million in research and development funds aimed at finding better screening technology for air cargo carried on passenger aircraft.

'We listened to everyone'
“We listened to everyone — security experts, cargo experts, pilots, unions, and victims of past attacks,” said TSA Deputy Administrator, Stephen McHale. “Our challenge moving forward is to build on the improvements we have already made and implement the best possible cargo security program to protect the American people.”

Among the changes recommended by the working group:

  • Implement a rigorous database cross-check that provides automatic verification that a shipper isn’t contained an any of the government’s so-called “watch lists.”
  • Verify all officers of the shipping firm are not in a government “no fly” or terrorist watch database.
  • Adopt a three-tiered, layered” approach to cargo security that includes cargo profiling, inspection and detection.

Other recommendations include setting minimum federal standards for background checks for air cargo personnel, similar to those used in passenger airport environments and raising perimeter security at all-cargo facilities.

A controversial recommendation also was advanced that would allow cargo from an unknown shipper to be loaded aboard passenger planes “if such cargo is first screened by TSA or others under programs established by the TSA,” says the confidential final recommendations of the working group, a copy of which was obtained by MSNBC.com.

The footnotes of the working group paper obtained by MSNBC.com, say “that physical screening or inspection is both burdensome and costly and is not currently possible for large amounts of cargo tendered to passenger aircraft. However, for cargo from unknown shippers, the Working Group believes that carriers should be given the option of carrying such cargo if certain requirements are met.”

Those recommendations are to be established by TSA and would allow the agency to farm out those duties to non-governmental companies employing private citizens.

Critics lash out
British Airways, pilot and flight attendant organizations, all part of the original working groups, formally lodged dissents in the confidential final recommendation document submitted to TSA.

“[J]ust trying to ‘patch up’ the acknowledged failings of the ‘known shipper program’ provides no value and develops a false sense of security,” said the Allied Pilot Association.

The Association of Flight Attendants, in their confidential dissent, noted the failings of the new recommendations, claiming that “continuing with this paperwork driven security [known shipper] security program is allowing disaster to strike again.”

The issue of air cargo leapt to the national stage recently when Charles McKinley had a friend pack him into a shipping crate bound from Newark, N.J., to Dallas. McKinley endured the flight in a plane’s cargo hold and was only discovered when someone saw him breaking free from the crate.

The AFA noted this incident in its dissent to the TSA, saying, “Once terrorists are able to adapt such processes, our nation will indeed have another disaster. The only solution to air cargo security is for 100 percent inspection of all cargo, mail, and passengers onboard an aircraft.”

The British Airways dissent says that the recommendations made to TSA “do not result in a sufficiently stronger security platform.” The airline submitted a laundry list of “weaknesses” that remain in the known shipper program, including: the existing program would not deter terrorist organizations from seeking to become “known shippers;” the accreditation process is weak and “known shipper” status too easily granted; a “known shipper” doesn’t necessarily even know what is “in the box.”

Congress weighs in
Congressional critics also raised their voices Wednesday against the new recommendations.

“The recommendations proposed to the Transportation Security Administration seem to expand the number of uninspected pieces of cargo on passenger planes, not reduce the number,” said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and a senior member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.

“The danger that the public is being exposed to because of this gaping loophole in passenger plane security is tremendous," Markey said. "I applaud the dissenting opinions. ... these groups speak authoritatively when they suggest that the ‘known shipper’ program is really just an unknown cargo program” Markey, with Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., is sponsoring a bill to bolster air cargo security.

The recommendations proposed Wednesday “if implemented, will significantly enhance air cargo security while at the same time ensuring that the world’s commerce is not disrupted,” said Stephen Alterman, president of the Cargo Airline Association, who participated in the process.

On Tuesday, the government pledged closer scrutiny of air cargo shipments, specifically as it relates to the carriage of hazardous materials. Such materials, officials said Tuesday, could be used by terrorists or cause disastrous accidents, such as what happened in 1996 to a ValuJet airliner. That plane crashed in the Florida Everglades, killing 110 people. Accident inspectors later traced the cause of the crash to a fire caused by the rupturing of illegally shipped oxygen containers.

As part of the announcement Tuesday, the Justice Department said Emery Worldwide Airlines — now part of CNF, Inc. — had pleaded guilty on 12 counts of shipping hazardous material and would pay a $6 million fine.

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