Report blasts air cargo security

WASHINGTON -- The Transportation Security Administration's program for keeping bombs out of airplane cargo holds is riddled with holes that leave passenger planes vulnerable to attack, a government investigation shows.

The TSA has too few cargo inspectors, an ineffective database to track violations and "vague regulations" for screening cargo being put on passenger planes, the Homeland Security Department inspector general said in a report released Thursday.

"The report is a blistering, scalding indictment of TSA," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.

Inspector General Richard Skinner said the TSA system "increases the opportunities (to put) explosives, incendiaries and other dangerous devices on passenger aircraft."

Passenger planes carry 7,500 tons of cargo a day in storage areas under passenger cabins that also hold luggage. Airlines typically lease a portion of their cargo holds to freight companies and last year earned $4.4 billion from cargo operations, according to the Air Transport Association, an airline trade group.

The TSA agreed with Skinner but said it had made improvements since the investigation began a year ago. "They were legitimate criticisms at the time," said John Sammon, a TSA assistant administrator. "Things are not the same today as they were back then."

Skinner's report acknowledges the TSA's recent efforts but says they "do not fully address our concerns." Only one of seven improvements that he recommended has been completely implemented, the report said.

The report comes one month after Congress ordered the TSA to vastly improve cargo screening over the next three years, and raises questions about whether the agency can do that, Markey said.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in an interview this week that his department is creating a "certified shipper" program to improve the system. Major manufacturers such as computer companies would be approved to do their own security inspections at plants as they put merchandise in boxes. "Then that stuff would pass through without being reinspected" at airports, Chertoff said.

The effort to check cargo for bombs is far more complicated than screening luggage because cargo often arrives at airports in large shrink-wrapped packages that do not fit into commercial bomb detectors. Only a small percentage of cargo put on passenger planes is physically inspected. Those inspections are done by airlines under TSA oversight.

The TSA "does not provide sufficient resources" to monitor airlines and "does not ensure that air carriers are screening cargo to federal regulations," the inspector general's report says. Vaguely written security regulations result in TSA inspectors and airlines applying rules differently, according to the report, which said TSA inspectors "reported not being properly trained."

Sammon of the TSA said training has been improved, regulations clarified and 150 cargo inspectors will be added to a staff of 300 over the next two years. The TSA started putting all packages that are brought to airports for shipping through bomb detectors.

Terrorists are less likely to use a cargo bomb because it's not certain the explosive will make it on to a passenger plane, Sammon said. Most cargo comes to airports from freight handlers that also use cargo planes and trucks to ship packages.

"It's harder to tell when and where a package is going in the cargo stream," Sammon said.

Contributing: Mimi Hall