WASHINGTON -- The United States remains vulnerable to terrorist attacks because of security gaps in air cargo screening, particularly from international flights, according to congressional investigators.
A report issued Monday by the Government Accountability Office found that efforts by the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to secure inbound air cargo are still "largely in the early stages" and could be strengthened.
"Until TSA and CBP take additional actions to assess the risks posed by inbound air cargo and implement appropriate risk-based security measures, U.S.-bound aircraft transporting cargo will continue to be vulnerable to terrorist attack," GAO wrote.
"This GAO report reiterates the need for the 100 percent inspection of all cargo traveling on passenger planes," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4. "I think we owe it to all families who have lost loved ones in acts of terrorism to make our airlines as safe as we can."
Shays and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., have advocated for improvements in cargo screening for more than five years. Aside from passengers and their baggage, many commercial airlines carry cargo that does not receive the same scrutiny.
Last May, TSA issued an air cargo security rule that included a number of provisions aimed at tougher security checks of inbound air cargo. The agency, however, has not identified goals for addressing inbound air cargo security. TSA has also not assessed which areas of inbound air cargo are most vulnerable to attack, the report found.
The agency's inbound air cargo inspection requirements also continue to allow for a number of exemptions for cargo transported on passenger air carriers, which could be exploited to transport an explosive device, according to GAO.
"These remaining exemptions for both all-cargo and passenger air carriers transporting cargo into the United States continue to represent potential vulnerabilities to the air cargo transportation system," GAO wrote.
Markey said the report should serve as a "wake-up call" to the Bush administration.
"GAO has confirmed the concerns we have repeatedly raised about dangerous cargo security gaps, including the fact that not all of the cargo packed on passenger planes and flown into our country is ever inspected for explosives or weapons of mass destruction before it is loaded onboard," Markey said. "Instead, the Bush administration claims that rubber-stamped paperwork checks and random inspections that exempt many types of cargo are sufficient. The reality is that this kind of security doubletalk and half measures provide an open invitation to a terrorist or troubled individual intent on using a bomb in a cargo box to destroy an airplane in flight."
The Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations issued a report card last year that gave cargo screening near failing grades. Little improvement had been made, according to the association with the exception of canine inspections that had been greatly expanded for both passenger and cargo planes.
The group strongly recommended that the Department of Homeland Security "drive research" of inspection technologies to determine the viability of "sniffer" systems to detect explosives, biochemical and radiological cargo.
"This type of 'last-chance' technology should be installed in cargo bays of all aircraft," they said.
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