By Calvin Biesecker
Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) late Tuesday introduced legislation that would improve aviation security by, among other things, requiring 100 percent screening of all cargo carried by passenger aircraft within three years and require an evaluation of blast resistant containers and other technologies that could protect an aircraft from explosives while in-flight or on the ground.
"When the 9/11 Commission released its report in 2004, the Commission expressed continuing concern over the state of air cargo security, the screening of passengers and baggage, access controls at airports, and the security of general aviation," Inouye, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said on the Senate floor Tuesday evening. "Congress responded then and enacted measures to address inefficiencies highlighted by the Commission. However, implementation through the rulemaking process was slow, and as a result, significant shortfalls in our security regime remain." Stevens is vice chairman of the committee.
Regarding the air cargo screening requirements, the Aviation Security Improvement Act is similar to legislation introduced in the House by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Thompson introduced H.R. 1, Implementing the 9/11 Commission Recommendations Act of 2007, last month. That bill targets a much broader array of security measures than Inouye's and Stevens' legislation.
Under both pieces of legislation the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would be required, "at a minimum, that equipment, technology, procedures, and personnel are used to inspect cargo carried on passenger aircraft to provide a level of security equivalent to the level of security for the inspection of passenger checked baggage," according to Thompson's bill. The Senate bill is nearly identical, although Thompson's provides annual screening thresholds to get to the 100 percent target.
Regarding blast resistant containers, the Senate bill says that based on the evaluation of a pilot program, TSA should make the containers available for use on passenger aircraft "on a random or risk-assessment basis...in sufficient number to enable the carriers to meet the requirements of the Administration's cargo security system."
The proposed legislation would also require the Department of Homeland Security to expedite research and development on ways to protect aircraft from explosives and establish a grant program, in conjunction with the Department of Transportation, to fund related pilot projects.
Some of the other measures called for in the bill include explosives detection at passenger checkpoints, and a report on efforts to securely identify aircraft crew at checkpoints to give them expedited access through security checkpoints.
Aides say screening would be less stringent than physical inspection.
There was plenty of criticism Tuesday by a Senate committee considering the Transportation Security Administration's proposed fiscal 2009 budget.
The cargo-screening measures in the House bill are unlikely to make it through the Senate.