A pound of pentaerythritol tetranitrate — PETN — isn’t enough to bring down a target the size of the World Trade Center, but it’s plenty to blow a plane out of the sky. A pound of the highly unstable explosive apparently was packed by a suspected al Qaeda bomb maker in two printer cartridges that were shipped by air from Yemen late last month.
The size of the weapons and the use of the air cargo system as an attack vector suggest al Qaeda may be changing its strategy, and the assumptions about security that shippers, carriers and intermediaries have held since the September 11 terror attacks will have to change to meet a new threat. The incident was a wakeup call, but many fear the imminent danger is that the U.S. could overreact, making the cure worse than the disease.
“Most people don’t understand how interconnected global supply chains are. Any hiccup has colossal consequences,” said Ken Lyon of the United Kingdom-based consulting firm Virtual Partners. “Unfortunately, politicians have this urge to do something, even if it’s not particularly sensible. If a political idiot says we have to inspect every shipment or it can’t go on a plane, global trade would come to a halt.”
On Oct. 30, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who authored legislation requiring 100 percent screening of cargo moving on domestic passenger flights, announced he would introduce a bill to require screening of all shipments aboard cargo aircraft.
That requirement was eliminated from legislation two years ago requiring screening of 100 percent of all shipments traveling on passenger aircraft in the United States. Airlines, forwarders and the U.S. Transportation Security Administration achieved that mandate in phases over two years, reaching the 100 percent level on Aug. 1 this year.
But much of that volume comes from industrial shippers who are repeat customers, including several hundred with government-approved security programs that qualify their shipments as already screened when delivered to airlines. The express carriers, of course, have far more over-the-counter customers — in the United States and several other countries with what generally are called “known shipper” requirements, air forwarders no longer serve one-off customers that have not been vetted. And most believe that individually scanning the average 3.5 million shipments FedEx Express handles in its domestic and international network each day would cripple the delivery speed that is at the heart of express service.
“The idea of trying to screen every one of the millions of shipments that the parcel carriers handle is impractical,” said Alan Spear, director of cargo loss control at Chartis, an industrial insurance provider. “Shippers are certainly going to be concerned about new rules, but what’s really concerning is that if something such as a bombing happens, what is going to happen to their supply chains?”
According to the International Air Transport Association, a little more than half the 39.1 million metric tons of freight that moved on aircraft in 2009 traveled on freighters.
Al Qaeda appears to be moving away from large-scale attacks such as the ones on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, to small, focused attacks that cause economic disruption, said Stephen E. Flynn, president of the Center for National Policy, and longtime cargo and maritime security expert.
The air cargo industry depends on the government to define the threat it faces, Flynn said. Until now, security experts said al Qaeda is targeting people, not goods. The industry has taken it to mean the threat to air cargo is low, so the industry has not evolved its security the way maritime security has.
“It’s an ongoing organic process, and the fact is, we’ve had virtually no progress on air cargo for a long, long time,” Flynn said. “We know that the threat remains real, it’s evolving and changing, but the industry hasn’t been seriously engaged.”
Flynn said there is a legitimate reason for public outcry. “They’re saying you’re not just playing with commercial equities, you’re also playing with public safety.” The government and the industry could get the same kind of public hostility they faced after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In the public’s opinion, everyone was asleep at the switch.
“We have largely oversold the few measures that have been put into place. We’re resting on the laurels of whatever was accomplished on the fly after 9/11, and that just isn’t a mature way to respond to this ongoing threat,” Flynn said. “At minimum, we have to be showing some forward motion within the private sector and public sector to deal with this as an ongoing risk. We can’t afford to be seen as not working the problem.”
While most of its efforts have been focused on cargo by ocean and air, the United States has established security programs in all modes. The Transportation Worker Identification Credential is a building block for port security. Regulations define the routes that railroads must use to transport hazardous materials around large population centers. Truckers must have special license endorsements before they transport hazardous material loads. How effective the measures are is uncertain, because they have never been tested by a terrorist attack.
The Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism and Certified Cargo Screening Program, two participatory security programs by Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration, have value. Members of the Transported Assets Protection Association said that at the very least, the programs give the government a window on a company’s supply chain practices. If an incident happens, companies the government knows will be among the first to be crossed off the list of suspects.
TAPA comprises companies that rely heavily on air freight to transport such high-value goods as electronics to pharmaceuticals. Brad Elrod and David Wilt, global supply chain security directors for Pfizer and Xerox, respectively, said reaction to the Oct. 29 incident could be political and colored by emotion, but TAPA members would try to mitigate any extreme security measures the government proposes.
“If they want to come out with a more stringent screening program, we’ll have the opportunity for input, but at the end of the day, we’re going to try to implement the government’s guidelines,” Wilt said. “Their intelligence is much better than ours. We have a very vested interest in security — it helps get our goods to market. We don’t want a disruption in the supply chain, and we don’t want our supply chains to be used (by terrorists).”
The Transportation Security Administration on Aug. 1 put into force rules requiring the screening of all cargo carried in passenger aircraft. The program relies heavily on the network of forwarders that have TSA approval to screen air freight before it moves to the airlines. Shippers such as Pfizer and IBM invested in winning approval under the Certified Cargo Screening Program on their own to ensure their sensitive goods would not be slowed down or damaged by searches in the supply chain.
“TSA is trying to figure how to do an international air cargo program,” Elrod said. The TSA also intends to develop a program for all-cargo flights. “TSA has repeatedly said that these are the two areas they were going to focus on after they get the CCSP program established in the U.S. It looks like they’re going to be given the opportunity to get it done a little faster.”
“When an incident happens, and whether you’re certified or not, it would make sense to look inside your supply chain and do your own risk assessment, to see how vulnerable you’d be,” to an incident like the concealed weapons from Yemen, Wilt said. “I think a positive reaction to this is the trade moving out on their own to assess their supply chain security practices to make sure it’s adequate to the most recent threat we have seen.”
TSA officials said it would take two years to negotiate bilateral air cargo security agreements with international trading partners. The wait may seem too long for some critics, but it took nearly as long for Customs to post inspectors at foreign ports as part of the 2002 Container Security Initiative.
And Customs’ international programs have evolved for eight years. The 24-hour rule that called on ocean carriers to report manifest data before a ship departed a foreign port. The Importer Security Filing, or 10+2, rule expanded the amount of data that shippers filed. “10+2 is one element of a huge amount of data that surrounds transactions as they flow through a supply chain,” Lyon said.
He said all transactions leave a trail of “digital breadcrumbs” that can be analyzed to detect anomalies. “Let’s focus on understanding the data, and making sure it is trusted. Then let’s do analysis of the data as far in advance as you can,” he said.
The digital trail leads from procurement through manufacture, with shipping as the last step. A data-based global supply chain security system will require legal agreements on data access, but “that’s a lot easier to overcome than trying to stop the world while you examine every package or container that’s going through.
“People like simple solutions, and politicians love to run out simple solutions to so they get elected again. But it doesn’t mean the solution is based on reality,” Lyon said.
The Markey legislation to extend air cargo screening could be something Congress considers in a lame-duck session after last week’s elections. It’s unlikely a Republican-controlled House next year will support Markey’s quest.
There’s a philosophical tug-of-war between advocates of risk management to mitigate terrorist threats and those who believe the only real security comes from inspecting all cargo. Republicans have favored a risk-based approach, and wrote those principles into the SAFE Port Act of 2006.
A year later, Democrats ordered 100 percent scanning of all ocean containers by 2012 as part of a law to implement all recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Since then, Customs and Department of Homeland Security officials in the Bush and Obama administrations have resisted the 100 percent requirement as too impractical to implement.
“The Obama administration came out with the concept of risk-based targeting. Politically, I think they’re going to have to come up with something a little more stringent to make people think they understand what’s going on,” said Kelby Woodard, principal in TradeInnovations, a compliance and security consultancy.
Woodard said shippers have been skeptical of security measures. “There have been comments over the years like, ‘Show me where there’s been a real threat.’ Well, now it’s been shown. I think there will be a new focus on it.”
John P. Simpson, former U.S. Treasury assistant secretary, retired earlier this year as president of the Global Express Association, composed of UPS, FedEx, DHL and TNT. He said carriers resisted measures to screen all package shipments because of the effect on customers.
“The big argument was that we were an essential part of the global economy, and especially important to small businesses,” Simpson said. “If you start making us inefficient, it will have implications for our customers.”
The biggest gap in U.S. supply chain security is the lack of coordination with the nation’s global trading partners. Simpson said the best way to prevent reaction to the terrorist threat from becoming overreaction is to watch what U.S. partners do.
“The British home secretary said she understands the role that air freight plays in the modern economy. It’s pretty clear she’s not going to go off the deep end of the pier,” he said. “The U.S. should keep its cool and coordinate with other governments. I think it would be worth watching what the Europeans do. I think they’re going to give us some good advice just by setting the right example.”
Contact R.G. Edmonson at email@example.com.