Rhetoric and reality in cargo security

Rhetoric and reality in cargo security

Many politicians and the general public don't understand how cargo flows through the supply chain. That's evident in many of the proposals that have been offered to reduce the air-cargo industry's vulnerability to terrorism.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has proposed mandatory screening and inspection of all cargo moving on passenger planes. This approach fails to recognize that although air cargo and passenger baggage share some characteristics, there are enough differences to require a separate vulnerability threat assessment geared specifically to the supply chain.

Anyone preparing such an assessment must have an extensive knowledge of the business being assessed, as well as a good understanding of the threats, which include a hijacker taking over an aircraft and using it as a weapon of mass destruction (as in the Sept. 11 attacks), a stowaway getting aboard an aircraft to hijack or become a suicide bomber and detonate an explosive device (as shoe-bomber Richard Reid attempted as a passenger), and a bomb placed into cargo for activation with a detonation device (the Pan Am explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the recent Madrid train bombings).

If we look at terrorists such as Mohamed Atta, Richard Reid, Timothy McVeigh and Ramsi Yousef, we find their profiles include at least four common elements: an objective, planning, recognition and direct participation.

Fanatical terrorists are targeting objectives where they can best control the outcome by their direct involvement. An explosive device moving through the supply chain does not provide that directness. Cargo on passenger aircraft is inaccessible during flight, so guns and knives in cargo do not possess the same type of threat as they do in passengers' carry-on luggage.

To achieve the direct involvement they desire, the terrorists try to get close to their planned target in an effort to complete the act with no help outside their network. For air cargo, the immediate threat is the vulnerability that would allow a terrorist to gain direct access to an aircraft through a warehouse, fenced area or in a vehicle that can pull up next to an aircraft.

A Unisys study a few years ago concluded that the average cargo shipment was physically handled 16 to 32 times. An air-cargo shipment is handled at least four times at the carrier's warehouse alone, usually by four different people. This means that there are at least four opportunities for a terrorist explosive device to be mishandled before even being loaded on an aircraft. And this assumes that the terrorist delivers the explosive device directly to the carrier, which is why the known-shipper regulation is important.

The existing terrorist profile reflects that a terrorist would be most likely to put an explosive device or stowaway at or near the airport, just before the cargo arrives at a carrier's cargo terminal. Farther up the supply chain, the threat diminishes, because terrorists won't know when a shipment will actually move out, they can't be certain the freight will move on a targeted plane, and they may fear discovery or detection before the act is completed.

Past acts of terrorism in the transportation industry were directed toward passengers, and in each case direct participation of a terrorist or group was identified. As a result, passenger security regulations are in place. The objective in passenger security is to screen for explosives and weapons carried aboard by a terrorist.

However, weapons or explosives shipped in cargo pose no threat unless there is a detonating device - laptop, cell phone, clock or other electronic device, or a stowaway with a detonator. The objective of any cargo screening should be to check a shipment for a detonating device.

Efforts to secure air cargo against terrorism must be based on an understanding of how the system operates, and where its greatest vulnerabilities are. But because such understanding is in short supply, the new and redundant regulations from the various government entities threaten to produce economic costs that far outweigh the perceived safety benefits.

Could it be that one of the terrorist objectives resulting from the Sept. 11 attacks was to create economic havoc in a democratic society where bureaucracy trumps common sense?

Unfortunately, we are spending a lot of money to promote a perception of protection while trade and the economy are being compromised. We need to analyze our vulnerability to terrorism with a realistic approach, which can happen only when it's moved away from the political rhetoric of Washington.

Robert F. Caton is president of CSTA Cargo Shipping Transportation Analysts in St. James, N.Y. He can be reached at (631) 862-1259, or via e-mail at RFCaton@csta-intl.com.