A worker secures cover over a large air cargo pallet.A worker secures cover over a large air cargo pallet.

A new audit by Congress’ investigative arm is recommending two Department of Homeland Security agencies tighten up programs designed to protect against terrorists smuggling concealed explosives into the U.S. through air cargo.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration need to do a better job of sharing trend data on shipments and evaluating new screening technology, respectively, the report said.

The Government Accountability Office recommended that CBP formalize procedures to fully exchange with the TSA data from a program used to identify high-risk shipments at foreign airports before departure on U.S.-bound aircraft. 

The watchdog agency also said the TSA needs to more rigorously analyze whether certain explosives detection technology actually works in real-world settings before qualifying it for commercial use.

CBP is responsible for keeping contraband and security threats from crossing the border at the shipment level, while the TSA is responsible for protecting the aircraft itself. 

Under the Air Cargo Advanced Screening (ACAS) program, air carriers provide six data elements from the manifest to Customs prior to loading. Customs feeds the data through its rules-based automated targeting system, as well as comparing it against  law enforcement databases and classified intelligence, looking for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive threats. 

ACAS operated for seven years as a pilot before becoming mandatory in 2018.

ACAS Data Elements

  • Air waybill number
  • Shipper name and address
  • Consignee name and address
  • Cargo description
  • Total quantity of packages
  • Total Weight

CBP also applies targeting rules to other compliance and regulatory issues of concern. Agency analysts can ask carriers for additional information or to perform enhanced security checks if they notice something suspicious. So far they have never had to issue a “do not load” order.

The GAO estimated that CBP’s targeting system selects less than 0.5% of all shipments for manual review and the agency placed a temporary hold on only 0.0001% of them. CBP says the high compliance rate is because the majority of all air cargo shipments coming through ACAS are from known, high-volume shippers. 

In May 2020, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General found that in fiscal years 2017 and 2018, CBP did not always prevent air carriers from transporting air cargo shipments deemed high risk into the United States until they had resolved all ACAS referrals, as required by federal regulations. 

Out of a random sample of 309 CBP referrals regarding air cargo shipments deemed high-risk, air carriers did not fully resolve 138 (45%) before the cargo departed for the U.S. The Inspector General attributed these occurrences to inadequate CBP and TSA policies and procedures that did not ensure air carriers resolved referrals timely or appropriately but said CBP is working to correct the situation.

CBP officials are developing a dashboard to improve their ability to monitor air carriers’ compliance with ACAS requirements, specifically the extent to which carriers submit required data and the extent to which cargo identified as high risk is cleared for shipment. Previously, personnel conducting compliance reviews made phone calls, sent emails and sometimes sent warning letters to air carriers for missing or late ACAS data submissions, according to the GAO report. 

CBP provides aggregate data from ACAS to TSA’s Intelligence and Analysis Office but not the International Risk Branch that assesses risk of improvised explosive devices entering the supply chain at overseas airports and whether foreign air carriers comply with U.S. screening regulations. CBP’s National Targeting Center shares information with TSA on air carriers that don’t comply with ACAS requirements, which TSA uses to guide its air carrier inspections overseas. 

The partial sharing of data means ”TSA officials responsible for assessing risk to inbound air cargo do not have a complete understanding of the risk posed by inbound air cargo. A documented process that ensures all relevant TSA and CBP offices are informed of and have access to ACAS trend data and other applicable risk data would help assure DHS that it has a comprehensive understanding of risks related to inbound air cargo and allow it to make more informed decisions about how to best mitigate those risks,” the GAO report said.

Explosives detection technology

Auditors also determined that the TSA’s field assessment of a computed tomography-based explosive detection system to screen air cargo was incomplete. The system, which is widely deployed in the medical industry and is used to screen checked bags, produces images of parcels that are examined by computer rather than humans for signs of explosives.

The field tests are designed to independently validate that technology meets TSA’s requirements for threat detection, false alarms and reliability in real-world action before being certified for commercial use. 

TSA lists several computed tomography (CT) explosive detection systems on its qualified technology list. However their use in air cargo has been limited due to the cost of the systems themselves and the need for extensive, high-speed conveyor systems to optimize their capabilities, said TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein. 

The emergence of next-generation explosive detection systems, which are less complex, more reliable, and potentially less expensive, has led to increased purchases by several all-cargo carriers with the infrastructure in place to take advantage of them, she added. 

TSA retrofitted a conveyor belt parcel handling system at the UPS Worldport in Louisville, Kentucky, with a new version of the computed- tomography machine and inspected up to 4,000 parcels per day, according to the GAO report.

The TSA plans to produce a final report by the end of September, but the GAO faulted the agency for a limited program design, not collecting all relevant data and analyzing the data in a way that allows officials to draw valid conclusions that the CT technology meets detection standards. 

Without the ability to use live explosives in the field to measure the probability of detection, TSA officials relied on image quality testing, using a manufacturer’s test kit to compare system performance in the field with earlier tests performed in a laboratory with live explosives. However, TSA did not independently validate that the test kit was an acceptable alternative test method for determining the CT system’s probability of detection in the field, the GAO said.

The TSA explained in the report that it didn’t validate the test kit because its performance was certified during laboratory tests at DHS’ Transportation Security Laboratory; however, officials at the lab said they don’t certify the performance of test kits. 

Inspecting foreign air carriers

Another aspect of the TSA’s air cargo security program is conducting inspections of foreign air carriers to ensure they comply with U.S. security requirements. A new reporting tool has helped TSA improve its ability to follow-up with carriers to make sure they correct deficiencies identified during inspections, but the agency is still developing additional measures to assess the overall effectiveness of the requirements in preventing air cargo security threats. 

The GAO said TSA officials are developing a program to conduct covert testing at foreign airports as a way to supplement the semi-annual or annual compliance inspections. Negotiations are underway with six countries on joint pilot testing of undercover inspections. 

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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