Aviation Security:

Federal Action Needed to Strengthen Domestic Air Cargo Security

GAO-06-76: Published: Oct 17, 2005. Publicly Released: Nov 16, 2005.

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In 2004, an estimated 23 billion pounds of air cargo was transported within the United States, about a quarter of which was transported on passenger aircraft. Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is responsible for ensuring the security of commercial aviation, including the transportation of cargo by air. To evaluate the status of TSA's efforts to secure domestic air cargo, GAO examined (1) the extent to which TSA used a risk management approach to guide decisions on securing air cargo, (2) the actions TSA has taken to ensure the security of air cargo and the factors that may limit their effectiveness, and (3) TSA's plans for enhancing air cargo security and the challenges TSA and industry stakeholders face in implementing these plans.

TSA has taken initial steps toward applying a risk-based management approach to address air cargo security. A risk-based management approach entails a continuous process of managing risk through a series of actions, including setting strategic goals and objectives and assessing risk through the identification and evaluation of threats, vulnerabilities, and critical assets. In November 2003, TSA completed an air cargo strategic plan that outlined a threat-based, risk management approach to secure the air cargo system by, among other things, targeting elevated risk cargo for inspection. TSA also completed an updated threat assessment in April 2005. However, TSA has not yet established a methodology and schedule for completing assessments of air cargo vulnerabilities and critical assets--two crucial elements of a risk-based management approach without which TSA may not be able to appropriately focus its resources on the most critical security needs. TSA has taken a number of actions intended to strengthen air cargo security, but factors exist that may limit their effectiveness. For example, TSA established a centralized database on people and businesses that routinely ship air cargo to improve information on known shippers. However, we identified problems with the reliability of the information in the database, and how TSA is using the information to identify shippers who may pose a risk. TSA has also established requirements for air carriers to randomly inspect air cargo, but has exempted some cargo from inspection, potentially creating security weaknesses. Further, TSA conducts audits of air carriers and indirect air carriers to ensure that they are complying with existing air cargo security requirements. However, TSA has not developed measures to assess the adequacy of air carrier and indirect air carrier compliance, systematically analyzed these audit results to target future inspections, or assessed the effectiveness of its enforcement actions to ensure compliance with air cargo security requirements. TSA's plans for enhancing air cargo security focus on implementing a system for targeting and inspecting elevated risk cargo, and requiring air carriers to conduct security threat assessments on thousands of cargo workers, among other efforts. However, these plans may pose financial, operational, and technological challenges to the agency and air cargo industry stakeholders. For example, stakeholders are concerned, and our analysis identified, that TSA may have underestimated the cost of its proposed measures.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Transportation Security Administration has a comprehensive risk-based approach for securing the domestic air cargo transportation system, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration to assess the effectiveness of enforcement actions, including the use of civil penalties, in ensuring air carrier and indirect air carrier compliance with air cargo security requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress crafted a provision in the 9/11 Commission Act that clarified the definitions of cargo screening and inspection that will help ensure that air carriers are using the appropriate procedures to inspect air cargo. This will enable TSA to better ensure the effectiveness of the domestic air cargo security system.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Transportation Security Administration has a comprehensive risk-based approach for securing the domestic air cargo transportation system, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration to develop a plan for systematically analyzing the results of air cargo compliance inspections and use the results to target future inspections and identify systemwide corrective actions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: TSA is implementing the provisions of the 9/11 Commission Act, enacted on August 3, 2007, that clearly define air cargo screening. Implementing these provisions will help ensure the effectiveness of TSA's actions to strengthen air cargo security.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Transportation Security Administration has a comprehensive risk-based approach for securing the domestic air cargo transportation system, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration to develop measures to gauge air carrier and indirect air carrier compliance with air cargo security requirements to assess and address potential security weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In the 9/11 Commission Act, enacted August 3, 2007, Congress clarified the definition of cargo screening to mean physical or non-intrusive methods of air cargo inspection. This will assist TSA in ensuring that air carriers are taking the required actions to inspect a portion of air cargo.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Transportation Security Administration has a comprehensive risk-based approach for securing the domestic air cargo transportation system, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration to reexamine the rationale for existing air cargo inspection exemptions, determine whether such exemptions leave the air cargo system unacceptably vulnerable to terrorist attack, and make any needed adjustments to the exemptions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2006 and July 2007, TSA issued security directives to passenger air carriers operating within the United States that revised inspection exemptions for domestic air cargo.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Transportation Security Administration has a comprehensive risk-based approach for securing the domestic air cargo transportation system, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration to develop a methodology and schedule for completing assessments of air cargo vulnerabilities and critical assets, as well as defining, gathering, and analyzing information on air cargo security breaches, and use the information resulting from these assessments as a basis for prioritizing the steps necessary to enhance the security of the nation's air cargo transportation system.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In the 9/11 Commission Act, enacted August 3, 2007, Congress required TSA to assess the need for inspection exemptions for cargo transported on passenger aircraft.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Transportation Security Administration has a comprehensive risk-based approach for securing the domestic air cargo transportation system, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration to ensure that the data to be used in the Freight Assessment System to identify elevated risk cargo are complete, accurate, and current.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Freight Assessment System is not currently deployed. Thus, we cannot follow-up on the recommendation to ensure that data is complete, accurate and current. TSA did state that it will evaluate the appropriate application for the Freight Assessment System in the post 100% screening environment, and that data integrity will be part of this assessment. However, it did not provide any additional information regarding how and when this will occur.

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