Aviation Security:

Federal Efforts to Secure U.S.-Bound Air Cargo Are in the Early Stages and Could Be Strengthened

GAO-07-660: Published: Apr 30, 2007. Publicly Released: May 1, 2007.

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has primary responsibility for securing air cargo transported into the United States from another country, referred to as inbound air cargo, and preventing implements of terrorism from entering the country. GAO examined (1) what actions DHS has taken to secure inbound air cargo, and how, if at all, these efforts could be strengthened; and (2) what practices the air cargo industry and foreign governments have adopted that could enhance DHS's efforts to strengthen inbound air cargo security, and to what extent DHS has worked with foreign governments to enhance their air cargo security efforts. To conduct this study, GAO reviewed relevant DHS documents, interviewed DHS officials, and conducted site visits to seven countries in Europe and Asia.

Within DHS, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have taken a number of actions designed to secure inbound air cargo, but these efforts are still largely in the early stages and could be strengthened. For instance, TSA completed a risk-based strategic plan to address domestic air cargo security, but has not developed a similar strategy for addressing inbound air cargo security, including how best to partner with CBP and international air cargo stakeholders. In addition, while TSA has identified the primary threats to inbound air cargo, it has not yet assessed inbound air cargo vulnerabilities and critical assets. Moreover, TSA's air cargo security rule incorporated a number of provisions aimed at enhancing the security of inbound air cargo. This final rule also acknowledges that TSA amended its security directives and programs to triple the percentage of cargo inspected on domestic and foreign passenger aircraft. However, TSA continues to exempt certain types of inbound air cargo transported on passenger air carriers from inspection. Further, TSA inspects domestic and foreign passenger air carriers with service to the United States to assess whether they are complying with air cargo security requirements, but currently does not conduct compliance inspections of all air carriers transporting inbound air cargo. Moreover, TSA has not developed performance goals and measures to determine to what extent air carriers are complying with security requirements. In addition, CBP recently began targeting inbound air cargo transported on passenger and all-cargo aircraft that may pose a security risk and inspecting such cargo once it arrives in the United States. TSA and CBP, however, do not have a systematic process in place to share information that could be used to strengthen the department's efforts in securing inbound air cargo, such as the results of TSA air carrier compliance inspections and foreign airport assessments. The air cargo industry and foreign governments have implemented various security practices that could provide opportunities for strengthening DHS's overall air cargo security program. TSA officials acknowledged that compiling and analyzing security practices implemented by foreign air cargo stakeholders and foreign governments may provide opportunities to enhance U.S. air cargo security, and have begun an initial review of practices in select foreign countries. TSA has also begun working with foreign governments to coordinate security practices to enhance security and improve oversight, referred to as harmonization, but these efforts may be challenging to implement. For example, some foreign countries do not share the United States' view regarding air cargo security threats and risks, which may make the harmonization of air cargo security practices difficult to achieve.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: We found that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had taken initial steps to enhance the security of inbound air cargo, but were only beginning to implement security programs as most of their efforts were in the planning stages. As a result, we recommended that TSA and CBP develop a risk-based strategy to address inbound air cargo security. In October 2007, CBP provided GAO with a copy of its International Air Cargo Security Strategic Plan. Although this plan describes the efforts CBP plans to take to secure inbound air cargo, it does not specifically address TSA's responsibilities in this area. As of May 2011, TSA and CBP were coordinating security efforts as part of a joint pilot designed to enhance the sharing of electronic shipping information to improve the identification of high-risk cargo. However, TSA has yet to develop in conjunction with CBP a risk-based strategy to address inbound air cargo security. As a result, this recommendation is closed as not implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection take a comprehensive approach to securing air cargo transported into the United States, in the restricted version of this report the Secretary of Homeland Security should irect the Assistant Secretary for the Transportation Security Administration and the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to develop a risk-based strategy, either as part of the existing air cargo strategic plan or as a separate plan, to address inbound air cargo security, including specific goals and objectives for securing this area of aviation security. This strategy should clearly define TSA's and CBP's responsibilities for securing inbound air cargo, as well as how the agencies should coordinate their efforts to ensure that all relevant areas of inbound air cargo security are being addressed, particularly as they relate to mitigating the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: TSA has taken action to address this recommendation. Since the issuance of our inbound air cargo security report (GAO-07-660)the agency has proposed a new program, the Certified Cargo Screening Program, to assist the agency in meeting the requirement to screen 100 percent of air cargo transported on passenger aircraft by August 2010, as mandated by the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007. According to TSA officials, the proposed Certified Cargo Screening Program was formulated based on TSA's review of two foreign countries' systems for screening air cargo utilizing the full air cargo supply chain. One of the foreign countries TSA examined was cited in our April 2007 report as employing air cargo security practices that, if implemented in the United States, could strengthen the agency's efforts to secure air cargo. In addition, TSA is conducting laboratory and field assessments of pallet-sized x-ray technology, which GAO sited in its inbound air cargo security report as being used in a number of foreign countries to screen pallets of cargo without requiring the pallet to be broken down and reconfigured.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen the Transportation Security Administration's inbound air cargo security efforts, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for the Transportation Security Administration to, in collaboration with foreign governments and the U.S. air cargo industry, systematically compile and analyze information on air cargo security practices used abroad to identify those that may strengthen the department's overall air cargo security program, including assessing whether the benefits that these practices could provide in strengthening the security of the U.S. and inbound air cargo supply chain are cost-effective, without impeding the flow of commerce.

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

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) did not inspect all domestic and foreign carriers transporting cargo into the United States in order to assess whether they complied with air cargo security requirements. As a result, we recommended that TSA develop and implement an inspection plan that includes performance goals and measures to evaluate foreign and domestic air carrier compliance with inbound air cargo security requirements. In May 2011, TSA provided documentation outlining objectives, milestones, and timeframes for completing airport assessments and air carrier inspections at foreign airports. TSA's actions are consistent with the intent of our recommendation and, as a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen the Transportation Security Administration's inbound air cargo security efforts, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for the Transportation Security Administration to develop and implement an inspection plan that includes performance goals and measures to evaluate foreign and domestic air carrier compliance with inbound air cargo security requirements.

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

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security requirements allowed inspection exemptions for certain types of inbound air cargo transported on passenger aircraft. We also found that the risk from these exemptions were heightened because TSA had limited information on the background and security risk posed by foreign shippers whose cargo may fall within these exemptions. TSA officials stated that the agency was determining whether additional revisions to the air cargo exemptions were needed. As a result, we recommended that TSA establish a timeframe for assessing whether existing inspection exemptions for inbound air cargo pose an unacceptable vulnerability to the security of air cargo, and take steps, if necessary, to address identified vulnerabilities. In May 2010, TSA required that passenger air carriers screen a certain percentage of shrink-wrapped air cargo transported to the United States. TSA's revised requirement is consistent with the intent of our recommendation and, as a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen the Transportation Security Administration's inbound air cargo security efforts, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for the Transportation Security Administration to establish a time frame for completing the assessment of whether existing inspection exemptions for inbound air cargo pose an unacceptable vulnerability to the security of air cargo, and take steps, if necessary, to address identified vulnerabilities.

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

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: We found that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had identified the primary threats associated with inbound air cargo, but had not assessed which areas of inbound air cargo were the most vulnerable to attack and which inbound air cargo assets were deemed most critical to protect. As a result, we recommended that TSA assess inbound air cargo vulnerabilities and critical assets, and use the results of these assessments as a basis to prioritize actions necessary to enhance the security on inbound air cargo. TSA officials outlined various agency efforts underway as a way to examine inbound air cargo vulnerabilities and critical assets. While useful, these efforts do not fully assess all cargo transported to the United States. TSA officials noted that assessing the vulnerabilities associated with inbound air cargo is challenging but necessary and in the very early stages. As a result, the agency has not completed an assessment of inbound air cargo vulnerabilities and critical assets. This recommendation is closed as not implemented.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen the Transportation Security Administration's inbound air cargo security efforts, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for the Transportation Security Administration to establish a methodology and time frame for completing assessments of inbound air cargo vulnerabilities and critical assets, and use these assessments as a basis for prioritizing the actions necessary to enhance the security of inbound air cargo.

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

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: We found that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had taken initial steps to enhance the security of inbound air cargo, but were only beginning to implement security programs as most of their efforts were in the planning stages. As a result, we recommended that TSA and CBP develop a systematic process for sharing information that could be used to strengthen the security of inbound air cargo. As of May 2011, TSA and CBP were coordinating security efforts as part of a joint pilot designed to enhance the sharing of electronic shipping information to improve the identification of high-risk cargo. However, TSA and CBP have not developed a systematic process for sharing information, and as a result, the recommendation has not been implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection take a comprehensive approach to securing air cargo transported into the United States, in the restricted version of this report the Secretary of Homeland Security should irect the Assistant Secretary for the Transportation Security Administration and the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to develop a systematic process for sharing information between TSA and CBP that could be used to strengthen the department's efforts to enhance the overall security of inbound air cargo, including, but not limited to, information on the results of TSA inspections of air carrier compliance with TSA inbound air cargo security requirements and TSA assessments of foreign airports' compliance with international air cargo security standards.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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