Failed Mail Bomb Attack Shows Vulnerabilities With Cargo Screening
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A few updates in the thus-far failed mail bomb plot that the President spoke about on Friday. (By the way, notice how that wasn’t a feature of this midterm election campaign whatsoever, that the fear card was never played, even with the announcement of an attack on the Friday before the election?)
First, investigators are searching for two dozen other mail packages that they think were mailed from Yemen en route for the United States. Some remained in Yemen while others were in various cargo holds across the country, though none have been found in the US. These packages did apparently include explosive material:
In Dubai, where one of the two bombs was found in a FedEx shipment from Yemen, police said it contained PETN, a powerful industrial explosive, and bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida.
The white powder explosives were discovered in the ink cartridge of a computer printer, said a police statement carried by the official state news agency WAM. The device was rigged to an electric circuit, and a mobile phone chip was hidden inside the printer, the statement said.
The police said the bomb was prepared in a “professional manner.”
It’s unclear how these packages were expected to lay dormant throughout the shipping process and then suddenly detonate upon arrival at their intended target. Some were rigged with a timer, and others with a cell phone detonator (does that mean someone would have to be on the scene to detonate it?). Police in Dubai said the bombs bore the “hallmark” of Al Qaeda, and one female suspect was originally arrested in Yemen, but then let go. Apparently her identity was used to mail the packages.
At least one of the packages traveled on a passenger flight before making it to the cargo plane. And this brings up a larger point, one that was made repeatedly as far back as the 2004 Presidential campaign – we still don’t have an airtight cargo screening system globally.
The mail bombs discovered aboard cargo jets in England and Dubai could very easily have ended up on passenger planes, which carry more than half of the international air cargo coming into the U.S., experts say.
And experts caution that cargo, even when loaded onto passenger planes, is sometimes lightly inspected or even completely unexamined, particularly when it comes from countries without well-developed aviation security systems [...]
Most countries require parcels placed on passenger flights by international shipping companies to go through at least one security check. Methods include hand checks, sniffer dogs, X-ray machines and high-tech devices that can find traces of explosives on paper or cloth swabs.
But air shipping is governed by a patchwork of inconsistent controls that make packages a potential threat even to passenger jets, experts said Saturday. Security protocols vary widely around the world, whether they’re related to passenger aircraft or cargo planes.
FedEx and UPS have suspended service from Yemen temporarily, but that’s not the point – cargo is still not really secure, and is often subject to lax enforcement. Even if this package were scrutinized it would not necessarily have been caught in the screening by either X-rays or bomb-sniffing dogs – in this case, human intelligence led to the finding. This is apparently why the Emirates Airlines flight was accompanied by fighter planes to New York – they wanted to check the cargo.
There’s a profit motive here – airlines take money from UPS and FedEx to ship cargo, and they don’t want to lower that profit margin, so they don’t submit that freight to extra safety checks. Rules mandating the checking of every piece of domestic cargo for explosives just took effect in August – thank you, Democratic Congress – but they don’t apply to cargo from abroad.
Maybe it’s impossible to properly check every single piece of cargo and baggage coming into the United States, but let’s be very clear who values this simple defense against threats and who doesn’t. In that 2004 Presidential debate, George W. Bush said it cost too much to screen every bag in the cargo hold:
Kerry: The president — 95 percent of the containers that come into the ports, right here in Florida, are not inspected.
Civilians get onto aircraft, and their luggage is X- rayed, but the cargo hold is not X-rayed.
Does that make you feel safer in America?
This president thought it was more important to give the wealthiest people in America a tax cut rather than invest in homeland security. Those aren’t my values. I believe in protecting America first [...]
Bush: I don’t think we want to get to how he’s going to pay for all these promises. It’s like a huge tax gap. Anyway, that’s for another debate.
Six years later, we still have to have that debate. A Democratic Congress passed into law legislation that fixes this somewhat, but leaves a whole lot out. And with a Republican Congress looming, one that has demonstrated a desire to cut funding and certainly not expand it, I don’t see these challenges being met.