Passenger planes still at risk as efforts to fight terror lack funds, technology
Each month, freight loaders pack some 17 million pounds of
uninspected cargo into the bellies of passenger planes leaving
More uninspected commercial cargo – an estimated 2.5 million tons a
year – moves at airports nationwide. No federal agency monitors the
cargo or who’s sending it. Counterterrorism officials see each
piece as potentially explosive – and call this a major threat to
Congressional leaders have demanded inspections.
“It is a matter of such critical importance, such an obvious
security gap, we cannot afford not to inspect the cargo that
travels on every passenger plane,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Turner,
ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Homeland
But U.S. Transportation Security Administration officials say
inspecting all cargo is unrealistic. They say they don’t have
enough money or big enough machines to scan enough cargo fast
enough without impeding commerce.
The situation illustrates the soft spots in security and heightened
anxiety plaguing the home-front war on terrorism today.
The railway bombings that killed 191 and wounded more than 1,800 on
March 11 in Madrid, and testimony at the Sept. 11 commission’s
hearings in Washington, have raised concerns that Americans aren’t
as safe as they should be.
Federal agents with access to classified intelligence say there’s
still no way to know whether Denver, or any other city, is more or
Part of the problem is money. Part is the nature of the threat.
Agents say their job is becoming harder with new vulnerabilities
emerging as the war on terrorism evolves. “It’s difficult to cover
every potential vulnerability,” said Phillip Reid, FBI agent in
charge for Colorado and Wyoming. “There obviously are
vulnerabilities out there that we aren’t aware of. … It’s an
Government intelligence suggests that enemies, particularly those
tied to al-Qaeda, “tend to look for the major terrorist attack,
where it has major consequences and numerous fatalities,” Reid
said. So agents assume the risk in cities is greatest and treat
Denver as a potential target.
Bus, rail lines threatened
FBI and homeland security chiefs issued bulletins last week warning
police that terrorists might try to bomb buses and rail lines in
U.S. cities this summer and that terrorists might try to use
cultural, artistic or athletic visas to slip into the country.
For three years, security officials have focused on airports.
The bulletins reflect a desire, after the Madrid attacks, to do
more. In addition to rail and bus systems, there’s also concern
about cargo containers that aren’t always fully inspected at
seaports and border crossings. Thousands of these metal containers
sit unattended in rail and truck yards around downtown Denver –
possible vehicles for delivering deadly weapons.
“We’ve got to get to a point where we have a high level of
confidence,” said John Suthers, the U.S. attorney in Colorado.
The Sept. 11 commission this month is scheduled to look more
closely into homeland security. Meanwhile, the $40 billion budget
for the Department of Homeland Security, created last year after
other agencies were consolidated, is not expected to increase
Recent congressional testimony from counterterrorism chiefs
revealed that a unified terrorist watch list to enable screening
for terrorists is not complete. The list drawn from multiple
intelligence databases was supposed to be done last year. FBI
leaders said it should be done this summer.
Testimony also revealed that another task is incomplete: a national
threat and vulnerability assessment to prioritize critical
infrastructure for protection. Homeland Security spokesman Donald
Tighe said that work would be done by December.
Implementing protective measures will be left to “local
leadership,” Tighe added.
There’s the rub. Colorado Department of Public Safety spokeswoman
Patti Micciche said local agencies are requesting equipment and
training “far beyond” what Colorado can afford after receiving
about $50 million in federal homeland security funds last year.
Few on the front lines see security spending as sufficient.
“We get all kinds of information,” said Pat Ahlstrom, the U.S.
Transportation Security Administration director in Denver.
“Does the Madrid thing portend the possibility of that happening
in America? Yes, it does. Do the suicide bombings in other parts of
the world portend what could happen in America? Yes. Does 9/11
portend that people who planned that horrible, unthinkable set of
acts, could they or others of their mind-set attempt the same thing
again, only now trying to defeat what we have in place? The only
answer is yes.”
Ahlstrom said he’s pushing to increase his force of 750 passenger
screeners at Denver International Airport – up from 600 to 700
before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks – to about 1,000 until better
technology is available. He’s also asking for more inspectors – 13
instead of the current 10 – to ensure that there aren’t any
Cargo slipping through
The matter of cargo moving on passenger planes looms unaddressed –
at DIA and nationwide.
While TSA agents swarm around passengers and their carry-on
baggage, and check-in baggage is scanned, commercial cargo moves on
conveyor belts and carts toward passenger planes without systematic
inspection. Officials have the authority to conduct random spot
checks but could not confirm whether any had been done.
DIA statistics show that in January, passenger airlines carried
17,922,194 pounds (8,961 tons) of commercial cargo domestically and
“What is essentially too cumbersome at this point is to check
everything,” said TSA spokesman Mike Fierberg. “We don’t have the
resources. And we don’t have the technology, most important.”
Instead, airlines are supposed to police themselves by allowing
only “known shippers” to send cargo on passenger planes. TSA
officials keep no list of known shippers – the airlines are
supposed to do that – and no audits are done to make sure airlines
comply, Fierberg said. However, TSA technicians are working on
giving airlines access to government databases so that they are
able to check out cargo shippers and customers before loading
planes, he said.
At one point, officials considered issuing licenses to known cargo
shippers, Fierberg said. They decided that would be too
Current policy “meets the requirements of Congress” that cargo be
inspected, Fierberg said.
U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., said he is “very concerned about
the potential risks of unscreened cargo on passenger airlines” and
has supported efforts to have all cargo screened. “A lot of work
remains to be done,” he said.
Also in the Denver area, hundreds of cargo containers arrive daily
by truck and rail – all supposedly screened by customs agents at
U.S ports and border crossings.
A federal security directive also deploys Denver-based customs
agents in this effort.
The concern, customs agents say, is that terrorists could smuggle
weapons of mass destruction in containers and team with terrorists
already inside the country to coordinate attacks.
The rail yards are fenced but not impenetrable. Union Pacific
security agent John Cavanaugh said pilfering “goes on.” He also
said federal customs agents seldom inspect containers in rail
yards. “My understanding is (that) whatever is inspected, it is
inspected at the port of entry.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials were unable to give
statistics on how many physical inspections are conducted at ports,
border crossings and in Denver. They are setting up radiation
detectors and X-ray scanners at seaports and elsewhere.
Yet along the U.S.-Mexico border at El Paso, customs agents raise
concerns. Trains moving from Mexico into the United States pass
through X-ray and other scanners but only occasionally are stopped
for physical inspections, agents said.
“Customs and Border Protection officers are not comfortable with
the emphasis on facilitation of traffic and trade,” said Kevin
Odenborg, a National Treasury Employees Union representative on the
customs force at El Paso. “The security systems are not
infallible,” he said. Hundreds of trucks and cars deemed low-risk
are routed through fast lanes where they may not be checked, and
staffing levels aren’t always sufficient, he added.
Spot checks in fast lanes have found illegal drugs, raising the
specter that dirty bombs or explosives might slip through in trucks
or cars, Odenborg said. “With the emphasis on facilitation in the
vehicle and truck cargo area, inspectors feel they are less able to
use their observational and interviewing techniques. The fact is,
that’s how most contraband is caught.”
Cash smuggling a concern
Another concern is money moving illegally through airports.
Terrorists trained in Afghanistan and Sudan have fanned out into
more than 30 independent anti-U.S. groups, said Ambassador Heraldo
Munoz, the Chilean diplomat who chairs the United Nations Security
Council’s al-Qaeda sanctions committee. And “finding the money”
that funds attacks is “absolutely fundamental,” Munoz said.
Today, with more banks monitoring transactions, terrorists “are
using, now, couriers, bags of money,” he said. “For example, we
know the Bali bombing was financed by about $100,000 and a second
amount of about $35,000 brought into Indonesia in suitcases.”
A recent customs spot check at DIA found a London-bound passenger
carrying $17,000 in cash he had not declared. The man told agents
he was going on vacation. The legal limit for undeclared cash is
A federal agent relaying that incident on condition of anonymity
said there’s no systematic enforcement of financial controls at DIA
and that customs agents need an ink-sniffing dog to conduct that
Federal supervisors acknowledged those challenges, though they
declined to comment on specific cases. Dealing with “an enormous
problem” of cargo containers and better enforcement of financial
controls “are in the scope,” TSA chief Ahlstrom said. “You focus
on what you can afford to do at the time and try to develop plans
for other pieces as you are able to get some resources.”
America must set priorities: “Look at all the holes you have at
once and then decide how many of those you can afford to deal
with,” said Page Stoutland, program leader for radiological and
nuclear countermeasures at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory,
which does homeland security work.
Stoutland supervised recent testing, at Federal Express cargo
facilities in Denver, of a device placed beneath a cargo conveyor
belt to detect possible dirty bombs. The device proved effective
and is available at a cost of about $50,000, he said.
“There is no way to predict with high confidence” what terrorists
might do, he said. But “our security (system) can’t be one where
we fix one hole and then fix the next because we’ll never get
Two weeks ago, customs agents scrambled when they learned that an
uninspected shipping container from Uzbekistan was moving by rail
toward Denver. It had been targeted overseas for inspection in
Houston. A recipient’s name and address in Denver proved to be
fake. Authorities figured that the manifest describing the
container’s contents – motorcycles – also might be fake.
Inspectors in Houston let the container pass. It arrived in Denver
around March 25 and sat in a Union Pacific freight yard north of
downtown. Customs agents here, speaking on condition of anonymity,
said they sealed it and notified Union Pacific that they wanted to
But for lack of a proper inspection facility in the freight yard,
the white container sat unattended for seven days. “We couldn’t
shield it from the public. We wanted it moved to an indoor facility
so we could contain it” if dangerous material was inside, one
Finally on Thursday, at a contract cargo warehouse in Aurora, a
team of three customs agents wearing radiation monitors on their
belts opened the container – and found motorcycles. Old,
broken-down antique ones, brown and green, with black sidecars.
They were hauling out the bikes for further inspection that night.
“Something that ends up in Denver is always considered low risk”
because port inspectors presumably have cleared it, a customs
“We had to look to make sure.”