Hmmm: TSA makes emergency change to cargo rules for five Middle East countries

“This is all intel driven,” a Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) official told CBS about a sudden change in the rules for cargo shipments from five Muslim countries. All five countries are allied to the US in the anti-ISIS fight, which might make this a little uncomfortable for the State Department — and might underscore the seriousness of the “emergency order”:

Growing concern about terrorists getting a bomb onto a plane headed for the United States prompted an emergency order requiring stricter scrutiny of air cargo by TSA Administrator David Pekoske.  Effective Monday morning, all cargo being loaded onto flights at last point of departure airports in five predominately Muslim countries — Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — will be subject to the new requirements.

“These countries were chosen because of a demonstrated intent by terrorist groups to attack aviation from them,” said a TSA official familiar with the order.  “This is all intel driven.” …

Six airlines — EgyptAir, Royal Jordanian, Qatar, Saudi, Emirates and Etihad — serving the U.S. from seven airports are now required to comply with Air Cargo Advance Screening protocols.  Known as ACAS, it is typically a voluntary program, that provides the TSA and Customs and Border Protection with advanced information about all cargo those carriers plan to bring to the United States.

The TSA official told CBS that this was part of the same scrutiny that prompted the “laptop ban” on flights from these same countries. They are not barred from delivering cargo, but are now required to provide “total asset visibility” when doing so. CBS compares this to FedEx’s process, which allows it to track the item and its contents at every step of the process in order to ensure the safety of its delivery systems, especially its fleet of planes. This order also gives the TSA and Customs authorization to mandate multiple full inspections of cargo coming into the US, which means that the airlines have some powerful incentives to make sure they get it right the first time.

The US government has had heightened concerns over cargo ever since 9/11, but especially after an attempt by al-Qaeda in 2010 that put more than two dozen explosive devices onto cargo planes. In that case, the terrorists used printer cartridges loaded up with the explosive PETN and wired to remote detonators on flights from Yemen, which were eventually discovered and removed. Whether or not it was coincidental, TSA officials used printers as an example of the anomalies they hope to catch in this new regimen:

An example given by officials was someone spending $500 to ship a $100 printer that’s already available in the U.S. from a country with terrorist activity through one of these five countries. Such a package would likely warrant a further inspection.

“Right now everything is screened, but in terms of us having advanced information of everything that’s going on that plane, in a timely manner that’s what’s really new here,” a TSA official said.

It seems a bit surprising that the US has not insisted on this level of detail in the past. It might be a touchy subject with our allies, but given the attempts to launch attacks on cargo shipments in the past, this seems like a common-sense step. The emergency nature of the order signals that the situation got a lot more acute recently, but perhaps we should be thinking about revamping our cargo security requirements overall to ensure safety throughout the distribution chain.