Still Fighting the Last War on Air Cargo

The discovery of two apparent bombs being shipped on cargo planes seems likely to set off a whole new wave of fighting the last war—i.e. enacting costly, poorly-thought-out regulations based on the specifics of a new incident. Initial U.S. government reactions—sending two USAF F-15’s to escort Emirates flight 201 from the UAE into JFK Airport last Friday and a ban effective Nov. 2 on passengers carrying printer toner cartridges in carry-on bags—look to me like pure security theater. And the ever-vigilant Rep. Ed Markey (D, MA), author of the 2007 law mandating that all belly cargo on passenger planes be physically screened, has announced he will push for new legislation to require 100% physical screening of all air cargo, period.

Before we go off half-cocked on yet more such regulations, it might be worthwhile to pause and ask several questions. First, assuming this latest incident was an Al Qaeda project, what might have been its real purpose? Initial AP and CNN reports on the “bomb” intercepted in the U.K. suggested that it was a toner cartridge with wires and a circuit board attached in a way that “made it resemble an improvised bomb,” but no explosives were found. Even if one or both intercepted devices did include explosives, the intended objective is obscure: to damage a passenger plane, to damage a cargo plane, or to damage the intended recipient in Chicago? Or something else?

What no one seems to have considered is that this stunt, including crude “bombs” and a convenient tip-off, may have been intended not to blow anything up but to panic politicians into enacting draconian regulations intended to cause large-scale economic damage to international goods-movement.

Physically screening all air cargo entering the United States and all domestic air cargo flown on freighters would be hugely costly and disruptive to our economy. One major problem is that the TSA cannot dictate inspection requirements for overseas airports from which numerous cargo flights originate. So a global program like the TSA’s Certified Cargo Screening Program (for domestic belly cargo) is highly unlikely for incoming air cargo. But the alternative of physically inspecting all incoming cargo when it is unloaded at U.S. airports is nightmarishly complex and costly. Most of what comes in on cargo planes arrives on pallets or in shipping containers—and TSA has yet to certify any screening technology that can reliably inspect such large items. The alternative of unpacking them would require massive new on-airport facilities and would thoroughly gum-up air-cargo logistics, potentially wrecking the economics of time-sensitive air cargo. Accomplishing that could well be Al Qaeda’s real objective.

But let’s suppose this misguided effort were actually put into place over the next five years or so. How might Al Qaeda respond? Not by trying to send more bombs on cargo planes but in any number of other ways: assisting domestic terrorists to bomb sports venues, shopping malls, or any of millions of other targets; bringing in bad stuff in maritime containers (whose volume dwarfs air cargo) or by rail and truck from Canada and Mexico (proven channels used by smugglers of people and drugs).

It’s high time we stopped playing this nasty and expensive game. The limited funds this country has for homeland security would be far better spent, first of all, on better intelligence on terrorist groups and continued strikes against their leaders and infrastructure. In addition, we should cease pretending that any target-hardening strategy could ever be 100% effective and, instead, devote more of our security resources to beefing up resiliency and recovery capabilities.