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US Increases Air Cargo Screening after Foiled Plot to Mail Bombs Uncovered

  • Chris Simkins

This image provided by CBS News shows a printer toner cartridge with wires and powder found in a package aboard a plane searched in East Midlands, north of London, 29 Oct 2010

This image provided by CBS News shows a printer toner cartridge with wires and powder found in a package aboard a plane searched in East Midlands, north of London, 29 Oct 2010

The United States is taking additional security precautions for air cargo, following a recently thwarted terrorist plot to send mail bombs from Yemen to the U.S. Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano says the U.S. is extending a ban on air cargo, which is already in effect for Yemen, to include Somalia. Napolitano says toner and ink cartridges weighing more than a half-kilogram are banned on passenger planes on domestic and incoming international flights.

Meanwhile, investigators are searching for more clues into the failed plot last month. Two packages containing bombs were found inside desktop computer printers on cargo flights that were shipped from Yemen bound for two synagogues in Chicago. U.S. authorities have heightened security at the nation's airports, seaports and land border crossings.

Terrorism experts say if the recent failed plot to blow up cargo planes flying to the U.S. had succeeded it would have harmed the world economy.

"If one cargo plane is taken down by a bomb you could literally shut down cargo transport across the world," said Brad Garrett, a former FBI agent.

The government says billions of metric tons of cargo are flown into the U.S. every year. But only a limited amount is screened. Homeland security expert Charles Slepian.

"What I hear still is that about 90 percent of that air cargo [coming into the United States] is not screened," noted Slepian. "At least not screened in a fashion where you could determine what is inside the containers."

Analysts say that's because shipping companies often allow their most trusted customers to send parcels as secure. Other factors include poor screening at international airports and a lack of specialized screening machines.

U.S. officials say they are moving to enhance screening of cargo entering the country, but shippers have long opposed stricter screening of international cargo because of costs. U.S. Representative Ed Markey was instrumental in pushing for the law that requires the government to screen 100 percent of U.S. domestic cargo on passenger planes. But the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) says only about 65 percent was being screened as of September.

"Al-Qaida would like to blow up a plane," said Markey. "If the security is so lax that they can do so every time an industry says it's too expensive, then al-Qaida begins to plot."

Last month U.S. investigators were able to track down the packages containing bombs on cargo planes after a tip from intelligence officials in Saudi Arabia. Former CIA terrorism analyst Phil Mudd.

"It's not just important in this situation that's critical," said Mudd. "I don't know how you stop that without stopping global commerce, especially if we don't have the precision to search for one package or another. "

Counter-terrorism analyst Bennet Waters says the mail bomb plot also highlights the weakness in the worldwide cargo shipping industry.

"The biggest vulnerability is that the international community has not yet adopted a common standard for cargo planes and we don't have the type of screening that domestic cargo and cargo that is transiting passenger aircraft from the United States isn't applying to the international community writ large," Waters explained.

Homeland security analysts maintain the government should also adopt uniform screening measures such as those used at the nation's seaports and U.S. land border crossing. Here, US Customs and Border Protection agents are reviewing shipping lists to determine what cargo needs close inspection before it enters the country.