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US Security Officials Defend Cargo, Passenger Screening

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U.S. security officials say they are reviewing air cargo screening procedures following the discovery of explosives in parcels shipped from Yemen recently. They also said at a Congressional hearing that religious beliefs cannot exempt any passenger from physical patdowns at airports.

The hearing was conducted by the U.S. Senate Committee for Homeland Security. The chairman, Connecticut Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, began by suggesting that terrorists once again were a step ahead of U.S. security agencies.

Lieberman recalled that after teams of men wrestled control of jetliners in the September 11, 2001 attacks, cockpit doors were locked. Then, he said, authorities started forcing travelers to remove shoes and cracked down on liquids in response to new threats using those methods.

"Then the underwear bomber came close to bringing down a plane over Detroit, and now we've gone to full body imaging," said Joe Lieberman. "And I support every one of those steps we've taken. Now the terrorists are going after weak spot in cargo inspections."

Last month, authorities in Britain and Dubai found explosives hidden in packages of ink toner cartridges on board aircraft from Yemen. The parcels were addressed to two synagogues in the U.S. city of Chicago.

The ranking member of the committee, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, said the plot: "Shows us that the terrorists remain unflagging in their determination to exploit vulnerabilities in the security systems."

She said the U.S. has now escaped several terrorist attacks with a large measure of luck.

The two men testifying before the committee were from the Department of Homeland Security. One was Commissioner Alan Bersin of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

He said his agency handles 57 million parcels arriving yearly in the U.S. by air. And even though the suspicious ones from Yemen were intercepted abroad, he said the agency's four-hour advance notice requirement for cargo information entering the U.S. would have to be lengthened.

"It is clear that our receipt of manifest data four hours prior to arrival does little to help prevent dangerous cargo from being loaded aboard," said Bersin.

The committee also brought up the intensified patdowns and body imaging technology being used at U.S. airports. Some passengers have complained that these procedures are an invasion of privacy.

John Pistole, who heads the Transportation Security Administration, said passengers will only be screened by security agents of the same gender.

Then he was asked by Nevada Republican Senator John Ensign what happens if somebody refuses because of the strictures of his or her faith.

Pistole: "So while I respect and we respect that persons beliefs, that person's not going to get on an airplane."

Ensign
: "And there will be no exceptions?"

Pistole: "No."

Ensign
: "Just because of religion."

Pistole: "Yes."

Pistole asked the public for patience and understanding for the heightened security measures. His appeal will be tested later this month during the Thanksgiving holiday. It is the busiest weekend for air travel in America.


Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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