Air Cargo Loopholes May Risk Security

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These days, air travelers are subject to extensive searches to protect against a terrorist attack. But what about the billions of pounds of cargo loaded into aircraft every day? CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian has an exclusive report on this major security problem. It's the result of a two-month investigation.

The government on Monday issued new directives designed to further tighten air cargo security. Last week, CBS News showed TSA officials the results from an elaborate test it conducted to see what packages could get through.

A CBS News producer with a hidden camera was sent to a shipping company near London's Heathrow Airport, armed with a lead-lined package that could hide a bomb. In this case, it holds only high-speed film. The package is specially designed so CBS News would be able to tell whether security has opened or x-rayed it. The super-sensitive film would show that.

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Please read the Nov. 20, 2006 Editor's Note.
The cargo was shipped on a fight of CBS' choosing: American Airlines 115, direct from London to JFK Airport in New York. There were nearly 200 passengers and 100,000 pounds of cargo aboard.

CBS News conducted the same kind of air cargo experiment on three other international flights: United from London to JFK, Continental from Rio de Janeiro to Houston, and American 45 from Paris to JFK.

You're not supposed to be able just walk up to a shipping company, name a flight, and put your package on a plane, like we did overseas. After 9/11, the airline industry - both here and around the world - instituted what's called the "Known Shipper" program to deter a terrorist attack.

To become a "Known Shipper," you first fill out a simple form, then submit to a basic background check. If it is approved, you operate basically on an honor system - that what you say is inside a package is actually there.

"In a lot of cases, I almost feel like some of these shippers - due to the lack of inspectors - are overseeing themselves," says William McReynolds, chairman of air cargo for the Airline Pilots Association. "It's the fox guarding the henhouse in many cases."

In the case of cargo-only planes, experts say security is even more suspect. CBS News tested it, sending two more packages on jumbo jets flying from Dulles Airport near Washington to Los Angeles.

In the end, the packages finally made their way to CBS News' offices in New York. But in looking at the markings on the box, it appears that the package wasn't opened.

In all, five of the six packages that CBS News sent on planes were not visibly opened or inspected. The package sent from Rio on Continental Airlines was the only one that was opened. According to CBS experts, none of the hidden film was examined by x-ray.

Robert Jamison, second-in-command at the TSA, stands by their inspections.

"I think you're not accurately representing--the--levels of explosive detection that we have in place," he says after being told of the results by Keteyian.

Even without opening cargo, Jamison says, it can be inspected with explosive-detection devices and bomb-sniffing dogs. He says the public should "absolutely" feel safe and secure with the packages that are in the belly of the airplane.

However, despite such certainty - and the TSA's announcement today of enhanced air cargo security - these changes will not completely close the loopholes we found in the system.