Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Law is what we say it is

Thank goodness for congressional hearings. They're often the only way to get a straight answer out of government officials.

For some time, I and other security experts have been calling for 100% screening of air cargo in the hold of passenger planes. About a fifth of the cargo transported by air is transported on passenger planes. Unlike luggage, virtually no cargo is screened before being loaded onto planes. As a result, of course, a terrorist could easily plant a bomb that could blow a plane right out of the sky.

The good news, or at least so we thought, was that the bill recently signed by the President to implement the remaining 9/11 Commission recommendations, among other things, mandated 100% screening. It didn't do so fast enough for my taste; the deadline was within three years, though Britain, Israel, and the Netherlands all screen 100 % of air cargo for explosives right now, suggesting that it's technologically and economically feasible at the present time.

But, we learned from Secretary Chertoff's testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee yesterday that the Administration deems there to be even more wiggle room in the law than there actually is. Under intensive questioning from Congressman Ed Markey (D. Mass), a longtime proponent of 100% air cargo screening, Chertoff conceded his intention to permit, at least to some degree, shipping companies to continue to do their own screening. When asked by Markey whether DHS intended to comply with the law by having the government take over the screening function, Chertoff's reply was, " If there is a philosophical issue that you can't trust private industry to do anything, then I have to say, you've got no business getting on an airplane."

Excuse me? Mr. Secretary, the whole point of creating TSA after 9/11 and federalizing the airport screening function as to passengers and luggage was the bipartisan recognition that, left to their own devices, airlines will put profit before security.

Much has been written about the President's use of "signing statements" to indicate which provisions of new laws he intends to ignore. Without so much as a signing statement this time, the Administration will apparently ignore a key post 9/11 recommendation that this new law was intended to implement. As a consequence, chalk up another victory for industry, and, terrorists.