U.S. Screening All Airline Cargo Not Feasible, Napolitano Says

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano
The screening mandate is “an easy thing to say, but it’s probably not the best way to go,” Napolitano said. Photographer: Derick E. Hingle/Bloomberg

Procedures put in place after a foiled bomb plot have bolstered security better than an infeasible bill that would require all packages on air-cargo planes to be screened, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said.

The screening mandate is “an easy thing to say, but it’s probably not the best way to go,” Napolitano said in an interview airing this weekend on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt.” “Cargo is infinitely more complicated and comes in infinitely more shapes and sizes” than passengers, she said.

Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, on Nov. 16 introduced a bill with the screening requirement. Air cargo companies have resisted such screening, saying it hinders commerce. In 2007, Congress passed legislation co-sponsored by Markey that mandates 100 percent screening of all packages on passenger airlines.

A similar law covering cargo planes would “require some hundreds of treaties to be negotiated” so that foreign governments would allow the screening, Napolitano said.

She expressed some skepticism about a proposal by Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican set to become chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to privatize airport security.

Napolitano said she was not familiar with the specifics of Mica’s plan. “We have one consistent security regime in the aviation environment for the United States,” she said.

Shortly after two bombs that originated in Yemen were discovered on Oct. 29, the U.S. adopted new security measures. They included barring “high risk cargo” from passenger planes flying to the U.S. and prohibiting ink cartridges weighing more than a pound (0.45 kilogram) in carry-on and checked baggage.

The bombs, which were found in Dubai and the U.K., were contained in printer cartridges.

U.S. officials have said they suspect Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a master bomb-maker, of producing the explosives and that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of the group responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, was behind the plot.

“AQAP is very robust right now,” Napolitano said. She described Yemen “as an area of concern, but not the exclusive area of concern.”

AQAP also is thought by U.S. officials to have helped Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who is accused of attempting to take down a Northwest Airlines jet with an underwear bomb as the plane approached Detroit on Dec. 25.

Hope on Immigration

In the interview, Napolitano said that, even with the midterm election victories of some anti-immigration Republicans, Congress may still pass legislation that would allow more immigrants to work temporarily in the U.S.

Business and law-enforcement groups may help push a bill forward “when you combine them with the other advocacy groups, the faith-based community that’s advocating for reform,” she said.

Some Republicans have criticized the administration of President Barack Obama for not doing more to bolster border enforcement and conduct workplace raids, a tactic used by the administration of President George W. Bush.

“That’s just plain not true,” said Napolitano, who was governor of Arizona before joining the Obama administration. “We’ve deported and removed from the country more people last year than in any year in the past.”

Napolitano also said the Department of Homeland Security is working on expanding its operations to help secure government and commercial computer networks.

“We see this as an evolving area, and it will be key with our interaction with the private sector, as well,” she said.

Many high-profile cyber attacks, such as one on Google Inc. earlier this year, originated in China.

That doesn’t prove that the Chinese government, which has denied any involvement in that disruption and others, had anything to do with the attacks, Napolitano said.

Still, “I do know we’ve had a number of attacks from China,” she said.

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