WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., questioned federal officials Tuesday about their ability to secure air cargo adequately in the aftermath of the shipment of explosive materials from Yemen aboard cargo and passenger airplanes bound for the U.S.

Lieberman, Collins, and others pressed the witnesses to obtain identifying information about air cargo bound for the U.S. early in the shipping process so that DHS can target high risk cargo more effectively.

At the hearing, entitled “Closing the Gaps in Air Cargo Security,” Lieberman explicitly voiced support for the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) use of Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) and body pat downs on air passengers. TSA’s failure to explain the need for these new procedures to the traveling public, the Senator suggested, may have led to a recent outcry about their intrusiveness.

“Shoe bombers. Liquid bombers. Underwear bombers. Again and again and again, terrorists have been seeking ways to blow up an airplane,” Lieberman said. “In the most recent attempt, terrorists hid bombs inside the toner cartridges of printers and sent them to the United States as air cargo… We need to anticipate the terrorists’ next move, not just react to the last one.”

On the new passenger security practices, the Chairman said, “Unfortunately, these are the times in which we live. We have to do everything we can to protect the traveling public. What you are doing with Advanced Imaging Technology and the pat down is very difficult but it is necessary for the security of the American public.”

Collins said: “The potential to plant an explosive somewhere in the millions of pieces of air cargo shipped around the world daily is a vulnerability. The Department of Homeland Security must use this near miss to redouble its work with other countries, airline carriers, and shippers to tighten the security network.  We must move quickly to shore up our defenses in this area, without interfering with the legitimate flow of commerce.  Al Qaeda is, after all, seeking to destroy our economy and way of life, as well as to kill our people.  We must not allow either goal to be accomplished.” 

   Collins urged DHS to use the risk-based screening of maritime cargo as a road map for air cargo screening. “Currently, maritime cargo manifest information must be submitted to DHS at least 24 hours before a cargo container headed to the United States is loaded on a ship overseas,” she said. “Using this information and other intelligence, DHS targets high-risk cargo for inspection prior to the ship’s departure to our country. In sharp contrast, air cargo manifest information is required to be submitted only four hours before that cargo arrives in the United States.  That means the information is often transmitted to DHS while the aircraft is in the air – providing no opportunity to conduct further inspections of flagged cargo before departure.”

TSA Administrator John Pistole said DHS was seeking to obtain air cargo manifests earlier in the shipping process but he was unable to provide a specific date for when that change would occur. He also reassured the Senators that TSA was actively working to try to predict the next method terrorists will use to attack us.

He also appealed to Thanksgiving travelers to look at aviation security as “a partnership. TSA officers are there to work with you to make sure everybody on that flight is properly screened. Try to be patient and work with those folks. They are there to protect you and your loved ones.”

 The hearing was called following the October 28 discovery of two shipments to the U.S. from Yemen that contained explosives packed within a computer printer’s toner cartridge. An intelligence tip led to discovery of the packages – one of which passed through four different countries on a passenger jet and two cargo jets before it was intercepted in England. The second bomb was transported on a passenger jet from Yemen to Dubai, where it was detected while waiting for further shipment.

The bombs probably would not have been discovered and could have detonated over the U.S. or at a U.S. airport, except for a timely intelligence tip.

Although TSA says it screens 100 percent of air cargo on domestic passenger flights, only about 60 percent of cargo on passenger flights coming into the U.S. from abroad is screened.

In addition to Pistole, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin appeared as a witness.