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TSA chief: “Significant” economic benefits to strengthening cargo security

By John D. Schulz, Contributing Editor
March 07, 2012

The man is charge of the government’s transportation security says there are “significant” economic benefits to strengthening the nation’s transport network from another terrorist attack.
 
John Pistole (pronounced PIHS’-tuhl), who is the fifth head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in its 11 years, is a 26-year veteran of the FBI who now oversees a government agency with more than 60,000 employees—larger than the Departments of State, Education and Commerce combined.
 
Pistole defended the size and scope of his agency and said “There are also significant economic benefits to strengthening aviation security, most notably in the area of cargo security and our ability to facilitate the secure movement of goods. The interconnectedness and interdependence of the global economy requires that each and every link in the global supply chain be as strong as possible whether it’s for business or pleasure.”
 
The TSA has screened more than 6 billion air travelers since its inception. Pistole spoke March 5 at the National Press Club where he was introduced as “the face of everything we hate about airport security.”
 
An easy-going and self-effacing speaker, Pistole’s calm demeanor belies the fact that for most of his professional life he helped tracked down mobsters and others in organized crime for the FBI. He now has his sights trained on the next Osama bin Laden wanna-be.
 
Pistole admitted the TSA has made some gaffes. He talked of the “continued evolution” of the TSA and downplayed expectations by saying flatly: “We are not in the business of eliminating all risk associated with traveling from point A to point B. Risk is inherent in everything we do.”
 
Rather, he said, TSA’s objective is “to mitigate risk, to reduce it as much as possible and to insure that the potential for anyone to commit a deliberate act against our transportation system is mitigated.”
 
That might be good news for freight carriers and shippers who fear the TSA might someday turn its attention to surface transport. As it is now, surface transportation seems almost an afterthought. Pistole barely mentioned it in his 30-minute speech.
 
Cargo folks were never too wild about TSA, fearing higher costs and delays that might crippled the sector. The air cargo industry, specifically, has complained about TSA’s new requirement that all domestic air cargo be screened. But that program has begun with minimal delays, thanks to routine cargo shipments from “known shippers” largely being given a pass in the program.
 
Pistole says currently as much as 80 percent of all cargo on U.S.-bound passenger planes are being screened with a goal of all of it screened by the end of this year. He says TSA is implementing a “risk-based” model of cargo screening that is similar to what it uses to screen 1.8 million air passengers every day in this country. Every day TSA confiscates three to four handguns at airport security checkpoints—14 over President’s Day weekend alone—or 1,306 for all of last year.
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Showing his FBI background, Pistole declined to identify what TSA defines as high-risk cargo, saying: “We don’t define it because we don’t want terrorists to go to our website and say, `Okay, this is high risk so I’m going to do something that is not high risk.’”
 
Pistole emphasized that TSA is increasingly using intelligence and high-tech background on shippers to determine what possible could be high risk cargo.
 
As he said, “Our ability to find the proverbial needle in the haystack is improved every time we reduce the size of the haystack.”
 
He cited the example of a shipment coming out of Yemen where suspected terrorists were shipping computer printers and some books to Chicago for $500. “Just from an advanced cargo information perspective, why would somebody be shipping computer printers which they could buy in Chicago for much less than the cost of shipping? So any advance information we have helps go into assessing and defining high risk cargo and then working closely with the air cargo industry, which has the manifest information of who the shipper is, what the type of shipment is.”
 
Pistole said “known shippers” such as major multinational shippers such as General Motors and Dell and others should have little to fear from the cargo screening program as they largely will be given a pass because of their history of previous, harmless shipments.
 
Pistole said the heart of the cargo screening program “comes down to define and distinguish between known shippers and known shipments vs. unknown shippers and unknown shipments.”
 
Still, Pistole called TSA’s mission “a huge job,” and largely a thankless one. And certainly the agency will be on the firing line should another terrorist attack occur on domestic soil or in domestic air space.
 
“We already know about some people who shared information, or who are willing to share with us, and we can make some judgments and decisions to against expedite their physical screening because we’ve done more pre-screening on the front end.”
 
That goes for passengers as well as cargo, he said.
 
“It is a challenge to provide 100 percent total customer satisfaction,” Pistole said, alluding to complaints about overaggressive passenger pat-downs. He says he has been subjected to pat-downs “multiple times,” including most recently at a European airport by screeners who had no idea he was in charge of U.S. transport security.
 
“I received a thorough pat-down,” he says. “I complimented the security officer on the thoroughness of his pat-down, and made me stand up straight.”
 
One thing Pistole didn’t touch on in his speech was the problems associated with the five-year-old Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC). The program, designed to give credentials to nearly 2 million U.S. transport workers, has been plagued by delays, cost overruns and missteps.
   
The latest snafu was issuance of 26,000 TWIC cards that were missing a digit in its “Federal Agency Smart Credential Number.” TSA already has spent $420 million on TWIC and the government and private sector may spend as much as $3.2 billion on TWIC during the next 10 year. TWIC enrollment costs $132.50 and the cards are good for five years.
 
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) is backing a bill in Congress that would extend the life of the TWIC cards past five years, or until the correct validation numbers are given. That would give the nation’s 3 million long-haul truck drivers a break in that they would not have to renew their old cards until the Department of Homeland Security, TSA’s parent, finish rulemakings designed to correct flaws in the TWIC program.

About the Author

image
John D. Schulz
Contributing Editor

John D. Schulz has been a transportation journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in the trucking industry. He is known to own the fattest Rolodex in the business, and is on a first-name basis with scores of top-level trucking executives who are able to give shippers their latest insights on the industry on a regular basis. This wise Washington owl has performed and produced at some of the highest levels of journalism in his 40-year career, mostly as a Washington newsman.


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Article Topics

News · Cargo · TSA · DHS · transportation security · All topics

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