Washington….Scrambling to plug holes in cargo security revealed by the mail bomb plot in Yemen, the Transportation Security Administration announced Tuesday it was planning an overhaul of its passenger and cargo screening methods.
Top DHS officials met all through the weekend to decide what long-term steps to take to shore up the cargo vulnerability and identify remaining gaps in security.
TSA director John Pistole, in a speech in Germany, said he would like to see more advanced screening technology, better information sharing, more flexible search procedures that might change based on a particular threat, and less emphasis on "cookie cutter" approaches like the system-wide ban on more than 3 ounce liquid containers in carry-on luggage.
The Yemen plot highlighted the capabilities of a "determined and creative enemy" Pistole said at a meeting of the global air industry in Frankfurt. He said he would "reshape our security approach," to improve the agency's focus on intelligence and new technology.
One measure discussed over the weekend is requiring the shipping industry to transmit more detailed information on cargo before it departs for U.S. soil.
Without multiple pieces of intelligence, the mail bombs sent last week would have likely made it to within hours of landing in the U.S. "If the target had been the planes, that would have been too late," said an administration official not authorized to speak on the record.
Intelligence analysis of a tip from a Saudi militant combined with information about a "dry run" shipment of three packages from Yemen to Chicago in September enabled authorities to locate the two bombs on Friday, said officials.
"It is evident that had we not had the intelligence, our security countermeasures would not have identified these improvised explosive devices," said Frank Cilluffo, the director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.
The "dry run" shipments, may have been a test by Al Qaeda to better understand how the cargo system works, said a U.S. official not authorized to speak on the record. The three earlier packages from Yemen bound for Chicago were identified by "solid intelligence" as being linked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula, said a U.S. official. No explosives were found, but the incident put the system on alert.
At the moment, package details are transmitted electronically to DHS's National Targeting Center four hours before a cargo flight lands in the U.S. The packages coming from Yemen would have likely been considered "high risk" and flagged for screening after the flight landed, by which time they might already have exploded.
Pistole, who brings extensive counterterrorism experience to the job from his 26 year career at the FBI, highlighted the current liquids ban as an example of a cookie cutter approach to security. "We shouldn't spend time trying to decipher between 3 ounces and 100 milliliters," said Pistole. In the future, Pistole wants to see the deployment of more explosives trace technology that might pick up evidence of explosives like PETN that was used in the Yemen plot and by the 2009 Christmas Day bomber, and new machines that can scan liquids to determine if they are a treat or not.
For air cargo security, DHS officials are exploring beefing up data mining methods similar to those used to identify dangerous people on flights for selecting dangerous cargo for screening. Officials are also turning their sights to the screening methods used by companies and other countries. "We rely on those that ship to do the screening overseas," said an administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record, "we are looking at how to beef those requirements up."
There are some cargo companies that don't have the data of every parcel that has been consolidated into its pallet containers. However the big shipping companies, like FedEx and UPS, are able to give the U.S. the data in the electronic shipping record for every parcel. This includes names, addresses and phone numbers.
"Maybe there is a changing tone at TSA, there is an understanding that screening alone for items in past attacks may not be enough for a future attacks," said Rick Nelson, director of the homeland security and counterterrorism program at CSIS. Cargo is different from passenger, said Nelson, "the cost to screen all the cargo in the global systems is unaffordable and impractical. You can't do that, have to take a new approach."
An official in the Embassy of Yemen in Washington said Tuesday that while there have been no new arrests in the investigation into the cargo bombs, "we have a laser focus now on the Saudi bomb maker" identified as Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri.
"Commando units will arrive in Marib (province) tomorrow (Wednesday),'' the official said, where they believe Asiri is hiding. "Let the games begin."
Meanwhile, the White House said President Obama spoke with Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh to discuss joint efforts against AQAP. The president highlighted that the U.S. relationship with Yemen is focused on counterterrorism issues, "as well as building a stable and prosperous Yemen through economic and humanitarian assistance.''
Saleh "made a full commitment'' to cooperate with the U.S. as well as Britain and the United Arab Emirates.
Reporter Richard A. Serrano contributed to this article from Washington.