WASHINGTON — Scrambling to plug holes in cargo security revealed by the bomb plot in Yemen, the Transportation Security Administration announced Tuesday it was planning an overhaul of its passenger and cargo screening methods.
Top Homeland Security Department officials met all through the weekend to decide what long-term steps to take to address the vulnerability of cargo and to 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 containers that hold more than 3 ounces of liquid 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 would require the shipping industry to transmit more detailed information on cargo before it departs for U.S. soil.
Without multiple pieces of intelligence, the 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, officials said.
"It is evident that had we not had the intelligence, our security countermeasures would not have identified these improvised explosive devices," said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.
The dry runs may have been tests 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 as "solid intelligence" linked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a U.S. official said. No explosives were found, but the incident put the system on alert.
Package details are now transmitted electronically to Homeland Security's National Targeting Center four hours before a cargo flight lands in the U.S. The packages coming from Yemen would have probably been considered high-risk and flagged for screening after the flight landed -- which might have been too late.
Pistole, who has extensive counter-terrorism experience from his 26 years at the FBI, highlighted the 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," he said.
In the future, Pistole wants to see the deployment of more trace technology that might pick up evidence of explosives like PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, which was used in the Yemen plot and by the 2009 Christmas Day bomber, and new machines that can scan liquids to determine whether they are a threat.
For air cargo security, Homeland Security officials are exploring beefing up data-mining methods to select dangerous cargo for screening, similar to the methods used to identify dangerous people on flights. 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."
Some cargo companies don't have data on every parcel that has been consolidated into its pallet containers. But 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 counter-terrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Cargo is different from passengers, Nelson said, adding: "The cost to screen all the cargo in the global systems is unaffordable and impractical. You can't do that."
An official in the Embassy of Yemen in Washington said that although there had 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 Asiri.
"Commando units will arrive in Marib" province, where they believe Asiri is hiding, on Wednesday, the official said. "Let the games begin."
Meanwhile, the White House said President Obama spoke with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to discuss joint efforts against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The president highlighted that the U.S. relationship with Yemen was focused on counter-terrorism issues, "as well as building a stable and prosperous Yemen through economic and humanitarian assistance," the White House said.
Saleh reportedly "made a full commitment" to cooperate with the U.S. as well as Britain and the United Arab Emirates.
Richard A. Serrano in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.