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Stowaway's trek raises lawmakers' alarm on terrorism | (KRT) Several top lawmakers and aviation security experts said the nation's air cargo security measures are in dire need of overhaul, as evidenced by the trek of a Brooklyn, N.Y., man who stowed away inside a cargo crate for a free trip to Texas last week.

"This episode makes abundantly clear that, despite the progress made in passenger and baggage safety, air cargo flies virtually unchecked in our skies," said U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, sponsor of the yet-to-be-passed Air Cargo Security Act.

"Congress should work swiftly to enact better safeguards, including background checks, audits and enforcement mechanisms for shippers. Closing the air cargo loophole should be the next step toward a seamless aviation security system."

But the nation's top law enforcement official said it's nearly impossible to secure all air cargo.

"There are millions of shipments around this country," FBI Director Robert Mueller said Tuesday in Dallas. "The fact of the matter is, you cannot open and examine every one of those."

U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., an advocate for allowing cargo pilots to carry handguns, said Charles D. McKinley's improbable journey inside a cargo crate could have been a Sept. 11-like disaster rather than just a curiosity.

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"It points out a glaring opening in our security. This is about as big a breach as it gets," Bunning said. "Say this man was a terrorist and cut his way out and took the plane over. The pilots could not defend themselves."

Terrorists have already threatened to use airplanes as missiles again, the senator said. McKinley's trek proves that terrorists could achieve their goal, he said.

Bunning's sentiments aren't out of the realm of possibility for Johnathan Tal, president of the Homeland Security Research Corp. of California.

He envisioned a scenario in which a terrorist packed a radiological "dirty bomb" or biological weapon into a shipping crate, then blew up the cargo plane in flight. Radioactive soot or killer microbes could rain upon a city with the same ease with which McKinley traveled from city to city undetected, Tal said.

"For all intents, this guy could have been a nuclear weapon," Tal said.

If shippers and security personnel can't detect a live person, how could they detect a well-cloaked explosive? Tal asked.

McKinley was discovered only because he opened the crate in the presence of the deliveryman who brought the crate to his parents' doorstep in DeSoto, Texas, on Saturday. McKinley, 25, is being held at Dallas County jail on unrelated charges while the FBI and Transportation Security Administration investigate.

Dallas-Fort Worth area residents should be alarmed by Saturday's incident, said Clint Hughes, transportation committee chairman for the Dallas-Fort Worth Homeland Security Alliance, an affiliation of 42 businesses and universities that serve as a think tank and advocacy group for anti-terrorism issues. McKinley is living proof that North Texas could experience a deadly attack, he said.

"If you realize something bad is on a plane, it's already too late," Hughes said.

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© 2003, The Dallas Morning News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services