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More Great Moments in Airport Security:

Last year, I blogged about my own (possibly unrepresentative) experiences with incompetence by the Transportation Security Agency, the federal bureaucracy responsible for airport security. I also pointed out that the Israeli system seems to be more rational. Now, Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg reports on his somewhat more systematic study in which he was able to bring numerous prohibited items on planes without the TSA noticing:

Suspicious that the measures put in place after the attacks of September 11 to prevent further such attacks are almost entirely for show—security theater is the term of art—I have for some time now been testing, in modest ways, their effectiveness. Because the TSA's security regimen seems to be mainly thing-based—most of its 44,500 airport officers are assigned to truffle through carry-on bags for things like guns, bombs, three-ounce tubes of anthrax, Crest toothpaste, nail clippers, Snapple, and so on—I focused my efforts on bringing bad things through security in many different airports, primarily my home airport, Washington's Reagan National, the one situated approximately 17 feet from the Pentagon, but also in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, and at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport....

Among the prohibited items Goldberg successfully carried onto planes were "pocketknives, matches from hotels in Beirut and Peshawar, dust masks, lengths of rope, cigarette lighters, nail clippers, eight-ounce tubes of toothpaste (in my front pocket), bottles of Fiji Water (which is foreign), and, of course, box cutters [the weapons used by the 9/11 hijackers]."

Adding a touch of comedy to his experiment, Goldberg also brought with him some terrorist souvenirs:

[B]ecause I have a fair amount of experience reporting on terrorists, and because terrorist groups produce large quantities of branded knickknacks, I've amassed an inspiring collection of al-Qaeda T-shirts, Islamic Jihad flags, Hezbollah videotapes, and inflatable Yasir Arafat dolls (really). All these things I've carried with me through airports across the country.

I suppose you could say that a real terrorist about to attempt a hijacking would be smart enough not bring his al Qaeda T-shirt or inflatable Yasir Arafat doll with him; so maybe the TSA was right to overlook those items. The same can't be said for their obliviousness about the knives and box cutters, however.

Sua Tremendita (mail):
Ach, but the TSA did an awesome job of confiscating the dolphin and turtle figurines I tried to bring back as gift for my kids from a recent overseas trip...I bet these items made some TSA kids happy...
10.21.2008 2:04am
John D (mail):
Theater. The TSA is government-funded performance art. I have my hopes that during the next administration oversight for the TSA is turned over to the NEA.
10.21.2008 2:31am
theobromophile (www):
eight-ounce tubes of toothpaste (in my front pocket)

Toothpaste? That's a new variation on an old joke....
10.21.2008 2:43am
therut (mail):
But we now have alot more unionized federal (democratic) employees. Employment for life with goodies to retire on. YEA........
10.21.2008 2:50am
tsotha:
Bah. The fastest way to get torn apart by a group of 120 complete strangers is to hold up a box cutter and announce you're hijacking the plane. The 9/11 attacks worked because people were told docility was the best way to stay alive. With that myth punctured, you'd need at least a firearm to hijack a plane, and in any event the pilot wouldn't surrender control of the aircraft. So box cutters and nail clippers don't concern me.

I do wonder how one manages to accumulate terrorist paraphernalia through the simple act of reporting on terrorism.
10.21.2008 4:47am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
These days your real terrorists aren't fans of Yassir Arafat. I think that he is passe, and for fundamentalists, insufficiently religious and too moderate.
10.21.2008 4:56am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):

I have my hopes that during the next administration oversight for the TSA is turned over to the NEA.


You're thinking of the old NEA. I think they've reformed, and I bet that they wouldn't want the TSA.
10.21.2008 5:01am
vinnie (mail):
Bah. The fastest way to get torn apart by a group of 120 complete strangers is to hold up a box cutter and announce you're hijacking the plane. The 9/11 attacks worked because people were told docility was the best way to stay alive. With that myth punctured, you'd need at least a firearm to hijack a plane, and in any event the pilot wouldn't surrender control of the aircraft. So box cutters and nail clippers don't concern me.



We are still told the same thing about car jackers. What has changed?
10.21.2008 6:26am
Steve in CT:
The TSA lives up to the old saying about the military preparing to fight the last war. Most of what they do is window dressing to make passengers feel like they are safer.

I think I'm preaching to the choir here.
10.21.2008 6:39am
llamasex (mail) (www):

We are still told the same thing about car jackers. What has changed?

because a carjacker most likely does just want your care and is not a terrorist planning on ramming into a building with you as a passenger.
10.21.2008 7:42am
Sarah (mail) (www):
Terrorism is performance art, too -- just the kind that doesn't much mind if a lot of people (including the folks putting on the show) have to die during any given production. If the TSA is performance art, then perhaps we can say we're fighting fire with fire?

Carjacking is primarily done to achieve basic economic or entertainment goals for the perpetrator, rather than to spread a message -- the same cannot be said for hijacking airplanes, unless you're that one guy who parachuted out of his plane with all that money (which was about thirty years ago.)
10.21.2008 8:38am
Mad Max:
[B]ecause I have a fair amount of experience reporting on terrorists, and because terrorist groups produce large quantities of branded knickknacks, I've amassed an inspiring collection of al-Qaeda T-shirts, Islamic Jihad flags, Hezbollah videotapes, and inflatable Yasir Arafat dolls (really).

TSA didn't hassle him for carrying these, so he sneers at them for their ineffectiveness and lack of attention.

If TSA did hassle him for carrying these, he'd fulminate about them restricting his rights to freedom of expression and hassling him for no good reason.

TSA can't win.

Sure hope they put him on their "always hassle" list, though.
10.21.2008 8:53am
JosephSlater (mail):
TheRut:

How ironically wrong you are. The first thing the Bush administration did when it had the federal government take over airport screening services was deny collective bargaining rights to all TSA screeners. Those employees stil can't bargain collectively.

Beyond that, and beyond the weirdness of the Arafat doll, I didn't know that "truffle" was a verb.
10.21.2008 9:25am
JB:
In 2006 I flew from Chicago to Florida and back. On the way back, a TSA screener found and confiscated a full bottle of WD40 I had forgotten to take out of my carryon when I was packing to go down to Florida.

Yep, the Chicago TSA people didn't notice a full bottle of WD40 in a not-terribly-crammed 18x12x10-inch suitcase.

These people are baboons.
10.21.2008 9:40am
Waxy (mail):
My wife and I went through at least 8 security searches and interrogations before boarding our flight (e.g., Bag search, questions, wanding, passport verification, etc.) - and once we got on the plane, we were treated to a chicken dinner with sharp serrated knives provided by the airline but a plastic fork and spoon!

Go figure?!!!!
10.21.2008 9:51am
BladeDoc (mail):
JB -- be careful -- those petroleum based products can break down latex ;-)

Seriously though, I still think the best security option for preventing aircraft hijacking would be to GIVE everyone a knife upon boarding.
10.21.2008 9:55am
Eric Muller (www):
I was in the men's room in the secure part of an airport recently, washing my hands. A TSA guy on break time was washing his hands at the sink next to me. A young guy with a backpack came up to him and said, "Sir, I just realized that I made it through security with this, and I don't think I'm supposed to have it." And he hauled out of his backpack an enormous metal aerosol spray can.

The TSA guy looked astonished and embarrassed.

I considered asking him for my gel deodorant back, but thought better of it.
10.21.2008 10:12am
Franklin Drackman:
I saw Osama Bin Laden at Atlanta Hartsfield, I mean it was him!, the Flowing Robes, the Grace, everything. He was about 40 feet ahead of me so I figured I'd have time to catch him and that $30,000,000 reward. He Walked Right Through!!! Vanished into thin air, while I had to spend 5 minutes explaining my Hebrew Penthouse magazine. Idiots!!! Umm I think he caught the LA flight if that helps. No one at TSA was interested.
10.21.2008 10:36am
Ken Arromdee:
I suppose you could say that a real terrorist about to attempt a hijacking would be smart enough not bring his al Qaeda T-shirt or inflatable Yasir Arafat doll with him; so maybe the TSA was right to overlook those items.

Hijacking a plane is a stressful situation. People in stressful situations do and say many things that aren't optimal. It's why you're not supposed to joke about bombing a plane: wouldn't a smart bomber be smart enough not to say anything? No, because not all bombers are smart, and many of them would joke about bombing the plane.

Remember in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing where the bomber asked for the security deposit on his truck back? People are stupid.

(And in this case I do agree that if the TSA did act based on the T-shirt or doll, they'd be accused of racial profiling and violating freedom of speech, making it a no-win situation.)
10.21.2008 11:20am
Uh_Clem (mail):
The 9/11 attacks worked because people were told docility was the best way to stay alive.

We weren't just told that, it was official policy to cooperate with hijackers. It was also official policy that the cockpit doors had to remain open for take-off and landings.

With a change in those two policies, a 9-11 style attack is just about impossible. The rest of the rigamarole is just theatre.
10.21.2008 11:29am
Dave N (mail):
Uh Clem,

I basically agree--except the planes were not hijacked immediately after takeoff.

What did change, however, is that the cockpit doors are now closed and locked most of the time. And pilots know not to open a locked door for a hijacker, even if a knife is being held to their grandmothers' throats.
10.21.2008 11:39am
krs:
Every time I got through the airport, I hope that the next terrorist attack targets a TSA facility.
10.21.2008 12:06pm
Thales (mail) (www):
I have noticed a propensity for attractive women to be pulled aside by mostly male TSAgents for "random" screenings.
Israel is on to something, though the profiling it uses would have to be tempered to be constitutional here (also since, as we know, not all terrorists are Arabs, including the infamous shoebomber jackass Richard Reid).
10.21.2008 12:10pm
JB:
Krs,
If there is ever another airplane-based terrorist attack, a poorly-vetted TSA agent will be one of the accomplices.
10.21.2008 12:12pm
trad and anon:
With a change in those two policies, a 9-11 style attack is just about impossible. The rest of the rigamarole is just theatre.
Nonsense. Every TSA policy is absolutely vital to ensuring the safety of airline passengers. Just imagine the consequences if people were allowed to take those 20-ounce bottles of Pepsi on a plane.
10.21.2008 12:19pm
PLR:
I've amassed an inspiring collection of al-Qaeda T-shirts, Islamic Jihad flags, Hezbollah videotapes, and inflatable Yasir Arafat dolls (really). All these things I've carried with me through airports across the country.

I have enough T-shirts, but I could really use an Al Qaeda baseball cap. Anybody got a link to the AQ store? I hope they take Paypal.
10.21.2008 12:25pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"... box cutters [the weapons used by the 9/11 hijackers]."


According to Edward J. Epstein, no evidence exists show the 9/11 hijackers used box cutters.
Not a scintilla of evidence had been found then— or to date— that either plastic knives or box cutters were used by any of the ten hijackers who crashed United Airlines flight 175 and American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center. No box cutters or plastic knives were found in the debris. Nor were the cockpit voice recorders ever found from Flight 11 and Flight 175. No witnesses, either passengers or crew members, on either flight 11 or flight 175 ever reported any hijacker having a box cutter or a plastic knife.
I don't know if more recent evidence exists to the contrary.
10.21.2008 1:22pm
SailorDave (www):
so, i agree the TSA is 100% ridiculous and pointless security theater, but isn't the reporter part of the problem? There is no theater without an audience. And without a TSA, we'd get the same stories, with the press using them to call for the creation of a TSA and using it as an example of the failure of private sector security. The *ONLY* point served by reporting this is to (1) encourage TSA bureaucrats to tighten rules further to avoid embarrassment in the press and (2) get some attention for the reporter.

IMHO, atlantic reporters of the world, please help society publishing your stories of how it's still possible to drive 100 mph in America without getting caught, or to buy drugs in most American cities, or to illegally record rock concerts on cassette players. Because if we can distract enough bureaucratic busybodies with all of that equally easy nonsense, then maybe we can get some smarter people working on airport security.
10.21.2008 1:38pm
theobromophile (www):
Not a scintilla of evidence had been found then— or to date— that either plastic knives or box cutters were used by any of the ten hijackers who crashed United Airlines flight 175 and American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center. No box cutters or plastic knives were found in the debris.

Um... could that have something to do with the fact that those planes - and whatever weapons were used in their hijacking - rammed into two huge buildings, caused a smoking inferno that was hot enough to melt steel, and then got buried under hundreds of thousands of tons of rubble?

I guess it's possible that people went through the debris very carefully, especially near the planes, but it seems like "no plastic knives were found" isn't the most compelling of evidence.
10.21.2008 2:01pm
Hey Skipper (mail) (www):
We weren't just told that, it was official policy to cooperate with hijackers. It was also official policy that the cockpit doors had to remain open for take-off and landings.

Right and wrong.

Until 9/11, pilots were taught to comply with hijackers demands in order to protect passenger lives. Which, when you think about it, directly contradicts national policy to never negotiate with terrorists.

It was never policy to leave the flight deck door open during takeoff and landing.

Three things have changed since 9/11: intrusion resistant flight deck doors, a substantial number of Federal Flight Deck Officers (in other words, pilots with guns), and pilots trained, in the event of an attempted hijacking, to land on the nearest suitable piece of pavement and disable the airplane, no matter how many people are getting killed in back.

There will never be another hijacking. What the TSA needs to be looking for are the things that could bring down an airplane. Losing five or six jets on the same day would leave a significant mark.

There's a whole lot of stuff that doesn't belong on that list, but that the TSA looks for, anyway.

BTW, I am an airline pilot.
10.21.2008 3:33pm
JosephSlater (mail):
Just to add one positive note about the TSA, once when traveling out of Detroit, I left my I-Pod in the tray, and a TSA guy tracked me down well into the airport to return it to me.
10.21.2008 4:23pm
Aric (mail) (www):
I've always said that if I were a Muslim terrorist looking to hijack a plane, before going through airport security, I would disguise myself as a Muslim terrorist looking to hijack a plane. The TSA wouldn't look twice at me.
10.21.2008 4:30pm
pete (mail) (www):

I don't know if more recent evidence exists to the contrary.


The only evidence that they used box cutters was Barbara Olson's phone call. This slate story says we do not know many details since they may not have used the same tactics on each plane and the recordings did not all survive.
10.21.2008 5:30pm
byomtov (mail):
The 9/11 attacks worked because people were told docility was the best way to stay alive. With that myth punctured, you'd need at least a firearm to hijack a plane, and in any event the pilot wouldn't surrender control of the aircraft.

Was that really a "myth" before 9/11? After all, without that as a precedent, would you expect hijackers to want to crash the plane? Haven't they mostly wanted to go to Cuba, or collect a big ransom or something?
10.22.2008 8:24pm