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November 20, 2010

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Ummmm you could look at New Zealand's and/or Australia's airport security?

We don't get a lot of bomb threats but as an island nation heavily depended on agriculture so even a single apple slice carried by a toddler and discarded in the wrong place could present a huge threat.

And still only a minimal number of people get their junk touched...(this might be because we're also heavily dependent on tourism earnings and do not want to put that at risk either).

Terrorists have magic powers (that no max security prison in the continental US could contain). But hard X-ray radiation and groping in certain places experts call airports can neutralize them for a short time.

Btw, what became of the terahertz scanners that do without ionizing radiation?

And one of these days there will be rumors about swallowed explosives leading to mandatory MRI scans plus gastro/colonoscopy.

Is there any way for our institutions to *stop* being afraid all the time?

I'm not sure we can stop them from being afraid. But maybe we can make them at least as afraid of voters as they are of terrorist attacks. After all, the next terrorist attack is just a hypothetical. Voters who are upset by the latest TSA outrage are real. We just need to make sure that the politicians hear from those angry voters enough that they're afraid that letting the TSA run wild will hurt their reelection chances.

I don't think there's any way the TSA can stop being the way it is, so long as the people controlling it are in the market for security theater, not real security. They're buying the sizzle, not the steak, and they know it.

Brett:

They're buying the sizzle, not the steak, and they know it.

I'm not sure that they know it. The people in question are inside the Beltway Bubble, where Fox News is an important news source -- and Fox is selling the drumbeat of fear.

Basically? I think they've drunk their own kool-aid.

As long as there is a collective national freak-out whenever any terrorist incident occurs (no matter how unsuccessful), our institutions will respond with ever more ridiculous methods. The trick is how to unscare the citizens.

sapient:

The loudest, most consistent voices in our national conversation are freaking out: *that*'s why the citizens are perpetually scared. Colbert made his half of the Stewart/Colbert rally "Keep Fear Alive" to mock this -- but I don't think the fear-mongers really noticed what he was doing, and it certainly wasn't enough to change the conversation.

Doctor Science, thanks for quoting me above!

Can any of you think of a way they can *stop* being "institutions structurally incapable of dealing with security rationally"?

There's not much the TSA/DHS can do since more rational security would necessitate a much smaller budget and fewer staff and less power; this is a decision that needs to be made at a level above DHS.

Why were West Germans able to do it in 1989, but Americans can't do it now? Is there any way for our institutions to *stop* being afraid all the time?

Just a guess, but I think it may be related to (1) trust in institutions/authority figures, and (2) willingness and ability of politicians to demagogue the issue.

I mean, if the President addressed the nation and said "our best security experts have analyzed the situation and concluded that this is just security theater so we're going back to the old way", there would be a political firestorm. Because enough people don't trust him and enough politicians can demagogue the issue and enough people are just scared all the time. None of that would matter if media institutions had a bullsh!t filter that caused them to mock any politician who demagogued the issue, but they don't.

Most people don't know a damn thing about security so they don't realize what a joke this is, and because so many people don't trust our institutions, no one can tell them a truth they'll believe.

"When people started talking about the TSA offering passengers a choice of "nude pix or enhanced pat-down", I was at first kind of confused about why there was so much fuss. "

A black president, although any Democratic president would get some fuss from the same people who cheered Bush's reign of sh*t.

The other thing is, in any given year, most Americans don't fly. At all. And those who do, mostly they take maybe one round trip. Which means most people won't encounter these security measures for some time if they ever do, and even those who do will just run into them once or twice.

Those who fly regularly and have therefore run into these security measures already, or anticipate doing so, are a small minority of the population. They also happen to be the people who write blogs, work for newspapers, or are college professors or executives or whatever - high-status people who know how to make a fuss.

Don't take this as a defense of the security measures. Just that blaming the general population for this - or expecting them to firmly take the side of the frequent flyer - is mistaken. For most people, it's getting the money together to buy a plane ticket that's the real hassle. And given the general crappiness of many jobs, it may involve tasks just as dangerous or degrading as being scanned or groped.

The other angle is to think about who took the real hit after 9/11. The wealthy are frequent flyers got to wait in line at the airport. The poor are military servicepeople got sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to kill people, get shot at, and maybe get maimed or killed. (Obviously that's not universally true, but in aggregate, those getting killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are overwhelmingly from the lower income segments.)

If you never or rarely fly, and you stand a good chance of being the one to pay the biggest price if there's another terrorist attack, why wouldn't you want the most stringent security anyone can come up with?

And the security does work. I know it's very fashionable and brave to say that it doesn't. But the last two attempts to bomb passenger planes in or traveling to the United States failed because the bombs that were smuggled on board were very restricted in size and capability because they had to pass through the existing security systems. (I'm talking about the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber.) Personally, I'd take the risk of flying without security measures. But there is a quantifiable risk (i.e. people are actually trying to blow up US planes, albeit very very infrequently) and the security measures do work to some extent to mitigate that risk. And the new ones will work somewhat better on that front.

Personally I think the groping and the use of X-ray machines by semi-trained TSA staffers goes quite a bit too far, and I think it's likely that the backlash is going to kill this one. Wealthy, influential people who fly a lot don't like getting their genitals groped by rude security staff with guns.

(Obviously that's not universally true, but in aggregate, those getting killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are overwhelmingly from the lower income segments.)

I don't think you ever done research on the demographics of the US military. I think you're just making things up here. Am I wrong?

If you never or rarely fly, and you stand a good chance of being the one to pay the biggest price if there's another terrorist attack, why wouldn't you want the most stringent security anyone can come up with?

I defy you to find any evidence that even a few people think like this.

And the security does work. I know it's very fashionable and brave to say that it doesn't.

If the goal of the security measures is to minimize loss of life, it clearly fails. People who are pissed off about airline security will often forgo flying in favor of driving, which is dangerous and kills people. The TSA are likely to have killed a great number of people indirectly by making flying so unattractive.

But the last two attempts to bomb passenger planes in or traveling to the United States failed because the bombs that were smuggled on board were very restricted in size and capability because they had to pass through the existing security systems.

No, they failed because the bombers were idiots. I ask you, wouldn't these same two bombers have been able to kill a great many people if they took (much larger more effective) bombs to a subway platform during rush hour or shopping mall during the holiday shopping season? Can you imagine the economic chaos that would have ensued if even a small number of Americans decided that maybe going shopping around Christmas was a bad idea?

In any event, both bombers were foiled not because screening forced them to use crummy bombs, but because people on the plane stopped them. If their bombs were twice as large and ten times as capable, passengers would have still stopped them. The screening was irrelevant.

Turbulence: I don't think you ever done research on the demographics of the US military. I think you're just making things up here. Am I wrong?

First, you might want to re-acquaint yourself with the rule against ad hominem argument here. This is hardly the first time that you wade in guns blazing with accusations against posters or other commenters without bringing any evidence of your own to bear.

Second, it is a well-established fact that the rank and file of the US military is vastly disproportionately drawn from low-income, minority, and immigrant communities.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/22/AR2008012203326.html

The study also found that the number of "high quality" recruits -- those with both a high school diploma and a score in the upper half on the military's qualification test -- has dropped more than 15 percent from 2004 to 2007. After linking the recruiting data to Zip codes and median incomes, it found that low- and middle-income families are supplying far more Army recruits than families with incomes greater than $60,000 a year.

http://www.aclu.org/files/pdfs/humanrights/crc_report_20080513.pdf

Defense Department population studies show that most recruits are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and only 8 percent of recruits have a parent who is a professional.

I defy you to find any evidence that even a few people think like this.

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20022876-503544.html

Americans overwhelmingly approve of the use of full-body digital x-ray machines - a new technology in use at some airports in the U.S. Most, meanwhile, do not approve of racial or ethnic profiling - a practice not in place.

I'm sorry that nobody seems to have polled low-income, infrequent fliers on the question "Does the fact that members of your family or your friends got sent to Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 make you more or less inclined to support intrusive security measures at airports that might prevent another terrorist attack?" but I don't think that is a stretch. People are not stupid.

If the goal of the security measures is to minimize loss of life, it clearly fails.

The goal of the security measures is to prevent another terrorist attack on airliners, not to minimize loss of life or even provide a reasonable cost-benefit trade-off in life-hours lost or wasted. By those standards it has been mildly successful.

No, they failed because the bombers were idiots. I ask you, wouldn't these same two bombers have been able to kill a great many people if they took (much larger more effective) bombs to a subway platform during rush hour or shopping mall during the holiday shopping season?

Or they aren't idiots but recognize that attacks on air travel are far more spectacular, have a vastly higher media profile, and effectively target the wealthy and influential section of the US population. They also conveniently originate in foreign countries where preparations for a bombing may be easier than trying to do it in the US.

In any event, both bombers were foiled not because screening forced them to use crummy bombs, but because people on the plane stopped them.

The reason people on the plane had time to stop them is because their bombs sucked so much. The reason their bombs sucked is that they had to get them through metal detectors, bag searches, pat-downs, and bomb sniffers:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentaerythritol_tetranitrate

In the wake of terrorist PETN bomb plots, an article in Scientific American noted that even if all cargo were screened, PETN is difficult to detect because it has a very low vapor pressure at room temperature, meaning very little of it gets into the air around the bomb, where it can be detected.
It is more difficult to detonate than primary explosives, so dropping or igniting it will typically not cause an explosion (at atmospheric pressure it is difficult to ignite and burns relatively slowly)... In December 2001, al-Qaeda member Richard Reid, the "Shoe Bomber", used PETN in his unsuccessful attempt to blow up American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami. He had intended to use the solid triacetone triperoxide (TATP) as a detonator... PETN was found in the possession of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the "Christmas Day bomber"... he had attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 while approaching Detroit from Amsterdam. Abdulmutallab had tried, unsuccessfully, to detonate approximately 80 grams (2.8 ounces) of PETN sewn into his underwear by adding liquid from a syringe; however, only a small fire resulted.

The explosive they used is hard to detonate and tends to catch fire instead. A more effective bomb that could be instantly detonated would not have given the passengers enough time to do anything about it, as has often been the case in past carry-on bombings of aircraft.

I know there's only two data points here but it seems reasonable to conclude that the security measures that forced them to use the hard-to-detect PETN explosive that is also hard to detonate was largely responsible for the failure of the last two bombing attempts.

They could have gone to the toilet (preferably the one next to the cockpit) to detonate their bombs. Reid tried to detonate his shoes at his seat and the second guy pepared the bomb in the toilet and then returned to his seat. I have no idea why.
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I was surprised that Al Qaeda did not derail trains on 9/12 and blew up satchel charges on the Staten Island Ferry on 9/13. Air traffic was down and all eyes were on that while, I presume, there where at least as many people on commuter trains as usual, if not more. A train wreck might normally not have the same effect on public perception but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 it would have been devastating.
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As for security theatre. Some countries (notably England) kept anti-witchcraft statutes in the law books long after the last witch trial* because the authorities feared that the commoners would think that they did not take the threat of black magic seriously. Also they (rightfully) assumed that the commoners would feel safer (and thus be more docile), if they believed that those statutes were taken seriously and not just a charade.

*I discount here the use of the English statute during WW2 against fraudulent spiritists because that was just a convenient judicial shortcut.

Hartmut:

I was hoping to hear your take on German attitudes toward "security theater". Do you think there's a fundamental difference from what we experience in the US? and why?

The goal of the security measures is to prevent another terrorist attack on airliners, not to minimize loss of life or even provide a reasonable cost-benefit trade-off in life-hours lost or wasted. By those standards it has been mildly successful.

Are you frakking kidding me?

I thought we left this particular flavor of inane bullsh1t behind with the Bush Administration. This is the exact same shallow argument that they consistently used to justify torture, security theater, and every other counterproductive excess in the same of illusory security. "Nothing's happened, that means it's working!"

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. You ought to know better.

I know there's only two data points here but it seems reasonable to conclude that the security measures that forced them to use the hard-to-detect PETN explosive that is also hard to detonate was largely responsible for the failure of the last two bombing attempts.

No, the only conclusion to be drawn from this is that--as noted before--the bomber was an idiot. Incompetent.

"Difficult to detonate" does not mean "not explosive". The fact remains that he brought a bomb through the security theater that you're trying to claim has been successful at stopping terrorist attacks for years, when the only terrorist attacks we have any evidence of actually being attempted were foiled for reasons that have bugger-all to do with the TSA. The fact that he brought it through at all is prima facie evidence that those security measures did not work.

To date, the only items ever stopped at the airport security checkpoints have been sharps, drugs, and other prohibited items that are not particularly useful for hijacking a plane these days. No terrorist or bomb has ever been stopped at security theater.

Yes, you can make an argument that the existing security measures were effective because we don't know of any terrorists who tried getting anything through. But again, it's an idiotic absence-of-evidence argument, and one you could make to justify anything up to and including sacrificing kittens to FSM by drowning them in spaghetti sauce.

Hartmut: They could have gone to the toilet (preferably the one next to the cockpit) to detonate their bombs. Reid tried to detonate his shoes at his seat and the second guy pepared the bomb in the toilet and then returned to his seat. I have no idea why.

My guess - which is all it can be - is that both of them were expecting their bombs to instantly detonate when triggered. Reid tried to ignite his and expected an instant big bang. Wouldn't make any difference where you were for that. Abdulmutallab expected his to go boom when he mixed in the acid. There was no Plan B. Once you've spent 20 minutes in an airliner toilet with acid burns to your groin and a burning bundle of explosives in your underpants that refuses to explode, going back to your seat and acting like nothing happened isn't any less stupid than any other option.

The most interesting angle on this that I've read came (via Rafe Colburn) from a blog that talked to some TSA screeners:

A few days ago I contacted 20 TSA Transportation Security Officers (TSO) to ask their opinions of the new “enhanced” pat downs. Of the 20 I reached out to, 17 responded. All 17 who responded are at airports where the new “enhanced” pat down is in place … and the responses were all the same, that front line TSOs do not like the new pat downs and that they do not want to perform them. I expected most to not like the pat downs … but what I didn’t expect was that all 17 mentioned their morale being broken down.

“It is not comfortable to come to work knowing full well that my hands will be feeling another man’s private parts, their butt, their inner thigh. Even worse is having to try and feel inside the flab rolls of obese passengers and we seem to get a lot of obese passengers!”

“Do you think I want to go to work and place my hands between women’s legs and touch their breasts for a few hours? For starters, I am attracted to men, not women and if I was attracted to women, it would not be the large number of passengers I handle daily that have a problem understanding what personal hygiene is.”

“Being a TSO means often being verbally abused, you let the comments roll off and check the next person, however when a woman refuses the scanner then comes to me and tells me that she feels like I am molesting her, that is beyond verbal abuse. I asked the woman if she thought I like touching other women all day and she told me that I probably did or I wouldn’t be with the TSA. I just want to tell these people that I feel disgusted feeling other peoples private parts, but I cannot because I am a professional.”

“I was asked by some guy if I got excited touching scrotums at the airport and if it gave me a power thrill. I felt like vomiting when he asked that. This is not a turn on for me to touch me it is in fact a huge turn off. There is a big difference between how I pat passengers down and a molester molesting people.”

I don't think we've even scratched the surface, so to speak, of the explosive Neuticle threat.

Catsy: "Difficult to detonate" does not mean "not explosive". The fact remains that he brought a bomb through the security theater that you're trying to claim has been successful at stopping terrorist attacks for years, when the only terrorist attacks we have any evidence of actually being attempted were foiled for reasons that have bugger-all to do with the TSA. The fact that he brought it through at all is prima facie evidence that those security measures did not work.

No. The reason they were able to get these bombs through security checkpoints is that they used a type of explosive that is particularly hard to detect. Why did they use that explosive? To get through security checkpoints! Analogously, the fact that prisoners use shivs made out of toothbrushes is not evidence that prison rules against inmates having knives are ineffective.

You cannot lay all the blame for the bombs not working on the bombers being stupid. The bombs did not work because they used a type of explosive that is hard to detonate. Yes, it would have been effective if they had managed to detonate their bombs. They didn't.

Again, personally I don't care that much about the infinitesimal chance that I will get blown up in a terrorist bombing. I am increasingly convinced that the price of terrorist attacks is much larger than the direct loss of life and that people who argue as if that was the only cost are rather childish, though.

it's an idiotic absence-of-evidence argument, and one you could make to justify anything up to and including sacrificing kittens to FSM by drowning them in spaghetti sauce.

I'm not justifying any kitten-drowning or torture, so let's not get all slippery-slope here. I don't think the invasive security measures just instituted are a good idea or at all justifiable. I just think it's a mistake to assume that the reason people support them is because they're stupid. You have to consider the fact that most people don't fly at all, those that do fly don't do it very often, that the ultimate costs of the 9/11 attacks fell very heavily on people in the military who are largely drawn from exactly those low-income groups who do not fly very much, and that people can put 2 and 2 together.

You can add to that the fact that the intolerable humiliations being talked about are nothing more than many people in low-status jobs tolerate every day. Humiliating searches of retail and warehouse workers to prevent employee theft are common. A lot of people have to pee in a cup in front of a stranger on a regular basis just to keep their job because of mandatory drug testing programs. Humiliation by authority figures is a regular part of life for a lot of people in this country. So now some rich white yuppies are getting a taste of it at the airport - well, speaking as a rich white yuppie I'm not happy about it, but it's not the outrage of the century.

I was surprised that Al Qaeda did not derail trains on 9/12 and blew up satchel charges on the Staten Island Ferry on 9/13.

That's because you're severely overestimating al Qaeda's operational resources. The reason they didn't follow up isn't because they lacked appropriate targets; they didn't follow up because the 9/11 attacks used up essentially all of their operatives capable of operating within the US.

If they had more people capable of attacking within the US, they probably would have used them to make the 9/11 attack bigger, rather than for follow up attacks. That's because they knew we'd tighten security after 9/11- especially in the immediate aftermath- in the anticipation of a second attack. Nothing would have hurt the effect of 9/11 more than a public failure in a follow-up attack the next day.

You cannot lay all the blame for the bombs not working on the bombers being stupid.

On the contrary, that is the only factor for which there is any supporting evidence.

The bombs did not work because they used a type of explosive that is hard to detonate. Yes, it would have been effective if they had managed to detonate their bombs. They didn't.

No, stop right there. You've said this a couple times now, and yet you keep breezing right past the logical implications of it.

Fact: PETN is an explosive.
Fact: PETN is difficult to detect and bypassed the security checkpoints.
Fact: enough PETN was in those bombs to bring down those planes, had they been competently detonated.
Fact: those bombs did not go off because the bombers failed to competently detonate them.

These are facts. They are not in dispute. There is ample evidence in those facts to support the assertion that the bombs did not go off because bombers were incompetent. There is nothing in those facts to support any assertion about the effectiveness of security theater other than the fact that it did not prevent these bombs from getting on the planes.

Nothing.

Why you think the facts of these bombing attempts in any way bolster your case for security theater is incomprehensible.

I'm not justifying any kitten-drowning or torture, so let's not get all slippery-slope here.

Oh, for fsck's sake. I chose an absurd, ridiculous "sacrifice" specifically to illustrate the point that an absence-of-evidence argument can justify anything. It's not a slippery slope argument.

I don't think the invasive security measures just instituted are a good idea or at all justifiable. I just think it's a mistake to assume that the reason people support them is because they're stupid.

....

I think you are confusing me with someone else. I never said word one about the motivations of Americans for supporting these security measures. Because if I were to hazard a guess, I'd say it has a lot more to do with the near-criminal way certain politicians, pundits and media outlets have spent nearly ten years fearmongering the subject and terrorizing Americans into thinking terrorism is some kind of existential threat that we must take unprecedented measures to prevent, measures deemed unnecessary and pointless by countries who actually have to deal with this kind of thing for real on a regular basis.

These bed-wetters have mythologized terrorists into some kind of cadre of super-villains out of a Bond movie, inflated their capabilities far beyond reality, and done so purely in order to keep Americans so afraid that they'll submit to anything in order to think that they're safe. And now this mythology has become self-sustaining, because Americans are so unjustifiably afraid of terrorism that it's politically unthinkable to dial back the paranoia in our security establishment, and any politician who did so would risk the destruction of their career if any terrorist beat the odds and actually did pull something off, regardless of whether or not their success had anything to do with the reduction in security theater.

Put simply: conservatives and their fearmongering fellow travelers have spent the better part of a decade terrorizing Americans in order to justify ever-increasing encroachments on their liberty.

And when you make foolish arguments like the one you've been flogging today about how a lack of terrorist attacks means those encroachments on liberty worked, you are doing their work for them.

Stop.

I flew from Amsterdam to Seattle about two weeks after the underwear bomber incident, took two internal flights within the US a few days later, and then returned to Amsterdam from Sea-Tac. So I had a good basis for comparing the attitudes of screeners in two countries in reaction to the same incident. And there really is no comparison.

The screening in Amsterdam was much more thorough than anything I have ever gone through in the US. We were interviewed individually for a couple of minutes each, then went through an X-ray machine while our hand luggage was scanned, then patted down, then had our hand luggage searched and swabbed in front of us.

Enhanced security in the US seemed to simply mean that screeners were ruder and more confrontational.

Quite frankly, I enjoyed parts of the security screening in Amsterdam. The interview was friendly and intelligent; the agent seemed to be interested in readng me clearly rather than ratcheting up the tension and then trying to figure out if I was unduly nervous. Discussing things later with my traveling companions, I found out that the conversations ranged over a wide variety of topics. This was a skilled interrogation, not a scripted interaction.

The searches were simultaneously thorough and respectful. The bag search was another evaluation of me, personally, and was again conducted in a manner that didn't throw a lot of added stress into the signal.

The entire experience gave off an air of competence that made me feel more secure as a passenger. It also did not leave me feeling that any of the screeners were asserting their dominance over me, or demanding my submission. They were doing a job, not indulging in primate dynamics.

Meanwhile, pace the screeners quoted in Fish's article, the wide perception is that the enhanced pat-downs are supposed to be unpleasant enough to override reluctant passengers' aversion to the new scanners. They're seen as a punishment for daring to exercise any choice, have any power, in a process where the passenger is supposed to be powerless.

One difference is, I suspect, that the Amsterdam security staff are better paid than their American counterparts, and have better benefits and job security. I also suspect they're better trained; certainly, their interpersonal skills have more polish and professionalism. They come across as confident enough not to have to prove their authority.

Doctor Science, I cannot say much about German attitudes on the topic. Procedures for in-country flights have not changed that much, in theory not at all because the banned item list existed long before 9/11 (just enforcement became stronger. The only new thing is the small transparent bag and the ban on liquids.
My last flight (one of only two out of country flight for many years for me btw) was iirc in late 2009 and it was inside the EU. That's a huge difference. Depending on the airport one has to show up between 1 and 0.5 hours before scheduled takeoff for flights inside Europe (not sure about non-US outside EU). If you want to fly to the US, you have to show up several hours earlier and the controls are (iirc) done by US personnel.
My mother recently had a first hand experience of change. She went on vacation with her sister. On her outward flight (inside Germany) everything was normal. On the flight back the controls were hypermeticulous (the luggage controls, no extra gropings). What she did not realize until a few hours later was that the day before several luggage bombs had been found and one had changed planes on either this or a neighbouring airport. Also several mail bombs originating from Greece had shown up (sent among others to chancellor Merkel). So, there was an actual reason for suspicion.
I am pretty sure that I could smuggle something not innocent onto a plane, if I would not get red, sweaty and twitchy so easily, and an expert could surely do much damage with the shoes I usually wear (security half-boots with steel caps and sole inlets and very long shoelaces).
I think we keep a halfway reasonable balance between security and inconvenience. It will keep the amateurs away. It's similar to anti-theft devices for cars, it keeps the joyriding youngster and the local amateur car thief from taking your car but will not stop professionals.
Do you know what is of real concern to air traffic security experts? Idiots with laser-pointers that find it funny to stand in the entry lane trying to blind pilots of landing planes. That led to near crashes several times this year.

Catsy, the fact you omitted from your list was that PETN is a particularly difficult explosive to detonate. That fact and its connection to the failure of both bombings in question was widely discussed after Abdulmutallab's failed bombing attempt.

e.g.:

http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1950297,00.html

In one small way, the system did work, because screening effectively forced the alleged bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to use a liquid chemical rather than a more basic or reliable detonator to trigger the powdered explosive that was sewn into his underwear and smuggled on board. And it turns out that pulling off such an explosion on a plane is no simple feat. "It's a bit more complicated than just putting a flame to the powder," says Jimmie Carol Oxley, the director of the Center of Excellence in Explosives Detection, Mitigation, Response and Characterization at the University of Rhode Island at Kingston.

Like most stable explosives it's not easy to ignite — it requires an initial explosion. Usually that would be accomplished with a detonator like a blasting cap, but that device would have almost surely shown up on any airport X-ray machine or metal detector. Instead, Abdulmutallab allegedly brought along a syringe, which could have been filled with a liquid explosive like nitroglycerin. If done correctly, the primer explosion could have set off the PETN, which might have blown a hole in the side of the plane. "It looked like he was trying to use a chemical initiation, and that takes a lot of pre-experimentation to find out what would work," says Oxley. "He succeeded in getting a fire, but that was it."

I'm not trying to say that the system of security in effect at the time was 100% effective, that would be stupid since the guy got a bomb on the plane and could well have detonated it had things gone a little differently - it was a probabilistic event. What I'm saying is that the constraints imposed by the security system were a significant factor in making it more difficult to bring a working bomb on board.

My feelings about that changed significantly after Abdulmutallab's attempt. Prior to that I thought that Reid's attempt had failed primarily because he was an idiot. After the second failed bombing, the evidence that the restrictions of the security system had been a significant factor in both bombs failing was, to me, much stronger.

But, the metal detector + bag X-ray + pat-down + bomb sniffing system is about as effective as anything, and sufficient as far as physical security goes. I'm not really sold that the full-body scanners are necessary although they don't freak me out personally, and I'd like the backscatter X-ray machines to have bit more independent testing before, and I'm definitely not sold on getting to second base with a TSA staffer. I think the security gains from that is extremely> marginal and the cost to personal privacy far too high.

I just don't think the absolutist argument that these measures are 100% ineffective is right. And since I've been hearing it since 9/11 and public support for the measures has been high the whole time, it's clearly not been a convincing line of argument.

I don't think that's because everyone is an idiot with no idea about security tradeoffs. I think it's a combination of people not making decisions solely on the basis of lives-lost cost-benefit analysis; of people believing (as I do!) that some of those security measures are actually at least partially effective; of people connecting the huge human costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the terrorist attacks; of a greater tolerance for indignity among much of the population than among people who've never had to take a piss test to get a job; and not least, because most people just don't fly very much and so another half an hour at the airport every year or two isn't a big deal.

I think it's sensible to take that all into account when trying to make the case. I hear a lot of claims that the entire security system is "security theater", i.e. of no value whatsoever. That is not helpful when you want to talk about what a reasonable security system might look like. Metal detectors and bag X-rays and pat-downs are here to stay, at least until we've been a decade or so without an attack, because they do serve a useful purpose, annoying though they are.

Jacob, you keep saying that "PETN is a particularly difficult explosive to detonate" but if the source you are relying on is Wikipedia, I think you're overreading the evidence. My understanding of the situation is that most explosives you'd want to use to blow things up are reasonably hard to detonate and that you use a primary explosive charge to set them off. Here, for instance, is the relevant section of Wikipedia on secondary explosives, which is what PETN is:


A secondary explosive is less sensitive than a primary explosive and require substantially more energy to be initiated. Because they are less sensitive they are usable in a wider variety of applications and are safer to handle and store. Secondary explosives are used in larger quantities in an explosive train and are usually initiated by a smaller quantity of a primary explosive.


Examples of secondary explosives include TNT and RDX.



RDX, as you may know, is the active ingredients in C-4. Indeed the Wikipedia PETN article says that PETN is easier to set off than TNT.


The thrust of your argument as I understand it is that recent attackers have been forced to use PETN, a particularly difficult explosive to detonate, because security measures make it difficult to use better explosives. My understanding of the situation is rather that it's pretty standard to use an explosive that's as hard to set off as PETN. C-4, for instance, also requires a detonator.

The lack of detonator was also repeatedly cited in the sources I posted above. They had no detonators because they had to go through security. But the choice of explosive was constrained by security and also materially affected their chance of success since - from my limited knowledge of these things - there are explosives that are easier to set off without a detonator but are easy to detect. Whether PETN is harder than C-4 I wouldn't know, and can't look up this second...

This isn't an argument I came up with on my own. It was widely discussed at the time by people who actually are experts in explosives, unlike me. I'm surprised that it is even controversial let alone an argument that is contributing to the downfall of the nation etc.

There certainly are explosives that are easier to set off without a detonator, but as I said, my understanding is that most of the standard explosives that one uses to blow stuff up (as opposed to setting off other explosives) require a detonator. In particular, as far as I can tell, TNT, C-4, dynamite, ANFO, and PETN all require detonators. Indeed, as far as I know, this is considered a desirable property, since it makes the explosives easier to handle; you don't want them to go off until you're ready. Indeed, this is the key advantage of dynamite over nitroglycerine.


This isn't an argument I came up with on my own. It was widely discussed at the time by people who actually are experts in explosives, unlike me. I'm surprised that it is even controversial let alone an argument that is contributing to the downfall of the nation etc.

Whether you came up with this argument on your own or not, without additional support it's not particularly convincing. What explosives would be more desirable for this application, except for the fact that they are more easily detectable?

I'm not sure why the idea that it was a lack of detonators rather than a choice of explosive that caused the failures is supposed to undermine the point. The lack of detonators was an even more direct consequence of the security measures in place.

Did you read the Time story I linked to above where someone who actually knows what they're talking about was saying that the failure of he bombs was directly connected to the way the attempts to detonate them were constrained by the security measures?

I don't want to give any recipes here but I think I could come up with a detonator device that would pass security easily because it would be undistinguishable from a common item that to my knowledge is not banned.

40.000 people are killed every year in the US in car accidents - terrorist would have to blow up 200 planes every year to reach that number...

Realted, a thought provoking analysis of fear-mongering as an instrument of political power: The Power of Nightmares

The lack of detonators was an even more direct consequence of the security measures in place.

Would the detonators been likely to have been discovered via the old, pre-9/11 security measures?


I'm not sure why the idea that it was a lack of detonators rather than a choice of explosive that caused the failures is supposed to undermine the point. The lack of detonators was an even more direct consequence of the security measures in place.

Did you read the Time story I linked to above where someone who actually knows what they're talking about was saying that the failure of he bombs was directly connected to the way the attempts to detonate them were constrained by the security measures?



Yes, I've read the story.

Going back to your original post, you wrote:


I know there's only two data points here but it seems reasonable to conclude that the security measures that forced them to use the hard-to-detect PETN explosive that is also hard to detonate was largely responsible for the failure of the last two bombing attempts.

However, the relevant security measure in this case according to to the article is the metal detectors and X-rays:


But like most stable explosives it's not easy to ignite — it requires an initial explosion. Usually that would be accomplished with a detonator like a blasting cap, but that device would have almost surely shown up on any airport X-ray machine or metal detector.

In other words, it has nothing to do with the vapor pressure of the explosive. Rather, it has to do with blasting caps being obvious-looking devices on X-rays and containing a bunch of metal. I see that you now want to argue that this is a side point to your main argument, but since you decided to harp on it (you mentioned it twice) I thought it was worth setting the record straight.

As to whether it undermines your argument, what *I* hear people complaining about isn't having any security. I, at least, don't object to the metal detector or the x-ray, since most of them make it marginally harder to bring a firearm onto the plane which seems like a good thing to me. Rather, I hear people complaining about all the new security measures (pat downs, whole body imagers, etc.). If you want to argue that that stuff is useful, I'd be interested in seeing some evidence that that has had an impact on the sort of bomb someone could bring on the plane. It doesn't seem to me that the argument you have offered so far in fact supports that.

Edit: obviously whole body imagers have not been around long enough to have any impact. Feel free to substitute "explosive sniffers" in that sentence.

Sure, you can't detonate PETN with, for instance, a length of dynamite fuse. But you can use an exploding bridgewire detonator, or use that same detonator to initiate a secondary explosive that is both easier to detonate than PETN and provides enough of a shock to detonate the PETN charge.

Of course, the wiring on such a device would almost certainly trigger the metal detectors, or show up on the luggage X-ray. But I imagine that one could disguise such things as something else commonly found in luggage, i.e. an electric razor or some such.

Yeah, I'm surprised nobody else has mentioned wire detonators yet.

I've never made one, but I think basically all you need to do is discharge a decent sized capacitor through a tiny piece of nichrome wire. The wire's easily smuggled, and you could probably build the rest in 20 minutes from the components in an off the shelf stereo boom box or something. Nor are supercapacitors on the banned list AFAIK.

if the wire alone wouldn't be enough to detonate the main explosive, just add a drop or two of easily secreted nitroglycerin.

This idea that the shoebomber was actually a highly sophisticated terrorist who only failed because mean old security theater was too efficient to risk smuggling a tiny improvised detonator through is absurd.

So the question should then be, why didn't they try to bring detonators on board?

Is it really just that they're idiots? OK, maybe.

But I think when we casually talk about how someone could easily circumvent some security measure we underestimate the risk-aversion of these organizations. A failed bombing isn't just, "Oh well, send in the next volunteer". It puts someone who knows far too much about the organization in the hands of the people who are trying to destroy it. So they're paranoid about getting caught. (Now you'd also expect them to be paranoid about the bombs not going off, but it looks like they erred on the side of caution too much.)

ERK, given that the existing security measures were repeatedly referred to as "security theater" here, I wanted to point out that in the assessment of actual security experts they did actually work pretty well. Here's the patron saint of security skeptics himself, Bruce Schneier:

The security checkpoints worked. Because we screen for obvious bombs, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab -- or, more precisely, whoever built the bomb -- had to construct a far less reliable bomb than he would have otherwise. Instead of using a timer or a plunger or a reliable detonation mechanism, as would any commercial user of PETN, he had to resort to an ad hoc and much more inefficient homebrew mechanism: one involving a syringe and 20 minutes in the lavatory and we don't know exactly what else. And it didn't work.

Yes, the Amsterdam screeners allowed Abdulmutallab onto the plane with PETN sewn into his underwear, but that's not a failure, either. There is no security checkpoint, run by any government anywhere in the world, designed to catch this. It isn't a new threat; it's more than a decade old. Nor is it unexpected; anyone who says otherwise simply isn't paying attention. But PETN is hard to explode, as we saw on Christmas Day.

Dismissing everything the TSA does as "security theater" does not help to persuade anyone that newly-introduced security measures are ineffective.

Schneier is very smart and well worth reading, but I think that many of us that have backgrounds in computer security tend to come to physical security with prejudices that are not that helpful.

Attacks in computer security tend to be "free", easily repeated at very high rates, anonymous, and continuous. Probabilistic defenses are not helpful because they're easily overwhelmed by brute force. It's generally easy to see when computer security has failed, and failure is an all-or-nothing event. Because the attacks are anonymous and zero-cost, deterrence is almost impossible.

Attacks in physical security tend to be high-cost, easy to trace back to the source, and extremely rare. Partial measures that exact only a probabilistic reduction in likelihood of success can be a very effective deterrent. Deterrence is very hard to measure because of "tiger repellent" effects and because measuring anything about very rare and very heterogeneous events is hard.

I also wanted to point out two other things: first, that the costs of airport security do not fall evenly on the population. Most people fly very little or not at all. The people who fly regularly are a very small minority. So as in all cases where costs fall unevenly, one cannot make a population-wide cost-benefit analysis without taking into account the distribution of costs and benefits.

And secondly, I think that it's not reasonable to make a cost-benefit analysis on the basis only of the lives lost directly to terrorism. For one thing, that's not how we make decisions about anything. But also, for a lot of people the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were directly, causally tied to the 9/11 attacks - not a crazy idea really, no matter how you feel about Iraq, we certainly wouldn't be in Afghanistan now if not for 9/11 - and for anyone in the military or close to someone in the military the costs of those wars have been extremely high.

Maybe it's a stretch to connect those two things. But the fact is, the military recruits from low-middle-income communities, and those are exactly the people that don't fly very much. And that group actually includes most of the population of the US.

Anyway, I doubt I'm convincing anyone of anything by saying the same thing repeatedly in different ways, so I'm going to leave this poor thread alone now.

I was at first kind of confused about why there was so much fuss.

I t5hink part of the reason was simply that we reached (or at least got real close to) a tipping point. There was already a (justified IMHO) feeling that the whole screening effort, as implemented, was a farce. But it was a farce which was merely inconvenient; the chance of you being randomly selected for more detailed examination was small, and "more" wasn't that intrusive.

But now everybody is effectively being strip searched. And that is simply one step too far. Especially since the alternative is being groped by strangers who one has no reason to suspect of even the level of professionalism that a real criminal could expect of a police officer. (Is there anyone out there who has seen a TSA officer who didn't at least appear to be a minimum wage worker who simply couldn't get alternative employment, even when the economy was doing well?)

Eventually, even deliberately ramped up levels of fear yield to obvious excess. And this may just have been the point.

Fine, one more:

jack lecou: This idea that the shoebomber was actually a highly sophisticated terrorist who only failed because mean old security theater was too efficient to risk smuggling a tiny improvised detonator through is absurd.

The dude got a sufficient quantity of plastic explosive onto a US-bound flight to destroy the plane two months after 9/11 and came very near to detonating it:

Jane's Information Group:

Press reports published in the immediate aftermath suggested that Reid was a bungling loner, unable to detonate his IED because he was attempting to light a simple fuse which would not have resulted in ignition of the explosive. This was not the case: Reid was a well-trained Al-Qaeda operative, although on later examination by authorities, a palm print and hair residue was found on the detonator which was not his. Investigators believe the device was built for him by an accomplice.

The reason Reid's device did not detonate was not the result of his technical incompetence, US judicial sources have told JTIC. Reid's flight reservation was in fact made for 21 December; however he did not fly until the next day, and this is probably the main reason why the attack failed. Carrying a new passport, with no luggage, having paid in cash and with an unkempt appearance, French authorities were suspicious of Reid and therefore did not allow him to board on 21 December. After further investigation, however, no clear evidence was available to further refuse passage, and so the next day Reid boarded the same flight. This meant that he had to wear the IED-laden shoe for an extra day over that intended. As a result, due to natural perspiration, the fuse became too damp to ignite properly by the time the plane was airborne.

As I say, the probabilistic nature of these events makes it hard to nail down single causes and effects. Reid's one-day delay ruined his bomb fuse, but he was close to success despite security measures (which are never 100% effective).

An electric detonator with metal parts might have worked better after a day's delay. Do you really think it is "absurd" to think that the reason he didn't bring one was checkpoint security? Do you really think it is more plausible to believe that he and his accomplices were just too stupid to understand how plastic explosives work? Even though they were smart enough to get them onboard the plane in the first place?

This is not something I just made up, for god's sake. Read that Schneier quote. Read the Jane's report. This is conventional wisdom among security types.

The dude got a sufficient quantity of plastic explosive onto a US-bound flight to destroy the plane two months after 9/11 and came very near to detonating it:

Per Schneier, your own quote, "There is no security checkpoint, run by any government anywhere in the world, designed to catch this."

It's not evidence of competence. It's just easy to do. Not risk free, perhaps, but not supervillainy either.

An electric detonator with metal parts might have worked better after a day's delay. Do you really think it is "absurd" to think that the reason he didn't bring one was checkpoint security? Do you really think it is more plausible to believe that he and his accomplices were just too stupid to understand how plastic explosives work? Even though they were smart enough to get them onboard the plane in the first place?

From your own quote, at best the bomb failed because the plotters involved made a judgement call about how robust their device needed to be, and they guessed wrong.

It WAS NOT, however, hindered by security checkpoints. There's no evidence whatsoever that more robust detonator, suitably disguised, would have been stopped.

Heck, according to this theory, all they really needed was a bit of plastic bag or latex condom or something to protect the device from perspiration.

To reiterate, I'm not sure whose case you think those quotes are helping.

In brief: experts agree it's easy to smuggle small but sufficient quantities of explosives through checkpoints. Experts hypothesize that the detonator would have worked were it not for a bit of perspiration dripping on it.

In other words: whether you think the plotters were incompetents or not is irrelevant. In either case, the failure of the plot was entirely down to them, and their choice not to wet proof their detonator.

Security theater checkpoints were(are) powerless to stop it.

Jacob,

I know Bruce Scheier reasonably well and he's a smart guy, but he's not the last word on security, and I'm pretty sure it's not anywhere in the computer security guy code that I need to agree with him on every point, so really this is just argument from authority on your part.

Again, the topic of this thread isn't metal detectors or x-raying carryon, which I haven't heard anyone refer to as security theater here, but rather whole body imagers, explosive sniffers, and universal aggressive frisking, which were relatively recently introduced and do look to many of us like security theater. So far, you have presented absolutely zilch evidence that they have a significant security impact, and the example you cited repeatedly in this thread, as I said earlier, is relevant to the measures in place prior to 9/11. So, I don't really see any of your verbiage about blind spots computer security people may or may not have to be particularly responsive to the question of whether these new, rather more invasive, mechanisms are useful.


The main bit of improvement has already been made--passengers won't sit by and let a hijacking take place.

Exactly, Sebastian. That and closed and reinforced cockpit doors are the only changes which have any substantial value relative to cost. Not that the other things might not have some marginal value, just that the value relative to cost is tiny.

Does anyone know if there are exceptions to the groping for kids? I thought I saw somewhere that they had decided that kids under 12 didn't need to get the groping, but then later I thought I saw DHS say there was no exception, and of course, TSA's website is typically unhelpful (though it does offer this tip for traveling with kids: "NEVER leave babies in an infant carrier while it goes through the X-ray machine." Um, thanks).

I'm not taking my 20 month old through a backscatter machine, no matter how "safe" TSA says it is.

The TSA blog is short on specifics but does indicate children may be patted down:

Myth: All children will receive pat-downs.

Fact: TSA officers are trained to work with parents to ensure a respectful screening process for the entire family, while providing the best possible security for all travelers. Children 12 years old and under who require extra screening will receive a modified pat down.

Thanks KC. Hopefully everything will be moot and we'll just get the normal metal detector this week (and for our trip in December), so I don't have to say "Are you sure you want to pat down his diaper right now? I wouldn't."

Since government is involving itself in health care in a big way, it could greatly increase efficiency by combining security checks with preventive medicine physicals. Get checked for hidden explosives and get your pap smear at the same time.

The main bit of improvement has already been made--passengers won't sit by and let a hijacking take place.

Always fighting the last war, aren't we?

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