Author Jeffery Goldberg conducted an experiment with airport security to see how adept and astute the personnel were at detecting potential threats and terrorists. They failed miserably.
If I were a terrorist, and I’m not, but if I were a terrorist—a frosty, tough-like-Chuck-Norris terrorist, say a C-title jihadist with Hezbollah or, more likely, a donkey-work operative with the Judean People’s Front—I would not do what I did in the bathroom of the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport, which was to place myself in front of a sink in open view of the male American flying public and ostentatiously rip up a sheaf of counterfeit boarding passes that had been created for me by a frenetic and acerbic security expert named Bruce Schneier.
He had made these boarding passes in his sophisticated underground forgery works, which consists of a Sony Vaio laptop and an HP LaserJet printer, in order to prove that the Transportation Security Administration, which is meant to protect American aviation from al-Qaeda, represents an egregious waste of tax dollars, dollars that could otherwise be used to catch terrorists before they arrive at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport, by which time it is, generally speaking, too late.
……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 (which is where I came closest to arousing at least a modest level of suspicion, receiving a symbolic pat-down—all frisks that avoid the sensitive regions are by definition symbolic—and one question about the presence of a Leatherman Multi-Tool in my pocket; said Leatherman was confiscated and is now, I hope, living with the loving family of a TSA employee). And because 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’ve also carried, at various times: 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. I was selected for secondary screening four times—out of dozens of passages through security checkpoints—during this extended experiment. At one screening, I was relieved of a pair of nail clippers; during another, a can of shaving cream.
During one secondary inspection, at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, I was wearing under my shirt a spectacular, only-in-America device called a “Beerbelly,” a neoprene sling that holds a polyurethane bladder and drinking tube. The Beerbelly, designed originally to sneak alcohol—up to 80 ounces—into football games, can quite obviously be used to sneak up to 80 ounces of liquid through airport security. (The company that manufactures the Beerbelly also makes something called a “Winerack,” a bra that holds up to 25 ounces of booze and is recommended, according to the company’s Web site, for PTA meetings.) My Beerbelly, which fit comfortably over my beer belly, contained two cans’ worth of Bud Light at the time of the inspection. It went undetected. The eight-ounce bottle of water in my carry-on bag, however, was seized by the federal government.
On another occasion, at LaGuardia, in New York, the transportation-security officer in charge of my secondary screening emptied my carry-on bag of nearly everything it contained, including a yellow, three-foot-by-four-foot Hezbollah flag, purchased at a Hezbollah gift shop in south Lebanon. The flag features, as its charming main image, an upraised fist clutching an AK-47 automatic rifle. Atop the rifle is a line of Arabic writing that reads Then surely the party of God are they who will be triumphant. The officer took the flag and spread it out on the inspection table. She finished her inspection, gave me back my flag, and told me I could go. I said, “That’s a Hezbollah flag.” She said, “Uh-huh.” Not “Uh-huh, I’ve been trained to recognize the symbols of anti-American terror groups, but after careful inspection of your physical person, your behavior, and your last name, I’ve come to the conclusion that you are not a Bekaa Valley–trained threat to the United States commercial aviation system,” but “Uh-huh, I’m going on break, why are you talking to me?”
……“The whole system is designed to catch stupid terrorists,” Schneier told me. A smart terrorist, he says, won’t try to bring a knife aboard a plane, as I had been doing; he’ll make his own, in the airplane bathroom. Schneier told me the recipe: “Get some steel epoxy glue at a hardware store. It comes in two tubes, one with steel dust and then a hardener. You make the mold by folding a piece of cardboard in two, and then you mix the two tubes together. You can use a metal spoon for the handle. It hardens in 15 minutes.”
……Schneier and I walked to the security checkpoint. “Counterterrorism in the airport is a show designed to make people feel better,” he said. “Only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.” This assumes, of course, that al-Qaeda will target airplanes for hijacking, or target aviation at all. “We defend against what the terrorists did last week,” Schneier said. He believes that the country would be just as safe as it is today if airport security were rolled back to pre-9/11 levels. “Spend the rest of your money on intelligence, investigations, and emergency response.”
After deliberately acting suspicious and concealing things which should have been discovered during security procedures, he made a trip to see the head of the TSA Kip Hawley, and reveal what he and his ‘partner in crime’ had done. Hawley’s response?:
……I asked about the depth of background screening for airport employees. He said, noncommittally, “It goes reasonably deep.”
So there are, in other words, two classes of people in airports: those whose shoes are inspected for explosives, and those whose aren’t. How, I asked, do you explain that to the public in a way that makes sense?
“Social networks,” he answered. “It’s a very tuned-in workforce. You’re never alone when you’re on or around a plane. ‘What is that guy spending all that time in the cockpit for?’ All airport employees know what normal is.” Hawley did say that TSA employees conduct random ID checks and magnetometer screenings, but he did not say how frequently.
I suppose I’ve seen too many movies, but, really? Social networks? Behavior detection? The TSA budget is almost $7 billion. That money would be better spent on the penetration of al-Qaeda social networks.
“The reinforcement of cockpit doors” crap is ridiculous, especially since one of the 9/11 muslim terrorist hijackers—Hani Hanjour—was the Saudi pilot who flew American Airlines flight 77 into the Pentagon.
It would also be better spent on training TSA personnel in the fine art of profiling. You can’t just look for weapons, you have to single out potential terrorists. This is something that just isn’t done.
I applied for a TSA job for a position at the Cleveland airport. During the assessment interview, I made it clear that as a former Soldier with experience in counter terrorism, I have an unapologetic lack of political correctness. There’s nothing wrong with pulling that Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern male between the age of 18-35 out of line, to scrutinize him a bit more that you would an 80 year old wheel-chair bound person on oxygen. Needless to say, I was not hired.
A security checker should be observant and trained on how to pick up on the suspicious behavior or the motivations of a potential terrorist, but unfortunately, it’s not required.
Our borders leak like sieves, our immigration policies are lax, and we have slid back into complacency.
The foolish hesitancy to profile will probably result in another catastrophic attack on America. I hope for the sake of my country, that I am wrong. But, I don’t think so.