Terrorism

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While the country anxiously waits (in a TSA airport security line, likely) for Michael Chertoff's next case of indigestion, a surprise TSA security check at the Albany airport last week produced some disturbing results. Airport screeners failed five of seven tests, and TSA officials were able to sneak four banned items past screeners. In one case, screeners confiscated a bottle of water, but missed bomb components in the same bag. The Albany Times Union reports:

TSA inspectors also have found lapses at other airports around the country, including Newark Liberty International Airport, where last October screeners failed to detect bombs and guns in luggage, and last month at two airports in Houston, where seven employees were found to have either expired security badges or no credentials at all.

WTOP news here in D.C. reported that after the Albany incident, TSA immediately conducted an investigation…into who leaked the results to the press.

Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office tested the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and found that a fake company with fake names and fake credentials was able to secure real licenses to buy real radioactive material.

The undercover operation involved an application from a fake construction company, supposedly based in West Virginia, that the investigators had incorporated even though it had no offices, Internet site or employees. Its only asset was a postal box.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials did not visit the company or try to interview its executives in person. Instead, within 28 days, they mailed the license to the West Virginia postal box, the report says.

That license, on a standard-size piece of paper, also had so few security measures incorporated into it that the investigators, using commercially available equipment, were able to modify it easily, removing a limit on the amount of radioactive material they could buy, the report says.

James Bovard sounded the TSA alarm for reason back in February 2004.

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  1. So what was that about us being unable to evaluate the success of preventative measures?

  2. I’m confused. Does this report mean I should be more worried or less worried? One day I read that Chertoff–nay–the whole Administration, is greatly exaggerating the terrorism threat, and the next day I read a snarky account of how our security apparatus is failing to protect us…from what? The threat that does not exist?

  3. The TSA is a joke. They are more interested in being politically correct than doing their damn job they way it should be done.

    Just one more ineffective government agency.

  4. ed: Both the threat and the efficacy of our countermeasures to any threat that might arise might be overblown.

    And if our countermeasures are not effective, that might lend credibility to the idea that the threat is not “all that,” as it were. After all, if they can’t even defeat these lame-o measures…

  5. Ed-

    What’s confusing? That a government would use some threat or perception of a threat to create a bureaucracy that ends up being ineffective, burdensome and intrusive? That makes perfect sense to me.

  6. Ed:

    My point is that it’d be better if DHS spent money and time rounding up loose nukes and identifying potential terrorists than confiscating bottles of water and scaring us with monthly pronouncements about an impending threat.

  7. This is the very definition of the word, “clusterfuck”.

  8. If you want a concealed carry license you get fingerprinted, background checked (with the FBI), and all your info verified (no PO Boxes, baby). You then (in some states) get a holographic permit as hard to forge as a driver’s license.

    Want some radioactive material? Just send the permits to my PO Box and I’ll forge the restrictions.

    Notice the priorites here? Gotta keep them uppity peasants controlled.

  9. I have some sympathy for Chertoff. I also get the agita when I do a shitty job on something.

  10. So, fast forward ten years. How many cancer masses will go undetected by the U.S. Medical Service? I’ll bet it is more than happens today.
    On the other hand, just what can be done about these security misses? Double or triple checking of every bag ? Making the checkers get on the plane and fly with the passengers they just checked? Having no inspection at all – just a wave and “have a nice flight” from a podium attendant? Paying $100,000 salaries to each screener who have each gone through Quantico and Special Forces school?

  11. A truly effective security program would stop trying to find weapons in baggage and would focus on identifying criminals prior to them boarding the aircraft.

    This could be as simple as monitoring the behavior of individuals as they arrive and check-in, then continuing as they pass through security screening. Customs detects many smugglers after they pass through security, because they show a visible change in behavior after they clear customs.

    Of course, the ultimate wet-dream for the law-and-order types would be massive data analysis systems that search financial records and other personal information to detect patterns of bad behavior prior to the individual ever getting to the aircraft.

    Note, that the liquid-bomb conspiracy in Britain was discovered and circumvented by standard police procedures before anyone ever got to the airport. Yet, even though that worked, we now have TSA searching for water bottles in carry-on baggage.

  12. Off hand I can’t think why a construction company would need a licenses to buy real radioactive material. What would you be constructing with it? The only uses (outside of reactors) I know are for telling time and other measurement.

    I’d be very curious as to what kind of radioactive material is available on the market once you get your license. I can’t believe there’s any possibility of constructing a nuclear bomb out of it. I’m not even sure how “dirty” you could get with cesium.

    thoreau, any thoughts?

  13. Considering that the TSA is nothing more than a jobs program created by Bush to reduce unemployment, I just chalk up anything they do to yet another waste of tax dollars, as well as something that’s keeping me from ever getting on an airplane again.

  14. I agree that the 3 oz. toothpaste rule is idiotic, pointless and ineffectual. And I would also agree that the Administration has a vested interest in keeping the population on edge in order to further its agenda. I’d like to see more focus on legitimate targets (and countermeasures) and less on pooh-poohing what is a proven (if not temporarily dormant) threat.

  15. I flew 100,000 miles last year. That the TSA is a pointless show of force is hardly news.

    Once, right after the liquids rules started taking effect, a lady in line behind me had a bottle of water in her purse. The gruff agent took it and snapped at her. She looked at me kinda confused, and I said in my best mocking tone of voice “C’mon now, you can’t take WATER into an AIRPORT, that’s just nuts.”

    We both cracked up, but man did I get some dirty looks from behind the X-ray machine.

  16. jf,

    I’m pretty sure TSA is nothing more than a jobs program created by Congress to create more civil servants.

  17. I really enjoy the people who thank the security people at the airport when they screen them and confiscate items. What heros they are, doing such a good job of looking for the scare-of-the-day items like toothpaste and shampoo rather than for actual items like knives and bomb parts. We should be proud to be protected from ourselves by this system.

    *note: My mom made it through security with a bottle of water on her recent trip back from Hawaii

  18. I’ve done a fair amount of flying the past few years. My impression of the TSA is, ‘these are the people Wal-Mart won’t hire’. I hate when someone that stupid has that much authority over me. Reminds me of my days in the military.

  19. Warren, construction companies use ‘nuclear gauges’ as test equipment.

    As seen here.

  20. Reinmoose–When I flew from Las Vegas back home to NYC in March I made it through security with a bottle of water. It was in a mesh pocket on the side of my bag that anyone and everyone could see.

  21. I had a gut feeling this was going to happen.

  22. Hmmm, Dan T seems to be avoiding this thread, despite his presence in the one above.

    I wonder why…

  23. I wonder in all seriousness if, it could somehow be arranged, and you had your choice of going through the current security regime or one of, say, 15 years ago (X-ray, metal detector, that’s it, have a nice flight) with similar planes and schedules…which would you choose? Would the libertarian choose a flight where you could walk right up and board without any hassle? I doubt it. Then again, it’s done all the time that way on private and chartered flights.

  24. I’m amazed they still let the GAO operate.

  25. Would the libertarian choose a flight where you could walk right up and board without any hassle? I doubt it.

    This libertarian would.

  26. This libertarian would.

    Ditto

    At least give me Bacon and a Kiss Air

  27. For the record, I’d fly Minimal Security Airlines (“Take your chances with MSA!”) but only if they were free to decline service to anyone not wearing a shirt. Or Arab-looking. Or really fat. Or under the age of five. Or wearing an iPod whose crappy-music-emitting earbuds can still be heard 8 rows away. I think I’ve covered everyone.

  28. I can totally see a TSA guy digging through a bag of dissassembled AK47s and RPGs, going… “Any water in here? Sir, you need to take off your sandals…ok, thanks….next”

    They spend so much of their time focused on inane stupid little things, no wonder they ignore ‘bomb parts’.

    I’d also ride security-free planes domestically. Internationally, maybe not. But for business hops? no problem.

    The TSA should be renamed Work-Release program #9817231897

  29. ed,

    An old lawyer told me, never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. You’re going to find a lot of people here ::raises hand:: who would go with the hassle-free option.

  30. Yeah, Jack Warden said the same thing to Paul Newman.

  31. But it’s just a hypothetical. I’m sure most people here would prefer some kind of security.
    It’s just a matter of degree.

  32. But it’s just a hypothetical. I’m sure most people here would prefer some kind of security.
    It’s just a matter of degree.

    Uh no, not really.

    I’ve been in Moscow when the Chenyans were putting bombs on buses and trams. It didn’t keep me in the hotel cowering in fear.

    Your odds of getting killed in a car accident are many orders of magnitude higher that getting killed in a terrorist action.

    I’m not even sure that it is really necessary to provide ID when you pick up you ticket. The airline probably wants to do that to avoid fraud, but I’m not sure it helps security in any real way.

    Let the police search for potential conspiracies to commit hostile acts against airplanes. Waiting for the TSA to find weapons at the security gate is way too late.

  33. Yeah, really.
    I’m perfectly happy with Security pulling the Crazy Ranting Guy With The Baseball Bat out of line.

  34. I’m perfectly happy with Security pulling the Crazy Ranting Guy With The Baseball Bat out of line.

    This statement has nothing to do with airplanes. It would be true in nearly every public setting where the populace lines of for access to some service or facility.

  35. One day I read that Chertoff–nay–the whole Administration, is greatly exaggerating the terrorism threat, and the next day I read a snarky account of how our security apparatus is failing to protect us…from what? The threat that does not exist?

    Well, my opinion is that the threat is very real, but a lot of the stuff we’re doing to prevent it really just doesn’t do the job.

    Some of it does, of course, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation, but there are a lot of misplaced priorities.

    In this case, an obsession with everything that looks like something that could possibly be a bomb has led to a decrease in ability to recognize more obvious threats.

    What it really shows is a classic libertarian rallying point: the inefficiency of the government. I’m starting a new job as a blackjack dealer, and the efficiency of casinos at catching crooks without sacrificing service, compared to the utter clusterfuck of the TSA hasssling everyone and accomplishing little… it says a lot.

  36. I, for one, would like to still have airport security… but REAL security instead of this reactionary, “someone tried it, so noone can be trused with (insert item)”, “stop only one Arab looking person per day to look like we’re doing something, but not look like profiling”. I want profiling, I want agents trained to look for suspicious ACTIVITY, not nail clippers and personal lubricant. God forbid I forget to put my medication that I’d need to take mid-flight in a plastic baggie. I must have a problem with authority and am a flight risk, but that dark skinned fellow behind me that’s constantly looking over his shoulder as if he’s prepared to run gets the express check!?

  37. Off hand I can’t think why a construction company would need a licenses to buy real radioactive material. What would you be constructing with it? The only uses (outside of reactors) I know are for telling time and other measurement.

    Strong gamma sources are sometimes useful for non-destrutive testing in situ (like x-rays, but with more penetrating power). That is the only “construction” use I’m aware of, but that is probably more reflection of my ignorance than anything else.

    I’d be very curious as to what kind of radioactive material is available on the market once you get your license. I can’t believe there’s any possibility of constructing a nuclear bomb out of it. I’m not even sure how “dirty” you could get with cesium.

    Once you’re got the license you can buy many different isotopes that are availible off the shelf, and quite a few more obscure ones bespoke.

    You remember all the excitement about Polonium 210, last year? A couple of months before that I had bought some of the stuff. (I work in the physics department of a major US university. Thankfully my boss is the licencee, and the Health and Saftey people do all the paperwork.)

    As for how much damage you can do with Cs-137. Well, it all depends on the activity, doesn’t it? It is a moderate energy, single line gamma source with a 30ish year half-life. availible off the shelf for a variety of applications.

    Fissionables are less common, but a co-worker recently obtained a small supply of uranium salts. Trying to build a nuclear explosive out of commercially availible supplies seems like a lost cause to me.

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