Looking for PETN, Scanning Grandma at the Airport, and the Future of Air Travel

In all the furor about the new TSA scanners and pat-downs at airports, what surprises me is that there is very little discussion of what exactly the inspectors are now looking for and why they are shifting tactics.

The old scanners and procedures designed to discover metal (guns, knives, bombs with timers or detonators) are helpless before a relatively low-tech alternative kind of explosive that is favored by al-Qaeda and similar groups.

The inspectors are looking for forms of PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, which is from the same family of explosives as nitroglycerin and which is used to make plastic explosives such as Semtex.

Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, used PETN, as did Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the crotch bomber, last year this time over Detroit. PETN was in the HP cartridges sent by a Yemeni terrorist in cargo planes recently. And, a suicide bomber put some up his anus and used it in an attempt to assassinate the son of the Saudi minister of the interior (which does counter-terrorism). Yes, he was the first ass bomber, and he missed his target, though he no longer cares about that, what with being dead and all.

The problem with PETN is that it cannot be detected by sniffing dogs or by ordinary scanners. But if you had a pouch of it on your person, the new scanners could see the pouch, and likewise a thorough pat-down would lead to its discovery.

The TSA guys are trying to look more systematically for PETN. That is why they have adopted these more intrusive methods. And, there has been chatter among the terrorist groups abroad about launching attacks on American airliners with this relatively undetectable explosive.

None of us likes the result, which is a significant invasion of privacy.

But if al-Qaeda and its sympathizers could manage to blow up only a few airliners with PETN, they could have a significant negative effect on the economy and could very possibly drive some American airlines into bankruptcy. Al-Qaeda is about using small numbers of men and low-tech techniques to paralyze a whole civilization, which was the point of the September 11 attacks.

Since the Bush administration hyped the ‘war on terror’ trope half to death, many in the American public no longer want to hear about this danger. But it is part of my business in life to deliver the horrific news that the threat is real.

The question is really what level of risk Americans are willing to live with. On the one hand, studies suggest that the crotch bomber could not really have brought down the airliner over Detroit last year, even if he had been able to detonate his payload. And, 500 million Europeans decline to take off their shoes when they travel by air, but there haven’t been any successful shoe bombings over there, nevertheless.

On the other hand, it would only take a few small teams making a concerted effort at bombing airliners, to spook travelers and consumers. With the US at risk of a double dip recession, this moment might appeal to al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda wannabes to strike. Al-Qaeda in Yemen is openly talking of a low-tech, high-explosive war against US economic interests, a war of a thousand cuts. Its planned method? PETN-based mail bombs.

I doubt it is possible to outlaw or control PETN. The only alternative to looking for it systematically on air passengers and in cargo would be to just take a chance that no al-Qaeda operatives will be able successfully to detonate a PETN based explosive on an airliner.

And, you have to wonder whether air travel was not anyway a bubble. It depends on inexpensive fuel, which probably won’t be with us for long. It has a very big carbon imprint, which may soon be illegal. And it is vulnerable to low-tech chemical sabotage. Our generation perhaps, and the next one almost certainly, will have the unprecedented experience of having their world become larger and less accessible, after two centuries during which it shrank and seemed conquerable. Cisco’s telepresence technology may be the future much moreso than the airlines.

Posted in al-Qaeda | 68 Responses | Print |

68 Responses

  1. So why did the coalition forces leave a bunker full of plastic explosives unguarded in Iraq immediately after the invasion? This supply was no secret, and had been being watched, I believe, by the UN until the invasion.

    • Same question with thousands of tons of other munitions including dumb bombs and artillery shells made in the USA and given to Saddam to do something or other with. Which have been used to kill and maim tens of thousands of humans, some in the fraudulently named “coalition forces” and many in marketplaces and at prayer.

      Had to leave something for the inevitable opposition to arm themselves with? to ensure there would be continued combat to justify the occupation and all that? Or just stupid, squared? Or all of the above and more?

  2. I plan to drive some airlines into bankruptcy by refusing to fly until my right to be free from unreasonable and degrading searches is respected at the airports. If the purpose of the TSA’s policies is to keep people flying then I hope it is a huge failure. You’re already far more likely to be hurt on the ride to the airport than on the plane. The entire American public is willing to risk themselves on our vastly more dangerous streets every day. Thankfully the number of people willing to shove explosives up their asses is vanishingly small. Looking under ordinary people’s clothes or giving them degrading searches is simply unnecessary.

    • Having just flown from San Diego to Sacramento on Friday, I experienced the intimidation that the TSA staff shift into the moment you choose what is touted as an option, the pat-down. If they are going to offer this “option”, then when public citizens request that “option” they should not be subject to intimidation and attempts to get them to choose the other “option”. I heard about how there is more radiation on the plane than from the scanner. I got to hear a member of our armed forces spout off in a loud voice from across the aisle of the plane about how maybe if we had to get searched with several rifle toting guards around us, then maybe we would understand the reality of the threat we face. And then, a US Marshall appeared at the front of our plane and parked himself on the flight attendants’ bench at the fron of the plane for the duration of the flight (just a few feet away from us). Unbelievable. When is an option not an option?

  3. No amount of airport checking will prevent mischief. Not even if they add vaginal and rectal examination of people 2 year old and older.
    The so called “al-Qaeda” is a metaphor for personhood, respect and equality which the USA continue to deny by supporting Israel’s Zionist regime whose main doctrine is that of “exceptionalism” more so with respect of the “Arabs.”
    Mutual respect among humans is the way to go.

  4. Juan:

    A suicide ass bomber cannot be detected via body scan or pat down. Since the Saudi Arabia suicide bomber attack proves this method is effective – what is the point of the TSA’s methods? Are anal / vaginal probes next for the flying public?

    I think your rather casual write off of flying as a sustainable enterprise is not supported by reality. The nation / world economy is absolutely dependent on massive air travel – shipping. You can bet that regardless of the carbon footprint or the cost of fuel air travel and shipping will be with us for a very long time.


    • “with us for a very long time”? You certainly have more faith in the future of man than I do. What’s it going to take? Killer viruses and flesh eating bacteria? Roaming the Earth on air travelers? Insurection and revolutions the world over? How about human starvation on a massive scale as a direct result of human activity? Try 500 dollar a barrel oil? How about this one, skies so full of soot from volcanic eruptions that air breathing engines are rendered useless? Massive doses, I mean deadly, of ionizing radiation from a period of intense solar flare activity, combined with a virtual disappearance of the Earth’s protective magnetic field? Or maybe the failure of navigational and control devices as the Earth’s poles reverse? Take your pick. Are YOU ready…. Freddie?

  5. What’s needed is rationality, but as has been noted before, the more The People in general can be inflammed and the harder it to take this approach. AND inflamming The People with fear is a pretty good route to gaining/holding power.

    I believe many responsible people agree the point of dimishing returns was reached with fortifying the cockpit doors; that along with passenger awareness virtually eliminated the threat in the air*. A reasonable airport screen would eliminate bombs of the size needed to bring down an airplane*, or of a group of guys big enough to get through that door or overwhelm the rest of the passengers*. Of course, there will always be those nagging little *.

    If ONE life could be saved, who (or at least, which politician) is going to say it wouldn’t be worth it. Along these lines, what would’ve been the impact of 9/11 had there not been television coverage? 3,000 people is academic unless it can be made personal, and then drummed into the public consciousness in a particular way.

    What’s important here, seems to me, is to consider the proper role of govt in its relationship to the general population…..the difference between a republic and a mob.

  6. “The question is really what level of risk Americans are willing to live with.” I say we aren’t asking the correct questions. Are Americans willing to keep occupying Arab lands (and any others’ lands, for that matter) which is what really fuels terrorism as well as subsidizing the Israeli war machine to unprecedented levels? Until we begin asking and seriously answering those questions, it isn’t even worth carrying on a discussion of the subject.

    • D. Mathews has it right on the money! Instead of treating the symptoms of terrorism, treat the disease by removing the US military from the MiddleEast.

  7. Without challenging your argument it seems you leave out an extremely critical point, i.e., WHY al-Qaeda is so interested in blowing up American aircraft. Did al-Qaeda just decide one day this would be a cool thing to do or is it a reaction to American support for Israeli actions in Palestine, for the expansion of U.S. bases across the Middle East, and for the repressive attitude toward Islam? Americans need to be reminded the dangers to us come not from an irrational, blood-thirsty horde but as a calculated response to our own choices. Or as they used to teach us….”Do unto others as you would have them do to you”.

    • Paul Craig Roberts wrote the following on Op Ed News:

      If Americans were more thoughtful and less gullible, they might wonder why all the emphasis on transportation when there are so many soft targets. Shopping centers, for example. If there were enough terrorists in America to justify the existence of Homeland Security, bombs would be going off round the clock in shopping malls in every state. The effect would be far more terrifying than blowing up an airliner.

      Indeed, if terrorists want to attack air travelers, they never need to board an airplane. All they need to do is to join the throngs of passengers waiting to go through the TSA scanners and set off their bombs. The TSA has conveniently assembled the targets.

      If Al Qaeda was really the type of organization that our government claims it is, it would not be fooling around with these unsuccessful attempts at trying to blow up airplanes. Roberts makes this point in his article, very eloquently:

      Think about it. Would a terror organization capable of outwitting all 16 US intelligence agencies, all intelligence agencies of US allies including Israel’s Mossad, the National Security Council, NORAD, air traffic control, the Pentagon, and airport security four times in one hour put its unrivaled prestige at risk with improbable shoe bombs, shampoo bombs, and underwear bombs?

      After success in destroying the World Trade Center and blowing up part of the Pentagon, it is an extraordinary comedown to go after a mere airliner. Would a person who gains fame by knocking out the world heavyweight boxing champion make himself a laughing stock by taking lunch money from school boys?

      I encourage everyone to read all of Robert’s article–it really nails how improbable the “Great War On Terror” has become.

  8. Perhaps airplanes are preferred now, because of the bigger psychological Oomph and drama, but hardening targets can only go so far before normal life becomes virtually impossible. After all as has been noted, the bad guys also think and evolve with circumstances.

    What is most remarkable to me is, in discussing possible solutions to the serious problem of terrorism, how rarely the option of, “how about we stop invading, bombing and generally causing havoc in their homelands?” is tabled and examined.
    The problem and its major cause(s) are only discussed separately, as though they belong in mutually exclusive contexts. This could partly explain why many Westerners see only the narrow, fearful conclusion that “the only defense against irrational, homicidal maniacs is to build ever higher walls”. (Or stay indoors – stop flying – altogether).

    Failing – 0r refusing – to ponder the issue puts us in a situation not dissimilar to many Afghans, who reportedly have no idea why foreign troops are in their country, making things and many innocent lives, go “BOOM”.

    I disagree with most of Anjem Choudarys views but his rhetoric to Spitzer quoted from CNN below, makes me wonder whether some on the other side of the world, could be asking the same question – why do they hate us?

    “When you send bombs over there, what do you expect them to send back to you? What did you expect to find in a package? You know, chocolates? Of course you’re going to find bombs. They’re going to give you a taste of your own medicine.”
    link to parkerspitzer.blogs.cnn.com

    Afghans [Yemenis, Iraqis] have few options when it comes to keeping themselves safe from dangers local and foreign; but as for our mutual ignorance, Westerners have only one excuse: the logic of raw power.

  9. Some forms of psyops require the humiliation of the populace to ascertain their resistance / compliance factor. This particular mission is directed at a particular segment of the populace to see what condition their condition is in. In any case it is a sign we have passed peak sanity, whether you believe in peak oil or not.

  10. The whole thing is theatre. If some psychopath simply wanted to kill a load of people, all he would have to do would be to explode a bomb whilst waiting in the lines of people queing to be checked. The more invasive the checking, the bigger the queues, the bigger the potential casualty list.

    • The answer to the scenario you just described is to install a pre security point before you go to the actual security point… oh wait, how about a security check up before you are cleared to leave your home? Then we’ll be be safe.

    • Also Andrew, consider the effect of blowing up an airport security lounge. It could destroy the airline business except for, perhaps cargo. Airports themselves would become no go zones.

  11. The toner cartridge “bombs” were set to explode mid-air (we are told), but were addressed to “Diego Deza” and “Reynald Krak” at a Chicago synagogue. Deza was a notorious Grand Inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition of the sixteenth century, who tortured people accused of being secret Muslims. The latter name is a rare variant of Raynald of Chatillon, a French knight who slaughtered Muslims en route to Mecca as pilgrims during the Second Crusade in the twelfth century.
    link to counterpunch.org

    This toner cartridge episode reeks of “terrorist” amateurism (as do the shoe & underwear bombers). It took authorities two days to track down the packages containing the toners – why weren’t the likely cargo planes grounded until the packages were found (if we are concerned about planes falling out of the air)?

  12. I’m not sure that the market for air travel is so vulnerable to terrorism (pollution costs may turn out to be another story). But if you were to tell me that, once every year, a plane was going to be brought down by a terrorist, I would still fly exactly the same amount. After all, hundreds of thousands of people die every year in car crashes, and it doesn’t stop anybody from driving.

  13. Professor Cole: What do you mean when you mention ” a pouch” of PETN?
    Could that explain the recent horror story of the colostomy bag/passenger covered in his own urine?

  14. Please, please, let’s also have a discussion on radiation! I have a precancerous condition, and refused the scanners last week at BWI Airport. I hated the pat down, BTW.

    From the Associated Press, “As the government rolls out hundreds more full-body scanners at airports just in time for crowds of holiday travelers, scientists worry that machines might malfunction, raising the risk of cancer. ‘The thing that worries me the most is what happens if the thing fails in some way and emits too much radiation,’ said Arizona State University physics professor Peter Rez. ‘The risk for failure is higher than in a medical setting because the machines are operated much more often, and by TSA workers without medical training,’ Rez said. ‘Though the scanner images do not reveal what’s beneath the skin’s surface, the radiation they emit could potentially affect breast tissue, sex organs and eyes,’ said David Agard, an imaging expert at the University of California at San Francisco.”

    Also, the National Academy of Sciences in July, 2005 concluded that even very low doses of radiation pose a risk of cancer or other health problems and there is no threshold below which exposure can be viewed as harmless.

    There is more and more evidence that chronic low-level exposure to radiation has a greater risk than short-term, high-level exposure. We are under the misconception that if there is no immediate observable damage, well…no harm done. Not so.

    Pilots and attendants were mad and scared about all this additional radiation exposure that TSA originally was going to put them through (which amounts to 2 to 4 times PER DAY!)

  15. How much PETN is needed to bring down a plane?

    If it is a tiny enough amount that it could be implanted into a 3-year-old girl’s bare leg without leaving a visible bump, a silicon ball full of it could be easily substituted for a ball in an adult scrotum sac. ‘We’re sorry Sir, but the your left testicle appeared blurred in the scanner picture and the pat-down was inconclusive, so we’re going to have to remove it. You have the option of requesting a private room, but that could delay your departure time. It’s up to you.’

    The TV reporter who filmed as his daughter was molested by TSA said that he understood the need for security. So I guess he’s had thoughts of rebellion himself in the past, and thinks that some other successful middle- or upper-class white guy like him might act on such thoughts, implant explosives into their toddler, and turn themself, their wife, and their kid into suicide bombers.

    Maybe it’s reasonable. Maybe a few establishment types are getting fed up with torture, police brutality, spending millions to pay the Taliban to protect our fuel trucks while using drones to kill innocent Afghan women and children, trying to help support a dozen relatives whose jobs were outsourced, pensions stolen, and homes foreclosed, while worrying that the same thing could happen to you next……maybe the sheeple are so angry that they believe that somebody ELSE (not them, of course) might act on that anger. So they submit to TSA to prevent that somebody ELSE from acting on the anger that they themselves feel. It’s an endless loop. The more angry people become, the more willing they are to submit to indignities to prevent others from acting on similar anger. So the more repression we’re subjected to, the more submissive we become.

    Me, I stopped flying back when they started the no-fly list. Yes, that’s really my name, and no, I’m not a thousand other people with the same name, but I don’t really want to bother having to prove it every time I fly.

    • “we’re going to have to remove it (your scrotum)…” and if you do not agree you’ll be arrested and fined for $11,000….

      Welcome to the free land of the free and the home of the brave. Congrats Osama.

    • In reality it would take a lot of PETN very correctly placed in an aircraft to actually knock it out of the air.

      Detonating an amount of PETN less than a coke can size, in the passenger cabin would probably only depressurize the cabin, but would leave aircraft control systems intact. Most aircraft these days are fly-by-wire with the communications paths multiply redundant, so even if on path is damaged, the systems automatically switch over to the undamaged paths. Note that Myth Busters did an entire show on aircraft decompression and destruction and had to ultimately fake it up with LOTS of explosives (100 grain shape charge).

      link to youtube.com

      Even if the explosive amount amounted to the volume of multiple coke cans, it is possible the plane would still be flyable.

      Modern aircraft are surprisingly rugged things.

      Civilians never see this because civilian pilots never get the plane any
      where close to their operating limits. I have flown on the military versions of some of the civilian aircraft in combat zones where we stressed the planes a lot, to the point that the humans on board were pushed right against their physical limits and the planes functioned just fine.

      Americans are basically extremely overly fearful.

  16. “…is about using small numbers of men and low-tech techniques to paralyze a whole civilization”

    I was a little surprised to see that turn of phrase from you. What’s a civilization? The term is too often used by those who’ll contrast ‘the West’ with ‘Islamic’, as if the two expressions named clearly defined and intrinsically opposed camps. How does one find out which “civilization” someone belongs to? Maybe they should print it in our passports…

  17. Intelligence gathering, informants, etc should be a primary defensive tool for these issues. The “underwear bomber” was on a State Department list of suspicious persons, and should not have been allowed to obtain a visa or get on a plane bound for the US. A State Dept official testified to Congress on January 27 of this year that “intelligence officials asked his agency not to deny a visa to the suspected terrorist over concerns that a denial would’ve foiled a larger investigation into al-Qaida threats against the United States.”(testimony: Patrick F Kennedy) The bomber was allowed on the plane by the US government itself, and yet is being held up as the primary reason for these new invasive techniques.

  18. Interesting how all the Republicans who have been urging us to go along with giving up our civil rights in the name of fighting terrorism (warrantless wiretapping, racial profiling, etc.) are now up in arms over intrusive searches. Could it be because these initiatives are being undertaken by a Democratic administration?

    • I’m sure that’s part of it, but mostly it’s a question of whose oxen are being gored. It’s easy to support humiliating and inconveniencing The Other Guy – but when it’s you being pulled out of that security line for “enhanced” checks, suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a grand idea.

      • No doubt there are few powerful Republicans who would be subject to racial profiling. But I’m sure there are some who, one would think, would be concerned about wiretapping gone wild–who have said things over the phone they would not like to see on the front page of the newspaper.

  19. “Put some up his anus”…? His rectum, surely.

    (Which gives a whole new nuance to the punch-line, “Damn near killed ’em!”)

  20. I’m not sure I understand the point of trying to bring down airliners…If you want to cripple the industry by terrorizing people, you would just detonate in the middle of the security line…much easier and accomplishes the same thing.
    Passengers on a plane will not allow anyone to take over any more, so the only option is to quickly take out a plane, not to use it as a weapon.
    That being the case, it seems like we are just practicing security theater and pretending we are safer…

  21. how can al-qaeda justify from an Islamic viewpoint, that it is OK to do jihad with the killing material in your private parts??? it boggles the mind. it makes no sense. Clearly, the bomber was drugged, brainwashed, or coerced in some way. They would go this far to engage in vigilantism.

  22. “I doubt it is possible to outlaw or control PETN. The only alternative to looking for it systematically on air passengers and in cargo would be to just take a chance that no al-Qaeda operatives will be able successfully to detonate a PETN based explosive on an airliner.”

    Actually, Prof. Cole, there is another alternative. We could stop being imperialist.

    Mark Marshall

  23. Regarding Anjum Chaudhary, who someone above mentioned, he is from a radical tiny group in the UK, that is rejected by 99% of all the Muslims in that country.

    They are extremists, and the UK Muslim commmunity has invited Anjem Chaudhary [a salafi], their shameless leader, to a number of public debates on his activities, but he is no where to be seen.

  24. “But if al-Qaeda and its sympathizers could manage to blow up only a few airliners with PETN, they could have a significant negative effect on the economy and could very possibly drive some American airlines into bankruptcy.” ….I’m surprised that you haven’t noticed but Mr bin Laden has already succeeded beyond his wildest dreams…it is not just the American airlines which are flying toward bankruptcy but the whole USA. And I might add he would never have been so successful except for the enthusiastic help of American politicians ( whatever ilk) and the entire cast of the USA who have been as happy to throw away their rights as they have been to drop millions and millions of dollars in bombs on people they don’t know…well done!!

  25. I write to urge TSA Security Chief Pistole to take the security procedures one more step. That is, that all scanner and grope-down personnel be required to be scanned and groped when beginning each day’s work. I think this methodology should apply also to management and corporate executives involved in the program. After all, we’ll never know when somebody could slip in to one of these roles very cleverly and pose a mortal danger. The assumption that such a danger has slipped in amongst ordinary citizens today in airports must also be applied to the TSA personnel themselves, to the highest offices! It’s only reasonable and logical. To review: an hour or two’s start up with scanners and gropers scanning and groping themselves, then turning their skills to management and upper level executives with the security companies will surely add to the sense of security these methods bring to us.

    • As indicated by the discussion, the assumptions in this TSA procedure need a serious look to restore sanity. First is the assumption that all Americans are now dangerous, guilty before innocent, and must be checked fastidiously by these intrusive methods. Why this particular method? Is there not some other, unobtrusive method, as with law enforcement people who do not have to be checked and who establish their “credentials” ahead of a flight? Second is the assumption that a dangerous person will stand in a line and wait his or her turn approaching the scanners and gropers. Common sense suggests this is not plausible as thirdly we can assume a bomber would want to escape detection until getting to the target. A fourth assumption that is being ignored is this: if we’re going to apply a Baghdad bomb blow-up mentality to Americans traveling then their having to stand in line for this procedure is highly dangerous. Lines gather and grow, crowds become more dense, particularly as passengers slow down the procedures, and could bring a bomber to a line to detonate something BEFORE reaching the scanner-groper checkpoint. In short, we could be inviting a disaster from within a gathering and growing line. This thought has apparently not come to many people yet, because this idea might make anybody extremely nervous standing in a line moving very slowly and becoming more and more packed with people. The entire procedure is flawed as the discussion has shown again and again. The interpretation that all this “security theater” is aimed mostly at a) more heavy-handed manipulation of ordinary Americans and b) to make security products that earn big bucks is buttressed by failure to scrutinize assumptions for authorizing these intrusive procedures. That the security industry has recently invested five million in lobbying for scanning machines adds to the feeling we ordinaries are being fooled again. Pistole is also interested in extending the scanner-groper approach to subways and trains, which could be even more dangerous in terms of crowd density. When tractor trailers come to our highways and we’re pulled aside to wait our turn I wonder if 80 percent of Americans will still agree that all this nonsense is necessary?

  26. Did any of the attacked flights originate in the United States?


    That reminds me of an old joke.

    One night I’m walking down a street. Ahead of me I see a man crawling around underneath a streetlight. I stop and ask him what he’s doing. He tells me he’s looking for his wallet. He says he dropped it.

    “Ok,” I said, “but I don’t see a wallet. Are you sure this is where you lost it?”

    “No,” he said and pointed, “I lost it in that dark alley down the street.”

    “So… why are you looking here – instead of the alley?”

    “Why? Because the light’s better.”

  27. F. Wockner: It seems to me that the majority of shipping is not done by air but by container ship; these cheap goods from places like China would not be nearly as cheap if sent by air. Thus, all but urgent air parcel express would be relatively unaffected.

    Prof. Cole: If I go by what I see on a day to day basis in my professional life in how people use Skype and other services on a daily basis, the future is indeed here. I’ve (thankfully) attended more meetings in this manner in the last year than I have at any point in the last ten or so. I would imagine that much of this may supplant what we think of in terms of telephone conversations in the next 5-8 years or so.

    That said, I suspect that much of future travel will probably involve cruise ships rather than aircraft for all but the most urgent of business and those needing to part with too much disposable income. Given the ready availability of satellite internetworking, one should be able to keep “working” all the while en route to the destination … and I suspect there are those who would find this sort of nautical business travel quite becoming…

    It would be most sad, perhaps, were the impacts of decreasing petroleum production, adoption of renewable energy sources, and ultimately the migration away from fossil fuels to finally collude to bring about the end of interest in Middle East oil and ultimately bring about peace through economics means what negotiation (however sporadic and lacking sincerity) have not yet been able to do.

  28. News reports said that the amount of PETN in the toner cartridges was 10 ounces. Online resources tell me that the average weight of human feces is 9 ounces. Anal pouches have long been a tool used by drug and diamond smugglers. TSA sees its role as fighting the last war. We take our shoes off (while Israelis don’t) because of the shoe bomber. We expose our crotch, to radiation or fondling, because of the underwear bomber. What happens when a plane is blown up by a guy (or two or three) who brought the explosives on board, hidden where the sun doesn’t shine?

  29. Every year there are more deaths do to slip and falls in the US than there were deaths due to terrorism over the last ten years. If the US government wants to protect me then it can by me a nice pair of bathroom slippers … but stay the hell out of my bathroom!

    • “Every year there are more deaths do to slip and falls in the US than there were deaths due to terrorism over the last ten years.”
      And we’d like to keep it that way. I.e., perhaps it’s not a coincidence that anti-terrorism measures were undertaken and that there have been (comparatively) few terrorism casualties. The questions are, what measures are effective, what measures are legal, and what measures will the public stand for?

      • Problem is, there is no evidence that death by slip-and-fall would not continue to dwarf death-by-terrorist in the US even if all security measures were rolled back to the pre-911 state. In fact the last 250 years of US history blows a gigantic hole in your attempt to create a Chicken Little tautology.

        Cowardice and irrationality is a witches brew.

        If you want to stop terrorism then stop creating terrorists. The US should withdraw all support of the Israeli apartheid state. It is the right thing to do despite foreign-born terrorism.

  30. I reckon that you are about 70% correct about the future of air travel. My understanding is that aircraft are relatively efficient in energy terms when flown long distances full of passengers. When flown shorter distances or partially empty, they are much less efficient. If that is true, then it is likely that increasing energy prices will eventually put an end to commuter and regional air travel, but that transcontinental and intercontinental air travel will remain although they will be expensive.

    Caveat: I have not actually worked the numbers to verify the accuracy of what I’ve just said.


    According to the Wikipedia article on PETN, it is difficult to detect non-intrusively because it has a very low vapor pressure. i.e. not enough of it evaporates at normal temperatures for sniffing devices or animals to detect reliably.


    FWIW, my personal opinion is that US Airport security is security-theatre. I don’t see that there is much chance that poorly trained, poorly paid, ineffectively managed security personnel stand much chance of preventing serious attempts to hijack or destroy aircraft. But there appears to be little chance of replacing the ineffective, intrusive and unpleasant horror show with a security system run by competent professionals. It probably wouldn’t work either, but it’d be less annoying.

    • I’m a chemist with some experience with military grade high explosives. PETN has a VP similar to other organic nitrates. Trained dogs should have no trouble detecting it.

  31. I appreciate that you’re trying to keep people informed, but your post underlines the problems with this security measure–the ones other commenters have already mentioned.

    The “ass bomber” didn’t hide the explosives in a pouch on his person. He hid them in one of his orifices.

    Therefore, to prevent similar attempts in the future, we must all submit to cavity searches. At the very least, a group of randomly-selected travellers should submit to cavity searches.


    At some point, a level of invasive searching becomes untenable. I think that point is reached when large numbers of travellers feel humiliated and assaulted by security personnel, even in circumstances where the searchers are obeying procedure.

    The problem with these arguments is that the essential justification is true: civil liberties really do stand in the way of perfect law enforcement and protection. If the TSA were allowed total control over every passenger’s person, then there would be no terrorist attacks. But we can’t accept these invasions even in the service of protection, because they themselves constitute harm. I am one of those people who is completely terrified by the prospect of “a real law-enforcement pat-down,” and I think these new measures go too far.

    • Piny said

      “If the TSA were allowed total control over every passenger’s person, then there would be no terrorist attacks.”

      This is 100% false.

      The reality that no one seems to want to face is …

      It is absolutely, completely, totally impossible for any group of humans to protect members of the group from random acts of violence, no matter how repressive the group is.

      Keep in mind that even in Saddam’s Iraq, that was one of the most repressive and controlled regimes on earth, people still died from random acts of violence, not all of them perpetrated by the government.

      In Nazi Germany, that was extremely repressive and controlled, the resistance still killed German soldiers and civilians.

      In Stalinist USSR, random acts of violence against the leadership still happened!

      No matter how oppressive the TSA becomes, it will NEVER be able to provide 100% aircraft security.

      A simple example: there are workers servicing airplanes that are undocumented non-US citizens! Requiring the airlines to use only US citizens would cause a labor shortage and add a lot of expense to the airlines. As it is, TSA and the airlines just look the other way.

      There are literally thousands of ways to damage a plane, most of which are NOT covered by the TSA (non) security procedures. For obvious reasons I can not detail them on a public forum, but rest assured, if I know about them, there are thousands of others on this earth that also know.

      Virtually ALL the TSA security procedures are WORTHLESS and are all for show, to delude fearful, ignorant Americans into thinking they are “safe,” even when they can NEVER be “safe” (at least no where on this earth while they are still alive).

  32. Second the comments already made on how to avoid terrorist attacks. We will have indefinite threats of terrorism into the endless future if we continue our course of Empire. The great Chalmers Johnson, who passed away on Saturday, reminded us of this constantly – and foresaw it in coining the term “Blowback.” Perhaps only the end of this imperial era, via financial ruin if nothing else, will bring about a US that does not try to rule the globe – and, surprise! is no longer the favored target of terrorists. Let us hope this happens in a way that allows us to recover some of our lost liberties.

    Speaking as a cancer patient who has undergone intense radiation treatment, I am not willing to submit to any further radiation that is not medically required, regardless of how minimal it may be according to the government. I also have a port-a-cath installed in my chest for administration of chemotherapy, almost certainly forcing me to undergo invasive screening even if I do not opt out, which I will. So, to the difficulties of cancer treatment add the indignities of being assaulted by my own government in the name of security, although a few years ago I was an active employee of that government, working overseas on its behalf. Is US at the point where a retired US diplomat must be considered a likely carrier of PETN on a terrorist mission?

  33. The MAIN problem with scanning and groping passengers is that it is relatively ineffective compared to other, less invasive approaches. Most recent incidents were possible because of failures BEFORE the person or bomb got on the plane. Look at some examples:

    Twenty years ago an Air India plane left Canada and exploded over the Atlantic killing all on board. Before the plane took off the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was called to inspect baggage taken off the plane because of a bag with no accompanying passenger. Because of the weather the RCMP bomb specialist and sniffer do were delayed. Instead of waiting, the airport authorities let the plane leave with all its baggage.

    Today the 9/11 hijackers would fail because the cabin door is now permanently locked and the pilots are armed. Not much point in continuing to go after anything metal except high powered weapons or perhaps machetes.

    The shoe bomber, who had recently been in the Middle East and had a British passport but had NO luggage tried to buy a one-way ticket to Florida with cash in Paris. The clerk at the Air France counter refused. The bomber crossed the terminal to the American Airlines counter and was immediately sold a ticket. His “bomb” was a dud.

    The underwear bomber’s device was a dud too. But he got on board because the U.S. government ignored the information received from the young man’s own father, who reported that the fellow was unstable and that the U.S. should cancel his visa so that he could not board the plane. Airport security also shares the blame because he was headed for a winter destination (Detroit) but had NO warm weather clothing.

    If there were any terrorists who wanted to cause havoc, they could pick hundreds of “soft” targets. They have no reason to limit themselves to airpoints. If they exist and if airport security really does make air travel safer, we would see attacks on hotels, factories, trains, cruise ships, subways, etc., etc.

    The actual threat is so small statistically speaking that all of us are much more likely to die from a lightning hit or win the Mega Lottery than we are to die in a terrorist attack.

    Those who run and work in security agencies (TSA, DHS, FBI, CIA, NSA, and all police departments) usually have a need to control others. The myth of imminent terrorist attack gives them a pretext to create paranoia, fear and hysteria among the public, who then willingly accept every form of abuse and indignity.

  34. Al-Qaeda is about using small numbers of men and low-tech techniques to paralyze a whole civilization…

    Sort of like the CIA, right?

    Because THEY WERE CIA.


    AFAICT, they’re doing a GREAT job of supplying our Foreign Policy rationale for Central Asia, “where the Gas Pipes are”, and the Middle East, “Where the Oil Wells are” and perhaps should STILL be on the CIA’s payroll for doing that yeoman’s work if they were ever actually relieved of duty.

    (Removing tongue from cheek now)

  35. These types of scans and intimate molestations will not stop or even deter extremists ready to die for their religion or countries. The terrorists are not made in Afghanistan or Iraq, they are made in the good old USA. Oh, they don’t necessarily reside in the US but they are definitely made there. The TSA egregious policies are the tip of the iceburg as to how US foreign policy affects every citizen personally. There may be new terrorist attacks in America unless the US ceases its wars against Muslim countries in the Middle East. Every day the US continues to occupy Middle East countries, a hundred new terrorists are recruited. Doesn’t the American goverment understand that? My goodness I know oil is very important but can’t the US just buy it like all other countries? Why does it have to commandeer it and control it, no matter where it is? As for the TSA and its unconstitutional searches, please explain to me how they prevent a determined terrorist from simply blowing up the security area of the airport before they get anywhere near the scanners. Carrying out an attack in that venue would destroy the airline industry because airports would suddenly be no go areas.

  36. There is no technological fix except to stop copycats and incompetent crazies. The pre-9/11 methods + reinforced cockpit doors + passengers willing to fight back will stop them.

    The only fix for dedicated groups, ass-bombers and all, is human intelligence INSIDE the terrorist groups. That’s it. The rest is (h/t Schneier) Security Theater.

  37. BTW – It appears that the International Energy Agency’s annual World Energy Outlook documents that global peak oil production happened in 2006! It is all down hill from here, so Professor Cole is correct that airline traffic may soon be too expensive for most people.

    link to huffingtonpost.com

  38. This is garbage. So we’re ALL supposed to be subjected to radiation and the violation of our rights because ‘we’ can’t profile people based on their relative likeliness of being involved with a radical branch of Islam?

    “Last April, four imaging experts from the University of California, San Francisco sent a letter of concern to President Obama’s science and technology advisor, John Holdren, questioning, “the extent to which the safety of this scanning device has been adequately demonstrated,” they wrote. They added that it might deliver a concentrated dose of radiation to the skin—necessary to penetrate clothes—that could be “dangerously high,” possibly increasing “

    • So we’re better off in a country where we violate the rights of SOME people because they fall outside the characteristics of the ruling elite and thus could include a percentage that has a grudge against that elite?

      How would this debate be playing out if it were the aftermath of another white right-wing terrorist atttack? I can’t imagine we will profile-search people who look like Timothy McVeigh in this country. Leaving the subtle suggestion that those are the Real Americans and that when they commit violence against the government, like Sharron Angle’s “Second Amendment” measures, they are defending the true nation against the usurping servant races.

  39. It speaks to the stupidity of the TSA and the Heimatssicherheitsdienst that there are no refined and intelligent methods employed here, such as Israeli-style profiling. TSA logic is anything but (pun not intended); why not hire proctologists to do the searching instead? There may even be Commies hiding up there. Watch out!

  40. Only some kinds of profiling are illegal (and not very effective): those based on extremely broad categories, such as colour, religion, nationality, etc. People are not suspect just because they are Muslim or Arab or brown-skinned. They are suspect when their behaviour, current and past, indicates a cause for concern. The shoe bomber was a Briton of European descent. He was more or less unknown to the authorities when he returned from an extended trip to the Middle East. However, his profile was suspect. In Paris, instead of changing planes to go home in England, this man who had no checked or carry on luggage wanted to buy a one-way ticket to Florida for cash. He was hardly the typical traveler in Paris who was headed for a vacation in Miami. (In fact, any Frenchman with self-respect would NOT take a vacation in Florida. Better places are closer and much cheaper.) In any case, REAL, INTELLIGENT examination of the shoe bomber’s profile would have raised all the right flags. In fact, it DID raise flags at the Air France counter, where he was REFUSED a ticket. The people at the American Airlines counter, however, saw nothing strange about him and sold him a one-way ticket–no questions asked. Fortunately for those on his AA plane, he was unable to set off his bomb.

  41. People have been asking ‘why wouldn’t someone just detonate at a TSA security checkpoint?’

    The answer, I suspect, is that the authorities don’t actually care if we do die of terrorism.

    What they are trying to prevent is terrorists flying planes into enormous financial, governmental and military structures, causing the establishment to lose face on the world stage, at the very least.

    Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking they care about us. If they did, they wouldn’t enroll us in foreign wars, of which they are non-participants. With the exception of Palin, but she’s a card-carrying village idiot.

  42. To Daryl Cobranchi:

    You say, “I’m a chemist with some experience with military grade high explosives. PETN has a VP similar to other organic nitrates. Trained dogs should have no trouble detecting it.”

    Could a dog detect it wrapped in a condom and stored inside a person’s digestive or genitourinary tract?

    Mark Marshall
    Toronto, Canada

  43. With respect to cargo which could be dangerous, couldn’t cargo containers much like the metal ones used in some planes today be redesigned using a form of titanium or other substance such as teflon coated fiberglass with stronger tensile properties which could contain a moderate explosion? The comments above discuss how little amount of some explosives are needed to bring down a modern aircraft. Surely in such small amounts a new form of cargo container could be created to prevent that result.

  44. […] Cole. Apologies for breaking internet protocol by citing the work in full – you should still visit his blog to see the other things he has to say. In all the furor about the new TSA scanners and pat-downs at […]

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