As I have been digging deeper into the ineffectiveness of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) current security procedures in the face of the current threat assessments for a likely terrorist attack on a commercial airliner I have received quite few opinions on the situation at hand. It seems each assessment is more grim than the last, and that many experts within the security agencies are frustrated that the real threat scenarios they are uncovering are not being addressed.
Shortly after asking a very pointed question to the TSA’s public affairs team regarding the effectiveness of the TSA’s current procedure for pat downs, and how they’ll likely miss the primary threats to aviation security I received an email from a “threat assessment analyst” with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This email’s opening line read like the start of a bad joke … except there was no punch line, just a chilling description of a current potential threat assessment of how a terrorist organization can split up and completely evade detection.
The email begins:
“Two men enter two airports, one with a rectal bomb the other with a masterfully concealed detonation device.”
The email goes on to say:
“By splitting up the components of a bomb, concealing one part in the rectum of one terrorist and the other parts hidden among benign everyday items intelligence is scrambled leaving us essentially blind. These two terrorists start the journey at two geographically separate airports that have been researched for relaxed security procedures and fly to a common hub airport. Once at a hub, these terrorists meet a third person, the suicide bomber, who has arrived at the hub with nothing. Now inside security, where they will not be checked again, because we don’t do screening at gates any longer and behavior detection officers are rarely at gates, the bomb is assembled. Assembly would likely take place in a restroom because the PETN hidden in a rectal cavity needs to be extracted. The bomb is placed in a bag of the suicide bomber, the two couriers of the bomb parts fly off to two unrelated destinations on flights before the suicide bomber’s flights and the suicide bomber boards a flight.
We know how the story ends.”
For those wondering how this gets past the current TSA security procedures, let me fill in the gaps … the enhanced pat down of a passenger does not check body cavities and the current TSA Advanced Imaging Technology whole body imaging scanners cannot detect an item placed inside a body cavity. If the item is not metal, it will not alarm.
In theory a swab for explosives should detect the components hidden in a terrorist’s rectum, however there are two problems with this given current threat scenario information. The first is that PETN barely emits any vapor, making it difficult for bomb dogs to sniff out and for explosives swabs to detect. Additionally its density is so fine that it’s near impossible for current screening technology to detect … but there is another catch to this scenario …
… it is likely the PETN smuggled through security will be packed into a condom. This condom would be packed by someone other than the traveler; the condom would be cleaned of all trace elements and inserted into the smuggler by someone other than the traveler. By this process, there would essentially be no trace elements of the explosive on the smuggler at all.
While PETN is generally detected through its detonator, for the purposes of a taking down a plane, PETN can be detonated with a shockwave, rather than a blasting cap. A purpose driven designed electronic device can generate a small electronic shockwave that would cause an explosive reaction to detonate the PETN. This device, if carried on board with other scientific equipment would raise few eyebrows, if any, from airport security screeners.
On the topic of agencies missing potential aviation security threats, the DHS threat assessment analyst goes on to say:
“Internally we struggle with the public search for pocket knives when we need to look for PETN & matching accomplices. Realistically pretty much anyone carrying a Leatherman tool onto a flight in plain sight of screeners isn’t a threat. We allow corkscrews but not pocket knives, if you are going to stab someone a corkscrew is an effective weapon, but neither a corkscrew or a knife is going to take a commercial jet out of the sky.
The TSA, DHS, FBI, CIA, FAA and other agencies need to get serious on connecting the dots. Right now we will never find two men entering two different airports carrying a bomb to meet a third person that will set it off. We are not set up to connect the dots. We say that we cannot under estimate our enemy but instead we spend our resources on inconveniencing the traveling public in public security farce.
Who will catch these terrorists? Behavior detection officers, but access to behavior detection officers is limited and poorly placed. I am not advocating profiling being performed by behavior detection officers but I am saying that these highly trained officers need to look for the tell tale signs that make the hairs on the back of their neck stand up. With more than 450 airports lacking behavior detection officers the field is wide open to run the ball through a gaping hole in our defensive line.
The current airport procedures and policies leave little room for effective human interaction and intelligence gathering. We are not Israel, we won’t be Israel, we are not trying to be Israel, but we can be effective because we have the resources and the potential to effectively use these resource. Unfortunately the resources available to stop this potential threat are FUBAR because of politics.
In the end who will suffer? The 250 passengers on the flight that gets bombed because we missed the guy smuggling one pound of PETN in his rectum and his accomplices meeting up in the middle of an airport to have lunch, build a bomb and blow up a plane.”
After reading this detailed correspondence, I am once again left with the lingering question that I have after reading many of the emails I receive. Given the constant flow of information that is available to the TSA and DHS from their own internal sources, what is the agency’s fixation on using procedures that are outmoded and ineffective?
The TSA and DHS clearly have people within the agencies that are intelligent, capable and able to address the current threat situation, but are politics so heavily involved in the security of the traveling public that those running the agency fear admitting the current procedures are wrong?
What will it take for those creating the TSA’s policy to adapt and adopt a more viable security policy and procedure? Even the former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan admitted his unregulated markets theory was incorrect after 18 years running the Federal Reserve … following the collapse of the stock market. Is this the type of scenario that must impact the TSA for change to be enacted?
Keep this in mind, while TSA and DHS publicly state that they don’t believe these threat scenarios are likely … the FBI never thought simultaneous hijackings of commercial aircraft, with two being flown into the World Trade Center, was a likely scenario either.
I wish the opening line to the email had a punch line … but in this threat assessment scenario the punch line is a plane exploding in flight and killing hundreds of innocent people on board.
_ _ _ _ _ Flying!