Three Cheers for Meaningless Security Theater

Critics of the Transportation Safety Administration have long argued that the elaborate and cumbersome searches we all go through at the airports is nothing more than security theater, designed to give the illusion of security without actually achieving it. The government just proved them right.

A recent internal investigation by the Department of Homeland Security has found security failures at dozens of the nations’ busiest airports—breaches that allowed undercover investigators to smuggle weapons, fake explosives and other contraband through numerous checkpoints.

In one case, an alarm sounded, but even during a pat down, the screening officer failed to detect a fake plastic explosive taped to an undercover agent’s back. In all, so-called “Red Teams” of Homeland Security agents posing as passengers were able get weapons past Transportation Security Administration agents in 67 out of 70 tests — a 95 percent failure rate, according to agency officials…

This isn’t the first time TSA officers have failed to detect fake terrorists and their weapons. “Red Teams” have been probing TSA checkpoints for 13 years, often times successfully getting weapons past airport screeners.

However, this time TSA agents failed to detect almost every single test bomb and gun, aviation experts said.

Every. Single. One. Makes you feel a lot better about being groped, probed and x-rayed, doesn’t it?

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  • tbp1

    As I mentioned in comments to another article, I’ve known this was all pointless since they started allowing my wife to carry knitting needles on airplanes (after a brief period following 9/11 when they were banned). Not, of course, that my wife poses any kind of threat, but since they are the circular kind, the needles have potential as both a stabbing and a strangling weapon. My wife is petite, but I am not, and the needles could easily be handed off to me (or another accomplice).

    Now, I’m glad she is able to do this, since having her knitting with her makes long flights much easier on her, but still, if they were serious about airplane security these would surely be banned.

  • daved

    Indeed, that story about the woman not being given the can of soda on a United flight the other day was another example. I don’t mean that she had any nefarious purpose, and it was clearly rank discrimination, but you really can use a soda can as a weapon. A full one enclosed in something like a heavy sock would make a fine club, and an empty can can be flexed till it rips, leaving you with a nasty, serrated-edge weapon.

    None of this will get you into the cockpit, however.

  • Larry

    The good news, however, is that they were able to spot 100% of the nail files and fingernail clippers, and large bottles of shampoo.

  • cptdoom

    I’d love to know what kind of security tests are done in Europe and their failure rates for comparison. The system used over there, which is less intrusive, but far more 1:1, with a lot of discussion between security staff and passengers, seems to work better, but they did let the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber through. Of course El Al has the best reputation, but are very secretive about their full security system.

  • Modusoperandi

    Every. Single. One. Makes you feel a lot better about being groped, probed and x-rayed, doesn’t it?

    I felt good about being groped, probed and x-rayed already, actually.

  • Synfandel

    My wife is also a knitter. She was prevented from bringing knitting needles onto a plane, except in checked baggage. This was a few years ago. Things may have loosened up since then.

    In the ’90s, I traveled a lot on business that involved installing computer equipment. I had a favourite screwdriver that had clocked tens of thousands of miles in my carry-on briefcase through countless major airports. After 9-11, it was confiscated at Halifax International. Apparently, I might have used it to assemble an explosive device on the plane.

  • Who Cares

    All they’ve done is change the target location. The weak spot is now the screening area. With a bit of preparation and 1 suicide bomber you’d probably be able to shutdown every airport in the U.S. for days, if not weeks.

  • comfychair

    What about other dangerous weapons, like fingernails and teeth and muscles (and maybe the most dangerous weapon that’s ever existed, the human brain)? If they cared about real security all passengers would be bound, masked, fully sedated, and strapped to boards. The airlines could even load pallets of passengers into the cargo holds and see a tremendous increase in profits. Why are they not doing this, to Keep Us Safe??!

  • Glenn E Ross

    Prior to the imposition of the enhanced security measures I flew 30K miles a year for my job. Using all of the available perks, flying was most of the times bearable and often times even enjoyable. Things changed. The airlines reduced services, decreased seat size, added fees and began treating people more and more like organic shipped baggage. And the TSA decided that the way to ensure secure flights was to add as much humiliation as possible for the passengers.

    Remove your belt.

    Take your shoes off.

    Be ready to show your papers.

    If the lines are long and slow it is your fault for not being prepared and following instructions.

    And now we know it is nothing but an illusion of security.

    I do not fly anymore. I cannot allow myself to be treated in the manner that has evolved either by the TSA or by the airlines.

    I drive more and take the AMTRAK. Travelling takes longer but so be it. When I get to my destination I have far less stress and all of my self respect.

  • lldayo

    My family went to Disney World in March. When we went through security I had to have my right leg patted down because the X-ray machine supposedly detected something (this happened both directions). My 9 year old son had no problem walking right through the security area with a bag of to go applesauce in his pocket with no problems. Good job TSA on getting the wrinkle out of my jeans!

  • Modusoperandi

    Worse, Airplane! doesn’t make sense anymore. Surely that’s more important.

  • Abby Normal

    You’re misunderestimating our security apparatus. The TSA is actually very good at detecting weapons and explosives, very, very good. The report is a fake, a psy-op to trick would-be-terrorists into thinking hijacking is still a viable operation type. We want them to hit us where our defenses are strongest, instead of some random target where we have no meaningful defense. Trust me, I have an unnamed, confidential, inside source.

  • D. C. Sessions

    With a bit of preparation and 1 suicide bomber you’d probably be able to shutdown every airport in the U.S. for days, if not weeks.

    And that’s just for cleaning up the bodies (and parts thereof.)

    The last time I flew I did some simple calculations and concluded that with a crew of suicide bombers smaller than those who pulled off 9/11 you could get more than twice as many fatalities. And that’s just using antipersonnel loads in roller bags. CBW? Anybody’s guess.

    Protecting against that kind of attack, though, would require redesign of every airport in the country. It wouldn’t be weeks.

    Fortunately, it’s moot. The whole point of attacks like 9/11 is to change the target society. By, for instance, creating a lasting security State.

    Oh, and by the way: the test contraband for this exercise was all stuff that TSA can, in principle, detect. There’s a freaking huge list of things that they know about [1] that there’s no way to detect but will do a spectacular job of bringing down planes.

    [1] We pretend that the Bad Guys are too stupid to have heard/invented/read etc. that kind of thing themselves, despite plenty of evidence that AQ was headed by someone with advanced education in engineering and lots of subordinates with science and engineering backgrounds.

  • raven

    I do not fly anymore. I cannot allow myself to be treated in the manner that has evolved either by the TSA or by the airlines.

    Same thing for me almost.

    I used to fly a whole lot. Still fly some when necessary.

    Anything within a day’s drive is in a car.

  • Childermass

    re: sewing needles. Well they are certainly more dangerous than the long-forgotten Allen wrench TSA found in my pack and took from me. However, I rather doubt they would be effective means to pull off another 9/11. Ever since that day, anyone who attempts to hijack a plane is probably in dire trouble. A hijacking used to meant you were delayed a day and possibly the State Department had to pay Cuba for some overpriced sandwiches. Now it means that not only might you die, but thousands of others might die with you. A sewing needle could seriously hurt someone, but it won’t be effective against a few dozen passengers determined to put down the owner by any means necessary.

  • justsomeguy

    @7: Why even bother with airports? A major element of the 9/11 attacks was *surprise*. Nobody expected the attackers to do what they did, which is why they were so successful – but not *entirely* successful. The passengers on flight 93 were able to get information about what their attackers were up to, and they stopped the attack before completion. No surprise, no success. Now everyone is keenly watching the airports, and a large number of Americans would be absolutely *thrilled* to have the opportunity to go United 93 on some terrorists (at least they think they’d like the opportunity; I wager they’d be a lot less enthusiastic if it actually happened). Attacking airports or using airplanes again would be absolutely stupid from a tactical standpoint. Surprise was their ally before, it will be their ally again.

  • caseloweraz

    I agree with what D. C. Sessions says in #13. But security in general has often been more show that real protection. I remember a reporter (back in the 1960s) predicting that he could enter the Navy submarine base at Groton, CT. The authorities scoffed. Then he did enter, and of course they threw the book at him.

    Some time back I tried to find a cite for this. I failed. It’s possible I may be misremembering. But in my own experience security is very often overlooked in the rush to get something done.

  • JustaTech

    My knitting needles (metal, circular) haven’t ever been an issue. But god forbid I take home that bottle of sunscreen. I asked the very officious TSA lady where all the toiletries get donated to and she said they just throw everything away. What a waste.

    Yay security theater.

  • caseloweraz

    I agree with #16 too, and it bugs me that we so often assume our enemies will do things that allow us to easily detect their plots — like using cell phones or Facebook to communicate. Yeah, none of them are smart enough to know that we can pick up their messages if they do that.


  • blf

    (I’ve told this story before, albeit perhaps not here at Ed’s — apologies if this is a repeat…)

    My own encounter with absurd TSA practices — and the contrast with practices here in Europe — happened shortly after the shoe bomb kook incident. I was living in Dublin (Ireland) at the time, and had to go to a small city in California. Three flights in total: Dublin to Heathrow (London), then to Los Angles, then via a small turboprop to my final destination.

    Security in Dublin: A lone unarmed garda (Irish police officer) standing just inside the main entrance with no barricades or anything — just standing there by himself in the middle of the floor — checking each(?) entering person with some sort of a hand-held detector. Later, the long-established routine questioning about the checked baggage and finally the long-established usual metal detectors. And that was it, with no real theatre that I can recall, excepting perhaps that initial lone guard.

    Security at Heathrow: The long established metal detectors at International Transfers. And that was it(as far as I can now recall), except for their own bit of theatre, a handful of police officers walking around in bullet-proof vests carrying machine guns.

    Security theatre in Los Angles: The long established metal detectors. The “take off your shoes” then-new routine. Some questioning (prompted, in part, probably, by my being late to the gate due to late arrival of the flight from London (and exhaustion)) including some paperwork checks. (I also have a vague memory of a hand-held detector but may be mistaken.) For a 12(?) person turboprop “commuter” flight. After traveling all the way from Europe, across an ocean and the entire country, with hundreds of other people. Right, like I’m going to pack a bomb or sharpened toothbrush, fly from a long long way away, and hijack a flying rickshaw over the San Bernardino Mountains.

    (As an aside, some years before that, I saw a test of those “long-established metal detectors”. A plainclothes officer flashed his badge at my friend and then stuck a metal cut-out in the shape of handgun under my friend’s luggage on the conveyor belt. It was spotted, but nothing much happened as the plainclothes officer than identified himself and thanked my friend. I was surprised at how low-key it was.)

  • wscott

    Ever since that day, anyone who attempts to hijack a plane is probably in dire trouble.

    Simply reinforcing cockpit doors and teaching passengers/flight crew to fight back have by themselves made another 9/11-style attack impossible. That’s partly why TSA’s focus has shifted a bit away from things like knitting needles and more towards possible explosives. But neither of those are highly visible, either to reassure the public that it’s safe to fly, or to give politicians something to point at: “See? We’re keeping you safe!” Hence, security theater. It *may* have made sense in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 while other measures were being put in place, but even tho it’s long outlived its usefulness no one can get rid of it without being accused of being soft. Maybe this report will help change that, but I’m not holding my breath.

    Attacking airports or using airplanes again would be absolutely stupid from a tactical standpoint.

    Maybe. But notwithstanding what I said above, training materials recovered from Al Queda show they continued to stress and plan for attacks on airports & airplanes, almost to the point of obsession. They understood that nothing captures the media’s/public’s attention more than plane crashes. (Tho from what I’ve read, ISIL doesn’t seem to share that focus.)

    it bugs me that we so often assume our enemies will do things that allow us to easily detect their plots — like using cell phones or Facebook to communicate.

    Um, I guess you missed yesterday’s story about the foiled coup in Gambia, and how the plotters initially came to the attention of US Intelligence due to their social media posts? Or any of the multiple arrests in the last couple of years of people supporting ISIL or traveling to join ISIL being caught partly due to social media posts? Terrorists are not comic book supervillains or Cold War-era Bond villains with their own custom-encrypted communications networks or elaborate dead-drop systems. They communicate largely the same way we do, using existing, easy-to-access systems like cell phones, social media, etc.

  • eoraptor

    I had much the same experience with the lowly P-38 can can opener I carried sound for years. Then one day, at some rinky-dink airport in Lost Mind, CO, some bored TSA agent decided it was much too dangerous to carry on a 12 passenger regional. He wouldn’t even let me take it back and mail it home; seemed angry I even asked. I suppose there might have been someway to can-open the pilot door, or even the cabin since it’s only aluminum. Of course the’damned plane would have needed refueling once or twice before I got through.

  • caseloweraz


    Good point. In fact I did hear the Gambia story. Yes, even senior jihadis sometimes use cell phones. On the other hand, bin Laden used a courier because he knew that electronic communications were likely to be intercepted. I don’t object to a well-targeted ELINT program. I just don’t think it’s all we need, and I don’t like the government coming down on reporters publishing the fact that we’re monitoring international traffic (as happened a year or two ago) as if this was something terrorists hadn’t figured out.

  • davem

    I’d love to know what kind of security tests are done in Europe

    Much the same, or not, depending where you are. If I go from London to a Spanish Island, I’ll get the full works in Gatwick; belt off, shoes off, transfer 100ml of liquid into a 100 ml container (No sir, the transparent 200ml container is not allowed!). Then the metal detectors, which dismally fail to register the metal in my legs (Terrorists please take note: make your weapons from titanium and plastic, and you can bring a howitzer through just fine). Then on the way back, relax as you get maybe a slight pat down, and be generally civilised.

  • eric

    @18: my million-dollar idea was to set up a cart-business right outside the exit area, selling shampoo, toothpaste, etc.. to people just getting off their flights.

    I’m not surprised at the result. Several years back, at DCA, there was an incident where someone got through the portal detector with a fake gun and TSA and reporters were in a tizzy about how it could possibly happen. It turned out, the operators forgot to turn the thing on. It had been off for the previous 2 hours of operation and either nobody noticed or nobody cared. No matter how good the detector is, the system is only as good as the people you hire and train. You hire and train high school drop-outs and criminals, that’s the level of detection system you get.

  • marcus

    I’m with Modus @ 5

    I felt good about being groped, probed and x-rayed already, actually.”

    If only I could get that kind of attention at home!

  • Synfandel

    @15 Childermass wrote:

    Well they are certainly more dangerous than the long-forgotten Allen wrench TSA found in my pack and took from me.

    Ah, but with an Allen wrench, you might have been able to assemble a Hjälteflørg. Of course, there would have been a piece left over.

  • wscott

    @ caseloweraz #23: Agreed 100%.

  • pixiedust

    My most infuriating TSA experience was at the Hartford, CT airport when they decided to enforce the rule that your toiletries had to be in a one-quart plastic bag. Not the one gallon bag I had enough using for almost a decade. The TSA employee “helpfully” told me I could get a free one-quart bag back at the end of the line. I declined that choice, abandoned my toiletries and was rewarded for my “bad attitude” with an extended search — but only after I sat on the bench waiting for my extended search for so long that I would have missed my flight had it not been delayed.


  • matty1

    Most international airports I’ve been through go like this.

    Put your bags on a conveyor belt through a scanner

    Walk through a metal detector

    Collect your bags

    If the detector pings, say you forgot to take off a belt with a metal buckle you will be searched but otherwise I’ve never seen it.

    There are though lots of notices warning against the danger the liquids.

  • Georgia Sam

    Traveling with a CPAP machine is fun, too. At various airports I’ve encountered everything from “Nah, just leave it in the bag” to putting it in a separate container & having it checked for explosive residue. In one instance, two TSA agents argued about whether or not the rules required running the explosive residue test on every CPAP machine. Now that I’ve spent $85 & a couple hours of my time to get a Known Traveler Number, I’m usually (but not always) allowed to leave in in my bag. In fairness to TSA, however, I’ve seen some really stupid security procedures in other countries, too.