Attaining total security everywhere

A suicide bomber set himself off at the Moscow airport in an area where people wait for arriving passengers, killing 35 and wounding 180.  So now security experts are trying to figure out how to implement security measures at ticket counters, baggage claim areas, and the rest of the terminal that has public access.

Again we see the pattern:  Airport security  responds to a threat by imposing a security measure designed to make the attack physically impossible.  Terrorists stop using that tactic but a adopt a new one.  Airport security addresses that.  Then terrorists try something else.

It would be nice if our security people would anticipate a threat, for once, instead of always reacting to the last one.

And even if we require going through metal detectors to get into the airports, a bomber could always blow up the people waiting in line.  And if that were made impossible, he could kill even more people at a shopping mall or somewhere else.  So to achieve total security we would have to put metal detectors and full-body scanners everywhere.

Terrorists look to unprotected parts of airports – USATODAY.com.

Connect these dots

Two unrelated news items that actually are related:

Some airports are planning on going back to private security screeners.  The private firms, which already operate in some airports, would still have to follow TSA procedures, including the use of scanners and pat-downs.  But they are said to be more effective because they can more easily get rid of incompetent employees than the TSA.

The reason Wikileaks was able to get access to all of those government secrets in one place was due to a program called Net-Centric Diplomacy.  It was designed to allow different agencies to have access to a common pool of intelligence data.  The problem is, it grew far beyond anyone’s ability to handle it.

What do these two stories have in common?

Virtual strip search scanners won’t catch key explosives

The TSA is working to put full body visual scanners that see through clothes in the world’s airports. But a British newspaper says what I had thought myself, that they will just see through low-density chemicals such as those used by the Underwear Bomber:

Since the attack was foiled, body-scanners, using "millimetre-wave" technology and revealing a naked image of a passenger, have been touted as a solution to the problem of detecting explosive devices that are not picked up by traditional metal detectors – such as those containing liquids, chemicals or plastic explosive.

But Ben Wallace, the Conservative MP, who was formerly involved in a project by a leading British defence research firm to develop the scanners for airport use, said trials had shown that such low-density materials went undetected.

Tests by scientists in the team at Qinetiq, which Mr Wallace advised before he became an MP in 2005, showed the millimetre-wave scanners picked up shrapnel and heavy wax and metal, but plastic, chemicals and liquids were missed.

If a material is low density, such as powder, liquid or thin plastic – as well as the passenger's clothing – the millimetre waves pass through and the object is not shown on screen. High- density material such as metal knives, guns and dense plastic such as C4 explosive reflect the millimetre waves and leave an image of the object.

Special airport security for passengers from terror-prone nations

Airport security is finally narrowing down the passengers who will get special scrutiny. Passengers from 14 nations will all get pat-downs and luggage searches: “Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen are on the list as countries of interest. Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria are listed because they have long been identified as "state sponsors of terrorism" by the United States, NBC reported.”

But some international airports–both of some of the singled-out countries and the major airports of Europe–are refusing to implement the new measures.

The Underwear Bomber

We have had the Shoe Bomber. Now we have the Underwear Bomber. The jihadist from Nigeria who was set to take down an airliner flying into Detroit hid the explosives in his underwear. Go here for the pictures if you can handle them. His tactic was to ignite the explosives, which were more than enough to blow a hole in the airplane, by covering up with a blanket and then using a plastic syringe (how did he get that onboard?) to inject acid into the packet. Fortunately, he did it incorrectly, so instead of blowing up, the chemical explosives just caught on fire.

So now will Homeland Security make passengers remove their underwear and put it, along with their shoes and belt, into one of those bins to be X-rayed? I guess they are now pushing for the equivalent, the virtual strip search of the full-body scans. But I wonder if visual detection is even enough. Plastic explosives can be made to look like all kinds of things. Either that or the X-rays could go through them like they do clothing.

The apprehended terrorist says that Yemen is full of others just like him who are also planning to attack us in this way. How can this be defended against? Explosive-sniffing dogs would help, if we had enough of them. Also those chemical-detecting swabs that are currently only used to check random computers. There are those scanners that you go in and get puffed with a blow of air, which detect for chemicals. That’s probably the best and least intrusive–though most expensive–measure.

But isn’t it time to zero in on possible terrorists, rather than applying preventive measures to every passenger? How might we craft a way to target individuals without violating their civil rights?

Security breakdown with Detroit bomber

So we now know that the Nigerian who tried to blow up an airliner as it was coming in to Detroit was on the terrorism watch list. Nevertheless, he obtained a visa to come to America and was allowed onto the aircraft. He also was able to bring explosives through security and take them aboard. (Go here for details.) How many security breaches did he pull off?

Now airports are imposing new security measures–such as not allowing passengers to go to the bathroom during the last hour of the flight, not allowing them to have blankets or coats over their laps–to make passengers’ lives more miserable. Just as the shoe bomber caused airport security to force passengers to take off their shoes, they seem to be gearing measures to correspond to the last attack rather than taking broader and more creative action. (Yes, the Nigerian went to the bathroom to mix his explosives at the end of the flight and covered them up with a blanket. But why couldn’t the next terrorist blow up the plane at the beginning or the middle of the flight?) A better idea might be to enforce the procedures we already have in theory but apparently not in practice, such as screening for explosives and checking passenger tickets against terrorist lists!

With both the shoebomber and the Nigerian, disaster was only averted because, apparently, they both had technical problems getting the explosives to ignite. How many more times will we be that lucky?

Kudos to the passengers and crew for subduing this guy. But in the meantime, this comes on the heels of the Ft. Hood killings, whose perpetrator also gave fair warning that he was a radical jihadist. Are we ever going to get serious about stopping terrorists, beyond just inconveniencing law-abiding citizens?


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