TSA Warns of Terrorist Dry Runs

A leaked TSA memo warns screeners to be on the lookout for terrorists staging dry runs through airport security. (The TSA issued a short statement following the leak, and here's an AP story on the memo.)

Honestly, the four incidents described, with photos, sure sound suspicious to me:

  • (U//FOUO) San Diego, July 7. A U.S. person -- either a citizen or a foreigner legally here -- checked baggage containing two ice packs covered in duct tape. The ice packs had clay inside them rather than the normal blue gel.

  • (U//FOUO) Milwaukee, June 4. A U.S. person's carryon baggage contained wire coil wrapped around a possible initiator, an electrical switch, batteries, three tubes and two blocks of cheese. The bulletin said block cheese has a consistency similar to some explosives.

  • (U//FOUO) Houston, Nov. 8, 2006. A U.S. person's checked baggage contained a plastic bag with a 9-volt battery, wires, a block of brown clay-like minerals and pipes.

  • (U//FOUO) Baltimore, Sept. 16, 2006. A couple's checked baggage contained a plastic bag with a block of processed cheese taped to another plastic bag holding a cellular phone charger.

The cheese and clay are stand-ins for plastic explosive. And honestly, I don't care if someone is carrying a water bottle, wearing a head scarf, or buying a one-way ticket, but if someone has a block of cheese with wires and a detonator -- I want the FBI to be called in.

Note that profiling didn't seem to help here. Three of the incidents involved U.S. persons, and one is unspecified. Also, according to the report:

Individuals involved in these incidents were of varying gender, and initial investigations do not link them with criminal or terrorist organizations. However, most passengers’ explanations for carrying the suspicious items were questionable, and some investigations are still ongoing.

I wish I had more information on what the "questionable" explanations were.

Flagging suspicious items is what the TSA is supposed to do. Unfortunately, suspicious is a subjective term, and problems arise when screeners aren't competent enough to distinguish between potentially dangerous and just plain strange. If bulletins like these are accompanied with real training, then we're getting some actual security out of the TSA.

EDITED TO ADD (7/25): I was quoted in the AP story.

EDITED TO ADD (7/26): At least one of the incidents seems to be bogus.

EDITED TO ADD (7/28): Seems like all four incidents might be bogus:

"That bulletin for law enforcement eyes only told of suspicious items recently found in passenger's bags at airport checkpoints, warned that they may signify dry runs for terrorist attacks," CNN's Brian Todd reported Friday afternoon. "Well it turns out none of that is true."


"The FBI now says there were valid explanations for all four incidents in that bulletin, and a US government official says no charges will be brought in any of these cases," Todd reported.

I'm skeptical. I can't think of a valid explanation for "wire coil wrapped around a possible initiator, an electrical switch, batteries, three tubes and two blocks of cheese." I'd like to know what it was.

Posted on July 25, 2007 at 1:55 PM • 84 Comments


AnonymousJuly 25, 2007 2:28 PM

since we apparently dont, under the bush regime, like to call right-wing militias "criminal or terrorist organizations", i would wager that if it's tarrorist related, it's that sort of homegrown threat rather than the muslimonazifascistmenace.

JoshuaJuly 25, 2007 2:45 PM

I brought cheese on a flight recently and was rightly questioned about it. Of course, my cheese was in the original packaging in a paper bag, rather than strapped to a cell phone or with wires and an ignition coil sticking out.

Home grown terrorism is definitely a possibility. But couldn't this just as easily be a tiger team or a TSA training exercise (sort of a surprise inspection) as an actual dry run for real terrorists?

David Dyer-BennetJuly 25, 2007 2:49 PM

I wish I trusted those people.

I routinely fly with "batteries" and "wires" in my luggage. I haven't happened to fly with cheese or clay, though. I'll bet Shannon would fly with cheese now and then if she flew often, though, and Singer probably would fly with clay if he had the chance to get his hands on something interesting. In other words, I can easily imagine those descriptions fitting completely innocent people I'm quite certain aren't going to blow anything up.

I'm *hoping* their explanations would make sense to the TSA (Shannon works in cheese retailing, Singer has published articles on ceramics and makes pottery, for those who may not know these people).

Wires and batteries are an inevitable accompaniment of computers, digital cameras, ipods, and various other modern equipment. I'm suspicious of anybody who *doesn't* have wires and batteries.

RoyJuly 25, 2007 2:51 PM

What is the more likely explanation for the wired blocks of cheese?

1. Al Qaeda is making dry runs smuggling bombs through security by making dummy bombs that very much resemble bombs (rather than not looking anything like bombs) and seeing if they get caught?

2. Smartasses are trying to cause trouble for people they know (and do, or don't, like) by sneaking dummy bombs into their luggage?

Were these cases of amateurish efforts by sophisticated weapons makers or just pranks?

TBJuly 25, 2007 2:59 PM

I was just reading about the cheese thing (on BoingBoing I think).

I wonder if this gets onto the 24 hour news channels weather the dairy industry of Wisconsin will feel it?

DavidJuly 25, 2007 3:05 PM

"A U.S. person's carryon baggage contained wire coil wrapped around a possible initiator, an electrical switch, batteries, three tubes and two blocks of cheese."

That sure sounds suspicious, but it's just the TSA's description of what they found - It would be possible for completely pedestrian items to be described like this.

And there's always this: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/6915404.stm "Two journalists arrested while trying to plant a fake bomb on a freight train..."

AnonymousJuly 25, 2007 3:10 PM

Kinda makes you wonder what, if anything, these people will be charged with.

Pat CahalanJuly 25, 2007 3:31 PM

Gorgonzola? Parmesan? Mozzarella? Pippo Crème? Danish Fimboe? Czech sheep's milk? Venezuelan Beaver Cheese?

Ah... how about... Cheddar?

JoshJuly 25, 2007 3:35 PM


Reminds me of when a TSA screener said to me, "Sir, you have a nutcracker in your luggage."

I certainly did not have a nutcracker (and would think I'd know if I did!).

It turned out to be an RJ-45 crimper for making network cables, and the 1/2" blade for stripping wires was deemed unacceptably lethal ("Hold still... I'm trying to *crimp* you!"), and I had to check it.

I would be surprised if the average TSA screener knew what a "possible initiator" looks like.

That said, they all *sound* suspicious to me except for the guy with the duct taped ice packs. I suppose it was the clay that made it weird...

Geoff LaneJuly 25, 2007 3:36 PM

So why weren't these materials treated as potential explosives?

But then, why aren't all the water bottles treated as toxic waste. If they are half of a binary liquid explosive surely they should be disposed of securely and not all chucked into the same bin?

cheese luvaJuly 25, 2007 3:38 PM

so, what kind of cheese? was it gouda, cheddar, or swiss baby?! maybe they were just wanting to warm their cheese ;)

so, now are they going to ban friekin' cheese from flights too?! no cheese, no water, no toothpaste, what's next???

NotAllHomersJuly 25, 2007 3:53 PM

If you guys think it all stinks a bit. The cheese must of been blue vane and the copper wires well how do you make blue cheese?!

Brandioch ConnerJuly 25, 2007 3:59 PM

@Geoff Lane
"So why weren't these materials treated as potential explosives?"

I'm wondering the same thing.

If it is suspicious enough to warrant a memo, it should have been treated as if it were an actual bomb being carried by an actual terrorist.

Except the cheese stuff.

If it is perceived as a threat, it must be treated as a threat. Separate them and isolate them. Handcuffs. With a guard watching them 100% of the time.

Exactly as you would do if it were a real terrorist that had been discovered.

Oh, and here is what a detonator looks like. It's the picture on the left (in the series of 3).

The real things don't look like the movie versions. Unfortunately, it seems movies are the only training materials allowed at the TSA.

Lactose IntolerantJuly 25, 2007 4:02 PM

Actually, the thing that bothers me more is the handling of the U//FOUO document and it's storage on msn.com .

(Yes, we know you've written about it before.)

BillPJuly 25, 2007 4:05 PM

July 21, approx 1:30pm, Omaha Airport
Tsa to Policeman-
I think we should have handcuffs, mace, stun guns and pistols. Then I could really take care of these Ben Franklin spouting idiots. Policeman to TSA, What do you mean, what does Ben Franklin have to do with it? TSA- Oh you know, something about giving up liberty for security, you deserve neither, or some crap like that. Policeman- Oh, yea, you get that alot? TSA- too much. I'd like to say, well, who said that you aren't getting this plane? Me! Sometimes I just give them a closer inspection, that really pisses them off.
About 15 mins later the TSA employee was observed mocking a passenger by following him with hands on waist, swaggering his behind and making faces behind the passenger.

To my knowledge, cheese, clay, wires, cell phones are not (yet) illegal- but I'd bet that this jerk would have to clean out his underwear if he found them.

My point? People may be looking for pay back for the things TSA has stolen, the way they treat the passengers and the invasion of privacy. Revolution has to start somewhere.

kybJuly 25, 2007 4:19 PM

The last one sounds fine to me. If I was carrying cheese in my luggage (maybe I like cheese), then I'd certainly put it in a bag, and it's pretty reasonable to bag spare mobile phone/laptop batteries as well. It's also completely reasonable to stick plastic bags together for organisational purposes. All the other descriptions (U.S. persons) do sound pretty dodgy though.

aJuly 25, 2007 4:22 PM

Was this the winner plot?

First all liquids turn explosives when they are in packages over 4 oz, now it'll be forbidden to carry cheese and cables. Even in your checked in baggage...

n0_j0July 25, 2007 4:34 PM

Geoff Lane:
"So why weren't these materials treated as potential explosives?"

Why do you assume that they weren't?

False AlarmsJuly 25, 2007 4:48 PM

From http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/metro/20070725-1207-bn25false.html:

"Aguilar [Director Michael J. Aguilar, the chief of the police agency that patrols the airport] said TSA alerts are circulated on a daily basis to make sure they agency's staff has access to the latest security concerns, even if they later prove false or inconclusive.

'We get these all the time,' he said. 'Almost all the time they prove false.' "

Triumph and DisasterJuly 25, 2007 4:52 PM

> the San Diego incident was a false
> alarm

Bummer. Bruce catches the TSA being competent, but further investigation reveals that, even in this case, they're either incompetent or liars.

AnonymousJuly 25, 2007 4:54 PM

"Individuals involved in these incidents were of varying gender..."

Is the TSA implying the terrorists are starting to recruit shape-shifters?

Grumpy PhysicistJuly 25, 2007 4:56 PM

I'd say that putting a nice, big block of Limburger cheese in your checked bag is a good idea.

That way, when the airline loses the bag, they *will* find it within a few days.

Of course, fresh seafood works even better. Make sure to seal your clothes in plastic bags inside your luggage, however.

AnonymousJuly 25, 2007 5:04 PM

Flagging suspicious items is reasonable; having the TSA use these four examples of people packing weird things (just plain strange) as possible terrorist dry runs is an another example of chicken little behaviour.

To me, these four examples seem to be people packing stuff. Someone leaving wisconsion with cheese does not seem to be that strange, someone using tape to fasten plastic bags together just seems to be someone with a packing fetish. I do not know what to think of the duct tape wrapped ice bottles or a block of brown-clay like material, but come on, there are probably a lot more people packing weird stuff than terrorists testing security. These examples seem to be stretches of some paranoids imagination.

pecuniumJuly 25, 2007 5:05 PM

While, as described, the objects are suspicious, the people weren't charged with anything. What does this matter?

Because the first event took place more than a year ago, so the release of the information now (when the Gov't is warning us that they feel in their "gut" that an attack is imminent)?

Color me suspicious of the motives.

Christoph ZurniedenJuly 25, 2007 5:15 PM

> Gorgonzola? Parmesan? Mozzarella? Pippo Crème? Danish Fimboe? Czech sheep's milk? Venezuelan Beaver Cheese?

Casu Marzu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casu_marzu) would make an interesting choice or Mimolette (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimolette) for the lovers of traditional french cheese, but as a German I would vote for Milbenkäse (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mite_cheese) of course.

> Only cheese attached to a detonator with wires.

With the above list in mind electrocuting and detonating might not be as devious as the TSA wants to make us believe.

The article lacks details about anything, no descriptions of the "detonators", wires, clay, cheese and so on but especially no information at all about the explanations, except that these were "questionable". Absence of detailed information is in most cases a good evidence for FUD.

And even if these were actual dry runs the terrorists will use the way(s) the TSA did not find for their later attacks. Or the terrorists are not as dumb as they seem and did a proper statistical experiment by sending out x "packets" trying y different methods---the TSA found 4/4 of them.

I'm quite confident about the height of the IQs of todays average terrorists so I will still call the article FUD.

Non is talis sum, qui terrear!


ShadJuly 25, 2007 5:21 PM

That would explain the cheesy nature of the London/Glasgow attempts. Beware of al-Gouda!

pointfreeJuly 25, 2007 5:25 PM

The comment about pedestrian items is quite interesting. How do we know that these 'incidents' are not simply the result of an over zealous screener trying to explain their reaction to every-day items, after all, once they have evacuated the entire terminal, delayed 200 flights, called in the FBI, national guard, et al and detonated the suitcase in the car park - there's probably little chance of proving that the shaver, hair dryer, vibrator, pan flute and block of cheddar wasn't the makings of a terrorist bomb - and you can bet they have to come up with a fancy story to explain the mayhem (and the Southern Baptist minister flying with his girlfriend probably isn't talking either ...).

@Pat Calahan - "shut that bloody bouzouki player up!" ;-)

AnonymousJuly 25, 2007 5:31 PM

For some strange reason, the TSA just had to leak a batch of *old* information immediately after the GooTube Democratic debate. What a remarkable coincidence that major terror threats--like the 2006 liquid ban--just seem to crop up whenever the Democrats get into the media.

There's no terror threat here. It's yet another political fabrication.

foggJuly 25, 2007 5:31 PM

Mentioning gender and leaving out citizenship and ethnicity with the intentionally ambiguous 'U. S. person' phrasing makes it sound like they're talking around something.

thasymachosJuly 25, 2007 5:55 PM

I don't buy it. Real terrorists would not bag/tape undisguised detonator components to their cleverly disguised cheese-plosives, so as to make it look like a bomb. This is a list of false alarms caused by cheese in proximity to wires.

"possible initiator" = clearly not an initiator, if they had investigated and found it was a real bomb component they would say so.

David ConradJuly 25, 2007 6:01 PM

Profiling: US Persons tells us nothing about whether profiling could have been of help here.

Icepacks with clay: genuinely suspicious.

"IED components" + cheese: just the guy with the MintyFresh! charger or whatever it was called who decided to bring along a snack of cheese.

Block of brown clay-like minerals and pipes: very suspicious description. Wish they had included a photo or done more investigation because this one needs more information.

Block of cheese, cell phone charger, bags taped together: It looks pretty innocent to me, but it's a little odd. Good that they noticed it.

Sorry, color me only half convinced that they're doing a good job here. Much more info is needed to properly sort these cases out.

My expertise? I'm an arrogant bastard, like all coders.

SnarkJuly 25, 2007 6:10 PM

"It's a little odd" isn't probably cause to suspect a terrorist plot.

Aren't we all "a little odd" in our own way?

Filias CupioJuly 25, 2007 6:28 PM

A couple's checked baggage contained a plastic bag with a block of processed cheese taped to another plastic bag holding a cellular phone charger.

This couple should be put away for a long time. I've long felt that "processed cheese" is a terrorist weapon, and an attempt to destroy our way of life.

AndrewJuly 25, 2007 7:05 PM

TSA showing dangerous signs of competence. Will wonders never cease?

Yes, there's an awful lot of garbage -- or should I say clay and cheese -- when you're looking for that needle in the haystack that just might be Semtex.

I'm usually the first to anti-applaud the TSA when they screw up, which is frequently. This is nice and solid security work. "Hey guys, we noticed a pattern. BOLO, m'kay?"

JilaraJuly 25, 2007 7:25 PM

I do period cooking demos, and on a recent flight, where I was carrying vintage tinware, iron implements for dealing with wood stoves, and block sugar crystals (think rock candy, but larger and no strings) for a demo, I found a little note in my checked luggage (of course I checked it!) from the TSA saying it had been inspected. I wonder what they made of that one? At least I didn't have anything that looked like a detonator. But a corkscrew could have made things interesting on xray scans...

OlivierJuly 25, 2007 7:25 PM

To Brandioch Corner,

You said:

Oh, and here is what a detonator looks like. It's the picture on the left (in the series of 3).

This is false. The picture you relate to shows a claymore firing device. This is the trigger and electricity generation device for the actual detonator, which is much smaller and has to be inserted into the claymore weapon. The claymore weapon could be initiated by a battery instead of this device. The firing device is used because it will hardly never fail, even after years of storage. Those are qualities soldiers like. A firing device presents no more threat in an airplane than a 9V. A detonator,in any shapes, does present a threat and should be banned.

SamJuly 25, 2007 7:57 PM

>For some strange reason, the TSA just had to leak a batch of *old* information
> immediately after the GooTube Democratic debate

Well, it looks like to me there were two incidents within the last two months, so then they dug out older incidents (but still less than a year) that fit the same pattern.

skepticalJuly 25, 2007 8:09 PM

I don't believe it.

One can easily imagine scenarios where anybody could end up packing like that. For example, the Milwaukee case sounds a lot like the Mintyfresh! guy's story, sans the cheese. But is cheese really strange in Milwaukee? Both the Baltimore and Houston stories fit in the "a bit strange" category, not in "potentially dangerous". Not to mention, the San Diego story has already been officially contradicted.

I'm sorry, Mr. Schneier, I think you were too quick on the gun to praise TSA on this one.

DylanJuly 25, 2007 8:42 PM

So now if I want to sneak my semtex onto a plane, I should wrap it in cheese?

Brainiac 2000July 25, 2007 9:13 PM

Well, we can all think these incidents are the result of overzealous inspectors, but the fact that they get circulated in official reports just throws gasoline on the TSA fire. Now the overzealous inspectors are even more overzealous, and the guy with the Minty whatever gets stopped every time. As do all the rest of us with iPod rechargers, memory sticks, and rock candy crystals. False positives generate more false positives, until the system is so swamped with confiscated cheese and batteries that the security checkpoint collapses into a giant sinkhole and travelers literally explode with frustration. I'd like to see the report on THAT.

paulJuly 25, 2007 9:26 PM

I'm a little confused by the notion that the gel icepacks are apparently considered OK if they're not old and oozing congealed gup. That seems like just a beautiful package and medium for exploitation.

Mary KayJuly 25, 2007 9:32 PM

You know, I make jewelry. Every single time I travel with my tools in my checked luggage, I get that little note from TSA that they've opened and searched my bags. And sometimes I travel with a coil of silver wire too. And I've just started working with polymer clay. Doomed I tell you, doomed. At least I've started leaving them out til the very end and packing them on top so they don't have to do much digging.


AlbatrossJuly 25, 2007 9:42 PM

Carrying wire-wrapped cheese in checked luggage? I guess we know where Cherthoff's "gut feelings" came from. "Uh, Boss, you're not s'posed to eat it..."

Seriously, c'mon - the Bush Administration has been trying to re-ignite the terror scare for a while now. So you run a few agents through the TSA, then you leak the findings memo, and voila! a new terror scare.

Obviously Tom Ridge took the remote for the Alert Level settings with him when he left office, so we've been at "Orange" status for what, two or three years now? You think with Voldemort finally dead they'd lower that to "Puce" if they could. But once they get that remote back from him, BOOM, we'll be at Alert Level Ultraviolet in two weeks. Shock and Awe!

gooeyJuly 25, 2007 9:51 PM

couldnt agree with you more albatross. how are we supposed to trust these guys ?

bzelbobJuly 25, 2007 9:54 PM

From the Article:

TSA regional spokeswoman Jennifer Peppin said her agency has issued more than 90 bulletins in the past six months.

“It is really a standard way of communicating that information to the people out there on the front line,��? Peppin said.

“I think it's really crucial to focus on the fact that there is no specific credible threat related to this information. It is simply just part of an overall environment of being alert.��?

My question is: How is it that we are being alert to the 'overall environment', when the information that is put out in the TSA's OWN BULLETIN is wrong?

Successfully detecting cheese and cooler packs doesn't make the country any safer from terrorists. There's a Monty Python skit in this somewhere...

And speaking of that, I know this is old, but it still applies: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykzqFz_nHZE

boblikesaliceJuly 25, 2007 10:17 PM

It could be possible of course that these people are not even potential terrorists, but just curious individuals like yourselves. Some or all of these reports may be people just curious to see if all these added airport "security measures" are really doing anything, and try to see if they can smuggle in something that could have been a bomb (of course without doing anything blatantly illegal).

EamJuly 25, 2007 10:34 PM

I'm just as suspicious of the motives for releasing this bulletin as the rest of you jackasses, but I think a lot of you are dismissing these cases a bit too casually.

Have you looked at the picture of the cheese + cell phone charger in the TSA report? It definitely seems like something's weird there. I'm glad it aroused the suspicion it did, and I certainly hope it was treated as if it were an explosive (honestly, how hard can it be to make Semtex look like a block of cheese?)

ZephJuly 25, 2007 10:46 PM

Oh, no. No! The TSA has discovered CHEESE!


Having made their test runs, and having been foiled in two of their eighty attempts at smuggling cheese, the terrorists will now switch to three-ounce wine bottle explosives.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, all tourists bringing in cheese will be strip-searched.

Thank you for contributing to mindless hysteria. Lord knows, we don't have enough of it.

HeyJuly 25, 2007 11:15 PM

Hmmm...why will no one be honest and say they were Arabs? Why do we hide the true race to protect feelings? If they're not Arabs, say so! If it's a white guy with wires coming out of a device looking like an explosive device, tell us!

BOB!!July 25, 2007 11:20 PM

"intentionally ambiguous 'U. S. person' "
Actually, 'U.S. person' is a technical term in the intelligence/law enforcement community. Federal law and executive orders dealing with intelligence collection say that 'U.S. persons' can only be collected on under certain circumstances, whereas collection against non-U.S. persons is unrestricted. U.S. persons include both citizens and legal residents, as well as various organizations. See http://www.nsa.gov/about/about00020.cfm for details.
So they're not being intentionally ambiguous, they're following the law.

LadyKJuly 25, 2007 11:32 PM

June 4? Well that's a relief - I guess I'm not the cheese terrorist after all. May 25 I had an interesting few moments in Milwaukee while I was trying to take all of my usual technostuff (iPod, cell phone, two laptops, chargers, cables, etc) and a block of gourmet aged cheddar through security.

TSA was professional, alert, respectful, and kicked me off to my flight with a sigh when they found no explosives trace and a commercially labeled package. I was quite confused about all of the concern (I travel frequently, so I have the sheep behavior down to a science) until they found the cheese and I realized it must have looked just perfect on the x-ray. (I later joked to friends that all I was missing was plugging a couple of solenoids into it like Shrek ears.)

So unless the reports come out with a week's delay, everyone is safe from me, I promise. Though my friend who requested the cheese may be SOL on my next few trips.

MJuly 26, 2007 2:00 AM

John Pinette said:

"9/11 changed the amount of bullshit we accept from our government from 'some' to 'infinite'."

I agree with him.

NostromoJuly 26, 2007 2:57 AM

"Federal law and executive orders dealing with intelligence collection say that 'U.S. persons' can only be collected on under certain circumstances, whereas collection against non-U.S. persons is unrestricted."
The above is correctly quoted from the NSA's web site, but note that this interpretation of the Constitution is recent. Traditional interpretation of the law (not just in the US but in most developed countries) is that it applies to everyone within the jurisdiction, regardless of citizenship.

fantrJuly 26, 2007 3:55 AM

so im gathering that most here feel the TSA was wrong to be suspicious in these cases? I'm sure the same people would be the first to cry outrage afterwards if they found suspicious items like these do appear to be and never reported it. I am about the world's biggest cynic, but if any of you worked for the TSA, pulled out some of the crap in these photos and did nothing, and I saw it, I'd be pissed. Perhaps im not intellectual enough to jump on the TSA-Bash-wagon, but if they are not supposed to question the items in these photos and descriptions, then what exactly are they supposed to be doing? It sure as hell makes more sense then removing my shoes or turning over my nail clippers.

oh, and to the person concerned about the possible effect on the WI Dairy industry? It's not an issue, they have already begun to raise taxes to cover it. :)

Mr. MikeJuly 26, 2007 5:29 AM

Fight the war on terrorism... Fly Naked!

On second thought, this group is a bunch of computer nerds....don't.

SparkyJuly 26, 2007 7:23 AM

I, too, wonder what these people have been charged with.

They didn't try to bring anything illegal onto the plane, and it's pretty difficult to prove intent.

RCJuly 26, 2007 7:42 AM

not mentioned in news reports (as far as I know):

block cheese with wires attached would have a similar x-ray profile to plastic explosives with a detonator; so perhaps they were trying to see if the screeners would catch it. (this could apply to terrorists testing a plan or to ordinary but foolish citizens wanting to test security)

The four incidents in June, July, Sept. and Nov. may have been four out of six:

June, July, August, Sept, Oct, Nov

or more.

shoobe01July 26, 2007 9:35 AM

Detonators are fairly innocuous looking, unless you know what they are. Some are other shapes, but most are quite small metallic tubes with (for electrical types) a wire coming off the end:
Sure, they say "Dangerous" and so forth on the side, but its not very convincing.

If the main charge is being replaced with cheese or something, then replacing the detonator with parts of a pen or something would work fine also. In both cases any direct explosive-sensing equipment is not being tested, but x-ray and hand inspection equipment (generally) is.

skepticalJuly 26, 2007 11:57 AM

@fantr, you say "... but if they are not supposed to question the items in these photos and descriptions, then what exactly are they supposed to be doing?"

I think you have hit the nail on the head. Yes, what exactly are they supposed to be doing? So many people, so much effort, to prevent random hijackings. Some people say they are just responding to 9/11, but no, they are just refighting the airline security breaches of the 70s and 80s. Gosh, am I glad I never have to worry about being hijacked to Cuba.

I can tell you one thing: if they waste time worrying about cheese in proximity to electronic device rechargers and associated dongles, I feel less secure because that means less attention is being paid to things that might really matter.

And alright, so they looked at the cheeses and the Minty whatever carefully, and concluded that there was nothing the matter. Fine. But do they have to elevate it to the "terraists are making dry runs!" level?

MikeJuly 26, 2007 12:36 PM

I recently spent wayyyy too long at the Milwaukee airport thanks to a lame layover, and I can't resist pointing out that they actually sell blocks of cheese IN THE AIRPORT!

Given that I'm lactose intolerant, one could actually make the argument that cheese is a terrorist weapon in my hands. It could certainly make a long flight very unpleasant for anyone within five rows of me.

Matthew SkalaJuly 26, 2007 3:39 PM

Nostromo: It's not about some people being exempt from the law. The point is that the intelligence services are only allowed to spy on foreign powers. Different section of the Constitution.

NilJuly 26, 2007 6:03 PM

Note Todd Knarr's link well.

The thing to keep in mind here, is just cause the government _says_ there was someone with wires wrapped around cheese, or whatever, doesn't mean it happened like you imagine. Maybe there was wire next to cheese. Maybe there was wire in one pocket and cheese in another. Maybe there was no wire at all, but only something that initially looked like wire. Maybe they made the whole damn thing up.

Sure, if it happened the way those brief sentances make us think it happened, it was suspicious and rightly investigated. But I have absolutely no confidence that it really happened that way.

See ice packs filled with clay which turned out to be... ice packs filled with ice back stuff.

Mitch GuthmanJuly 26, 2007 7:11 PM

I’m very confused. Because of positive bag matching, the TSA and the FBI must know the identity of the people who checked the bags containing the suspect items. I would assume (per the article) that each of these people has been the subject of the most intense scrutiny possible----complete financial investigation, 24/7 physical and technical surveillance, mail covers, telephone toll records, looking for foreign connections, family backgrounds, everything.

Does the fact that TSA issued this memo after conducting such a high priority, high intensity investigation mean that they’ve concluded that some or all of these people are actually terrorists or are being used as pawns by terrorists? If so, have they or the other cell members been arrested? If, on the other hand, they’ve all been cleared, what is the point of the memo? How is it possible that the entire law enforcement and intelligence apparatus of the USA can’t tell whether these people are fish or fowl?

For what its worth, this isn’t a “snark��? laden post----I’ve really been trying to think this through and I can’t. What am I missing?

AnonymousJuly 26, 2007 8:06 PM

None of the news reports says that there were either wires poked into the cheese or wrapped around the cheese, the available pictures do not show this either.
As far as people putting a cell phone charger into a checked bag or having some sort of electric cable in a carryon, neither of these things is that unlikely. Traveling with a block of cheese is not unlikely either; the cheese could be homemade, a souvenir or maybe a snack for the car ride home from the airport. Having cheese and wires together is not unlikely either, it is not like you have a bag for your electronics and another bag to carry your cheese. There are very reasonable explanations for having cheese and wires in your baggage that do not involve terrorist's dry runs.
None of this means that the TSA should not investigate bags with stuff like this, just that it should not merit sending out a national alert.
This alert mentions four "incidents" and seems to exaggerate the circumstances around them for no good reason. The "clay" in the ice packs turned out to be the regular gel; it had just leaked out and dried a little bit. The one photo of the Wisconsin traveler's cheese shows what appears to be two shrink wrapped blocks labeled for sale. The other cheese sounds a little suspicious since it was described as "processed cheese" but there is no accounting for taste. I do not have enough information about the brown clay like stuff to understand what it was, but the information is too sketchy to merit a panic.

W. Craig TraderJuly 26, 2007 8:08 PM

FWIW, there are cold packs that use clay instead of gel. Look for ThermiPaq (http://www.thermipaq.com/) -- they're actually much better than the typical gel packs, they stay colder longer.

NostromoJuly 27, 2007 1:14 AM

@Matthew Skala:
I think you may have missed the point of that comment. The NSA's web site:
explicitly claims that the Fourth Amendment applies only to "US persons". In other words, a foreign tourist in the USA can be strip-searched and have his possessions confiscated at any time and for no reason. That is not the traditional interpretation of the Constitution. Courts have repeatedly ruled (most recently, in the Hazleton immigration case - google for munley hazleton immigration) that Constitutional protections apply to everyone within the jurisdiction.
The mandate of the NSA is not relevant. Their job is to go after foreign agents etc, but they were subject to the Constitution while doing it within the US until recently - and the current interpretation conflicts with every court ruling on the subject.

bobJuly 27, 2007 11:53 AM

Its all innocuous - if the TSA had thought it was ACTUAL terrorism it would have been CLASSIFIED and buried in a SAFE someplace where no one would ever (be able to) read it.

One time on official duty travel I was carrying (a ruggedized 60# kit I always traveled with, containing:) 2 TA-1042 digital tactical phones, 2 TA-838 analog tactical phones, circuit cards to extend the circuits through a multiplexer, and of course because these arent cordless phones - WIRES (about 500') and BATTERIES. OMG I practically had to install the phones and make a phone call with them to get through security. (and of course theres enough empty room inside each phone for several pounds of C-4 so even though they WORK they could still be bombs.)

Final Score: 1) Passenger hassled for 20 minutes 2) Suspicious atechnical screener satisfied 3) Still could have been bombs so security not enhanced

JimJuly 27, 2007 3:31 PM

It's going to get to the point that all you can carry is a change of clothes. You will get all the other stuff when you get there. The hotel will provide it or you will buy it after you arrive. A laptop can be packed with explosives. Years ago there was a little laptop rental business at the airport. Great idea, ahead of its time.

wJuly 27, 2007 10:14 PM

Apparently no one here saw the woman on the flight from San Diego on ABC news. She called them after hearing about the "gel packs filled with clay and wrapped in duct tape". What she really had was one cold pack and one hot pack to help ease her back pain, and they were wrapped with transparent tape.

In addition, she had a multipage printout along the lines of tolerance toward Muslims (sorry I don't remember the actual title, they only flashed it quickly on the program). It seems she works for an interfaith center and got this at the conference she had been at.

When she got hauled over by the TSA goons, one of their first questions was whether she knew Osama Bin Laden. The gel packs were a red herring, it's because she had a handout from a conference that had something to do with Islam that she got pulled over. And the TSA is still trying to spin this as more of their good work! I'll bet the cheese with wires sticking out of it turns out to be a couple of blocks of cheese in a plastic bag with a twist tie to close it. I'm really not looking forward to my next flight if I have to be subjected to the morons from the TSA.

AnonymousJuly 28, 2007 4:44 PM

The Transportation Security Agency's national security bulletin issued was based on bogus examples that were combined to give the impression of ominous terrorist plotting, CNN reports.

"That bulletin for law enforcement eyes only told of suspicious items recently found in passenger's bags at airport checkpoints, warned that they may signify dry runs for terrorist attacks," CNN's Brian Todd reported Friday afternoon. "Well it turns out none of that is true."

Todd highlights the case of Sara Weiss, who was detained in San Diego after two ice packs covered in tape were found in her baggage. Weiss, who works for a faith-based organization, also was carrying a survey about Muslim Americans, which CNN says also raised law enforcement provisions.

"The FBI now says there were valid explanations for all four incidents in that bulletin, and a US government official says no charges will be brought in any of these cases," Todd reported.

Weiss says she was held for three hours and questioned by San Diego Harbor Police and two other men who did not identify themselves. She told CNN one of the men asked her if she knew Osama bin Laden, which she described as "a ridiculous question."

The FBI maintained "they were right" putting the bogus reports on the TSA bulletin, which is distributed to law enforcement agencies nationwide, Todd reported. Airport security officers must be trained in identifying suspicious packages, even when those packages turn out to be innocuous.

Politically motivated propaganda, not security.

beebrainJuly 30, 2007 4:54 AM

I'm very disappointed in Mr. Schneier's comments regarding this incident. He knows better; he knows more than most just how inept purveyors of "security theater" really are. He knows that if you snoop in the bags of a few hundred million people you will find some strange things. He knows that bureaucrats lie and distort to enhance their image and budget.

Yet even after finding that all four reports are utterly bogus, he demands a "valid explanation for "wire coil wrapped around a possible initiator, an electrical switch, batteries, three tubes and two blocks of cheese."".

How about these, which took all of 30 seconds thought:

power cord wrapped around charger for cell phone, laptop, PDA, etc.

tubes for coin collectors
tubes of toiletries, toothpaste, etc.
tubes to hold drill bits, mills, augers, screwdrivers, and other sharp tools

flashlight(s) (tubes, electrical switch)
tools of many kinds with batteries, electrical switches, and wires.

or, God forbid, an actual coil of wire carried by an electrical technician of any sort.

It is already essentially impossible for many trade and sales people to travel with their tools and samples. It doesn't matter if you check your tools; having so much as a coil of wire risks arrest. This does not make us safer, but it does make us poorer, and less free, and less likely to discover the real threats. Movie plot security doesn't just waste time and money, it endangers innocent people.

You blew it.

NolanJuly 30, 2007 10:16 AM

I live in London, my (English) mother lives in France. I frequently take big blocks of Cheddar Cheese out when I visit (France is very soft cheese-centric, obviously). On several occasions this has caused the X-ray security people to completely freak. They say that it looks exactly like Semtex. On a large number of other occasions, however, they didn't bat an eye. Hmmmm. Should I be more bothered that they did notice or that they didn't?

LazJuly 30, 2007 4:05 PM

The people with the cheese were leaving Milwaukee... do I really have to point out that Wisconsin is the cheese capital of the US.

This one I love:
"wire coil wrapped around a possible initiator"

Sounds like an iPod with headphones to me.

The rest is too vague to comment on.

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