Five-Year-Old Boy Detained by the TSA

His name is similar to someone on the “no fly” list:

A five-year-old boy was taken into custody and thoroughly searched at Sea-Tac because his name is similar to a possible terrorist alias. As the Consumerist reports, “When his mother went to pick him up and hug him and comfort him during the proceedings, she was told not to touch him because he was a national security risk. They also had to frisk her again to make sure the little Dillinger hadn’t passed anything dangerous weapons or materials to his mother when she hugged him.”

The explanation is simple: to the TSA, following procedure is more important than common sense. But unfortunately, catching the next terrorist will require more common sense than it will following proper procedure.

If I ever get to interview Kip Hawley again, I’ll ask him about this.

EDITED TO ADD (1/12): Another kid on the no-fly list.

Posted on January 10, 2008 at 10:53 AM97 Comments


mal January 10, 2008 11:18 AM

“Following procedure is more important than common sense” is the mantra of most corporations, too.

We Do What We're Told January 10, 2008 11:25 AM

TSA: “What’s in that 8-ounce juice bottle?”

5-year-old: “Juice.”


CaHo January 10, 2008 11:29 AM

Obviously, the TSA procedure doesn’t say something about using common sense. But finally, I’m rather happy that there is a procedure instead of arbitrary suspicions …

.. thinking … ooops, forgot the “no fly list” – my fault …

paul January 10, 2008 11:30 AM

Next movie plot: terrorists recruit dozens of small martial artists capable of passing as children to hijack airplanes when unsuspecting flight crews offer them a view of the cockpit.

Daryll Strauss January 10, 2008 11:30 AM

It seems like another fundamental problem is the lack of a well defined scope and authority.

If the kid was added to the watch list, because he was a kidnap victim, then the TSA behavior would have been reasonable.

The TSA does seem to be tasked with preventing drug smuggling as evidenced by the drug busts they’ve made in the past. Are they tasked with all police actions?

Private Cure January 10, 2008 11:31 AM


“”Following procedure is more important than common sense” is the mantra of most corporations, too.”

So if a business treats you idiotically, you walk out, you don’t return, and you take your business elsewhere (to their competitors.)

Who’s the TSA’s competitor? AMTRAK?

sho January 10, 2008 11:33 AM

Man, I remember when I didn’t realise “Land of the Free” was a sarcastic joke! Naiive, eh. Now I know, however, it just gets funnier every day.

Why not come visit us in Europe? We may not be “Land of the Free”, but we’re definitely “Land of the Much Freer than America”.

ice weasel January 10, 2008 11:48 AM

And keep in mind, at some point in the future someone in the bush administration will stand up and say that the TSA confronted the terrorist threat through new means more than a thousand times this year.

That little boy being detained will be part of that number.

Sadly, I think the real statement here is that we, as Americans, have done little to stand up to idiocy. It says as much as our society as they ignorant paranoids perpetrating these outrages.

Nick Lancaster January 10, 2008 11:51 AM

Thing is, since there’s no mechanism for removing names from the list (at least that I’m aware of), this kid better get used to being mistaken for a terrorist.

At least there wasn’t a friendly Boston cop to opine that it was a good thing he cooperated, or he might have gotten shot.

Windy January 10, 2008 11:54 AM

I’m a white, middle-class British male, who currently works for a US Consulting Firm, and I’m planning to refuse to attend the next mandatory course in the US HQ.

I really don’t fancy flying for 8 hours, just to be exposed to arbitrary displays of power by armies of jack-booted authority-obsessed half-wits, who are probably more dangerous to the stability of what used to be a model for democracy than any one terrorist would be. I can think of better ways to spend my time than arbitrary detention and inspection of my laptop by someone who doesn’t know how to spell Linux.

Being fingerprinted like a criminal last time was degrading enough.

Don’t worry – I’m not too brave – I’m planning to leave the company anyway, and by the time I face repercussions in my annual review, I’ll have left anyway.

I wonder if enough European employees do this, US corporations will start lobbying for the rules to be relaxed? It seems US corporations are the only people that can successfully change US laws.

Patrick Farrell January 10, 2008 11:55 AM

Why not come visit us in Europe? We may not be “Land of the Free”, but we’re definitely “Land of the Much Freer than America”.

@sho: Them’s fightin’ words!

I’m wondering, though, to which country you are referring? Certainly not England, Spain, France, Germany or any other major country. You have to remember that when American’s get all hot and bothered about stories like these, it’s because we’re outraged at challenges to our system, not because these are every day occurrences, which, be definition, would not be news… and certainly wouldn’t be on Bruce’s radar.

anonymous January 10, 2008 12:13 PM

OK, we can surely all agree that the 5-year old was likely not a terrorist.

But somehow, I imagine if the TSA had decided not to follow procedure simply because he was a 5-year-old kid, this article would still be bashing them.

It’s fine to argue about the process. But as bad as the process is, it’s even worse if a judgement call by an individual TSA agent is permitted to override it. The 5-year-old doesn’t look like a terrorist, so just ignore the process. A 70-year-old grandmother probably isn’t a terrorist either. Should we ignore the process there too? What about the white guy in a business suit?

Heck, the chances that a Saudi in an American airport is a terrorist are vanishingly small too.

Nick Lancaster January 10, 2008 12:26 PM


The point is to show reasonable discretion. A five year-old is likely to lack necessary skills (they certainly couldn’t overpower anyone, let alone hope to secure the plane against the remaining passengers) and possibly even the ideological framework (for something like a suicide bomb).

Procedures must allow some kind of flexibility, because rigidity of thought can be exploited. (Thus, it’s a flexible system that can single out the 70 year-old woman acting strangely, or the white guy in a business suit who is sweating and exhibiting nervous behaviors, or the Saudi who is fidgeting in his coat pockets.)

Rigidity of procedure also leads to boredom, and boredom leads to errors/oversights.

However, to be fair, flexibility can be a liability as well, as with the incident in New York, where a city council member got a gun into chambers by way of being waved around the checkpoint by a security guard who had identified them.

Anonymous January 10, 2008 12:28 PM

@Windy –

I’m planning to refuse to attend
the next mandatory course

I applaud your principled stand.

After you’re fired, perhaps you can get work in the TSA , and change things from within.

bob January 10, 2008 12:29 PM

I would like to know the date of occurrence of the incident which got the name of the child’s alter ego on the list in the first place. If that person, for example, argued with a flight attendendant about using the lavatory while only 29 minutes away from DC in February 2002; then someone not born until June of the following year probably is not the same person and could be spared the hassle. And a parent should never be barred from assisting, touching, helping whatever a young (<14yo) minor for which they are (or at least would be in a saner country) legally responsible.

Is there anyone who reads this forum who can check the no-fly list? I would like to know if Lee Harvey Oswald is on the no-fly list. For that matter, I bet John Wilkes Booth is too; just in case.

@Private Cure: The TSAs competitor is small charter aircraft. They fly slower but have way more choices of airports and go directly to the one you want to at the exact time convenient for you, so its actually faster as well.

Alan January 10, 2008 12:32 PM

Isn’t the blind following of “proper procedures” what killed so many people during World War I? The idea that you had to fight by rules that did not apply. (Kind of like how the British would wear bright red uniforms and march in easily attackable lines during the Revolutionary war.)

The TSA does not seem to be fighting the last war, they seem to have skipped back a couple dozen.

Tangerine Blue January 10, 2008 12:32 PM

@anonymous 12:13

I imagine if the TSA had decided
not to follow procedure simply
because he was a 5-year-old kid,
this article would still be bashing

You’ve got a great imagination.

But I’m afraid you’re confusing Bruce Schneier with Geraldo Rivera. They’re actually quite different – compare the moustaches.

Nick Lancaster January 10, 2008 12:35 PM

Considering that a credit card belonging to my mother (for a department store that I believe no longer exists) once appeared on my credit report – including an issuing date BEFORE my birthday … I can see how the name and age disparity would go right on by.

Wintermute January 10, 2008 12:35 PM

Anaonymous: I have absolutely no problem with an individual TSA agent being allowed to ignore procedure based on his judgment call. If he can’t make a simple call like that, maybe we need better TSA agents? Nonetheless, you’re right without even realizing it. We should abolish the entire system, because it makes a mockery of what the USA is supposed to be and makes me feel ashamed to be an American.

Nomen Publicus January 10, 2008 12:36 PM

The “no fly list” is such a flawed idea that it is difficult to understand how the TSA, the US government and a whole bunch of functionaries in between are managing to stay out of the courts.

In our campus phone directory approximately 1 in 2000 people are called John Smith. This implies that in the USA about 150000 people are called John Smith. If just one of those people is placed on the NFL, everybody else suffers.

For internal flights, where the entire process takes place under US law, how is harassing 149,999 people not unreasonable search&seizure or detention without due cause?

Stephen Smoogen January 10, 2008 12:40 PM

Yes the TSA is in a no-win situation. They get paniced newspaper articles and Congressional investigations saying that they do not follow procedures and thus fail to find test contraband. Then when they follow procedures, they get angry newspaper articles and Congressional investigations saying that they do not follow common sense.

The real elephant in the room is that in either case, its mostly a show to cover up that there are a hundred other places that modern life is not ‘secure’.

Ed T. January 10, 2008 12:45 PM

“OK, we can surely all agree that the 5-year old was likely not a terrorist.”

“Likely” not a terrorist!? LIKELY!? not a terrorist?!? The only experience this kid has had with terror (before the encounter with the TSA, that is) would be related to thinking that there were monsters in the closet, or under the bed, or wherever it is kids think those things exist.

The only terrorists in this scenario were the ones drawing government paychecks.

Note that we are not talking about the regular search for excessive metallic objects or other dangerous items such as hairgel or deoderant that some adult could have an unwitting child carry through. We are talking, instead, about a very invasive and aggressive search/interrogation that is triggered by virtue of having ones name on a list of people under strong suspicion for wanting to commit acts of criminal violence. Since, under the law, a 5-year old is incapable of committing a criminal act (violent or otherwise), it is stupid to even think that someone of that age should be subjected to the additional “screening” that those on the DNF list get. If the TSA procedures don’t account for this, then they should be changed.

If I were the parent, I would have filed a criminal complaint against the TSA screener for false arrest, assault, and child abuse/molestation (depending on where the child was touched.)

If I was on the jury in such a case, I would vote to convict.


Josh O January 10, 2008 12:47 PM

“If I ever get to interview Kip Hawley again, I’ll ask him about this.”

Bruce, don’t wait. Don’t you have a way to contact him or people he is in direct contact with?

Matt P. January 10, 2008 12:50 PM

I was flying recently with my wife and 2 year old and was told that we had packed too many (3) single serving Yo Baby yogurts, too many (3) ~3oz. Yogurt drinks, and too many (3) single serving apple sauce containers for our child for a day of traveling. Apparently the TSA has guidelines they stringently follow regarding the dietary needs and appetite of my 2 year old as well. We were allowed to retain one of each for our 6 hour, 2 leg journey. It made me feel more secure as well…I mean if I were actually transporting something potentially harmful in those Yo Baby containers, having only 1/3 of whatever it was would render it as useless as…a ~3oz container of drinkable yogurt!

Stephan Samuel January 10, 2008 1:33 PM

Bruce always talks about not protecting against yesterday’s attack. Tomorrow’s attack may be executed using children as mules. In the USA, poster children are sheltered, materialistic drones. In some other countries, they’re already seen their parents and brothers die or get killed, sometimes by Americans. Some have been indoctrinated and if the person who got to them after dad was shot in the living room is unscrupulous, he’ll capitalize on the fact that the kid may not yet have internalized the concept of suicide.

You can train TSA officials to follow procedure, but you can’t train them to “know.” The TSA official who stopped the kid didn’t write the no-fly list and doesn’t know why the name on the list is there. It could be because Army intelligence knows we killed his family and he’s since been seen associating with known terrorists. Maybe it’s really him.

Unless you know this situation isn’t the case, which you don’t, you can’t use things like profiling to break the process. Don’t tell me he’s not a terrorist because he’s white or young, because Timothy McVeigh was (Is? Did they execute him?) white and Dylan Klebold was young. Any 5-year-old who can wangle a Wii controller can detonate a bomb.

Why does everyone think that they know more than whoever created the process?

Roy January 10, 2008 1:49 PM

What would’ve happened if the 5-year-old had thrown a temper tantrum? Would he have been Tasered? Gassed? Would he get a string of 9mm bullets in his head?

The TSA has yet to show that they possess the common sense we require of all people or else we lock them away for our own protection.

Patrick Stein January 10, 2008 1:50 PM

I don’t know what Kip Hawley was thinking when he let you interview him the first time…. but I’ll be mighty surprised if he lets that happen again.

TJHooker January 10, 2008 1:51 PM

Hang on a minute.

Ever since I was fooled by Arnold Diff’rent Strokes I know that what appears to be a child may not actually be a child 🙂

Petréa Mitchell January 10, 2008 1:51 PM

The TSA says its procedures allow the screeners to exercise common sense in cases like this, though who knows how many of them actually know that:

That video won’t play for me, so I’ve been trying to find a text version of the story for full details. Neither Yahoo! nor Google News turns up anything for various combinations of “dillinger”, “seatac”, “sea-tac”, “no-fly”, and “terrorist”. Heck, a search on the news site with the story doesn’t even turn up that video. This seems a little odd to me. I’d expect this story to be picked up at least by other local media if it’s verifiable.

Tangerine Blue January 10, 2008 1:54 PM

@Stephan Samuel

Why does everyone think that they
know more than whoever created the

Because whoever created the process was an unimaginative bureacratic CYA blowhard that reports to a smart but constrained director who reports to a self-deluded idealogue of dubious intellectual faculties.

Grahame January 10, 2008 1:55 PM

It would seem obvious that TSA need to make some changes to their procedures relating to how parents and children can interact while they are searched.

But the real problem here is the no-fly list – it’s such a dumb idea. Well, not such a dumb idea as so badly organised – and the way it is organised seems to be intended to flout common sense interpretations of citizen’s rights.

I’m about to enter USA… crosses fingers…

Anonymous January 10, 2008 1:57 PM


Good call. I’ll be sure to cast Dabney Coleman in next year’s Movie Plot contest.

Nick Lancaster January 10, 2008 1:58 PM

Unless there’s some insidious chemical explosive that looks just like applesauce/drinkable yogurt, the safety benefits of adhering to the 3 oz. liquid rule are not (IMHO) a significant gain over making sure an infant is properly fed/hydrated during a six-hour flight.

I would think it would be possible to do some kind of visual inspection to make sure the containers had not been tampered with – I imagine they were plastic tubs or tubes with a foil seal – and a scan for chemical residue (such as CA vapors if someone had broken the seal, tampered with the contents, and then crazy-glued the foil back on).

Additionally, what could possibly be in three or more such containers that would not be effective in a single one? We keep hearing how dangerous such small quantities of TATP could be, but the 3 oz. limit seems to be more about ‘doing something’ than practical security.

Better List January 10, 2008 2:00 PM

@Stephan Samuel

Couldn’t we get a better list? Whoever compiled the list originally presumably didn’t choose the names out of thin air. The names correspond to one or more individual humans, so couldn’t an age range as of a given date be associated with the name?

So Abdul Rassim, est. age: 25-45, in 2001; Patrick O’Shaughnessy, est. age 0-20, or 40-60, in 1996 (two suspects, same name); etc.

If the five-year-old’s name showed the estimated age as of 2004 to be 15-35, then the TSA agent would know that this five-year-old isn’t the guy whose name is on The List.

Surely we know the age range of at least some of the people whose names are on The List.

Nick Lancaster January 10, 2008 2:02 PM


“Good call. I’ll be sure to cast Dabney Coleman in next year’s Movie Plot contest.”

You’re thinking of GARY Coleman. Dabney Coleman is a different actor.

Nick Lancaster January 10, 2008 2:12 PM

@Better List:

It only makes sense to exclude a suspect based on age range when the result is wildly off-base, like mistaking a 5 year-old for an adult, or maybe a 85 year-old man for a 22 year-old student.

I am usually mistaken for being 5-10 years younger, and I imagine professional makeup/costuming skills could alter someone’s appearance significantly. (No, I’m not talking ‘Mission: Impossible’ style facemasks, but there are some materials out there that can be used to build custom appliances/prosthetics.)

Davey January 10, 2008 2:19 PM

Maybe after the kid grows up while being treated as a terrorist, he will live up to the name.

And isn’t the no-fly list a monotonically-increasing set of SOUNDEX matches?

Better List January 10, 2008 2:39 PM

@Nick Lancaster

“It only makes sense to exclude a suspect based on age range when the result is wildly off-base, like mistaking a 5 year-old for an adult”

Right. Like in, for instance, this case.

Fake51 January 10, 2008 2:43 PM

@Stephan Samuel:
That post is very close to landing you the title of “Moron”. The 5-year old kid was detained because of a name, NOT because of the possibility of a 5-year old suicide bomber. The no-fly list does NOT stop “tomorrows” attacks, it stops people unlucky enough to have the same name as “yesterdays terrorists”.
Sheeesh, the nonsense one has to read these days.


newborn January 10, 2008 3:04 PM

The real problem seems to be the lack of government support to new parents by providing a database to consult before burdening their new kid with a name that would keep them from flying out of town.

Bet you never knew you would be consulting the “No Fly” list just to pick a name for your itty bitty terrorist.

yoshi January 10, 2008 3:21 PM


I read your comment and my thought is “wow – delusional.” “Armies” is an exageration on a grand level. I have flown to europe where there has been more troops and hardware stationed inside a single airport than I have ever seen in the last 6 years combined in the states. I have had colleages put back on a plane and sent back home because of minor errors in their documentation. I had a colleage disappear when landing at heathrow only to find out later that he was “interviewed.” Ended up they had the wrong name (this was 10+ years ago).

Is the fingerprinting deal idiotic? Yes. Is the TSA not the sharpest tool in the shed? Yes. But please gain some perspective and spare us the exaggerations.

Michael Ash January 10, 2008 3:21 PM

@Stephan Samuel “Why does everyone think that they know more than whoever created the process?”

Because the process is so obviously stupid. Names are not unique identifiers. Everybody with any sense knows this. If you are trying to identify a list of people, you do not simply put names. You put names, ages, and descriptions. This would stop cases like this where the target is probably 30 years old and looks completely different. Not to mention, as Bruce has pointed out repeatedly, the mere existence of a list of people who are so dangerous they can’t be allowed to fly, but who aren’t dangerous enough to be arrested, is incredibly stupid. How can you not think that you know more than the people who set up such a bone-headed system?

NothingNew January 10, 2008 4:02 PM

This is nothing new. In 2003 my wife worked as a nanny for a couple that had to move out of state. They drove to their new home and we kept their 4 year old daughter for a few weeks while they established their new household. When it was time for my wife to fly the little girl to her parents, the 4 year old was flagged for additional screening because she had a 1 way ticket. They must have thought she was the first four year old suicide bomber (even though she was flying with my wife who had a 2 way ticket). The little girl screamed the whole time the TSA officers were taking away her blanket, her books, etc. so that they could thoroughly search her. My wife was prohibited from going to her to help her. I’m sure this happens every day somewhere, sad as it is.

Poor Incentive January 10, 2008 4:33 PM

@Michael Ash

“Because the process is so obviously stupid..”

What else would you expect? If you task a group of people with creating a process to accomplish an objectitve, and they know that the there are no competing candidate processes, why would they work harder to come up with anything other than the bare minimum?

The government agencies involved in creating the process (read: regulations) answer to political benchmarks, not quality-based or effectiveness-based metrics.

zxc January 10, 2008 4:34 PM

“If I ever get to interview Kip Hawley again, I’ll ask him about this.”

Why? To see what kind of half-assed excuse he comes up with on short notice?

Stephan Samuel January 10, 2008 5:02 PM


I’m afraid I’m not the moron here. You don’t know why the 5-year-old’s name was on the list. It may have been the 5-year-old they were looking for, then you’d certainly seem like the moron. There are a dozen other factors that you don’t know about that could make you seem like the moron. In any case, name-calling always makes you look more like a moron.

@Tangerine Blue,

Go ahead and write your own no-fly list, or implement airport security as must be checked by a bunch of people with a few weeks’ training on the TSA’s budget. Then account for all the pressures the TSA is under from the government, who is essentially the agency that bonds them.

Notice that Bruce hasn’t done it. He’s suggested some changes that would exist in a vacuum, but no comprehensive new plan. He even shared part of the interview he had with Kip Hawley and still no comprehensive plan. By saying you can do better, you’re saying you’re smarter than Bruce and better at security.

These things don’t exist in a vacuum. Apply the reality filter and stopping that particular 5-year-old in that particular situation starts to make more sense.

paul January 10, 2008 5:03 PM

This is what happens when you employ unskilled people on minimum wage. If they want a serious security system, it is time to start paying decent amounts of money to hire properly skilled, intelligent people.

Rich Wilson January 10, 2008 5:15 PM

@Nick Lancaster

According to the video, there is a form that can be filled out to be removed from the list.

Someone tells me I can’t touch my son, I’m likely to end up the on on the floor tazed.

Anonymous January 10, 2008 5:40 PM

@Stephan Samuel
“””Apply the reality filter and stopping that particular 5-year-old in that particular situation starts to make more sense.”””

This ‘reality filter’ of your seems to be doing a great job filtering out all traces of ‘reality’.

Ron January 10, 2008 5:56 PM


A no-fly list that cut down on false positives is obviously technically feasible. But a list that simultaneously cuts down on true positives (however little, by comparison) is politically unacceptable. No one can bell the cat because no one wants to be responsible for 9/11 v2.0. Bruce has pointed out before that our failure to accept risks as a society causes bureaucrats to err on the side of paranoia.

“Tomorrow’s attack may be executed using children as mules…”
This is the point of the Movie Plot Threat Contest II, which you do not seem to get. ANYONE can come up with a rationalization to be paranoid about ANYTHING. But some of us do not accept mere rationalizations, pre or post facto, as rationales. Today it’s liquids and gels. The contest winners were water, wires, and security checkpoints. Tomorrow it’s 5-year-olds… oh wait, that was today. We’ve already fallen way way down that slippery slope.

There is no shiny new comprehensive plan to improve the state of our airport security because there’s no cure for institutional paranoia. From that point of view, no one will answer your question because it’s the wrong question.

There is no way to “implement airport security as must be checked by a bunch of people with a few weeks’ training on the TSA’s budget.” Perfection requires infinite budgets. Without the infinite budget, what’s the point of 90% solutions to airport security? The 10% gap you can’t fill just wasted the first 90%. And that’s just the price; what was the cost of the first 90%?

B: Do not try to bend the security. That’s impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth.

N: What truth?

B: There is no security.

N: There is no security?

B: Then you will see that it is not the security that bends, it is only yourself.

tjvm January 10, 2008 6:19 PM

I think the problem highlighted here is not the detention of the boy, but the fact that we’re trying to exclude terrorists from airplanes using a list of names. A name by itself just isn’t enough information to go on, particularly when you’re including “similar” names and aliases.

A “do not fly” list may make sense, but only if you’re limiting yourself to people you can actually identify with some precision.

Paul Renault January 10, 2008 6:40 PM

@ Tangerine Blue:
“But I’m afraid you’re confusing Bruce Schneier with Geraldo Rivera. They’re actually quite different – compare the moustaches.”

Don’t forget the hair!

Matthew Cline January 10, 2008 7:24 PM

@Stephan Samuel: As for children being used a mules, you just have to pat them down to see if they’re carrying anything. A five year old couldn’t possibly have the skills needed to be dangerous without carrying any sort of dangerous object.

David January 10, 2008 8:26 PM


A system that lets through true positives and allows the next terrorist to get on an airplane isn’t going to cause the TSA a bit of difficulty (even assuming the terrorists are stupid enough to try to repeat something we’re on guard against now).

Did you notice the horrible things that happened to the CIA director and FBI director after September, 2001? Nothing happened, and I thought that a very bad idea.

Remember who paid professionally for the second truck bombing of US Marines in Beirut in 1982? Nobody, unless you count the poor guys who actually got killed.

Before people start bitching about the stupid things they have to do or be held responsible for some remote possibility, I want to see an example of somebody, anybody, held responsible for such a thing.

Bruce Schneier January 10, 2008 9:41 PM

“Heck, the chances that a Saudi in an American airport is a terrorist are vanishingly small too.”

Exactly. So screening based on national origin is a waste of valuable security resources.

Joe in Australia January 10, 2008 9:50 PM

Stephan Samuel wrote:
“You don’t know why the 5-year-old’s name was on the list. It may have been the 5-year-old they were looking for, then you’d certainly seem like the moron.”

But there is no 5-year-old that they are looking for. They’re looking (as far as we can guess) for an adult with (so far as we can guess) with a similar name. Why would you put a little kid on a no-fly list? Does he call his teddy “Osama” or something? Some idiot here – oh, I see it was you – said “Tomorrow’s attack may be executed using children as mules.” Well, yes, that would be a frightening movie. But the thing about mules is that they’re people who are likely to pass security because they have no suspicious affiliation. By definition, mules are unlikely to appear on no-fly lists. If this child had suspicious affiliations it would almost necessarily be the adults in his life – such as his mother – who isn’t on the no-fly list.

This thing is stupid, stupid, stupid, and by defending it you make the rest of the TSA’s program look just as asinine.

4th Amendment January 11, 2008 2:18 AM

From the TSA web site:

“No 8-year-old is on a TSA watch list. Airlines can and should automatically de-select any 8-year-olds out there that appear to be on a watch list. Whether you’re eight or 80, the most common occurrence is name confusion and individuals are told they are on the no fly list when in fact, they are not. If you get a boarding pass, you’re not on the no fly list.”

Perhaps this doesn’t apply to 5-year-olds. Perhaps someone familiar with the process can explain why the TSA says that “Airlines” should “de-select”. Do airlines have the discretion remove a passenger from watch list scrutiny?

I suspect that the no-fly list is practically useless as a security measure, but what are the implications of airlines being able to switch it off?

It would seem that the web page’s language, taken literally, would allow TSA to blame the airline for this revolting assault on a small child.

Perhaps TSA will correct its web site, or if the page is correct, will encourage its own employees to read the damn thing.

Welcome to Absurdistan.

Andrew January 11, 2008 3:02 AM


“Why does everyone think that they know more than whoever created the process?”

Because the population of commenters here 1) thinks about and works with security issues, 2) tends to travel a lot more than the general population, and most importantly 3) don’t tend to think that we know everything about the subject, and ignore outside inputs merely because they are from outside.

I’d have to write a long article rather than a comment on the many, many flaws of the TSA, and I’d hate to inadvertently help terrorists. Certainly jacking up a 5 year old boy is a great way to make friends around the world, not. (As a PR move, it certainly didn’t help Michael Jackson any.)

In the meantime, consider this — a 5 year old potentially used as a mule can still be searched with delicacy and tact. Simply allow the parent to hold the child during search of both. Easy fix. If you find something on the child, you’re certainly going to hook them both up.

As for competency, TSA screeners work very hard within ridiculous regulations written by people who have never run security checkpoints. Having talked with managers who have, they are disgusted with TSA and know they could do a better job.

Porlock Junior January 11, 2008 3:24 AM

@Rich Wilson
According to the video, there is a form that can be filled out to be removed from the list.

Right, it’s the flip side of the form which which you can call spirits from the vasty deep.

“Why so can I, or so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?”

As to looking at the no-fly list, mentioned a couple of times: Surely you jest. That is very very SEKRIT.

kniko January 11, 2008 5:02 AM

This popular quote fits well in this case and all the other similar cases of terror schizophrenia.

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the the universe.” – Albert Einstein

SteveJ January 11, 2008 5:09 AM

@Bruce: “screening based on national origin is a waste of valuable security resources.”

Do you mean only that in the USA, it’s a waste of resources, or always?

The chance of a Palestinian in Ben Gurion international being a terrorist is also “vanishingly small”, because only a tiny number of people of any kind bomb or hijack aircraft. But the Israeli security system, does use national and racial profiling, and it appears to work. Would it work better if they stopped discriminating against Palestinian (and other Arab) passengers?

Dr Dan H. January 11, 2008 5:15 AM

You know, when I read this story, I have a vision in my mind’s eye of a ragged, haggard bearded Osama bin Laden, sitting in a cave somewhere in Afganistan, grinning like a maniac and shouting “Hooray! I may never be able to repeat the 9/11 bombings, but who cares when the infidels are doing this to themselves!”

TheDoctor January 11, 2008 6:49 AM

Yes, but at least here in germany we do our very best to make this gap vanish.

We are still the bestbehaving vasal of the USA, Schroeder was just false front.

Simon E January 11, 2008 7:24 AM

Airport security is easy to foil, even with all the restrictions. Consider these:
1) We stop people from carrying scissors on-board, yet it’s quite simple to strap a ceramic knife to the leg and pass through all inspections.
2) A set of absurd liquid rules exist, yet cannot actually stop a determined person from carrying the required liquids on-board, whether by splitting the liquid across multiple 3 oz containers or by getting their counterpart to share the load in bringing the liquids on-board.

In fact, why play any tricks. Here is an easy way to sneak any liquids you want through the security checks:
* Many airports have a starbucks outside the gates. Buy yourself a grande coffee. Ask for a receipt.
* Tip out the coffee and fill cup with dangerous liquid.
* When stopped at the x-ray machine show that you have a coffee in your hand. They won’t pass it through the machine because it could spill and also because it’s bad for your health to drink a coffee that has just been x-rayed.
* Operator will ask for your receipt to verify purchase. You will have to go through metal detector, bags will be x-rayed, but the coffee will be passed to you around the barriers with no additional checks.

The above worked for me.

twh January 11, 2008 7:57 AM

Maybe it’s time that a lawyer (and a representative from children’s services for any minor) be present at all times whenever someone is being questioned by TSA.

Nick Lancaster January 11, 2008 7:58 AM

@Stephen Samuel:

“The TSA official who stopped the kid didn’t write the no-fly list and doesn’t know why the name on the list is there. It could be because Army intelligence knows we killed his family and he’s since been seen associating with known terrorists. Maybe it’s really him.”

Then there’s no reason to not include ‘suspect was born in 2002,’ so as to make it clear that we’re looking for a child.

I nonetheless consider a 5 year-old to be a low security risk. He wouldn’t have the wherewithal to effectively wield a weapon (even a pistol) and commandeer the plane, and would likely also lack the ideological background to commit a suicide attack. That’s a far more sensible conclusion than your fantasies about secret Army intel and ‘My Name Is Inigo Montoya, You Killed My Father, Prepare to Die, Infidel Pig!’

That you’re not seeing a comprehensive plan being presented does not invalidate the criticisms offered. Instead, it’s meant to encourage sound thinking and promote understanding about security concepts – because I don’t think security-through-mandate is particularly effective.

To wit, consider password management at most businesses – require a password, and people choose simple-to-guess passwords … I’ve known people to use their nicknames, license plates, and other obvious words. Require them to add numbers or change them frequently, and you get people trying to use Password1, 1Password, or Passw0rd. The best situation is a combination of forced rotation and making sure employees know why they need to use robust passwords, so that they become an active participant, rather than an unwilling slave to procedure.

D January 11, 2008 9:39 AM

This week my 80+ year old mother and I travelled on an airline. I was able to check in on-line, she was not. Turns out her name is on the no-fly list. The airline looked at her ID, at her, and issued her a boarding pass.

The only pain involved was not being able to check-in on-line.

The difference between her experience and the experience described in the article is striking, to say the least.

How is the list supposed to work?

Doubting Thomas January 11, 2008 11:27 AM

Does anyone else doubt the veracity of this story? I know that TSA is an easy target but this one seems a little too sensational and I can’t find any mention of it other than the one article that Bruce’s Blog links to.

Peter January 11, 2008 11:42 AM

Im going to invest in whoever rebuilds american airports. Thye will need to build a lot of new inspection rooms.

Within the next five years everyone will be required to strip naked and undergo a colonoscopy before boarding an aircraft.

If your name is Mohammad or any other vaguely arabic-sounding name an MRI and a full body cavity search will be required as well. (No lube of course)

Stephan Samuel January 11, 2008 12:09 PM

@Nick Lancaster,

Well put and I agree. They could put more information on the no-fly list. Ideally, it would be computerized and it would bring up a jacket with something about the “suspect.” There are lots of hurdles though. Aside from the logistical problems — bureaucracy makes computers expensive — I suspect that the TSA doesn’t want their screeners to know anything more about the people on the list. It’s easier to keep people unprejudiced when all they have to do is a string comparison. Also, there’s no reason to believe that the TSA won’t one day be infiltrated and the problem with a string match is that you need to guard the enumerable list of strings.

I heartily disagree that revenge for lost loved ones is not the primary, even only, motivator for some of these terrorists. My view isn’t a fantasy. The entire issue that causes all of the West’s problems with the Middle East is based on revenge and reclaiming lost things. We’ve driven some of them to such extremes that killing Americans is worth more to them than their own lives. Children, albeit mostly older, are soldiers in this war because their adults have been killed at an increasing rate for two generations. As we kill more Iraqis, they will recruit younger and younger. They have already proven more resourceful than our formal army and they will find a way to use a 5-year-old toward their ideological goal.

derf January 11, 2008 12:22 PM

“Who’s the TSA’s competitor? AMTRAK?
Posted by: Private Cure”

I think the only people that could possibly compete down to the level of the TSA are the 3 Stooges or possibly the US Congress.

gopi January 11, 2008 1:08 PM

I was traveling a few months ago with my wife and 2 year old son. We had a two leg flight, and he’s got a pretty good appetite, so we brought a six-pack of 8oz Pediasure beverages for him.

At the security checkpoint they seemed to think that this was an excessive quantity, but I explained that we had a 2 hour flight, 2 hour layover, and 2 hour flight, and assured them that he would drink a significant proportion of them.

The combination of a layover, and my assurance that the quantity was reasonable for my baby was enough for them to let us through; I’m fairly certain that if we’d had a direct flight they wouldn’t have let them all through – or, at least, they would’ve said ‘just this once, but we shouldn’t.’

Xoebe January 11, 2008 1:20 PM

Form the Schneier interview with Kip Hawley”

Kip Hawley: “The problem comes from random selectees (literally mathematically random) or people who have the same name and birth date as real no-flys.”

So, there is a legitimate reason to have a different person who is ALSO FIVE YEARS OLD on the no-fly list? Or the TSA employees are not bright enough to realize that a randomly selected five year old poses no threat?

Do the TSA staff know when someone comes up from random selection? Or are they led to believe that this kid was really on the no-fly list? Has anyone informed the TSA that random selection has not stood up at the SCOTUS?

Not that anything like constitutionality or legality really matters to law enforcement, though.

Airline Mechanic January 11, 2008 5:34 PM

This only strengthens my belief that the only requirement for employment that the TSA requires is that you furnish evidence that you have failed an intelligence test in the recent past.

Nick Lancaster January 11, 2008 8:58 PM

@Stephen Samuel:

I think ‘eventually, the enemy will find a way to use 5 year-olds’ is a horrible justification/rationale for treating young children as potential suspects.

While the VietCong did use children as decoys during the Vietnam War, it was often with a grenade strapped to them and a string leading back to a soldier who would pull it once the child ran up to American troops to ‘ask for candy’.

I’m not sure the tradeoff of siege mentality is worth the security gain. If you’re going to suspect a five year-old, you have to suspect everyone. Tall, short, old, young, American, foreign, frequent flyer, tourist.

In addition, it’s time to stop using the victimhood of 9/11 to justify victimizing others. None of what is taking place in the Middle East is occurring in a vacuum – you, yourself, admit the problem has its roots in our killing Iraqis, therefore they feel justified in taking action against us, which draws harsher responses in turn, and mires us in an unproductive spiral.

I’m not advocating sitting around and doing nothing, but we aren’t going to find a solution by subscribing to the same circle of violence that has perpetuated Shiite/Sunni and Arab/Israeli conflicts for centuries.

I understand that this is basically derived from what I consider a fair tradeoff, rather than regarding your opinion / my opinion as a zero-sum exchange.

Fake51 January 12, 2008 5:19 AM

The problem stems from killing Iraqis? Seriously … the actual killing of Iraqis started AFTER 2001. While it’s true that the first Bush did wage a war against Iraq and the country was subsequently restricted in it’s actions, this did not make any Iraqis terrorists. For one major reason: to Iraqis the main enemy was Saddam Hussein, not the US.
Now, as for Bin Laden, look to his history. And look to the personal history of his followers. Their main goal is not death to the infidels but the rise of muslim states. But how do you achieve that when the superpower of the world meddles with the countries you live in? And how do gather support for a cause that most muslims don’t really believe in?

If you really believe that revenge is the #1 reason for terror against the US then you’re a paranoid egotist.

Think about things in a different way: why do you suppose there have been only few “bigger” terrorist-attacks on western countries? The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq opened up wonderful new battlegrounds for the religious fanatics to jump at, much closer to home, and with much bigger chance of reaching the ideological goal.

ps. My apologies Stephan, I shouldn’t have used the word moron in the text. Paranoid would be the word.

valdis January 13, 2008 12:26 AM

@sam adams: “‘Sam Adams’ was probably added to the list as a patriotic sounding joke alias.”

More likely, it’s listed as an alias for Gerry Adams, who was hassled by the TSA the last time he visited the US – to visit President Bush. Seems he’s too chummy with this bunch called Sinn Fein. But the concept of somebody too hazardous to allow on an airplane, but allowed to meet with the president, is just too much…..

Neighborcat January 14, 2008 7:48 AM

@ Stephan Samuel

The most glaring error in your “analysis” is the unspoken
assumption at it’s foundation: That if we are careful and
strict enough, we can all be safe and never be harmed or die.

Before you gush that a finite value cannot be placed human
life. Yes, it can, and IS a trade off. It is an evaluation
that you yourself make every single day whether you are aware
of it or not. I suspect not.

Am I arguing that some number of deaths at the hands of
terrorists is acceptable? No, but some level of RISK of
terrorist attack is acceptable depending on what you have to
trade to prevent it. That presumes it is preventable in the
first place, it’s not, but that’s a different topic.

EXAMPLE: Let’s look at the actual number of people killed by
terrorist action in the last 100 years. Not just in the US,
anywhere. Compare that to the number of people killed
automobiles the US in the same time period. Now, why haven’t
we banned cars? Because thus far the loss of freedom outweighs
the potential value gained. There you go, we all weigh risk to
life against any number of things we do every day.

I for one am not just willing, but EAGER to accept the
increased risk of terrorist attack so that all 5 year olds can
be placed beyond suspicion of malice. Even if 5-year olds
were used as a “mules” to bring down 10 planes tomorrow,
detaining children will NOT be something I am willing to
trade. Period.

YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. GET USED TO IT. And meanwhile let the
rest of us try to live as free men without government mandated
color-coded fear.

Here’s hoping you and anyone else that holds your views are
killed in a car accident on your way to your job interview
with the TSA. The irony would be worth it to me.

Neighborcat January 14, 2008 8:11 AM

@ Stephan Samuel

At the risk of belaboring my point, your views are so dangerous I feel compelled to continue.

The groups we have labeled as terrorists are not placing our freedoms in this country at risk. People who hold views such as yours are.

We lost the ill-defined “war on terror” i.e. preservation of our freedoms, the day that “Live Free or Die” became a quaint saying instead of a guiding principle.

Our founding fathers held this principle to be so important that they didn’t just accept risks to life in the general population, they placed their own butts on the line to make it so. They would have cut you down and felt good doing it.

The authority of our government to make and enforce laws is not a given. It is something we choose to give, whether we are aware of it or not.

Judgements between freedoms and risks to life can be difficult, and always need to be made with careful consideration. Welcome to being a responsible, free-thinking citizen.

If instead of knocking down the WTC, Al Queda had proposed the Patriot Act be the law of this land, what rational person would have accepted it? Well, by inaction, the citizens of the U.S. allowed it to happen. That was OUR governments response, to voluntarily place limits on our freedoms in response to an attack. It was a gift, really, to those who attacked us.

Again, the biggest threat to our nation at this time are citizens who share your views, not any foreign group of fanatics.

“Those who would willingly trade a little freedom for a little security deserve neither, and will lose both.”

THAT is what guided this great country at it’s founding, not fear.

Sam Adams January 14, 2008 9:03 AM

Valdis, That’s a perfect: If I were Gerry Adams, I’d use Sam as a toss-off alias for things US and laugh.

bluedog2 January 14, 2008 11:28 AM

Happened to us as well. We were going on a summer vacation and tried to but tickets online. We were able to buy tickets for myself, my spouse and my son, but the ticket for my daughter (aged 6) would not process. We called the airline and were told we had to pick the ticket up at the airport and needed to talk to TSA at the airport. When we got there, we were informed that her name was similar to someone on the no-fly list and had to prove she wasn’t the wanted person. We had to hold her in our arms so the TSA agent could see her over the counter. Pretty much ended the debate there.

TheFinn January 15, 2008 4:52 AM


@Private Cure: The TSAs competitor is
small charter aircraft. They fly slower but
have way more choices of airports and go
directly to the one you want to at the
exact time convenient for you, so its
actually faster as well.

Just to understand you: does this imply that any bad guy wishing to get around may just use a charter aircraft and will then not get controlled in any way? So what’s the point in having a no-fly-list in the first place? Forcing that charter plane’s pilot to crash into a building, sports arena or whatever isn’t better than doing so on a regular plane.

Besides: I don’t know about prices for using charter aircrafts in the U.S. but here in Germany this would be much much more expensive than a regular flight. So this would be an option only for a very limited group of people.

Jilara January 15, 2008 4:45 PM

The thing that strikes me about procedure at the expense of common sense is how quickly it could deteriorate into “I was only following orders.”

“I just detained the people on the list they gave me. They had the same name as terrorists. I don’t know what happened to them after they went in for interrogation and showers. I was only following orders.”

unary January 16, 2008 7:51 AM

stories like these prompt me to ask our american cousins; do you think the terrorist have already won?

RMM January 17, 2008 2:35 PM

I have read so many people mentioning it is better in Europe than in USA. I had a terrible experience at Heathrow, when my 5 yr old ran accross from the line where I was standing with my 2 yr old, a stroller and couple of hand bags. I was calling my son to come back, mea nwhile this security lady called me up for checking me. I had to hand over my 2 yr old (who was already crying) to a friend and had to go through the security process. It felt awful that they could not differentiate between a terrorist and a mother travelling with 2 kids.
After that experience, I decided I would never take that route again.

Anonymous September 2, 2008 10:31 AM

I’m finally on my way back home, from a family emergency.

I have never had any problems while travelling with Meds & certainly pediasure before… Until 15 days ago at Newark. It was awful!

The TSA Supervisor ran sacked all of our equipment, meds and all, because my child had 2 bottles of pediasure in his med pack.

Not just any med bag, life saving meds

All my additional bags were triple checked! My lap top opened 3 times,
All left in a mess, and he just walked away leaving us alone.

Thus his employees were saying they are clear, Dude, yes they called him DUDE it’s pediasure, they are clear let them go. Being inside the spotlight is not comfortable it was chaos!

Then he says to me, Next, time do not to travel with so many meds. What is left to do? How can reply to that? Oh! No he did not say such nonsense!!!

What an ignorant human or lack of manhood~

Then he says “I have been working for the TSA for the past 6 years, and I am letting you go now, yet next time fly with a Drs note”.

My childs meds have his name on each bottle.

Are you that ignorant –Meds for 2 weeks away from home???

How is it that I was stopped for over 20 mins, truth be known I do look middle eastern. and the best part I am a VET of the USAF. How does one deal with ignorant people, while your child is almost crying, asking with tears in “why are they stopping us, we are missing our plane Mommy.

Pediasure? Are you serious???

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