Gunpowder Is Okay to Bring on an Airplane

Putting it in a clear plastic baggie magically makes it safe:

Mind you, I had packed the stuff safely. It was in three separate jars: one of charcoal, one of sulphur, and one of saltpetre (potassium nitrate). Each jar was labeled: Charcoal, Sulphur, Saltpetre. I had also thoroughly wet down each powder with tap water. No ignition was possible. As a good citizen, I had packed the resulting pastes into a quart-sized "3-1-1" plastic bag, along with my shampoo and hand cream. This bag I took out of my messenger bag and put on top of my bin of belongings, turned so that the labels were easy for the TSA inspector to read.

Posted on December 29, 2008 at 7:05 AM • 121 Comments

Comments

SteveDecember 29, 2008 7:49 AM

Two guesses: the TSA drone wasn't smart enough to recognize the components of black powder, or none of the three components was On The List, so he didn't care. A very remote third possibility is that the inspector was smart enough to recognize that it takes more than loose saltpetre, sulfer and charcoal to make an effective bomb.

jeffDecember 29, 2008 8:06 AM

@Steve

>it takes more than ... to make an effective bomb.

You mean, that it also takes a tube to pack it in and a source of ignition? She had bamboo for the tube and I'm sure she could find an ignition source somewhere.

jeff

CGomezDecember 29, 2008 8:38 AM

Easy to blame the TSA or shortsighted security theater.

Keep in mind that most Americans would read a story like this and say, "Oh my god! He's giving the terrorists ideas!"

These people (we're not talking a bare majority but an overwhelming majority) don't understand security. They vote. They elect people who don't understand security. Those people appoint people who have families to take care of, and will be happy to do anything to keep their paycheck so they can feed their children.

This includes making people take off their shoes and packing small quantities of shampoo in small plastic bags.

LCDecember 29, 2008 8:52 AM

Security Theatre is perfect when your dealing with technically unsophisticated enemies. The TSA is waging a psychological war in which we portray that our security is much tighter and much more advanced than it really is. "Facial Profiling", I think that's a good way to protect yourself if your going to target certain individuals and don't want to be questioned about it.

Personally I think this lady is an idiot, she's not doing us a service by testing security to find exploits. This only serves to diminish the perception that our security is good, which is what the TSA is working so hard at. Some people may argue that what I'm suggesting is "security through obscurity", but believe me, if we could truly make airports any more secure practically, we would have already done it.

Certainly I'm not arguing that there isn't room for improvement, but we can't expect the TSA to hire people of the caliber of Bruce Schneier to be TSA screeners at airports. There simply aren't that many smart people around and neither would you be able to pay them what TSA employee's make.

I agree with Schneier's viewpoints on the falsities of security theater, but I also think that technical people have the natural tendency to become deeply entrenched into a particular field of study such as encryption or security and therefore tend to miss the bigger picture.

We're not dealing with attackers who are security experts, someone like the Unabomber perhaps, we're dealing with 3rd world religious retards.

LcDecember 29, 2008 8:59 AM

@CGomez

You also fail to see the bigger picture.

People like this who publicly test the security and expose weaknesses are responsible for destroying the perception that the TSA is working hard to establish.

Most of us already know that what the TSA is doing is theatre. This lady can be labeled "master of the obvious."

Most of us already knew what she was trying to prove a year ago. And your defending her? Where have you been living, under a rock?

We're American's, we're bright enough to know when the wool is being pulled over our eye's, but that doesn't mean we have to go out there and give it away to the third world retards that want to bomb us and kill us.

Do you get it now, or do i have to explain it to you in a 3rd world country "way".

JorjDecember 29, 2008 9:04 AM

Naturally, my next stop was to find out how much of a bang 140g would make. Here's 100g in a closed container
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5prvrg3n8M

Possibly enough to bring down a plane, definitely not something you'd want to be close to with shards of bamboo shrapnel flying around.

@LC:

"We're not dealing with attackers who are security experts...we're dealing with 3rd world religious retards."

That's almost exactly the opposite of that which is the case.

anonymous canuckDecember 29, 2008 9:04 AM

Wow - the machine that "sniffs" the pads they wipe down your stuff with missed it too! I had really hoped that it would have caught it.

And the article had the almost mandatory reference to the original star trek episode about improvised explosives. Especially given the bamboo tubes.

I wonder if it would have gone differently if the Saltpetre label said potassium nitrate instead?

I don't think the article stated if the chemicals were in equal or proportioned quantities. If equal, it was less than 4oz of black powder.

AnonymousDecember 29, 2008 9:09 AM

At least if we continue with what we currently are doing then there are no real scape goat if/when the next attack takes place.
Because if the agenda is smoke and mirrors, it never really failed... did it Lc?

Perhaps if John Doe the TSA agent would be trained in gunpowder detection instead of how to measure oz's of shampoo he really doesn't need to be an expert.
Now I certainly don't pretend to know what the most likely scenario is. But I am pretty sure there will never be a headline reading "747 flown into buildingX after terrorists took control of plane using bottles of water and shampoo".

JorjDecember 29, 2008 9:09 AM

@anonymous canuck

"the machine that "sniffs" the pads they wipe down your stuff with missed it too"

Not surprising; the TSA drone swabbed the 'suitcase', but the explosives had been in a 'messenger bag'. Given the jars and plastic bag, and the separate cases, there should not have been any explosive contamination of the suitcase. Also, the sniffer machine is looking for VOCs related to organic explosives, while black powder contains essentially no volatile compounds

anonymous canuckDecember 29, 2008 9:11 AM

@LC - "3rd world religious retards" - just how thick are you?

Perhaps some of the people delivering the message aren't thinking rationally, that doesn't make them stupid. And underestimating the planners could be fatal.

LCDecember 29, 2008 9:14 AM

@Jorj:

Let me clarify my statement, I didn't mean by "religious retards" that we were dealing with retarded individuals "literally", I only meant that we were dealing with Ideological zealots.

In my opinion these are not extremely bright individuals, as has been shown before, most if not all of the suicide attackers come from the poorest of the poor neighborhoods in the middle east.

If you disagree with me, respond as I would love to be enlightened as to how many Einstein's are out there blowing themselves up in the name of "allah".

Go ahead and tell us what your perception of our attackers are Jorj, since you obviously disagreed with my comments but provided no evidentiary statements to backup your remarks.

Also enlighten us as to what your qualifications / experience is in this regard so we can gauge the accuracy of your response.

Clive RobinsonDecember 29, 2008 9:17 AM

First off, black powder is not an explosive that is easy to make effective (as many a pipe bomber has found).

Turning the three "damped down" chemicals into an effective explosive requires that they be milled together not mixed (the same applies if not damped down but it's not an experiment you want to try).

Even if you did have perfect black powder you would not want to "pack it into" a tube, yould lose most of the efffective blast potential.

@ Lc,

Not sure what your angle is but it more matches TSA propergander than the reality of life...

The more people do this the more likley the TSA is actually going to perform, either at what they say they do or what we want them to do. Right now they are effectivly goofing of on a power trip and are about as eusefull as used toilet paper.

LCDecember 29, 2008 9:18 AM

@Anonymous Canuck,

Point taken, but if you saw Schneier's interview on 60 minutes you would know that to prevent attacks from a sophisticated planner it would require us foiling an attack WAY before the "people delivering the message" get to the airport.

LCDecember 29, 2008 9:25 AM

@Clive Robinson,

Sorry Clive I have no angle, but I don't live in the same conspiratorial left wing world that most people who post here do.

I live in the real world where terrorists want to blow up planes that I fly on.

After watching the 60 minutes interview I don't believe for one second that the people at the TSA aren't doing their darnedest to solve a very large problem.

Screeners may be jerks, but try dealing with the A$$hole flying public all day long and you would be too.

NickDecember 29, 2008 9:29 AM

@Clive Robinson
You know way more about making explosives than I do.
But taking the lady's story for what it is.
It seems to me that she could simply have brought a bag of gunpowder on board the plane and labeled it "Charcoal". And if that works then why not something far more potent, maybe even some of that liquid LC has been drinking ;)

mcbDecember 29, 2008 9:30 AM

Having misspent several decades recreating with black powder, I'm not sure a pound of the real thing - let alone her puny stash of potential home brew - would do much more than scorch the finish on the flight deck door, stun the first class passengers, and fill the cabin with smoke.

Not sure it matters but if the writer hadn't wetted her ingredients none of the vials would have needed to be in the 3-1-1 baggy at all.

On a historical note, gunpowder (before smokeless powder no one called it black powder) was mixed at the scene of a siege as the constituents tended to separate during transportation. At some point the ingredients were wetted into a paste for mixing (much safer) and then corned (broken into kernels) once dry. Corned powder burned (black powder deflagrates rather than exploding) more consistently that the original recipe and we were off to the arms races. Cocktail Party Trivia Alert: Back in the day a popular wetting agent for the manufacture of gunpowder was Bishop's urine.

billswiftDecember 29, 2008 9:42 AM

If that was gunpowder, that must have been one LONG flight. Turning damp sulphur, charcoal, and KNO3 into burnable, much less explodable, gunpowder would take several days.

anonymous canuckDecember 29, 2008 9:54 AM

@LC - I missed his interview but already suspected as much. You're correct about the challenges. But we do need to be able to get usable information on both the planners and the front line.

TimDecember 29, 2008 10:01 AM

Yeah I don't think you could bring a plane down with 140g of gunpowder. At least not without putting it in a sensitive place, which would be hard to get access to.

140g of flash power maybe.

Paul RenaultDecember 29, 2008 10:10 AM

Am I the only person here that wants to shout out "But, but, IT'S THEIR JOB!!!"

God forbid that TSA staff and managers bother to learn anything about what they're doing.

Really, am I alone in this?

Rich WilsonDecember 29, 2008 10:27 AM

It wonder how much saltpetre and icing sugar it takes to fill an airplane with smoke. Might not cause it to crash, but would sure create a hell of a lot of panic.

@LC

You asked Jorj "Also enlighten us as to what your qualifications / experience is in this regard so we can gauge the accuracy of your response."

I hesitate to go grammar nerd on blogs, because I'm a natoriously bad speller myself. But considering how sloppy your posts are, it seems a bit ironic that you ask him for credentials.

As to the background of terrorists, as Bruce has pointed out before, they come from a wide variety of backgrounds. They are not all dumb Arabic religious zealots. Some are smart, some are American, some are not religious. 20 years ago if you said 'terrorist' people immediately thought of Irish religious/political zealots.

Some JerkDecember 29, 2008 10:36 AM

@LC, please learn how to use apostrophes.

Also, no, you don't know that you live in a world where terrorists want to blow up planes, you live in a world where terrorists have crashed planes into buildings, but you have no idea what they might be planning next. You also live in a world where the people who are supposed to keep us relatively save spend all their time and effort trying to think up ways to stop people from blowing up planes, while ignoring other potential threats. The fact that they're doing such an obviously bad job at even that should tell you how much terrorist effort is actually going into blowing up a plane.

JamesDecember 29, 2008 10:48 AM

Actually, she wouldn't even need to find a source of ignition. I flew for the holidays, and when i asked the TSA agent if he had a trash can so I could dispose of my lighter, he informed me that I could bring that on board now.

ReidDecember 29, 2008 10:56 AM

@jorj

I doubt the device in that video would bring down a plane. Planes are pretty tough; they regularly survive serious bombs with high explosives. Not that terrorist bombs don't bring down airliners (c.f. Pan Am 103), but it's surprisingly difficult. See also Aloha Airlines Flight 243, an outlier in the other direction.

RichDecember 29, 2008 11:07 AM

billswift: If that was gunpowder, that must have been one LONG flight. Turning damp sulphur, charcoal, and KNO3 into burnable, much less explodable, gunpowder would take several days.

Once you're past the security theater checkpoint you can stay in the concourse as long as you want. You can hand off your ingredients to collaborators and/or make your chem lab in the bathroom of your destination airport. The ultimate suicide bomber could have passed through his checkpoint absolutely clean.

JerryDecember 29, 2008 11:21 AM

@LC:

"We're not dealing with attackers who are security experts, someone like the Unabomber perhaps, we're dealing with 3rd world religious retards."

Is it possible that you think the attacks on 9/11 required little expertise? I should remind you that it was a coordinated attack on multiple targets with multiple jetliners flying into buildings.


"In my opinion these are not extremely bright individuals, as has been shown before, most if not all of the suicide attackers come from the poorest of the poor neighborhoods in the middle east."

They are not bright because they come from poor neighborhoods? Being poor and being bright are not mutually exclusive.


"The TSA is waging a psychological war in which we portray that our security is much tighter and much more advanced than it really is."

If I understand correctly, you think security theater is more effective than some of the actual security improvements that people like Bruce have suggested? It's not a question of theater versus nothing at all. It's a question of theater versus actual security. A good example of this is the easily defeated ID checks - this is stopping nobody and wasting resources that could be better used elsewhere. Actual security would be as much of a deterrent as the mounds of theater we have now. Yours is a strange viewpoint.


"After watching the 60 minutes interview I don't believe for one second that the people at the TSA aren't doing their darnedest to solve a very large problem."

Effort is inconsequential. As a teacher of mine once announced, "I can't grade you on effort, I can only grade you on what you actually do." To put it another way, who cares if dozens of TSA employees are trying their hardest watching the front door when the back door is propped open.

periDecember 29, 2008 11:44 AM

@Jorj - thanks for the video.

@mcb

I couldn't help but think of the cartoon bomb effect might be somewhat more accurate than what people seem to be imagining the result of detonating 5 oz of gunpowder on a plane.

I do think I should qualify that by saying the article's author did not suggest that this small quantity was the largest she could have brought on the plane. I got the feeling she felt it was enough to be dangerous on a plane. I was happy to see you gave her credit for being able to get a pound on board and I just wanted to make sure other commentors understood.

@some jerk "...but you have no idea what they might be planning next... The fact that they're doing such an obviously bad job at even that..."

That was mostly a valid point. I think most people don't realize that Middle Eastern terrorists really don't need to travel far to blow up Americans -- they are conveniently scattered all over the area.


LCDecember 29, 2008 12:27 PM

@jerry:

"Is it possible that you think the attacks on 9/11 required little expertise? I should remind you that it was a coordinated attack on multiple targets with multiple jetliners flying into buildings."

Your right, it was quite the planned attack wasn't it? Too bad the attack required that the smart guys kill themselves.

I also agree with comments made by the poster "some jerk", that is, most likely the next attack will probably have nothing to do with an Airplane or Airport. I suspect the next thing they will try to do is a dirty bomb or a chemical/biological attack by dispersing over a major city or in a subway akin to the attacks perpetrated by cults in subways in japan. re:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...

Don't however, discount the psychological effect that theater has on our enemies.

I don't agree with people who think that our homeland security process consists of only the TSA.

Already in place in every major city are air sampling units that detect any sort of chemical or biological weapon.

"They are not bright because they come from poor neighborhoods? Being poor and being bright are not mutually exclusive."

True Enough, what I speak of are the suicide bombers that are recruited by the taliban in random attacks in the middle east, not of the unique case of the individuals whom composed the "terrorist cells" that partook in the 9/11 attacks. I think there is a clear distinction between a terrorist whom could clearly carry out such an attack here (on US soil) without drawing suspicion and those who perpetrate acts of terror in the middle east. I should have made that clear.

"If I understand correctly, you think security theater is more effective than some of the actual security improvements that people like Bruce have suggested? It's not a question of theater versus nothing at all. It's a question of theater versus actual security. A good example of this is the easily defeated ID checks - this is stopping nobody and wasting resources that could be better used elsewhere. Actual security would be as much of a deterrent as the mounds of theater we have now. Yours is a strange viewpoint."

Alright I have to maybe clarify a bit, your point is spot on. It would be illogical to conclude that theater is more important than actual security.

However I think there is much debate about the theater because that is what is in our (collective) face. But of course let us not forget all of the unforeseen effort that goes on that we are not privy to.

"Effort is inconsequential. As a teacher of mine once announced, "I can't grade you on effort, I can only grade you on what you actually do." To put it another way, who cares if dozens of TSA employees are trying their hardest watching the front door when the back door is propped open."

I have no choice but to concede that your points are all excellent, especially this last one.

Excellent comments, Thank you for posting.

Nomen PublicusDecember 29, 2008 12:46 PM

The TSA behaviour at airports is pointless theatre because it is dealing with threats that have already happened. As has been frequently shown, a new threat may not trigger a response. In fact almost every single possible new threat WILL BE MISSED.

While the TSA is requiring some kid to remove a T-shirt depicting a gun or searching shoes for nonexistant explosive, the money that is being wasted is not being spent on true treat analysis, investigation and prevention.

MysticKnightoftheSeaDecember 29, 2008 12:50 PM

Just in case no one's pointed this out, the proportions were off on the constituent components. That said, from recreational experience dealing with muzzleloading rifles and cap-and-ball revolvers, if 4oz of properly mixed black powder was contained in some way as to launch a projectile, it would probably depressurize the aircraft. Possibly worse, depending on where it was pointed.

Just a thought.

GMoneyDecember 29, 2008 12:57 PM

I am surprised so many still do not understand what airport security is for. It is to make the people flying on the planes feel safe, so they will continue to fly. To my knowledge, the shoe bomber was the last guy caught trying to sabotage a plane, and he made it through security and on the plane. Bottom line is, if someone is desperate enough, willing to die, and determined with some time and basic resources, they will eventually be successful. the World Trade Center was bombed twice, after the first time, all kinds of security measures were put in place, to give the people working there the illusion they were safe, so they would come to work everyday. none of those security measures worked on 9/11. We can only hope it will serve as a deterrent, so that they will look elsewhere for targets. There is an old saying, You can't outrun a bear. I dont have to outrun a bear, I just have to outrun you. I put up a fake security sign at my house, I don't pay for the service because it is worthless, however the sign that says I have security, will most likely get the thief to hit my neighbor's house instead of mine, because of the perceived "softer" target. Do we need airport security? Absolutely. have they gone too far? Absolutely. Can you do anything about it? Don't fly. The best way to avoid be killed by a terrorist, is don't be there when the bomb goes off. Personally i always try to stand near a group of fat people, they provide good cover in a blast, and I can outrun them if someone is coming with a gun.

AnonymousDecember 29, 2008 1:13 PM

LC: "Let me clarify my statement, I didn't mean by "religious retards" that we were dealing with retarded individuals "literally", I only meant that we were dealing with Ideological zealots."

Say I was to compare middle-eastern ideological zealots with good ol' born and bred American ideological zealots. There are plenty of them out there - just grab some popcorn and look at the movie 'Jesus Camp' for an easy example. Would you feel any more or less comfortable?

Next you might argue about lack of education, lack of money, lack of resources. All of the same can easily apply to poorer regions of the US.

Are you still comfortable calling them retards? Would you argue that given sufficient motivation, poor, uneducated American zealots couldn't be dangerous as well?

That in itself is a pretty major oversight. If you think that people who wish harm upon people in the US aren't smart enough to get dangerous substances past airport checks, you are foolish. If you defend security theatre knowing that, you are doubly foolish.

Likewise, people thinking that any future attacks must be based on airlines and aircraft are also fools. Enemies could do any number of other acts which may or may not injure the population at large, but given the fragile state of the US economy, could disrupt billions or trillions of dollars of commerce and cause irreparable damage. Arguably, economic terrorism would be more effective at this point in time than killing people...

fustratedCVGDecember 29, 2008 1:21 PM

Most of us understand the pointlessness of the stated policies of the agency. We try to protect the public in spite of the agency's directives to take infants' booties off and x-ray newspapers. We are doing our best under the constant scrutiny of supervisors and managers that are more concerned with ensuring "fair" shift rotations and protecting TSO's feelings than protecting the flying public. The people in blue shirts have very little say in what they do. I was explicitly told not to teach a class at my airport about shaheed or suicide belts because, we were told by the regional training director: "you only need to know what we tell you". Please direct your ire at the managerial structure.

CeejDecember 29, 2008 1:41 PM

Some people seem to miss the point that sneaking this on is simply symbolic. She wasn't trying to blow anything up. Consider this a "proof of concept." However, if 6 people each got materials past security and combined them into a device in the restroom, you'd be looking at some serious consequences.

Gunpowder is certainly not the most lethal substance that could be used this way. Regardless of intelligence (a bogus argument anyhow), what stops them from being instructed by a chemist on how to turn items that look innocent enough into something truly deadly?

SavikDecember 29, 2008 1:49 PM

@anonymous canuck

"Perhaps some of the people delivering the message aren't thinking rationally, that doesn't make them stupid."

Yes it does. It is pretty much the definition.

SavikDecember 29, 2008 1:51 PM

Instead of gunpowder all she had to do was bring in cotton...and a powdered Nitric acid....

Just add water - cotton gets nitrated and you have well - Gun cotton. Very explosive.

derfDecember 29, 2008 2:00 PM

So we need to give up our constitutional rights and soon be irradiated every flight in order for the government to appear to be (but not actually) keeping us secure?

That's a awful lot of money and wasted time for a really bad illusion. The only people who can't (or won't) see through this particular illusion are our imbecilic leaders in DC.

agentofharmDecember 29, 2008 2:04 PM

It is foolish and dangerous to underestimate your enemies. Believing that these are stupid, unintelligent, primitives attacking us is highly dangerous and largely false. These are nearly all WESTERN EDUCATED, university science graduates who are planning, orchestrating the bombs and attacks. They are neither fools, nor incompetents.

Treating them as such amplifies the real danger of terrorist attacks. These people are 1) not stupid enough to try the same tactic twice (kidnap planes to fly into buildings), 2) not stupid enough to engage in hollywood movie plot terrorism (use highly sophisticated, technically difficult, and extremely unreliable means (cooking/mixing explosives on a plane), and 3) rely upon easily executed, non-technically sophisticated, low-tech means to sow terror because it's easy, cheap, reliable, and has a far higher probability of success. These are people capable of calculating and evaluating success probabilities and adjusting their methods accordingly.

Terrorists who do not conform to these points are either stupid, unprofessional, and usually caught/killed prior to completing the mission.

RoyDecember 29, 2008 2:06 PM

The nitrate detector failed to detect a bag of chemically-pure nitrate?

Aha! New business model: counterfeit the pads and the detector machine with fake stuff guaranteed to give a negative result, and underbid the competition. The TSA will love your brand because it never gives those pesky false positives.

Also: If the detector is looking for volatile organics, then it will fail to detect ammonium nitrate. It has always failed to detect the smokeless powder in cartridge ammunition, which contains nitrated organics. Anyone who handles a gun will get some nitrate residue from it, and this is never detected. That tells me that the detector is useless against anything in a clean sealed container.

CynicDecember 29, 2008 2:08 PM

The "nerf" security as airports has only one purpose -- to get people used to being searched. As this column regularly points out, there are numerous ways to compromise the TSA security, and it's unlikely that the TSA security has actually contributed to the safety of air travel.

It has, however, made people comfortable with and accepting of unwarranted searches in the name of "security".

We're now starting to see military personnel assisting at checkpoints on highways. Demands for sobriety tests (with DNA acquisition) without cause.

Yes, it's true, I am paranoid. But the last 8 years have been one example after another of the use of the "war on terror" to introduce terrorizing of the populace to this country.

WarLordDecember 29, 2008 2:23 PM

Or you give the box of C4 plastic explosive to the guy who cleans the toilets in the terminal to deliver to the passenger

Problem solved.

That's the big side door they leave open while guarding the front entrance

Joe K. Jr.December 29, 2008 2:24 PM

Taking the components of gun powder on the plane was not a good idea, because it might give real bad guys...ideas.

However, please stay after the TSA and the egregiously time consuming, unconstitutional, humiliating and ineffective trials all travelers must endure.

The cockpits are hardened, so the TSA should focus on locating obvious real weapons.


In the long view, the TSA should be replaced with a privatized security force, with minimal authority and responsibilities.

Playing 'what if' as a security policy is completely and totally absurd.

For example, what if the bad guys policy was to bankrupt our government by spreading false rumors of impending acts of terror?

MoeDecember 29, 2008 3:37 PM

As a former Jet Tech, this is overly complicated. I can readily buy an item on the internet that needs no ignition source, totally undetectable, useable by anyone, and will effectively destroy an airplane. I don't want to give terrorists ideas, so I won't go into specifics. If the terrorists figure it out, we all fly naked.

Brad HicksDecember 29, 2008 3:40 PM

Holy cats. You could probably do that with thermite, too, which would be a much bigger problem than gunpowder.

Sadly (or fortunately, I suppose) security theater is reactive, not proactive. It will probably remain legal to carry gunpowder ingredients onto an airplane until either (1) someone actually tries to make gunpowder on a plane in order to blow it up, or (2) some "terrorist" being tortured for information he doesn't have thinks up and volunteers a made-up terrorist plot involving manufacturing gunpowder on a plane just to get the torture to briefly stop.

MysticKnightoftheSeaDecember 29, 2008 3:42 PM

@savik

"... powdered Nitric Acid"

No such thing.

Interesting thought otherwise.

mamaDecember 29, 2008 3:52 PM

I apparently it's okay to bring a screw driver on a plane too! I had my face lotion taken from me (6oz) I just forgot really. but the guy behind me had a screw driver in his carry on and that was okay to travel with! this happened at Portland International Airport over the holidays.
screw the TSA.. their rules are always different depending on the person

billswiftDecember 29, 2008 4:08 PM

If you can take as much time as you want, you can use things even less "threatening" in themselves to make explosives or other weapons (like the smoke someone mentioned).

Restrictions on buying ammonium nitrate that were enacted after OK City are particularly silly. If you're reasonably intelligent you can make ammonium nitrate with nothing more than air, water, and a source of energy, see any old chemical engineering text.

As for the guncotton savik brought up, you can actually treat the cotton and wear it as clothing. I don't know if it would alert a sniffer type tester, but a swab test for nitrates should identify it (if anyone had a reason to test someone's clothing).

billswiftDecember 29, 2008 4:12 PM

I missed the comment on thermite. Good idea, and you don't even need to worry about mixing it as you can easily do it ahead of time, since there is no test for it that I am aware of. The big difficulty with thermite on a plane is igniting it. You need to get it very hot before it will start burning itself.

MuffinDecember 29, 2008 4:33 PM

This obviously makes sense, since it's gun POWDER, not gun LIQUID. See? You only need to apply TSA logic!

JRRDecember 29, 2008 4:42 PM

@Jorj:
That's nowhere near enough to bring down a plane. Heck, if a person were holding it, they would probably be able to save his hand. I don't think that would even break all the way through a plane window if it were duct taped to it.

Black powder is not a high explosive. As such it really needs to be either very effectively shaped, or to have so much of it that it simply blows the plane apart from overpressure, or starts a fire, to be sure to take the plane down. I think if you had a POUND or more of black powder, and some really strong container so that when it burst, it burst really violently, AND could place it on something critical like a hydraulic line, then you might have a chance.

JRRDecember 29, 2008 4:44 PM

@billswift:
A magnesium star the size of a half a child's aspirin (also will not be detected) and any source of flame will start thermite.

m johnsonDecember 29, 2008 4:48 PM

I want to preface my comments by stating the in general I believe TSA to be a bunch of complete twats. None the less here is my comment:

I don't get it. Why do people think they are getting some huge expose by "testing" security at airports by sneaking "weapons" through the checkpoints? The point of security isn't to stop bombs, it's to stop bombers from carrying out bombings. That someone who has no intention of blowing a plane out of the sky totally failed to convince security that they were a bomber... what exactly is that supposed to tell us? If this woman had no intention of blowing up the plane, would it matter if she had rectally inserted a small nuclear weapon prior to boarding? Isn't that the goal, to stop people with bad intent without impacting those with good intent?

I'm not saying that the TSA personnel made any particular great success here, but I don't think the smugness and self aggrandizement is all that warranted either. I'm guess what I'm saying is if you didn't blow up the plane, they didn't fail.

Finally, can you imagine the blog posting if this gal had ended up serving five years in jail for attempting to take a bomb onto an airplane?

mcktDecember 29, 2008 4:49 PM

Sure black powder won't blow up a plane, but you forget that isn't exactly the goal.

I'm pretty sure that explosions and lots of smoke on a plane will make the news, make the TSA look incompetent, and scare an awful lot of people.

It'd be less effective, but you don't have to be suicidal to do it.

alethiophileDecember 29, 2008 4:53 PM

Wikipedia:
Often, strips of magnesium metal are used as fuses. Because metals burn without releasing cooling gases, they can potentially burn at extremely high temperatures. Reactive metals such as magnesium can easily reach temperatures sufficiently high for thermite ignition. Magnesium ignition remains popular amongst amateur thermite users, mainly because it can be easily obtained.

I should think a chunk of thermite with a piece of magnesium sticking out is easily disguisable.

On topic: What do you want to bet that the TSA goes after the person who did that legally?

a travellerDecember 29, 2008 5:16 PM

@mama:
"their rules are always different depending on the person"
You don't understand it, to explain it to you I quote an official response to my query what the rules are:
"These [security] measures are contained in restricted documents and thus can only be disclosed to those parties responsible for implementing them."
So according to this, the rules have to be different otherwise people could find out what they are, and pop goes the security :-o

RickDecember 29, 2008 5:56 PM

Well, I had a four-inch pocket knife taken at the Las Vegas airport which had been forgotten in the bottom of my laptop bag for AT LEAST a year.

My best recollection and research suggests it's gone through the airport 25 times... on time 26 they caught it.

Oh dear. :-(


AnonymousDecember 29, 2008 6:09 PM

@LC:
"We're American's, we're bright enough to know when the wool is being pulled over our eye's, but that doesn't mean we have to go out there and give it away to the third world retards that want to bomb us and kill us."

So basically you are one of those who think if we test something and report about it, then we are "giving the terrorists ideas."

And no, I do not believe most well-meaning Americans understand security. This is not the same as having the "wool pulled over our eyes." It merely means that many untrained people simply try to stop the last attack, creating a large system of checks for attacks that either were ineffective or already have been foiled.

Do I think we should dismantle the security lines and scanners? No. They set a minimum bar for entry. But really, why should we have to leave travelers at the scanners? We should we have to separate liquids (especially with no publically available evidence or demonstration of a threat). Why should we undo our belts and take off our shoes?

Let's not forget, a TSA scanner is not trained (nor cares) about finding a gun (or weapon). They are just looking for a specific figure of whatever test is performed on them. They don't need to be experts in firearms, just in catching the TSA "test gun".

The idea that you can plant ideas in the bad guys heads... that's just nonsense. Real bad guys are way ahead of the good guys. That's why it's so hard to be a good guy, and why they must use other means to break up plots.

But what I am saying is our untrained population votes for untrained Congressmen who hire untrained bureaucrats to run things like the DHS and TSA. They mean well, but they are untrained.

HmmDecember 29, 2008 6:53 PM

How does one go from being an expert in cryptography to being an expert in counter-terrorism?

Clive RobinsonDecember 29, 2008 7:14 PM

@ alethiophile,

"Magnesium ignition remains popular amongst amateur thermite users, mainly because it can be easily obtained."

That should be "rank amateurs".

As an amateur at the age of 14 some hrump.. years ago I had my own thermite mix that could be started simply by getting it wet...

The chemical required was and still is so easily aquired you can buy it in a hobbyists shop.

Likewise my main thermite mix you found in any auto paint shop, red lead (oxide) and fine aluminum powder. The quantaties are aprox 1:3.

Oh the magic extra chemical to make it start with water Ferric chloride. Just mix a litttle dry ferric chloride powder with dry aluminium powder (I'd recomend backing both first). Then add a small amount of water, the extreamly exothermic reaction will get to the point where with red lead it will kick the thermite reaction off.

It will in the initial stages release a greenish white gas cloud, don't breath it in, it realy will not do you any good.

As a friend once observed "It most definatly has toxilogical disadvantages" upon seeing my puzzeled expresion went on to say "it translates to `it kills people'" (if you think about it you will realise that the chlorine has to go somewhere...)

I eventualy ended up using it as a method for igniting steel tubes packed with aluminium rods car tire rubber and a suitable oxidizer to make my own rocket propelent (and oh boy did it produce one heck of a lot of thrust 8)

Clive RobinsonDecember 29, 2008 7:22 PM

@ Hmm,

"How does one go from being an expert in cryptography to being an expert in counter-terrorism?"

Well you could start as an eight year old with an interest in picking locks and progressing through making your own explosives/rockets etc...

But wait you cannt any longer, in the UK and I guess the US as well these (almost) harmless adolescent hobbies will get you 2 to life these days 8(

PeterDecember 29, 2008 7:45 PM

Disregarding the exposives issue for a moment, did customs not get slightly suspicious at the three bags of power for other reasons, i.e. that they may have been illicit drugs?

I think we already know airport security is pretty poor, I remember there was an episode of the "Cook Report" about 15 years ago where he managed to get a half tonne pallet onto a flight without any security checks what so ever (the Lockerbie disaster was still very much in people's minds at the time)... personally, I doubt much will have changed today. Having said that, it is really pathetic that airport security didn't challenge a bag of power - especially one that's conveniently labelled "Salt Petre".

Personally, I don't think security measures will or can solve the issue of terrorism, nor that it will get much better or worse. Its always been there. Just consider a small amendment of the above scenario where the contents of the bag is substituted for Ricin or some other chemical/biological toxin. How do you defend against that? What if the idea of airplanes are totally abandoned and more sensitive and accessible targets are used - I can think of several off the top of my head. It is not possible to defend against these sort of attacks in any meaningful way. People, however, as a general rule do not commit acts of terrorism. There is the rare situation where someone is just wired wrong and decides to kill as many people as possible, and there are always government or political interests, but in the vast vast majority people do not commit acts of terrorism. In my opinion it is human nature that has and will continue to pervent terrorist attacks from escalating.

Looking at the risks, I'm guessing I'm far more likely to be killed in a car accident or at home than in a terrorist attack. This example, while interesting, doesn't really tell us anything we didn't inately know already.


SpockDecember 29, 2008 7:56 PM

For me, her credibility was totally blown because she got the title of the Star Trek episode wrong.

JamesDecember 29, 2008 8:05 PM

"3rd world religious retards" -- LC, check out Mohammed Atta on Wikipedia, he's propably more educated, intelligent and more travelled than you are.

Bob BlakleyDecember 29, 2008 8:53 PM

Several posters have expressed skepticism about the explosive power of black powder; for example:

"Black powder is not a high explosive. As such it really needs to be either very effectively shaped, or to have so much of it that it simply blows the plane apart from overpressure, or starts a fire, to be sure to take the plane down. I think if you had a POUND or more of black powder, and some really strong container so that when it burst, it burst really violently, AND could place it on something critical like a hydraulic line, then you might have a chance."

Folks might want to remember that the standard ammunition in the early days of the Civil War was a .58 caliber Minie ball powered by 60 grains (about 1/8 of an OUNCE) of black powder in a paper cartridge (and, of course, a rifle barrel). This very reliably killed people at a hundred yards; it was reported when fired at short range to be able to travel all the way through two wooden boards separated by an air gap. It would certainly go through a commercial airliner's window.

elkhornDecember 29, 2008 8:55 PM

Umm -

Since there's very little difference in the color of black powder & charcoal, why not load up the "charcoal" jar with black powder.

And as to the question of the "sniffer" machines, "Saltpeter" is a nitrate compound; and as such, it should have been picked up.

Rick DamianiDecember 29, 2008 10:30 PM

@ LC:

"Your right, it was quite the planned attack wasn't it? Too bad the attack required that the smart guys kill themselves."

The smart guys who do the planning and logistics are not the ones wearing the explosives.

"I suspect the next thing they will try to do is a dirty bomb or a chemical/biological attack by dispersing over a major city or in a subway akin to the attacks perpetrated by cults in subways in japan."

Why go to all that trouble? They did a bang-up job in India a few weeks ago with small arms. If anything, the gas attack in Japan demonstrated how difficult it is to actually be successful with an improvised chemical weapon.

"Don't however, discount the psychological effect that theater has on our enemies."

Well, it makes them think we are pretty dumb. I'm not sure how much of a benefit that is in the long run.

"Already in place in every major city are air sampling units that detect any sort of chemical or biological weapon."

One of these was mounted on the bridge of my first ship. It would go off whenever anyone cleaned near it with spray-and-wipe. Nothing livens up a mid watch like an unexpected chemical attack alarm

m johnsonDecember 29, 2008 10:43 PM

"Folks might want to remember that the standard ammunition in the early days of the Civil War was a .58 caliber Minie ball powered by 60 grains (about 1/8 of an OUNCE) of black powder in a paper cartridge (and, of course, a rifle barrel). This very reliably killed people at a hundred yards; it was reported when fired at short range to be able to travel all the way through two wooden boards separated by an air gap. It would certainly go through a commercial airliner's window."

Yes. If you shoot an airplane window with a gun it will definitely make a hole. However that's not going to take the plane out of the sky.

billswiftDecember 29, 2008 11:18 PM

Salt petre is a nitrate, and so is a nitrated denim jacket, but as I mentioned while I am sure a swab will pick them up, I'm not sure about whether they would give off volatiles that a sniffer would pickup - does anybody know?

John WatersDecember 30, 2008 12:21 AM

When I am not doing the whole expatriate thing in "The Kingdom" my wife and I are avid shooters. Because we spend most of our time shooting either an AR15 with a standard direct impingement gas system (blows gas back toward shooter) and cheap ammo or 45 caliber pistols with cheap ammo or experimental hand loads we usually find ourselves and our clothes/shoes/bags covered in GSR (gunshot residue).

I have NEVER been stopped going through a TSA screening point. I have even watched these folks swab/sniff parts of my messenger bag with visible black fleks of unburned powder clinging to the bright red plastic lining.

To be fair I have one friend who, after spending the entire weekend running cheap combloc ammo through his Ak47, was stopped about GSR on his bags.

The question is, who calibrates these machines? There is a problem if I am running 1500 rounds of ammo through my sidearm and rifle per month, never cleaning up my messenger bag (that I carry my empty brass home), and not setting off that stupid swab machine.

I am starting to think that 90% of this high tech gear is just more govt contract smoke and mirrors BS.


John WatersDecember 30, 2008 12:29 AM

@ Jorj:

A lot of these terrorists are very highly educated (engineers, doctors, chemists) and not terribly religious. Most of them, in fact, are far from pious and are "sold" on committing suicide with the idea that its the only way they will achieve good standing with God. This is nonsense, of course, because nowhere in the primary texts or writings of the major fuqaha (Ar "jurists") is this idea supported.

The problem is, in fact, that these men (like M. Atta)were too educated in secular subjects and not educated enough in religious ones.

Clive RobinsonDecember 30, 2008 3:49 AM

@ LC,

"I suspect the next thing they will try to do is a dirty bomb or a chemical/biological attack by dispersing over a major city or in a subway akin to the attacks perpetrated by cults in subways in japan."

No it is very very unlikley.

First off suitable radialogical materials are not that easy to get hold of in the quantities you need so the primary component of a dirty bomb is scarce. Secondly a suitable delivery mechanisum has to be tested and built and it would apear to be a non starter even for well funded Governments with all the resources required.

The cult you refered to in Japan "supposadly" investigated using a dirty bomb first and dismised it as impractical, then biological weapons before finaly getting to field trials on chemical weapons.

The cult was extreamly well funded and had scientests working for them and did actual research into weapon production and delivery systems and the effects they achived with them as a weapon of war where at best a compleate waste of time and effort (I think the sarin attack on the subway was something like attempt number five or six previous open area trials having gone unnoticed by either the targets or the authorities).

The only weapons that appear to be effective in war are "energy release weapons" that apply the energy to projectiles of one form or another. Be they specificily designed directed projectiles (from hunters bow through to super guns), designed but undirected (shrapnel from grape/chain shot shells and grenades or nails and ball bearings) or incidental debris such as glass etc picked up from within the initial preasure zones of an explosive device (infernl machine as the Victorians aptly described them).

Even 9/11 was in reality little more than a directed projectile attack, the energy coming from aviation fuel...

And as was demonstrated recently in India, guns and fire are still the most effective weapons of killing / destruction / terror if you have little or no intention of becoming anything other than a marter...

I suspect that we will occasionaly see the use of biological or chemical weapons for terror but they will be ineffective as anything other than scare weapons with the "ROI" on total cost (per body) being very poor.

I would however keep your eyes open for other attacks where the bulk of the attack cost falls on others (as in 9/11 where it was the airlines).

Which brings you around to other "first world" "HiTec" that can be used as weapons of terror against the society where they are. Bruce has recently made comments about chemical plants and others about utility suplies (energy/water). The recent "cyber security" stuff also is looking into this.

However the cost of securing all this stuff is actualy beyond it's worth...

Which brings you around to where Intel starts to look atractive. Unfortunatly you then get into the issues of "mass survalence" and the "right to privacy" within society...

Which brings you around to "societal trade offs" which bring you around to "domestic policy" and then to "forign policy"

And you come around to an argument that "terrorism is a direct end product of the free market ideals"...

And the US President is usually elected by those with most vested interest in those "free market ideals"...

So society should be asking what are we to trade off for the way we live... and that's a tough question to ask let alone start answering.

CassandraDecember 30, 2008 3:55 AM

@alethiophile & Clive Robinson

Assuming what you have explained is a credible threat to an aeroplane, what countermeasures would you put in place to prevent its successful use?

Cassie.

EdDecember 30, 2008 5:30 AM

Why is everyone so obsessed with the quantity that was taken through and its effects, there is no reason you cant get multiple people with a large bag of component each. Or just the cleaner.

CalumDecember 30, 2008 5:49 AM

Cassandra, t should be pretty obvious that with a bit of imagination, it is impossible to secure mass transit airliners against a determined and resourceful adversary. So instead of throwing millions at an insoluble problem, why not put those millions to work eliminating the breeding grounds and causes of terrorism in the first place?

Brandioch ConnerDecember 30, 2008 6:00 AM

@Clive Robinson
"First off suitable radialogical materials are not that easy to get hold of in the quantities you need so the primary component of a dirty bomb is scarce."

More to the point, the additional damage caused by spreading radioactive debris is minimal compared to the damage from the explosive. Instead of adding X pounds of radioactive material, adding X pounds of additional explosive would be more effective.

So called "dirty bombs" are the dream of bad journalists.

"The cult was extreamly well funded and had scientests working for them and did actual research into weapon production and delivery systems and the effects they achived with them as a weapon of war where at best a compleate waste of time and effort (I think the sarin attack on the subway was something like attempt number five or six previous open area trials having gone unnoticed by either the targets or the authorities)."

Even the military-grade chemical weapons are only useful to degrade the combat capabilities of the victims. If the enemy is dug in, the chemical weapons would "soften them up" for an attack. If the enemy was mobile, the chemical weapons would be used to channelize them.

As you stated, the most effective weapons seem to be plain old bullets and explosives.

"Which brings you around to where Intel starts to look atractive. Unfortunatly you then get into the issues of "mass survalence" and the "right to privacy" within society..."

I'll have to disagree with that. Even in prison, with the near constant monitoring and controlled access and all, there is a thriving business in contraband.

No amount of surveillance of the random population will yield any information about terrorists. It's a waste of money.

raffraffraffDecember 30, 2008 6:00 AM

What the article does, I think, is show how silly some of these rules are. It's not trying to say that TSAs are stupid or that all security measures are ineffective.

The obvious: Carry-on baggage should go through an x-ray and metal detector.
The stupid: It's somehow safer to carry 100ml of shampoo instead of 250ml.

It reminds me of DRM in music. Everybody shares in the pain, but nobody is really any better off. If you're "in the know", you can crack any DRM in a short time.

With regards to the 100ml rule, you could easily carry the ingredients of nitro-glycerine in a bunch of small containers and nobody would know.

LC seems to think that there's a goat-herder somewhere in (Iran/Iraq/Afghanistan/North Korea/South Korea/Whever) reading the internet and has stumbled upon this article chanting "Allah be praised! They have inadvertently shown me how to bring down a Boeing 747!!". Come on. How stupid and paranoid is that?

AnonymousDecember 30, 2008 6:11 AM

Oh, here we go.

"I live in the real world where terrorists want to blow up planes that I fly on."

It IS a different world! How many planes fly every day in your world? How often do they fall out of the sky? I'm counting...

Really, are you paranoid enough? What about those liberals! Are you worried enough about them! WHAT ARE THEY UP TO???

AnonymousDecember 30, 2008 6:25 AM

@Savik -

" 'Perhaps some of the people delivering the message aren't thinking rationally, that doesn't make them stupid.'

Yes it does. It is pretty much the definition."

There are lots of people around that not are running on all cylinders so to speak, but don't discount the running cylinders - especially when they can hurt you. Or, lack of judgement in one area doesn't make a person stupid. In fact it often makes them more dangerous.

It's very easy to be dismissive, but underestimating threats could also be considered stupid.

periDecember 30, 2008 6:47 AM

@Cassie
"Assuming what you have explained is a credible threat to an aeroplane, what countermeasures would you put in place to prevent its successful use?"

I think the general consensus on this blog is that there are so many possible threats that we could give the TSA a yearly budget of $60 billion instead of $6 billion and the result would still be far from eliminating all possible threats but at least it would probably be enough of a deterrent to make terrorists attack other targets instead: ships, trains and buildings.

To put $60 billion in perspective, in 2008 the US government spent 47.5 billion on intelligence:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/29/washington/...

Before you try to answer the question of countermeasures you should be asking whether moving the threat around is really that important?

It certainly seems like the only plausible way to stop the general case of determined terrorists -- whether they want to blow up planes, trains, ships or buildings -- is to minimize their motivation in the first place and failing that find them before the strike. On both counts it would seem like intelligence can be more effective than just throwing money at TSA style countermeasures.

Of course I say all this knowing full well that the CIA actually got us into the mess in the Middle East in the first place but that is another topic for another time.

Clive RobinsonDecember 30, 2008 6:48 AM

@ Cassie.

"Assuming what you have explained is a credible threat to an aeroplane, what countermeasures would you put in place to prevent its successful use?"

Ahh effectivly three questions in one 8)

First Is thermite a credible threat, the answer is both yes and no and it depends largly on what you intend to use it.

I have set several ounces of thermite off in a contraption sitting on my lap and suffured no longterm physical effects (my sanity I will leave to others to judge ;)

All it does is generate a very large quantity of thermal energy, no expanding gasses or other issues. The amount of thermal energy it does generate is insufficient to do any real damage by radiation therefor it has to be in intimate contact to do damage which requires containment which would be difficult to imprrovise.

Likewise the quantity of thermal energy is usually not sufficient to do damage to a major structural component except those made of lighter metals.

It's main risk is causing other items including metals to burn or melt.

So to answer the second part of your question, actually I would do very little extra to protect the aircraft. Due to other sources fire is a risk that is reasonably well catered for on aircraft especialy in pasenger compartments.

The area of risk to the aircraft I might address is access to other non structural but critical components such as flight electronics. And again in practice these have been addressed for other reasons.

So the answer is for thermite I would not do a lot over and above that that has been done for other reasons to protect the aircraft.

However onto the third not obvious implicit part of your question ;)

In times past it has been found that boiling lead and other metals do provide a significant risk to organic items such as humans due to burns etc. If somebody worked out a way to use a thermite reaction to spray molten metal around the pasenger cabin (or the cockpit) then it would make quite a devistating weapon in much the same way as flame throwers and shaped charges. But it would be far easier to make a flame thrower out of duty free etc and a shaped charge more effective.

So although a significant risk in the wrong place thermite would be much lower on my list of things to deal with than most others.

Incidently not known to many people but those "oxygen masks" that drop down are not fed from compressed gas cylinders. The oxygen is generated by applying intense heat to a chemical compound and I'll leave you to find out what the heat source is.

periDecember 30, 2008 7:04 AM

@Brandioch Conner
"Even in prison... No amount of surveillance of the random population will yield any information about terrorists. It's a waste of money."

I am of the opinion that prison security is more like the TSA than the NSA or CIA but that is a topic for another time.

Clive RobinsonDecember 30, 2008 7:14 AM

@ Brandioch Conner,

"No amount of surveillance of the random population will yield any information about terrorists. It's a waste of money."

Yup I'm in full agrement there.

I think you might have misunderstood what I was geting at with,

"Which brings you around to where Intel starts to look atractive. Unfortunatly you then get into the issues of "mass survalence" and the "right to privacy" within society..."

I was making the point that what the Bush administration has done is explicable from one point of view (short term fantisy) it is actualy compleatly unacceptable to others, and will lead ultimatly to considerable harm.

Further that society has to start asking and answering a set of very hard questions about what it wants, how that is to be achived and how it is to be paid for, if there is the available resources which quite plainly presently there are not.

The danger with technology is it is a double edged weapon and the faster we develop it the more oportunities arise for it to harm us. Not just directly as in 9/11 but indirectly through fear and current ignorance of the longterm implications of our actions (mass survalence can never be for the common good).

When viewed by past experiance history has shown that Imperialisum does not work, likewise that isolationisum does not work, you can neither control others or ignore them, they won't let you.

It is clear that we have questions about our way of life with respect to others we share this planet with and that it is an issue we cannot ignore and must address as a matter of importance.

It has also become clear that extreams such as the free market mantra and communisum do not work either. Likewise it is becoming clear that questions of faith are irrelevent when compared to that of morals.

The Chinesse curse has come and we do live in "interesting times" and try as hard as we can we cannot hide from them others will not let us.

Like others questions I have aplenty, sensible answers I have not, and I have prefere to feel my way gently rather than rush in feet first (which is the oposit of the more general leadership advise).

I suspect that this may well be the core "human condition" that we all have to accept and live in and just "muddle along" with others.

MysticKnightoftheSeaDecember 30, 2008 7:41 AM

@Spock

Point of fact, the episode IS "Arena," plotline taken from a short story of the same name (author forgotten, I'm afraid, but written up in Starlog mag about 1978 or so).

@Bill Swift
"As for the guncotton savik brought up, you can actually treat the cotton and wear it as clothing."

Not for very long. Ask any chemist with experience with mineral acids (Also reference Primo Levi's "The Periodic Table" for a humorous story along those lines).

@Clive Robinson

Yes, thermite (extremely hot material burning holes in things) is probably more bang-for-the-buck effective than black powder for what a terrorist wants, with the added benefit of aluminum being part of the airplane/airframe (start the reaction, provide extra oxidizer: voila! broken airplane). Practically speaking, it wouldn't work, for reasons you've already mentioned. That white cloud was probably vaporized lead/white lead oxide more than chlorine, as chlorine does a great job binding with the aluminum. White lead is less immediately toxic, but not fun either.

But, we really don't want to be doing research for them-that-would-do-harm, of any stripe.

An all of this is truly off-topic.

The topic is: How do we get security rather than theater?

That it is theater is inconveniently true. Who do we need to truly convince to get it changed?

LPDecember 30, 2008 7:44 AM

How do we know her story is true? Just because she looks like a nut job doesn't mean she really is one. And can the authorities arrest her after the fact? Regardless, her reported actions were irresponsible, as was her blog post.

PeterDecember 30, 2008 8:28 AM

@Clive Robinson:"First off suitable radialogical materials are not that easy to get hold of in the quantities you need so the primary component of a dirty bomb is scarce. Secondly a suitable delivery mechanisum has to be tested and built and it would apear to be a non starter even for well funded Governments with all the resources required."

If you're looking for Uranium or Plutonium, then it might be a tad tricky. However radioisotopes of Cobalt or Cesium are comparatively easy to obtain and I would assume a motivated person could find some vehicle which could expose most of the people in a contained room (i.e. the interior of an airplane). It doesn't need to be a "dirty bomb", the radiation exposure is the lethal property. However, I'm guessing that would be one situation where getting the stuff past security may present a problem - if not at least because their computer screens start to show interfeerance.

"I suspect that we will occasionaly see the use of biological or chemical weapons for terror but they will be ineffective as anything other than scare weapons with the "ROI" on total cost (per body) being very poor."

Hmmm, again not sure if I agree with this. "Mustard Gas" seemed to be pretty effective in the first world war, and that was over fairly wide and open-air areas. It is also stored as a liquid which is easy to transport and as far as I am aware not entirely difficult to manufacture. The actual knowledge of an attack could in theory also be delayed as symtopms don't usually present for at least six hours, which makes the avenue of symultaneous attacks more feasible.

I would agree that biological weapons are probably pretty useless to an attacker. Even if you can manage to synthesise something lethal, dispersing it is exceedingly difficult.

SavikDecember 30, 2008 9:28 AM

@MysticKnightoftheSea

No anhydrous but yes there is Nitric Acid Powder (NAP):

monohydrate (HNO3·H2O) and trihydrate (HNO3·3H2O)

CassandraDecember 30, 2008 9:35 AM

@Calum

You may wish to acquaint yourself with Plato's Socratic dialogues.

@Clive Robinson
I think we may both be playing games here: or at least concealing the true extent of our respective knowledge. There are obviously apparently benign items that can (still) be taken through airport security that can be used to make credible threats against in-flight aircraft. I think Bruce knows that too, which is why he uses the appropriate term of 'security theatre' for the approach at airports. Well done for deconstructing my question, 'though.

Current security methods visible at airports 'work' against stupid malefactors, so I'm less likely to come across someone attempting to use automatic firearms to hijack an airliner. I'm grateful for that, but I make no pretence of assuming the processes in place are anything more than a leaky sieve.

My view is that a basic level of security is needed to weed out the idiotic attempts at malfeasance, but a pragmatic view is that no security cordon that can be reasonably imposed on the travelling public can be airtight, and it should neither be claimed to be airtight, or represented as possible to be made so.

Cassie

Brandioch ConnerDecember 30, 2008 1:25 PM

@Peter
"However radioisotopes of Cobalt or Cesium are comparatively easy to obtain and I would assume a motivated person could find some vehicle which could expose most of the people in a contained room (i.e. the interior of an airplane). It doesn't need to be a "dirty bomb", the radiation exposure is the lethal property."

Possibly. But even then you're talking about YEARS until the cancers form and kill the person. And that is assuming that you can get the people on the plane to breathe in the dust.

"Hmmm, again not sure if I agree with this. "Mustard Gas" seemed to be pretty effective in the first world war, and that was over fairly wide and open-air areas."

I guess that depends upon how you define "effective". Mustard gas causes blisters when the liquid contacts flesh. This can cause death if the liquid is inhaled and reaches the lungs. Otherwise it is just a really bad blister.

Which means that you have to keep the liquid in a mist form over a large area. That's not easy even under the best conditions.

Instead it is used to stop the enemy from using certain terrain and to degrade their performance due to skin blisters.

About the only way to cause a lot of deaths / injuries with chemical weapons would be to get a job as the senior maintenance person in a large office tower and pump gallons and gallons of Sarin into the air flow system in winter. But that brings us right into the "movie plot" region.

MysticKnightoftheSeaDecember 30, 2008 4:35 PM

@Savik

re: HNO3-mono & trihydrates:

I stand corrected. However, it would need to be packed in dry ice (mp @ -36.8 & -18.2 Celcius, respectively). This presents it's own set of problems regarding security. I'm pretty sure the agents won't (knowingly) allow dry ice on the plane.

Besides, anhydrous is what you want for the reaction in question. The nitric needs to be dissolved in anh. H2SO4 - in that state the nitric acts as a base, rather than an acid, and any water produced is scavenged by the sulfuric acid.

But all that is still digression from the topic at hand: who and how do we convince to get a meaningful change (in this era of "change") and focus on the core problem (Security) rather than smoke and mirrors (Theater)?

Anad the MKotS

SavikDecember 30, 2008 4:47 PM

@MysticKnightoftheSea

"But all that is still digression from the topic at hand: who and how do we convince to get a meaningful change (in this era of "change") and focus on the core problem (Security) rather than smoke and mirrors (Theater)?"

True, True...when is Schneier going to get a cabinet position?

Clive RobinsonDecember 30, 2008 6:38 PM

@ Cassie,

"I think we may both be playing games here: or at least concealing the true extent of our respective knowledge."

Games, no that implys winers and losers, just call it a natural caution.

I was going to write a few words on why as an engineer involved with security and safety I have an interest in such areas and the methodology I use to deal with physical security/safety risks.

But it started to get long winded and fairly dull (as engineers are supposed to be ;)

Suffice it to say it is based on the UK Health & Safety methodology within a framework akin to that of quality / security as developed by the UK BSI.

The European approach to these things unlike the US aproach is generaly more flexable in that a framework identifies a general "need" and methodology to deal with it by industry current practice but importantly does not address specific items and solutions which quickly become dated and start acting as chokes on industry and inovation (have a look at environmental related US legislation effecting industry to find good examples of how not to do it).

One of the complaints leveld at TSA training in the past is not recognising classes of risk but specific examples of a risk (ie we test for this specific type of bomb...).

Training for the specific not the general is an easy cop out for those involved with devising the training and testing. It also produces quick courses with lower costs...

However as Bruce has noted "thinking secure" or "fealing for hinky" are states of mind derived from a particular outlook, experiance and other people skills. Non of which come in an A4 ring binder.

As a defender you have to define your perimiter and how you are going to defend it (broad/narrow ofense/defense, active/passive, restrictive/permissive, dynamic/static, etc).

The worst way is to have an ill defined perimiter with a narrow passive deffense which is permisive and static. You end up with a mess which is easily worked around with only a limited outlook.

There is an on going argument about "scarce events" and how you detect them and address them. It would apear that apparently random sampaling is more effective both in terms of detecting and preventing at lower cost than any other method.

There are several reasons why this might be so, one of which is it stops complacency in those doing the sample testing. Another is it enables expertease to be built up within a team and the random rotation of teams gives unknown (to the attacker) expertease at any given point in time which makes attack planning more difficult.

Importantly though is there must be no exceptions, if you get randomly selected as a sample you get the works irrespective of who or what you are. This keeps "everybody honest" and is seen by all as "being fair" whilst stoping atackers developing end runs around the system. Likewise punishment is applied without fear or favour for transgresions.

This sort of system also means that the level of checking on non sampled people can be reduced, which further saves time and resources.

Importantly though those sampled should not be penalised in fact they should be rewarded. That is you sample from those joining the que and once processed they are rewarded in time or status, thus being sampled is to the average persons advantage.

However in the current climate it is going to be a hard sell to those that be...

Michael SeeseDecember 30, 2008 9:39 PM

Once when flying, I had my toiletries in a 6" x 4" x 2" hard, clear, zippered plastic case. The TSA agent threatened to confiscate it because it wasn't in a 1-quart Ziploc. "But why?" I asked. "You can see into it."

"It has to be a 1-quart Ziploc," she insisted. Or better said, droned.

AnonymousDecember 31, 2008 12:00 AM

@LC: This only serves to diminish the perception that our security is good, which is what the TSA is working so hard at.

The TSA is clearly working very hard at diminishing the perception that our security is good!

PeterDecember 31, 2008 12:39 PM

@Brandioch Conner:"Possibly. But even then you're talking about YEARS until the cancers form and kill the person. And that is assuming that you can get the people on the plane to breathe in the dust."

By my estimates, between 5 and 10 grams of Cobalt-60 would be more than sufficient to kill a fair number of the passengers. Granted the effects may take several days to a few weeks to fully manifest, but it would almost certainly cause several deaths. You don't necessarily have to get the passengers to breathe the dust either, as that is really only necessary with alpha or beta omitters. When Cobalt-60 decays it emitts both beta particles and gamma radiation.


"I guess that depends upon how you define "effective". Mustard gas causes blisters when the liquid contacts flesh. This can cause death if the liquid is inhaled and reaches the lungs. Otherwise it is just a really bad blister."

So why shouldn't inhalation be a possible means of exposure - afterall, sulphur mustard can be vapourised. From what I understand (and I'm open to correction here) is that during the first world war, the reason that there weren't as many fatal casualties was due to the widespread use of gas masks.

Brandioch ConnerDecember 31, 2008 1:35 PM

@Peter
"By my estimates, between 5 and 10 grams of Cobalt-60 would be more than sufficient to kill a fair number of the passengers. Granted the effects may take several days to a few weeks to fully manifest, but it would almost certainly cause several deaths."

http://www.epa.gov/radiation/radionuclides/...

http://www.ans.org/pi/resources/dosechart/

http://users.rcn.com/jkimball.ma.ultranet/...

So, you'd have to bring enough cobalt-60 on board to give the average person a dosage of 450,000+ mrems at whatever distance over the duration of the flight.

Not very realistic.

"So why shouldn't inhalation be a possible means of exposure - afterall, sulphur mustard can be vapourised."

It is possible. But it is very difficult. The vapour is heavier than air and condenses out within an hour or less under less than optimal conditions. It is an oily liquid and readily adheres to any object near it.

"From what I understand (and I'm open to correction here) is that during the first world war, the reason that there weren't as many fatal casualties was due to the widespread use of gas masks."

No. The reason is that it is very difficult to maintain it as a vapour that can be inhaled. So most of the casualties are people with blisters forming from where they contacted it.

That is why it is used to soften targets and to deny terrain to the enemy.

If you're looking for inhalation deaths, you'd look into a blood agent.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_agent

RogerDecember 31, 2008 3:53 PM

@Roy, elkhorn, billswift:

The detectors can indeed pick up potassium nitrate. However the sensitivity is turned right down because of the German sausage false positive problem.

PhocksJanuary 1, 2009 1:37 AM

First off, commercial swab tests designed to be used by the TSA, are trash. We had some in Iraq, and they returned a negative after we, for laughs, swabbed a chunk of C-4. The test kits are apparently very sensitive to moisture and temperature, and go 'bad' quickly.

Second, as far as Mustard Gas goes, I can think of a dozen scenarios where no one dies but mass terror is spread. Think of what one person with a spray bottle could do on, say, the NYC subway system. Just spray on the seats/rails/toilets. 1 Liter of mustard = at least several million spent to test and clean up. Sounds like good terror math to me.

EricJanuary 1, 2009 2:48 AM

> If that was gunpowder, that must
> have been one LONG flight.
> Turning damp sulphur, charcoal
> and KNO3 into burnable, much
> less explodable, gunpowder
> would take several days.

Who said the mixture would have to fly on the same flight as the person who took it through security?

Once in a large, anonymous 24x7 departure lounge, the mixture can be handed off to another person for processing.

They then start the prep, and then hand on to third person.

You could do it with a team of five or six, each flying in and out over a few days, until the lucky one gets to go on board with the finished article.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 1, 2009 6:41 AM

@ Peter,

My maternal grandfather was in the first world war and was a casuality of inhaling mustard gas, however he carried on with life for many years and lived through to become a father and grandfather.

And in this he was not alone the vast majority of those gassed suffered only minnor injuries and disabilities.

Gas worked the first few times against unprotected soldiers and civilians (remember Winston Churchill sanctioned it's use against villagers).

In the "Great War" (WWI - the war to end all war) soldiers found that urinating on a rag and wearing it across the nose and mouth protected their breathing it was their eyes they could not defend except by screwing them up tight.

It was this knowledge taken forward into WWII that caused the population to be issued with resperators "gas masks" and the development of newer more effective skin contact etc (blood) agents which where counteracted by simple clothing. This was followed in the cold war with even more leathal (nerve) agents which resulted in the develepment of Individual Protective Equipment (IPE) of which the UK NBC "Noddy suit" was considered one of the best (and even ended up as a "clubbers" fashion accessory!). The Russians suits however where truely appaling (like old fashiond divers suits) and due to this their troops used to make modifications that rendered them inaffective. The result was "live agent field combat training" where the Red Army accepted 12% casualty rates to get the message home to their troops...

With regards to my coment,

"I suspect that we will occasionaly see the use of biological or chemical weapons for terror but they will be ineffective as anything other than scare weapons with the "ROI" on total cost (per body) being very poor."

My point was in general not specific to aircraft or other confined spaces with high public body count (which I thought I had covered with the previous comments about a Japanese cult and their experiments).

The real problem with gas attacks is the environment, cars for instance produce a whole raft of gases that are deadly in small concentrations in confined spaces but even with thousands of tonnes being produced each year on city streets the effects tend to be limited to less than 0.01% of the population over a very long period of exposure.

However as you note mustard and other chocking agents are not realy gases in the normal environment and are only good for an hour or so unless replenished or disturbed up again. From this respect the ideal agent would be a heavy molecule that was temprature and light stable but physicaly unstable such that mild physical contact (say a foot fall etc) caused it to break down to an oderless poison gas about the same density of nitrogen but also having been marginaly heated by the break down of the larger chemical so that it rises for a short period. I suspect the requirment for a realy good "poison gas" is either chemicaly a "holy grail" type fantasy or technicaly not feasible for logistical reasons.

I also noted that the "total cost" had a very poor return on body count and I suspect would be hundreds to thousands of times more expensive than conventional explosives.

The issue with "total cost" is one that is a bit awkward. In conventional NBC weapons there is an assumption of "minimum self injury" and "longterm storage" which was why binary weapons where investigated / developed. For a terrorist who is going to "die in action the majority of these costs are irelavent, as is the cost of ensuring efficient production. Little is published on what effect this has on the body count ROI likewise the ROI on "scare value".

Further as I noted a bit further down the body count ROI could be vastly reduced to make a chemical attack very cost effective if a terrorist knew the appropriate place and could fix a shaped charge in a chemical plant and remotly detonate it under favourable weather conditions.

As I said it was an "in general" not a "specific" comment, and also was bassed on the track history of terrorists in that the "technicaly sophisticated" or "career" terrorists tend to have extreamly high survival instincts.

The recent differences brought about by 7/7 sugest it is now a question of component availability / complexity rather than self presevation...

This is the real "elephant in the room" it is, as major a change in terrorist capabilities as nukes where to conventional warfare.

And as far as I can tell this is something that, as with nukes and the cold war a phase we have entered into.

However unlike the cold war where MAD (mutualy assured destruction) forced economic colapse on the indistrialy inferior combatant the exact oposit applies.

That is it is the West's dependence on HiTec infrestructure which is deliberatly brittle due to the consiquence of "Free Market" mantra that is going to be the most likley point for terroristss to get a very good body count ROI.

Saddly the brittle infrestructure is easily engineered out to make it resiliant. Resiliance like "quality" is actualy benificial when designed in. However also like "quality" it is prohibitivly costly to bolt it on at a later stage...

The next problem is that there is a vulneradility window of around thirty years due to the "normal life" of infrestructure equipment replacment.

If the Presedent Elect realy wantLs to make a major change to the US and it's economy he can do two simple things.

1, Ensure infrestructure cannot be outsourced abroad as a sensible part of National Security (this includes equipment manufacture).

2, Also as an urgent part of National Security sort out the infrestructure and make it resiliant.

The dividends it will pay will like the space program be very long lasting, but unlike the space program we already know how to do it...

It's his choice but one Bruce and others should look into argue out (to kill off the neigh sayers) and then present in a unified way.

Rmember it is like a rising tide something that raises everybodies boat and is therefor a social good (like road building) that rightly should be paid for from social money (ie taxes) and importantly needs to be done with the real longterm (30+ years) in mind not "free market" / "Political" 18month life times...

Oh and remember the Chinese have a history of thinking long term and waiting for an appropriate time to climb on board, and it looks like this is what they are starting so we may be overdue...

kibitzerJanuary 1, 2009 3:01 PM

To those dismissing radiological or chemical attacks in an airplane.

It's not the immediate kills that count. It's the psychological effect on the flying public, coupled with the thin margins of most US domestic carriers. I had access to aggregated airline financial info a few years ago, and it's astonishing to see. Huge capital (cost of a single aircraft), huge labor and equipment costs, and tiny profit margins. It's almost gambling.

The psychological effect of a radiological attack on a single airplane would be devastating. Flight bookings would plummet. Hell, most airlines could not have survived post-9/11 without govt help. If that happened again, they be toast again.

Only with radiological or chemical, the effect would be much longer lasting. Why? Because we can't change the game. Recall that even on 9/11, one aircraft's passengers learned what was happening and fought back. This changed the response from what it used to be: let hijackers take the plane. But how do you fight back against radioactivity or mustard gas? Simple: you don't fly.

Worse, the press coverage would make people nervouse about ANY mass transport, ANY enclosed area, and so on. Think about what happened when the "plastic sheeting and duct tape" warning went out. Overreaction. Now think about that happening in a down economy.

So it's not the direct effects, it's all the follow-on effects.

MysticKnightoftheSeaJanuary 2, 2009 7:46 AM

@Savik

Without some major help?
About the time you could successfully carry unrefrigerated powdered nitric acid into Hades.

Sorry, couldn't resist. Just one of my human failings. ;)

MKotS

Brandioch ConnerJanuary 2, 2009 1:35 PM

@kibitzer
"The psychological effect of a radiological attack on a single airplane would be devastating. Flight bookings would plummet."

Again, considering that the effects wouldn't even be known for years ... and even then, only as an increase in cancer amongst the passengers ... how would this cause any problems?

Look at how many activities people WILLINGLY engage in that are KNOWN to be harmful to their health.

And the defense would be as simple as putting a geiger counter on the plane.

PeterJanuary 3, 2009 6:33 PM

@Brandioch Conner:"So, you'd have to bring enough cobalt-60 on board to give the average person a dosage of 450,000+ mrems at whatever distance over the duration of the flight.

Not very realistic."


Ok, I've done the calculations; I can email the spreadsheet to anyone who is interested, which might be an idea as I've got a habit of getting my powers of 10 wrong. Anyway, I've assumed a 1 gram cobalt-60 point source, four hour exposure time, average body surface area of 1.9 m^2, average body mass of 86 kg, at a distance of one metre.

To avoid cross-section calculations I've divided half the average surface area of a human (only one side can be exposed at once) by the surface area of a sphere at 1m to be the proportion of energy absorbed at 1m distance... a very rough approximation, but it should be ok. The remaining calcs are standard convertions.

So, the results you ask? ... for a 1 gram point source, a person at 1m over a four hour flight will have an exposure of ~10.5 Sv -- which is more than enough to be lethal, and pretty quickly too. If someone were to carry a 10g powdered source onto a long-haul flight and throw it about a bit, then there would be a lot of dead passengers.

PeterJanuary 3, 2009 6:55 PM

@Clive Robinson:"My point was in general not specific to aircraft or other confined spaces with high public body count (which I thought I had covered with the previous comments about a Japanese cult and their experiments).

The real problem with gas attacks is the environment, cars for instance produce a whole raft of gases that are deadly in small concentrations in confined spaces but even with thousands of tonnes being produced each year on city streets the effects tend to be limited to less than 0.01% of the population over a very long period of exposure."

Fair enough, in a general situation chemical / biological / radiological weapons that are within the technical capabilities of terroriests are probably not particularly efficient. Sticking half a tonne of fertiliser in the back of a truck with some detonating caps is a lot easier. Having said that, in real life terrorists plan for specific environments and that may make other options more effective.


---


"The recent differences brought about by 7/7 sugest it is now a question of component availability / complexity rather than self presevation...

This is the real "elephant in the room" it is, as major a change in terrorist capabilities as nukes where to conventional warfare."

I'm definitely in agreement with you here. Even taking the IRA bombings as an example, most of the time when there were news reports there was generally a coded call to the police half an hour before hand so that people could be evacuated - it was enough for the terrorists to be a perceived danger (although very real). Today's terrorism seems to have a tacit assuption that the terrorists at the scene will die (although I'm assuming the terrorists doing the planning sit back and watch). So, yeah, it is coming down to technology now.


---


"That is it is the West's dependence on HiTec infrestructure which is deliberatly brittle due to the consiquence of "Free Market" mantra that is going to be the most likley point for terroristss to get a very good body count ROI.

Saddly the brittle infrestructure is easily engineered out to make it resiliant. Resiliance like "quality" is actualy benificial when designed in. However also like "quality" it is prohibitivly costly to bolt it on at a later stage..."

Also agreed. For some of the stuff I've heard about the UK's critical infrastructure all I can say is 'oh, dear'.


Clive RobinsonJanuary 4, 2009 2:09 AM

@ Peter,

"If someone were to carry a 10g powdered source onto a long-haul flight and throw it about a bit, then there would be a lot of dead passengers."

Assuming you haven't got the decimal in the wrong place, that gives rise to the usuall two questions,

1, What would be required to make the cobalt-60 into a viable aerosol.

2, What would be required to get the terrorist and the cobalt-60 onto the flight to use it.

I was assuming the answers are "technicaly to difficult" which is probably what Brandioch Conner was also assuming.

And then I realised that neither is required, as the terrorist does need to deploy it during the flight . All they require is the more modern equivalent of a bucket and mop...

And that realisation is definatly an "oh dear" moment.

PeterJanuary 4, 2009 12:47 PM

@Clive Robinson:"1, What would be required to make the cobalt-60 into a viable aerosol."

Not really necessary. A point source would effectively be the least dangerous arrangement, and that would still kill at 1m over a four hour exposure. As far as I'm aware, Cobalt-60 is available in powdered form, or at least can be made into a powder without too much difficulty. So throwing a powder down an isle (spelling?) is going to be pretty effective in itself.


---


"2, What would be required to get the terrorist and the cobalt-60 onto the flight to use it."

The quick answer would be to bring it on in a clear plastic bag ;-) However, I suspect that any nearby electrical equipment might register some interferance and that would probably give the game away. It may be possible to do something a bit more insideous like replacing battery material in a laptop with the Cobalt-60.

Your suggestion of bucket and soap is likely very effective, and in theory applicable to a much wider range of scenarios... the airport lounge is the first that comes to mind.

Wikipedia has some links to stories of steel being contaminated with Cobalt-60, http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/... ... slightly unfortunate.

Brandioch ConnerJanuary 4, 2009 1:50 PM

@Peter
"So, the results you ask? ... for a 1 gram point source, a person at 1m over a four hour flight will have an exposure of ~10.5 Sv -- which is more than enough to be lethal, and pretty quickly too."

My math shows that such exposure would hit a maximum of 2 Sv. Enough to POSSIBLY cause death in 30 days (20% chance). And then, only for the person(s) sitting 1 meter away from it. And staying there for four hours.

The problem is getting the aircraft off the ground in that case. The amount of gamma radiation that would be there would cause problems with the aircraft's flight systems.

The problem with radiation poisoning is that you cannot depend upon time rather than dosage. Over time, the early symptoms of radiation poisoning will occur and the victim will probably move away from the radiation source. Not to mention the problem with electronic devices.

As the Russians have learned, the best way to ensure radiation poisoning is through ingestion.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 5, 2009 2:06 AM

@ Peter,

My knowledge of ordinary Co is limited to some of it's industrial uses (as an additive to steel, colourant, rare earth magnets and other magnetic products such as ferites and magnetic media).

On the lose assumption Cobalt-60 behaves chemicaly the same as non radioisotope Cobalt then very simple chemistry will turn it into a "liquid" that can be diluted to your requirments, that will happily soak into pourous substances such as concreate (in some cases it does show up as a quite a bad stain though, hence the colour "Cobalt Blue").

My thoughts turned to using it to adulter a floor cleaning/polishing product such that it would end up on the floor of the airport check in / departure lounge effectivly "salting the earth" and putting a major airport out of commission for either weeks or years rather than killing people (I'll assume that the ROI on scare is going to be the desired effect here and would be more extensive than than the Washington sniper achieved). Economicaly it would be a major disaster, not just in the loss of a major transportation hub or the clean up cost, but in the secondary effects (think post 9/11), hence my "Oh dear moment".

With regards my point two,

"2, What would be required to get the terrorist and the cobalt-60 onto the flight to use it."

I was making a two assumptions,

The first that radiation of the level an unshielded gama "point source" would create is going to get picked up long before you get to the boarding gate ("bloom out" on all the "X-Ray" scanners being a case in point).

The second loose assumption that exposure goes up as the square of the decrease in distance and therfore the terrorist carrying it in their pocket is going to have it at 1/100th of the 1m distance you are making your calculations.

Information on the visable/physiological effects a very short period after/during a high level exposure to radiation (ie

Therefor I'm thinking "salting the earth" attacks would be more viable, but for various reasons airports are not a good place to do it as it is likley to be detected before such an attack became effective.

For a "movie plot senario" or two,

1, develop a "trickle feed" system you then attach to the main feed point of the sprinkler system and then set it off...

2, Make a modification to the AirCon system such that a liquid suspension aerosols into the air in some place where the rich/influential congregate. In times past the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange would have been an ideal target, afterall there is nothing like having so much money you can buy anything except what you realy want (life) to make you scream "not fair" to everybody you know in the short time you have...

averrosJanuary 5, 2009 4:33 PM

@Clive Robinson:

Those who thing that free market is somehow bad are simply those who are ignorant of the way markets work. Free market is a distributed optimization algorithm, nothing more and nothing less. It does, provably (the first welfare _theorem_) outperform any other given the fact that people's utility functions are not directly accessible or additive.

And, yes, free market is incompatible with violent aggression. Which is exactly any government _is_, at its very core. What do we have now is not a free market, by any stretch of imagination. And the government, any branch or party of it, cannot promote free markets - its very existence means that the market is suppressed in some very important areas (such as provision of security).

Returning to the terrorism - monopolizing security provision, just like monopolizing provision of any goods, causes the good to be produced in smaller quantity, of worse quality, and become much more expensive. Is that basic economic law hard to understand?

PeterJanuary 5, 2009 5:12 PM

@Brandioch Conner:"My math shows that such exposure would hit a maximum of 2 Sv."

Brandioch, how did you do your cross-section estimate?


--


"The problem is getting the aircraft off the ground in that case. The amount of gamma radiation that would be there would cause problems with the aircraft's flight systems."

Yeah, that might be a bit of an issue. I'm wondering if one of these heavy metal fountain pens would be thick enough to act as a container for transit purposes? Although, given the reputation of the TSA they'd probably confiscate the pen before even considering the contents.


--


"As the Russians have learned, the best way to ensure radiation poisoning is through ingestion."

I'd read somewhere that photographic brushes have small amounts of Polonium-210 in them... don't know if there's any truth in it. I also wouldn't be surprised if the airplane food had Polonium on the ingredients list ;-)

Clive RobinsonJanuary 6, 2009 12:20 AM

@ Peter,

"I'd read somewhere that photographic brushes have small amounts of Polonium-210 in them... don't know if there's any truth in it. I also wouldn't be surprised if the airplane food had Polonium on the ingredients list ;-)"

Prior to the Russian's crapping on my door step, I've eaten in the same place (please note the past tense is due to other reasons ;) and I thought it a little ironic it is located on the edge of one of the largest Polish areas in London (and yes there is a coach compay called Polonia they go almost past my door step).

The two main industrial uses for Polonium210 I used to know were for "smoke detection" and "static electricity control" in industrial proceses and could be found where "shrink wrap" and other plastic packaging around food etc is used.

I guess it's the latter (anti-static) reason for somebody to think it would be usefull to photographers in brushes...

As for food... I guess prepackaged food would come close to both Cobalt-60 and Polonium-210 ordinarily...

Many years ago I used to know somebody who worked in the food industry as an analyst and they told me an interesting point that stuck in my head...

"Chemicals designed to be part of the final product are addatives and go on the label, those used as part of the manufacturing are procesing agents and don't even if they contaminate the final product"

When I asked what the difference was he said "take your average breakfast of [a well known fruit] juice and toast", "you won't find nitric acid on the tetra pak, or silicon release oil on the bread wrapper". He went on to say if you add a fry up with various meat products that some chemicals (nitrates and salt) where both so might or might not not be on the packet or as trace as the label said...

So even if Polonium-210 and Cobalt-60 where in the food it won't be on the packet, unless of course it was a Russian take out then it should be on the label...

Clive RobinsonJanuary 6, 2009 12:57 AM

@

"Those who thing that free market is somehow bad are simply those who are ignorant of the way markets work."

Hmm that is an unjustified assumption on two counts.

Firstly alot of people do have knowledge of supposed "market theory". Secondly I would take issue with the fact that anybody knows how markets work (they are kind of like the joke about the "rules of the house").

My point is (and it applies to other areas of security) if you optomise "slavishly" in a particular direction for a particular reason you may end up with consiquences where your gains are all lost.

This is seen in nature in that creatures that over specialise in a particular direction achive a short term objective put lose out overall. An example being the cheeter which has high speed and can bring down certain types of game other creatures cannot. However it lacks the power to defend it's hard won meal from more powerfull preditors.

In cost sensitive markets computer security products are implemented on low cost general purpose computing platforms. Which open an abundance of side channels. As has been demonstrated AES can be analysed across a computter network due to CPU cache hits.

The problem with the slavish devotion to the free market mantra is that it does not take many things into account.

A prime example is quality it is well known there is a relationship between the sale price of an item, it's manufacturing cost, the number produced and the profit made and the quality of the item and return rates. The relationship is complex and cannot be analysed using free market rules as understood by those implementing them.

However some general rules of thumb have been found and it turns out If you introduce quality correctly your profit goes up for quite readily apparent reasons.

Security is dependant on resiliance which like quality is not something those slavishly devoted to short term free market ideas wish to understand or consider.

They simply gamble that a short term gain is good for them and the long term loss is bad for others as they will have moved on.

The result is that things become brittle and or fragile (yes they are different) but the effects are downstream by several accounting periods.

Would you want to have mechanical heart valves fitted using the latest free market efficient design only to discover ten years down the line that they have a significant probability of catastrophic failier? Where as the slightly older more conservative design gives a slow fail with plenty of warning but cost a few cents more?

OmbreduNordJune 13, 2009 3:49 PM

I have been concerned since 9/11 about the potential for explosions triggered in the luggage compartment of airliners by barometric pressure change. The huge differential in pressure between sea level (if taking off from a port city) and 35,000 ft suggests the potential for any liquid under pressure in a thin-walled, glass vial, to rupture the container and make available the contents to any adjacent reactants. Insofar as the list of undetectable potential explosive/pyroactive substances and reaction types is huge. I am very concerned. The level of chemical knowledge required would not be large. I will not be more specific for obvious reasons. I was concerned enough in the fall of 2001 that I had a conversation with my landlord about it (a former U.S. Congressman) who promised to pass the information on to his successor. I seriously doubt it made it all the way to Homeland Security. Guess I might have to test the hypothesis myself and send in the results.

PackagedBlueJune 13, 2009 6:32 PM

Yawn. I'm sure people have thought of this. Little airpressure = little to hurt plane, especially if blowout vents are installed and other measures are taken?

The biggest threat is the USA inner handling of its people.

Another threat is riots and the poor economy.

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