TSA Inspecting Thermoses

This is new:

Adm. James Winnefeld told The Associated Press Friday that the Transportation Security Administration is “always trying to think ahead.” Winnefeld is the head of the U.S. Northern Command, which is charged with protecting the homeland.

TSA officials had said Thursday that in coming days, passengers flying within and to the U.S. may notice additional security measures related to insulated beverage containers such as thermoses.

Winnefeld says officials responsible for homeland security are always a bit more alert over the holiday season. He says there has been a lot of chatter online about potential terror activity, but nothing specific.

Posted on December 29, 2010 at 11:09 AM80 Comments


Rob Slade December 29, 2010 11:34 AM

Well, think about it.

Why would anyone be carrying a thermos, or insulated mug, when you can’t take coffee with you on a flight, anymore?

Highly suspicious. Must be a terrorist, right?

(And, just in case anyone is wondering, no, I am not serious. This sounds rather silly …)

BF Skinner` December 29, 2010 11:34 AM

“there has been a lot of chatter online about potential terror activity, but nothing specific. ”

Hey! That must be us!

BTW What’s NORTHCOM’s role in TSA and why is the Admiral speaking on their behalf?

Tangerine Blue December 29, 2010 11:43 AM

This is less stupid than many of their policies. A bomb is more likely to be in a thermos than a clear plastic water bottle.

Kiranator December 29, 2010 11:44 AM

I travel with my Sigg bottle — reusable water bottle. I empty it before security and send it through in the tray, lid off to demonstrate its emptiness. I fill it from a drinking fountain at the gate so I have plenty of water on the flight without spending a lot on bottled water or consuming another plastic bottle. Only thought WRT motivations for thermoses or travel coffee mugs is e.g. frequent travellers who prefer a reusable coffee cup to paper ones?

Eric December 29, 2010 11:58 AM

This is a good thing. The TSA has moved from reaction only to random prevention. I feel safer already.

voteprime December 29, 2010 12:00 PM

There are certain chronic diseases, like the autoimmune disease Sjogren’s syndrome, that cause patients to have severe dry mouth. Having water handy to sip at all times is necessary. But being forced to spend $2 or more per bottle would be quite an expense.

A thermos to refill behind the security check point and for the plane ride could be both a wallet and a life saver for someone like a Sjogren’s patient. This would be a tough change to deal with.

Info on Sjogren’s: http://www.sjogrens.org/

Scott G. Lewis December 29, 2010 12:08 PM

“This would be a tough change to deal with.”

Why’s that? This isn’t a BAN on thermos, it’s the announcement of scrutiny and inspections on them.

Lead lined thermos scare perhaps?

Anyway, this doesn’t really seem like one of those egregious policies. With all the junk touching, I really don’t care if my thermos gets felt up.

RSaunders December 29, 2010 12:55 PM

I also bring my Klean Kanteen water bottle to fill up with airport drinking fountain water. It’s often examined, but I think that’s mostly because it weighs almost nothing. They pick it up to make sure it’s empty (it’s made of super thin metal) and then they are surprised about its weight.

I never drink coffee, but many of my Navy friends seem to require a constant supply of the stuff. If I had to get it at the Airport, I’d sure prefer a sturdy thermos to the styrofoam cup with cardboard around it. Too many of those have been spilled or crushed in the airplane seat pocket.

The security threat, which I don’t know how they are abating, is that there is considerable space between the outer shell and the inner reservoir where the coffee goes. The space isn’t inspect-able, and in a good one has a modest vacuum to reduce thermal radiation.

This one (googled at random) http://www.amazon.com/Thermos-Nissan-34-Ounce-Stainless-Steel-Folding/dp/B0000DDW1Z

has an outside volume of 150 cubic inches and an inside volume of 62 cubic inches. Sure, there is steel, cork, and the volume of the cup in some of that 88 cubic inches, but at least 50 of them are supposed to be vacuum. Replacing the vacuum with PETN might give one a dangerous volume of the substance that’s obscured by radiation-resistant steel outer shell.

I love this sort of “guess the object” gaming at TSA. Drug smugglers have worked this problem for decades, and if you’ve ever seen a pickup truck cut into scrap by the ICE extracting drugs you know they are quite inventive. Sure, ICE is down the hall from TSA at DHS HQ, but you’d think they would chat at the water fountain. You can’t just cut up cars on a guess, you need some intelligence and a sensor that works. ICE has only a pittance of intelligence data from DEA, but they have some pretty good dogs. This notion of guessing that it’s a Stanley Thermos and spreading that news around in a conference call – well it just seems a little Keystone Kops.

RFC2307 December 29, 2010 1:02 PM

…chatter?…sounds like a line from “Get Smart”, as a US Intelligence Officer with twenty-two years of experience, if one of my personnel came to me today with a policy recommendation based on “…chatter…” he’d be working at Burger King tomorrow.

jeff December 29, 2010 1:30 PM

It seems to me that a policy of letting the traveling public know about the types of containers that would warrant a closer look by the TSA inspectors isn’t a bad thing. Pretty much any container could be used to hold material that shouldn’t really be on the plane, especially anything with a non-trivial amount of metal in it.

So, if your inspectors are likely to pick it out of the bag and take a closer look, it would be best if the traveler had some context. Less surprise, less emotion, less hastle all around.

I think the real problem here is that everyone is so used to the TSA taking unreasonable positions on things, when they come out with a quite reasonable communication, people pounce out of habit.

mcb December 29, 2010 1:42 PM

@ Scott G. Lewis

“With all the junk touching, I really don’t care if my thermos gets felt up.”

I hope they change gloves between dates…

mcb December 29, 2010 2:00 PM

@ voteprime

“I read this as a possibility of banning bringing empty thermoses through security. Didn’t realize they just meant extra scrutiny.”

Extra scrutiny might be more time consuming and less effective than a simple ban. “Okay, no bombs in your pants; now let’s prove your stainless steel thermos doesn’t contain any Semtex.”

RFC2307 December 29, 2010 2:02 PM

For Jeff .. “I think the real problem here is that everyone is so used to the TSA taking unreasonable positions on things, when they come out with a quite reasonable communication, people pounce out of habit.”

My favorite quite reasonable communication is the ability to hijack an airliner with a pair of fingernail clippers. Even of Chuck Norris was wielding the fingernail clipppers, I think the average twelve year old would be less than impressed.

I have yet to see a “…reasonable…” communication from the TSA or DHS for that matter.

ilgioa December 29, 2010 2:25 PM

We all know this is now more than ridiculous.
We’ve all seen that this is only getting worse and worse.
So, seriously, I would suggest the following policy: “You cannot take anything with you on the plane but your clothes.”
It would not make us more secure than we’re now, just like any other idea the TSA came up with in the last ten years. It would not make us less free than what we already are: we’ve already reached to peak of harassment we can get from the TSA.
But at least it would speed up the queue through security.

Steve K December 29, 2010 2:29 PM

I carry a thermos with a sip-thru cap. I always bring it in empty and buy coffee airside.

I usually remember to take it out of the backpack and put it in the tray with my shoes. Of the 50 or so times a year I go thru security they ignore it most of the time and only occasionally shake it to see if it is empty. I’ve even had TSA people point to it and ask, “Is it empty?”

A policy that requires agents to examine it seems a step toward actually providing some additional security.

We here can all find ways in which thermos bottles can be misused even with the added scrutiny. That’s not the point. I’m willing to applaud even small steps forward, just as I’m willing to criticize backwards or even pointless steps

Another Kevin December 29, 2010 2:55 PM

@RSaunders “You can’t just cut up cars on a guess, you need some intelligence and a sensor that works”

Actually, customs officers can inspect anything, for any reason or no reason, and the Government is immune from suit for any damage they cause. 28 USC 2680(c) provides only a narrow exception that allows forfeited property to be recovered if a court finds that it was seized fraudulently.

So yes, you can just cut up cars on a guess, if you work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

BF Skinner December 29, 2010 3:11 PM

@RSaunders “ICE is down the hall from TSA at DHS HQ”
@Another Kevin “customs officers can inspect anything”

Well no. ICE is at the TSA checkpoints at internal US airports. TSA is ‘supporting’ their mission. Customs are/were limited in their scope to ports of entry. This is creeping mission scope.

Another Kevin December 29, 2010 4:04 PM

You can submit a claim. Good luck getting it processed.

@BF Skinner
Of course it’s creeping mission scope. But I fully expect that the courts’ reading that anywhere within 100 miles of the coast or border is “at the border” for the purposes of customs inspection: (see http://www.aclu.org/technology-and-liberty/fact-sheet-us-constitution-free-zone) combined with their reading that international airports are “at the border”, to extend to “anywhere within 100 miles of an international airport is at the border”. Watch for it.

RSaunders December 29, 2010 4:08 PM

@BF Skinner

Those ICE folks are just drones, following instructions from HQ. I don’t like to get on the case of some guy/gal that’s just working at a government job. They aren’t supposed to be thinking, they are supposed to be processing. They aren’t the folks who hold teleconferences to discuss the Thermos Threat. The folks at HQ who set the instructions for the workforce are the problem. If they gave those TSA and ICE folks better marching orders, like “don’t violate someone’s civil rights just because they came to the airport”, then things would be a lot better.

@Another Kevin

If ICE cuts up a car and finds nothing they have a huge problem. Not a legal problem, as you point out, but a Public Relations problem. In a government hierarchy, everyone has a boss. And the Boss finds it very satisfying to fire the person who made the mistake, rather than admit that the person was doing their best. It’s not fair, but it’s the way blame works.

Moderator December 29, 2010 4:28 PM

RSX, please don’t post that kind of invective here, particularly when you’re not adding any new thoughts to the thread. How much TSA agents weighed as children is actually not a security issue.

Calvin December 29, 2010 4:30 PM

I’m not sure this is even new. I remember taking a steel thermos of hot cocoa through security before 9/11/01 – before there even was a TSA – and even then the screeners were a little concerned about it. I guess the machine couldn’t get a good view inside so both it and I were pulled aside. The screener kept a good grip on the bottle while I was instructed to open it. Fortunately a wisp of steam and chocolaty aroma came out instead of Sarin or a boom and I was let on my way.

Davi Ottenheimer December 29, 2010 4:45 PM

Weird, I could have sworn I read about thermos inspections on this blog a few weeks ago.

Maybe I was just dreaming? Scary thought. You know you read a blog too much when…

My other dream about this blog was a post that the TSA announced they were spearheading a deal to sell Florida to China to create a border with anti-federalists as well as eliminate the deficit. I know that one was a dream because it was on a Friday — should have been about squid.

sherbang December 29, 2010 5:07 PM

Interesting change. I’ve forgotten to empty my thermos before going through security a number of times in the last several months. You would think they would check them considering all the paranoia about liquids. They used to check if it was empty every time, but it’s been quite awhile since they’ve noticed it. Didn’t miss the water bottle I had in the same bag though.

Wendy M. Grossman December 29, 2010 5:08 PM

I, too, travel with a large thermos beverage up with a sip-through lid. Several reasons:

  • conferences. I like to drink hot tea slowly, not tepid tea in 8oz gulps.
  • mug with lid is less randomly computercidal than mug without lid or lightweight styrofoam cup

I have a trail vest with a large enough pocket for it to travel in. At security, I remove the lid and place the empty container in a corner of the bin so it’s easy and quick for them to see it’s empty. I fill it with tea just before getting on the plane (when I tend to be very cold) and it sees me through the first part of the flight. Later, it can be refilled. But the main point is that it lets me drink at my own pace and keeps stuff hot. Since I’m often quite cold at conferences and on planes, I see this as a blessing.


Dirk Praet December 29, 2010 5:14 PM

I guess it’s a result of this year’s TSA Christmas contest to come up with an idea for a new check, rewarded with a holiday for two in the Bahamas. You have to keep your staffers motivated, especially when they’re subject to permanent criticism on the job.

This said, I don’t have too much of a problem with it. I’d rather have them scrutinising my thermos for PETN than being subjected to a full body cavity search for the same.

Oleg December 29, 2010 5:18 PM

One thing I have heard of is the usage of remote thermal sensors using to identify folks who may be under stress ( terrorists about get their virgins ). This was being done on escalators in ORD before the terminals…

armadillo December 29, 2010 5:24 PM

Erm – lets not overlook the last paragraph either:

“… officials responsible for homeland security are always a bit more alert over the holiday season”

This must imply they are less alert at other times!

Publius December 29, 2010 5:47 PM

The officials will always say there is chatter

Chatter is the ghosts, that only the government shamans can see

JSG December 29, 2010 6:09 PM

Back in 2007, I brought an empty water bottle with me through security. – I filled it with water from a drinking fountain in the secure area. — Handy as there was a long flight delay.

Also I was going to Alabama, in July where it was hot. — It was handy to have some Ice Water to drink during the day.

Sure glad they didn’t confiscate the water bottle. — (Yes I realize it’s not a insulated thermos)

Dirk Praet December 29, 2010 6:16 PM

@ Publius

“Chatter is the ghosts, that only the government shamans can see”

Actually, no. Apparently, there is a lot of on-line jihadi chatter going on about strikes in Los Angeles for example. Although it’s probably nothing more than seasonal felgerkarb to overwhelm law enforcement agencies with false threats and information, you can get a glimpse by following IntelTweet on Twitter. Then again, this is really food for the paranoid only. QED.

conrad December 29, 2010 7:17 PM

“He says there has been a lot of chatter online about potential terror activity, but nothing specific.”

McCarthyism is alive and well.

Imperfect Citizen December 29, 2010 7:39 PM

I wonder how much of that so called chatter comes from agents provocateurs? Telecomm software security games with the count of suspicious words (dictionary function)?

ralf December 29, 2010 7:52 PM


Maybe the TSA honchos finally noticed the glaring loophole in the War on Moisture(tm): while you’re not allowed to bring aboard a 12-ounce container of liquid, you ARE allowed to bring four 3-ounce containers of liquid and an empty 12-ounce container….

Clive Robinson December 30, 2010 12:55 AM

I’m not surprised it’s come around as will most things about “carry on” untill the fundemental problem is solved.

Although “carry on” is not the fundemental problem it is the major issue currently and it’s a problem without a solution because…

Let’s be honest quite a few of us can think of ways of getting even quite large sharp edged objects that can be used as weapons onto planes.

Likewise many of us can think up ways of getting “largish” volumes of liquids or solids onto a plane as well.

And will be able to as long as passengers are alowed “carry on”.

Being able to think how to use objects in surprising ways tends to be one of the side effects of an inquiring mind musing “what if”.

Put simply it’s a problem that cannot be solved as our entire modern technology based society is built by people with inquiring minds musing “what if”.

Importantly though is Joe Sixpack does not want to give up his SUV, mobile phone or other trapings of his modern materialistic life and return to subsistance farming etc. So inquiring minds musing “what if” are here to stay as is passenger “carry on”.

As Bruce and many others have pointed out the easy and effective answers to airplane security (cockpit doors etc) have been taken, but these can only go so far.

The most sensible next move in airplane security is to remove the pilots etc. Yes it’s controversial but it has in many ways been done already.

If we had fully automated planes “box cutters” or other sharp edged weapons would not be an issue because computers cann’t be coerced by them in the way humans can. Further cockpit doors would not need strengthaning as cockpits would not have humans on the other side.

Further if we had fully automated planes their design would change quite quickly putting the flight systems well out of reach of even quite large amounts of explosive. Not because of security concernces but simple economics, the design of aircraft with cockpits is very inefficient.

But for goodness sake don’t let Joe Sixpack know… he’s seen to many episodes of “Terminator” spin offs, and he knows that someday he is going to have to pay for his modern lifestyle. The problem with this is he thinks “payback” is when the machines fight back or just simply go wrong.

He does not tend to realise the reality of his technological existance and the real “payback” is his body failing due to a cholesterol soaked or other poison ingested lifestyle. Thus he gives no sign of knowing that infact his chance of living much beyond forty is based on his access to technology…

[For those who think I’m a “bit off my trolley” see the leading causes of death in the US and at what ages and compare it to those of nonindustrialised low technology parts of the world.]

The simple fact is Joe Sixpack’s musings are generaly based on what he saw on the “idiot box” in the last week or so. And much of that is based on either what is newsworthy or entertainment.

Newsworthy is generaly only about very very rare events, and entertainment is usually based on the extream “what if” musings of inquiring minds…

Thus Joe Sixpack “knows” what is going to happen when the machines “fail” or “rise up”, not the reality of how in the everyday world they work reliably and support his continued existance.

However the problem the TSA have is not people with inquiring minds nor for that matter is it the people who wish to kill themselves for whatever reason. The problem the TSA has is “public image” or what Joe Sixpack thinks from what he “knows”…

After a few seconds thought you will realise that the TSA have been setup to be the fall guy for the politicians should another terrorist incident on a plane leaving US soil occur. That is the politico’s have done their bit by putting a line of defence between themselves and the difficult task of solving the problem and have thus “been seen to act” at a time of National crissis.

The real reason aircraft are vulnerable to terrorism is the use of humans to control them and where these humans are situated (up on the nose not down in the belly).

The TSA cann’t fix this problem and the politico’s won’t because there is no advantage in it for them.

So all the TSA can do is tinker at the edges and this is what this is. As long as we have persuadable / irrational / eratic / failing humans at the controls in easily accessable places aircraft security is going to be compromised in a way that cannot be solved.

One of the things the TSA have probably considered but not talked about is “det cord” it looks a lot like “washing line” and is what SWAT and other anti hostage forces use to open very substantial (much more so than upgraded reinforced cockpit) doors.

In the hands of somebody who has done some training det cord can go from concealed to deployed in less time than it would take Joe Sixpack to think “what’s he doing” and lumber out of his seat… This probably goes for the most attentive of air marshals as well, thus if deployed successfully we would be back to pre 9/11 security levels on aircraft.

The solution is not to play around tinkering at the edges but remove the problem but as this is not acceptable to Joe Sixpack who “knows” this dancing around the problem will continue.

Russell Coker December 30, 2010 4:00 AM

Steve K: I’ve even had TSA people point to it and ask, “Is it empty?”

That is a classic security mistake. Never trust data from an untrusted source. The only possible benefit in such a question is to determine if the suspect is lying, so asking whether it’s empty and then checking might be useful, but asking and trusting is stupid.

I used to carry a Cobalt Qube computer in my carry on luggage. After 9-11 I had some TSA people in US airports ask me what it was, when I told them it was a computer they were satisfied. Apparently the solid steel on all sides of the cube made it impossible to identify by looking at the X-Ray pictures. Presumably one could have taken a steel box with sockets on the outside and weapons on the inside and said “it’s a computer”.

Shortly after the Euro currency was introduced I was questioned in Singapore because the large quantity of Euro coins in my hand luggage stopped the X-rays (I verified this by looking at the screen). I told the security people it was coins and held out two large handfuls of coins for examination. I offered to take all the coins out if they provided something to put them in – that was apparently too difficult and they trusted me that there was nothing behind the coins.

Innocent people lie sometimes and terrorists lie all the time. Trusting what passengers declare is convenient for innocent people but fails at the mission of catching terrorists.

peoplo December 30, 2010 8:39 AM

OH, Clive, how could you blaspheme against the “Great Blue Light” that coordinates all our minds and sets the topics for corportatestate overminds.

Idiot box indeed, it is the god we all worship, the mass mind coordinator.

Dont you understand that this is the technology that can fly airplanes but its doing the much harder job of conforming the public mind to look where the magicians misdirect the inquiring minds.

And of course any luggage that has a ‘welt’ sewn into the edges could be a detcord square shaped breaching charge for those cockpit doors, so now no more welts sewn onto the edges of luggarge.

there are no limits for a dedicated paranoid.

GregW December 30, 2010 11:15 AM

“Thinking ahead” by considering the thermos threat? Thermoses are the least of it. When I was coming home from Christmas break, there were many prominent signs posted at the airport security lines describing how “snow globes” could not go through security because they contained an indeterminate amount of liquid.

I was simultaneously impressed and appalled. Mostly appalled the more I thought about it. Sure enough, the TSA website confirms it: http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/holiday_travel.shtm

Clive Robinson December 30, 2010 11:36 AM

@ peoplo

That get’s a +5 score on the chuckleometer 8)

As for no more welts, that means I’ll have to stop wearing my comfortable deck shoes that take ten seconds to get on or off (Yup I should have kept. my trap shut 😉

Doug Coulter December 30, 2010 11:40 AM

Great post (again) man!

Asimov (the SF writer) pointed out a long time ago about the “Frankenstein” complex that seems to be a part of human nature. He did what he could to counter it in his famous books on robotics. With limited and temporary success I suppose. After all the Frankenstein thing makes for a good story plot.

Some fun sayings like “does a knife want to type letters, or a typewriter want to cut things? No, they are just tools”.

Of course, the implementation details of the three laws is a bit past anyone. It’s super-Turing problem as even most humans couldn’t do it with our wetware, which is why the stories were so much fun.

Happy new year to all.

Clive Robinson December 30, 2010 11:55 AM

@ Wendy,

I did not know you lurked on Bruce’s blog.

Next time Bruce is in London on a Sunday you should invite him down to do a spot of drumming.

With luck I might be lurking in the Cabage Patch at the same time.

Nick Lindgren December 30, 2010 12:07 PM


While the majority of airplane piloting can be (and has been) automated, there are still three things that civilian flight management systems can not do: 1. take off 2. land 3. respond to novel flight conditions (jammed GPS, critical system failures, etc.). Without cm-precision position aiding (like military GPS), 1 and 2 are not possible. Governments have no desire to give civilian airplanes military aiding capabilities, so this will not occur. 3, by definition, is something the system is not capable of doing on its own, so can not be remedied.

Richard Steven Hack December 30, 2010 12:48 PM

Once again, ALL discussion of whether some particular concept of security is useful or not is utterly irrelevant because terrorists do not operate that way. ANY checklist the TSA comes up with – no matter how “random” they think it is – will be detected by surveillance and evaded inside of ten minutes by any competent terrorist (assuming such actually exist, which is another question entirely.)

As Richard Marcinko pointed out, security organizations operate by checklists. They check for defined security threats and move on. Terrorist do not operate by checklists. They look for the stuff that has not been checked and use that. In other words, they invent NEW ways to break security. This is a game which is completely un-winnable by any security organization.

ANY form of “security” is BY DEFINITION only useful to “keep out the riff-raff”. It is BY DEFINITION incapable of keeping out the competent – and in many cases, not even the lucky – terrorist.

As I’ve repeated endlessly here, you can haz better security, you can haz worse security – but you can’t haz security.

And since in the TSA’s own tests, their people have managed to sneak guns, knives and explosives past the security people in every airport they’ve tested, this alone should prove that point – because it’s very likely those TSA testers aren’t as determined as a competent group of terrorists.

The ONLY way to have a secure airport is to shut down the airport, abandon the airport, and bury it under fifty meters of steel-reinforced concrete. The ONLY way to have secure transportation in the US is for everyone to stay home.

And now DHS has indicated that its security methods are to be applied in malls and shopping centers – no doubt to be followed up by body scanners and body gropes as you shop.

It should be painfully obvious to anyone with a brain that the sole function of DHS is NOT to protect any US citizen (except perhaps the ruling elite) but in fact to impose on every US citizen a degree of control and invasive supervision that neither Nazi Germany nor Eastern Europe Communism ever conceived of in their wildest dreams.

And the US electorate will WELCOME this. After the TSA forced a rape victim to the ground recently and dragged her across the airport to detention after she refused to be groped, several “citizens” present were asked if they felt better about it because the TSA were on the job. They all said yes.

Brandioch Conner December 30, 2010 2:11 PM

@Richard Steven Hack
“Once again, ALL discussion of whether some particular concept of security is useful or not is utterly irrelevant because terrorists do not operate that way.”

I was wondering when someone would point that out. Congratulations.

Focus on detecting the explosives.

Do NOT focus on checking shoes for explosives.

Do NOT focus on checking underwear for explosives.

Do NOT focus on checking thermoses for explosives.

Lisa December 30, 2010 2:14 PM

I usually fly with an empty water bottle that I fill up at a drinking fountain inside security, mostly because I’m cheap and I hate paying $3 for a bottle of water. When I flew out of SEA on Christmas Eve, I had the bottle in the side pouch of my backpack, and while it was empty, there was still a little moisture on the inside. The TSA agent informed me that they would have to test both the bottle and my hands for chemical traces. I didn’t really mind, but it was the first time this has ever happened. Maybe it was because of this new policy.

Clive Robinson December 30, 2010 4:26 PM

@ Brandioch Conner,

“Focus on detecting the explosives”

If only it was as easy as that.

As you are aware explosives come in many forms some quite easy to detect quickly and simply. And some are so difficult there would need to be a truck load sitting on the detector for half an hour or more…

The use of sniffer dogs has been sugested but they appear when all the costs are factord to be very expensive, short lived and limited in what they can detect. Also they are not an easily scaleable resource.

Various things have been tried including the “puffer” but don’t appear to work well outside of the carefully controled environment of a lab.

Then there is the rather akward issue of “dual use chemicals”. Nitrates for instance are used in explosives, cured meat and medications and some everyday objects are made from nitrated celulose such as knife handles and coated papers such as playing cards. They also occur quite naturaly as part of the decay process of household waste (Amonium Nitrate crystals where originaly collected from “middens”).

Likewise various chlorates.

Explosives come in a variety of densities many in similar density as plastics or other materials used in cloathing, luggage, cosmetics and many other common items you might expect people to carry

Their EM spectrums vary considerably as well.

Thus all in all I can understand why the TSA does hand searches of items looking for cavities that might be used to put explosives in because it is probably easier to detect the place of concealment than it is the explosives.

That being said as I have mentioned inquiring minds are going to be more able to disguise explosives than even highly trained staff are going to find.

And if the TSA do get to the point they can act as a reliable deterrent (ie they consistantly get more than 50% of all blind tests) the terrorists will simply change their tacticts to evade what is effectivly a static checkpoint…

One solution is to ban all “carry on” however this is not practical as some travelers have medical needs such as 02 cylinders, CPAP machines etc.

Also as has been seen in the past “Commercial interest” wins out (think laptop bans).

Hence my recent comments about removing the vulnerability of aircraft currently accessible to passengers (ie the pilots).

Dirk Praet December 30, 2010 7:00 PM

@ Richard Steven Hack

“The ONLY way to have a secure airport is to shut down the airport, abandon the airport, and bury it under fifty meters of steel-reinforced concrete. The ONLY way to have secure transportation in the US is for everyone to stay home.”

True, but this may prove to be a reasonably stiff solution to the problem. Like using the guillotine over a headache under the argumentation that any drug you take will have side effects. That is of course until such a time that the boyz at Area 51 finally manage to crack alien teleportation technology and Halliburton has acquired the rights to commercialise it.

But seriously. I think everyone here will agree that it is impossible to have 100% security. Most will also agree that what DHS/TSA are doing reeks of inefficiency and erosion of civil liberties. The real issue remains the same: how can we balance and what can be but in place so we may at least keep the most stupid terrorists out ? However much I agree with Bruce’s basic takes on it, I think as a group we should be able to come up with more alternative and more efficient solutions than what we are seeing today and that in the end may prove not only the best defence against terrorists, but also against what TSA is doing.

Russell Coker December 30, 2010 7:15 PM

Clive: Consistently getting more than 50% of all blind tests is not nearly enough. Any OBL type who had a lot of people willing to die for a cause would be quite happy to get a 50% hit rate. Heck if you could get a 99% hit rate at detecting explosives it still wouldn’t do, an OBL type could send 100 suicide bombers in with the expectation that one would be successful and the other 99 would cause more expensive counter-measures that cause considerable economic damage.

GregW: It’s not difficult to determine the amount of fluid in a snow globe. Detach it from it’s stand, dunk it in a tank of water and then measure the displaced water. Subtract about 20% from the displaced water to cover the volume of the globe and it’s non-liquid contents and you will get a good approximation.

However some quick calculations suggest that a snow globe would need to have a radius of about 3cm or less to comply with the fluid limits. So while we can determine the volume of liquid it does seem that it will be too much.

Of course banning liquids is just stupid anyway.

Wendy M. Grossman December 30, 2010 10:37 PM

Clive: I lurk all sorts of places. But I always assume no one I know is interested in folk music unless I’ve actually seen them in a folk club (and not always then). 🙂


Clive Robinson December 31, 2010 2:43 AM

@ Wendy,

One of the lesser known interesting things about cryptography is the eclectic tastes in music you discover by accident about those who work in the field and just how many are also performers.

David Khan made a note towards it in his book many years ago when talking about what makes a cryptographic practitioner.

And I must admit at this time of year as we get towards 12th night I wish we still had the tradition of wassailing as I’m quite fond of figgy pudding and mulled cider over and above the community singing 😉

anon235 December 31, 2010 5:05 AM

“They must be looking for thermite.”

Considering the plane hull is aluminium, all one needs is rust.

Crap. I wonder what hare-brained idea I gave the security clowns this time.

nycman December 31, 2010 9:34 AM

As many people have rehashed time and time again on this blog, the tsa and airport security in general should be focused on only two things:
a. prevent commandeering of an aircraft
b. prevent catastrophic destruction of an aircraft.
Everything else is a waste of time, a distraction. Why the ban on sharp objects? People regularly get stabbed in the subway, in mall parking lots, in their own driveways, heck in their own homes. Why should the terminal and cabin be a super sterile area where nail clippers and butter knives are not allowed? You cannot take down an aircraft with “sharp objects”, unless somebody left the cockpit door open. Focus on finding the explosive materials and related devices. Everything else is theater, wastes everybody’s time and reduces effectiveness on catching the things that matter.

Skukkuk December 31, 2010 12:12 PM

@Russell Coker:
“Heck if you could get a 99% hit rate at detecting explosives it still wouldn’t do, an OBL type could send 100 suicide bombers in with the expectation that one would be successful and the other 99 would cause more expensive counter-measures that cause considerable economic damage.”

That’s true if you assume that the attacker has 100 people willing and able to carry out suicide attacks on planes in the US, and that he can’t think of anything more effective to do with 100 terrorists.

Another problem: if you send all 100 of these terrorists to the airport at once, there’s the distinct possibility of a lockdown or other temporarily increased security after the first few have been caught. But if you do it slowly over time, you have to keep convincing people to try to slip through security after the previous n have been caught; this is going to get harder and harder as n increases.

This is, of course, moot since I don’t believe for a moment that the TSA catches 99% of bombs. I do think that even an accuracy less than 50% has some effect, in that it’s easier to convince someone to sacrifice his life you give him an attack he thinks security procedures can’t detect — as with the Underwear Bomber — rather than just telling him “put this in your carry-on and hope the TSA agents are hung over today.” But that only results in a change of tactics, not the elimination of the threat.

cm December 31, 2010 1:21 PM

@clive —Hence my recent comments about removing the vulnerability of aircraft currently accessible to passengers (ie the pilots).

Clive – never thought this about you previously, but you’re behind the times. Terrorists have already given up on entering cockpit doors – the shoe bomber, underwear bomber, etc. are all going for destroying the plane. Passengers will never permit another plane to be hijacked; they’ve seen what happens. On flight 93, they figured it out as it was happening, bless them for their resistance that saved who-knows-what.

Richard Steven Hack December 31, 2010 2:57 PM

Brandioch Conner: “Focus on detecting the explosives.”

Actually, no. Well, yes and no. Having explosives detectors is fine, it’s non-intrusive and possibly could be made invisible so that terrorists might not know it’s in place. The best security is invisible security (note, NOT “obscure” security).

However, my point goes well beyond that. The way to defeat terrorists is to DEFEAT TERRORISTS. You don’t wait around for them to attack you and expect to detect and repel that attack.

And there are only TWO ways to defeat terrorists:

1) Find and kill them all (and make sure you don’t make new ones as a result). This only works when the terrorist group is small, isolated, has no popular support in its native country, and one can get clearance from the native government to take them out (or cooperation from the native government to do it themselves based on your intel.)

None of this applies to Al Qaeda.

2) Change your behavior so the reasons why they are attacking you no longer apply. The US could do this overnight at no cost to this country (but at considerable cost to some of the ruling elites of this country – which is why it is not done.)

Absent either of the above solutions, your only options are to use counterintelligence and law enforcement to track the terrorists as much as possible and then nail them before they can execute their plans. Haphazard expensive security measures in place all over hell do NOTHING to assist in that effort, merely diverting resources from the counterintel and law enforcement efforts needed.

The most effective counterintel method is double agents. You infiltrate the group you’re concerned with and set them up to be taken down. This USED to be the standard method for decades. Apparently no one can find any Muslims who are willing to be paid off to infiltrate groups of their own ethnicity/religion. Perhaps the US should ask itself why that is – see option 2 above.

Dirk Praet: “how can we balance and what can be put in place so we may at least keep the most stupid terrorists out ?”

Stupid terrorists are easy to catch by counterintel and law enforcement. In fact, this is essentially all we are seeing happen so far in the real world. Every single trumpeted “terrorist defeat” in this country has been FBI double agents turning up – and possibly in some cases instigating – a bunch of morons. None of these people even got to the point of getting into an airport with any sort of sophisticated plan that would have required these sorts of TSA bizarre search mechanisms.

What needs to happen is that the Federal intelligence agencies need to concentrate and be provided with the resources – including native assets who speak the language and understand the religion and culture of the target groups – to infiltrate Al Qaeda and other groups directly.

Right now, Al Qaeda and related groups are the ONLY significant terrorist threat to the US. And Al Qaeda is now a relatively small organization. This makes it harder to infiltrate, but it is not impossible.

Take the billions spent on completely useless security measures and put it into buying out whoever is necessary to get next to specific real terrorist threat individuals.

It is apparently common knowledge that there are Pakistani ISI officers with direct knowledge of where Osama bin Laden physically is much of the time. They have reasons not to divulge this information to the CIA. This problem should be solved. And it would be if the US were serious about capturing bin Laden. Because it is not happening, it should be clear that the US is not serious about that action.

Now one needs to ask our President why that is.

Richard Steven Hack December 31, 2010 3:03 PM

By the way, want to destroy a plane at no threat to yourself?

Do it the way Flight 800 was done. Import some Stinger missiles from Afghanistan (the Clinton White House admitted at one point that three Stingers reportedly came across the Canadian border in the Northeast at some point.) Wait for an appropriate target to be landing or taking off from any airport. Shoot it down. You hit it when landing or taking off because any aircraft is at its most vulnerable at that point.

You could conceivably shut down air traffic in the US by simply positioning people at several airports at once with .50 caliber anti-materiel rifles and just shoot a few holes in planes landing and taking off. Fire a few shots, hop in your getaway car and bug out. Complete chaos in five minutes with little risk of being captured.

You wouldn’t even need to shoot the planes. Just shoot some passengers entering or leaving the facilities. How many cops would it take to put up a perimeter of a mile or more around every airport in the country?

Like I said: there is no security. What there is is a lack of imagination on the part of terrorists. The last time someone tried a missile attack on a plane at an airport was the idiot Carlos Ramirez Sanchez. His team stashed their weapons in the airport john, then couldn’t get to them because of the crush of people in the john in time to hit the Israeli plane they wanted to hit.

Morons. This is the sole reason the US isn’t reeling from terrorist attacks on a daily basis.

Cmdr Upsmanship December 31, 2010 5:17 PM

TSA to Add Items to Airport Screening List
DP- Washington
The Disassociated Press has learned that the TSA is adding several items to its list of those being screened at airport security checkpoints, effective immediately. A well-placed TSA source, who requested anonymity because of embarrassment about his employer, told our reporter “We all know that terrorists are jerks. Any film buff also knows that, in addition to the Thermos, The Jerk will carry ash trays, paddle games, remote controls, and this chair in his carry-on luggage. Although our backscatter x-ray machines already have our passengers’ pants down around their ankles, figuratively speaking, our Director Of Preemptive Examinations felt that this lack of completeness in the items that we screen has left us dangerously exposed.” Other officials were unavailable for comment, citing a total lack of interest in the topic.

Clive Robinson December 31, 2010 5:46 PM

@ cm,

“Clive – never thought this about you previously but you’re behind the times”

It had to happen sometime 🙁

But before somebody shout’s “quick get the cat the old parrot’s fallen of his perch” have a few minutes contemplation with your favourate brew.

I will start by saying there is actually a bit more behind getting rid of the pilot than another 9/11 type attack via the cockpit door.

However I’m sorry but it has to be said, the use of an airplane crashing into a US city is way to strong an idea for terrorists to not want to do. The only thing better would be to get hold of a nuke (buy a Russian or steal a US one) and detonate it in Washington or New York, this appears to has been OBL’s primary aim for some time prior to 9/11 as a way to deal with the US.

That is OBL had been activly investigating various forms of weapons of mass destruction and he was smart enough to realise that chemical and biological weapons where not realy viable due to delivery system issues.

So this only left energy weapons, bullets, bombs, missiles and nukes. The first two of which are fairly standard terrorist fare and don’t realy get you very far. The last being nukes OBL was activly trying to get hold of but the US had done a reasonable job of buying up ex soviet state stocks. Generaly we consider missiles to be a product of nation states due to the R&D costs involved.

However we know that there had been some sort of technology transfer on missiles and nukes between Pakistan and North Korea, and that many senior figures in Pakistan where keen on transfering the technology on to anyone who would attack the US & Israel or other perceived enemies of the Muslim world. Thus AQ Khan via his “Khan Laboratories” running out of Switzerland started selling nuclear and related systems technology to Iran, Libya and other “axis of evil” and undesirable nations that are believed to have sponsored terrorism.

However North Korea’s missile tech that is up for sale appears to have a range of less than 1000Km which is not sufficient for OBL tucked away in Afghanistan. Nor was it particularly accurate so could not be used to deploy conventional explosives against US targets that would have been in range.

With hindsight it is easy to see the similarities between the kinetic energy of a fully laden wide body aircraft and a cruise missile with a 1000Kg high explosive war head. And that you can get pilots to fly aircraft into enemy targets (Japanese WWII). And some authors (Tom Clancy) had joined the dots together so it is unknown as to if it was an original idea to AQ or if they had read it in a novel.

Now whilst I would agree with you that a 9/11 style attack is unlikley to succeed, however what is to stop the terrorists actually getting jobs as pilots?

Or as more recently shown putting a bomb on via UPS / TNT / whoever?

The simple fact is that the weak link in aircraft is the pilot and the systems that enable him to control the aircraft. Be it mechanical linkage or fly by wire these systems unfortunatly go down the length of the aircraft and are vulnerable to quite small amounts of explosive in the right place and finding the places is not that difficult.

If however you think about the likes of drone aircraft their control systems are usually sited within the main body close to the root of the wings, which is one of the strongest parts of the aircraft.

Contrary to what a lot of people think pilotless aircraft are a reality as far as the technology is concerned and it does not require the likes of GPS accurate to a few centimeters which would be “weapons grade technology”.

More uptodate versions of fairly old ILS designs will actually do the job. That is the aircraft flies down a flight path designated by a series of transmitters at known positions on the ground transmitting the equivalent of ranging codes the solution of which would give the aircrafts position with respect to the transmitters to within a few cm’s and is within the capability of many physics and other engineering graduates using comercialy available parts.

As for the danger of spoofing and jamming there are ways to deal with these problems that use a mixture of technologies from various fields of endevor including cryptography.

This leaves the question of “what happens when the system goes wrong” the argument is that a “human in charge” would be able to take over and land the aircraft safely…

Well this argument is not as good these days as it has been in the past for a number of reasons.

Firstly the computer hardware technology itself is now more reliable than the airframe.

Secondly the information the pilot gets from the “instruments” is not independent these days it goes into digital displays which are controled by computers little different to those that would be used for the flight control systems. Further the instruments output is often signal processed prior to being displayed.

Thirdly and more importantly is the human mind under stress any better than the knowledged based software?

The jury is still out on this but lets just say that pilots are not as good as they once where and have considerably less experiance due to the increased reliability of the aircraft…

We have talked of “zero flight hour pilots” for some years now, that is we train pilots on simulators and throw all sorts of problems at them to make and keep them “flight worthy”.

The problem is as any combat experianced soldier can tell you training is not real life, and when the adrenaline hits you don’t know what’s going to happen.

There is also the issue of what do you train for and why… and the answer is one Bruce talks about when he points out the TSA is set “to fight the last battle”. That is the training is by and large based on past incidents and a limited set of “what ifs” (which for many determanistic systems is fine but not those of a more complex nature).

Now for the interesting bit to think about, the software used to run the simulator is essentialy a computer model of the aircraft with semi-realistic instrument data as the input.

When the instructor want’s to simulate a fault it is this instrument data that gets changed then feed into the simulator model that then changes the displays and physical actuators that feed sensory information into the pilot.

The pilots job is to take this sensory input and then react in a way to act as feedback to return the simulator model back to a stable state.

Now the simulators model is actually a lot more complicated than the actual flight systems and generating the required stability model to replace the pilot is actually a less complicated issue as has been known for around half a century.

When you look at high performance military fighter aircraft the pilot does not actually fly the aircraft. The aircraft are so unstable that the flight systems need to implement the stability model and adjust the various flight surfacces hundreds if not thousands of times a second.

Now the question you should ask is what advantages are to be gained from such unstable aircraft. Well in the military aircraft it is manoeuverability and rapid response. However you can also get improved flight efficiency that means significant savings for airline operators.

For many reasons the future of direct “hands on” pilots is over and once the legal and social issues with Frankenstien’s Monster are laid to rest so will comercial airline pilots.

If for no other reason than machines are more reliable and actually safer than humans as has been shown with computer driven research cars and various public transport systems (some of which where designed over thirty years ago).

Russell Coker December 31, 2010 6:14 PM

anon235: Thermite isn’t that good. The main benefit of Thermite in engineering is apparently the production of a stream of molten iron for welding.

If you just want to burn things then Magnesium is really good. You could probably have some random metal object (maybe even a thermos) made of magnesium and then use a butane cigarette lighter to ignite it. Extinguishing a magnesium fire is really difficult.

Jon January 1, 2011 4:31 AM

Or steal a Russian one or buy a U.S. one. The USA has sold nuclear weapons to at least one other country already (Israel).


JSG January 2, 2011 8:55 PM


== We’ve all seen that this is only getting worse and worse. — So, seriously, I would suggest the following policy: “You cannot take anything with you on the plane but your clothes.”

Great – If I can bill the TSA and Airline directly,and immediately – when they lose or delay my luggage containing – my toothbrush, medicine, and change of clothes.

Robert in San Diego January 2, 2011 9:08 PM

Dear Frequent Flyers:

  1. I hate slamming down a sixteen ounce cup of coffee (a tiny bit more than a half liter for those who prefer metric).
  2. In the US, coffee cups come big — a development that has gone on for generations.
  3. Most airport coffee vendors supply their brew in paper walled disposable cups with negligible insulation value.
  4. Oh, I also loathe cold coffee.
  5. That’s why I clip a sixteen ounce foam-insulated coffee cup to my carry on bag. I also don’t like the idea of using disposable cups all that much.
  6. Long before this article, I thought I’d be best off with a plastic insulated mug because it would be easier to X-ray. This despite my best-insulating mugs being double walled vacuum insulated metal things (that weigh a ton and can dent doors by accident).
  7. Russell Coker just above has got himself a pretty good “movie plot.” Good job Russell!

Peter A. January 3, 2011 8:55 AM

@Clive re: automatic air traffic

While most of it may be already technically feasible, it is still a long way to go even putting aside the psychological barriers.

  1. While ILS is good enough for taking an aircraft down safely today there are some issues. The autoland procedures are currently so complicated that pilots rarely use the possibility (it’s less labourous to land manually), if they do it is mostly to maintain the skillset only. There’s a room for improvement, of course. Far too few airports and aircraft are equipped with ILS and the system is too expensive to deploy universally. You still need to reach the appropriate position in order to use the system, which would require other means of automatic navigation.

  2. No automatic takeoff systems exist currently in the civil aviation and there are no signs of having one in any near future. The military has some working ones (on aircraft carriers in particular) but are they willing to share? 😛 Even if they do, or some independent development appears, it is likely to have the weaknesses of ILS – too few, too expensive.

  3. Most cruise time is already done in an automated way via the FMS (aka autopilot), but using the pilots as parameter source. The systems in place are near-perfect for keeping the desired flight parameters, but navigation-related decisions are still made by humans – the pilots and the traffic control people. This is hard to implement in a fully automatic way – some strong AI is needed.

  4. Most of the ground-to-air and air-to-air communication of today is done verbally – either directly via voice over AM radio or via some digital transmission system that displays messages on screen. This is the part of the overall aviation transport system that would be hardest to replace. Too many practices and procedures depend on it, you have to change them all and it is a slow process.

  5. What fits an A800 won’t fit a Cessna. Implementing automated civil aviation would need strict separation of airspace (and enforcement of it) into automated and non-automated traffic. Goodbye General Aviation in the form we are used to have today – it would need completely separate airfields (well, some commercial airports already don’t allow GA traffic or limit it) and much more restricted airspace for GA pilots. The only fully automated transportation systems that exist today work in strictly confined and access-controlled enviroments (think subway system). NASA tinkers about automatic road vehicles able to function within the current system (with humans behind the steering wheels of most vehicles) but it is very early research. What’s easy for one-dimensional highly access-restricted transportation system (subway) is much harder for two-dimensional system with practically no access control, but with dedicated infrastructure (public roads) and still more problematic for a 3D space with no physical barriers.

Brandioch Conner January 3, 2011 1:39 PM

@Richard Steven Hack
“Having explosives detectors is fine, it’s non-intrusive and possibly could be made invisible so that terrorists might not know it’s in place.”

Sounds good. But I’d support it even if it was 100% visible and audible. Such as bomb-sniffing dogs.

“The way to defeat terrorists is to DEFEAT TERRORISTS. You don’t wait around for them to attack you and expect to detect and repel that attack.”

The problem is that it won’t work for lone individuals or very small groups.

Therefore, you need something (such as bomb-sniffing dogs) that will catch the odd threat that law enforcement misses.

Snarki, child of Loki January 3, 2011 1:43 PM

Well, it’s just a matter of time until the TSA starts to concentrate on that difficult-to-detect potential hazard.

Spontaneous Human Combustion.

Forget your thermoses, air Jordans, LiIon batteries. It’s the humans that are the problem. Keep them off of planes and the problem is solved.

Christian Vogler January 4, 2011 5:57 AM

You also need a thermos bottle when you travel with babies or small toddlers who still drink formula. Luckily, in Europe, the screeners did not hassle us about this.

markm January 5, 2011 8:17 PM

Replacing the pilot with a computer does not secure the airplane against hijacking, it just changes the attack vector.

ilgioa January 7, 2011 5:48 AM

@ JSG:
==If I can bill the TSA and Airline directly,and immediately – when they lose or delay my luggage containing – my toothbrush, medicine, and change of clothes.==

That’s exactly my point. You should be able to. The airline companies are not able to safely store my pc, so this is why I have to take it with me, even if I don’t need it during the flight, and take it out of the bag, and back in, and have it sprayed or dusted or even switched on and inspected.
Airline companies can’t guarantee reliable storage or delivery of luggage, so we have to take stuff with us on the plane and get inspected. It seems to me that the traveller is the one enduring all the hassle just to make the airline companies’ life easier.

Asa d'Fonlkls January 7, 2011 11:51 AM

It probably wouldn’t take much to implant a bomb or some other harmful devices inside a living creature, such as a cat or small dog. Once aboard the airplane, the animal can be safely strangled in the lavatory and the items retrieved.

Duncan January 4, 2016 4:34 PM

I was prevented from taking an empty, single wall, Klean Kanteen through security on a flight from Barcelona (Spain) to Denmark in the summer of 2015. I had to throw it in the trash.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via https://michelf.ca/projects/php-markdown/extra/

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.