The Things He Carried

By Jeffrey Goldberg
The Atlantic
November 2008

Excerpt

This day, however, would feature a different sort of experiment, designed to prove not only that the TSA often cannot find anything on you or in your carry-on, but that it has no actual idea who you are, despite the government's effort to build a comprehensive "no-fly" list. A no-fly list would be a good idea if it worked; Bruce Schneier's homemade boarding passes were about to prove that it doesn't. Schneier is the TSA's most relentless, and effective, critic; the TSA director, Kip Hawley, told me he respects Schneier's opinions, though Schneier quite clearly makes his life miserable.

"The whole system is designed to catch stupid terrorists," Schneier told me. A smart terrorist, he says, won't try to bring a knife aboard a plane, as I had been doing; he'll make his own, in the airplane bathroom. Schneier told me the recipe: "Get some steel epoxy glue at a hardware store. It comes in two tubes, one with steel dust and then a hardener. You make the mold by folding a piece of cardboard in two, and then you mix the two tubes together. You can use a metal spoon for the handle. It hardens in 15 minutes."

As we stood at an airport Starbucks, Schneier spread before me a batch of fabricated boarding passes for Northwest Airlines flight 1714, scheduled to depart at 2:20 p.m. and arrive at Reagan National at 5:47 p.m. He had taken the liberty of upgrading us to first class, and had even granted me "Platinum/Elite Plus" status, which was gracious of him. This status would allow us to skip the ranks of hoi-polloi flyers and join the expedited line, which is my preference, because those knotty, teeming security lines are the most dangerous places in airports: terrorists could paralyze U.S. aviation merely by detonating a bomb at any security checkpoint, all of which are, of course, entirely unsecured. (I once asked Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, about this. "We actually ultimately do have a vision of trying to move the security checkpoint away from the gate, deeper into the airport itself, but there's always going to be some place that people congregate. So if you're asking me, is there any way to protect against a person taking a bomb into a crowded location and blowing it up, the answer is no.")

Schneier and I walked to the security checkpoint. "Counterterrorism in the airport is a show designed to make people feel better," he said. "Only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers." This assumes, of course, that al-Qaeda will target airplanes for hijacking, or target aviation at all. "We defend against what the terrorists did last week," Schneier said. He believes that the country would be just as safe as it is today if airport security were rolled back to pre-9/11 levels. "Spend the rest of your money on intelligence, investigations, and emergency response."

Schneier and I joined the line with our ersatz boarding passes. "Technically we could get arrested for this," he said, but we judged the risk to be acceptable. We handed our boarding passes and IDs to the security officer, who inspected our driver's licenses through a loupe, one of those magnifying-glass devices jewelers use for minute examinations of fine detail. This was the moment of maximum peril, not because the boarding passes were flawed, but because the TSA now trains its officers in the science of behavior detection. The SPOT program—"Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques"—was based in part on the work of a psychologist who believes that involuntary facial-muscle movements, including the most fleeting "micro-expressions," can betray lying or criminality. The training program for behavior-detection officers is one week long. Our facial muscles did not cooperate with the SPOT program, apparently, because the officer chicken-scratched onto our boarding passes what might have been his signature, or the number 4, or the letter y. We took our shoes off and placed our laptops in bins. Schneier took from his bag a 12-ounce container labeled "saline solution."

"It's allowed," he said. Medical supplies, such as saline solution for contact-lens cleaning, don't fall under the TSA's three-ounce rule.

"What's allowed?" I asked. "Saline solution, or bottles labeled saline solution?"

"Bottles labeled saline solution. They won't check what's in it, trust me."

They did not check. As we gathered our belongings, Schneier held up the bottle and said to the nearest security officer, "This is okay, right?" "Yep," the officer said. "Just have to put it in the tray."

"Maybe if you lit it on fire, he'd pay attention," I said, risking arrest for making a joke at airport security. (Later, Schneier would carry two bottles labeled saline solution—24 ounces in total—through security. An officer asked him why he needed two bottles. "Two eyes," he said. He was allowed to keep the bottles.)

We were in the clear. But what did we prove?

"We proved that the ID triangle is hopeless," Schneier said.

earlier story: Data Guru Says Secret to Security Is to Focus on People
later story: Interview with Bruce Schneier
back to News and Interviews

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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