All Commentary
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Liquid Lies

The Transportation Security Administration is Political, Not Practical

Government programs rely on deception from start to . . . well, none of them ever seems to finish, but if one did, the end would doubtless be as devious as the beginning. Politicians propose programs to solve imaginary problems and perpetuate them with blatant lies. Predictably, this wreaks havoc not only on the program’s victims but in other areas too.

A case study from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) puts flesh on these theories. Imposed on American aviation after 9/11, the TSA operates airport checkpoints in defiance of the Constitution, common sense, and consequences. Though its screeners have squeezed more taxpayers than the IRS, it has yet to find a single terrorist.

Nor will it. The TSA was a political rather than a practical response to 9/11. It was established not because experts in aviation identified terrorism as an overwhelming threat to the industry, studied ways to combat it, and invented checkpoint searches. Instead, politicians foisted the TSA on us. Their dictates, rather than research, analysis, and innovation, drive it. For instance, both the TSA and its predecessor, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), assume that disarmed passengers survive hijackings better than armed ones. But no data confirm that. And if some did, there’s still no proof that checkpoints are the most effective way to discover weapons. Furthermore, screeners routinely flunk tests of their performance at those checkpoints-and we’re not talking marginal failure, either. They miss 60, 75, even 90 percent of the guns, knives, and simulated bombs undercover investigators smuggle past them.

No Protection for Passengers
Though startling, none of this is new. No research justified the TSA when the Bush administration spawned it in November 2001, and the government’s screeners have bombed tests since the very beginning. Clearly, the TSA cannot and does not protect passengers; if security were truly the goal, the Feds would never have established the agency in the first place or, having erred so colossally, they’d abolish it pronto. But don’t look for the TSA to disband anytime soon because it performs another task indispensable to the American empire: subjugating citizens. It trains them to obey their rulers without question, no matter how ridiculous, insulting, or immoral the order may be.

Which brings us to one of the agency’s most unpopular edicts and the lies that hatched it: the jihad against liquids and gels in carry-on bags. The TSA imposed the ban literally overnight, on August 10, 2006. Lotions, potions, pastes, and gels that had been innocuous on August 9 suddenly endangered American aviation so seriously that the TSA ordered screeners to steal them from passengers. Many travelers had no idea Cover Girl and Crest were now illegal until they arrived at the checkpoint that morning.

The victims didn’t take this lying down. Passengers may stand impassively while screeners grope them, but they rebelled against spending hours in a jet’s dry air without lip balm and eyedrops. One business executive told the Washington Post that he would continue smuggling hand sanitizer in his pocket “because he worries about germs on planes. He has made about 10 trips since the restrictions went into effect and hasn’t been caught.” A woman with Chanel perfume in her carry-on laughed at the idea of entrusting it to her checked bag since that would give the TSA’s baggage screeners a crack at it, while another admitted to sneaking body lotion onboard. Such insouciance set TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe to scolding, “Travelers must realize this isn’t a game. The threat is real. . . .”

But is it? The TSA inflicted the ban after British authorities claimed that they had foiled an imminent plot to bomb ten flights leaving London for the United States. Supposedly, some

of al Qaeda’s operatives planned to hide “peroxide-based liquids” in bottles of Lucozade, Britain’s equivalent of Gatorade. Once aboard their respective planes, they would mix the solutions into a combustive cocktail and then, high above the Atlantic, detonate it.

But explosives experts and the British media quickly realized that the authorities were snookering folks. When “police sources” named triacetone triperoxide (TATP) as the explosive terrorists were dying to produce at 30,000 feet, chemists hooted.

Manufacturing TATP is a complicated feat. The difficulties begin with one of its three ingredients: Concentrated peroxide is hard to find and even harder to make. Terrorists game to try would have to buy gallons of ordinary hydrogen peroxide and boil off the water; most likely they’d blow themselves up before enough condensed. But presuming they survived and had plane tickets in hand, they’d be ready for the next step: smuggling the peroxide, acetone, and sulfuric acid in separate bottles aboard the plane for combination mid-flight.

Alas, the final step requires a lab with precise, freezing temperatures-not the airplane lavatory authorities implied the terrorists would requisition. Otherwise, the liquids overheat and explode. A mishap, certainly, but one too weak to hurt anyone other than the terrorist mixing the concoction. That’s because the TATP crystals the liquids yield must dry before they’ll ignite-a process that takes another couple of hours while passengers waiting for the restroom crowd the plane’s aisle. They’re not only shifting from foot to foot, they’re also complaining about the fumes billowing from the lav-turned-lab. All in all, while it’s theoretically possible that someone could smuggle ice, beakers, and chemicals into a jet’s toilet, it’s virtually impossible for him to concoct TATP there, let alone bring down the plane.

The story’s silly science wasn’t its only gap in credibility. Many of the 25 “terrorists” British cops rounded up seemed unlikely suspects. First, their neighbors and friends agreed that these were fine, upstanding folks, not radical ideologues. All had been born in Britain, mostly to Pakistani families. Few held plane tickets or even reservations. It seems their plans for ”mass murder on an unimaginable scale,” as Paul Stephenson, deputy chief of the Metropolitan Police in London put it, were just that: unimaginable and therefore unfulfilled.

One of those arrested was the mother of a six-week-old baby. Another was a biochemistry student, and a third, a 17-year-old boy, had only recently converted to Islam. Tayib Rauf, not only a plotter but the brother of alleged “key person” Rashid Rauf, was 22 years old, deaf in one ear thanks to a childhood illness, and “very, very polite, the kindest person you could hope to meet,” according to his great-uncle, Qazi Amir Kulzum. Others were so obviously innocent that cops had to release them after a few days.

Eventually, even Rashid “the Key” Rauf himself walked free. Born and raised in Britain, with dual Pakistani citizenship, 25-year-old Rashid had been living in Pakistan since 2002. He was arrested and tried there as one of the plot’s ringleaders. But even Pakistan’s courts, with their lax definitions of “evidence” and “guilt,” had to admit that a few bottles of hydrogen peroxide in his medicine cabinet weren’t enough to convict him of terrorism.

By now, the original 25 suspects had dwindled to eight. They went on trial last April.

Far from being terrorists, the defendants countered that they were merely filmmakers producing a documentary about American and British abuses in the Arab world. They never aspired to hurt anyone, much less blow up jetliners. Instead, they were concocting a PR stunt for their movie: a series of small explosions, with perhaps one or two detonating in trash cans around airline terminals. That explained their interest in aviation, which the prosecution had emphasized. The martyrdom videos they had filmed, which the prosecution also stressed, were faked for the documentary.

Their explanation seems not only stupid (what docu-dramatist wants to spend opening night in jail?) but far-fetched. Yet the jury found the government’s scenario even more so; as the New York Times put it, the trial’s “testimony has shown little evidence that the suspects were prepared to strike immediately, or of any link to Al Qaeda.” After five months of trial and 56 hours of deliberation, jurors convicted only three of the men-of lesser charges. They found them guilty of “plotting to kill people using homemade liquid bombs,” according to Reuters, not of “intend[ing] to blow up transatlantic airliners.” The jury reached no verdict on four other defendants, and it cleared the eighth of all counts.

The final debunking of the liquid-bomb hoax came with the question, “Cui bono?” Skeptics answered: “Bush and Blair.” In August 2006 both President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair faced sagging polls as well as challenges to their totalitarian tactics. Bush openly hoped that reports of Muslims conniving yet again to kill Westerners would quell resistance to his War on Terror: “The American people need to know we live in a dangerous world, but our government will do everything we can to protect our people from those dangers.” Indeed, with midterm elections looming, he hailed the scheme as “a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation.” Britain’s Home Secretary, John Reid, went further. He cast the plot as part of the immemorial battle of good against evil: “We are involved in a long, wide and deep struggle against very evil people.” And only very evil people will object to that struggle.

Speculative Exaggeration
Unfortunately for Reid, the Frankenstein science, improbable suspects, and obvious political benefits compelled British authorities to backpedal. Within a fortnight, they were admitting that their hypothesis of ten bombed flights was “speculative and exaggerated.”

But speculative exaggeration was good enough for the TSA. It threw American aviation into bedlam by suddenly changing checkpoint rules. Fliers confronted a new and draconian prohibition on the morning of August 10: They could carry absolutely no liquids or gels aboard their planes. No toothpaste, shaving cream, shampoo, or hand sanitizer in carry-on bags, no cups of coffee or tea in hand, not even water in sealed and clearly labeled bottles. Lines at TSA checkpoints, merely formidable before the ban, became harrowing as people waited two or more hours. The unconstitutional, warrantless searches for moisturizers and mascara delayed thousands of passengers so long they missed their flights-if those flights actually took off. Hundreds were cancelled, thanks to the TSA’s bedlam.

All for a plot conjured by politicians’ power lust, not terrorists’ bloodlust. Even if the government’s fevered imaginings had been real, the TSA had no reason to ban sunscreen and soda: “Officials” told the Washington Post they were “confident their security efforts in place at the time would have prevented the plotters from getting through security checkpoints at U.S. airports. But they said they couldn’t take any chances and hastily enacted the ban early on Aug. 10.”

There’s plenty of research in the aviation industry on liquid explosives; perhaps the TSA’s too busy groping grandmothers to study the literature so it can discern credible threats from comic-book ones. But let’s pretend that the agency acted in good faith here, that it believed this tall tale of terrorism, and that it wasn’t “confident its security efforts in place at the time” would have thwarted the threat. That explains, though it doesn’t justify, the ban for the first few days-but years after the British authorities admit they hyperventilated?

Initially, the TSA prohibited all liquids and gels from carry-on bags. Passengers’ outrage and mutiny soon softened that to the infamous “3-1-1 for carry-ons = 3-ounce bottle or less (by volume); 1 quart-sized, clear, plastic, zip-top bag; 1 bag per passenger placed in screening bin.” But despite massive publicity and months of bagging gels and liquids, “3-1-1″ continues to confuse: “After a year and a half, people still have no clue about the liquids (limitation),” Kimberly Kraynak, a screener in Pittsburgh, told USA Today. That means the TSA continues to rob passengers daily of thousands of dollars in cosmetics, toiletries, and beverages, even uncorked bottles of wine.

Perhaps “people still have no clue” because 3-1-1 makes no sense, as countless commentators and passengers have pointed out. It pesters but does not protect. Anyone determined to sabotage a flight could fill a few three-ounce bottles with gasoline, lighter fluid, or any other common flammable; this would be especially effective if several terrorists booked the same flight.
The plot on which the TSA bases 3-1-1 was a fraud, as even the British government admitted. And the TSA’s extreme reaction to it was overkill, as even the agency admitted to the Washington Post (see above). Yet the TSA refuses to leave the bunker and rejoin reality. It still insists that terrorists are trying to sneak liquids onto planes for bathroom bomb-making, despite experts’ blowing so many holes in this claim it looks like Swiss cheese.

All the debunking hasn’t swayed TSA chief Kip Hawley. In September 2007 he repeated this line to columnist Joe Sharkey at the New York Times. Sharkey swallowed it whole, holes and all, then passed it on to the rest of us: “. . . Mr. Hawley explained that . . . the liquids explosion plot was ‘chillingly real.’” Hawley also tried to rationalize 3-1-1 by claiming that “the science . . . is clear. [He said,] ‘With certain explosives you need to have a certain critical diameter [amount] in order to achieve an explosion that will cause a certain amount of damage. The size of the container itself . . . is part of the security measure.’”

The following month he assured the International Air Transport Association, “This plot was real. It was imminent.” But how imminent was it if most of the “terrorists” had no tickets?

The TSA’s parent bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), also swore that ten planes had narrowly escaped a cataclysm. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told ABC News, “I think that the plot, in terms of its intent, was looking at devastation on a scale that would have rivaled 9/11. . . . [T]he time frame within which the attack was going to take place, would not be a matter of months but . . . a matter of weeks or even days. . . . [W]e’re going to be back and forth with terrorists on this kind of cat-and-mouse process for years to come.” So of course we’ll need the DHS for years to come at $40 billion annually.

Who Pays?
Meanwhile, we ignorant passengers scorn “3-1-1″ because we can’t concentrate for longer than 15 seconds: Hawley told the Times, “[The science] is incredibly complex and doesn’t lend itself to a sound bite. And we’ve certainly paid the price for that.”

Actually, passengers pay the price, not only in the fees and taxes that allow the TSA to perpetrate this scam, but also in long lines and lost time, aggravation, frustration, and inconvenience-to say nothing of the ocean of liquids and gels we forfeit to the TSA. And we’ll continue to pay because the TSA is too arrogant to admit its mistake, according to its website: “It is unlikely that we will make changes [to 3-1-1] in the near future. These changes [allowing three ounces of liquids and gels as opposed to none at all] represent a sustainable level of security for the TSA, passengers, airports and airlines.”

Another consequence of 3-1-1 is that more passengers are checking more bags so that they can shave and brush their teeth when they reach their destinations. All that gives the airlines a new excuse for losing luggage, according to the Washington Post: “In 2002, 3.84 reports of mishandled bags were filed per 1,000 passengers. In July [2007], the figure was 7.93. . . . Airline representatives and analysts cite a variety of factors [to explain this]. Restrictions on gels and liquids in August 2006 have led to a surge in the number of checked bags.”

Stress, inconvenience, and waste for passengers, and overloaded baggage systems for the airlines. In the government’s hands, a cock-and-bull tale of terrorism is almost as dangerous as an actual bomb.