Has US domestic airport security begun to fail again?

This story was sent to me by a colleague in the US. I’ve been debating about posting this, since it could very well become a trainwreck, but it’s so odd and spooky that I thought I would chance it.

First, read this (warning: very long, but it’s so intriguing that you will finish it, I promise you).

In summary, in June a woman witnessed 14 Syrian nationals on a domestic US flight acting very suspiciously - going into the front bathroom of the plane with bags containing objects, and returning with the bags empty. She later found the following sotry from the UK’s Observer:

A stewardess let her know that the crew were aware, and were terrified, but there were Federal Air Marshals all over the plane. The Syrians turned out to be musicians on their way to perform in Vegas.


Is this story just a result of this woman’s paranoia (in her indication of how tolerant she is, mentions Hindus, which I find rather irrelevant) - something I confess to myself, every time I’ve flown post-9/11?

Could a flight really have been packed out with Federal Air Marshals?

Were the guys just going into the bathroom to pray, or surreptitiously eat non-halal food, or something equally innocent - or could there be some truth to her suppositions?

Is she correct, that a quota system applied to the race of people being screened (rather than the avoidance profiling itself) is hampering sensible security arrangements?

Most controversially, is racial profiling justifiable in circumstances such as this?

Finally, I flew all over the US in August 2001, and I was shocked at the almost total lack of security. Clearly after 9/11, things tightened up. But now it seems standards may be slipping back:

The same cow-orker mentioned in his mail that recently he went through security at Logan entirely unchecked, the failsafe mechanism being an honesty system: that he tell the security personnel whether he’d been checked or not. Also that metallic cutlery is available in the airport catering facilities after the security area.

Has US domestic airport security begun to fail again?

There’s another possibility that just occurred to me: is the story actually bullshit? Some people seem to think so.

Even if it is, my final question remains, based on my colleague’s experiences.

Begun to fail again? Was it working at some point? All I’ve heard since 9/11 on the subject is a constant stream of reporters showing how they were able to walk on an airplane with guns, knives, explosives, canisters of uranium, and trained attack dogs without security so much as batting an eye.

I see this story has been mentioned in GQ, and partially confirmed by a blogger, though I can’t vouch for the blogger’s credentials.

What’s hilarious is when the TSA trots out statistics to prove what a great success it has been. “We’ve seized X thousand pocket knives and nail clippers from airline passengers. See what a great job we’re doing!”

The response, of course, should be, “And how many of those people were arrested for being terrorists? None, you say? Then it would appear that all you’ve succeeded in doing is taking things away from perfectly innocent, harmless people.”

All you need to know is that flying is a privilege, so no one is innocent and they can make up any rules they want. Just don’t fly, see? There’s no need to have any rights when you can just choose not to participate. Simple.

Plus, they’ve really given a boost to the nail clipper sales in the overpriced airport shops. That’s creating jobs for Americans. What are you saying, that you don’t want Americans to have jobs?

What was I thinking?! You’re right of course. They should seize more stuff. New TSA motto: “Today, pocket knives and nail clippers. Tomorrow, lousy paperbacks and $2 candy bars!” :smiley:

Legit or not, we have to assume there’s SOME paranoia invovled because everyone is a bit jumpty these days. Bigotry, in the sense this paranoia is focused entirely on ME types? That is going to vary from person to person. I read the article, I can in no one determine for certain that this is prejudice on the author’s part, although the fact she felt compelled to reassure the reader multiple times that it was not so certainly brings up the subject. I think the comments about Hindus was to say “I wan’t suspicious just because they had brown skin”.

Likely not. The minimum number of marshalls on a flight is two. Since there aren’t nearly enough marshalls to sit on every flight, that tends to be the maximum as well.

This does not rule out the possibility of one of the flight crew implying there are more - flight crews have been known to … >ahem< … stretch the truth if they feel it necessary to handle a delicate situation.

Keep in mind that one passenger convinced that those other 14 passengers over there are bad guys - even when the flight crew know the 14 are innocent - is still capable of causing a panic. Imagine if some woman jumps up, points her finger at some devout Muslim reading his Koran in much the same way as devout Christians frequently read the Bible on airplanes, and screams “HE’S A TERRORIST!” - and the rest of the airplane believes her? This could be tragic. I do not find that sort of “collateral damage” acceptable if it can be prevented. How do you feel about it?

It’s possible there was some nefarious deeds going on - it could also be that they had “traveler’s tummy” or were airsick or both. Which would explain frequent trips to the lav and, if vomitting were taking place into, say, a McDonald’s bag, why the passenger might leave said bag in a trash receptacle rather than bring it back to his seat. Foreign traveler’s in the US are just as likely to suffer from diarrhea and other ailments common to travelers as US folks going aboard. They may have been eating very different food and consuming water with very different microbes than they were accustomed to. It may be that they slipped some Imodium or PeptoBismol into a McDonald’s bag because they were embarassed at having diarrhea and didn’t want other people to know, or perhaps even a spare pair of underwear in case things really got out of hand, and used those items during the flight.

Do I think that was the case? I don’t know - but it would be a perfectly innocent explanation for what occurred, now wouldn’t it?

Cellphones in the bathroom? Sure - if you use them in the cabin the flight crew will have something to say, but if you use one in the lav who’s gonna know? (You cell provider, for one - but that’s a later consequence…) It is possible that it might screw up some on-board piece of equipment but as a practical matter most likely not.

I don’t know, but I have a real problem with the notion of the “no more than two per group” quota mentioned in the article. Unfortunately, none of the airline pilots I know were available to ask questions this weekend down at my local airport. Maybe one of the DoperCaptains will be along shortly to enlighten us. I think we may even have a TSA agent or two on the board as well.

You know, it is conceivable that you could use a PLASTIC knife to cause severe injury or death. They allow people to take knitting needles on board airplanes (one of my coworkers did just that less than a month ago), I fail to see how a butterknife or fork is more threatening than a 10 inch aluminum rod that comes to a point. Ditto for bamboo knitting needles.

The problem isn’t “can this item be used as a weapon?” but rather “is this person standing here likely to use an object as a weapon?” Yes, you probably do want to keep things like attack rifles and bombs off airplanes on general principal, but the hijackers-take-over-and-use-airplane-to-kill scenario requires a bad person more than a bad object.

Is security slacking? Well - improved cockpit doors were probably the greatest and most important change. As far as searching people - I’ve never been convinced that was terribly effective anyway. Unless you’re going to strip everyone down to skin, do a body cavity search, and examine clothing and carry-ons equally thoroughly stuff is going to slip through. Sorry, that’s the truth. Ask any prison guard or customs officer about the interesting body openings contraband can be found in. If that’s not clear to you, I can be more explicit but I’d rather not since I’m eating lunch at the moment, thank you very much.

Yes, I am being devil’s advocate here, but I think you do need to consider innocent as well as guilty explanations for peoples activities - or else resign yourself to living in a police state.

I’d say that if I was required to submit to a strip-search and body-cavity exploration I’d quit flying the airlines. So would most other people. “Perfect” security would destroy the industry. So we make do with less than perfect, and hope “really annoying” is sufficient.

Man, with all the chemicals in candy bars and other snacks, it is only a matter of time before a terrorist finds a way to create a bomb from Snickers and Elmer’s glue. :smiley:

I can’t help but contrast that statement to your position on driving a car and possessing a license to do so in another recent thread… but that is a bit OT.

Or you can fly the way I do - I don’t have to go through airport security to get in the air. On the other hand, there are some definite drawbacks to my way of doing things as well.

I think we can make the “hijackers-take-over-and-fly-plane-into-building” very unlikely - but we’re only fooling ourselves if we think we can make it impossible. You can’t. Name any method you care to achieve this end and I can outline an end-run around the measure. The only thing we can do is make an airliner take-over so awkward and inconvient that the Bad Guys don’t try that particular method for causing mayhem.

Even if you had perfect security concerning the occupants of an airliner, you could still bring down the airplane itself.

Frightening? Yes. Nonetheless, I continue to fly and I continue to work in a skyscraper because I also realize that even IF there was another 9/11 the odds of me being on that particular airplane or in that particular building are still low compared to other risks I routinely run, like driving on a crowded freeway.

Some improbable items can be used for destructive activities - in the 19th Century there was a jailbreak pulled off by using a deck of playing cards to fashion a crude bomb. The chemical composition of playing cards has since changed … but there’s really nothing to stop someone from constructing playing cards using that old formula, now is there?

There’s a book called The Radioactive Boy Scout that describes how a suburban teen in the Detroit area refined dangerous amounts of radioactive elements by scavening the local dumps for discarded household appliances. Dirty bomb? How about a “dirty airplane” with enough radioactive dust (pick element of your choice) circulating in it or concealed in the seat cushions to deliver nasty doses to passengers?

It’s funny how everyone has suddenly woken up to the fact that the world is an exceedingly dangerous place. On the other hand, none of these horrific things occur on a daily basis - so take it as a positive sign that the overwhelming majority of people are NOT terrorists.

I think the original article is mostly hooey – an innocent event with a lot of sinister-sounding garnishing, from a woman who finds Ann Coulter a perfectly reasonable source of information.

Many of the “scary” parts of the story make absolutely no sense. For example, why would an Arabic-speaking terrorist use English and a broad, easily visible (and largely idiomatic) gesture to communicate that the operation was aborted to someone he was walking directly past, when he could have more easily been stealthy about it?

There is one authority named in the original posting, and when contacted, he said that he had spoken to the author, and that the 14 men were investigated by several law-enforcement agencies, and that they were a band hired to perform at a casino.

There’s no way for the author to know how much scrutiny the men had been subjected to outside of her observation – and the details she uses to indicate that something was “obviously” sinister about them aren’t very credible. Such egregiously suspicious behaviour would be noted and commented on by more than one passenger.

This has been bouncing around the blogosphere long enough that some credible journalists must have taken a closer look – after all, there are enough details to start investigating with very little effort. My guess is that anyone talking to FAM Dave Adams comes away assured that the whole thing was a total non-event, and goes off looking for something with substance.

I don’t find it funny, but probably because I’ve always known it, which is why I find mass confiscation so absurd.

Funny strange or funny peculiar, not funny funny

Yeah, I knew what you meant. I mean I don’t find it peculiar, I think most people are intelligent enough to know how dangerous reality is. What I do find funny-peculiar is how much attention it is getting as if it were new. Either I have vastly overestimated the average person’s intelligence, or there is a funny-peculiar meme going around that does. :slight_smile:

Yeah, but the nail clippers are made in China and are just contributing to the flight of manufacturing jobs overseas that will weaken the US economy that much more and cause a tremendous strain on the US economy that will carry over into the world economy. :eek:

I forgot.

My coworker’s comment about the metal cutlery was not to imply that the cutlery would likely be used as weaponry, but the bizarre inconsistency in removing nail clippers and the like at the security line, while still allowing pointy metal implements beyond security.

Heh. We had a clipper confiscated. I can just feel prosperity burgeoning all over these great States.

Yeah, I saw that article not too long ago. It bugged the crap out of me. Let’s sum up the suspicious behaviour, shall we?

A bunch of Syrian men got on the same plane and nodded at each other. They went to the bathroom a lot. They congregated in groups of two or three and occasionally didn’t stay in their seats. One person took a bag…bag, singular, not bags…to the bathroom and came back with the bag empty. The article also mentions a foot-long bundle, wrapped in cloth, but the author never mentions anyone returning to his seat without that bundle. For all we know, he put it back in the overhead bin with the author wasn’t looking. Oh, and one of them gave a “cold look” to the author.

That’s it. And from that, the author of that article has apparently concluded that maintaining civil liberties is incompatible with protecting innocent passengers from terrorists. Which is completely preposterous, because clearly the TSA was watching these 14 men like hawks before and after their flight, and if the bathrooms on that plane weren’t thoroughly searched afterwards than I’m a baboon.

There is no hard evidence in this author’s account that those 14 men were anything more than a bunch of Middle Eastern musicians who all knew one another, and who perhaps eventually got sick of all the suspicious looks and started hanging out in the back of the plane to get a little privacy. And even if they were in fact a cadre of incredibly unsubtle terrorists assembling a bomb like MacGuyver out of cellphones and McDonald’s hamburgers, it seems that airport security was on top of the situation anyway.

Heaven help us when Al Qaeda starts recruiting from countries not in the Middle East. If those men hadn’t had Arabic passports, the author (and quite probably the TSA) probably wouldn’t have batted an eye. Then we can talk about failures of airport security.