We've Trained The TSA To Search For Liquid Instead Of Bombs

from the feeling-safer-yet? dept

In the latest example of absolute insanity from the TSA and the way in which it conducts airport searches, “Patrick Smith,” a pseudonymous pilot who writes about airline topics for Salon, tells the story of a ridiculous TSA encounter he had while flying as a passenger. It happened because Smith didn’t put all his liquids into a ziploc plastic baggy, as required. He apparently never does this and rarely has problems (I’ve also found that I’ve never been stopped when I fail to produce the plastic baggy). However, this time he did. But it wasn’t just that the TSA called him out for this, it was what happened after he obliged and put the liquids in a plastic bag:

My carry-on goes through the scanner and comes out the other side. One of the guards squints at his monitor, then shoots me a hostile look. What’s this, no plastic baggie? He pulls my luggage aside, opens it, and asks me to repack my liquids and gels “the right way.”

I do as he wants. When I’m finished, I hand him the baggie so he can run the items through again.

To my surprise, he won’t take them. “No,” he says. “Just put them in your suitcase and go.”

But …

“Just put them in your suitcase and go.”

I look at him for a minute. Apparently my having to repack them was a punishment exercise? All right, fine. Lesson learned, I unzip the approved, one-quart zip-top bag, and begin to dump the containers back into my toiletries kit.

“No!” interjects the guard. “Leave them in the plastic!”


“You have to leave them in the plastic bag!”

“But I’m already through the checkpoint. You already screened them.”

He shrugs. “They need to stay in the bag.”

“No they don’t.”

“Yes they do.”


“They need to stay in the bag. You should know better.”

Smith does a good job highlighting the absurdity of all of this and pointing out, of course, that the guard is wrong. But later in the post he really keys in on the scary point of all of this: we’ve trained the TSA to look for unbagged liquids, rather than explosives. And they’re doing that successfully:

Are we looking for liquids, or are we looking for explosives? A search for the former is not a de facto search for the latter. Not the way we’ve been doing it. Steve Elson tells the story of a test in which TSA screeners are presented with a suitcase containing a mock explosive device with a water bottle nestled next to it. They ferret out the water, of course, while the bomb goes sailing through.

It’s yet another case of where security theater is actually making us less safe. We’ve set up these rules that don’t really help protect anyone, and yet the TSA folks are taught to follow the rules, rather than look for anyone actually looking to cause harm on an airplane.

Filed Under: , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “We've Trained The TSA To Search For Liquid Instead Of Bombs”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Thomas (profile) says:

Not to mention..

we’ve given people who are not very trustworthy access to our valuable personal belongings. TSA people can rummage through your luggage on the pretext of searching for bombs or other contraband but instead look for valuable jewelry and pocket it.

They really do more by illegal racial profiling than looking for liquids.

I remember once I was on a vacation and bought a new tube of toothpaste and didn’t notice I bought a FOUR oz size instead of the proper THREE oz size. Boy, did they get upset at TSA checkpoint! They wouldn’t let me keep it either. Sheesh. Nowdays I wait until I arrive at destination and find the cheapest drugstore.

can be useful for something... says:

Re: Re: Not to mention..

My dad just came to visit me. He had a full size tube of toothpaste in his carry-on. The TSA agent saw it in the screen and examined the bag. He pulled out the toothpaste and called over to my father (who was several feet away putting on his shoes) asking “what should I do with this?” My dad said “whatever, but can I have a squeeze first to freshen up my mouth?” The TSA agent got pissed and said no (probably not that used to being made fun of). The TSA agent then took the bag to re-screen. My dad thought he was taking the bag away, and since his passport/ticket/etc. was in it he began following the agent back through the screener. The agent tried to stop him and my dad retorted “get your hands off of me!” The agent was a little taken back but complied when my dad gave the stern warning again.

The ordeal ended without any issues and my dad now has another story with him messing with authority. And just for some more color, he carried on a lighter, his homemade curry powder (a handful to the eyes could blind anyone for a good amount of time) and was wearing a traditional Afghan war lord hat.

He also almost had security called on him for not wearing shoes when he was going to get off the plane. He told them he took his shoes off to go through the screen like they asked and therefore didn’t have any shoes. There are no signs on an airplane requiring you to wear shoes, wtf.

btr1701 (profile) says:

I've Got That Beat

As a federal agent, I’m authorized to fly armed, so on one trip, I was clearing through security, the airport cop had checked my ID and paperwork and approved me to pass through the checkpoint, but the TSA guy stopped me and said he needed to inspect my carry-on.

I asked why, seeing as how I’d already identified myself as carrying a loaded handgun, what could possibly be in my carry on that would make me a threat, and out of hundreds of flights, I’ve never had to be inspected before.

He claimed it was just procedure. (If that’s true, it’s a procedure that has never been followed before, to my knowledge.) But not wanting to create a hassle for myself, I said fine and let him look through it.

Well, he came up with my Leatherman knife (basically a fancy Swiss Army knife) and said that I couldn’t bring it on the plane because knives are prohibited items.

I looked at him like he was insane and said, “Let me get this straight, you’re letting me carry a loaded handgun onto the plane, but not a pocket knife? In what conceivable world does that make sense?”

He responded that per FAA rules, I was authorized as a federal agent to carry the gun on board but the rules don’t mention knives except as a general prohibition for everyone.

Not wanting to lose a $30 knife, I asked to see his supervisor, figuring this was some low-level zombie unable to exercise basic common sense. But no, the supervisor said the same thing!

Years later, I still shake my head at the abject stupidity on display at the airport that day.

Beta (profile) says:

Re: I've Got That Beat

Try to give them the benefit of the doubt: officially, they do not have the authority to bend the rules, even when it makes sense to do so. Either one of them could probably have been fired for deliberately letting you carry the knife, and if other passengers had seen it there would have been no end of “I’m a veteran!” “I have a security clearance!” “Do I look like a terrorist?”.

Yes, some TSA workers are nitwits (and bullies and thieves), but some are just decent people doing their best in a bad situation. (The ones at the bottom, I mean– the ones at the top have no excuse.)

FarSide (profile) says:

Re: Re: I've Got That Beat

I reject this, the same as I reject all zero-tolerance lines of thought.

You don’t need a courtroom and a judge to make an appropriate judgment that an agent allowed to carry a sidearm can be let through with a leatherman.

Relinquishing all thought and judgment for a one-rule-for-all mentality is one more way we continue to march away from liberty and towards a police state.

Taken long enough and far enough, this is how otherwise good people can be convinced to perform atrocities – “I was just going what I was told!”

Beta (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: I've Got That Beat

By that standard, TSA screeners should recognize the fact that what they’re doing is pointless security theater and just wave everyone through. Heck, the whole Department of Homeland Security should stop showing up for work. I concede that in a sense they should, and that we’d all be better off if they did, but when was the last time you quit a job (possibly the only one you could get) rather than do something pointless and silly?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 I've Got That Beat

By that standard, TSA screeners should recognize the fact that what they’re doing is pointless security theater and just wave everyone through

No, not really. This was a federal agent who had authorisation to carry a loaded firearm onto a plane. It is nothing at all akin to waving the general public through.

Let me be clear. The federal agent had a loaded firearm capable of killing multiple people instantly, more so for the fact he’d have been trained in its usage. A weapon he really could have used to hijack the plane. He was forbidden from carrying on a pocket knife. A POCKET KNIFE.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 I've Got That Beat

> So… you think that agent should be allowed a pocket knife,
> but others shouldn’t.

In a word, yes.

If I’m authorized to carry the gun on board, presumably for use in a hostile situation should it develop, then it only makes sense that I should be able to use other less-lethal weapons at my disposal as well.

If I can thwart a potential hijacker with a knife instead of using my gun, wouldn’t that be preferable, considering we’re all in a pressurized aluminum tube at the time? By taking away my knife, you’re forcing me to resort to the most dangerous remedy from the get-go.

A TSA screener, whose job is, at its most basic level, to ensure the safety of the flying public, should recognize that and not engage in absurdities over a hypertechnical interpretation of an obscure FAA regulation, and which actually results in potentially putting people in more danger than they otherwise would be.

Nathan F (profile) says:

Re: I've Got That Beat

Back in 96 or so when I was in college (this was pre 9/11 so they didn’t have as much theater going on) I was attending Project A-Kon in the Dallas/FW airport convention center. At the time I carried a very nice Benchmade lock blade knife with a half serrated blade just under 4 inches. Being a con in the airport there wasn’t much to eat inside so we had to cross the breezeways to get to the food court to eat and the security checkpoint therein. Not thinking about it I pulled everything out of my pockets (including the knife and plastic disposable camera) and put it in the basket and walked through the metal detector. Guard picks up my knife, opens it up and measures the blade length against his plastic ID card attempts to close it (unsuccessfully given the lock takes some getting used to) and hands it back to me. He then picks up the camera and orders me to “Make it work”. I looked at him dumbfounded for a few seconds because he was more worried about the plastic camera then he was the about 3.75″ folding lock blade fighting knife he had just handed back to me. I snapped a picture of my friends (who’s jaws were hanging just as low as mine was) and the guard let us go on our way to the food court.

LT says:

Re: I've Got That Beat

This reminds me of the time there were soldiers going through the screening process with M-16s, bayonets, and some of the other tools of war when the one young private was stopped and told he could take his pocket knife through the checkpoint.
I am reminded of the one scene from Crocodile Dundee when he was explaining what a real knife looked like.

Matthew (profile) says:

Not to be too condescending but...

Not to be too condescending about it because i think that really these are a bunch of people who are caught in a bad situation, but the job only requires a GED or a year of experience as a luggage screener or X-ray tech. These are not law enforcement officers. They are not adequately trained to assess real threats and deal with them. Real security would be too expensive so we get security theater instead.

We have a situation where the people in charge really just want to cover their asses and avoid being blamed for the next bad thing that happens so they make up long lists of rules to cover every conceivable attack. That way when something inevitably happens, the people in charge can say they were prepared, but Joe TSO on the bottom rung of the ladder didn’t follow the correct procedures – it’s his fault, not ours.

It’s a failure of leadership that started well before 9/11 and is perpetuated by partisanship and fear.

John Doe says:

“we’ve trained the TSA to look for unbagged liquids, rather than explosives.”

I never take my liquids out of my carry on and only one time recently was called on it. The screener told me I should have taken the liquids out but let it go with a warning. He did not make me take them out. On the return trip, I put them under my fleece in the tray and they never pulled the fleece aside to view the liquids. I could have had several 3oz containers of gasoline and they would never know.

Eileen (profile) says:

I’ve been avoiding going through the X-ray scanners for various reasons. Sometimes I get a pat-down, sometimes they punish me by looking through ever piece of clothing for 30 mintues to waste my time. Other times they do nothing. It’s like some kind of unspoken rule that Orwellian/faschisty crap like this also has to be maddengly inconsistent on top of everything.

My last pat-down was in Houston, where the TSA agent whined that I wore a skirt. She really wanted me to ask for a private screening room. I told her “no, I want everyone to see how absurd this is”. I think she was more upset about having to put her hands up my skirt in plain view of the public than I was. After telling her I didn’t believe the machines were necessary or very safe, she just said “Yeah, I don’t know if those are really safe either…” — well thanks for the honesty, TSA!

iveseenitall (profile) says:

The TSA is good example of what can happen when Big Brother is allowed to make and deploy policy without the burden of unofficial opinion.

The world they invision is one where the masses fall into line. Where the middle class does what they are told.
Don’t ask questions.
Don’t ask why.
Just pay up and up and up.

Those in power would prefer people keep talking about everything but what’s really going on. Take for example legal and illegal immigrants. Blame them. Ya thats perfect!.
Or could it be state and federal workers? Sure that works!
How about speeders and stop sign runners? No wait a minute I’ve got it! It’s those damn, you pick, Republicans/Tea Party/Democrats/Chinese/Muslims/people not enslaved by college loans.
Or is it pirates? Ya, for sure those file sharing black beards are blame worthy.
For that matter so is Mike Masnick and Techdirt. Any and all of those free thinkers. Those writers. Those damn instigators.
Really it can anybody just as long as they don’t have political power.
See statistics for specifics.
Just don’t blame us Ivy League trained, politically enabled blue bloods that spend all day every day plotting to get..
A) re-elected
B) what we are entitled too.
Listen we know what’s best for you. You little people. You idealists.
Until you do we’ll make sure there are plenty of distractions to keep you busy and important. Meaningless trivial things.
Get used to it.

Lisa Simeone (profile) says:

Five Words: Philip Zimbardo. Stanford Prison Experiment.

Alas, we’ve grown accustomed to the stupidity and incompetence of the TSA. But the sheeple continue to bleat about The Terrorists! The Terrorists Are Hiding Around Every Corner! So they hand over their rights, one by one, to our overlords. How long before Uncle Sam is sticking his fingers up our asses?

Then again, that would be just fine with many Americans, including some members of our much-vaunted journalist class. Here’s a missive I received from one of them this morning — name removed — this reporter friend works for one of the top 3 TV networks:

“Can you please take me off your crazy list? You are starting to sound like a lunatic and it’s really annoying. So please… Remove me from the list for all transportation, strip search, govt jackboot conspiracy nuttiness. I mostly delete it unread now anyway. Thanks.”

Yeah, concern about civil liberties is “nuttiness.” And these are the people who are supposed to be questioning authority, not buckling under to it.

VMax says:

Method to the madness

What’s really happening is that TSA is TRYING to look bad. The terrorists read these stories and start thinking that they can just put a bomb on a plane by putting a liquid near enough to distract the agent. Then, using their super-human cunning and skill, the agents swoop in and take town an entire network of terrorists based on a 4 oz. bottle of aftershave. They’re wily like that. /sarc

Adriana says:

I remember that in the first few weeks (maybe months) of the liquid ban, there were no liquids/gels allowed at all, in any amount. I successfully smuggled in a mayonnaise and mustard packet by putting them inside my sandwich. I felt pretty awesome about that.

As a more serious story, in 2008 I was making my way from Lima, Peru to Long Beach, CA by way of Boston. At the security checkpoint in the lima airport (where I flew out from), there was a giant clear box full of intricately decorated knives (very popular among tourists in S. America). I noted the box and felt smart to have packed the knife I was bringing home as a gift for my dad in my checked luggage. A few days later, I flew from Boston to California with my mementos in tow, and when I unpacked my checked luggage to present the knife to my dad, it wasn’t there and I sadly assumed I’d forgotten to bring it. Then later as I unpacked my carry-on, there it was – a successful evader of TSA! Not only was I shocked that I’d been dumb enough to pack it in my carry-on, but also that the TSA screeners in Boston where taking away water bottles from people in my security line while I obviously walked on the plane with a thick 4-inch blade.

Eric D says:

Same outside USA

This behavior is common to all airports, not just TSA-operated, these days. I even witnessed the same security absurdity during the Copenhagen climate summit. Lots of VIPs, government leaders etc, tightened security… but they just took the liquids out of bags, put them in the plastic bag and off you go.

Just as a reminder, the shoe-bomber failed not because they found his bomb but because the security officer had a “hunch” about the guy. The more she questioned, the more she felt something was off. She was right. Her hunch saved a lot of lives. Let’s train our security personel. It’s the only way.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...