Security Theater… Or Why I Had To Go Dumpster Diving At The US Capitol Last Week

from the feeling-safer? dept

We’ve had plenty of stories about the ridiculousness of security theater at airports, but it’s been spreading elsewhere as well. Last week, I was in Washington DC from Monday through Thursday, for a few things (mostly related to the SOPA/PIPA debate). On Thursday morning, I took part in a press briefing about the SOPA/PIPA fight (this was before it had been shelved, but after the web blackouts) at the US Capitol. I was actually heading to the airport soon after, so I had checked out of my hotel, and had put the metal water canteen that I use in my bag. It was empty, knowing that I’d have to go through airport security a little later.

However, at security to get into the Capitol, I was told I could not bring the canteen in, even though it was empty. I asked if there was any reason for this. I was told I just couldn’t bring it in. I asked if there was any place I could “leave” it, and I was told to go outside and there were dumpsters to the right. I even asked if someone could hold it for me, since it would just be an hour or so. No luck. Dumpsters, outside to the right. The canteen isn’t anything special, but I do like it. According to the price tag still on the bottom, it cost $11 when my wife bought it for me. I can buy another canteen, but really, there’s a bit of a principle thing to all of this. If the canteen itself is dangerous, then, putting it in a dumpster outside isn’t going to change that.

I went outside and there were some police there, so I asked them if there was anything I could do. They also pointed me to the dumpsters. I asked if I might be able to get it back, and they said, “if you don’t mind climbing in… and if the garbage isn’t picked up by then.” And so, an hour and a half later, after the press briefing was done, I (wearing a suit), climbed into the dumpster at the Capitol to pick up my water canteen, so I could take it with me back home. Again, it certainly wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I’d lost it. But I’m at a loss as to what this little bit of security theater accomplished. Either the canteen is dangerous, or it’s not. If it’s dangerous, I shouldn’t be able to leave it right next to the Capitol… and I shouldn’t then be able to go retrieve it. If it’s not dangerous (and, um, it’s not), then the whole thing is a complete joke. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the other punchline: I saw at least two people in the press briefing with their own (brought from home) water canteens.

Somehow, none of this makes me feel any safer.

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Comments on “Security Theater… Or Why I Had To Go Dumpster Diving At The US Capitol Last Week”

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66 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The thing is, if you do that, you don’t have anyone to corroborate your story if any law enforcement approaches you later and laws today being what they are you could end up in a cell for a very long time without access to any legal representation whatsoever.

Being arrested for suspicion of terrorism because of a canteen doesn’t seem worth all of that.

Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile) says:

SECURITY THEATER

[Performed by the Ad Hoc Security Forces Repertoire in association with AAA {Associated Acronyms of America}. Made possible by a generous grant from the American Public.]

THE GENTLEMAN BOMBER MEETS THE FORCES OF GOOD

ACT I

[THE GENTLEMAN BOMBER approaches THE CAPITOL]
GUARD: Evening, sir. Have you come to see the dialogues?
BOMBER: [hastily reapplies fake mustache and bomb satchel] Indeed I have, my good man. Could you inform the press corp of my arrival?
GUARD: T’would be my pleasure. Whom shall I announce?
BOMBER: [hastily adjusts voice] Er… Mr. Mike Reznick of the Legitimate Blogosphere.
GUARD: [chortles heartily] I would imagine that would cause quite a stir. We are in the presence of the written press, as chosen by God and Rupert Murdoch himself. They aren’t much for jokes, sir, and they’ve an awful temper when they’re still sober. Now, who should I really announce?
BOMBER: [chortles heartily] Tis true. They are a feisty bunch. Very well, inform them that Mr. Michael Masnick of the lowly internet is here.
GUARD: Certainly, sir. Let me first check your credentials against my list… [peruses list]
BOMBER: [leans casually against security desk]

CLANGCLANGCLANGBANGbangbangclangclatter

[CANTEENBOMB falls to the floor]

GUARD: Ye gods! We are in the presence of an alleged madman! What’s all this then and etc?
BOMBER: Why this? This CANTEEN? It’s clearly a gift from my beloved and surely not some sort of BOMB. Why, I would demonstrate its liquid-holding powers for you if only I hadn’t previously emptied them into the town’s water supply.
GUARD: Well, well, well! We shan’t be having any of this sort of thing whatever it is clanging about in an explosive but hollow manner. This device isn’t the sort of thing that can just waltz into THE CAPITOL underneath an unseasonably warm woolen coat and false mustache. I’ll have to ask you to hand it over.

[both stare at CANTEENBOMB on the marble floor]

BOMBER: Do… do you want me to pick it up and hand it to you… or …
GUARD: Hmmm. There’s seems to be nothing in the procedure manual regarding discarded CANTEENBOMBS… [flips through 9,000-page pamphlet entitled “WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS PRETTY MUCH EVERYBODY”] Let’s see if we can’t work something out… Perhaps I could trouble you to throw it in yon dumpster, Mr. Masner.
BOMBER: Surely a qualified professional such as your self should handle such a [makes air quotes] “dangerous” object.

[A frosty moment passes.]

GUARD: Pick up that CANTEENBOMB.
BOMBER: [Picks up CANTEENBOMB and throws it at GUARD, striking him in the unibrow.]

GUARD: COMMENCE BEATING!

[Quickload]

GUARD: Pick up that CANTEENBOMB.
BOMBER: Absolutely. In this… um… bomb receptacle marked “DC SANITATION PICKUP TUES & THURS NO RECYCLABLES OR CORPSES”?
GUARD: Correct. [Quotes from massive pamphlet] “All bombs, dangerous liquids, uncontrolled wildlife, misbehaving children, unrated DVDS and footwear should be disposed of properly in the bomb-proof receptacle [DUMPSTER].”
BOMBER: Will my CANTEENBOMB be safe in there with all that other… stuff?
GUARD: Oh, absolutely! Until Thursday.

ACT II
[THE GENTLEMAN BOMBER exits THE CAPITOL, HEAD CLOGGED WITH SPUN BULLSHIT and some RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION.]

BOMBER: Guard! Guard!
GUARD: Ah, Trent Masnick! Pray tell, how was the press conference?
BOMBER: Never mind that. I came to get some satisfaction.
GUARD: Right here on the marble floor? I’m afraid I don’t understand…
BOMBER: My CANTEENBOMB! It was a gift and a treasured explosive device/thirst quencher! I aim to have it back!
GUARD: This is highly irregular. The DUMPSTER is normally a one-way trip. Things go in but they do NOT come back out.
BOMBER: Today… they do.
GUARD: [gasps loudly]
GUARD: Mr. Geigner, please! I fear for your safety, but more importantly, I fear for my job! Please, for the love of all that is bureaucratic and nightmarish, I beg of you, PLEASE DO NOT GO INTO THAT DUMPSTER!
BOMBER: Bah! Unhand me, foul denizen! What’s mine is mine! I will not rest until my CANTEENBOMB is safely stowed beneath my unseasonably warm woolen coat!

[BOMBER dives into DUMPSTER, accompanied by the haunting strains of Brian Eno]

[GUARD updates resume]

[BOMBER reemerges, covered in TOOTHPASTE, LIGHTER FLUID, MISBEHAVING CHILDREN, VARIOUS INDIE FILMS, A NIKE SWOOSH but holding his CANTEENBOMBGIFT triumphantly aloft!]

GUARD: [gasps again, only louder and accompanied by a rising musical sting]
BOMBER: [tears off mustache] I am not a mad bomber! I AM A HUMAN BEING! I AM AN AMERICAN! AND YES, I. AM. A. BLOGGER!

GATHERED CROWD OF ANGRY, SOBER JOURNALISTS: [gasps] That bastard! He’s stealing our jobs!

[FADE TO BLACK]

Violated (profile) says:

My little cupcake

Then here I was not yet over the cupcake incident with the potentially dangerous frosting.

Well I can’t say what to make of this either when a brief examination soon highlights a harmless object. At worst you could later refill it and make a politician wet. That is kind of a harder way to do that though when some party balloons work better and easier on security.

In second place would have to come running off with someone’s whisky should you be able to find a source.

What most perplexes me is that if they want people to leave object behind then why do they have no lockers? It is hardly helpful to invite say some rich Arab VIPs only to force them to climb through the garbage.

That is Washington DC for you.

Mo says:

Hm. In this case..... not so much

I don’t want to cause a riot, but I worked for Israeli security, and while I do find a lot of the security efforts in American airports (and political/important buildings) mystifying, in this PARTICULAR case, I have to admit, I’d do the same thing.

First, I think we need to separate “TSA” from this type of security. You simply are looking for two distinctly different issues; what will blow up a plane (or will be dangerous on a plane) is not necessarily what might be dangerous in the Capitol building. That’s just a side comment.

The main problem with any item you carry with you, is that you might hide stuff in it. From a shank to a real knife, to a bomb, etc. If the bottle is clear, the guard can see through it, test it, and scan it with the metal detector (which I fondly refered to as the beepy-thingie) to see if you can spot knives or even detonators.

You can’t do that with a metallic bottle.

The security guard has no time to tap the bottle gently and “listen” for double-flooring, or rigged surface that might hide a knife, or even C4. He can’t. He tells you to not bring it in.

Now, I do agree about the dumpster. If this is a bomb, it’s still at risk of blowing up. But a dumpster has much less foot traffic than the Capitol building itself, so they may have made a judgment call of risk vs. the effort it takes to check this type of item. They know the area and ‘soft spots’ better than either of us. On top of that, with due respect, we don’t know what they do or don’t do with dumpsters. Do you know if they send a security agent to go look for more significantly suspicious items in there? Like a big suitcase? We don’t know. They might. Don’t assume 😉

Security is not easy. It’s mainly a mix of trying to anticipate what the terrorist/purpetrator will come up with and how to recognize the person’s intentions. Israeli security mixes techniques of examining a person’s behavior to anticipate their intentions regardless of method of delivery (the dreaded and wholly misunderstood ‘psychological profiling’) with spotting suspicious items. I can’t judge American security because I don’t know, but it *seems* to me, that the American security fails on the former.

That is what I consider a much larger threat.

Anyways, I just wanted to add my two cents. Hope that helps. There are many mistakes done with security, but we should also note when things actually do make sense.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: Hm. In this case..... not so much

Thank you for the counter-argument. Well thought out, logical, no attacks on Mike’s character and it actually convinces me that in this case, Mike is wrong.

See trolls! This is how you debate here on Techdirt! Not “Masnick is a lying piracy apologist and I’m not gonna back that up at all, instead I’m just gonna insult him and sound like a two year old waaah waaah!”

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Hm. In this case..... not so much

I don’t want to cause a riot, but I worked for Israeli security, and while I do find a lot of the security efforts in American airports (and political/important buildings) mystifying, in this PARTICULAR case, I have to admit, I’d do the same thing.

Interesting comment… though still not sure I agree.

The security guard has no time to tap the bottle gently and “listen” for double-flooring, or rigged surface that might hide a knife, or even C4. He can’t. He tells you to not bring it in.

There was NO ONE else around. I was the only person at the entrance. If they wanted to, they easily could have pulled the bottle out…

Now, I do agree about the dumpster. If this is a bomb, it’s still at risk of blowing up. But a dumpster has much less foot traffic than the Capitol building itself, so they may have made a judgment call of risk vs. the effort it takes to check this type of item

The dumpster is maybe 15 feet from the building… so not sure what difference it would have made…

I agree there may have been some reasoning behind this, but I just don’t see it here.

iamtheky (profile) says:

Re: Re: Hm. In this case..... not so much

The dumpster is maybe 15 feet from the building… so not sure what difference it would have made

the difference between a small improvised explosive going off in a room full of people vs a large metal container filled with trash 15 feet from the building itself….and you are not sure what the difference would be?

not defending the feasibility of this object being an explosive, just that particular reasoning.

Mo says:

Re: Re: Hm. In this case..... not so much

Hi Mike,

Thanks for taking time to answer my comment. I thought I might clarify a few points though.

“There was NO ONE else around. I was the only person at the entrance. If they wanted to, they easily could have pulled the bottle out…”

Let me rephrase my own “objection” — it’s not so much that he has no time, it’s that since they usually don’t have that kind of time, they are probably not trained to do this. Spotting double-flooring and scanning this type of bottle can be very tricky. In fact, very much tricky. You can lace a bottle like this as a bomb and very experienced security testers will still hve an EXTREMELY hard time recognizing it for what it is.

I think the problem is less “what they choose to do” and more “what they’re trained for”. The problem with security issues is that the main and most important concept is keeping an open mind and keeping your eyes open. 90% of the cases are “not ordinary” and “not by the book”. You have the book as guideline, and you use experience and judgment when you work. You have to do that, otherwise you remain 10 steps behind the terrorist/criminal, who constantly tries to trick you.

I am, more often than not, extremely disappointed from the security efforts I see in the USA. I think there’s a huge problem with the way things are done here, and I am quite worried about the prospect of another (probably very big) terrorist event. TSA people sometimes do make me feel like they’re “drones” who go “by the book” and not an inch to the left or right. That’s not just “not the right way of doing security”, that’s actually a dangerous way of doing security.

Let me put it this way:

Making an 80-year-old grandma stand with her arms to her sides while a TSA agent pats her down next to her 90-year old husband? Laughable, idiotic, and stupid. Finding a plastic lighter in my bag (yes, it happened) and then telling me that it will only be “illegal to carry in the plane” from next tuesday? Idiotic, laughable and silly.

But checking (or deciding it’s not worth checking) a metallic canteen in the capitol building?
Not so stupid, considering the circumstances and the possible threat.

That’s all I was trying to say. Good article, you make good points, don’t kill the dissenter 😉

~Mo

AdamR (profile) says:

Re: Hm. In this case..... not so much

Sorry to say I’m going to have to call you out and say BS!

“I don’t want to cause a riot, but I worked for Israeli security.”
“The main problem with any item you carry with you, is that you might hide stuff in it. From a shank to a real knife, to a bomb, etc. If the bottle is clear, the guard can see through it, test it, and scan it with the metal detector (which I fondly refered to as the beepy-thingie) to see if you can spot knives or even detonators.

You can’t do that with a metallic bottle.

The security guard has no time to tap the bottle gently and “listen” for double-flooring, or rigged surface that might hide a knife, or even C4. He can’t. He tells you to not bring it in.”

Unless told otherwise C4 or any other type of explosive can be hidden in anything and would stupid to be hidden in something metal. Think of the shoe bomber and the whole liquid gel bomb threats! What makes you think the detonators would even be attached to the bomb and not be bought in by someone else or crafted by materials already in the building.

If t his is a bomb, it’s still at risk of blowing up. But a dumpster has much less foot traffic than the Capitol building itself, so they may have made a judgment call of risk vs. the effort it takes to check this type of item. They know the area and ‘soft spots’ better than either of us. On top of that, “

Again BS, so lets see an explosive going off in a metal dumpster creating thousands metal fragments been propelled and a high rate hundreds of feet and making one hell of a loud bang is a minimal risk? Add to the fact the you allowing two way access to said container?

Mr Big Content says:

Obvious Security Is Obvious

It’s obvious to anybody with any basic grounding security why barring your water bottle was the right thing to do. Ask any security expert, they would have done the same thing.

The reasons are a bit sensitive, and not something we can publicly divulge for strategic National Security reasons. But believe me, if you knew what they were, you’d see the sense in it too. 100% of the people who’ve had this explained to them have got it. Even children have been able to understand why. It really is that obvious.

Tyrone (profile) says:

A canteen

An empty canteen though empty can be filled with a liquid, let us say it is filled with soda and you are on a tour. Most stuff in the Capitol (including some of the very floors you walk on) are historic and can be damaged by some liquids. The press you saw with water are credentialed by the the proper authority and yes, they are allowed to have bottled water. Sorry for your experience but reasons do exist for the regs for what can or can not be brought into the Capitol. Good Luck.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: A canteen

An empty canteen though empty can be filled with a liquid, let us say it is filled with soda and you are on a tour.

Assuming for a moment that this is actually why he was denied his canteen (which strikes me as completely ludicrous), the real problem then is how does the soda get into the Capitol, not someone bringing in an empty container he can then fill with soda from some other container.

DogBreath says:

Truth of the matter was...

security was afraid you might use that canteen to bring in outside fresh air. You know, the kind filled up with breathable oxygen that might actually wake some members of congresses brains up to the fact that they are there to do the peoples bidding, not some corporate shill lobbyist who pays them the most in (cough)”campaign contributions” (cough).

Anonymous Coward says:

This is because you are dealing...

…with drones: stupid, inflexible, unthinking people who lack any kind of rudimentary intelligence. They’re just not smart enough to think this (very simple problem) through: all they can do is blindly, mindlessly obey whatever idiotic regulations are put in place by the equally-incompetent drones above them.

And this is why, of course, any competently-conceived attack will succeed, whenever and wherever it comes. And when that happens, will they admit that they were incredibly stupid? Of course not. They’ll say “we need more regulations!” and simply escalate the stupidity. At no point will they actually do something intelligent and worthwhile: it’s beyond them. They could no more do it than I could clear six feet on the high jump. It’s impossible.

Our adversaries probably laugh themselves silly when they read things like this. They should. We DESERVE to be laughed at.

Eric Francis (user link) says:

Security Theater

So if you want some security theater, the Statue of Liberty ferry is a fantastically futuristically frustrating place. The last time I was there they made a show of taking away my mini-Leatherman. That is basically a pair of folding small pliers with a few other bits. I mean they made as sadistic of a show as you can make over a pair of small pliers, which of course I could not get back.

Some snotty tourist remarked that all you need is a small blade to hijack a boat. And I said, gee, all you need is a short sentence, to wit:

“Attention everyone! I have a/an ______________” name anything but a mini-Leatherman or mini Yorkshire terrier.

Anonymous Coward says:

What bothers me most about this is the contrast to the past. I am not all *that* old, and yet I remember being able to wander unescorted through the Capitol, and being able to take a tour of the Whitehouse, without any of this nonsense. There were a couple of security guys patrolling the Capitol, but I was not searched in any way – not even a metal detector. The Whitehouse tour was accompanied, and you were not allowed to wander off, but there was no search of personal belongings. This was in the 1980s.

The world is *not* any more dangerous now. After 9/11, Americans have become utterly paranoid. By wasting huge amounts of money on security theater, by accepting massive intrusions on personal liberty, America has handed Osama bin Laden a victory far greater than any he could have dreamed of.

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