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DHS warns of surgically implanted bombs. Pistole: 'We can't eliminate that risk'

Thursday, July 7, 2011

After all the hullabaloo over full-body x-ray machines being invasive, it turns out they may not be invasive enough. The Department of Homeland Security recently announced that Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen recently discussed surgically implanting an explosive device under the skin of a suicide bomber to get past airport detectors and blow up a U.S.-bound passenger plane, a U.S. official said Wednesday, according to this article in the Los Angeles Times.

While there is no evidence of an actual plot, the government has issued warnings to airports and stepped up security. My question is: How? How is it possible for TSA to possibly screen for this? The LA Times article suggests increasing the number of bomb-sniffing dogs as well as how many passengers are screened for explosive materials, but other than running people through x-ray machines, there's really no way to check for internal bombs.

Even John Pistole knows the TSA doesn't have the ability to do such internal screens. According to this article on

He was asked whether "current technology" could detect an explosive "in a body cavity," he said no. "If they do a body cavity bomb, we're not going to detect that," he told USA Today. "We can't eliminate that risk." Yesterday, the vice president of Rapiscan Systems, which makes the backscatter machines used in U.S. airports, agreed. The machines, he explained, are "designed to detect threats on the body, not in the body."

Basically, we're banking on the fact that it's not easy to surgically implant bombs in someone and even if it is implanted, hopefully something else will tip off screeners, like visible discomfort or stress from, you know, carrying a fricken bomb inside your body. I personally think the TSA should be training all of its officers in behavior detection skills so they can better identify suspicious people. And do we need a better reason to step up training than the prospect of people boarding planes with bombs in the bodies? I can't think of one either.

DHS to ease up on airport security policies? Maybe. Let's give it another year or two.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

In the relatively near future you may not have to remove your laptop from your carry-on bag or your shoes from your feet before going through airport security. This potential change in security comes straight from the head honcho herself:

“We are looking at what we can do to minimize the amount of divestiture of passengers waiting in line so that it’s possible that most people can leave their shoes on,” DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano told the annual conference of the American Association of Exporters and Importers in New York on Tuesday, reported the The Journal of Commerce.

But she was clear this change would take time. Like, say, in a year or two. It takes time to adjust policies, people.

Speaking of policies, I also read this interesting article from The Economist. I'm not sure if you've been following the media stories about the woman who claimed she was molested by a TSA officer during security screening. A large part of the incident was captured on video by her son. That incident (and several in the recent past) have raised questions about the ability of passengers to video tape at security checkpoints. According to Blogger Bob, the official blogger for the TSA, the policy is currently under review.

The Economist author had an interesting point, I thought, and started out by tipping his/her hat to the way TSA saying the agency has been handling these public incidents "quickly and professionally with public statements and explanations of its policies."

Tightening the rules to defuse criticism, the Economist correspondent writes, will just be "another strike against an organization not known for its embrace of passenger rights."

He dismissed the argument that photography shouldn't be allowed for terrorism reasons, although I think that could be a good argument myself.

Also, the TSA is not budging on its liquid policy, apparently. I read this story a few days ago in The Guardian, the U.S. had warned the European Union Commission not to relax its liquids ban:

A planned change in liquids regulations for transfer passengers carrying duty free purchases on April 29, 2013, viewed as a step change to a complete lifting of the ban in two years' time, was cancelled at the 11th hour after the US warned that it would introduce its own measures in response.

That's too bad. I never remember to leave room in my checked luggage for those bottles of duty-free liquor when I fly internationally.

Hey TSA, don't mess with Texas.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Texas is taking matters into its own hands when it comes to the Transportation Security Administration's enhanced pat down procedures - and it wants hands off.

The state's House passed HB 1937 that would make it a misdemeanor offense for a federal Transportation Security Administration agent to “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly [touch] the anus, sexual organ, buttocks, or breast” of a person going through airport security, according to this article in The Texas Tribune.

The bill is currently stalled in the Senate after the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to legislators on May 3 saying the bill would be in direct conflict with federal law and could lead to a shut down of Texas airports.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Dan Patrick, withdrew the legislation from consideration after a visit from TSA officials, which led to several Senators withdrawing their support for the legislation. So for now, Texans will have to endure the same enhanced screening as the rest of us.

Will the government revamp aviation security? Tom Ridge and other experts make recommendations in new report

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Complaints about aviation security will never end. Whether it's pissed off pilots or alleged high-doses of radiation from screening devices (certainly worthy of double-checking, don't get me wrong), there's always some sort of drama unfolding in the aviation security space.

Many security professionals would tell you (and have told me, as a matter of fact) that enhanced security measures in airports was a knee-jerk reaction to the events of 9/11. Was it an overreaction? Yeah, probably. But 9/11 was an event that changed the risk landscape in our country forever and made us all realize our gaping vulnerabilities. There are ongoing accusations that aviation security is just "security theater," but I strongly disagree, as I suspect most security professionals would. No one would ever say the Transportation Security Administration is perfect or that it's capable of stopping every person with ill intent. That's an impossible task. The TSA has admittedly gone through some serious trial and error to make the system work, and fails regularly in a very public way. Heck, the agency was so embattled it took a year and five months just to find someone who was willing to run it.

I just read a very interesting announcement that there could be some HUGE security changes coming down the pike. The U.S. Travel Association just finished up a year-long analysis of ways to improve air travel security and screening procedures. In case you're not familiar with this organization, they're a 2,100-member organization that "leverages the collective strength of those who benefit from travel to grow their business beyond what they can do individually" (which would mean pretty much any company, right?).

Recommendations based on this study were released in a report titled “A Better Way: Building a World Class System for Aviation Security.” An important recommendation to Congress was the need to authorize TSA to implement a new, voluntary, government-run trusted traveler program that utilizes a risk-based approach to checkpoint screening, with the goal of refocusing resources on the highest risk passengers. I think that would be smart and a lot of businesses would support bringing back a trusted traveler program for frequent travelers.

Also, an extremely important measure was in regards to the procurement of technology. With the ongoing debacle of whole-body imaging, the panel suggested that the TSA should develop a comprehensive strategy for implementing necessary checkpoint technology capabilities and that Congress should provide multi-year funding plans for TSA to execute this strategy. This kinda seems like a no-brainer, but apparently it isn't.

I thought the mention of developing risk-management methods and tools, while a very vague statement, could be critical as well. To me, this means adopting more of an Israeli approach to security. Pretty much every aviation security expert I've ever spoken to has acknowledged that the Israeli's have superior security measures, but such a system just isn't feasible due to the amount of air travelers in the U.S., especially if the goal is to IMPROVE efficiency for passengers. I understand and agree with that, but think the TSA could stand to improve its behavior detection training and other methods to identify travelers who may pose a risk (it's not profiling people, so just stop saying it).

Anyway, just to put an exclamation point on the report, here's what former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who was also a chair of this panel had to say: “A strong aviation security screening system must feature several characteristics, including efficient methods of deterring and interdicting terrorists and criminals; tailored security based upon risk assessment; frequent, clear communication with the traveling public; and cost-effective use of resources.”

Will anything come from this report? Hard to say not knowing.

TSA officially takes over intelligence efforts

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I'm getting a little burned out by all the public discussion regarding whole body imaging technology and the TSA changing its pat-down procedures. I recently wrote this story about the National Opt-Out Day protest efforts for our Newswire, and it appears that the protests didn't cause security delays (or didn't at Logan Airport anyway). Frankly, I'm really sick of reading and writing about this stuff, so I'm not going to, but I did want to mention an important aviation security milestone that was reached this week.

I received this press release from the Department of Homeland Security stating that 100 percent of airline passengers on flights within or bound for the United States are being checked against government watchlists.

“The threats we face in the aviation sector are real and evolving, and we must confront them with strong and dynamic security measures,” said TSA Administrator John Pistole, in a statement. “Secure Flight bolsters our efforts to be more intelligence-driven and risk-based in our approach to aviation security. Our industry partners’ strong commitment to security was critical to reaching the full implementation of this vital counterterrorism program ahead of schedule.”

Hopefully this effort will contribute to the TSA being more informed about what passengers need additional screening. Don't forget, airlines were previously held responsible for checking passengers against government watchlists, so hopefully putting this task under the TSA will streamline the system and help make sure passengers who pose threats are more easily identified.

Europeans express annoyance at U.S. aviation security measures

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Apparently, it's not just the average traveler who is annoyed by U.S. policies regarding aviation security. I just read this article in The New York Times that the chairman of British Airways criticized Britain for bowing too quickly to Washington’s demands:

The chairman, Martin Broughton, said at a conference on Tuesday that Britain should not “kowtow to the Americans every time they wanted something done” with aviation security procedures.

What has him all hot and bothered? Probably the same thing that annoys you when you travel through airport security: Having to remove shoes and laptops for security checks.

Among other complaints included "redundant" security measures as well as continuously adding more layers to security as threats become apparent.

In response to these gripes, the Transportation Security Administration said that officials “constantly review and evolve our security measures based on the latest intelligence.” It also said it “works closely with our international partners to ensure the best possible security.”

If other countries are complaining about excessive security measures, perhaps there's some validity there. Or maybe this battle is actually against complacency.

NY/NJ starts screening transit passengers

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Just read this press release from the Port Authority of NY/NJ about a passenger screening pilot program that begins today (so timely of me, I know). I have a few calls out to the Authority, but according to the press release, passengers of PATH (which is the heavy rail transit system connecting Manhattan with New Jersey communities) will be screened using passive millimeter wave technology. Here's the TSA's take on the program and technology.

According to the PATH Web site, the rail system carries 252,707 passengers each weekday. That's a lot of people. Apparently passengers won't need to stop as they're screened and will simply pass through turnstile type machines. It'll be interesting to see how this technology is received by the public since there's been so much hubbub about the use of this whole-body imaging technology in airports recently.

TSA gate screening, part deux

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Just saw an update about the random gate screening measure. USA Today is reporting that the TSA said it began the new measures due to concerns that terrorists will smuggle weapon components through security and assemble them at the airport (or aboard a plane). Despite the fact that the TSA said in earlier reports that this initiative wasn't due to anything in particular, more screening will continue to be a deterrent to terrorists. I'll have to ask those on our staff who are headed out to Vegas for ISC West whether or not they witnessed any gate screening. I'd love to do my own reporting in this case, but, alas, somebody has to keep the ship floating.


TSA expands screening procedures

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Another interesting security story from USA Today about increased security measures in airports. The paper reports that according to a government memo, airport security officials are randomly selecting passengers at the boarding gate for yet another round of security checks.

A spokesperson for the TSA said this additional screening is an effort to mix up tactics and make it harder for terrorists to monitor how security works. This also seems in line with the TSA's efforts to focus on behavioral profiling. I would think a terrorist would be on high alert during the official screening process, but may let down his or her guard while waiting for and boarding the plane. I think it's a good initiative by the TSA to let people know that security is always present.