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More on the Liquid Rules: Why We Do the Things We Do (Commenting Disabled)

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Last week, there was a post on the ars technica blog by Jon Stokes, Senior Editor and Co-Founder, posing some questions on TSA’s liquids rules similar to other questions we’ve gotten on the blog so far. Kip Hawley wrote the following response, and we wanted to post it here for TSA blog readers to see as well.


Thanks for the question on liquids. We have lots of material on our site ( going into the liquids issue so that is available for background, including the video of it blowing up. I'll try here to break the question down into the sub-questions I hear most. I enjoy ars technica, especially that it is thoughtful and issue-oriented and I appreciate having the opportunity to address your question.

Was this a real threat? Yes, there was a very serious plot to blow up planes using liquid explosives in bombs that would have worked to bring down aircraft.

Why don't you just ban all liquids? Because our National Labs and international allies demonstrated to my satisfaction that there is, in fact, a scientific basis for allowing small amounts of liquids on as carry-on. We try to prohibit the minimum possible from a security standpoint. Also, the consequence of banning all liquids is a large increase in the number of checked bags, which creates its own issues.

Why can't multiple people bring on explosives in three-ounce containers and mix them post security? The tough one! Tough because there are parts of the reason that are truly classified but here goes... (read them all before throwing up your hands!)

  1. We are involved in risk management. The question to me is: "What do you have to do to make a successful attack so complex that an intelligent enemy would recognize that the odds of success are too low?"
  2. Because there are limits to our ability to detect every thing every time at the checkpoint, we use layers of security. For example, I and senior leaders at TSA work every day with the intelligence and law enforcement communities world-wide to get insights in how to make our security better -- frequently adding specific training and sometimes, respecting our obligations to the intell and law enforcement communities (like our remote control toys advisory), communicating directly to the public. Also, we reduce risk by a) adding behavior detection capability, K-9 teams, surge teams and document checking out front; and b) by undercover presence throughout the area behind the checkpoint, as well as better screening of the supply chain of items in the sterile area after the checkpoint.
  3. We reduce risk by deciding what we believe is necessary for a completed bomb -- the core of the 100ml (3.4 ounce) limit. Extensive testing began the morning of August 10, 2006 -- the day the liquids plot was made public -- to determine if there is a level at which any liquid brought onboard a plane represents little risk. These were tests by multiple government agencies, National Laboratories and other nations and they assisted in the 3-1-1 formulation. We announced 3-1-1 on September 26, 2006 and that allowed travelers to go on overnight trips without having to check a bag. That is the trade-off: if 3-1-1 is too complicated, you can always just check your bag.
  4. The preparation of these bombs is very much more complex than tossing together several bottles-worth of formula and lighting it up. In fact, in recent tests, a National Lab was asked to formulate a test mixture and it took several tries using the best equipment and best scientists for it to even ignite. That was with a bomb prepared in advance in a lab setting. A less skilled person attempting to put it together inside a secure area or a plane is not a good bet. You have to have significant uninterrupted time with space and other requirements that are not easily available in a secured area of an airport. It adds complexity to their preferred model and reduces our risk, having the expert make the bomb and give it to someone else to carry aboard. They are well aware of the Richard Reid factor where he could not even ignite a completed bomb. Simple is truly better for them. Also, bomb-makers are easier for us to identify than so-called clean 'mules.'
  5. The container itself adds complexity. A 100ml container limits the effect of, and even the ability of, a detonation. It also forces a more precise mix, and a lot more boost -- which makes it easier to detect from that side. Even creative ways to smuggle liquids in are less effective because, eventually, they still have to mix it right and get it into the right container, etc. There are also issues with what kind of container you use, but let's leave them to puzzle that out further...
  6. The baggie gives us two benefits: A) It serves as a visually identifiable, easy way to limit quantity. Even if they wanted to bring multiple bottles to mix, we limit the quantity of their total liquids as well (bottles "hidden" in the carry-on bag stick out). B) The baggie serves to concentrate the vapor - substances used to create liquid explosives are very volatile and emit fumes even through sealed bottles. (We have tested.) We have liquid explosives detectors that take advantage of the vapor concentration factor in the baggie. This way, we do not have to examine what's inside every bottle, regardless of what the label says.
  7. The effect of pulling out liquids and aggregating them separately allows our security officers to have a clear look at the liquids -- and, perhaps just as important, it de-clutters the carry-on bag so that we have a clearer view of that as well.
  8. With our medical exceptions, they have to talk to one of our Security Officers who can use a variety of methods to tell whether it presents a problem including test strips, and hand-held detectors that are highly effective, even with closed and sealed bottles. With the larger bottles, the other features needed to make it viable would be very apparent.

A few other points, this policy has been adopted in more than 80 countries worldwide and means that there are common rules almost everywhere you fly. The choice is a total ban or this, and we are working very hard at a technology solution that should make this better all around. Think early 2009 for that.

The challenge is to reduce risk on the things we know about (shoe bombs, liquids) while having enough other measures in place to disrupt what we don't know is coming. Any time we fixate on one thing, you have to be concerned about opening up something elsewhere. Balance, flexibility, and unpredictability are key. So is going on offense by being connected to intelligence / law enforcement and being proactive with our surge patrols, undercover activities, etc. AND getting TSA and passengers back on the same side! That last one is what we're trying to do at our checkpoint with our TSOs and online with our blog.

Whatever you think about our policies -- please recognize our Security Officers who train and test every day and will do whatever it takes to make you and your families safe when you fly. They are the best in the world and are on your side; please give them a little recognition when you see them. Thanks for the opportunity to comment,



Submitted by Anonymous on

A 5 ounce limit would be a lot more convenient for travelers as most cosmetic items fit below that level. 100 ml requires that special sample size items be purchased.

Also, going by the size of the container when it is nearly empty is totally silly. Lets face it, if someone has a nearly squeezed out 5 ounce tube of toothpaste it not a 5 ounce container anymore. Ever try to put the toothpaste back in the tube? But my nearly empty toothpaste tube was taken away. It must have looked threatening.

Submitted by Russell on

Thank you for having the courage to talk about your policies. Frankly I'm amazed that Homeland Security is being so honest.

Please remember that the PURPOSE of terrorism is to cause an overreaction (see your point #4). Restricting liquids is a distraction from the goal of keeping REAL bombs off airplanes.

And while I'm at it, restricting the carriage of weapons (e.g. the 1.5" knife of a Leatherman Micra) is a similar distraction since 9/11. No one threatening a hijacking will live more than, oh, say, 30 seconds, as everyone, from 6-year-olds to 90-year old grannies fights for their life.

REAL bombs are the REAL threat. Not liquids. Not Zippo(tm) lighters. Not knives. Not even guns.

Worry more about C4 and less about H2O.

Submitted by Pete on

Somehow they can find every single 3.5oz and bigger bottle of liquid I have on my person and in my carry-on, but handguns and knives still make it through checkpoints during TSA audits. Examples include bombs being leton planes and even accidental carry-on of handguns. This says to me that my government only wants to make me think they're securing flights, so i'll keep shelling out the greenbacks and keep them employed.

Submitted by Anonymous on

The TSA exists for two reasons - the first, and the obvious one, security theater.

The second, and the reason it's not going to go away, is because it's a federal low-wage job subsidy program propping up the US's job numbers. A couple hundred thousand needless jobs created, offsetting all the well paying skilled labor jobs we've shipped off overseas.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Justify your idiotic policies all you want. The sick truth of the matter is that YOU KNOW your idiotic liquids policy would never stop a dedicated terrorist if they truly wanted to mix liquid explosives on a plane, despite how stupid the idea is. There is absolutely nothing to keep someone from carrying a number of liquid filled viles in their pockets or under their shirt. 9/11 happened almost 7 years ago. 3000 people died almost 7 years ago, while 40,000 die every year from traffic accidents. Get over it, move on, do your job, and stop trying to keep everyone afraid!

Although I really would not be surprised if you didn't even know who he was, here is a quote from Ben Franklin: "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

I hate what you have made of my country and my fellow countrymen.

Submitted by Anonymous on

I don't believe there was a plot. I believe this is a fabricated story to provoke terror and further justify a war on terror.

Submitted by Pyrotechnician on

This blog is a great thing! This degree of openness and discourse has become quite rare in government (at all levels), but transparency is supposed to be one of the fundamental tenets of our political system. Please do not be discouraged by the large number of negative responses, though you should take the well-formed criticisms to heart. From the outset, I was a strong critic of the liquids policy, considering it a form of "security theater" and hardly a useful measure. However, this detailed blog post has turned me part way around. I have considerable experience with explosives, including some binary mixtures, and the points you raise (especially #4) gave me a few moments of realization regarding the technical limitations of small rapidly-assembled bombs. I get it. I'm still not convinced that this level of security is actually required, but I understand the value of the measures from a technical perspective.

TSA's biggest areas for improvement are customer service mentality and actual task efficiency - make people feel safe rather than threatened, and get them through security as effortlessly as possible. You must accomplish both of these to win the public's respect (which, you must admit, you really don't have right now). There is significant room for improvement in both of those areas. I believe improvement will come only through the hiring of more competent low-level personnel with selection based on personality and attitude, as well as establishment of a "corporate culture" of politeness, courtesy, and respect. Such an impetus must come from the top, and starts with the attitudes and approaches of executive management. TSA owes this change to the American public.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Calm down, people! The TSA is doing a fantastic job of protecting American lives. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a little freedom for your security.

If the TSA says liquids are a serious threat, I wholeheartedly believe them. When was the last time a government agency ever knowingly deceived the public in a power-grab?

I just have one suggestion for the TSA, mentioned in passing by other posters. I feel the threat by terrorists trained in hypnosis or deep magic to be very severe! Just imagine what even a single terrorist armed with, say, a Veela core magic wand could do! He could bring down the entire plane by muttering an incantation in the bathroom. Or imagine what a terrorist trained in hypnosis could do.. he could hypnotize the stewardess, convince her to open the cabin door, and then hypnotize the pilot and copilot as well. The thought of all this sends shivers down my spines. Of course, none of these threats have been carried out... yet, thank God. Doubtlessly, we have the vigilance and tireless work of the highly trained TSA staff and undercover agents to thank for our safety from this threat. However, I would like to recommend that we ban magic wands and any wooden device (rulers, etc, that could be made into wands) longer than 3.5 inches in the name of our safety. In addition, we should probably be doing background checks on every passenger to make sure they haven't been trained in hypnosis or the dark arts. Perhaps with the wonderful Real IDs and new passports coming soon, this information could be easily encoded, and such potential threats barred from flying.

Thank you all, and God bless America. I am proud to live such a great country.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Sorry boys and girls at the TSA, not buying this story. The reality is there is a quota system out at the airports and a certain number of people must be "randomly" cleared a day and what better way to do that than with people with bad credit, flight changes, etc.

I find it a riot when NBC or some other news agency gets a "bomb" or walks around on an airplane by just walking out there.

All of this bunk about liquids and training people to look at behavior is a load. You will find it difficult to find a person who is NOT angry or unhappy at an airport these days. All you are doing is making life more difficult for the average person who will find ways to get around air travel as I have.

Since you knuckleheads have shown up with your bogus war on terror, driving over a couple of days to get somewhere suddenly is not so bad.

Thanks for putting up the blogs though, I'll be around as will others to debunk whatever action movie science you come up with.

Submitted by Steve-O on

What really gets me is the contempt TSA shows for the passenger and the policies they "enforce". I mean, I could get stupid for a minute and believe the plot. I could get even more stupid and accept to get my liquids taken from me. But for God's sake then, at least treat the liquids as if they were really a threat! Every TSO I met does not believe at all in his work: they just dump the bottle/liquid in a generic container. Aren't you afraid all those very dangerous liquids will blow up in a mighty explosion that will destroy the whole airport!?

Submitted by Anonymous on

The TSA security screening is pointless and just to make people "FEEL" they are safe. I have multiple time forgotten to declare my liquids and have gotten through security without any problems.

Submitted by Anonymous on

I think we have already debunked much of what is being said about the liquids (virtually impossible to do anything other than annoy people and limit business flyer's (and you people who keep clamoring about taking greyhound keep forgetting that its not just the social flier that gets a kick, its the business flier who HAS to deal with these moronic rules.. the ones who shell out the 2 - 3K for the ticket that most of the social flyers get for 200 - 300, the ones that keep in many respects the airlines afloat). Are you really going to tell the person that keeps your business where you work to take the bus?.. Bet you won't be working there long, and I'm pretty sure the business is not going to be alive much longer in that case.

For many of us, we would rather see better trained personnel handling the reigns to actually do a proper job rather than be made to do the security dance of stripping naked and having our lives probed everytime we do anything. Not to mention that I simply dont trust the TSA to do anything or handle my luggage since I've personally had several items stolen from me during TSA inspections (both checked luggage and carry on).

And as for the one TSA poster mentioning "you don't know how many knives and guns we keep out". I suspect about the same as before 9/11 or even before all this. Most likely a few more given all the stupid hypocracy really annoys people.

But hey... the world laughs at the US.. (heck, I laugh at the US). And its no wonder the economy is in the tank, people are scared out of their minds (and its more to do with the government than the "boogey man").

Keep up the good work folks.. meanwhile, as soon as my PRC from Singapore kicks in, I'm out of this nest of vipers.

Submitted by Man_who_saw_tomorrow on

This all screening and everything sounds good. But the best idea would be to give incentive to passengers not to bring carry on luggage at all.

I fly frequently and if the flight is short, less than two hours, I can easily do with just a novel and my wallet/cellphone/keys. But still I sometimes take a carry on. Why? Because I am already being charged for carry on facility.

Now, if there are two classes of airline fares, one that is allowed carry on and a bit higher in cost, and second without carry on and low in cost, I would happily forgo carry on.

Even the same applies for check in luggage. If my habit of traveling light is rewarded financially, I would travel lighter.

Travel light = better security, shorter screening lines, lesser greenhouse emissions. A true win-win for all.

Submitted by Anonymous on

You have a false dichotomy in your statement. You say it's either "100 ml limits or a total ban", obviously, that's not true because there weren't limits for years and not a single was destroyed this way.

Therefore, you could also not ban liquids at all, or you could impose a more reasonable limit which doesn't inconvenience millions of travellers for a threat that even your experts have a hard time carrying off in their labs (see your own point #4).

The threat just isn't credible. The experts I hear talking about the liquid explosive plan in Britain say that there was literally a 0% chance of success before your liquid restrictions.

Submitted by Anonymous on

TSA seems to forget that 9/11 took years of planning and they studied what security would and would not do. This was not something thrown together last minute.

As to their whole waste of time restrictions.

A) I have had no issues getting my 16oz of liquid into a plane when I place it inside a container that doesn't look like a little toiletry container

B) If I was going to sneak liquids on a plane now that I know that the morons at TSA that can't pass HS or convert 100ml to American standards (Not because of this post but because we have studied them). I would put the although impossible to create bomb into a container that doesn't look like it has liquids. Because if they have the equipment to make this bomb that takes millions of dollars of tax payer money to create in our national labs without much success. They probably bought the new 3D printer for $1000 and can make their own custom container also.

Submitted by Cathy W on

Just some TSO from a couple of days ago:

My daughter's unopened Dasani bottle was confiscated, at JAX but NOT at MDW. Two bottles. I had to buy expensive water past the checkpoint for nearly $6. It was freezing cold. I couldn't mix her a bottle for an hour.

Yeah, it may have been before your time, but it was the TSA that made the woman drink her breastmilk. Matter of fact, when I was railing to a TSA friend, I said, "I thought after y'all made the woman drink her breastmilk, you'd figured out the feeding babies thing" and he chuckled and muttered, "That was the worst thing we ever did. Ever. We'll never live it down."

Common sense: CHECKING water meant to be mixed with BABY FORMULA to feed a baby is NOT AN OPTION. She needs it when she's hungry.

Oh, I many things about the TSA. I know they find a few knives, because I dispatch the police to the checkpoints when they do.

I know about all the brides whose wedding cake knives are seized and all the scuba divers whose scuba knives are seized, and I never fail to say, "Who the heck still thinks it's okay to bring a knife through?"

The nail clippers comment was tongue in cheek and referenced a rule that was perhaps before your time, as was the grandma reference. I apologize.

Once more - I know exactly what the rules are. They are whatever you feel like they should be.
Do you know what the official answer from the 866 lady was regarding my daughter's water?

"Well, ultimately it's up to the screener as to what can go through."

When I said, "Having rules which are broken and enforced willy-nilly is a bit silly, wouldn't you agree?", she had no reply.

It's water for formula. Across the board, make it legal when traveling with a baby and STOP the harassment of infants.

Stop forbidding AIRCRAFT MECHANICS like my husband to bring a hammer and wrench through the checkpoint. Good luck flying somewhere if that hammer doesn't make it to the plane, y'all.
You see his airline badge. It says, "United" and then "Aircraft Mechanic." He's had a ten year FBI background check, just like me.
He's not a terrorist.
One of the mechanics got his water seized, which is hysterical, because then he went directly to work on the electrical system of the aircraft.

Like my husband says, "If an aircraft mechanic wants to bring a plane down, he can. Period."

For the longest time, PILOTS couldn't bring more than 3 ounces liquid through. Errrrrrrr...

I not only dispatch police to the checkpoints, I also dispatch Fire-Rescue. If I had a nickel for every time the TSA stopped the stretcher-carrying paramedics and made them go through the checkpoint...
After much hell-raising, we seem to have straightened that issue out for the time being, but I've no doubt it will come up again in the future.

I don't give a crap about hair gel (I happily tossed some at a checkpoint recently - it was accidentally put in my carry-on, my fault - no biggie), or expensive face creams, $100 perfumes, or whatever else. But when you mess with me being able to feed my child, the claws are going to come out.

I'm not trying to be hard on y'all. I know you are doing the best you can, most of you, and as a former US Government employee, I know it's not easy to deal with dumb rules.
But admitting that some rules don't make sense doesn't make you bad TSOs. You SHOULD be allowed to say, "Wait. No, that's dumb. Let's talk about this, get our input before you start making up new stuff."
You guys are the ones that can get things straightened out - not the people in DC.

Submitted by Anonymous on

So, TSA, what measures do you have in place to prevent all of the following:

1) A person from soaking liquids into a solid that can be made to bleed them out later (say, silica gel)?

2) A person from dehydrating a fluid-bearing material and then rehydrating it with the desired liquid, which can later be squeezed out (say, watermellon)? I've actually considered that one myself to take a drink onboard.

3) A person from doing the standard "drug mule" approach and keeping components inside bags stored in their body (are you going to start instituting cavity searches)?

4) An attacker from travelling with a young child so they can bring "juice boxes" and the like to get around the limit?

In short, do you think attackers are complete and utter idiots, that they'll only try and attack in the way you'd like them to? This "security theater" is annoying; it's transparently worthless.

For way of comparison: I was in Japan last summer. We all remember the Aum Shinrikyo attacks on the Tokyo subway system -- a dozen bags of Sarin scattered on trains and in stations, killing and wounding many people. And Japan continues to have a problem with cults. So, all sorts of ridiculous restrictions to ride trains and subways, right?

Not at all. In Japan, you buy a ticket from a machine or get a ticket or pass in advance, walk in, show your pass or insert your ticket, head out to the platform, and hop on board with whatever you want to take with you, just like always. Even in their airports, they're like this. I was backpacking with friends over there, and we realized that we hadn't gotten rid of our stove fuel. We had big bottles of the stuff. Panicking, we poured it into a plastic drink bottle to throw away, but I felt bad about that idea because it'd be environmentally destructive and a fire risk. So, we approached the security desk carrying a (what must have looked quite suspicious) bottle of flammable liquid, and explained the situation to them. They were incredibly nice about it, and even offered to ship the fuel, in a proper manner of course, home for us (we declined).

Is this crazy? No -- it's keeping the threat in perspective and not succumbing to the paranoia that every passenger is really a sleeper cell just waiting to attack. And it's a realization that one has to face up to the fact that there are threats in this world that you simply cannot realistically prevent or even deter. Since 9/11, we have done a few things that have contributed positively to airport safety: greater training and vigilance, reinforced cockpit doors, better scanning equipment, and reinforcing the idea among passengers that you need to fight back. But forcing everyone to take off their shoes and banning liquids or little tiny pairs of scissors is just idiocy, a reactionary response to a threat that doesn't prevent the next kind of attack or -- often -- even the previous kind. Want a blade on a plane, for example? Take something glass or ceramic with you and shatter it in a towel. Or sharpen the edge of an internal structural element of a laptop case and take the laptop apart in the plane. Or about a hundred other things. How are you going to stop that sort of thing? By banning little nail scissors? You have to face the fact that there are things that you can't rely on security procedures to pick out, and that making the lines longer and passengers more annoyed every time some idiot conceives a hare-brained plot to attack an airplane is not the answer.

Submitted by Anonymous on
you don't know how many knives and guns we keep out

Well, I can wager a guess, since I was one of them. In a rush to pack my backpacking gear for my Japan trip, I threw piles of gear into whatever bag I could and raced for the airport. Then, going through screening, it was discovered that I had thrown my tiny pocketknife in my carryon. It had a one inch blade at best, and wasn't even all that sharp. When they found it, they treated me like I was planning to terrorize a small plane in our tiny midwest airport, when I was *clearly going on a backpacking trip*. After being publicly treated as though I was a terrorist for five minutes, with guards swarmed around me, they eventually decided I wasn't a threat, threw away my knife (wouldn't let me check it), and let me catch my plane.

Oh, and I had thrown a blunt-edged spade in there as well. Apparently I must have been planning to hijack a plane with a dull spade, too, because they made me throw that away as well.

I can take a wild guess that the overwhelming majority of knives and guns you find are from similar circumstances.
Submitted by Anonymous on

Wow. I've never read anybody dodging the point so much in my entire life.

Such complete nonsensical tripe like this post is showing is the reason I don't fly anymore. At all. Ever. Period.

I'm not the only one. The amazing amount of *obvious* stupidity in policies like these is keeping more and more people off aircraft entirely.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Ever check out the employee entrance in Sea-Tac by the oversized baggage area? Doesn't look like their bags are checked for liquids.

Submitted by Anonymous on

I am a flight attendant. I want to thank you for taking my Yogurt trip after trip after trip. At least I still have my scissors and cockpit access key oh and dont forget the crash axe. Ask yourself. Is taking a uniformed, currently badged flight attendants yogurt really gonna stop anything?

Submitted by Anonymous on

The entire premise that the mixture can only be done on a plane is pure lunacy. And that only 1 quart, divided between 3oz bottles is all a terrorist is going to have available is also ignoring the big picture.

Were I interested in bringing down a plane (and I'm not; I like my life, thank you -- the first person is just more clear than 3rd person statements), me and my buddies could each get a ticket, bring our limit of liquids through security, and then I could collect their bags and go to a family bathroom, where in the privacy of THAT space, I could mix together the explosive in whatever time it took.

Hell, I could leave my first quart sized bag with someone inside security, repeatedly leave security, get another bag from an accomplice, and re-enter security. Use the excuse I left my cell phone in the car, or something, if asked. I probably could do it 2 or three times before anyone raised an eyebrow.

This is a very poor risk mitigation stand. It only punishes those who are interested in following the rules. Someone determined to violate them and commit violence can easily get around them.

Submitted by Anonymous on

I will acknowledge that there is a *threat*, but has anyone actually calculated the risk?

Risk is (loosely) defined as the standard deviation of possible outcomes. Has anyone in the TSA sat down and actually analyzed this based on your own point (4) above?

Is the Risk (not the threat) greater than someone bringing aboard the solid explosive, and does adding this additional set of steps actually decrease that risk (not the threat) in any appreciable way?

Do you believe that degree of decrease worth the additional expense and inconvenience for travelers? Why?

Submitted by Anonymous on

I was flying in Japan and they had a machine that you stuck your liquid water bottle in for a couple seconds that I assume scanned it for explosives and then they allowed you to take it through security and onto the plane if it passed. Why can't we have this in the US?

Submitted by Harking on

Very well written response. Thanks for the information. Security++

One question, do the tests with the liquids take into account the possible use of combination with jet fuel? I see that as a large issue since it is readily available in any airport.

Submitted by Anonymous on

I think we can all agree that the real reason the TSA bans "liquids" is not because some unidentified idiot was rumored to have done something impossible. Its simply to keep people with a high school education employed on a massive pay roll with bosses with fat salaries at the top.

So the question becomes, are we for or against french style government welfare employment of annoying unprofessional idiots? And yes, a polite stupid many who acts carefully is unprofessional when he takes away your water simply because he took it.

No one CARES if planes get blown up - they only care if they get hijacked and used as bombs. And even then its not really an issue as long as the foreigners blow up their own cities. A simple 10 dollar lock on a door would solve that though.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Anonymous said:
Lord knows even if putting together a binary explosive is unlikely on an aircraft I am willing to check my toothpaste and shampoo just to elimilate the possibility.

I'm not. There isn't a demonstrably clear benefit to be gained by this loss of convenience. The TSA says that the binary liquid explosives idea isn't feasible on an aircraft, an assertion backed up by independent chemists. Reacting to this plot does nothing.

Furthermore, there is absolutely no screening of the other freely available liquids in the "secure" area past the screening points, i.e., the bottled water delivered to the in-airport stores isn't checked. I've talked with numerous TSA and law enforcement agents about this, and they all admit it's done on some sort of "honor system," where the vendor is trusted with the safety and security of those.

In the absence of clear, indisputable evidence that a security measure is worth it (and I won't buy the "trust us, it's classified" argument), I will never willingly give into having my right to privacy eroded or violated.

Submitted by Anonymous on

There are other explosive options besides TATP and its relatives that do require some careful preparation on the ground, but that then are ready as soon as they are mixed aboard the airplane. They involve no easily-detected acetone, generate no fumes, and look just like water (though you won't survive drinking much of the major component). The raw materials, including those of a catalytic instead of shock-based initiator can be purchased at a grocery store.

So it may be that there is something real in the "classified" information that the TSA feels it can't tell us. If so, being more candid would be good for their credibility, but I am not sure I would make a different decision if it were up to me. I have been less clear than I might have been and deciced not to include my own recipes in this post, either.

Submitted by Anonymous on

I don't believe the issue is wholely regarding liquid explosives. I think the whole thing may be a money making issue. Selling water after the check point for $2.00+ per bottle is a good way to subsidize paying for the security personnel. I am not a chemist, but given the parameters to actually make a liquid based high explosive by combining carry on chemicals seems so difficult that I cannot believe it. Even formulating nitro-glycerin in a brute force manner direct chemical combination would be ineffective to produce enough explosive power to take down a plane.

Submitted by Anonymous on

The United States government IS LYING TO YOU. They state, "there was a very serious plot to blow up planes using liquid explosives in bombs that would have worked to bring down aircraft." This is a complete FABRICATION. There was no plot, but it serves the purposes of the government to manufacture a news story of a threat in order to keep us scared and subservient.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Good explanation. I didn't completely read through the responses and if you down to!

I have one big question. Isn't there a much higher risk of danger from the trashcans that people dispose of their excess liquids in? What prevents a terrorist from exploiting that by bringing in bombs and placing them in a very public place? Seems like we're putting too much focus on the unlikely possibility of a bomb on board rather than the more likely possibility of an old-fashioned suicide or other bomb.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Thank you for allowing us to voice our opinion.

The TSA would better serve us if they focused less on possibilities and more on probabilities. Please stop hassling us about liquids.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Pure security theatre. Thanks anyway.

Submitted by Basic Math on

The TSA is already costing lives. We've exchanged the possibility of lost lives for the certainty of lost lives. How? Two ways:

1. Time spent in screening. Assume that screening takes 20 minutes - probably optimistic, but why not? - and that there are 738 million passengers, which is a number from 2005 but the best I could find. You have now spent 28,000 years of people lives just in security screening lines every year. That's 360 lifetimes spent in security screening, 2600 lives or so lost since 9/11.

2. People doing the screening could be spending their time instead accomplishing something that would better humanity. Those thousands of staff could be doing something useful with their lives.

I would argue that the loss of meaningful life since 9/11 has already easily eclipsed the actual loss of life on that day.

Submitted by Ayn R Key on

Berlin Neon wrote:
Why would TSA want to "lie"? What purpose would it serve them to have people (and their TSO's) go thru all of the trouble of limiting the amount of liquids?

That's a very good question. We know they are doing it. Why are they doing it? Do you have any guesses as to the motives of what they obviously are doing?

When someone or some organization "lies" they are doing it for some advantage or gain. So, what's in it for TSA to lie?

Good question. Since what they are doing is obvious, why do you think they are doing it?

And how do you think they keep all of their "lies" a secret?

Obviously it's not a secret.

Wouldn't you think one or two of their employees would spill the beans about the big conspiracy?

They already did in this blog entry when they admitted it took a fully equipped chemical lab to create the explosives.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Another challenge for terrorists who might combine many bottles is that each bottle increases the chances of detection of the contents or the person carrying it. If fifty passengers are involved in bringing a bottle on board, the bomb maker then has to collect the bottles and make the bomb without being noticed. The last part might not be difficult if there are 49 passengers causing distractions, but 50 terrorists on a plane don't really need a bomb to cause terror.

Submitted by Anonymous on

This is not security, it's social control. If there were a determined terrorist that wanted to hurt people (which there are probably extremely few of), they would just follow all the security rules the TSA presents, and then do something that still hurts people but gets past those rules. The average citizen, and not the terrorist, is the target of these TSA security checks - with the purpose of making the average citizen afraid, and therefore more willing to accept the removal of their basic civil and human rights.

Submitted by Gerard on

I'd like to take a slightly different note on the liquid and security issue, while I don't believe all the searches and weird rules make us any safer, think about the huge lines you are causing right in the airport terminal, a whole bunch of people grouped in a small space, why blow up a plane when you can just go stand in line and blow yourself up?
So, it is my opinion that you're causing more problems then you're solving.
Not to mention, changing your policies AFTER a supposed threat has been found seems kind of 'too little too late' to me, its nothing but security theater, so people feel safer.
I think this blog is a good start tho, thanks for that.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Let's take a look at the difficulty involved:

Liquids: Hard to get and hard to transport for the dangerous ones, damn near impossible to put togeather covertly on a plane. Hard to hide.

Solids: Semtex, that wonderful eastern style C-4, doled out by the tons by former soviet states and almost anybody. Can be molded into any shape, is oderless, and can easily be mixed with more of it's self to make a nice bomb. can be triggered by an idiot with a battery.

Winner: Solids, easy to make, store, move, and sneak, you have oh so many options to choose from.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Stupid comment: "No one CARES if planes get blown up"

Ask the family of the victims of Pan Am Flight 103, blow up by a bomb on Wednesday December 21, 1988, if "no one cares".

If one thing this blog is good for is to show the stupidity of some anonymous posters.

Submitted by Cynthia on

On a recent flight out of Philadelphia I had egg salad I was going to eat for lunch confiscated for being a liquid, and I was told that even if I had it in a container in a plastic bag I couldn't take it in, because "consumable" liquids were not allowed at all. Is this an actual policy? How would a liquid being a consumable make it more of a threat?

Submitted by Anonymous on
Q:Good question. Since what they are doing is obvious, why do you think they are doing it?
A: Big budget a huge power trip.
Submitted by Happy Traveller on

First, thanks for creating this blog, you are either a glutton for punishment or have a very enlightened approach. (maybe both)

On the liquid rules and their justification there is obviously room to disagree. That said, TSA has a difficult job and is likely to be criticized for whatever decision it makes in such cases.

I am suprised that so many have made such a fuss about such simple rules. Although I always carry toothpaste and would prefer leaving my shoes on while travelling, there are two reasons why I am totally ok with the 3-1-1 rules. The first reason I am ok with the 3-1-1 rules is that the stated cases made for the rules by TSA above are (IMNSHO) plausible and I am happy to do my part, after all, the inconvenience is tiny. It is not like they are tapping my phone or performing a cavity search.

The second reason why I am totally ok with these rules is that I understand that TSA has a job to do and that job involves putting in place some unpopular rules that I believe are more valuable than they appear. Regardless of the 'physics of liquid explosive dimensions' or 'the shoe bomb threat', the 3-1-1 rules promote a small but significant amount of interaction between the people passing through the check-point and the security personel. It is unfortunate that we all get delayed by the irate know-it-alls. But IMNHO, TSA personel are far more likely to notice the real signs of stress which suicidal terrorists are likely to exhibit if there is some moderate amount of interaction with the people passing through the check-point. And so, as naive as it may sound, it occurs to me that these silly little rules are not only designed to, but probably indeed do have, a positive effect on the safeness of my travels.

Hang in there TSA, there are travellers (at least this one) that appreciate what you are trying to do and how difficult a task it is.

Submitted by Dave X The First on

Jim: Kip's explanation says 100 ml. And the 3-1-1 rule says 3 oz.

3oz is 88ml

100ml is 3.4oz

Which limit does TSA management think it is and which limit do the screeners think it is?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Two points I'd like to make:

1) No terrorist is going to successfully take over a plane with a gun, knife, bomb, flame thrower, or tonka truck anymore. After 9/11 no one will allow it.

2) Chlorine will pass through security. I won't explain further, but if you're a NBC specialist you understand the danger. Far simpler than any binary agent.

Submitted by Anonymous on

I got stopped for 45 minutes because the TSA personnel didn't know what a "drum key" is, and sequestered me and my daughter immediately. My little drum key escalated all the way to the head of TSA at the airport, at that point, the paranoia level went from 100 to Zero because he was an musician. My daughter and I missed the flight and had to take another one.

The whole TSA business is ridiculous. I hear there is a real risk of the US becoming a police state. Can the TSA help with that? No- because they are part of the problem.

Submitted by Nethemas on

Here's an interesting thought that nobody really seems to pay attention to. Let's pretend that a terrorist sees that it's a real pain in the rear to take a plane down in the sky but wants to disrupt air travel nonetheless. What's a fellow to do?

Easy. Where is there a mass congregation of people that are readily accessible--as in no security checks? How about the bloody security check lines that run for miles because the TSA thinks my shoes happen to look like they have suspiciously tall soles, or because that pregnant lady looks like a fun person to harass for the sake of the bulge in her front.

Give me a break people. Air travel is statistically the absolute safest (even more so than walking) way to travel. Why aren't we screening cars ala checkpoint on the highway? Why don't we sic bomb sniffing dogs on Walmart customers? When was the last time there was a security check line at your local shopping mall? Get over it people, this is completely asinine!

Submitted by Anonymous on

In the light that you can buy things at duty-free shops (whose personnel and deliveries are checked lazily/lousily), that they are sealed with flimsy paper strips, which should be easy to make up yourself, and the enourmous profits by people selling overprized drinks in the "cleared" area, I think that your explanations come nowhere near to be satisfying.


Submitted by Anonymous on

Thanks for the well thought-out post. I am especially glad on the part of the response that it is all about mitigating risk.

Like many others I have always been annoyed with the ban on liquids, pretty much above everything else, but I do see there was some real thought put behind it so I feel a BIT better about it now.

I just hope everyone (not just as the TSA, but other government agencies and civilians) understands that at some point it is up to each individual person to defend themselves. There is always going to be a threat. The only way we can all truly be safe is to lock everyone up in individual padded cells. It all goes back again to mitigating risk. Government needs to trust that some individuals will rise to the occasion in certain dangerous situations. It's not guaranteed to work, of course, but in the end it's the best defense we have.

Submitted by Jonah on

The terrorists have won.

They wanted to disrupt our lives, and they've succeeded. They did so by helping creating an organization so mind-numbingly stupefying it's brought the greatest nation on earth to its knees.

I refer, of course, to the TSA.

First we couldn't take our fingernail clippers onto planes with us, in case we tried to clip the pilots' nails. Then all of a sudden it was okay again.

Then some would-be terrorists in Britain heard, probably on a movie, that if you mix some chemicals together, you can create an explosive. They performed a trial run using inert liquid in false bottomed containers, just to make sure they could get away with smuggling them onto a plane, before actually checking to make sure it was actually possible to blow up anything that way. They were caught, and the TSA realized they suddenly had a way to make the lives of ordinary citizens much worse.

They discovered that, while they could no longer take away our fingernail clippers, they could do something even more stupefying. They could confiscate our toothpaste. And our shampoo. And our expensive moisturizers.

Then, instead of relenting like they did when it came to clipping the pilots' toenails, they decided to do something even more maddening. We were allowed to take our toothpaste on board with us but only if it were in a tiny tube enclosed in a one-quart Ziploc bag.

They claim this is for our safety. Why does this insane rule make us safer? It's classified information!

The truth is that making explosives from liquid is very, very complicated. And nearly impossible to do on a plane.

What's worse is the TSA already knows this! This is from the TSA's brand spankin' new blog:

"The preparation of these bombs is very much more complex than tossing together several bottles-worth of formula and lighting it up. In fact, in recent tests, a National Lab was asked to formulate a test mixture and it took several tries using the best equipment and best scientists for it to even ignite. That was with a bomb prepared in advance in a lab setting. A less skilled person attempting to put it together inside a secure area or a plane is not a good bet. You have to have significant uninterrupted time with space and other requirements that are not easily available in a secured area of an airport. It adds complexity to their preferred model and reduces our risk, having the expert make the bomb and give it to someone else to carry aboard. They are well aware of the Richard Reid factor where he could not even ignite a completed bomb. Simple is truly better for them. Also, bomb-makers are easier for us to identify than so-called clean 'mules.'"

So they know it's insane but they make us jump through these hoops anyway. The "Shoe Bomber" couldn't manage to ignite his sneakers, but by golly, we've all got to walk through the magnetometer barefoot. The best minds in the best laboratories have a hard time creating explosives from liquids, and yet we can't take a half empty normal size tube of toothpaste on board? I solve that problem by taking six little tubes with him in his one-quart plastic bag.

The fact of the matter is that there will never be another September 11th, at least not when there's at least one American on board. As soon as someone tries to hijack a plane, every single American on board will jump up and stomp a would-be hijacker to his death. Then they'll return to their seats, fasten their safety belts, and enjoy the rest of their in-flight movie (provided they shelled out $5 for a pair of crappy headphones). It didn't take long for us to learn. It only took about half an hour for the passengers on board United Airlines Flight 93 to figure it out and take matters into their own hands.

But instead we are cowed in fear, not that we'll die in a flaming ball of fire, but that we'll miss our flight because we forgot a plastic baggie.