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From Possible Evil Doer To Likely Victim Of Terror

How To Go From Possible Evil Doer
To Likely Victim Of Terror
In Just Four Hours

By editor SAM SMITH
February 23, 2004

This report is coming to you direct from a laptop computer that scant hours ago was in the custody - along with its owner and his wife - of the Transportation Security Administration at MacArthur Airport in Islip, Long Island. The computer and by inference its owner and wife were suspected of being a WMD. This was not the metaphorical judgment that critics sometimes make about this journal but a literal interpretation of the computer's capabilities given the alleged emission of traces of explosives.

What makes this even more remarkable is that the computer in question is a Compaq Presario 1200 purchased in 1999 and currently lacking an F1 and right hand shift key. The most common disparaging remark previously made about it has been, "You still got one of those?"

This journal has had some harsh words about the TSA concerning its unconstitutional and/or egregious behavior in such matters as planning a massive spy system, creating a 'no-fly list' and, most recently, punishing people who carry forbidden objects with outrageous fines. But it should be noted that the TSA officials involved in the Case of the Compaq 1200 behaved with decency, respect, and professionalism. As your editor was quietly grumping in a chair, the apparent leader of the white shirts even came and sat next to me, urging me not to be frustrated as it was all for my own good. It was a bit Dr. Philish but he clearly meant well. He also apparently called in about six armed police officers which I found rather flattering given what I had assumed to be the age-enhanced physical deterioration I was certain I exuded.

No, the problem lay in the fact that the TSA officials actually believed the machine. I, of course, knew better having gone through exactly this situation some five years ago, albeit with a Fujitsu rather than with a Compaq.

Despite admitting that certain brands of computers had been falsely interpreted by the machine, US Air security officials had called in backup and removed my bags from the plane. By the time the computer had been tested by a second machine, which also thought the Fujitsu laptop might be a bomb, I found myself, long before September 11, trapped in a post-Orwellian synergy of defective technology and incompetent bureaucracy. In the end, a bomb-sniffing dog happily nosed about the computer, licked the hard drive and quickly returned without complaint to K-9 police officer Jim Cox. A half dozen living human beings had surrendered their will to a dubious creation of the late 20th century marketplace of fear, but the dog was smart enough to trust his own judgment. Officer Cox, to his credit, trusted the dog as well and later, in getting my social security number, emphasized that it was US Air security and not the airport police who were responsible. It's funny how dogs can make us more human.

In today's instance, the agents attempted to determine whether I took heart medicine (i.e. nitro glycerin)or whether I had been around explosives or a construction site. I said I had not but noted that I had helped my son put up some shelves. That did not seem to impress them. I was assured that the machine was highly precise. No one mentioned, as I would learned later, that the machine was so precise it could pick up not only evidence of a bomb but a random spot of explosive that chose to land on the laptop.

As an official of Transport Canada, Bernard Pilon explained to a trade publication, "To give you an idea of the sensitivity of a trace detector, when I say 'microscopic,' I'm talking in terms of nanograms or less. A nanogram is one billionth of a gram. To put that measurement into more tangible terms, one billionth of a gram is equivalent to one second in a 34-year time span - or the concentration of one packet of sugar emptied into an Olympic-sized swimming pool."

I also subsequently discovered a story from The Australian that began: "Passengers wearing aftershave, hand cream and recently dry-cleaned clothes are sometimes triggering explosives detectors at Australian airports. Qantas said yesterday it was working with the maker of the explosive trace detection equipment in an attempt to reduce the number of 'false positive' results. It turns out that common garden fertilizers also set the machines off.

A story in another Australian paper, The Age, reported, "Civil libertarians have urged the Government to overhaul the system, claiming proper safeguards are needed to prevent innocent passengers from being humiliated. "This system has the potential to cause people embarrassment, to have people identified as potential terrorist suspects when they're not," Liberty Victoria president Greg Connellan said. "Common sense tells you these tests are not going to work because they detect products we all use on a day-to-day basis," he said.

How many false positives? The TSA agents at Islip assured me not many but a story last year in Travel Insider suggested otherwise: "The TSA has a policy against identifying how often the explosive trace detection machines spit out false positive results, said an agency spokeswoman. 'All I can tell you is they're getting a lot of hits,' said one industry insider, who asked not to be identified because he works closely with the TSA.

There is no good reason why the failure rate of such a machine should not be public information. Especially when one of the biggest suckers at the Pentagon teats is involved as a manufacturer, in this case Boeing. About a year ago, Rick Stephens, vice president for Homeland Security & Services at Boeing, gave a speech to an international technology summit where he alluded to the problem:

"If I go back to the airport security programs, we ran into a real challenge to say we want to deploy the explosive detection equipment in the airports across America. We probably deployed that equipment a little bit sooner. Had we waited a year or so, we would have been able to reduce false positives significantly, and so we're working on those technology improvements right now."

Which is Pentagon contractor speak for the machines weren't ready when they were installed.

On May 27, 2002, John Croft of Aviation Week & Space Technology wrote, "Experts are troubled by Mineta's latest assurance, . . . citing inherent limitations with the trace equipment and the fact that it does not meet, nor was it ever intended to meet, the FAA's rigorous EDS certification standards.

"Trace detection machines, though less expensive (about $40,000 per unit), are much less automated than EDS, requiring additional operators who must swab suspect luggage and process the samples, a time-consuming process that is dependent on the operator's choice of what elements of the luggage to sample for residue. Experts acknowledge that it's possible for bomb makers to prevent residue from contaminating the outside of a bag, a realization that in theory should force operators to delve into the contents of a checked bag, taking multiple samples, since a cursory check on the outside of the bag could yield a false negative.

"Regarding false positive, or nuisance readings, the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year called on the FAA to implement a program to evaluate the effectiveness of EDTs, following up on a 1996 finding that the "problem in all trace-detection approaches is clearing vapors or particles of explosive materials from the sample-collection mechanism so that subsequent readings are not influenced by previous traces of explosive materials. . .

"While experts debate whether the time required for a directed search is justifiable compared with the inside-bag check, they do agree that swabbing the outside is ineffective. "Trace on the outside of the bag?" said one equipment manufacturer familiar with the practice. "You might as well swing a dead chicken over it."

On the fourth try, my computer tested clean and we made the 11:35 Southwest flight to Baltimore where we switched to Amtrak for the final run to DC. It was only an average commuter's trip, but Amtrak, with the insecurity of those not fully in the homeland game, demanded our IDs anyway.

It wasn't, however, until we arrived home that the real irony of this adventure hit. I had returned, a repatriated suspected evil doer, to my home just a few block from the US Capitol in a city that the New York Times had featured the same weekend as a fear-ridden armed fortress. In fact, however, that is only selectively true. Six blocks from my house they are building an underground bunker for Congress at a cost of over $1 million per member. Even John Ashcroft, who lives a few blocks away from me, has to make do with a Justice Department security officer in an SUV keeping himself amused and awake by giving treats to passing dogs on their walks. And somewhere between John Ashcroft's house and mine the war on terror suddenly stops. Southwest Airlines was safe, Amtrak was safe, Congress was safe, but I had merely moved from being a possible terrorist to being a possible victim of terror. Islip was safe and I was in danger again.


FEB 23, 2004
SINCE 1964, Washington's most unofficial source
1312 18th St. NW #502, Washington DC 20036
202-835-0770 Fax: 835-0779

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