A hat, a tube of toothpaste, children’s toys, a candle and an aluminum walking cane – what do these seemingly random items have in common? The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) warns they could all feasibly be fashioned into explosive devices by a terrorist looking to take down a plane or otherwise cause chaos.
“Those individuals who want to cause harm are very good at disguising and artfully concealing explosive devices,” said Lisa Farbstein, public affairs officer for the TSA from in front of the security checkpoint at T.F. Green Airport on Thursday morning. “It's really up to the imagination of the bomber.”
The demonstration of various improvised explosives served as part of an informational campaign utilized by the TSA to show why air passengers today must jump through certain hoops before being cleared to board a plane – like taking off your shoes, going through X-ray machines, being limited in the quantity of liquids you can possess in your carry-on and being required to remove electronics from your bag.
Although the items showcased in the demonstration were all merely training implements created by the TSA to better prepare officers for what they should be looking out for – all but one of them had never been explicitly seen in the field before – the one famed implement that was attempted in the early 2000s still causes the agency to be on high alert for unorthodox items that may have been modified to become dangerous implements.
That item is a simple shoe, which was utilized by British terrorist Richard Reid in December of 2001 in an attempt to blow up a flight from Paris headed to Miami. The attempt thankfully did not succeed, but nevertheless the incident prompted security procedures from that time on to include searches of shoes for explosives.
The TSA was created in the wake of 9/11 among a more than understandable public outcry for increased airport security. The TSA budget was $7.58 billion in 2018, and employed 51,000 people in 2019. According to a TSA press release, they are responsible for ensuring safety and security on an estimated 107 million passengers nationwide between March 14 and April 28 (and 2.2 million passengers specifically from Green Airport) – a busy period as people travel for spring breaks.
Their continued operations has become a hot area of debate between two main camps of people – those who feel they are willing to sacrifice personal privacy rights for increased safety and peace of mind, and those who fear such measures lead to more stringent attacks on personal freedom while not actually netting real security benefits.
Those who argue against the efficacy of the TSA liken its continued existence to a term known as “security theater” – where uniformed agents utilize lots of showy implementations of security, like full body scanners and random pat downs and the forced removal of shoes and banning large containers of liquid to present an illusion of lockdown security, despite those implements not being any more beneficial to security than airports were without them.
The TSA utilizes an Instagram account to showcase all the suspicious or otherwise potentially dangerous items that they confiscate, but to date since their creation there has been no adequate evidence presented even by the TSA themselves that their measures have actually stopped a targeted terrorist attack.
In fact, a famous experiment conducted by the Department of Homeland Security in 2015 revealed that, at least just a few years ago, the measures utilized by the TSA are not be as effective as they’d like passengers to believe. Using 70 undercover agents, all carrying fake improvised devices that could have been a real bomb, the agency tested TSA security at dozens of airports across the nation.
The results? TSA agents failed to stop the undercover agents from gaining access to their flights with their fake explosives 67 out of 70 times – a 95 percent failure rate. One of them was even stopped by the metal detector, only to be let through after a pat down, despite the device being taped to his back.
On the flip side, the TSA confiscated 3,957 firearms across 239 United States airports in 2017, 84 percent of which were loaded and about 35 percent of which had a round chambered – any one of which could certainly have been utilized in a targeted attack. Farbstein said the number of confiscated guns continuously increases year to year, including over 4,000 in 2018, and that they also “constantly” find drugs that smugglers are trying to traffic – despite that not being their primary motivation.
In response to whether or not the TSA actually increases the safety of U.S. airline passengers, Farbstein reckoned that the existence of the TSA improved safety in and of itself.
“TSA being there is a deterrent in itself. You haven't seen another attempt similar to what we saw on 9/11 because we are here,” she said. “Because those who want to cause harm know they have to go through layers and layers of security.”
Farbstein said that the vast majority of people accept the security screening techniques utilized by the TSA, and that number increased significantly following the recent government shutdown. She said that the airport screenings are just a small portion of the security process prior to a flight, which begins from the moment you buy a ticket.
“A lot of times people think it's just the checkpoint, but it's not,” she said. “We have the checked baggage screening, the law enforcement partnerships, you are actually vetted at the time you purchase your ticket. Even before you arrive at the airport you're vetted.”
As technology increases, so do security concerns. Farbstein said that the TSA has already found 3D-printed guns at some airports across the country, but didn’t provide exactly how many. 3D-printed guns are fashioned out of plastic, and can fire plastic projectiles – neither of which will set off a metal detector. Making matters more complicated, 3D-printed guns can be made into a variety of shapes, potentially fooling X-ray imaging as well.
“They’re going to be harder to detect, no doubt about it,” she said.
For the people who find the TSA measures to be too intrusive or inconvenient for their liking, the TSA do not show much sympathy.
“You don't have to fly either. It's a choice,” Farbstein said. “You can take a train, you can drive. It's a choice to fly.”