TSA's crazy screener-testing: giving "bombs" to regular passengers to sneak onboard?!?

Bruce Schneier notes that the TSA is apparently using "plainclothes bomb-testers" who approach regular fliers and hand them fake bombs and ask them to sneak them through security to test the screening process. This is a bad idea:
Someone please tell me this doesn't actually happen. "Hi Mr. Passenger. I'm a TSA manager. You know I'm not lying to you because of this official-looking laminated badge I have. We need you to help us test airport security. Here's a 'fake' bomb that we'd like you to carry through security in your luggage. Another TSA manager will, um, meet you at your destination. Give the fake bomb to him when you land. And, by the way, what's your mother's maiden name?"

How in the world is this a good idea? And how hard is it to dress real TSA managers up like vacationers?



  1. Assuming the churn rate for TSA Manager is low, it wouldn’t be long before they start to be recognized. That, and they’d be traveling alone most/all of the time.

    I think they need to do a ‘secret shopper’ kind of thing in order to get some realistic diversity in the people who they send through for tests.

    I’m just unclear if recruiting people is done in quite as an inflammatory way as Bruce describes, though.

  2. I don’t think there is a terrorist behind every corner, but how easy is it for someone to pose as a TSA manager to ask someone to pose as a bomb “tester”? All you need is someone gullible enough to agree because he or she feels that helping makes the skies safer.

  3. Considering that you can get sent away with no rights for the duration of the permanent war for doing who-knows-what, why would anyone in his right mind agree to be a citizen bomb tester?

  4. Me, I’d probably accept his offer. And then go have a quick talk with the real police officers about the gentleman trying to get suspicious devices past airport security. The cops’ll probably enjoy the resulting fun too.

  5. TSA is full of bad ideas. Like requiring you to not have a college degree to get a job there. Or training new employees in a building that’s no better than a strip mall. I’ve been through the process and never before was I afraid of a terrorist attack via airplanes. Now I know who exactly is guarding them and am more than wary.

  6. I think Logical Extremes has a fantastic point. By helping to smuggle a “bomb” past security at a place where there is already overwhelming incompetence, and where people are on edge (from random cavity searches, having their possessions taken/destroyed, and the already negative stresses of travel) – this is a really, really bad idea.
    Too many “what ifs”. What if not all the screeners know about the drill? What if the agent gets called away to their other duties and can’t be there when the unsuspecting citizen gets caught? With their current failure rate and obvious lack of consideration for our rights, this could easily lead to many terrible events.

    Not to mention the possibility of vigilantism on the part of the other passengers. This is just a terrible idea all around.

  7. Why the hell do they need regular passengers to do this, one would this the TSA would have enough employees to run these tests themselves, perhaps none of them want the hassle of being detained. I sure as hell wouldn’t do it, even for a very big clock.

  8. Wow, after the comment about that MIT student with a circuit board: “she’s lucky to be in a cell as opposed to the morgue.” I wonder how long it will be before a civilian “secret shopper” gets shot by a trigger happy TSA agent.

  9. This is a great from the TSA’s perspective!

    Causing the flying public to be the source of outrageous security failures is a much more TV friendly story than the reports that TSA screeners fail to identify 70% of potential bomb parts at LAX.

    Life is a spin and we’re just the floor that the refuse falls on.

    David B.

  10. Umm… As dodgy as this sounds, it also sounds similar to the drug sniffing dog testing that they’ve done in several southern california airports. That generally is testing a dog’s ability to sniff out drugs in a line of people, but the concept at least sounds similar. I’m sure I wouldn’t want to be the person carrying a fake bomb through TSA screeners though. Dogs are one thing, people with guns are another…

  11. I suspect the real explanation is a bit more literal, if not quite as excititing in an omg-conspiracy sort of way. From the blog, “At San Diego International Airport, tests are run by passengers whom local TSA managers ask to carry a fake bomb, said screener Cris Soulia…

    In other words, TSA managers get other TSA employees (and/or contractors) to carry the fake devices through security, as passengers. They are passengers in the sense that they have a ticket and are indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd.

    The blogger assumes that someone off the street buys a ticket and then gets asked to carry a fake bomb when it’s almost certainly TSA employees.

    I think it’s actually a really good thing. One more reason for TSA to treat passengers nicely: one of them might be hired by your boss to see how you’re doing.

  12. This is actually one of the theories as to what happened in the London bombings on 7 July 2005 – MI5 (the UK equivalent of the US’s CIA,) allegedly recruited Muslim students to “test security” by giving the students fake bombs that were to test the system to see whether or not they got caught or not. That is why the student who’s bomb was the last to to go off on the number 30 bus was reportedly panicking, trying to disarm it when he realized the fake bomb he was carrying was, in fact, a real bomb.

    Not my theory, but it does make you think.

  13. Kacela, if I’m carrying a fake bomb which I come to believe is real, I am not going to de-fuse it, especially on a bus, I’m going to dump it in a skip or down a man-hole or in the river. The theory makes me think all right; it makes me think, “What a silly theory.”

  14. Why does that London bombing conspiracy theory (lets give it its full category name) “make you think”?

    It could also be suggested that space aliens had the bomber under cosmic ray mind control (as part of a wider plot to cause inter-civlization general war on Earth so human society will be heavily damaged in time for the planned space alien invasion of 2012) but random shifts in the Earth’s magnetic
    fields broke the mind control hold on the bomber at the last moment which explains why the bomber woke up, was able to panic and try to defuse the bomb. Makes you think, don’t it?

    (and the last 7/7 bomber you’re talking about wasn’t even a student)

  15. Yet another prime example of what was originally captured so beautifully by the cartoonist Walt Kelly in his strip “Pogo” in which was coined the memorable (not to mention accurate in regards to this example) line “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
    I think Ron Paul might be the only candidate who’s identified this particular example of beaurocratic magical thinking as being a complete waste of effort and emblematic of everything large governement beaurocracies function. I sure hope he runs as an independent, cuz I’d reluctant to vote for the GOP after they’ve ejected the bulk of the true conservatives.

  16. I just don’t see this being a good idea. What happens when they catch people with bombs? They’re obviously going to responds as if it is a real situation. We get TSA agents running around with sub-machine guns and screaming orders and threatening to shoot.

    How will this make other people feel safe?

    Imagine the potential traumatic impressions this will leave on any bystanders. They’ll leave the place either thinking someone REALLY had a bomb, or go around all day thinking:

    “Holy crap I was 5 feet away from a guy that could have really had a bomb.
    I’m more terrified now than ever that the terrorists are everywhere, I want the government to take away more of my basic freedoms so I feel safer when I take out the trash.”

  17. This happened to me in PDX in the pre-TSA days. I was asked to put a bag on the x-ray belt. After inspecting their credentials and being informed that I did not need to recover the bag or admit ownership, I did it. After walking though, I saw the “trainers” reviewing something with the screeners on the display. I thought it was a little strange since the request to carry the bag through occurred well within sight of the X-ray machine.

    However, in today’s paranoia-laced security days, there is NO WAY I would participate in this. In fact, I would probably refer them to local authorities (as suggested above), just for fun, assuming I thought I wouldn’t be delayed.

  18. I want to know what happens if you refuse.

    People have been harasssed and/or arrested and hauled off to $GULAG simply for not taking their shoes off fast enough or whatever else happens to tweak the agent at the moment. I want to know what happens if you tell them:
    “No $AGENTNAME, I will not do this. I don’t think it’s promoting safety, it’s not my job and I have no guarantees from you regarding what will happen to me at my destination on arrival, nor do I believe you are authorized to provide me with any such guarantees”.

  19. I wouldn’t do this for a million … okay, maybe a million … no because then the bomb would probably be real … I wouldn’t do this for a million dollars. What are the chances that you get nabbed like that idiot girl in boston with the electronic devices strapped to her shirt? I’m sure that Rush Limbaugh’s mouth breathing listeners would jump on this as patriotic ‘mercans though, which would be a good thing if they got caught.

  20. I guess the easiest way to do this is to take the ‘bomb’, walk to security like usual. And answer their questions as usual. Did you pack your own bags – yes. Did anyone ask you to take something on the plane – yes. Who asked you – your boss!

    Unless of course they tell you to lie…
    Hey, I wonder if getting pictures taken with the guy and bomb and you posing would get you off if someone were to take this seriously…

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