The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg tests airport security

Mirthful story in the November 2008 issue of The Atlantic.


Airport security in America is a sham–“security theater” designed to make travelers feel better and catch stupid terrorists. Smart ones can get through security with fake boarding passes and all manner of prohibited items –- as our correspondent did with ease.

As we stood at an airport Starbucks, [Bruce] Schnei­er spread before me a batch of fabricated boarding passes for Northwest Airlines flight 1714, scheduled to depart at 2:20 p.m. and arrive at Reagan National at 5:47 p.m. He had taken the liberty of upgrading us to first class, and had even granted me “Platinum/Elite Plus” status, which was gracious of him. This status would allow us to skip the ranks of hoi-polloi flyers and join the expedited line, which is my preference, because those knotty, teeming security lines are the most dangerous places in airports: terrorists could paralyze U.S. aviation merely by detonating a bomb at any security checkpoint, all of which are, of course, entirely unsecured. (I once asked Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, about this. “We actually ultimately do have a vision of trying to move the security checkpoint away from the gate, deeper into the airport itself, but there’s always going to be some place that people congregate. So if you’re asking me, is there any way to protect against a person taking a bomb into a crowded location and blowing it up, the answer is no.”)

... Schnei­er and I joined the line with our ersatz boarding passes. “Technically we could get arrested for this,” he said, but we judged the risk to be acceptable. We handed our boarding passes and IDs to the security officer, who inspected our driver’s licenses through a loupe, one of those magnifying-glass devices jewelers use for minute examinations of fine detail. This was the moment of maximum peril, not because the boarding passes were flawed, but because the TSA now trains its officers in the science of behavior detection. The SPOT program–“Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques”–was based in part on the work of a psychologist who believes that involuntary facial-muscle movements, including the most fleeting “micro-expressions,” can betray lying or criminality. The training program for behavior-detection officers is one week long. Our facial muscles did not cooperate with the SPOT program, apparently, because the officer chicken-scratched onto our boarding passes what might have been his signature, or the number 4, or the letter y. We took our shoes off and placed our laptops in bins. Schnei­er took from his bag a 12-ounce container labeled “saline solution.”

“It’s allowed,” he said. Medical supplies, such as saline solution for contact-lens cleaning, don’t fall under the TSA’s three-ounce rule.

“What’s allowed?” I asked. “Saline solution, or bottles labeled saline solution?”

“Bottles labeled saline solution. They won’t check what’s in it, trust me.”

They did not check.

The Things He Carried -- The Atlantic (November 2008)


  1. A little over a month ago I flew from Sacramento to Las Vegas with a couple of friends, one of whom was 6 months pregnant. At the airport they confiscated her water, had us remove watches and belts and shoes… the normal gig. They ran our stuff through the x-ray and sent us on our way. It wasn’t until we got to the hotel in Vegas that I realized my matte black 3.5″ Special Ops knife – the one I keep razor sharp for cutting tomatoes and apples – was in my carry-on bag and had been in my carry-on bag the whole time. They took a pregnant woman’s water, had us take off half our clothes, subjected us to all sorts of ID checks, and yet I still carried a legitimate weapon onto the plain. It makes the time I had to get out of line to go mail a snow globe at the airport parcel post seem just a tad silly.

  2. At the security checkpoint lines, your “status” doesn’t matter. First Class, Silver, Elite Gold, Supreme Platinum-Iridium Overlord — whatever. The folks who work the metal detectors and X-ray machines are not airline employees, they are government employees. They don’t care about how much you paid for your ticket or how often you fly. They only care about nail clippers and 3.1 Oz liquid containers.

    I have never flown anything other than economy, but I have used the “first class” security line many, many times. There’s no secret to it. Just walk up to the security gate, get in line with the rich folks, and pass through like everyone else.

  3. PROJECT DISTRACTION@1: Thanks for adding your additional experience. I know there are thousands of other personal accounts like this, just from the small sampling we’ve seen here in similar threads. It’s so bass ackwards and completely absurd, just like everything else implemented in the name of security by this administration in the past 7+ years. Designed it would seem, merely to steal your dignity, your freedom, and your possessions, instead of providing a shred of actual security.

    It all began when we allowed them to steal our vote. What could we do? It was unthinkably brazen. We had always trusted the highest court in the land, the only one to with lifetime membership, to be above partisanship. But now in just a handful of years the kleptocrats have stripped us bare of our most prized possessions better than any foreign band of “terrorists” ever could have hoped, getting away with things beyond the dreams of Nixon.

    Imagine if they had been successful with privatizing social security. There is a reason the Unseen Hand of Capitalism tries to remain anonymous. As we saw with the bailouts that are not rescuing the economy as they’d divined, it is actually an invisible glove donned exclusively by the biggest thumbs, making another excuse to put public funds in private accounts.

    Security theater is political theater. Our life’s blood is on the line. We’re all holding our breath.

  4. Nathaniel Heatwole

    From the above linked Washington Post article, June 25, 2004 (the most recent I could find):

    A Maryland college student who smuggled box cutters onto passenger flights to highlight flaws in airport security, prompting one airline to search every plane in its fleet, was sentenced Thursday to two years’ probation…

    …In the e-mail, Heatwole provided his name and telephone number and asked to be contacted by authorities. The TSA forwarded the e-mail to the FBI on Oct. 17. Agents interviewed Heatwole that evening at his parents’ home. He appeared in court three days later, charged with the felony offense.

    Heatwole’s legal trouble might not be over. Eisenberg said in court that Southwest Airlines intends to seek restitution.

    I wonder if they went through with filing suit, even after his public apology.

  5. t’s clr tht Gldbrg nd Schnr r thmslvs trrrsts. Wrs stll, thy r sgnlng thrgh th pplr md t thr trrrsts hw t xplt r scrty hls.
    It’s clear that Goldberg and Schneier are themselves terrorists. Worse still, they are signaling through the popular media to other terrorists how to exploit our security holes.

    IN FACT, The Atlantic itself is arguably in collusion with this terrifying branch of Al Qaeda.

    The obvious conclusion is that the terrorists have agents everywhere: In our places of work, in the media, even our local stores, and probably even our homes. When your children go to school, do you know for sure that they are not going to a local terrorist training ground? In fact, perhaps our schools are so full of communists, I mean terrorists, they they have been converted into Al Qaeda training grounds.

    No wonder they’re just about to elect Barack Hussain Obama as president.

  6. Just imagine the funny ending to this story if the writers had been found out and given a beat-down.
    Your government employees at work. But don’t worry, the government will be better at spreading the wealth around “fairly”.

  7. I haven’t the patience for long diatribes anymore : it is my firm belief that a long argumentation’s purpose is to avoid the simple truth. I say that the security operation since 9-11 is a stroke of genius, period.

    It is glaringly obvious that its aim is to realize an extremist political agenda. For that it was needed to manage the ever latent hysteria in the American population and *that* is the only function of the DHS. They’ve been modulating it so finely to a tone that is just shrill enough to annihilate all thoughts that we must recognize their artistry.

    Those responsible for 9-11 or similar organizations could have run a thousand successful operations in the US. They just didn’t need to since they had destroyed what made the country already.

    I can’t wait to see how Obama will squash that plot… ahem!


  8. At the start of the Presidential election season, I declared to my husband my intention to max out my allowable donation to the first candidate to pledge to end the ban on liquids. He was concerned that we didn’t have that kind of money to donate. I assured him it wouldn’t be a problem. And it hasn’t been!

  9. Have Goldberg and Schnei­er tired to fly since the article was published? You know the way this organization works. They will be punished for daring to question the goon squad that we have allowed to terrorize us. They will be put on the NO FLY list at the very least.

  10. You all mock the TSA now, but some day a terrorist will moisten a crowd with over three ounces of liquid and then nobody will be laughing anymore.

  11. #10 posted by Pipenta
    Have Goldberg and Schnei­er tired to fly since the article was published?

    They are never going to fly under their own names in north america again. No one with those names will be allowed on any plane. Luckily they don’t need to use their own names…

  12. @Phikus, #3:

    > the bailouts that are not rescuing the economy as they’d divined,..

    Oh dear, drifting wildly off-topic, but if you’d been paying attention you’d know that the bail-out was never intended to “rescue the economy”. It was about preventing the banking system collapsing and taking everyone’s savings with it. (There are some savings deposits in US banks, really there are.) That would have been much, much worse than GDP falling 5 or 10 points over the next decade. If you ever thought it was going to save the US or the world from a severe recession, though, I’m afraid you were badly mistaken.

  13. Years ago (pre 9/11 it must be admitted), I flew from Minneapolis, MN to Moscow, Russia. This involved flying to New York via Northwest, changing planes to a Czech Air flight, flying to Bratislava, changing planes again and finally ending up in Moscow.

    I had forgotten that I had a 3″ lock-blade pocket knife in my carry-on. It made it through security in Minneapolis and JFK. But in Bratislava the security guy found it. I told him I had forgotten it was there, and that I didn’t really need it. I said he could have it. He said no that wouldn’t do, put it in a padded envelope and checked it through to Moscow where it came out on the conveyor belt along with my suitcase.

  14. “Screening of Passengers” […] was based in part on the work of a psychologist who believes that involuntary facial-muscle movements, including the most fleeting “micro-expressions,” can betray lying or criminality….

    He ought to meet the hilarious Dr. Bruce “winking asshole” Woodling who developed the “anal wink test” to determine whether a child had been sodomized: In a clinical setting, he would spread a child’s buttocks and touch the anus with a cotton swab. If the anus “winked”, Woodling testified, this was “proof of sodomy”.

    His testimony was prominent in the infamous McMartin preschool child abuse case that destroyed and damaged so many innocent lives. He was later rightly denounced and ridiculed and driven into well-deserved obscurity.

    1. Dr. Bruce “winking asshole” Woodling

      The anal wink is a natural response. It’s the anal yawn you have to worry about.

  15. I’ve been wondering about bringing laptops with me, not because I have anything illegal on there.. or so I thought.
    What is it that they will do with your laptop?? I suppose what I am asking is how illegal is illegal? Am I going to have it confiscated for having downloaded music on there? Or films? Are they going to take laptops at random and search the whole system or does it just go through the xray and your done?

  16. Schnei­er and Goldberg did not go far enough.
    They ought to have travelled under fake names, I would suggest they travel as the Kaeda brothers – Allan and Alistair.

  17. IMPAK@14: I thought I made a pretty good case as to how it was related. Sorry this was lost on you.

    I didn’t say that the bailout was designed to fix the economy. I said it was purported (actually the word I used was “divined”) to do lots of things like restore investors’ confidence, etc. I did not intend to introduce a debate on economics in this thread, but you have to admit that the bailout was couched with strong rhetoric to perform miracles that it isn’t, if you yourself have been paying attention, that is.

  18. security theater and the new economic order are interwoven. Current free-men about to be demoted to serf or even slave rank are being eased into it by having serf-class in authority over them. Similarly, the next generation of the lower nobility is becoming accustomed to traveling separately from the masses,an essential part of their re-education away from the residue of the democratic rabble-rule experiment.

  19. #10 posted by Pipenta
    Have Goldberg and Schnei­er tired to fly since the article was published?

    As #13 said… they won’t travel under their own names… because they don’t *have* to. The article describes how they did it. It’s ironic, the same kind of activity that might get you put on The List is the same kind of activity that lets you bypass it.

    Honestly though, if Schnei­er or Goldberg were trying to go through security with that kind of kit and were *brown-colored* (Silver Streak, anyone?) or God forbid looked Middle Eastern / had “Arab” names, this might have been a very different story.

  20. I once absentmindedly left a huge box cutter blade in a pouch of my messenger bag (carry on). I made it through security in ATL but it was found by a screener at Laguardia, who told me I shouldn’t be carrying something like that. She took the blade and off I went.
    I’m super glad she made the determination that I had no motive to sneak something like that onboard.

  21. DAMMIT!

    Stupid smartypants Boingboing readers. I can’t troll anybody here.

    But after all of my Grade-A trolling, how come I got disemvoweled only in that last sentence?!

  22. Buddy66 @ 20: Thank you for this information. I’m sorry to report that I just googled “winking asshole” and while I learned a great deal on the subject, I couldn’t find any reference to Dr. Woodling.

    Don’t fool yourself, it’s going right up your poop-chute.

  23. Project Distraction, Hank, Anthony, I once did the same thing with a big lockback tanto. Security spotted it wedged into a diverticulum in the bottom of my backpack when I was flying back from Texas. What was disturbing was that airport security in New York City had let me fly out with it.

    TheWalrus @2: No matter what they’re calling his offense, Nathaniel Heatwole got prosecuted for embarrassing the TSA.

    DelicateFlower @11: I’ve made the same vow, only in my case it was the first candidate who proposed to go after spammers with fire and sword. So far, my money’s … well, as safe as money is these days.

    Pipenta @12: I don’t know about Jeffrey Goldberg’s future in air travel, but I’m not worried about Bruce Schneier. He’s an internationally famous security expert, and he’s been publicly busting Kip Hawley’s chops for years now. Putting him on the no-fly list would be a bigger scandal than putting Ted Kennedy on it.

    Ryan @13, thank you. I’ve fixed it.

    HarpDevil @23, the most I’ve ever had them do was see whether the thing unslept and turned into a normal computer when they hit a key on it.

    Phikus, Imipak, be nice to each other.

    Takuan @26, I still think it’s about limiting our ability to travel without saying so. Why else punch a huge hole in airport security by instituting the CLEAR program? If the TSA suddenly comes up with an excuse to tighten airport security to the point where it becomes prohibitively difficult to fly, travelers who have CLEAR passes will effectively be the only ones with permission to travel overseas.

  24. TERESA: Alright… *offers to shake hands with IMPAK*

    LORD XENU: “Don’t fool yourself girl, it’s winkin’ at you-hoo. Ayeyayayaee.”

    ANTINOUS: Sometimes you really get my goatse.

  25. If anyone listens to WOR Radion in the NYC area, you have heard the advertisement for a special ‘gold-card’ (or I should say ‘carte blanche’) thingy which is supposed to speed you through airport security. You pay a membership fee and you somehow circumvent the lines.

    For all the times I’ve heard the commercial, the name escapes me.

    How can they promise this?

  26. The ID hole has been around forever, pretty much since the day they started checking IDs at the check points. The fact is that ID means nothing for security anyways.

    Moreover, the other things that he writes about “sneaking through security” like flags and shirts are not actually illegal to carry on planes. Sure the 8 ounce toothpaste tube in the pocket is a “problem” for the ridiculous 3-1-1 rule but it isn’t actually dangerous.

    The more people point out that the rules are stupid and don’t actually work for anything useful the better the chances are that they will actually get fixed. Not bloody likely to happen, but showing that the emperor is walking around naked is better than blindly believing that he must be wearing clothes just because Kippie says he is.

  27. Note to moderator: when you encrypted #8s first para, you neglected to delete the plaintext.

    Does BB security censorship get lax on Saturdays? Or did you suddenly realize the author was being sardonic instead of insulting?

  28. @#37 “The more people point out that the rules are stupid and don’t actually work for anything useful the better the chances are that they will actually get fixed.”

    Tell that to Soviet Russia.

  29. I imagine that the checkpoints operate on a similar principle to the roadside immigration checkpoints in Southern California.

    “white. pass through.”
    “white. pass through.”
    “journalist. pass through quickly.”
    “white. pass through.”
    “middle eastern looking and brown. step to the side please.”

    I know it’s absurd to profile in this way, but I’d be willing to bet that is what “SPOT” is all about.

  30. I feel Americans don’t travel so much around the World or someone would start to ask why US needs the “security theater” while the World deals without so much problems with terrorism… or almost try to deal with it without making airplanes go bankrupt (cheak how much US airplines loose everyday…).
    Is America still so scared to accept the militarization of society (that means spending a great part of tax money for unnecessary military/secutiry)?!
    How the rest of the World can live without it?!

  31. I had this happen to me on a flight not long ago (but obviously not to that extreme), I was running through the terminal and got to the mental detector, which beeped when I went through it, I just said “I’m sorry I have scissors in my bag” which I did have – and they said “that’s ok, just go”

  32. I accidentally took a box cutter on a canadian flight after 9/11. I didn’t get caught but I was really surprised when I went through my carry on later. I do get searched fairly often. I tend to have art supplies which look funny to the x-ray machines.

  33. Catching stupid terrorists – of course. You either have to be pretty committed and intelligent to blow yourself up (issue is – the smarter you are, the more likely you figure out there ain’t all them virgins waitin’), or pretty stupid (the dumber you are, the more likely you figure out there are all them virgins waitin’), like the UK shoe-bomber.

    So I buy into the argument that a detection system is useful. Yes, it’s theatre, and if you’re smart, resourceful and determined, you can make it through the checks. Yes, it’s staffed by dolts. Dolts do make idiot checks and detain people unnecessarily. The cult of fear rules.

    So what do do? Remember, only 5% of the population are smart enough to read this blog and comprehend it. If one of them goes nuts, well, we’re all doomed. Airport or not.

  34. #46 posted by Bexta:
    >…and got to the mental detector, which beeped when I went through it.
    >mental detector
    There’s your problem.

  35. I can’t believe how many people are fed up by this and yet nothing is changing. Whenever I fly in the US, I’m amazed by the stupid security everyone has to go through. Is there any organization trying to change this? I would be ready to join.

  36. I no longer bother with the 3-1-1 rule. I fly regularly- up to 10-15 times a year. In the last two years, several times I’ve forgotten to bring the right size bottle or to put the ziploc bag outside my carry-on. Not once have I ever been stopped. Several times I have also accidentally left my sizeable swiss army knife attached to my keys. Not once has anyone ever noticed. It is an utter joke.

    One more thing to keep in mind- know how we all have to take off our shoes and go barefoot or socked through those little spaces? Guess how often those carpets or tiles get cleaned at most airports? Once a day, if you’re lucky. Often, once every few days. Imagine thousands upon thousands of sweaty feet touching this sweat-stained carpet. Several studies have been done that show that the likelihood of you picking up athlete’s foot or some other infection from this is significant. That’s what I worry about at the airport- not the threat of a random boogeyman who wants to put bombs in his shoes.

    1. Imagine thousands upon thousands of sweaty feet touching this sweat-stained carpet.

      Shared gym equipment and yoga mats are a major (possibly primary) means of transmission for resistant organisms. Your fears are probably well founded.

  37. So the journalist Goldberg finds security wholes in the police state? Maybe for his next story he can report on the inherent efficiency in beating baby seals one at a time for their coats.

  38. All these efforts to catch suicide bombers overlook one simple fact. They’re forgetting about bombers who are not suicidal. Checking shoes, banning liquids. You know, terrorists usually simply checked in their bombs. Most of the time, they don’t even get on board. Whether the bomb explodes in the cabin, or in the luggage compartment, it’ll likely kill everyone on board.

    It’s quite simple. Buy two tickets. Check in your bomb onto flight #1. Go through security. Get onto flight #2. By the time the bomb explodes, you’d be safely on the way to your home country. Where you can continue to work on your cause.

  39. This started before 9/11, it just accelerated exponentially after that.

    Less than a month ago, I flew to Denmark on SAS. When I got off the plane at Copenhagen, there was a friendly blond SAS agent there handing out maps and directions through the (enormous) airport.

    You know how we were greeted at O’Hare on return? Drug dogs and armed officers wearing flak vests.

    We started giving up our rights with the War on Drugs in the 80’s. That desensitized us to intrusions by faceless government agencies.

    I’m not a “legalize everything” person, and I don’t use drugs myself. But I resent the hell out of the casual way we collectively gave up the Fourth Amendment and, apparently, never looked back or questioned it.

  40. The whole “SPOT” training seems pretty shaky to me. It would take much less effort for someone to act a certain way (or not act a certain way), then it would be to make a legitimate-looking fake ID and boarding pass.

    Airport security is a joke.

  41. My understanding of Clear is that you still go through all the same security rigamarole, but you get to go through a lane that’s only for Clear members, meaning it’s a shorter line. (They also claim to staff those lines with “professional, courteous Clear attendants”.)

    I’m a little curious.. for the airports that have added a Clear lane, is this an additional lane to those that already existed, or did they take away an existing lane? Because if it’s the latter, that really sucks. And even if it’s the former, I’d rather have seen them add an additional lane for everyone, not just those people who are willing and able to fork over an extra $200 a year. (It’s like EZ Pass, where they turn about half the lanes into EZ Pass-only, which doesn’t actually encourage people to get a pass, it just makes the cash lanes even longer.)

  42. For a laugh (you have to, or otherwise you’d cry) read Joe Sharkey in the NYTimes regarding flying in the US.

    My favorite story on TSA hassles is:

    “A friend who is an F.B.I. agent was permitted to carry her gun on board an airplane after showing proper identification,” said Dr. Stephen J. Firestone from Minnesota. “Her nail file, on the other hand, was confiscated because it could be used as a weapon.”

    Our tax dollars at work so the TSA can “…protect the nation’s transportation systems so you and your family can travel safely.”

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