The Things He Carried

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.
fake boarding pass
The author's forged boarding pass—complete with Platinum/Elite Plus status and magical TSA-approval squiggle—got him through security.


In Minneapolis, I littered my carry-on with many of my prohibited items, and also an Osama bin Laden, Hero of Islam T-shirt, which often gets a rise out of people who see it. This day, however, would feature a different sort of experiment, designed to prove not only that the TSA often cannot find anything on you or in your carry-on, but that it has no actual idea who you are, despite the government’s effort to build a comprehensive “no-fly” list. A no-fly list would be a good idea if it worked; Bruce Schnei­er’s homemade boarding passes were about to prove that it doesn’t. Schnei­er is the TSA’s most relentless, and effective, critic; the TSA director, Kip Hawley, told me he respects Schnei­er’s opinions, though Schnei­er quite clearly makes his life miserable.

“The whole system is designed to catch stupid terrorists,” Schnei­er told me. A smart terrorist, he says, won’t try to bring a knife aboard a plane, as I had been doing; he’ll make his own, in the airplane bathroom. Schnei­er told me the recipe: “Get some steel epoxy glue at a hardware store. It comes in two tubes, one with steel dust and then a hardener. You make the mold by folding a piece of cardboard in two, and then you mix the two tubes together. You can use a metal spoon for the handle. It hardens in 15 minutes.”

As we stood at an airport Starbucks, 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 walked to the security checkpoint. “Counter­terrorism in the airport is a show designed to make people feel better,” he said. “Only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.” This assumes, of course, that al-Qaeda will target airplanes for hijacking, or target aviation at all. “We defend against what the terrorists did last week,” Schnei­er said. He believes that the country would be just as safe as it is today if airport security were rolled back to pre-9/11 levels. “Spend the rest of your money on intelligence, investigations, and emergency response.”

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. As we gathered our belongings, Schnei­er held up the bottle and said to the nearest security officer, “This is okay, right?” “Yep,” the officer said. “Just have to put it in the tray.”

“Maybe if you lit it on fire, he’d pay attention,” I said, risking arrest for making a joke at airport security. (Later, Schnei­er would carry two bottles labeled saline solution—24 ounces in total—through security. An officer asked him why he needed two bottles. “Two eyes,” he said. He was allowed to keep the bottles.)

We were in the clear. But what did we prove?

“We proved that the ID triangle is hopeless,” Schneier said.

The ID triangle: before a passenger boards a commercial flight, he interacts with his airline or the government three times—when he purchases his ticket; when he passes through airport security; and finally at the gate, when he presents his boarding pass to an airline agent. It is at the first point of contact, when the ticket is purchased, that a passenger’s name is checked against the government’s no-fly list. It is not checked again, and for this reason, Schnei­er argued, the process is merely another form of security theater.

“The goal is to make sure that this ID triangle represents one person,” he explained. “Here’s how you get around it. Let’s assume you’re a terrorist and you believe your name is on the watch list.” It’s easy for a terrorist to check whether the government has cottoned on to his existence, Schnei­er said; he simply has to submit his name online to the new, privately run CLEAR program, which is meant to fast-pass approved travelers through security. If the terrorist is rejected, then he knows he’s on the watch list.

To slip through the only check against the no-fly list, the terrorist uses a stolen credit card to buy a ticket under a fake name. “Then you print a fake boarding pass with your real name on it and go to the airport. You give your real ID, and the fake boarding pass with your real name on it, to security. They’re checking the documents against each other. They’re not checking your name against the no-fly list—that was done on the airline’s computers. Once you’re through security, you rip up the fake boarding pass, and use the real boarding pass that has the name from the stolen credit card. Then you board the plane, because they’re not checking your name against your ID at boarding.”

What if you don’t know how to steal a credit card?

“Then you’re a stupid terrorist and the government will catch you,” he said.

What if you don’t know how to download a PDF of an actual boarding pass and alter it on a home computer?

“Then you’re a stupid terrorist and the government will catch you.”

I couldn’t believe that what Schneier was saying was true—in the national debate over the no-fly list, it is seldom, if ever, mentioned that the no-fly list doesn’t work. “It’s true,” he said. “The gap blows the whole system out of the water.”

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg, an Atlantic national correspondent and the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror (2007), blogs at jeffreygoldberg.theatlantic.com. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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