Why Cavity Bombs Would Make the TSA Irrelevant

Here is what President Obama, speaking in Lisbon, had to say about the furor over intrusive and humiliating airport security procedures: "...(I)n the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing, our TSA personnel are, properly, under enormous pressure to make sure that you don't have somebody slipping on a plane with some sort of explosive device on their persons."

But, unfortunately, the threat comes not only from explosive devices on people, but in people. Our country has not yet experienced the terror of a cavity bomb -- a bomb inserted into the rectum or vagina of a suicide terrorist -- but this is what experts, in and out of government, fear is coming. We've already seen the technique used in the Middle East: Colleagues of an Islamist terrorist named Abdullah Asiri detonated a bomb inserted up his rectum last year by cell phone in an unsuccessful attempt to kill a top Saudi counter-terrorism official.

Three experts I spoke to this weekend -- two of whom are currently serving in government in counter-terrorism capacities -- believe it is only a matter of time before the technique is tried here. "We have nothing in our arsenal that would detect these bombs," one told me. "There is no taboo that we can see against this technique. Suicide is suicide, it doesn't matter how gross it is." I asked one of these experts if the body of the terrorist would actually mitigate the power of the blast, as had apparently happened in Saudi Arabia. "My assumption is that a bomb carried onto an airplane in the anus could be removed in the bathroom and detonated clear of the body," this expert said. "You're dealing with a thin-skinned airplane, so even a detonation of a pound of explosives in the anus could punch a hole."

The back-scatter imagers (or "porn machines," in the parlance of this blog) that are now the source of such controversy can see under clothes but not through human tissue. Of course -- as would be expected in the multi-billion dollar homeland security business -- there is a company now devising a machine that could detect bombs hidden inside bodies. According to Robert Poole, publisher of the invaluable "Airport Policy News," the company, Morpho Detections, Inc., is using a technique called "quadropole resonance" to spot "abdominally concealed explosives."

QR uses radio waves at frequencies that can excite the molecular structures of specific materials, causing them to resonate, producing a signal that can be detected. Since the device can be fine-tuned to look for very specific molecules, it should have a very low false-positive rate. (And that's a very important feature, considering the actions that need to be taken when the device does sound an alarm.) While Morpho does not yet have a product ready for TSA testing, the article includes an artist's concept of a device circling a traveler's mid-section, with an estimated unit cost in the tens of thousands of dollars and a first product "in approximately two years."

Let's assume for a second that the TSA one day actually buys a machine that can detect "abdominally concealed explosives." How would it be deployed? Would it be used for primary screening, or secondary screening? And what the hell would happen when TSA officers detect an abdominal abnormality? Do we really pay TSA officers enough for this sort of work? My assumption is that the cavity bomber detonates himself upon discovery, which leads, of course, to another incessantly-repeated Goldblog point: Terrorists do not need to hijack a plane, or blow one up in mid-air, to wreak havoc on civilian air travel and the American economy: All a terrorist needs to do to bring the American transportation system to a catastrophic halt is to detonate a bomb while waiting on a TSA line. No need to conceal such a bomb in your rectum, of course -- you could join the pre-screened line with a bomb in your knapsack. Or in a shopping bag. 
 
Where does all this lead? Back to the observation -- again, one made incessantly in this space -- that by the time a terrorist conspiracy matures to the point that it is ready for execution, it is, generally speaking, too late to stop it. If a cavity bomber reaches the airport without detection, he will have a high-likelihood of success in carrying out his mission. Which means, obviously, that much of the money we spend on airport security could be better spent on intelligence collection, and on the breaking up of terror cells overseas.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. 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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