Confirmed: Our Government Has Criminalized Beauty Products

A year and a half ago, I warned that if you bought certain beauty supplies–hydrogen peroxide and acetone–you might be a terrorism suspect.

I’m going to make a wildarsed guess and suggest that the Federal Government is doing a nationwide search to find out everyone who is buying large amounts of certain kinds of beauty products. And those people are likely now under investigation as potential terrorism suspects.

Shortly thereafter, John Kyl basically confirmed that the government had been tracking certain people buying hydrogen peroxide.

Yesterday, FBI Director Robert Mueller did so in even more explicit terms.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller appeared to indicate for the first time Wednesday that his agency uses a provision of the PATRIOT Act to obtain information about purchases of hydrogren peroxide–a common household chemical hair bleach and antiseptic that can also be turned into an explosive.

The comment in passing by Mueller during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing was noteworthy because critics have suggested that the FBI is using a provision in the PATRIOT Act to conduct broad surveillance of sales of lawful products such as hydrogen peroxide and acetone.

“It’s been used over 380 times since 2001,” Mueller said of the so-called business records provision, also known as Section 215. “It provides us the ability to get records other than telephone toll records, which we can get through another provision of the statutes. It allows us to get records such as Fedex or UPS records….or records relating to the purchase of hydrogen peroxide, or license records—records that we would get automatically with a grand jury subpoena on the criminal side, the [Section] 215 process allows us to get on the national security side.” (Emphasis original)

Emptywheel: where you read today about the civil liberties infringements your government will confirm years from now.

What Mueller didn’t confirm, but what we can pretty much conclude at this point, is that they’ve used the 215 provision to investigate as terrorists perfectly innocent (and possibly Muslim) purchasers of beauty supplies.

Recall how I first figured out the government was using Section 215 to track beauty supplies. After DiFi blabbed that they had used Section 215 in the Najibullah Zazi case, I examined the detention motion on Zazi to see what kind of evidence they used to justify refusing him bail. It included this:

Evidence that “individuals associated with Zazi purchased unusual quantities of hydrogen and acetone products in July, August, and September 2009 from three different beauty supply stores in and around Aurora;” these purchases include:

  • Person one: a one-gallon container of a product containing 20% hydrogen peroxide and an 8-oz bottle of acetone
  • Person two: an acetone product
  • Person three: 32-oz bottles of Ion Sensitive Scalp Developer three different times

The federal government argued, in part, that Zazi had to be denied bail because three people “associated with him” bought beauty supplies “in and around Aurora.”

Last February, Zazi accepted a plea agreement and has been cooperating with investigators; the government has twice delayed his sentencing, suggesting he’s still fully cooperating. Since that time, the only people arrested for participating in the actual plot–as opposed to obstructing justice by trying to hide the evidence of Zazi’s bomb-making, with which both Zazi’s father and uncle were charged–are in NY or Pakistan.

That is, it appears that Zazi had no accomplices “in and around Aurora.”

That’s particularly interesting given that Zazi is reported to have had few close ties in the Denver area. He only moved there in January 2009, 8 months before his arrest. And both his employer and the other worshipers at his mosque describe him as keeping to himself.

Unlike most drivers at ABC, who drove eight- or nine-hour shifts, Zazi routinely worked 16-to-18-hour days, often putting in as many as 80 hours a week ferrying passengers to and from DIA. “He was a regular kind of guy, but he worked hard and he wanted money,” says Hicham Semmaml, a Moroccan-born ABC driver. “I would have never suspected any of this.”


“He kept to himself pretty much, and he never gave any outward signs of being connected with anybody,” Gross said.


Zazi would turn up for afternoon prayers each Friday — Islam’s holy day — parking the ABC van in the parking lot outside the sprawling brick complex with its black dome and narrow minaret. Other regular worshippers agreed that he never spoke to anyone and usually rushed off immediately once the service ended.

All the currently available evidence suggests that these three Zazi “associates” buying beauty supplies turned out to be completely innocent. That would mean that one of the reasons the government said Zazi should be held without bail (there were plenty of others) basically amounts to innocent people with some attenuated tie to Zazi buying beauty supplies.

But consider what their beauty supply purchase has exposed them to–particularly if the association involved amounts to membership in the same mosque as him. Their purchase of beauty supplies undoubtedly made them a target for further investigation, presumably FBI agents asking questions of their neighbors and employers, probably the use of other PATRIOT provisions to track their calls and emails, and possibly even a wiretap.

So these three people, because they worshiped at the same mosque as Zazi or drove an airport van but presumably in the absence of any evidence of actual friendship with him had their lives unpacked by our government because they bought a couple bottles of beauty supplies.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

  1. Peterr says:

    Clearly, we need to treat beauty supplies like regular Sudafed.

    Put them behind the counter, and require that those who want them show ID, have a quick computer check run, and sign a statement indicating that the purchaser has not misrepresented their need for these beauty supplies and will only use them for lawful purposes.

    Of course, this means that the question “Does she or doesn’t she?” will no longer be a matter of conjecture. Even so, we all have to make sacrifices, or the terrorists will win.

  2. WilliamOckham says:

    I guess when they come for me they are going to investigate all the blue-haired old ladies at my church.

  3. PeasantParty says:

    This is funny, but in such a ridiculous way I cannot put words for it.

    Our security agencies, the FBI, NSA, etc. are using billions of tax dollars to hunt down and….


    This is NOT MY COUNTRY!

  4. JTMinIA says:

    I don’t know if you’re seeing the whole picture, EW. If Muslims are allowed to buy beauty products like hydrogen peroxide, then soon Queen Noor will cease to be an outlier. The evil Muslims won’t have to come trolling DC and various liberal-arts colleges looking for blondes to marry; they’ll have their own blondes.

    It surprises me, EW, that you seem to be against something that is clearly an attempt to save one of our few remaining exports.

  5. rosalind says:

    Have to add Guy Fawkes Masks to the list:

    FBI Targets V For Vendetta Mask Owners

    Gawker talked to a 19 year old female member of Anonymous, and a target of the current investigation… “The agent in charge of my particular warrant actually asked me if I owned a Guy Fawkes mask. I told him no and then asked him if he was disappointed that he wouldn’t have a picture of “a real live Anon’s mask” to hang in his office. He actually said yes.”

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Funny how law enforcement computers can track a single purchase of an eight ounce commodity freely offered for unrestricted sale across the country. One would think these standard beauty products required dispensing through registered pharmacists, as if they were narcotic drugs.

    How many individual transactions do their – or their heavily compensated outsourced service providers’ – computers have to sift through to get that, and at what cost?

    • CTuttle says:

      Interestingly, if they really tracked the purchases of Hydrogen Peroxide, Hawaii would be a ‘hotbed’ of said activity… Many ‘locals’ bleach their hair here with HP to obtain the ‘hip’ blondness that’s all the rage here…! Ironically, my strawberry blonde daughter insists on going the other way with dark brown hair dyes…! Go figure…! ;-)

    • Tom in AZ says:

      Guess that depends on who is inputting the database, and what their ‘burrowed in’ political leanings may be.

      Geez, some days there just isn’t enough tinfoil in the house, you know?

  7. marksb says:

    Years ago I worked with a machinist that had once worked for an aerospace firm on a cool backpack helicopter deal. Had nozzles on the ends of the blades, a silver-plated screen in the nozzles, a pump that pumped 85% HO into the nozzles. Said it worked great, but the project was canceled. Imagine how you’d be tracked today if you ordered a barrel of 85% pure HO.
    BTW, research for you geeks…cool pix here.

  8. MsAnnaNOLA says:

    OT but since this is on the front page now…posting here…

    Anyone at the lake disturbed about this as I am? Ray McGovern attacked for turning his back on Hillary during her speech about how we should allow free speech. No heckling, just turning his back. No kidding. Wow, just wow.

    Sibel Edmunds has the low down:

    So does Rawstory

  9. Twain says:

    This is really funny – and sick at the same time. Wouldn’t you think the Feds would have something more important to do rather than check up on people who bleach their hair and do their nails? What an idiot country we have become.

    • becomingjohngalt says:

      You mean like trying to figure out why a bunch of Muslims on expired visas are taking flying lessons and telling ther instructors they don’t care about landings and takeoffs?

  10. ondelette says:

    Um. I don’t want to argue that they don’t probably misuse this clause, but they may be tracking a different kind of purchase if they’re tracking H2O2. There is concentrated H2O2 on the market on the internet, because of a quack doctor having pushed its supposed prophylactic effects for colon cancer (also on the internet). In reality, it isn’t very good for you (he recommended drinking it). It also isn’t good for bleaching hair, or injuries (it’s too strong). Never guess what it is good for, and actually has been used for, in London, in some subways.

    • bmaz says:

      No, they are literally tracking beauty product grade (which is fairly diluted and not chemical grade) H2O2. It is getting pretty clear that it is indeed a very broad swath they are raking. And it does not take a sizable purchase to be swept up either.

    • marsdragon says:

      No No No. That concentrated stuff has been around for several generations or more. That is what the old time dentists used to tell people to mix with water to gargle to kill the germs. That is what my parents used to act as an antimicrobial solution when I scraped my knee riding bikes as a kid. It is used to disinfect open abrasions and cuts. It costs 99 cents to buy a good 12 oz bottle in most places, and it is a common household cleaning item as well – you mix it with a little vinegar and water, and voila – you have a non-toxic alternative to cleaning your kitchen countertops.

      Some big businesses don’t like people knowing about this cheap product because if enough people use it, it cuts down on their profits when trying to sell you the latest and greatest “green” alternative to countertop cleaners, mouthwash gargles, or disinfectants for the skin.

      It also has the ability to be mixed with water to bleach hair. But that is only one of many uses. The concentrated stuff is as useful in everyday applications as hemp once was…


      Yup. Because INDUSTRY didn’t like the cheap competitiveness it provided to everybody. They needed that product GONE. Even the non-narcotic variety was banned. So that the chemical industry (DOW and DuPont) could make billions selling you something they created that you otherwise could have grown for yourself.

      This is, in my opinion, as much about the fascistic use of our FBI and Surveillance State apparatus by Big Business to vilify a once useful and harmless product and make it illegal and hard to obtain. Why? So that said Big Business interests may then proceed to sell you the marked up, trade secret protected or patented specialty item that does the same exact thing.

      • ondelette says:

        Nobody is going to spell it out for you here, but you can look it up on the internet what you can do with it. That’s why people are beating around the bush. It creates a very powerful explosive with the other ingredients, it takes (I timed this when the scare about liquids on planes happened), about 1 minute to find the explosive on the internet, about 3 minutes to find a competent recipe to make it, about 6 or 7 minutes to read, understand, and memorize it, and probably would not take more than a day to assemble equipment and materials to make it carefully. It’s clear, it can be stored in liquids (which is why you can no longer take them on planes), it’s very powerful, it was used in the London subway bombings of 7/11, and it is why they are looking for these shipments. It isn’t a joke, no matter what you think. They may or may not be misusing the statute, but the origin of the statute is anything but funny.

        • Iolaus says:

          From a story that ran in the NY Times back in August 2006: You need hydrogen peroxide in 70% concentration to make an explosive, according to Neal Langerman, president of Advanced Chemical Safety, a consulting company in San Diego. So…is there any beauty product using H202 in that concentration?

          • ondelette says:

            No. You don’t. You need that to make it efficiently, which affects whether you can make it in quantity safely. Argue any way you want for your laugh it up story, but it fails, because there really is a problem there. Whether the method that law enforcement has taken against the threat is ham handed or not can be discussed, but you’re absolutely wrong about the chemistry. And they have to react to the chemistry, not to some idiot on the blogosphere’s interpretation of it, or Uncle Joe’s remedy, or Suzy’s down home method for growing pot. The funny thing about facts is that they aren’t open to majority rule, litigation, or derision. Just dependent on the physics.

    • eCAHNomics says:

      My ‘gray’ hair turns out to look very much like my hair color when I got it done (highlights). My normal color is fairly light & the ‘gray’ is coming in more silvery. So I stopped coloring mine too.

      • marymccurnin says:

        Mine started going gray when I was 16. I didn’t dye it until I was 45 and couldn’t get away with it anymore. Now, that I am oldish I like proclaiming by years! sort of.

        • eCAHNomics says:

          I’ve been coloring mine since I was in my 30s. Was very blond as a kid, had darkened, but I decided to lighten it up when my career gained momentum.

          There was an item somewhere I saw in the last day or two about how gray hair is becoming fashionable. I’ll see if I can find a link.

              • eCAHNomics says:

                I can’t tell you the # of times that’s happened to me in my life. I can’t remember all the examples, but my FDL participation is one, bicycle riding is another, and now gray hair. Local & slow food’s another. There have been a ton of earlier examples, none of which I remember. Just remember I was early on a lot of stuff, and finally some relative pointed it out.

                Prolly U2. It’s the progressive thingy.

                  • eCAHNomics says:

                    Q: What is so rare as a day in June?

                    A: A plain white T-shirt with nothing written on it.

                    But, kidding aside, your T-shirt company is a perfect example of being a trend setter.

  11. powwow says:

    “It’s been used over 380 times since 2001,” Mueller said of the so-called business records provision, also known as Section 215. “It provides us the ability to get records other than telephone toll records, which we can get through another provision of the statutes. It allows us to get records such as Fedex or UPS records….or records relating to the purchase of hydrogen peroxide, or license records—records that we would get automatically with a grand jury subpoena on the criminal side, the [Section] 215 process allows us to get on the national security side.”

    Julian Sanchez today noticed, and – like Marcy on Mueller’s admitted monitoring of domestic hydrogen peroxide purchases (a monitoring blessed and encouraged by the likes of Dianne “Protect and Defend” Feinstein) – immediately and smartly put into meaningful context, a different aspect of FBI Director Mueller’s testimony concerning Section 215 use, as reported by Josh Gerstein in the excerpt above from Marcy’s post:

    I’m curious about one simple empirical claim Mueller made in his testimony: That the provision has been used over 380 times since 2001. I assume he’d know, but that [“380 times since 2001”] seems inconsistent with what’s been publicly reported to date.


    There are two possibilities, then: Either the government got ten times as many orders in 2010 as the historical average (the figures should be out sometime in April) or there are a whole lot of these missing from the public reporting.


    I’m not belaboring this because it’s inherently hugely significant whether the government has used this authority 265 times or 380. Ideally, in the coming months we’ll see a substantial narrowing of National Security Letter authority, which would predictably lead to a large increase in the number of 215 orders issued. And that would be entirely proper, since it would mean more information being sought pursuant to a judicial order rather than FBI fiat. What I do think is significant, however, is that this reminds us how little we know—and how little the vast majority of legislators know—about the use of these powers. In contrast with criminal investigative tools, these powers are entirely covert: People whose records are swept up by the government almost never learn about it, and the recipients of the orders are subject to an effectively permanent gag on speaking about them. Rulings of the secret FISA Court interpreting the scope of these authorities are never made public. […]

    Despite this, we have legislators confident enough that these expanded powers are both so necessary and so well controlled that they’re advocating making them permanent.

  12. darkcycle says:

    Um…here’s something else to consider, Hydrogen Peroxide is sold in various strengths. They’re not interested in 0.03% like you get at Walgreens, no. They’re interested in .35% and stronger concentrations, used, yes, by the beauty industry, but more ominously, .35% Hydrogen Peroxide is a standard pruduct used in hydroponics. As in indoor marijuana cultivation. Hydroponics store records have been siezed by the Department of Homeland Security all over this country. Many Hydro stores have even stopped selling it for that reason. How long before these records are used to identify potential marijuana growers, anybody wanna bet?

    • eCAHNomics says:

      Have no knowledge of what you speak, but if it is used in MJ, as you say, that is clearly on the agenda.

    • comfychair says:

      Through guilt by association, having plants of any kind will get you put on a watchlist somewhere. Got annoying bastard little fungus gnats in your houseplants? Always dealt with them until now with H2O2? Too bad, just live with them. Better yet, it’s probably just safest to throw out the plants altogether.

      Something similar but probably unrelated – if I go to Lowe’s and buy either light bulbs or potting soil, the cashier ALWAYS asks for my phone number. When asked why, they always say “just in case you need to return anything.” Which is of course complete BS, that’s what the damn receipt is for. But if I buy anything else other than dirt or light bulbs, they NEVER ask for a phone number.

  13. gannonguckert says:

    So these three people, because they worshiped at the same mosque as Zazi or drove an airport van but presumably in the absence of any evidence of actual friendship with him had their lives unpacked by our government because they bought a couple bottles of beauty supplies.

    Well, alright then. I certainly feel safer.

  14. ondelette says:

    No, it’s about higher grades, like darkside says, and Fedexed large purchases as Mueller says, pretty sure. They could narrow the search by looking for concurrent purchases of acetone and iodine, though.

    Like I said, it does invite abuse, but it isn’t a total yuck. It was used in the London subway bombings.

  15. tesseral says:

    This reminds me of something a law enforcement officer once told me about marijuana laws: the police weren’t necessarily in favor of marijuana prohibition per se, but instead saw such laws as tools to aid enforcement of other criminal laws. That is, if there is not enough evidence to bust someone of another crime, they can always use pot.

  16. ondelette says:

    See the problem, bmaz, is that you think everything is a matter of litigation, which it isn’t. This here, is something that gets brought up in every mandatory HAZMAT session that people have to take, which for some of us ends up being every couple of years. So we get to hear about what the chemicals are involved. If some of us, because of our backgrounds, have taken organic chemistry, we can go find out what is involved, and then we actually know what they are talking about instead of what they shovel in those sessions. And there is the real threat, and there is the ooosoooscary threat.

    But here on the internet, there are pseudonyms and signs and nobody is going to bust a pseudonym just to make sure that an underinformed lawyer is satisfied about the chemistry. So you can take it or leave it. But I passed orgo with an A, 198 out of 200 on the final. And that reaction just isn’t that hard. Not like the ones in class. Not like the ones in neuro. So if you and EW can’t follow it, it reflects on you, not me. And I don’t have to justify or cite, or anything else. You plain and simple don’t know what you’re talking about. Which isn’t that unusual.