It Takes an Attempted Terrorist Attack to Actually Test Backscatter Machines

Long after rolling out backscatter machines without proving their efficacy and safety, it looks like the machines will finally be tested. As the AP reports, the government is now testing the underwear bomb Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula planned to use to conduct an Osama bin Laden death anniversary attack to see whether it would have gotten by airport security.

The FBI is examining the latest bomb to see whether it could have passed through airport security and brought down an airplane, officials said. They said the device did not contain metal, meaning it probably could have passed through an airport metal detector. But it was not clear whether new body scanners used in many airports would have detected it.

If the machines wouldn’t have stopped the attack (note, the terrorist had not yet bought a ticket, so it’s not even clear which airports they’d be testing), then we can just take solace in the fact that Michael Chertoff will have a nice comfy retirement. If they would have, then the TSA will feel justified in all the gate grope they’ve been engaging in for years.

Of course, the real lesson is that we’d be better off relying on good intelligence to stop an attack–as it stopped this one–long before a terrorist gets caught at the gate.

37 replies
  1. rosalind says:

    don’t the machines just give a clearer picture of our bodies? so any & all suspicious items are only detected if the human eyes do the detecting?

  2. MadDog says:

    While not specifically saying so, the AP seems to be saying that the CIA grabbed the latest underwear bomb (and would-be bomber) in Yemen.

    This comes in conjunction with various news reports recently that US intelligence had information that the original Underwear bomber’s bombmaker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri had re-surfaced.

    If you tie those 2 snippets together, it would seem that the US/Yemeni government surveillance activities are very “accurate”.

    Now tie that together with this other information on the latest US drone strike in Yemen, again via AP:

    “…On Sunday, al-Quso, the top al-Qaida leader, was hit by a missile as he stepped out of his vehicle along with another operative in the southern Shabwa province, Yemeni military officials said.

    The drone strike was carried out by the CIA, after an extended surveillance operation by the CIA and U.S. military, two U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters…”

    (My Bold)

    Getting that level of surveillance accuracy over the last year or so in Yemen, one might wonder just how that’s accomplished.

    I don’t think we’ve suddenly grown our surveillance technology into performing miracles, so what’s left?

    Perhaps infiltration into AQAP by double agent turncoats controlled by US/Yemeni (or Saudi) intelligence.

  3. Jim White says:

    And then, of course, if something new is learned in the test of the intercepted bomb, we will have more changes in the security process aimed at the last terrorist plan, rather than the next one. As you point out, intelligence can interrupt the next one. Security procedures, however, may not if the next one has been specifically designed to bypass them. I guess there is some very small marginal benefit from taking the intercepted technology off the table and forcing a re-design, but the cost-benefit ratio for major changes to the security procedures at airports seems really high compared to keeping good intelligence functioning.

  4. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Well, we’ve been infiltrating AQAP for years: al-Awfi came back 3 years ago, and Jabir al-Fayfi tipped us off to the toner cartridge plot in 2010.

    That said, I’m working on a post on how much more successful we have been with Hadi as President than with Saleh. I’d suggest it’s time to start asking why we spent so much money propping Saleh up all these years when he was double dealing us on terrorism.

  5. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: The level of detail coming out about this (I’m half-listening/watching CNN right now) seems to indicate a degree of knowledge only obtainable by being on the inside.

    Here’s an updating tick-tock of CNN’s reporting:

    Official: Attempt to blow up U.S.-bound plane thwarted

    A couple of aspects I’ll note from the CNN reporting:

    “…[Updated at 5:16 p.m. ET] The FBI released a statement Monday afternoon saying that the device was seized abroad.

    It reads in full:

    “As a result of close cooperation with our security and intelligence partners overseas, an improvised explosive device (IED) designed to carry out a terrorist attack has been seized abroad. The FBI currently has possession of the IED and is conducting technical and forensics analysis on it. Initial exploitation indicates that the device is very similar to IEDs that have been used previously by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in attempted terrorist attacks, including against aircraft and for targeted assassinations. The device never presented a threat to public safety, and the U.S. government is working closely with international partners to address associated concerns with the device…”


    [Updated at 5:10 p.m. ET]

    …Officials said they believed the device never posed a threat to the public and heralded the thwarted plot and recovered device as a sign that American intelligence capabilities have improved…”

    (My Bold)

  6. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: I would note another detail tidbit that seems to confirm the high level of plot access/surveillance:

    “…to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner…”

    How does one definitively state the target was a “U.S.-bound airliner” without that high degree of plot knowledge?

  7. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And speculation on CNN that the reason US officials could authoritatively state that “the device never posed a threat to the public” was perhaps because the bomb or its components had been replaced by “inert” material.

    That too would lend itself to a high level of plot access/surveillance.

  8. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: Again, buttressing the high level of plot access/surveillance via the NYT’s report:

    “…The bomb was seized days before the May 2 anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden…


    …Mr. Obama was first told of the plot in April by the White House’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, and has since received briefings on the matter, according to a statement by the National Security Council…”

    And just now via CBS Evening New’s Norah O’Donnell, she said that Obama was told about the plot at the beginning of April and that the US was on top of the plot and had it covered every inch of the way.

  9. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And an update via ABC News:

    “U.S. and European officials say that even though an al Qaeda bomber was stopped before he could board a plane for the U.S., the threat is far from over — there are believed to be several other would-be bombers with similar non-metallic devices that could get through most airport security screening.

    Federal officials confirmed today that the U.S., working with other intelligence agencies, recovered an explosive device that resembles other bombs manufactured by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula…”

  10. rosalind says:

    i’m sure KSM raising his beard threat level to “code red” factors into this somehow…

  11. MadDog says:

    @rosalind: To answer your original question, this from a CBS News piece:

    “…A law enforcement source tells CBS News that indications are that it would not have been picked up under normal x-ray machines but possibly body scanning machines would have detected something unusual in the underwear, which would have warranted a more intrusive search but it would be dependent on an alert, skilled TSA agent…”

  12. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And more from that CBS News piece:

    “…The efforts that lead to the recovery of the device involved the CIA as well as other U.S. and international intelligence agencies that unfolded quietly over a period of weeks.

    “The recovery of the device was a team sport. It is another example of outstanding international counterterrorism cooperation,” a senior U.S. official told CBS News. The official said that at no time was any airplane or passengers in danger from the plot.

    “We disrupted this plot well before it was ever a threat to the United States,” the official said…”

  13. joanneleon says:

    A “new sophisticated design” underwear bomb. Wonders never cease.

    Well at least the CIA is now vindicated for missing the last one, right? And six months before an election.

  14. joanneleon says:

    @MadDog: “two U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters”

    If they are not allowed to speak to reporters, then why are they speaking to reporters? Why does the media word things this way? Why don’t they just tell the truth and write it something like this: “said two U.S. officials who were authorized to leak this as an anonymous source”?

  15. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: In Greg Miller’s and Karen DeYoung’s piece in the WaPo, they confirm what CBS Evening New’s Norah O’Donnell was saying and add some additional tidbits:

    “…U.S. officials said the CIA and other agencies tracked the alleged plot for about a month before moving to seize the device within recent days in a Middle Eastern nation outside Yemen, where the bomb was built.

    Officials said the bomb or its components were in transit when it was intercepted, but that it was not seized at an airport, and that al-Qaeda had yet to target a specific flight, let alone take steps to smuggle the explosive on-board…”

    Since I don’t think there are any direct flights to the US from Yemen, it makes sense that the plot targeting a US-bound flight would have to be leaving from another country.

  16. emptywheel says:

    in a Middle Eastern nation outside Yemen

    Uh, like Saudi Arabia? Cause I simply couldn’t imagine how the folks infiltrating AQAP for us would get that info.

  17. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Yeah, with the reports that other international intelligence organizations were involved, Saudi Arabia was at the very top of my list.

    A few more tidbits. Just listening to CNN’s Anderson Cooper who is speaking with Rep. Peter King (R).

    King says this is still an ongoing operation hence the lack of many details (Hah! You could’ve fooled me).

    King says something to the effect that he was told no one has to worry anymore about the would-be bomber. I don’t know whether that means he’s dead or in forever detention.

  18. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And Frannie Townsend on Anderson Cooper just now said in effect that she also was told not to worry about the would-be bomber, and that she and Anderson agreed that only left 2 possibilities: dead or captured.

  19. tjallen says:

    Ready for the war in Yemen? The AP story about the intercepted Underwear Bomb II also includes this quote:

    “Because of instability in the Yemeni government, the terrorist group’s branch there has gained territory and strength. It has set up terrorist camps and, in some areas, even operates as a de facto government.”

    We’ve invaded for less pretext than that!

  20. JTM says:

    @emptywheel: It’s only fair that women can’t wear panty-liners any more due to the resolution of back-scatter machines. After all, I had to give up my roll of quarters twenty years ago.

  21. MadDog says:

    @JTM: One never knows, but codpieces could make a revival. Then my gender is going to be in really big trouble with the TSA. *g*

  22. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And the latest NYT piece has this:

    “…It appeared that Qaeda leaders had dispatched the would-be suicide bomber from Yemen with instructions to board a flight to the United States, but that he had been stopped before reaching an airport. Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said counterterrorism officials had said of the bomber: “We don’t have to worry about him anymore.” He is alive, officials said, but they would not to say specifically whether he was in foreign custody or where he was being held…”

  23. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And a couple of additional interesting tidbits from that NYT piece:

    “…The senior administration official said that in contrast to the attack on Dec. 25, 2009, and the printer plot, the C.I.A. and its foreign partners had been “carefully monitoring this from early on.” While it showed that the terrorist group still intended to take down an airliner, the official suggested that American counterterrorism officials had gained the upper hand, at least for now.

    “We have robust intelligence on their operations, and we killed their external operations chief on Sunday,” the official said.

    Mr. King, of the Homeland Security Committee, said information on the unfolding case had been “tightly held,” without the usual briefings for members of Congress on ongoing operations until Monday. He said officials “were shocked that this had gotten out” before the announcement planned for Tuesday…”

    Hmmm…Gang of Four, Gang of Eight perhaps, or no Congesscritters at all?

  24. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: If what this updated AP piece states is true, then it sounds like no Congresscritters:

    “…The CIA mission was such a secret, even top lawmakers were not told about it as the operation unfolded, one U.S. official said Monday…”

  25. Lefty665 says:

    @Jim White: “the cost-benefit ratio for major changes to the security procedures at airports seems really high compared to keeping good intelligence functioning.”

    Been the stinker with asymmetric conflict everywhere hasn’t it? Them’s that don’t have much to protect can tie up a heckofa lot of resources of those that do. Eventually we bleed out, meaning defense/security contractors pick the last dollars out of our pockets.

    I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, and the decision to go high profile now rather than keep quietly spooking had nothing to do with the House releasing the 2013 defense spending bill.

    Maybe we will have a campaign followup to last week’s Bin Laden anniversary re-election celebration. Perhaps something like this…

    “Last year we got Bin Laden, the evil mastermind who planned 9/11. Today we got some of his successors. My promise to you is that we will stay on the job and seek them out. We will follow them to the ends of the earth, where ever they may try to hide, until we get them all.

    We are protecting your loved ones from terror yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Some selfish partisans, in well meaning but misguided pursuit of profits, will ask you to endanger your children, and all the children of every family in America, by putting them in inexperienced mitts. You do not have to take that risk. You do not have to gamble with terror when the lives of your loved ones are at stake.

    You can do the right thing by helping to keep America safe in experienced hands. You can be proud that you have done your part. Re-elect the President”. Cue flags, patriotic tableaus, cute babies, grandmas. Maybe even recycle some of Reagan’s “Morning in America” footage.

    IBM made a ton of money selling FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt). There’s still some life in that dog. Damn the intelligence, full speed ahead. It worked for Duhbya, and we’re still putting small jars of liquids in baggies for the nice TSA people to inspect. Are we safe yet?

  26. MadDog says:

    I have another very important point folks need to understand, and I’ll make my point in a roundabout way, so bear with me.

    This past Sunday I enjoyed watching one of the British imports on Masterpiece Theater on my local PBS station. It was the updated Sherlock Holmes series where Sherlock lives in this era with all the latest technology gizmos like cell phones, text messaging, the internet, etc.

    This past Sunday’s episode was one I had never seen with an updated version of “A Scandal in Belgravia“.

    As a part of this episode, allegations regarding how the British government hid the truth from the public in regard to the subject of the Coventry Blitz during WW II came into play, and were even being duplicated once again in our modern times with a known terrorist plot to bomb an airplane.

    As folks might know, the essential allegation regarding the Coventry Blitz was that the British government hid their knowledge that Germany was going to bomb Coventry from the public because warning the public would let Germany know that the Brits had broken the German’s secret codes.

    So too was the Coventry Blitz gambit being used in the latest Sherlock Holmes episode only this time with the British government hiding from the unaware air-traveling public the knowledge of a terrorist plot to place a bomb aboard an airplane. The Brits were going to hide their knowledge once again from the public in order to protect their intelligence operations.

    Well guess what? Can you see where I’m going with this?

    A gold star for those that do.

    The latest real airplane updated underwear bomb plot has the very same Coventry gambit, only this time there is nothing alleged about it. It was very real!

    Numerous MSM news reports on this latest updated underwear bomb plot all have a bunch of anonymous US government officials blithely assuring the air-traveling public that there was never any real danger, and that the CIA, and other international intelligence organizations, had this latest plot totally controlled and under exacting surveillance the entire time.

    Sorry folks, but while I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, I’m going to have to call BULLSHIT!!!

    Some of these very same MSM organizations have also been reporting 2 additional tidbits of information:

    1) That even with the latest backscatter machines’ effectiveness (or not) that EW started this post’s conversation with, a number of MSM outlets have reported that it is not clear that this new updated underwear bomb would have been detected by any but the most suspicious and relentless TSA Mark I human eyeballs.

    2) A number of MSM reports also indicate that while the US and international intelligence and law enforcement folks were confident that they had absolute coverage of this particular lone underwear bomber, they admit that it is also likely that the updated underwear bomb’s builder could and likely would have provided the very same updated underwear bomb technology to more than a single lone individual.

    So based on these 2 tidbits of information, can we say Coventry all over again? Yeah, I thought you could!

    Until the AP broke this story yesterday, the US government was content to keep the air-traveling public totally in the dark about this latest updated underwear bomb plot in order to “protect” their intelligence sources and methods.

    Think about that for a moment!

    Just like the alleged Coventry Blitz cover-up by the Brits during WW II, the US government was willing to keep the air-traveling public in the dark to protect their intelligence goldmine.

    And as some of those anonymous US government officials are admitting, they think it is quite likely that there may be more unknown underwear bombers out there armed with the very same nearly undetectable bombs.

    Again, think about what this means!

    Not only was the US government willing to potentially sacrifice hundreds of air-travelers for the sake of keeping this intelligence secret, if the AP hadn’t released this story yesterday, air-travelers worldwide will still be at risk of death simply because the US government would rather protect its secrets over protecting its citizens.

  27. crowinghen says:

    @MadDog: Wow. I wondered if anyone else was as troubled by Coventry as I was. In my 20’s, I was on one of those bus tours through England and one of the stops was Coventry and we stopped at a bombed out church whose spires were left standing and I took some haunting photos and started asking questions. I had never heard of the Coventry Blitz until then and I was appalled that the government had kept the people in the dark. I have always wondered how many people in the government knew about it, and how many of them quietly got their family and friends out of the city before the blitz. It haunted me then and haunts me now.

    Your comment reminds me that Ashcroft (I think it was Ashcroft) stopped flying in July, 2001, and there may have been others we’ve heard about who did the same. Those who knew took precautions for themselves, and of course the rest of the air-traveling public hadn’t a clue that warnings had been coming in. (Shades of Coventry.)

    But in terms of this undie-bomb plot, my first thought when they say ‘the public wasn’t in danger’ was more along the lines of the Cleveland bridge plot…no need to worry because they were in on it all along. My second thought was: they’ll tell us they tested it on the scanners and announce the scanner would have caught it, and then tell us we should stop bitching about the scanners no matter how much radiation they put off.

  28. orionATL says:


    this is a thoughtful and impressive collation of current and past history.

    as far as sacrificing individual citizens goes,

    this current u.s. government, and the previous one, have had no compunction whatsoever about making such sacrifices for nearly any “reason of state” you could imagine, including hiding the criminal behavior of a previous administration.

    the obama administration’s relentless attack on whistle-blowers is specifically designed to insure that government folly, misconduct, and serious illegal conduct in banking regulation, conduct of war, and bill of rights/civil rights violations will not be revealed by any of those those who have knowledge of specific instances of folly, misconduct, or illegality.

    no of this will stop until the u.s. has enacted a stringent whistle-blower protection act.

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