Yes, They Are Tracking Hydrogen Peroxide and Acetone

Remember how last week I used the hypothetical example of using Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act to get records on people who had bought hydrogen peroxide and acetone?

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. 

Well, two different Senators used, essentially, the same hypothetical today (albeit in context of National Security Letters).

Cardin: Review tools. Someone buys cleaning products that could be used to make explosive device.

Hey!! That was my suggestion.

Cardin: You don’t want to use NSLs on everyone who buys cleaning supplies in the country. Relevant to investigation. Feinstein pointed out specific and articulable facts. Not going to be second guessed on getting information. Gives us oppty in oversight to make sure not using it for everyone buying cleaning supplies in country.

DiFi: listening to debate. These are given out by many thousand. Specific facts prior to certification. Kyl is right about art-kyoo-la-bull (problem saying that). Would you be amenable to dropping that? Specific is the issue.

Kyl: Good question.

Kyl: If we say that we want to know about Joe Blow buying hydogen peroxide.

I’m not certain, but I think they’d have to use Section 215 rather than NSLs for this purpose.

So while Kyl assures us that they’re not searching everyone in the country buying hydrogen peroxide, it appears very very very likely they are searching some subset of the country for their beauty, home improvement, and cleaning supplies. 

39 replies
  1. al75 says:

    come to think of it, Jose – that’s the guy who cleans my office – he’s reliable and does a good job and never steals anything, but I KNEW there was something fishy about him…it’s those darn cleaning supplies. He always has them with him every time i see him…

    Does anybody have a number for the FBI?

  2. bmaz says:

    So while Kyl assures us that they’re not searching everyone in the country buying hydrogen peroxide

    Well, here is the thing; we know they are not forming particularized suspicion of individuals and then monitoring whether they buy H2O2, rather they are looking at people buying H2O2 to see if they ought to be considered suspects. So, if they are “not searching everyone”, they are almost, by definition, profiling in some manner. What are the criteria? Does it target a suspect class under equal protection consideration? Does it create a new suspect class? How do we know?

    • Jim White says:

      Add to that the resistance to minimization procedures. Kyl wants to keep those cleaning supply records forever, just in case we don’t have enough evidence on someone later.

    • bobschacht says:

      Naw, they just target icky brown people with foreign accents who use the word “Allah” a lot. /s

      That was snark– I think.
      Does that help?

      Bob in AZ

    • Hmmm says:

      Well, here is the thing; we know they are not forming particularized suspicion of individuals and then monitoring whether they buy H2O2, rather they are looking at people buying H2O2 to see if they ought to be considered suspects. So, if they are “not searching everyone”, they are almost, by definition, profiling in some manner. What are the criteria? Does it target a suspect class under equal protection consideration? Does it create a new suspect class? How do we know?

      It may be a data mining thing instead. Collect all records of the sales electronically; run a program that searches through all that data looking for anyone on your list of potentially fishy people. When you get a hit, you may not get told anything about all the other people who were in those sales records. IIRC Zazi was already a person of interest because of Pakistan or whatever (that part seems to have gotten murky).

  3. JTMinIA says:

    Great. I buy relatively large amounts of toluene in the summer to mix up race gas (which you can’t get in Iowa … the best around here in 91 octane). Guess I can look forward to being on a no-fly list at some point.

  4. TheOtherGuy says:

    fyi: Acetone is commonly used as a paint thinner for oil-based paints. It is also used to remove dried oil-based paints wherever it has been applied. Acetone in bulk is sold everywhere (hardware stores, Walmart, etc.) in pure form or diluted with water. Acetone in fingernail polish remover contains many other ingredients including perfume, which renders it mostly unusable for anything besides removing fingernail polish. Pure Acetone has been used for years in the construction of crack cocaine.

  5. Andersonblogs says:

    I’m sorry — is it unreasonable for the FBI to be checking whoever buys “large” quantities of this stuff?

    Is the objection that they should have to have some kind of warrant or legal authority first? Or that they’re checking at all?

    This topic has gotten a bit elliptical here, so some of us might need reminding what we’re supposed to be concerned about.

    • emptywheel says:

      These are not large quantities. The three associates of Zazi were cited buying normal quantities (though one admittedly bought acetone and hydrogen peroxide at the same time. One is listed as having bought just one acetone product.

      So here’s the concern. We know they are tracking purchases of normal quantities of TATP precursors, products that average Americans buy all the time. We know the law doesn’t require that that tracking be tied to any tie to terrorism. Which means they are using normal behavior as a means to justify further investigation, which may mean hordes of innocent Americans will be investigated because they did something very banal.

  6. Jim White says:

    Heh. Just ran across the Grey Lady’s editorial from today on the Patriot Act extension. Good reading:

    Consider last week’s gyrations in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was to consider a bill prepared by the chairman, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Although not as comprehensive or protective of civil liberties as it could have been, the measure contained some strong fixes to the overly expansive snooping regime.

    But there was a last-minute switch. In the committee session, Mr. Leahy’s base bill was tossed in favor of a significantly weaker substitute that he hammered out with Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.


    Still, over all, the measure taking shape in the Senate committee is far too weak to restore essential constitutional checks and balances. Mrs. Feinstein has suggested, without offering any real evidence, that it was necessary to water down the Leahy bill to avoid interfering with the government’s investigation of the case of Najibullah Zazi.

    The issue has never been whether the government should vigorously pursue terrorists; no responsible person is suggesting that. The question is what powers the government really needs and how best to balance them with the rights and liberties on which this nation was founded. It is hard to see how the Zazi case, or any other terrorism probe, could be hurt by requiring that use of augmented surveillance powers be related in at least a tenuous way to terrorism.

    Gosh, that opinion would have fit in quite well in these environs the past couple of days. Fat lot of good it did on today’s vote, though.

  7. Mary says:

    You know, I was wondering if DiFi et al were using articulable (when they managed to actually spit it out) in the joint (bone, not hemp) sense – standards that can move around to wherever you want them to end up?

    The good news is – soon we will have a common enemy to unite us.

    Bombed and Angry Moonies.

    The world will be a simpler, easier place then.

      • Mary says:

        Space law involves telepathic communication protection only. IIRC, though, there is an OLC memo that says it is ok to use a saw to cut into someone’s brain if you didn’t really mean to hurt them, you were just trying to see if you could intercept some of their thoughts. Also, if they had “alien” names like Galactican, Ziggy Stardust and Luna.

        Orion – I”m not sure whether you are on the no-spaceflights list or not.

        To answer your question, though, why not just chip in together and buy the beauty shop itself.

        • bmaz says:

          Well, since the brain saw program is already in place, and surely there is classified information on its efficacy that we can’t see for our own safety, we better leave it in place, or maybe enhance it.

  8. orionATL says:

    the fbi as an institution is so incredibly stupid in a fixated sort of way, always looking backwards.

    if you were a serious terrorist would you go around buying beauty supplies these days?

    or would you make use of other chemicals, or of non-bomb means (e.g., open the emergency doors and jamb them), to destroy planes.

    and by the way, why the obsession with planes? that is so 2001.

    were i a terrorist, i would be after propane tankers, jet fuel tankers, chlorine storage tanks, gasoline tank farms.

    why waste my opportunity doing something the american law enforcement corp is focused on. in fact, one thing that makes me wonder whether zazi is indeed the very serious threat he has been labeled as being is that he proved so easy to track, almost guileless.

    of course, stupid may make for better terrorists.

    and all these terrorists vs airplane attacks or plannings follow plots resembling the dumbest hollywood script, scripts that, on occasion, succeeded in murdering through by dumb luck.

    the movie script for sept 2001, implausible though it was, succeeded only because the fbi did not want to ask a court for permission to investigate arabs enrolled in flying schools in the u.s who demonstrated an interest in learning to fly passenger jets without demonstrating any interest in landing them.

    • prostratedragon says:

      of course, stupid may make for better terrorists.

      One must acknowledge the Mohammed Salameh factor. Still, all this looking where the light is … or seeking validation where you think you can point to the prefab scary caveat …

  9. Andersonblogs says:

    Thanks for the response!

    Okay, if it’s innocuous quantities, then I understand the concern about racial profiling, tho I think Hmmm above has a good point.

    Still, I think that concern can be exaggerated. Suppose that we had a rash of McVeigh-style bomb plots in this country by white supremacists using acetone-based explosives. Suppose that the FBI was checking lists of acetone purchasers and placing higher priority on investigating purchasers who checked out to be white.

    That might be an imprudent policy — you might miss a retaliatory/me-too bombing by a black radical group, say — but it’s hard for me to see how it’s invidious discrimination.

    However, not being terribly up on the law here, I am happy to be corrected.

  10. prostratedragon says:

    Here’s a nice coincidence: An NPR story about health care research in which the exhuastive collection of data on medical treatment in Vermont, over a long period of years, has been used to extract information about trends in medical decisionmaking and their possible causes.

    Thus whichever of the two big domestic policy stories is dancing in your head these days, there’s grist for further thought.

  11. ackack says:

    Soooooo, I guess the next logical step is for the government to record the names of each and every person who purchases any of these chemicals? In any quantity. And if you don’t want to, then you can’t have it? And of course, then if you don’t want to do that, that puts you on a watch list of suspicious characters.

    I would wager that between the solvents and the fertilizers, etc., I have around my house, that there is a bomb to be made somehow. Does that make me a suspect?

    Tattooed bar codes maybe? Log all purchases of everything? Just to make it simpler to protect us, dontcha know. Big TV screens in every house just to keep us safe?

    It is all so wearing. When do we get our country back?

  12. Hmmm says:

    Uhm… Why assume that only HP and acetone purchases are being tracked? Why not all purchases? Then you could data-mine for the intersection of { all purchases of a particular suspicious item } and { all suspicious persons }. After an attack with a specific weapon, the sales records could be searched (look for the components used) retroactively for leads.

  13. orionATL says:

    so, let’s see,

    an afghani lad, apparently legally resident in the u.s., decides he wants to go to pakistan – for a conjugal visit. man, talk about all night long!

    to leave the u.s. and eventually travel to pakistan, this afghani needs a visa (or two or three).

    presumably he got that (those) visa.

    he stays a while with wifie, or whomever, and then returns to the u.s. to his family’s home in denver, CO.

    he then wanders the country buying hydrogen peroxide and acetone.

    do i understand this correctly?

    a guy who is a citizen of afghanistan living in the u.s. legally is allowed to go to pakistan and then come, back no questions asked (by visa officials)?

    what is going on?

    did the fbi decide to play dice with americans flying on airplanes?

    we don’t dare let “criminals” from gitmo go to american high-security prisons to spend the rest of their natural lives,

    but we can let a young, muslim male living in denver go to pakistian and come back to denver without any hindrance to his travel by our gov.

    at a time when, for example, university graduate departments of science and engineering are having to fight – and fight hard – to get highly competent grad students from other countries admitted with u.s. visa in time for fall classes to start?

    zazi must have been a very privileged lad indeed.

    we are told it was the pakistani govt who told the u.s. about zazi i doubt it. i suspect he was allowed to go and was watched throughout his journey.

    so zazi is a political red herring.

    then, what is it that does in fact motivate difi, and leighy, and (i can’t believe this) sen whitehouse to support the expansion of sect 215 and other parts of the odious patriot act?

    central question:

    how come i am not allowed to know the answer to the question i just asked?

    i’m a citizen.

    i keep up with things in the media (sort of).

    am i not entitled to know whatever it is that feinstein and leighy and whitehouse and holder and obama “know” about why it is critical that sect 215 (and many other parts) of the PATRIOT act MUST be extended?

    allow me to point this out:

    whenever the nation is not permitted to know information about a national security issue, one or the other (or both) of two things is happening:

    – politics, not national security, is the central issue


    – criminal activity by federal officials is involved in some way.

    these two propositions are as certain and solid as any two propositions about american politics can be.

  14. posaune says:

    Real story here:

    We have a friend, a female, widowed, 75-yo retired math professor who retired from Gaulladet after 30 years. She has two hobbies, gardening and breeding the occasional show-class Irish Terrier. This year before the Westminster Dog Show, she ordered .17 oz (5 grams) of a color chemical potassium permaganate from a dog breeding supply co in Colorado. She ordered by telephone. She has been a customer with the company for more than 20 years. She typically buys this amount every 5 years.

    Voila the tapped phone. She received a letter from Homeland Security demanding her presence at a court hearing. She called and said there must be an error. The next day three FBI SUVs showed up at her house demanding a search. Trembling, she told them to get a search warrant. The following day, the UPS delivery van was intercepted on her street by the FBI. She had to hire an attorney. She contacted Sen. Mikulski and Chris Van Hollen, who actually tracked down the source: a DHS “listener” who wrote 500 kilograms on the wire tap report.

    This poor woman lost many nights of sleep with untold anxiety. What have we wrought?

    • Hmmm says:

      Well. Since your friend was likely not a subject before the phone call, one certainly wonders how that call ever got singled out for interception so that the “NSA listener” could transcribe it. Two possibilities occur to me:

      1 – A human being monitoring all dog breeding supply store phone lines, in real time, all the time? Unlikely.

      2 – All calls being automatically recorded and also automatically analyzed, perhaps on a delayed basis, for key spoken words like “potassium permaganate”, kicking the hits out to a human for listening & transcribing? Much more likely.

      Recall the other day we figured out it would be very practical nowadays to record literally all phone calls in the US.

  15. orionATL says:

    pasaune @32

    ah, yes, potassium permanganate.

    a teenage friend and i used to make bombs –

    using potassium permanganate as a “fuse”.

    we would use those small brown glass bottles with a cork-and-metal top and a wick sticking out.

    the recipe called for potassium permanganate, and i believe sulfur and saltpeter, and maybe charcoal. all ingredients were available from our local drug store.

    you put the latter three ingredients in the bottle and then put drops of potassium permanganate (a beautiful purple liquid as i recall) on the cotton “fuse”.

    place the bottle on a sewer or manhole cover and run like hell.

    the permanganate caused some kind of rapid oxidation reaction i suppose which was the explosion.

    if we were lucky our bomb went off.

    problem was, ofttimes it would not go off. bummer.

    then we had to make adult-like decisions, e.g., how long to wait to investigate so we could improve our tradecraft vs what would happen if we went up to the bottle just as a delayed explosion occurred.

    a fascinating and exciting intro to chemistry (as it turned out, the only thing i ever really enjoyed about chemistry, except cooking.)

  16. rosalind says:

    announcing: iWatch! LAPD’s new report suspicious terrorist activities program.

    Here are examples of behaviors and activities to report:

    * People drawing or measuring important buildings.
    * Strangers asking questions about security or building security procedures.
    * Briefcase, suitcase, backpack, or package left behind.
    * Cars or trucks left in No Parking zones in front of important buildings.
    * Intruders in secure areas where they are not supposed to be.
    * Chemical smells or fumes that worry you.
    * People asking questions about sensitive information such as building blueprints, security plans, or VIP travel schedules without a right or need to know.
    * Purchasing supplies or equipment that can be used to make bombs or weapons or purchasing uniforms without having the proper credentials.

    Important Places to Watch

    * Government buildings
    * Religious facilities
    * Amusement parks
    * Sports/Entertainment venues
    * High-rise buildings
    * Mass-gathering locations—parades, fairs, etc.
    * Schools
    * Hotels
    * Theaters
    * Shopping malls
    * Bridges
    * Public transportation

    but remember kids, “…the iWATCH program is about behaviors and activities, not individuals.”

    • rosalind says:

      oh. my. gawd.

      here’s the youtube video where “everday angelinos” explain how they’re going to do their part to watch for the terrorists roaming our streets:

      cue the parody videos in 3…2..

  17. iremember54 says:

    Why would our Government allow anyone from Afghanistan, Pakistan, or even Irag, let alone Saudi Arabia or several dozen other Countries to come to this Country. If this Guy and His family and friends weren’t in the Country we wouldn’t be worrying what they were buying. We have the most ignorant Government there could be. Now we are spending huge sums of money, the FBI’s time, and all the worry, because they failed us, and let these people in. Our Government doesn’t work, doesn’t protect us, and like with healthcare really doesn’t care if we live or die. Yet we keep supporting it and believing it works for us. What in the hell will it take to make the people see what they have in Washington.

  18. OldCoastie says:

    so if I go to my hairdresser for a haircut and she buys lots of hydrogen peroxide and maybe a little acetone, am I now able to be investigated too because I am now an “associate”?


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