The TSA starts a blog and explains its liquids rules

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Last week, the Transportation Security Administration launched a blog called the "Evolution of Security" ( TSA officials Bob, Ethel, Jay, Chance, and Jim are using the blog to explain airline security measures. So far, hundreds of people have posted comments.

In response, Jon Stokes, the co-founder of Ars Technica—a website that offers original news, reviews, and analysis of technology—used his blog to challenge the TSA on its liquids rules.

(To remind you about the rules for bottled liquids in carry-on luggage, the TSA requires that each liquid or gel must be in a container that's three ounces or smaller; all must be placed in one clear, quart-size zip-top bag; only one bag is allowed per passenger, according to the TSA website.)

Jon Stokes has been frustrated by the answers he and other people have gotten from the TSA to this question:

Precisely what is to prevent multiple bomb juice-packing terrorists from combining their individually packed bomb juices into a single bomb?

To its credit, the TSA has posted two responses to questions about its on its blog...

Last Friday, the TSA blog posted a message, "Questions We Hear Everyday." One of these questions is: "Why can't I bring certain liquids through the checkpoint and why do they need to be in a little bag?" The video answer is given by Ed Kittel, chief of explosives operations. Ed says that terrorists with the intent to blow up planes have been caught with liquid explosives. And he says that the liquids rules accomplish three things:

"They limit the amount of liquids that any one passenger can carry. They de-clutter the carry on bags. And they give us the opportunity to use other inspection methods and technical means to inspect these items."

But this explanation didn't satisfy some people. For one thing, it didn't answer Jon Stokes' question: "Precisely what is to prevent multiple bomb juice-packing terrorists from combining their individually packed bomb juices into a single bomb?"

So yesterday Kip Hawley, the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security, posted a response: "More on the Liquid Rules."

The answer is so detailed, and is such a refreshing burst of candor from the TSA, that it deserves to be quoted in its entirety:

Why don't you just ban all liquids? Because our National Labs and international allies demonstrated to my satisfaction that there is, in fact, a scientific basis for allowing small amounts of liquids on as carry-on. We try to prohibit the minimum possible from a security standpoint. Also, the consequence of banning all liquids is a large increase in the number of checked bags, which creates its own issues.

Why can't multiple people bring on explosives in three-ounce containers and mix them post security? The tough one! Tough because there are parts of the reason that are truly classified but here goes... (read them all before throwing up your hands!)

1. We are involved in risk management. The question to me is: "What do you have to do to make a successful attack so complex that an intelligent enemy would recognize that the odds of success are too low?"

2. Because there are limits to our ability to detect every thing every time at the checkpoint, we use layers of security. For example, I and senior leaders at TSA work every day with the intelligence and law enforcement communities world-wide to get insights in how to make our security better -- frequently adding specific training and sometimes, respecting our obligations to the intell and law enforcement communities (like our remote control toys advisory), communicating directly to the public. Also, we reduce risk by a) adding behavior detection capability, K-9 teams, surge teams and document checking out front; and b) by undercover presence throughout the area behind the checkpoint, as well as better screening of the supply chain of items in the sterile area after the checkpoint.

3. We reduce risk by deciding what we believe is necessary for a completed bomb -- the core of the 100ml (3.4 ounce) limit. Extensive testing began the morning of August 10, 2006 -- the day the liquids plot was made public -- to determine if there is a level at which any liquid brought onboard a plane represents little risk. These were tests by multiple government agencies, National Laboratories and other nations and they assisted in the 3-1-1 formulation. We announced 3-1-1 on September 26, 2006 and that allowed travelers to go on overnight trips without having to check a bag. That is the trade-off: if 3-1-1 is too complicated, you can always just check your bag.

4. The preparation of these bombs is very much more complex than tossing together several bottles-worth of formula and lighting it up. In fact, in recent tests, a National Lab was asked to formulate a test mixture and it took several tries using the best equipment and best scientists for it to even ignite. That was with a bomb prepared in advance in a lab setting. A less skilled person attempting to put it together inside a secure area or a plane is not a good bet. You have to have significant uninterrupted time with space and other requirements that are not easily available in a secured area of an airport. It adds complexity to their preferred model and reduces our risk, having the expert make the bomb and give it to someone else to carry aboard. They are well aware of the Richard Reid factor where he could not even ignite a completed bomb. Simple is truly better for them. Also, bomb-makers are easier for us to identify than so-called clean 'mules.'

5. The container itself adds complexity. A 100ml container limits the effect of, and even the ability of, a detonation. It also forces a more precise mix, and a lot more boost -- which makes it easier to detect from that side. Even creative ways to smuggle liquids in are less effective because, eventually, they still have to mix it right and get it into the right container, etc. There are also issues with what kind of container you use, but let's leave them to puzzle that out further...

6. The baggie gives us two benefits: A) It serves as a visually identifiable, easy way to limit quantity. Even if they wanted to bring multiple bottles to mix, we limit the quantity of their total liquids as well (bottles "hidden" in the carry-on bag stick out). B) The baggie serves to concentrate the vapor - substances used to create liquid explosives are very volatile and emit fumes even through sealed bottles. (We have tested.) We have liquid explosives detectors that take advantage of the vapor concentration factor in the baggie. This way, we do not have to examine what's inside every bottle, regardless of what the label says.

7. The effect of pulling out liquids and aggregating them separately allows our security officers to have a clear look at the liquids -- and, perhaps just as important, it de-clutters the carry-on bag so that we have a clearer view of that as well.

8. With our medical exceptions, they have to talk to one of our Security Officers who can use a variety of methods to tell whether it presents a problem including test strips, and hand-held detectors that are highly effective, even with closed and sealed bottles. With the larger bottles, the other features needed to make it viable would be very apparent.

A few other points, this policy has been adopted in more than 80 countries worldwide and means that there are common rules almost everywhere you fly. The choice is a total ban or this, and we are working very hard at a technology solution that should make this better all around. Think early 2009 for that.

The challenge is to reduce risk on the things we know about (shoe bombs, liquids) while having enough other measures in place to disrupt what we don't know is coming. Any time we fixate on one thing, you have to be concerned about opening up something elsewhere. Balance, flexibility, and unpredictability are key. So is going on offense by being connected to intelligence / law enforcement and being proactive with our surge patrols, undercover activities, etc. AND getting TSA and passengers back on the same side! That last one is what we're trying to do at our checkpoint with our TSOs and online with our blog.

At any rate, if you have any thoughts about airline security that you want to get off your chest, please visit the TSA blog. Impressively, the blog links to the websites of some of the agencies toughest critics. Some TSA officials do seem to be making an effort to be responsive to criticisms. And while I've focused on the liquids rules here, the TSA blog does talk about other topics. It tries to answer several questions, including "Why do you screen the elderly and little children?")

MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL We tested some liquid containers that meet the TSA requirements for carry-on luggage. Here are our picks.

EARLIERThe White House briefly had a travel blog for the President's recent Middle East trip.

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB Should you mail your liquids to your hotel instead of carry them on-board or putting them in your checked luggage? Upgrade: Travel Better has the answer.

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