Shoes Off at the Airport: TSA PsyOps Operation


My friend John Aravosis has just tipped me off to a disconcerting and irritating bit of news that AP has reported.
Apparently, all of us who have been “optionally” removing our shoes at the airport and putting them through the X-ray machine might just as well have had them packed with some sort of incendiary material as many of the screening machines have not been upgraded to detect explosives.
We all know that these shoe screenings were not really optional either — and now, after the foiled London airplane bombing plot — they are mandatory. But previously, if you elected not to remove your shoes — even though not officially required to do so — you’d be subjected to a full search.
As reported by AP:

The government’s new order that all airline passengers put their shoes through X-ray machines won’t help screeners find a liquid or gel that can be used as a bomb
The machines are unable to detect explosives, according to a Homeland Security report on aviation screening recently obtained by The Associated Press.
The Transportation Security Administration ordered the shoe-scanning requirement as it fine-tunes new security procedures.
Those procedures were put in place after British police last week broke up a terrorist plot to assemble and detonate bombs aboard as many as 10 airliners crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Britain to the U.S.
Among the new procedures are a ban on liquids and gels in airline passenger cabins, more hand searches of carryon luggage, and random double screening of passengers at boarding gates.
On Sunday, the TSA made it mandatory for shoes to be run through X-ray machines as passengers go through metal detectors. They were begun in late 2001, after the arrest of Richard Reid aboard a trans-Atlantic flight when he tried to ignite an explosive device hidden in his shoe. The shoe scans have been optional for several years.

I’ve always thought that a committed band of terrorists who wanted to smuggle dangerous materials into the country would do so through cargo ships and planes, but civilian aircraft have been and are terror targets because of the ability to create high-shock impact with the destruction of a few or even a single aircraft.
But all this time, we have not had the scanning detectors in place that would deliver “real” rather than “artificial” security. I noticed recently some very impressive, new airport screening machines at Reagan National Airport that help “sniff” the passenger as well as screen for metal. However, only the US Airways wing has these screeners. All the rest of the airport wings have the old X-ray and metal detection systems.
Thanks to TSA for the long lines and screening charades.

— Steve Clemons


25 comments on “Shoes Off at the Airport: TSA PsyOps Operation

  1. Doug says:

    As a frequent traveler, the part that I most detest about the airport check-in area is having to take your shoes off in such a public area. Not only is it a hassle but all of the germs of the feet that are being dispersed in this area can not be anything short of a health department nightmare. One thing that I did see the other day is the Magshoe which was invented by a company called IDO Security. It has the ability to quickly scan the foot area that is not examined by the typical x-ray machines and it also eliminates the traveler from having to take off their shoes. I realize that your article was based more towards the explosives side of this, but I believe that this would be a great addition to airport security and would also greatly speed up the check in precess. Please check out this video for further details on how this device works. Hopefully the TSA will approve this to aid in all of our traveling security and also convenience.


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  3. T.J. Pempel says:

    Add to the discussions the absurdity of the ban on liquids and gels within carry-on luggage. This will mean that business and professional travllers such as myself who depend on not checking ANY bags (and who can manage a week’s trip with a regulation sized carry-on) will now be required to check bags, just to deal with the now effective ban on toiletries. Carry-on makes it possible for us to be sure our bags arrive, to go to meetings shortly after we arrive having cleaned our contact lenses, taken a shower and put on deodorant, groomed our (often thinning) hair, etc. The new ban will muck up business travel very, very badly. And the idea that it will have any serious effect on halting terrorists is absurd.


  4. Max says:

    Technical security works only to a point, but the Dutch had a better system in place years ago.
    When my family and I flew back through Amsterdam Schiphol a few years ago, we had to go through a sort of exit interview process, e.g. a trained screener asked us where we’d been, what we did, did we enjoy ourselves, did we have any of our receipts, etc..
    At the time, my father still retained his original nationality, the only one of our family traveling as such (the rest of us were either born US citizens, or naturalized). This caused a bit of a stir, as the screener had his suspicions, though we cleared all of this up w/his supervisor, and after all the paperwork and Resident Alien status was shown to be in order.
    It sticks in my mind that this is the kind of security that we need more of. Terrorism is partly a technical problem but even more so a human problem, and there are no machines in the world that can screen intent as powerfully as the human subconscious. We need some kind of capacity in this area, to give us more opportunities for that sort of Blink moment (as M. Gladwell puts it), where we in an instant can stop problematic people in their tracks, and give them something to panic over.


  5. MP says:

    “The dictionary definition was the one I intended. That word apparently had complications for you beyond the scope of my intentions. You then bring up Jesus and St. Paul and the Passion of Christ and write about who didn’t kill Jesus. Man, where are you going with all that? I was talking about babies being killed and how it is perfectly understandable that a person would react by shouting or cursing, and that it is phony and false to pretend that those lives are mere debating points in civil dialogue.”
    It is phony and false to pretend those lives are mere debating points in civil dialogue. I couldn’t agree more. But the word “pharisaical” partakes of a long, ugly, and indeed murderous tradition that has led to many babies being killed and not just Jewish ones. You should know that.
    Moreover, in this context, in particular, when Jews’ loyalty to America is being questioned…when Jews who support Israel presumably can’t have objective views on the conflict…when some people are presumed to be Jews because of their views on Israel and the ME…words like this can be very incendiary. And they do nothing to convey your point (as I understand it).
    I was pointing this out to you: 1) because you responded to my question in a pretty full-throated way, 2) because I thought you should know, and 3) because here in blogland, all we have are words and their power to inform, persuade, hurt, soothe, and inflame. No one here is solving the ME crisis by writing in all CAPS and calling names. All we have here is dialogue.
    Anyway, I’m not here to score points, and I’m not calling you an anti-Semite…just bringing something to your attention. If you wish to disregard it, disagree with it, or disparage it…you’re free to do so. Go in peace.


  6. J. says:

    I would also note that the TSA bans on liquids and gels is completely overblown and unnecessarily, if one has a basic understanding of chemistry. More here.


  7. abc says:

    WhatTheHack visitors will be familiar with these perceived security practices.
    During the event people could go trough metal detectors, x-ray their belongings, answer “did you pack your own luggage” questions and do a body cavity search (there was gel and gloves behind that pink curtain in the back… I am not kidding!) whenever they felt they could use some reassurance of their security. You could x-ray your stuff as often as you wanted.
    In the end the computer in the x-ray machine got cracked (The password?: 911) and it was discovered that metal detectors do not detect people carrying metal if they move very, very slowly…. It was great. Though I will never forget the feeling of my courage sinking to my feet when I saw the X-ray scanner and metal detector. I knew some of my fellow campers might have gotten them selfs on a watchlist or two… but this looked serious.
    In the end knowing hackers rent x-ray machines makes me feel more secure… but thats just me.
    And before being impressed with these or other scanners, just ask for the false positive and false negative rates. No answer? Keep asking! For bonuspoints you should try and get a salesperson to give you these figures.


  8. elementary teacher says:

    MP, I tried to respond to your question honestly. I was not describing a person, and I don’t understand why you reframed my remarks as though I were. I responded to a cited article about civility, discourse and vitriol. I was pointing out how ludicrous that line of reasoning sounded to me at the time, in comparison to the crises in Lebanon where little babies were beheaded by bombs. You take my words out context and reapply them now, as though I had been writing anti-Semitically about the person who posted that article. Not so, MP. The dictionary definition was the one I intended. That word apparently had complications for you beyond the scope of my intentions.
    You then bring up Jesus and St. Paul and the Passion of Christ and write about who didn’t kill Jesus. Man, where are you going with all that? I was talking about babies being killed and how it is perfectly understandable that a person would react by shouting or cursing, and that it is phony and false to pretend that those lives are mere debating points in civil dialogue.


  9. Robert Hume says:

    I think that a lot of the “silly” security procedures are simply to make it less clear that you are not doing the obviously necessary things like what the Israelis do. Because that would usually end up being close to ethnic profiling.


  10. MP says:

    “”As I recall, Alec was calling for a more civil discourse on this site.”
    Posted by Pissed Off American at August 15, 2006 01:38 PM
    I put that line in there just for you, POA. And you found it!


  11. Carroll says:

    There is no such thing as total security. I don’t mean we should not take precautions but thinking you can secure this country is a pipedream.
    The security hysterics over the DP ports deal for example was pure politics..that’s all. Anyone living as I do on the coast near a major port and who has spent a lot of time offshore boating can tell you you can smuggle anything on shore with only a 1% chance of getting caught. Intelligence is the only way you are going to intercept anything. Ask the DEA.
    And btw… Faux and the other neo news organs are really working overtime on “racially profiling” Muslims in the US…next thing you know we will be deporting them or putting them in “camps.”
    Today they declared that not all Muslims are terrorist but “all terrorist are Muslims.” And of course they are doing a piece on how the pictures of the dead children in Lebanon are faked.
    The Ministry of Propaganda grinds on for the Isrmerica Reich.


  12. Pissed Off American says:

    “As I recall, Alec was calling for a more civil discourse on this site.”


  13. Sylvia I says:

    I flew from JFK to San Jose just before the arrests in London. I did not have to take off my shoes at all. Nor was a searched. So, the folks at JFK had stopped pretending at that point.
    I must say, however, I NEVER thought that those machines had specially capabilities. If they did, the TSA agents would not have had to separately screen our laptops with that little cloth that they use — I guest next thing that we’ll learn is that that little cloth contains no solution for detecting explosive particulates. hmmph.


  14. MP says:

    Dear Elementary Teacher: Here is my response in the latest thread as promised. If there were an avenue for direct, private messages, I would have used that route.
    You wrote: MP, Thank you for your question in a previous thread. I hope it was sincere, because I am. No, I do not teach my children pharisaical etiquette. I’m a Catholic and that would be a sin for me. I, for one, here, support Israel’s right to exist, but I do not believe it is anti-Israel to refuse to buy her friendship in any immoral way.
    Perhaps the issue would be better re-framed not Israel’s “right to exist” but her “responsibility to co-exist.” Perhaps if the United States were to withdraw immoral support from the region entirely, Israel and her neighbors could learn this peaceful lesson and, one day — credibly and mutually — tell the US to quit stage managing their regional interactions. What a prayer that would be!
    Undergirding and overarching that process would be the American people instructing their government to stop serving the mendacities of the few now in power. Let the greed mongers take care of themselves and stop abusing America — the America that a lot of us still love. To kick the phonies out of government, our everyday citizens would have to be willing to pay the price — a price I believe the vast majority of our people would gladly pay — as so many have in previous generations who were called to sustain our vision and our promise as a nation. My father and mother paid that price, my father and mother-in-law did, too. Come to think of it, my grandparents paid it and my husband paid it — and I guess that I, too, must be trying to play a small part by serving in the public schools.
    At any rate, to be able to become clean and to feel clean again — to wholeheartedly support and enjoy American life as the gift and the blessing it truly is, would be a wonderful healing for us here — and perhaps for those over there, too.
    It is said that the way to make a friend is to call them to be a better person, to call them to become part of a bigger vision, or a more sacrosanct wholeness. I think that we can ask more of ourselves and of Israel — and that starts with demanding that our public servants knock off the lies. As far as the current US lot is concerned, their work is neither public, nor serving us.
    I don’t see anywhere in the US Constitution where the Middle East is the American government’s chess board. The US administration is not genuine when it speaks of protecting our nation while the borders, airspace, ports, immigration, human services, education and disaster relief policies are incidental to their preoccupation with the Middle East. The reflexive and uncritical deference of Congress to the endless ethnic self-absorption of anyone’s lobby is, in my view, *pharisaical,* phony and wholly un-American.
    If Americans are anything, they are capable of getting real. So, I stand by what I wrote in the post that you questioned. I’m an American, MP — I’m only one — but I am one.
    PS. I will write more about South Africa, its relevance to the current ME quagmire, some of Den’s ideas. I did my field work there during apartheid — I was researching my book about facilitation and its role in peacemaking among antagonistic groups. So, as Steve says, more soon.
    Posted by elementary teacher at August 12, 2006 01:47 PM
    Dear Elementary Teacher:
    I wholeheartedly agree with most of what you write. I don’t know if any country can ever be “clean” because the world is a difficult place. But let’s leave that aside. I appreciate your support for Israel and, just for the record, I (and many Jews, including many in Israel) support a Palestinian State.
    But let’s take a look at this sentence. You’re a teacher (I presume) and therefore are sensitive to language. The sentence is this: “The reflexive and uncritical deference of Congress to the endless ethnic self-absorption of anyone’s lobby is, in my view, *pharisaical,* phony and wholly un-American.”
    Here are a couple of points about this:
    1) Minority groups are almost always self-absorbed because they find that no one, and certainly not the majority culture, is going to stand up for them without a lot of hooplah. To quote the well-known Jewish aphorism, “If I’m not for myself, who will be?” Unfortunately, Jews and other minorities have found through experience that the answer often is, “No one.” So they have to spend a lot of time, energy, and money doing it themselves.
    The other half of that aphorism is, “But if I’m only for myself, what am I?” So that’s the balance that has to be struck, and it is easy, especially when the group feels threatened, for this balance to be lost. Minority groups have to be self-absorbed; but they also have to see that they are one part, often a small part, of the whole.
    To shift a bit here, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if a lot of left-wing or progressive blacks feel an underlying pride in Clarence Thomas, Condi Rice, and Collin Powell—as much as they might abhor their actions or politics. Seeing one of your own up there is a big deal when you’ve been excluded forever. Or have had to fight for every inch you’ve got. They MIGHT even feel that having right-wing black assholes in power is step forward in a kind of weird way. I don’t know if this is true—and I’m sure it isn’t universally held (what is?)—but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it were.
    So my second point has to do with the word “pharisaical.” Not to mince words, it’s anti-Semitic. To be sure, Webster says it means, “marked by hypocritical censorious self-righteousness.” But this meaning comes directly from the New Testament’s derogatory view of the Pharisees and, more broadly, the Jews who “killed” Christ. It has been the basis for the overtly anti-Semtic passion plays of yore, the rationale for killing Jews and discriminating against them and, lest we think this is all a thing of the past especially here in the US of A, it is the basis for Mel’s movie, The Passion, and, no doubt, informs his own overtly anti-Semitic views.
    The Pharisees were an actual group of people, and they played an important and, often beneficial, role in the Jewish community. For the record, they didn’t kill Jesus. That their title has become a slur is a function of the anti-Jewish bias inherent in some interpretations of Pauline Christianity which has leeched into the general culture. Even some non-Christians believe this stuff. Sometimes, instead of pharisaical, the word talmudical is used. Or, it is said that Jews believe in the god of justice, while Christians believe in the god of love. Or Jews are overly legalistic in their dealings with the world (think Shylock) while Christians follow their hearts and “what’s right.” All of this is the same shit in different buckets.
    As I recall, Alec was calling for a more civil discourse on this site. (So has Steve, as you know.) Whether you believe we should let it rip or not, calling Alec’s statement “pharisaical etiquette,” was either unconcious or conscious anti-Semitism, an attack on his presumed Jewishness that, beyond being bad in itself, was wholly unnecessary to your point. If it was unconscious, now you know. If it was conscious, I’m sorry for you.
    Either way, it is this kind of language that convinces Jews that they have to remain at least somewhat self-absorbed and looking out for Number One. After all, no one else is going to.
    One of America’s most important traditions is the safeguarding of minority rights. The majority can’t run roughshod over minority rights simply because of its greater numbers. Disparaging language like this cuts away at this principle. I personally have no problem whatsoever with America taking a more balanced position in the Middle East. The tail shouldn’t wag the dog. The majority can’t be led by the minority. But language like this puts me on my highest guard as to what is going on here.
    P.S. I look forward to your thoughts on S.A. and Den’s ideas.


  15. shirton says:

    Yeah, don’t be joking around about terrorists sticking plastic explosives up their bunghole! All he’d have to do is drop his drawers and put a pressed ham moon against the nearest window and blow the mother out hurtling his busted ass self across the plane to crash his head through the window directly opposite! Two windows plus blown sucking passengers out one by one, not to mention the terrorist ass scattered all about. Bunghole checks are on the horizon if we want to be serious about thwarting the terrorists.


  16. Chiaroscuro says:

    Patrick Smith, Salon’s “Ask The Pilot” columnist, writes that if we’re counting on catching terrorists at the airport with check-in screening, we are doomed to ultimate failure. There are just too many ways to get around airport security, such as it is.
    The best hope of success is intelligence and police work well before the bad guys get to the airport. That’s the lesson of the British airline plot.
    I agree with the poster above, these cockamamie screenings are all security theater, the pretense of doing something.


  17. erichwwk says:

    POA wrote: “The long lines and the pseudo security are not designed to protect you, Steve. They are designed to keep you in a constant state of fear”
    In case someone doubts POA’s take, I challenge you to see for yourself how easy it is to breach “security”. And if one is unwilling to take this empirical step, a “second best” approach might be a conversation with an honest, independent security agent.
    Without maintaining a state of fear, the facade crumbles.


  18. steve duncan says:

    It’s amazing what people can secret in their body. A balloon in the rectum full of plastic explosive seems easy enough to get through screening. Probably a discreet detonation device can be had too. I imagine ex military ordnance and explosive experts laugh at the inadequacies of airport security. I also bet various terrorist groups have people rivaling our’s in explosives expertise. Happy flying!


  19. buck turgidson says:

    Why is AP helping terrorists?


  20. pauline says:

    at least Leno can bring some comic relief from the absurdities of air travel inspections.
    “Remember the good old days when the only bomb you had to worry about on a plane was the Rob Schneider movie?
    British authorities said they were able to detect the terrorist plot using a surveillance program that the “New York Times” hadn’t got around to exposing yet.
    In London you can’t even bring toothpaste on the plane. Which, for the English, isn’t really a problem.
    They’re banning hair gel. How’s Al Sharpton gonna fly?”


  21. Unimpressed by the War on "Terror" [Sic] says:

    This is more proof of the complete joke that is this administration’s national security efforts on the home front. With RNC faith in privatized security and privatized governmental/public interest functions – all for the sake of SMALL GOVERNMENT – this should come as no surprise. We get unskilled, untrained, ill-equipped McDonald’s staff rejects to monitor security at the airports and ports all so some RNC donor can get a nice fat contract to deliver a crew of buffoons to watch the borders. Why aren’t Democrats hammering this? Let’s hope they’re waiting for better timing. BTW, there was a fancy sniffing device at Miami International months ago that would shoot air through your clothes with an explosive noise. The brilliant thing was that after that, maybe as a double check, you had to then do the whole take of your shoes thing/X-ray scan. Yes, of course, all those brown Latinos passing through Miami are teeming with Al Qaeda operatives. More brilliant Harvard Law thinking from Chertoff. Wonderful what real Katrina expertise can provide.


  22. Nicholas Weaver says:

    Its all security theater. Its desigend to reassure the masses and get uncreative copycats.
    When the shoe thing first happened, if I was not in a hurry, I’d happily not take off my shoes and get a secondary screening, just to watch the procedure.
    And let us be thankful that the plot involed explosive gatorade rather than plastique shoved up the terrorists’ bugholes.


  23. Punchy says:

    Thank you Mr. Clemons for this post!! This has been driving me crazy for years!! First of all, I’m “required”, even though it’s optional (someone figure that out) to X-ray my sandals! They’re 0.5 inches thick…where’s the common sense?
    Secondly, everyone knows (or should know) that an X-ray machine looks for metals or high-density objects–gels don’t register. Besides, one CANNOT (as a chemist, this is a no-brainer) pack enough chemicals in a shoe to blow up a plane. Start a fire…sure. Explode a plane? Hell no.
    I just think it’s borderline comical that in response to liquids on planes…the reponse by the TSA is….unf’inbelievably….to…X-ray SHOES.
    I waiting for the AQ plot that involves exploding dentures, so that the gov’t will respond by making every passanger undergo a teeth cleaning prior to bording the plane….


  24. Pissed Off American says:

    The long lines and the pseudo security are not designed to protect you, Steve. They are designed to keep you in a constant state of fear, ever mindful of today’s boogie man, those nasty Al Qaeda monsters. They hate us for our freedoms, man, and theres one behind every bush…er…I mean…uh…Bush.


  25. gregariousred says:

    Hi Steve, I seem to recall going through a “sniffing” machine in order to see some historical landmark – I think it was the Liberty Bell in Philly. I guess they are way ahead of their time!


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