Liquid Explosives Getting Past Airport Security

Investigators have managed to smuggle liquid explosives past airport security checkpoints.

Regardless of how much bottled water or tubes of lipstick air travelers have had to surrender, airport security is porous enough that government investigators have managed to smuggle liquid explosives and detonators concealed in their carry-on luggage and on their persons past security checkpoints, according to a report released from the Government Accountability Office on Nov. 15.

The GAO did not identify exactly what the materials are, given that the information is classified. But the report did say that the investigators figured out how to make the explosives using commonly available information and made the devices using commonly available and quite affordable materials, most of which cost less than $150.

One of the devices involved in the testing was an IED (improvised explosive device) made up of a liquid explosive and a low-yield detonator. According to the GAO, the detonator itself could be used as an IED. But tests of the materials at a national laboratory in July showed that when the detonator is used with a liquid explosive, the damage is more extensive.

The investigators also smuggled in a second device, an IID (improvised incendiary device) created by combining commonly available products—one of which is a liquid—that the TSA prohibits in carry-on luggage. Investigators obtained the materials online or at local stores, with out-of-pocket costs less than $150.

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"Tests … clearly demonstrated that a terrorist using these devices could cause severe damage to an airplane and threaten the safety of passengers," according to the GAO report.

The Transportation Security Administration overhauled its passenger-screening policies in August 2006 following an alleged transatlantic bomb plot uncovered by British authorities. Since then, carrying liquids, gels and aerosols through checkpoints has been severely limited.

But not limited enough, as the GAOs tests have shown.

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The investigators conducted covert testing at 19 unidentified airports across the country. The GAO has already followed up by briefing the TSA on taking corrective action in areas including aspects of human capital, processes, and technology.

The GAO said in its report that it is currently performing a more systematic review of the issues and expects to issue a comprehensive public report with recommendations for the TSA in early 2008.

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