The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) circulated a bulletin last week detailing several incidents which raise questions about the continued risk to the nation’s airways. The incidents have been downplayed in subsequent reports and yet there is growing concern that they could be part of a larger effort to test the effectiveness of airport screening.
The report – which was a non-classified document intended for internal use only – focused on four incidents in widely-dispersed areas of the country and urged security officials to be aware of what appears to be an unconnected, yet “suspicious” trend. In each of the incidents, common items were packed in an unusual way, often imitating one or more elements of an improvised explosive device including “wires, switches, pipes or tubes, cell-phone components, and dense clay-like substances.”
In Baltimore, a couple was questioned after a bag containing a block of processed cheese – which is similar in consistency to a block of plastic explosives – was taped to a bag carrying a cell phone or portable DVD charger. Baltimore police accepted the couple’s explanation and concluded there was no threat or intent to “test” the TSA system.
A carry-on bag in Milwaukee contained “a wire coil wrapped around a possible initiator, an electrical switch, batteries, three tubes, and two blocks of cheese” and a checked bag in Houston held “a plastic bag with a 9-volt battery, wires, a block of brown clay-like minerals, and pipes.”
According to the bulletin, a passenger in San Diego checked a bag which contained two gel-pack ice packs with the gel removed and replaced with clay. The clay-filled ice packs were taped together with heavy-duty tape. Like the cheese blocks, clay is similar in consistency to plastic explosives.
The four incidents, which occurred between September of last year and last month, were investigated by TSA and local law enforcement. The TSA report called the explanations given by the passengers for having the items “questionable” and went on to point out that “past terrorist attacks and plots” were aided by “dry runs” and systematic testing of security capabilities.
Whether or not the similarity to explosives was intended or coincidental remains unclear and the veracity of the TSA report is even in question. A San Diego harbor police report contradicted the details of the TSA’s account of the San Diego incident, saying there was no clay involved and that the passenger had a medical reason to be carrying ice packs.
Additionally, in an attempt to downplay the more urgent language of the bulletin, the TSA has responded to the propagation of the document by stating, “There is no intelligence that indicates a specific or credible threat to the homeland.” The response posted on the official TSA website points out they routinely issue bulletins of a similar nature.
But any evidence that there is no connection to an organized effort to test run a terror strike has not slowed the chatter among bloggers, radio hosts, and concerned citizens. Many have wondered out loud if the four incidents that are declassified are simply representative of a larger trend which remains classified due to more compelling evidence.
Read the TSA Bulletin
TSA Statement about the Bulletin