Liquids, Gels and a Blog


Terrorists must be quaking now that the U.S. government has unveiled its latest tool for airport security: a blog.

The Transportation Security Administration has started a blog, written by TSA employees, who in turn invite travelers to ask questions and sound off about what bothers them regarding airport security. After receiving 700 comments on the blog's first day, the TSA was compelled to disclose that it would not be posting submissions that "include profane language" or are deemed to be "political rants." That should keep the blog manageably small.

An early peek at the site ( shows much ado about liquids, gels, and removing one's shoes. Perhaps a worthy topic would be the 565 consecutive days that American airports have been at condition "orange."

In a highly unscientific survey of a few dozen passengers at several major airports, no one knew what Condition Orange meant or what it required them to do. The color scheme is part of the Homeland Security Advisory System, in which green indicates there is a "low" risk of terrorist attacks; blue means "guarded"; yellow stands for "elevated"; orange is "high"; and red is "severe." The alert level for air travel was last raised from yellow to orange on Aug. 10, 2006, and has remained there for 565 straight days.

While most Americans favor security and oppose terror, 17 months at constant "high" alert raises several questions. Isn't the government behaving somewhat like the boy who cried "orange"? And, is it possible that the Bush administration favors a perpetual state of orangeness to retain whatever support remains for the Iraq war, which it continues to insist is linked to domestic terrorist threats?

The security process at American airports, lax to the point of being laughable before Sept. 11, has since seemed spasmodic and arbitrary. The agency has been largely reactive rather than proactive in combating terror plots.

For example, thanks to a man named Richard Reid, who flew from Paris to Miami in 2001 wearing shoes containing explosives, millions of travelers have since been ordered to remove their shoes at airport checkpoints because in nearly seven years no more convenient method has been found to check footwear.

And since August 2006, when the British authorities announced they had foiled a plot to blow up a plane using liquid explosives, American travelers have been forbidden from carrying more than 3 ounces of most liquids and gels - and then, only in regulation "zip-top" plastic bags.

The TSA concedes that each such security problem constitutes another potential hole in an already leaky dike. According to the TSA administrator Kip Hawley, "Any time we fixate on one thing, you have to be concerned about opening up something elsewhere." But the TSA's own tests of things it already fixates on provided dismal results. Screeners failed to find fake bombs hidden on undercover agents in more than 60 percent of tests conducted in 2006. Hawley's response to Congress was, "There are thousands of ways [for terrorists] to attack."

Certainly, if the ultimate validation of the U.S. government's effort is that there have been no serious security breaches in the U.S. air system since Sept. 11, then the program should be judged a success. On the other hand, no one really knows to what extent the security system has been challenged, or whether potential terrorists are actually aided by so much time and effort spent on wild gel chases - and now on blogging.

Ironically, one of the tenets of the TSA program is that all air travelers should themselves be "vigilant" and report "suspicious items or activities." But after 565 "orange" days, travelers should be forgiven if the whole airport security situation has simply left them colorblind.

© Peter Funt. This article first appeared in The Boston Globe.

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