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Pre-emptive alert earns TSA praise

Targets bomb parts smuggled separately

WASHINGTON – Security experts and politicians – even longtime critics – praised the Transportation Security Administration’s warning that terrorists might be testing whether innocent-looking bomb components can be smuggled onto an airplane.

The TSA’s intelligence circular that leaked this week demonstrates that the agency the flying public loves to hate has matured beyond confiscating nail clippers, tweezers and lighters, they said Wednesday.

The experts agreed that this judgment holds true even if the four incidents that triggered the warning turn out to have innocent explanations, as two of them – in San Diego and Baltimore – appeared to on Wednesday.

“This is what TSA should be doing whether it turns out to be a whole bunch of harmless coincidences or part of a plot,” said James Carafano, a security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation who in the past called for TSA’s abolition.

“This kind of analysis wouldn’t have happened before Sept. 11, 2001,” or even for some time afterward, he said.

What TSA’s office of intelligence told air marshals, transportation security officers and law enforcement nationwide on July 20 was eye-catching, although TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe emphasized there is “no credible, specific threat.”

Citing four incidents since last September at the San Diego, Milwaukee, Houston and Baltimore airports, the agency said screeners had found in checked and carry-on luggage various combinations of “wires, switches, pipes or tubes, cell phone components and dense clay-like substances,” including block cheese. “The unusual nature and increase in number of these improvised items raise concern.”

Security officers were urged to keep an eye out for “ordinary items that look like improvised explosive device components” in case terrorists are conducting dry runs to probe what components could get past security for assembly into a bomb in an airplane bathroom.

“Honestly, I don’t care if someone is carrying a water bottle, wearing a head scarf, or buying a one-way ticket, but if someone has a block of cheese with wires and a detonator – I want the FBI to be called in,” said Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at the security firm BT Counterpane.

Cheese is a good stand-in for explosives, such as C4 and Semtex, that are favored by terrorists because they can look similar to X-ray scanners, he said.

This security bulletin, plus TSA Administrator Kip Hawley’s decision to stop confiscating most cigarette lighters on Aug. 4, “shows someone is thinking somewhere,” Schneier said. “It’s about time. It’s refreshing to have something nice to say about TSA.”

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., never shy about criticizing TSA, agreed the agency is handling this appropriately. “To stay ahead of potential threats to our aviation system it must use all of the intelligence available as part of its daily operations.”

Theodore Postol, MIT professor of science, technology and national security, said the incidents described by TSA are “exactly the kind of problem that has worried me incessantly.”

On Wednesday, it appeared the most recent incident, this month in San Diego, was innocent.

The TSA bulletin said a U.S. person – either a citizen or a foreigner legally here – checked baggage at San Diego this month containing two ice packs covered in duct tape. The ice packs had clay inside them rather than the normal blue gel, TSA said.

In this and the other incidents, once TSA officers had detected, and in some cases photographed, the suspicious items, police and sometimes the FBI were called in to question the travelers, TSA spokesman Chris White said.

None has been linked to criminal or terrorist groups, but some of the investigations continue.