Friday, October 06, 2006

US SECURITY BOFFINS ASSESSED LIQUID EXPLOSIVES: Sluggish analysis revised carry-on rules

The revised carry-on rules for liquids allowed on airplanes came too late to help DD's best friend. On a cross-country trip a few weeks ago, she had to mail her medicines and necessaries ahead of the flight and quickly drink a bottle of water before entering the airport. I was angry and skeptical of the stringent prohibitions, so was she, and so -- we reckoned -- were a lot of travellers.

DD, with GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow T-shirt on, after a few years of observation and first hand knowledge, has no confidence in homeland security threat assessments which lead to policy and procedures.

The rules on liquids were initially driven by hysteria and very bad information.

It has been discussed in "Peroxide bombs easy to make" and "Peroxide bombs explode: The usual memes."

Subsequently, DD blog found basic syntheses for liquid explosives, published in the scientific literature, and pointed them out here and here. It encompasses the basic chemistry of "peroxide bombs." And examination of the citations builds confidence in the reader that the alleged liquid bombs of the London plotters could not have worked as described.

The new and somewhat more relaxed rules on liquid carry-ons, were determined by security boffin testing, wrote The New York Times, in "Extensive Tests Led to New Carry-On Rules, Officials Say" on October 4. [Full article here.]

Various conflicting details on what the plotters planned and their materials and methods have leaked.

In an older story by the Times entitled "Suspects Not Ready for Immediate Strike," reporters wrote weeks ago: "Despite the charges, officials said they were still unsure of a critical question: whether any of the suspects was technically capable of assembling and detonating liquid explosives."

In this story, the liquid bomb was HMTD, a compound similar to triacetone peroxide, but made by addition of hexamine -- the compound comprising campfire tablets, and concentrated peroxide in the presence of acid. This contrasted with the original American press' version of the story in which triacetone peroxide was made by combination of the common chemical, acetone, and concentrated hydrogen peroxide in the presence of acid, perhaps lemon juice.

"A chemist involved in that part of the inquiry said HMTD, which can be prepared by combining hydrogen peroxide with other chemicals, 'in theory is dangerous,' but whether the suspects 'had the brights to pull it off remains to be seen,' wrote the Times weeks ago.

But in the Times story from two days ago, it is now claimed: "Based on the materials found in Britain, investigators developed a specific theory of the bomb plot, two officials who have been briefed on the inquiry said."

"With the seal on a sports drink called Lucozade intact," continued the Times, "the plotters apparently intended to remove the drink with a hypodermic needle and replace it with highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide, a syrupy liquid once used as rocket fuel. Another bottle would be filled with a common household substance, which The New York Times agreed not to disclose at the request of Homeland Security officials. After the two were mixed, a detonator hidden in a hollowed-out AA battery would be used to set off the bomb, according to this theory." [Emphasis DD's. And another knock on Homeland Security "officials" for requesting obscurity on a subject that's been published in a widespread manner, anyway.]

" . . . ingredients were mixed in the beakers and, with the help of a robotic device, detonated while technicians were in a nearby bunker, security officials said," added the Times

The Register, with a little help from Dick Destiny, wrote this on August 17th, after consulting with an explosives chemist who has published on triacetone peroxide:

"So, assuming that the homebrew variety of TATP is highly sensitive and unstable - or at least that our inept jihadists would believe that - to avoid getting blown up in the taxi on the way to the airport, one might, if one were educated in terror tactics primarily by hollywood movies, prefer simply to dump the precursors [concentrated peroxide and acetone] into an airplane toilet bowl and let the mother of Satan work her magic. Indeed, the mixture will heat rapidly as TATP begins to form, and it will soon explode. But this won't happen with much force, because little TATP will have formed by the time the explosion occurs . . . "

Taken with the NY Times article, what this probably means with regards to homeland security testing, was that the threat assessment men were dumping acetone and peroxide together in the presence of a little acid.

[Other available compounds, since the Times relates the government used concentrated hydrogen peroxide in connection with "once used as rocket fuel," widens testing choices to ethanol, methanol or calcium permanganate, mixtures similar to what the Germans used for rocket fuel in World War II. However, rocket fuel grade hydrogen peroxide isn't something you can pick up at the hardware megastore.]

With small amounts, less than three ounces, they found very little that was militarily interesting -- violent reaction, but a reaction with little force. By gradually ramping up the amounts and tweaking conditions, they were able to produce explosions, but ones which required amounts of reagents well beyond the current regulations.

The summation of the process, although brief, does illustrate why the plans of the terrorists, while ambitious, should be taken with a great deal of salt in regards to actual capabilities. That is, in the absence of evidence and knowledge of where they had tested their prototyped liquid bombs, if they had at all.

And it also asks readers and journalists covering the story to think about the differences between US scientists, with training in explosives and unlimited resources, and the young British terrorists, or any group of terrorists with similar wishes.

Since we still do not know what precisely what "materials" and information on methods was gained in Britain, and homeland security officials do not elucidate for the Times, it is impossible to say whether US security scientists were basically limiting themselves to duplicating what terrorists had already prepared, or were running through the entire gamut of development and testing of liquid bombs, a process in which they greatly exceed the capability of the terrorists. The New York Times piece strongly indicates the latter.

While this doubtless has some benefit in getting one's head around what is broadly possible given maximum available expertise, it frequently does not have a lot to do with what is applicable in the real world. It doesn't answer pressing questions like, "Were the terrorists just pipedreamers?"

How were they going to get their concentrated hydrogen peroxide? Had they even done the procedure once?

So when a government official, Kip Hawley, an assistant secretary for transportation, "confirmed [to the New York Times] that the risks posed by the London plot were real," it simply is not a confirmation. It's just another statement, one among many emphasizing the dire nature of the threat, without
substantiation from solid information on materials, methods and training in the terrorist group.

“This was a serious, serious, serious threat — chilling is the word,” Hawley said to the Times. And that might be true, but given the history and past track record on announcements re this particular terror plot, it is more likely that it is not quite so.

It's important because in the war on terror it has apparently been homeland security practice to basically ignore what capabilities terrorists actually have in favor of throwing teams of technicians and scientists into destructive applications in order to determine what can be done given resources and training far in excess of what terrorists actually have or can do.

It argues for the creation of a process in which open science and inquiry can be used to evaluate solid terror evidence immediately, not one in which law enforcement and government agencies keep it secret, to be duplicated only by the clearance-approved scientists and technicians within the apparatus.

So after all was said and done what was determined, although the Times doesn't come out and say it directly, is that the original predictions and assumptions on liquid bombs couldn't be duplicated, although homeland security scientists were able to create explosions using TATP or a similar compound. No surprise.

The limit of liquid, or of a volume that carry a liquid or separate aliquots of bomb chemicals, was set at a one-quart plastic bag.

"Taking into account the possibility that terrorists might act as a team and pool ingredients, officials arrived at the limit of one quart-size plastic bag per passenger," wrote the Times. "That amount of liquid explosives could still cause damage or harm passengers, but it would be unlikely to destroy a plane, officials said."

In other words, terrorists almost assuredly can't bring down a jet-liner trying to make TATP on the flight. This fact, when teased out of the cryptic bits of information provided to the Times by homeland security officials, should be reassuring to air passengers.

Another large question, one unasked, is this: Why won't such officials just say this instead of the now standard dithering over with what they think ought to be told or not told to citizens.

Infamous source, states obvious: Penrose "Parney" Albright, on the initial liquid bans.
“I think they overreacted,” said Penrose Albright, a former assistant secretary at the Science and Technology division of the Department of Homeland Security. “Where they are at now is where they should have been from the beginning.”


For the NYT head's up, thanks and a tip o' the hat to Bruce Rolston at Flit blog.


Some original wit and wisdom on liquid bombs, courtesy of experts in the press:

"All I have to do is take [the chemicals] in the restroom with a standard water bottle," said Langerman to the Los Angeles Times for its story, "Humble Ingredients for a Deadly Purpose." "I empty the water out, mix them in the bottle, and before I'm done mixing them, the reaction has already occured and the plane is in serious trouble."

"Hellbrew is cheap, simple to make," blared the Toronto Star.

"Anyone with half an hour, a set of instructions found online and about $75 can easily make the stuff," said the newspaper.

An experiment to test the capacity of such combinations was carried out combining an easily bought hair cream, with sodium chloride, or bleach . . . They used half a tube of Brylcreem and a cup full of sodium chloride and they put a crater in the ground with it," [a professor] said to another newspaper, The Globe and Mail.

Sodium chloride! Table salt and hair cream bombs!

"Prof. Ehud Keinan of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the Scripps Research Institute is a renowned expert on peroxide-based explosives," claimed one P.R. piece from a news database. "He can explain these explosives in depth, and discuss how . . . they are easy to make from ingredients available . . . even [in] supermarkets."

Supermarkets! Home Depot, too!

"Chemicals sitting in anyone's bathroom at home could be used to make a bomb that would badly damage a passenger jet, and experts have been warning about this danger for years," wrote Reuters.

No, strike that! You don't even have to go to the supermarket, just the bathroom!

"The possibilities are endless if they have a good engineer, a mad scientist," a pseudo-expert said to Newsday.

"But if you could somehow disguise your liquid bomb ingredients as milk or juice, you could probably get away with a little gulp in front of the airport screeners," wrote someone named Daniel Engbar, "The Explainer," for Slate.

"In very large doses, acetone also has a narcotic effect, and hydrogen peroxide can cause your bowels to rupture," he added.

But "The process [of threat assessment] is ongoing, which is one of the reasons Homeland Security already knew that a wide variety of liquids could pose a threat . . . The problem: The range of liquids is so great it can also include the gin or vodka poured freely in first class," delivered John Nance of ABC News.

No, forget the bathrooms and the supermarkets! Go to the liquor cabinet! If you chicken out in your liquid bomb plot, you can at least get happy drinking it.

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