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Bottles of Honey Shut Down Airport

samzenpus posted more than 4 years ago | from the killer-bees dept.

Idle 24

The suspicious material found inside luggage that shut down Bakersfield's Meadows Field Airport turned out to be five soft drink bottles filled with honey. A routine swabbing of the luggage tested positive for TNT. When the bag was opened authorities found the bottles filled with an amber liquid. Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said, "Why in this day and age would someone take a chance carrying honey in Gatorade bottles? That itself is an alarm. It's hard to understand."

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Let the pun begin (3, Funny)

Locke2005 (849178) | more than 4 years ago | (#30672052)

That's one honey of a problem. You'd bee in real trouble if you tried in. Sweet that they actually caught this before it resulted in a sticky situation. Will Winnie the Pooh now be employed as a luggage screener?

Why... (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30672842)

"Why in this day and age would someone take a chance carrying honey in Gatorade bottles? That itself is an alarm. It's hard to understand."

Because honey is neither dangerous nor illegal.

Re:Why... (1)

Locke2005 (849178) | more than 4 years ago | (#30673450)

Sugar, on the other hand, can be made into explosives, thus it should be banned from airplanes. Hope you like your coffee/tea unsweetened! Wait... am I giving the TSA ideas?

Re:Why... (1)

Jarjarthejedi (996957) | more than 4 years ago | (#30677850)

"Because honey is neither dangerous nor illegal."

Not yet, but be assured that someone will invent a scenario where honey can be used to destroy an airplane and we'll all be forced to endure honey sweeps by the TSA, don't you worry.

Re:Why... (1)

tobiah (308208) | more than 4 years ago | (#30677970)

The story states that the suspect was a beekeeper on his way to visit relatives for Christmas. Although it appears to be the case that neither the police nor the reporters bothered to ask, it seems reasonable to assume be that the honey bottles were intended as gifts...

The system worked? (3, Insightful)

orgelspieler (865795) | more than 4 years ago | (#30672926)

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said, "It's encouraging that the system did work, because something is not right there."

What?!? First of all, since when is a false positive the same as the system working? Secondly, what's "not right" about wanting to travel with honey? Thirdly, the article says TSA officials got nauseated by the fumes. What fumes? It's honey! These people need to be fired, not treated like heroes.

Here's what the good sheriff should have said: "Why in this day and age would we have explosives detection equipment that cannot tell honey from TNT? Why in this day and age would a human think that honey is TNT, don't they know what TNT is? Why in this day and age is shutting down an airport for no good reason considered a good thing? Why in this day and age are we still saying 'in this day and age'? It sounds stupid."

Re:The system worked? (0)

vxice (1690200) | more than 4 years ago | (#30674538)

Since without changing the underlying technology you either get fewer false negatives at the expense of false positives or the other way around. People are fine with saying that "they don't mind the extra risk of being caught up in the blind dragnet" and "if you have nothing to hide why are you concerned?" As long as they are unaffected and only abdul al taliban towel head is. I would like to see everyone pushing for these extra security measures put at the top of the "frisk me and take five hours of my life so I can explain to you why I am flying list" not only for their direct terrorist attacks on our liberty and blatant abuse of innocent until proven guilty but so that they understand exactly what they are asking for.

Re:The system worked? (3, Informative)

natehoy (1608657) | more than 4 years ago | (#30674676)

First, I agree that TSA appears to have overreacted, and isn't doing themselves any favors with their ongoing attempt to blame the traveler for doing something that is perfectly legal and probably didn't seem unusual at all to them. Youngblood needs to hold a new press conference and apologize to Ramirez. Not for the initial reaction, but for his "why would anyone take a risk of carrying honey" bullshit as a thinly veiled attempt to blame Ramirez for shutting down the airport.

However, good quality raw honey has a very strong smell, and given that this guy is a farmer he may have liked some local raw honey he found and decided to take some home. Unfortunately, most people I know would not recognize the aroma of raw honey. It can be rather pungent, and to some people unpleasantly so. Once cooked and processed, as it generally is for American consumption, it's a very different product with comparatively little aroma. Much like milk - the pasteurized homogenized stuff you can buy in most places is not nearly the same as raw milk, and raw milk tastes and smells different - it has an earthy flavor and smell to it that is lost in processing. I love both raw milk and raw honey, but they are very different from their processed counterparts. Hell, most people I know wouldn't recognize the COLOR of raw honey. It can be very dark and cloudy, almost opaquely in some cases.

In some states, it's also illegal to sell raw milk and/or raw honey, so Ramirez might have been stocking up while he had a supply available.

Add to that the fact that bees are routinely fogged with smoke during the honey harvesting process. If Ramirez was present for that process and packed those clothes, you can add "smoke" to the strong raw honey smell. That would make a pretty interesting combination of scents even raw honey lovers might not recognize.

The TNT and acetone peroxide swabs could have easily been the result (as mentioned in the article) of the smoke used to fog the bees during the collection process, or a chemical or chemicals used on the farm. A little Diesel fuel, a little ammonium nitrate, a touch of this, a spot of that, get it on the bottles, handle the bottles while loading them in the suitcase, whammo - false positive.

So looking at it from the perspective of a TSA agent, using the "walk a mile in their moccasins" rule:

1. They did a routine swab of luggage, and one bag tested positive for TNT and acetone peroxide. That's enough to certainly merit looking in the suitcase as a next step. They'd be criminally negligent not to look into it further, that's their damned job.

2. They opened the suitcase and were presented with bottles of thick (probably dark) cloudy amber fluid in unmarked Gatorade bottles. From the point of view of a TSA agent who has just gotten a positive test for explosives, this would be reasonably considered "suspicious". I know I'd be concerned enough not to just pack the suitcase back up and send it on its merry way. So they reasonably investigated further.

3. They opened a bottle and were presented with an unfamiliar, strong smell. I know people who do find the smell of raw honey unpleasant, so the strong unknown smell combined with the tension of having a positive explosives test and the odd packaging, I could easily see someone being nauseated by the smell. Next "reasonable person" reaction is certainly not to taste it and discover it's honey!

Their initial reaction sounds very much like the system worked as it should, given the (probably understandable) misinterpretation of the evidence. Youngblood and TSA management seem to be the only ones truly mishandling this situation, by trying to blame Ramirez for what looks like an honest mistake on the TSA's part. It's time to give Ramirez back his honey, apologize, have Obama invite everyone over for a beer, and move on.

The real shame is that it's likely the root cause of this is the simple fact that many people don't know a REAL food when they see and smell it.

Re:The system worked? (2, Interesting)

MartinSchou (1360093) | more than 4 years ago | (#30679418)

3. They opened a bottle [...]

Well, that part was just incredibly stupid.

If you are suspecting something bad, why would you want to open the container? If it's an liquid explosive of some sort, how do you know that it won't react badly to the air? It could be sealed in a nitrogen environment. How do you know it's not a biological weapon? Chemical weapon?

Since the sensors say 'TNT' and your eyes tell you it's not TNT, my gut reaction is to call in a crew that knows what to do with ptentially dangerous substances that might have been in contact with TNT, might be some kind of new explosive, chemical or biological weapon.

What I wouldn't do when handling an unknown substance is take a deep breath and try to guess what it is. For all I know it could be some way of storing Hydrogen Flouride [wikipedia.org] in such a way, that upon contact with air, it will release a couple of gallons of it into the air. Or how about Sarin gas [wikipedia.org] in a new kind of liquid containment?

Whomever opened those bottles should be fired for completely neglegent behaviour and wilfully exposing the public to an unknown and potentially lethal danger. Actually, bring criminal charges against them as well.

Re:The system worked? (1)

orgelspieler (865795) | more than 4 years ago | (#30686314)

You're saying the same thing as Youngblood, that the system worked. It didn't. This is a false positive and it is indicative of a broken system. In fact, you have listed the precise failures. First, the luggage swab failed with a false positive. Second, the visual inspection of the luggage failed with a false positive. Third, the olfactory test failed with a false positive. Not only did the system fail, it failed THREE times! Is that supposed to make me feel better? The other option is that this is the system working "as it should," like you claim. If that's the case, then I'd say we need a new system altogether. It may be time for a beer, but it's also time to fix a broken system.

Re:The system worked? (1)

natehoy (1608657) | more than 4 years ago | (#30687350)

It is possible for a system to work as designed and still fail under certain extreme conditions. To design a system that is completely immune from failure would be hideously expensive. The current system is designed to eliminate false negatives to enough extent that false positives can and will happen.

I had a bag test positive once during a routine 100% inspection (Back when they used to do it with you present). I was asked to open the bag, I complied, and the TSA agent put on gloves and (with me present and able to observe but far enough away not to interfere) checked my luggage. He found nothing suspicious, apologized, did his best to tidy up the contents, sent my bag down the conveyor, and thanked me for being patient and polite about the whole thing. Done.

In this case, detection system worked to the best ability to design one. It's just that the system is not perfect, and is probably not ever going to be. This isn't CSI:Airport, this is real human beings dealing with imperfect technology looking at circumstances that aren't predetermined in a script.

It's hard to judge the appropriateness of shutting down the airport. If the airport was doing random checks of luggage, and they suspected explosives, then the appropriate response is to temporarily shut down the airport because there may be other bags in the system that have similar issues.

If the airport was checking 100% of all bags and this one was caught, then they could have simply quarantined that one bag until the substance can be analyzed. Of course, at that point, they have to shut down the machines that check the rest of the luggage (unless they have a special team to deal with positives), so they are pretty much effectively shutting down the airport anyway.

(Ideally, we should go back to the system where you hand your luggage to a TSA agent and wait until their test is complete, but that means people actually have to arrive early for their flights)

In either case, the main failure of the system was the continuing response, and that is deeply unfortunate, and very much deserving of an apology to Mr. Ramirez. This is where Youngblood is very much in the wrong.

Next step should have been to go collect Ramirez and ask what the stuff is. Chances are, he'd act very surprised and say "honey", at which point you bring them some crackers and a clean plate and ask him to please eat a bit.

Once Ramirez has enjoyed his snack, you apologize for the inconvenience, get him back to his flight quickly (preferably asking the airline to bump him to first class because he cooperated nicely with a mistake you made), and expedite his bag into his plane so his luggage makes it with him.

THAT is where "the system" appears to have broken down. Not in the initial detection, but in the response. And the ongoing response of accusing Ramirez for mistakes the TSA and the local police made after it became clear that the positive was a false one.

Re:The system worked? (1)

orgelspieler (865795) | more than 4 years ago | (#30697668)

One of my problems with the "There's no way to catch everybody unless we put up with some false positives" argument is that it's a half-truth. The other half of that statement is that statement is of course the fact that they don't catch everybody. The knicker-bomber proved that.

Until they publish some data on true positives (where they actually caught a bomber in the airport using these methods), there's no way to do a proper economic analysis of hits and misses. For all we know, there could be no true positives. In which case, the single false negative that occurred means the true value of all this screening is nil. That would mean that every day we're wasting hundreds (thousands?) of thousands of dollars on nothing more than the appearance of security. Add to that the negative effects on civil rights and the airline industry.

I just did a little digging. It looks like the Government Accountability Office did some studies a couple of years ago and found that the true positive rate is about 10%. TSA claims it's more like 90%. Not very reassuring, either way. With the highest number, you just need to send 10 guys. One gets through and blows up whatever, and the other nine get stuck in security, and just blow up the airport instead. Maybe it's time to admit the whole system is broken and stupid and just let people get on planes. Let's divert the rest of that money somewhere useful.

Re:The system worked? (1)

natehoy (1608657) | more than 4 years ago | (#30698780)

Good point.

I'm not a big fan of "Security Theater", personally. It has a deterrent factor, possibly, but it also has a huge deterrent factor to actually flying.

We solved the major problem of anyone actually being able to direct an airplane into a strategic landmark when we put armored doors in the cockpit. That was a logical, sensible move - if someone means harm, deny them access to the controls.

About the only thing left that a terrorist can do is kill some passengers on board or, absolute worst case, bring the plane down in an uncontrolled manner by sufficiently compromising the structure. Everyone on the plane dies, and that's a tragedy, but the terrorist cannot direct the plane at a specific target.

In other words, the armored doors solved the problem, at least in large part. Make sure passengers can't actually sneak plasma cutters in their carryons and we're about as good as we're going to get.

My major objection to the "how stupid are the TSA agents" in this case is that, given the technology we've given them and the context of what appears to have happened, it looks like a perfectly reasonable evaluation of what was before them. They obviously turned out to be incorrect, and it makes really cool biting headlines to say "stupid idiot TSA agents don't recognize honey", but I don't see how (short of eliminating Security Theater) it could have been prevented.

Re:The system worked? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30674812)

Consider the source: AP via Fox News. ANYTHING that counter-terrorism people do is going to be dolled up by News Corp handlers. Compare the Reuters, [reuters.com] AFP, [google.com] and CNN [cnn.com] articles, just to grab three likely candidates from Google News. I do not feel that I am exaggerating when I say that the perspective being pushed by Fox News is contemptible. The sad thing is that many of their readers and viewers will just eat up the hard spin and fail to ask the basic reality-check questions that orgelspieler did. The chilly civil-rights questions notwithstanding, the shutdown delayed a number of people, many of whom had work to do at their destinations but were forced to find alternative or later routes to get where they were going. That costs America a healthy number of man-hours. Plus, it sullies our national credibility (when we're already hemorrhaging reputation as-is). All over a substance that should have been identified in short order and a needless lockdown of services.

That's ignoring more fundamental security protocol questions. Even if nothing changed vis a vis security protocols post 9/11, the rulebook for airplane hijacking got revamped that day, and revamped hard. People won't sit back and placidly accept the takeover of an airliner today. Yes, some dork could still smuggle a bomb onto a plane, but 9/11 wasn't a case of plane bombing. Blowing up a plane kills the passengers, plus maybe a few people underneath the plane when it crashes (that's at most a 20% chance if it hits east of the Mississippi, and more like 10% if it's a couple hundred miles inland from the coast). Tragic, but not an earth-shaker like the strike on the WTC. And, there's functionally no level of scrutiny that can stop everything. Some suicidal nutcase with some backing could get a yard of intestine pulled and replaced with several pounds of c4 (which is roughly the consistency of hard cheese, if I remember the ramblings of my space-cadet chemistry professor correctly). Good luck seeing that on a body scanner, and scratch one aircraft. Heck, if he didn't scream "Hail Xenu" before pushing the button, he could probably walk off after a failed detonation and go try it again somewhere else, presuming the complicit sawbones reconnected the intestine properly.

I'm not saying we shouldn't invest in transit security. Cockpits on large aircraft should be secured, firearms should be tightly controlled, and identities ought to be verified and digitally passed by a watch list in the terminal. However, the incredible costs of the current policing apparatus seem disproportionate. Perhaps it's a bit much to hope that passenger screenings, random or otherwise, would welcome the selected individuals into a posh sitting room with state-side cigars and a shot of brandy as an apology for the delay (then again, why not? Getting tagged for additional scrutiny is a non-trivial imposition, and a bit of apologetic pampering might make the pill go down more gently). Victorian fantasies notwithstanding, Fox News, beyond any other major news source (I have to say that without sarcasm because a lot of people actually do believe they're informing themselves about the world by watching it), is a major agent in keeping people scared of terror; whether it's a prelude to pushing for a new McCarthy era (Glenn Beck...oh, just Glenn Beck, Skoern? Really?) or just a matter of business-as-usual for feeding their wing of the Republicans while praying for a Palin candidacy.

Killer bees... (1)

tacarat (696339) | more than 4 years ago | (#30674350)

No reliable reports of Al Queda links yet.

Re:Killer bees... (1)

v1 (525388) | more than 4 years ago | (#30677358)

But the bees stored the honey in terrorist cells

Re:Killer bees... (1)

tacarat (696339) | more than 4 years ago | (#30678820)

The bees have also been known to search out flowering plants utilized to make various illicit drugs and poisons.

Why in this day and age? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30674486)

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said, "Why in this day and age would someone take a chance carrying honey in Gatorade bottles? That itself is an alarm. It's hard to understand."

Really? Carrying some food in a container is an alarm? I guess eating tacos and having explosive diarrhea might get a person shot in the head [wikipedia.org] "in this day and age." Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood should die in the immediate future. (from natural causes, of course)

Allergic to honey? (2, Funny)

CyberBill (526285) | more than 4 years ago | (#30676772)

"When Transportation Security Administration agents opened one of the bottles and tested the contents, the resulting fumes nauseated them, Youngblood said. Both were treated and released at a local hospital." Does anyone know, off the top of their head, the proper treatment for SMELLING HONEY? What 'fumes' exactly come from honey?

Re:Allergic to honey? (2, Interesting)

v1 (525388) | more than 4 years ago | (#30677374)

What 'fumes' exactly come from honey?

100% psychological of course. They expected to smell something evil, and thus they got sick. Makes no difference what they smelled. No surprise.

Re:Allergic to honey? (2, Funny)

LarryWest42 (220323) | more than 4 years ago | (#30677574)

So... if you believe you have an explosive or chemical weapon or other noxious item ... why would you open up the containers and smell them?

Re:Allergic to honey? (1)

v1 (525388) | more than 4 years ago | (#30678232)

That's also a good point. Like they were trained to know what C4 smells like? lol

fwiw, touching C4 with your bare hands gets some of the chemical immediately taken in by the skin and gives an almost instant intense migraine.

Re:Allergic to honey? (1)

MartinSchou (1360093) | more than 4 years ago | (#30679436)

I think that's a reaction to the nitroglycerin. I've heard that referred to as "bang head"

What I'd like to know is ... (1)

RockDoctor (15477) | more than 4 years ago | (#30691804)

What are they using for a "TNT detector"?

Actually, that's a serious question. When I've heard these things being described, they're described as a "wipe down", implying at most, one air-stable wipe-on reagent and one on the "wipe cloth".

An antibody-based specific detector for TNT itself is (reasonably) credible. But of course, it wouldn't detect PETN, or black powder. Or (if I remember my chemistry) the RDX component of C5 "plastique".

My suspicion, based on records of people doing decades in jail for playing cards at the wrong time and place, is that these "swab" tests are for nitrates, possibly for organo-nitrates, but again that would miss the black powder. Sounds so much less high-tech than a "TNT-detector".

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