TSA Issues Secret Warning on ‘Catastrophic’ Threat to Aviation
The Transportation Security Administration said it is unlikely to detect and unable to extinguish what an FBI report called “the greatest potential incendiary threat to aviation”. Yet despite that warning, sources said TSA is not adequately preparing to respond to the threat.
Thermite — a mixture of rust and aluminum powder — could be used against a commercial aircraft, TSA warned in a Dec. 2014 document, marked secret [PDF here]. “The ignition of a thermite-based incendiary device on an aircraft at altitude could result in catastrophic damage and the death of every person onboard,” the advisory said.
TSA said it is unlikely to spot an easy-to-assemble thermite-based incendiary device during security screening procedures, and the use of currently available extinguishers carried on aircrafts would create a violent reaction
A thermite device, though difficult to ignite, would “produce toxic gasses, which can act as nerve poison, as well as a thick black smoke that will significantly inhibit any potential for in-flight safety officers to address the burn.”
TSA warned federal air marshals not to use customary methods of extinguishing fires — the water or halon fire extinguishers currently found on most aircraft — which would make the reaction worse, creating toxic fumes. Instead, air marshals are told to “recognize a thermite ignition” — but TSA has provided no training or guidance on how to do so, according to multiple sources familiar with the issue.
TSA circulated these Dec. 2014 materials through briefings, according to sources familiar with the issue, but did not offer up guidance on what to do with this information, and equipment that could mitigate this threat, like specific dry chemical extinguishers, has not been provided.
“We’re supposed to brief our [federal air marshals] to identify a thermite ignition — but they tell us nothing,” said one current TSA official, who asked not to be named because the official is not authorized to speak to the press. “So our guys are Googling, ‘What does thermite look like? How do you extinguish thermite fires?’ This is not at all helpful.”
Several aviation officials, who also asked not be named, confirmed they had been briefed on the threat, but given no information or training on identifying thermite ignition. “They say to identify something we don’t know how to identify and say there is nothing we can do,” one federal air marshal said. “So basically, we hope it’s placed somewhere it does minimal damage, but basically we’re [screwed].”
According to the FBI’s description of their tests, thermite devices “spew molten metal and hot gasses” and can potentially “burn through steel and every other material” on the aircraft.
While declining to address thermite specifically, Lee, the Homeland Security spokesman, insisted that the aviation security system is robust: “Today, all air travelers are subject to a robust security system that employs multiple layers of security, both seen and unseen, including: intelligence gathering and analysis, cross-checking passenger manifests against watchlists, thorough screening at checkpoints, random canine team screening at airports, reinforced cockpit doors, Federal Air Marshals, armed pilots and a vigilant public.