Plane water bombers jailed, bring on the security measures?

The news coverage of the conviction of the people behind the “water bottle bombing” plot has literally used the words “this has vindicated the heightened security measures” (BBC News 24) which were put in place after the plot was uncovered.

Does it really? I’m going to be pedantic here because vindication is a powerful word, here’s what it means:


vin·di·cate / ˈvindəˌkāt/ v. [tr.]

  1. clear (someone) of blame or suspicion: hospital staff were vindicated by the inquest verdict.
  2. show or prove to be right, reasonable, or justified: more sober views were vindicated by events.

The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English, 2009

I do appreciate the job that the security services have done in keeping what turned out to be a fairly clever and probably, had it not been detected and watched by the largest surveillance operation the UK had ever seen from an early stage and then immediately stopped once it moved beyond planning ending in the conviction of all but one of the suspects, damaging attack out of the skies over my head. That’s really, really fantastic news. I’m not pro-terrorist, make no mistake, and I’m very glad that the attack was stopped. This is a post on the use of words.

The security measures

My issue is that I do wonder if it really does “vindicate” the fact you couldn’t take enough baby food (baby food is now excepted from the restrictions, thankfully) on a transatlantic flight to feed a baby. Or how it now means that you can no longer bring water that you didn’t buy from the departure lounge onto a plane. Drinks that you pick up in the airport and quietly bring onto the plane unquestioned are clearly more friendly to allies of America than drinks from home that are subject to an x-ray scanner and security checkpoint, obviously. This isn’t as flippant as it seems because the explosive that the plotters planned to use was basically energy drink mixed with cleaning fluid. You can just buy that in the departure lounge.

You could even bring homemade liquid fiery death entirely legally “so long as the items are carried in a clear plastic food storage type bag with a capacity of no more than one quart” remembering that “each individual container must have a capacity of no greater than three ounces (90 ml)” And your friend could also bring his own clear plastic bag of liquid fiery death to top yours up if you wanted a bigger explosion and so on. Are we really safer with little bottles? Can I go out there and suggest that you could put it into a container of baby food which is exempt from the restrictions?

One of the main tricks of the trade when investigating a terrorist attack, or most crimes in fact, is asking the question “who benefits?” because if you know who had an incentive to commit a crime you narrow down the people who were likely to have committed it. By this metric, “who benefits from banning liquids from being taken through the baggage scanner?”, you end up with WHSmiths and Starbucks who get a legally enforced monopoly in the departure lounge shops because, legally, you haven’t got any other option unless you want to end up becoming a terror suspect. Is one textbook, wonderfully well executed police operation that kept us safe from even the slightest chance of harm to our air traffic at all times[1] a vindication of these measures?

Definition 1: to clear (someone) of blame or suspicion

This is probably not what the reporter meant when they dropped the v word. My comments above aside I don’t actually think WHSmith plotted to blow up planes to create a monopoly for their airport shops so it’s probably just commercially convenient rather than actually a dastardly conspiracy. The measures themselves have viewed with no greater and probably some lesser suspicion (I think everyone’s wondered in their heart of hearts if you actually can blow a plane up with a bottle of Oasis outside of a movie) because of this conviction but it is not “cleared” because of the trial and that’s what the definition of vindication requires.

Definition 2: show or prove to be right, reasonable, or justified: more sober views were vindicated by events.

This seems more sensible and probably what the reporter meant. This is what I’m not convinced about, the main problem is that the instant case just doesn’t seem to have needed the actions that were rolled out to protect anyone. Basically the liquids prohibition (now relaxed to pretty awkward restrictions) was just a belt and braces extra on top on a mind bogglingly thorough UK police operation as far as this case was concerned. This case didn’t actually need the prohibition at all.

The prohibition was for other people.

This case only showed the real and present threat of liquid explosives passing through the baggage checking process at airports disguised as other liquids. The restriction on liquids was levied to stop other attempts. The vindication will come when the measures, not the police and intelligence services, stop an attack using liquid explosives disguised as other liquids to defeat pre-“jet plot” baggage checking procedures against a commercial aeroplane. That is the difference. The success or failure of this conviction does not relates to the restrictions at all – the restrictions were never tested by the plotters.

What the trial is is a vindication of the police surveillance operation, not all of them but this one was certainly justified, and also justifies its snooping on email traffic. Admittedly the sort of snooping on email traffic that is justified in this case is that being sent to or coming from a known terrorist mastermind living in Pakistan so it’s still not reasonable to snoop on just everyone’s email because of this trial.

The problem of security precautions is that it’s next to impossible to tell if security measures have stopped an attack. I suppose if we test every 95ml bottle of baby food that’s left at the baggage check for explosive and find some then we know we’ve dodged a bullet. On the other end of the scale if someone manages to blow up a plane regardless then we’ve bought overpriced airport drinks for nothing and that’s the horrible dilemma. We simply can’t tell if the restrictions are sensible or not from this case. We should all celebrate the successful conclusion of a ground-breaking multi disciplinary police operation which has almost certainly saved thousands of lives but at the same time it’s important not to take lessons from it that it’s just not teaching us. The effect of baggage search on anything is irrelevant unless you actually go through a baggage search. I think the police and security services involved in this investigation have kept us very safe and they are to be applauded but throwing away sealed bottles of water at the scanner is still to prove its worth. It certainly hasn’t in this case.

[1] The arrests were sped up when the well known Pakistan based mastermind of the plot was captured, not because the hitherto unknown plotters were suddenly spotted getting on a plane. The UK plotters were had well in hand and under constant surveillance.