Monday, November 23, 2015

OBO's Year in Review Video

It's Fortress Embassies on Parade in this institutional self-congratulatory video showing off all the new embassy construction projects that were completed or are in progress during 2015. I'm lifting a glass to my good friends in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations as I type this.

The video is introduced by SecState Kerry, who is well known to be a fan of good public architecture. He opens by talking a bit about the Poetry of Architecture versus the Prose of Security, I think it was. And then he talks a bit more about The Face of America, which foreigners can perceive in the façades of our embassies. Then he talks a bit more still about how protection is our top priority BUT we must not allow our security footprint to leave our visitors with the wrong impression.

Please enjoy!

New Worldwide Travel Alert

The U.S. State Department has alerted U.S. citizens to possible risks of overseas travel due to increased terrorist threats. The alert encompasses the entire world, and expires on February 24, 2016.

This is the part I found most significant:
Authorities believe the likelihood of terror attacks will continue as members of ISIL/Da’esh return from Syria and Iraq. Additionally, there is a continuing threat from unaffiliated persons planning attacks inspired by major terrorist organizations but conducted on an individual basis. Extremists have targeted large sporting events, theatres, open markets, and aviation services. In the past year, there have been multiple attacks in France, Nigeria, Denmark, Turkey, and Mali. ISIL/Da’esh has claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Russian airliner in Egypt.

Overly broad? Yes. Even a little panic-mongering? Maybe. But I don't disagree with any part of it. Both the range and the tempo of attacks on public venues have been increasing sharply, and successful attacks will lead to more attacks. Furthermore, successful tactics will lead to more of the same. We can reasonably expect to see more active shooter attacks and fewer car bombs, as extremist groups copy the tactics that worked in Mumbai, in Kenya's Westgate Mall, in Paris, and in Mali's Radisson Hotel.

I do not live my life in a constant state of fear, even when traveling in high threat locations, and I hope you won't either. That said, there is a time to be properly cautious. Even a time to defer going to large sporting events, theaters (or theatres), open markets, and on trains and planes.

To my fellow citizens living or traveling abroad, I quote the words of Kid Sally Palumbo's grandmother in the great comic novel The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight - "you watcha you ass."

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

Free Ottawa yoga class scrapped over 'cultural issues' - Ottawa Sun

The Centre for Students with Disabilities official argues since many of those cultures "have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy ... we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga."

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Novel Application Of The No Double Standard Policy

The WaPo reported yesterday that the U.S. military has banned troops from traveling to Paris on their free time due to security concerns:
The U.S. Defense Department has banned U.S. troops and employees from traveling in their free time within 50 kilometers of Paris, following the terrorist attacks in the French capital on Friday night.

The ban was put in place late Sunday by U.S. European Command. It applies to all military personnel, civilian employees, contractors and family members who are sponsored by a specific military command. Anyone who wants to travel to the area on official business or for emergency reasons must obtain approval from a general officer or other senior official in their chain of command.

According to EUCOM's website, the travel restriction applies to travel anywhere in France, not just to Paris:
Official travel and emergency leave travel to France requires approval from the first general/flag officer (or SES) in the chain of command.

Do you suppose EUCOM consulted the Chief of Mission in France before issuing this travel restriction and making it a matter of public information? I don't know, but I think not.

I could have sworn there is some kind of official USG policy about such situations. Maybe it's in this publicly available source of information:
7 FAM 052.3 Coordination of Threat Information with the Military Under the No Double Standard Policy

It can be consistent with the "no double standard" policy for the Department of State to determine that sharing information with private U.S. citizens is not appropriate in cases where the Department of Defense (DoD) releases threat information to military personnel. For example, upon receiving information concerning a possible threat to U.S. citizens in a particular country, the chief of mission (COM) may conclude that the information is not credible. In this case, the Emergency Action Committee (EAC) would not recommend releasing the information to other DOS personnel and private U.S. citizens in country. However, a military commander, upon receiving the same threat information, might decide to release the threat information to U.S. troops in country, or might confine the troops to their base without informing them of the alleged threat. The paragraphs below provide a clarification of how military procedures relate to the "no double standard" policy.

DoD Personnel Under Military Command: The Department of Defense is responsible for the safety and security of DoD personnel under military command. U.S. military commanders therefore make independent decisions about whether or when to disseminate threat information to their personnel. Should post become aware of a DoD notification made locally, post should immediately inform the Department. Once notified that DoD has disseminated threat formation to their personnel, the Department of State decides, in conjunction with relevant posts, whether information about the threat is such that the Department of State should also disseminate it to the non-official U.S. community.

So if I understand EUCOM correctly, there is a threat condition that effects military personnel, civilian employees, contractors, family members, and persons on official travel or emergency leave, but we civilians and tourists may carry on enjoying Paris as usual.

I haven't seen any press accounts of American tourists asking U.S. Embassy Paris whether it's safe to travel there now. Tourism in France is probably at a low ebb at the moment anyway. But still, sending uncoordinated security warnings is a very poor practice.

Press Briefing on Refugee Screening - Actually Informative!

That was quite a good presser they did yesterday on the subject of Syrian refugee screening and admissions. I doubt it will have much impact on the domestic politics of the situation, but it was nicely detailed about the resources the USG applies to refugee vetting and it had information I hadn't seen elsewhere, such as the number of refugees currently being screened, their demographic breakdown, and the denial rate so far.

Hi, everybody. This is Senior Administration Official One speaking. Thank you for your attention today to our program that admits refugees to the United States. It’s been a successful program that has been running since the mid-1970s, the post-Vietnam War era. Over that time, 3 million refugees have come and successfully resettled in the United States.

-- Snip --

So I want to reassure you all that all refugees of all nationalities considered for admission to the United States undergo intensive security screening, and this involves multiple federal intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies. And we do this to ensure that those admitted are not known to pose a threat to our country. The safeguards that are used include biometrics, or fingerprint and biographic checks, and a lengthy in-person overseas interview that is carried out by specially trained DHS – Department of Homeland Security – officers, who scrutinize the applicant’s explanation of individual circumstances to ensure the applicant is a bona fide refugee and is not known to present security concerns to the United States.

Mindful of the particular conditions of the Syria crisis, Syrian refugees go through additional forms of security screening. And we continue to examine options for further enhancement for screening refugees, the details of which are classified. But the classified details are regularly shared with relevant congressional committees.

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO" emphasized the whole-of-government effort involved:
Again, this is a part of our program that is extremely interdisciplinary. It’s a lot of different federal agencies. So on the operational front, while the State Department and USCIS take the lead overseas, when it comes to doing the security vetting we have law enforcement and intelligence community colleagues who are really integral parts of the program.

So refugee applicants of all nationalities go through both biographic – that’s name and date of birth and other biographic elements – and also biometric security checks. So we check fingerprints for all refugee applicants. Collecting that information and coordinating those checks is a shared responsibility between the Department of State and DHS. And then, as I mentioned, the – it’s other agencies within the federal government, including the FBI, the Department of Defense, and others, who actually vet the information of the refugee applicants against those other holdings.

-- Snip --

What I’ve been describing up till now are checks that are for refugee applicants of all nationalities, but with the Syria program we also instituted an additional set of screening that we call the Syria Enhanced Review. So for Syrian refugee applicants, all of those cases are reviewed at headquarters by refugee specialists ahead of time. And there’s a file that’s already been created by virtue of their registration with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and through their first administrative contact with the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. So there’s information there about where the refugee has come from, what caused him or her to flee, what their experience was. And depending on what we see in that file, we review certain cases with national security indicators to a special part of our agency – our Fraud Detection and National Security unit. And they can do individualized research using classified and unclassified records and give – prepare information back for the individual refugee adjudicator that’s individualized to that case.

This is Official Number Three from [title withheld]. A couple of points to make here on behalf of the larger intelligence community as relates to this process. The refugee vetting and screening process has really benefitted, in a lot of ways, from the lessons that we learned with respect to information sharing for CT purposes since 9/11. Over those years, we’ve managed to refine and enhance the degree to which we can compare information in the communities’ holdings, representing all the different agencies against refugee and other types of traveler data. So the refugees as a population get the same type of attention that we apply to many other classes of traveler, only it’s more intensive on the refugee side for the very process reasons that you’ve heard outlined by the two preceding officials. So we’ve integrated a lot of the data that relates to CT and can use it to adjudicate the biographic and the biometric information that we have coming in from the adjudicating agencies.

Then it was the press's turn. Brad Klapper of Associated Press asked "What is your refusal rate? How many have you denied resettlement – percentage or total"?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. Let me talk about the first part of your question first, in terms of what our acceptance and approval rates are. Right now, our approval rate is a little over 50 percent, but the other half of that – the other 50 percent includes both denials and cases that are still pending. And so a number of those cases that are still pending may ripen into approvals, and in fact, we expect that that approval rate will edge up a bit above the 50 percent. But that’s where we are right now. As you know, we haven’t – for us, in terms of interviewing these applicants, it’s relatively new for us to be seeing large numbers. And there are some cases that post – after the interview, come back to headquarters for another round of review, and so some of those cases don’t have a final decision yet at this point.

Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press, asked whether state Governors can refuse to accept refugees. "I’m just curious – yesterday a lot of the news was governors saying they would not accept Syrian refugees. I just hope you could talk a little bit about what roles governors or their administrations play or don’t play – maybe more importantly – in this process."

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Sure. This is Speaker One again. So this is a federal program carried out under the authority of federal law, and refugees arriving in the U.S. are protected by the Constitution and federal law. And they are required to apply to adjust their status to become a legal permanent resident within one year of arriving in the United States. So he or she is also free to move anywhere in the country, although we set up that some of the state benefits they get may be available to the refugee only in the state that they’re originally resettled to.

William LaJeunesse of Fox News asked "can you give me a rough demographic breakdown of, say, the 2,500 Syrians we’ve taken in recently – women, children, those under 18, that kind of thing"?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Half of the Syrian refugees brought to the U.S. so far have been children; [2.5 percent] are adults over 60. And I think you will have heard that only 2 percent are single males of combat age. So we – there’s slightly more – it’s roughly 50/50 men and women, slightly more men I would say, but not – not a lot more men. So this is normal that as you’re – as we set a priority of bringing the most vulnerable people, we’re going to have female-headed households with a lot of children, and we’re going to have extended families that are maybe missing the person who used to be the top breadwinner but have several generations – grandparents, a widowed mother, and children.

I assume the politics of refugee admission will roll on according to their own election year logic, regardless of what our apparatchiks know or don't know about the matter. But at least I'm better informed!


Friday, November 13, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

Woman wrestles 800-pound gator into submission at Texas hair salon - UPI

The alligator, which is blind in one eye, measures more than 12 feet long and is estimated to be 50 years old, was captured Saturday morning in a Sugar Land parking lot by Christy Krobroth, a full-time dental hygienist licensed as an alligator trapper by the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Fake Bomb Detectors Are Back, And This Time They're Egyptian

Hey, a guy with an empty box! 

The notorious fake bomb detector that was sold under the name ADE 651, among others, before its manufacturers were sent to prison in the UK for fraud, is back in use once again. This time it's Egyptian hotels in Sharm El Sheik that are using them to not find hidden bombs.

The Daily Mail reports:
British families in Sharm El Sheikh are being guarded with useless bomb detectors based on a bogus device produced by UK fraudsters, the Mail can reveal.

The revelation comes as Egyptian police investigate whether a Sharm hotel worker might be responsible for a suspected attack on a Russian passenger jet. Police fear a bomb may have been smuggled inside luggage.

As thousands of UK families were still waiting to fly home yesterday, the Mail discovered fraudulent 'scanning devices' were being used to protect at least five top hotels packed with Britons. Security guards use them to 'sweep' guests, their cars and luggage.

But experts say these 'screening tools' are almost identical to the bogus devices produced by British fraudsters and sold for millions to foreign governments, resulting in prosecutions in 2013 and 2014.

The Egyptian army appears to have copied these devices and produced its own version called C-Fast, which is being used across Sharm.

It means a terrorist bomb could easily have been smuggled into a hotel, put in a passenger's luggage and potentially taken on to a plane. Since C-Fast devices are made by the Egyptian army, it is likely they are also used at Sharm's airport.

Why not use them at the Sharm airport? The same scam detectors were, and possibly still are, in use at airports in Jordan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iraq, among other places.

The ADE 651 consists of an empty box and a telescoping antenna. And nothing else. They have no operating parts, or technology, or theory of operation, or test results, or any history of actually detecting anything. It's an empty box. And yet, the government of Iraq spent $85 million to equip its forces with them. So did other nations. Click on the "ADE 651" label below this post and prepare to be amazed at how many nations bought them, defended them, and continued to use them even after the UK locked up the snake oil salesmen who sold them.

So now the Egyptian Army has joined the scam with its own knock-off version called the C-Fast. Well, there's a fool born every minute. I just wonder whether the Army is fooling itself, or only those British tourists?