Saturday, October 30, 2010

Just Because the Truck Says "Worldwide Services" Doesn't Mean You Have to Accept Packages From Yemen

Although all early news media accounts must be taken with a grain of salt, it appears that yesterday's UPS package bomb plot consisted of shipping computer printer cartridges rigged with explosive devices from a sender in Yemen to addressees at two synagogues in Chicago.

H/T to Passport for this sensible reminder of the good news about this failed attack:

Even by the standards of the underpants-bomber era, sending bombs by UPS and FedEx from Yemen to a synagogue in Chicago does not strike me as the most sophisticated of plots. Whatever security systems UPS and FedEx have in the sorting facilities seemed to work pretty well in this case and even if they hadn't, I would hope that a strange UPS package from Yemen might arouse some suspicion at most American shuls.

Excellent point. The key thing about security measures is that they must be multi-layered. UPS screens its incoming packages, airports screen UPS's cargo, and addressees - one would hope - screen their incoming mail.

You can imagine the mail room guy at a Chicago synagogue looking at one of those UPS packages and asking himself "who ordered printer supplies from Yemen instead of from the Kinkos around the corner?" What are the odds that he would not call the bomb squad?


Update: Photos of one of the explosive devices are available from the UK Daily Mail (here). The device consists of an entire printer, with an explosive-packed toner cartridge and an electrical circuit connected to a mobile SIM card, packed in a cardboard box along with some everyday items.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Of Foiled Plots and Homegrown Radicals

I was reading more today about the latest foiled aspirational terrorist plot [from the Dictionary of Security Jargon, aspirational plot: term of art for what results when a clueless jihobbyest agrees to meet an FBI agent posing as a real terrorist; opposite of an operational plot] when two very timely publications arrived in my in-box.

First, a report from the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions examining successes and failures in detecting U.S. terrorist plots, 1999 - 2009. Its key findings include the following:

More than 80% of foiled terrorist plots were discovered via observations from law enforcement or the general public

Less than half of all U.S. terror plots had links to Al Qaeda or allied movements; plots by single actors reached execution twice as often as plots by groups

Almost one in five plots were foiled 'accidentally' during the course of investigations into seemingly unrelated crimes

Approximately 40% of plots were foiled via tips from the public or informants

Breakdowns in communications across official agencies led to lost opportunities to thwart the worst plots, including 9/11

Judging by the affidavit filed in his case, Mr. Farooque Ahmed, the foiled jihadi of the moment, appears to check three or maybe four of those five boxes.

Second up, we have a study from the Homeland Security Analysis Institute about radicalized residents of Western nations who seek terrorist training and/or travel to jihad conflict zones, and the bridge figures who motive them and legitimize their actions.

Again, Ahmed followed a well-established pattern of radicalization and attempts - feckless ones, in his case - to connect with Al Qaeda. The guy was so eager to please his purported AQ handlers that he trotted all over the Washington Metro transit system to gather targeting information for a would-be bomb attack on commuters (information that pales in comparison to the professional Metrorail station access and capacity studies that Metro makes available to the public on its own website, but that's another matter). Ahmed seems to have been a regular stereotype of the late-blooming radicalized Muslim immigrant.

Well, he'll likely have a good long stretch of prison time to reflect on the errors of his ways.

FSN of the Year Award

It's award season at the Department, and I think this one is particularly well-deserved.

The Department of State is pleased to announce the selection of Ms. Dominique Gerdes, Visa Specialist from Embassy Port-au-Prince, Haiti for the 2010 Department of State Foreign Service National of the Year (FSN of the Year) award.

The 2010 Department FSN of the Year winner is a dedicated and long-serving Embassy employee recognized for her leadership and vast institutional knowledge. This was keenly demonstrated in the aftermath of the highly destructive earthquake of 12 January, 2010. Dominique actively encouraged and motivated her staff to return to work immediately after the quake to provide the tremendous logistical support needed to conduct the largest American citizen evacuation under the most extreme circumstances since WW2. Under her hands-on supervision, and with few readily-available resources, her team simultaneously oriented 75 TDYers, managed translator teams for humanitarian parole processing, prepared hundreds of emergency immigrant visas for orphans, and arranged for feeding babies in the overcrowded consular waiting areas as well as stocking food and water for 16,000 evacuees waiting at the airport. As a result of her leadership, immigrant visa processing resumed less than six weeks after the earthquake. In 2009, her superb visa management reduced the embassy immigrant visa backlog by nearly 20,000 cases, achieving the shortest visa processing time possible in the past 20 years.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Swedish Embassy Voted Washington's Favorite

H/T to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review, which informs us that readers of the WaPo have voted for their favorite foreign embassy in Washington DC, and the winner is Sweden.

The Swedish embassy in Washington, DC has been named the city's best embassy by the readers of the Washington Post newspaper, by virtue of its design and programme of events.

-- snip --

The newspaper's 300,000 readers motivated their choice with respect to the Swedish embassy's "fantastic, different design", but also due to the active and diverse programme of events that are open to the general public.

Kudos to the Swedes. Personally, I think their embassy's architecture is only so-so, but I'm a big fan of their bookcases.

UN Full of Bloodsucking Parasites

A UN bed bug, shown next to a great American for contrast

We have long known about the parasites, but now we know the UN has bed bugs as well.

Turtle Bay blog has the story:

There is a new addition to the United Nations family: the dreaded bed bugs that have infested New York City have spread to the U.N.'s landmark headquarters building.

Over the weekend, a team of trained hounds sniffed out a group of the pests -- known properly as Cimex Lectularius -- that had slipped past security at the U.N. and embedded themselves in a set of vintage mid-century wood and naugahyde conference room chairs beneath the U.N. library.

And not only bed bugs, but mice, too.

For years, the U.N. headquarters has struggled to contain the building's mouse population. The small rodents could be seen scurrying across the building's storied corridors, depositing droppings on office desks or poking their noses out from behind the plants in the U.N. cafeteria. But the bed bugs have turned up as hundreds of constructions workers moved into the building and thousands of U.N. workers moved off campus to neighborhood buildings.

Nice work environment! Bugs, mice, and every now and then a Bull Goose Loony running around.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Let's Play 'Can You Spot the Secret Service Agent?'

Extra points for spotting the second one.

Secure, Safe, Functional and Award-Winning

That attractive office building - or that hideous fortress, depending upon your aesthetic sensibility - is the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, which opened last June. Somebody must like it, because it just won the top award from a construction industry trade group.

Here's the press release:

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO), the construction firm of B.L. Harbert, International, of Birmingham, Alabama, and the architectural firm of Page Southerland Page of Arlington, Virginia accepted the Design-Build Institute of America Best Overall Project Award of 2010 for the New Embassy Compound (NEC) in Khartoum, Sudan.

The New Embassy in Khartoum also won the Design-Build Institute of America National Design-Build Award in the Public Sector Over $50 Million Category. These two awards are a tribute to the dedication and hard work of all those who worked on the Khartoum NEC Project.

The Khartoum NEC was completed in March 2010, after facing numerous challenges. The new facility provides a more secure, safer, and more functional facility for approximately 210 embassy employees.

The cost of the entire project was $172 million. The NEC was completed with over 500 workers involved in the construction. The NEC in Khartoum reflects the importance of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Sudan, and emphasizes the commitment of the United States to remain engaged with the Sudanese people as they strive to build a peaceful and prosperous society.

The NEC consists a chancery, office annex, Marine Security Guard Quarters, recreation facility, support annex with maintenance shops, utility building, and three compound access control structures.

The site’s landscaping creates a unified environment for the compound demonstrating the U.S. Government’s commitment to sustainable design. The compound’s design incorporates many energy saving and sustainable features and is registered with the U.S. Green Building Council.

I'll take the construction industry's word for the new embassy's architectural merit. That the new office complex is "more secure, safer, and more functional" than the dump it replaced (see below) is all the reason I, personally, need in order to applaud.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Foreign or Domestic?

I'm attending the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference this weekend. At least, they call it "International," but so far I don't see any foreigners. It's international in the same sense that the World Series is international because it includes all the baseball teams in the world of North America plus the stray Cuban or Japanese.

The atmosphere is definitely domestic. Tonight, a guy passed me in the hotel hallway and said "Howdy."

I'll be on high alert for any sign of foreigners as the conference kicks off tomorrow.

Cranky Traveler in Seat 22D

I freely confess that I have been spoiled by business class travel, which I usually get for my TDY trips because they usually involve more than 14 hours of travel time. But today I'm slumming - I mean, today I'm doing domestic travel - and that means coach class. Bummer.

And that brings me to the guy in seat 22E. You may have heard that the newspaper business is dying, but I can tell you it was alive and well in the seat next to mine on the flight from Dulles to Orlando this morning. I was seated on the aisle and the guy in the middle seat to my right was spreading out a copy of USA Today, and then folding it, and then re-folding it, rattling it around, and then folding and re-folding some more, really working that newspaper, non-stop for the whole two-hour flight.

Now, who reads newspapers in an economy class seat anyway? You can't actually read one without opening the thing all the way out, which takes roughly as much space as airlines provide for an entire three-seat row. With two other people elbow-to-elbow on either side of you, that just isn't feasible. Economy class gives you enough space to read a paperback, or a magazine, or an e-reader. But not a whole newspaper.

And in the second place, who has ever taken two entire hours to read USA Today? It isn't exactly a journal of scholarship and literary criticism.

Oh, the indignities one must suffer in coach.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Real or Robotic? You Be the Judge

H/T to Spiegelman, for this mashup of President Obama's eerily consistent pose and smile.

The photos were provided by State's Flickr page and are from UNGA 2009, so it's an old vid but a good one.

The Federal Protective Service Concedes: It's a Free Country

Feel free to snap away at buildings like the Daniel Moynihan U.S. Federal Courthouse in New York City (left)

The New York Times is reporting on a welcome development: You Can Photograph That Federal Building:

The right of photographers to stand in a public place and take pictures of federal buildings has been upheld by a legal settlement reached in New York.

In the ever-escalating skirmishes between photographers and security agencies, the most significant battlefield is probably the public way — streets, sidewalks, parks and plazas — which has customarily been regarded as a vantage from which photography cannot and should not be barred.

Under the settlement, announced Monday by the New York Civil Liberties Union [read it here], the Federal Protective Service said that it would inform its officers and employees in writing of the “public’s general right to photograph the exterior of federal courthouses from publicly accessible spaces” and remind them that “there are currently no general security regulations prohibiting exterior photography by individuals from publicly accessible spaces, absent a written local rule, regulation or order.”

-- snip --

“This settlement secures the public’s First Amendment right to use cameras in public spaces without being harassed,” said a statement issued by Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which represented Mr. Musumeci in Federal District Court.

On behalf of the Federal Protective Service, Michael Keegan, the chief of public and legislative affairs, said in a statement that the “settlement of Mr. Musumeci’s lawsuit clarifies that protecting public safety is fully compatible with the need to grant public access to federal facilities, including photography of the exterior of federal buildings.”

-- snip --

As part of the settlement, the Federal Protective Service said it construed the [U.S. Code] regulation “not to prohibit individuals from photographing (including motion photography) the exterior of federal courthouses from publicly accessible spaces.”

Christopher T. Dunn, the associate legal director of the civil liberties union and lead counsel in the case, said in a telephone interview that the settlement could be interpreted to apply to any federal building anywhere in the country under the aegis of the protective service. Because the regulation speaks broadly of federal property — not only courthouses — Mr. Dunn said the settlement was “tantamount to a recognition that there is no restriction on the photography of federal buildings from public places.”

This affirmation of common sense applies to U.S. federal buildings domestically, but not overseas. Your Mileage May Vary if you photograph U.S. embassy facilities, as this guy found out, since foreign police tend to be terribly retrograde in these matters.

And, it might be a while before TSA gets the memo, judging by this, but I expect it will eventually.

I'm really glad to see this development. The practice of trying to prohibit photography of public buildings from public spaces is intensely irrational, and just the kind of mindlessness that causes people to question the legitimacy of security measures in general. Not to mention that it's impossible, what with Google Street View and such. And, of course, you can take your own photos all day long without being molested so long as you're discrete about it; I've done it all over the world without a problem.

Some terrorist groups have indeed conducted formal surveillance of targets, to include photography, but the idea of the camera-snapping terrorist is really more of a movie plot device than an actual threat.

My job for around 25 years now has involved studying buildings to assess their vulnerability to terrorism, in order to then adjust the Feng Shui of their security countermeasures. That's the flip side of terrorist surveillance - working the defense rather than the offense. Anyone who does that work could tell the FPS that there is no way to hide observable vulnerabilities from the public view, or to remove them from the public record. Trying to prohibit photographing, or sketching, or prolonged looking at public buildings is as pointless as it is futile.

To all the guards out there: the next time you see a camera, the best thing you can do is to smile and wave.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Baghdad LES Boards the Rocket Docket

H/T to Domino Spero for noting the criminal charges that have been filed in the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Virginia against a locally engaged shipping and customs supervisor in the Iraq Support Unit of U.S. Embassy Baghdad (read it here).

We've all heard that "justice delayed is justice denied" (William Gladstone, British statesman, 1809-1898). Well, in the Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, that's more than just a sentiment. They take considerable pride in their ability to administer justice without delay.

The nickname of the Eastern District Court is "The Rocket Docket." It earned the name by having the shortest median time from filing to disposal of criminal cases in the entire U.S. Court system, a brisk two months for court trials and eight months for jury trials. It also holds the record for civil cases (ten months).

Osama Esam Saleem Ayesh might not like the justice that's coming to him, but at least he won't have to wait long to get a verdict.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Another Henry Kissinger She Is Not

I dropped into Borders today to buy a new One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (my book club is reading it, and the only copy I already had is a badly tattered one left over from college). While there, I flipped through a copy of Obama's Wars, mainly to see how many times Hillary Clinton was mentioned.

Judging by the excerpts from the book that ran in the WaPo, Hillary wasn't exactly present at the creation of the Obama administration's policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not so that Bob Woodward could detect, anyway.

Sure enough, the book's index has only 16 entries for Hillary Clinton under Afghanistan / Pakistan Strategy Review. Moreover, many of those entries are just mentions of her name, along the lines of Defense Secretary Gates went to the White House to press Obama for a decision on the Pentagon's recommended course of action; Hillary came along, too.

Maybe someday Hillary will write an inside account of her pivotal role in the administration's Af/Pak strategy-setting. But in Woodward's book, she is only a bit player.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Googly Goggling

A Daring Adventure's post earlier today made me go to Google Analytics and look up the search terms that have led visitors to my blog. It's a motley list.

Most frequently searched term: Gons Nachman, or variations such as Gons G. Nachman, Gons Nachman bio, Congo Gons Nachman, and Gons Nachman naturalist. Hardly a day goes by without someone searching for ol' Gons. I guess those people might be searching for some other Gons Gutierrez Nachman, but the one they find here is the former FSO and Vice-Consul who is currently serving a twenty-year sentence in U.S. Federal prison. Why so much interest? It's been over two years since I last posted anything about that reprobate. Maybe he has a fan club of old girlfriends or something.

Second most frequently searched term: united forever in friendship and labor. That is the opening line of the national anthem of the Soviet Union, which I once posted something about. At least once a week since then some Commie lover of patriotic music has arrived at my blog.

Third most frequently searched term: Unabomber's reading list, or variations such as books found in Unabomber's cabin, Unabomber list of books, and Secret Agent Conrad Unabomber. How many hits do you suppose I might get if I blogged about Gons Nachman and the Unabomber sharing a cell and listening to the Soviet national anthem while they read their favorite books?

Other search terms that I see a few times a month include U.S. government pen, Kendall Myers, and Foreign Affairs Security Training Center.

Quite a few people search for things like embassy design concept, location NEC [New Embassy Complex] U.S. Embassy Dakar Senegal, and secret construction projects at U.S. embassy. Sorry to disappoint, but if construction projects are secret, then obviously they aren't blog-able. That's what Wikileaks is for.

Some one-off search terms that I liked:

Boss bureaucrat - I wish I'd used that name

General Dozier wife bound - possibly from a sado-masochistic researcher of Red Brigade kidnappings

Shakespeare being Irish - there are many Shakespeare theories, but that's a new one on me

Summary of Greenblatt's essay resonance and wonder - an excellent work on museum design by someone who has written about Shakespeare; possibly related to the above search term?

Spanked by Mrs. Crawford - I have no idea what that's about, but I did once use the word "spanked" in the title of a post about Jared Cohen

What do conservatives think about Jared Cohen - beats me (not a reference to Mrs. Crawford, I just mean I don't know what conservatives think about @JaredCohen)

And lastly, possibly the oddest search term of all - Where do you join the most dangerous branch of the Peace Corps? That Peace Corps wannabee badly misses the whole point of the thing.

Mike Tyson, Baddest Ambassador on the Planet?

The Associated Press has a story today with an eye-catching headline: Mike Tyson plans to be a boxing ambassador in China. I find the idea fascinating. How would the Diplomatic Corps react to a member who has a tattoo on his face and a criminal record for rape, mayhem, and ear-gouging?

Well, it turns out that AP meant to say Tyson will be an Ambassador of boxing, and not a boxing Ambassador. Still ... The Honorable Ambassador Mike Tyson has a ring to it, no?

Just call him Ambassador Iron Mike.

Mike Tyson was once the baddest man on the planet. Now he'll be circling that planet as a self-titled ambassador to spread the gospel of boxing to the Chinese.

"I didn't even know what an ambassador really was," he said Thursday. "When I think of ambassadors I think of living off government money and jet-setting with girlfriends."

[TSB comment: That's about right. But it isn't fun all of the time. You also have to attend a lot of national day events and shake hands with foreigners wearing funny costumes.]

No government money just yet, though a Chinese company is paying Tyson to visit in December. No girlfriends, either, especially since his wife is due with a baby boy early next year.

And no real formal agenda just yet for his trip to China in December, either.

"I know he wants to see Chairman Mao's body," said Gary Yang, an executive with Tianjin International Sports Development in China.

-- snip --

Apparently Tyson hadn't brought the Chinese up to speed, either, because he already saw Mao's tomb on a visit to China in 2006. Tyson has spoken fondly of Mao in the past, and has a tattoo of the former Chinese leader on his right arm.

As appearances go, it was a far cry from the days when a glowering Tyson used to show up an hour late and then sneer at anyone who dared ask a question. Reborn over the last few years as an actor, dancer and pitchman, he got a chance to show off his new comedic side.

"Can we talk about what will take place on the trip?" someone asked.

"Yeah, tell me," Tyson replied. "I'm pretty interested."

Just what Tyson will be doing in China other than visiting Mao's tomb in Tiananmen Square wasn't quite clear, though what was clear was that he was being paid good money to do it.

"I'm just as clueless as you," Tyson said. "But I'm an ambassador so I should have some say."

[TSB comment: I notice Ambassador Tyson brushes off questions from the press effortlessly, as if they were pitiful swats from an anemic light flyweight. Isn't there some role this guy could play in our public diplomacy outreach efforts? On second thought, forget I asked that.]

Yang talked vaguely about having Tyson looking for talent for boxing shows in China, where amateur boxing is thriving, and perhaps helping to sell tickets to shows the company plans to put on.

"Chinese people just love Mr. Tyson," he said. "He's above (Muhammad) Ali there, though I shouldn't say that."

Tyson probably shouldn't have said so much either, but the news conference was faltering and in need of rescue. In answer to a question, he said he liked Thai food better than Chinese, but remembered from his earlier trip how to say hello in Chinese.

When it came to the state of boxing in China, he had some ways to make it better, too.

"Didn't you guys have an altercation with the Japanese people at one time?" he asked Yang. "Here's what you do: You go looking for a Chinese fighter who will beat the evil Japanese guy and get revenge. That will sell."

[TSB comment: An altercation, Ambassador Tyson? There were several, actually. A particularly serious one occurred from 1937 to 1945. And yes, it did leave the Chinese with some hard feelings toward evil Japanese guys.]

The Ambassador of Boxing? The Special Envoy of the Punch-Out? I suppose stranger things have happened.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Nothing is Really Something

My recent tour of a few car-bomb prone places made me reflect on something the State Department lacks: a group award for every critical threat post where another year has passed without a terrorist attack. Accountability Review Boards are convened after a security-related incident occurs at an overseas post, but nothing at all happens when ... nothing happens. But something should happen then, IMHO.

It is no small accomplishment to make nothing happen to a diplomatic mission over a prolonged time in the present threat environment. We have thousands of employees living in the very same places where terrorist organizations are present, capable, and intent upon attacking us. So why don't they attack us everywhere, and all the time?

It is not because we rely upon the forbearance of groups like al-Qaida and the Taliban. Neither do we put an unrealistic amount of trust in our host country's obligations under international law to protect our mission and personnel. No, it is because we take responsibility for our protection into our own hands.

So ...

For everyone who has ever attended a counter threat training course, varied his times and routes of home-to-office travel, dutifully participated in a Duck and Cover drill, spent an unaccompanied tour, lived in an on-compound trailer or in a fortified residential compound, wore body armor, and obeyed security policies that limited his movements and recreational opportunities,

For everyone who has ever trained, equipped, and supervised our tens of thousands of local guards and high-threat protection contractors,

For everyone who has been a local guard or high-threat protection contractor (we know you could get another job a lot easier than you could another life, but you take the point anyway),

For everyone who has ever driven a fully-armored vehicle, prepared to drive out of an ambush,

For everyone who has ever installed so much extensive armoring and so many high-tech gizmos into a mission vehicle that he turned a common SUV into a ride more expensive than a Maybach 62 Zeppelin,

For everyone who has ever planned, designed, and constructed the physical and technical security countermeasures that make our mission facilities hard targets, even if architecturally unaesthetic ones,

For all the guys that we don't even see but who are out there watching it all 24/7,

And last but not least, for the U.S. taxpayer who makes it all possible,

CONGRATULATIONS. You made nothing happen at the most dangerous places on earth again this year.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Most Entertaining Parliament on Earth

Foreign Policy's blog Passport linked to the above video in a post today about "Fisticuffs, smoke bombs and eggs: just another day in Ukraine's parliament." Read it here.

I visited the Rada once a few years ago while in Kiev to deliver training to a local security service. One day we toured the Parliament, and my escort took me to the floor to watch the show for a bit while someone served us brandy in teacups. I think the members must have been having a slow day, since I don't recall anything going on other than yelling and booing, but there was a definite Animal House feel. One of the local security guys had James Brown's "I Feel Good" as the ring tone on his cell phone, which pretty much sums the place up.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Oddly Named

The best thing about my present hotel - starting week two of my 2010 Keep on Truckin' Tour - is the High Tea, that ever so pleasant legacy of the British colonial era here in [REDACTED]. I'm enjoying little cucumber sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off right now.

The worst thing about my hotel is the name of the resaurant: "Dumpukht." That sounds insulting even assuming it's an Urdu word. Should I be offended?

Is it possible that foreigners all secretly speak English behind our backs, and are putting us on in some enormous practical joke?

Okay, I'm probably being paranoid. But that name is needlessly provocative.