Thursday, April 21, 2011

Two Official Secrets Revealed (And Not By WikiLeaks)

I'm shaking my head ruefully. Ruefully, I tell you.

Two great big official U.S. Government secrets were made public yesterday, one of which mattered and one of which didn't. What makes me shake my head is that the one that mattered was exposed through carelessness, while the inconsequential one was released only after decades of fierce resistance to repeated Freedom of Information Act requests and appeals.

First, the inconsequential secret. Prepare yourself to be astonished, and then go to the National Security Archives to view these shocking documents which now can be revealed for the very first time:

The documents – dating from 1917 and 1918 – described World War 1 “secret ink” recipes and instructions on how to open sealed letters covertly.

Yes, that's right. In the age of advanced cryptography and steganography the CIA was, until yesterday, trying to keep secret the fact that you can use lemon juice to write in 'invisible ink.'

Will the Republic survive now that this bit of espionage tradecraft has been compromised? I pray that it will.

But I'll give the CIA credit, security-wise, for not giving up even that extraordinarily insignificant bit of info without a long hard fight. The fight was pointless and ill-advised, but nevertheless, they kept those secret formulas secret, and the nation was protected against the Kaiser and his Huns all the way from the Woodrow Wilson administration up until yesterday.

Now for the important secret. Someone posted sensitive security-related building design information on a publicly accessible website of the Army Corps of Engineers, revealing, among other things, how much bomb blast certain types of domestic U.S. Government office buildings are built to resist. The info had been on the site for some time, possibly since 2009, before the press noticed it and notified the ACE.

The fact that newly constructed government buildings are built to resist bomb blast is not, in itself, a secret. But the actual bomb charge weight (the "design basis threat") used is a secret, and its release could be helpful to would-be terrorists.

The details of the unauthorized release are here. A couple key quotes:

In what officials admit is a major breach of security, a document describing design features intended to make a new Defense Department building bomb-resistant has been posted on a public government website.

The document, comprising a 30-page narrative and hundreds of pages of technical data, describes bomb-proofing features which were incorporated in the structural design of the Mark Center, a new office complex in Alexandria, Virginia, Defense Department personnel are scheduled to move into the building later this year.

One of the document's key points is raising eyebrows among some experts -- the building's level of bomb resistance.

According to the paper, the Mark Center is designed to resist threats posed by vehicle bombs detonated outside the building's security perimeter carrying the equivalent of 220 pounds (100 kg) of TNT.

That is far less than the amount of explosive used in recent attacks in the United States, including the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center and 1995 bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City.

--snip -

Michael Greenberger, a former Justice Department lawyer who heads a Homeland Security institute at the University of Maryland, said the document is a "recipe for an attack. It should not be on the Internet."

The document would allow potential attackers to examine the building's bomb-proofing features to pinpoint weaknesses, according to Tom Thurman, a former FBI bomb disposal expert who now teaches security and emergency management at Eastern Kentucky University.

"If you know what all the defenses are, you plan the attack around those defenses," he said. The public posting of such a document is "inexcusable," he said, adding: "It's not something that should be on any unsecure government website whatsoever."

-- snip --

The assessment said the building is designed to resist vehicle bombs carrying 220 pounds (100 kg) of TNT equivalent from outside the facility's security perimeter or a bomb of about 55 pounds (25 kg) of TNT-like material in a vehicle that gets inside the security zone.

Many bomb attacks involved much larger quantities of explosives.

An official report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency noted that the Oklahoma City bomb blast "was equivalent to the detonation of approximately 4,000 pounds (1,818 kg) of TNT."

A report posted on the website of the New York Police Department says that the vehicle bomb used to attack the World Trade Center in 1993 had the explosive power of 900 pounds (409 kg) of TNT, while the bomb used to blow up the U.S. Marine Barracks in Lebanon in 1983 had the power of 12,000 pounds (5,454 kg) of TNT.

Joanne Hensley, the Army Corps' deputy project manager for the building, said the decision to base the building's bomb-proofing design elements on the threat posed by a 220-pound bomb was a "judgment call by our experts."

While this leak does do some damage, and it should never have happened, and I'm surprised that the Defense Department considered the blast design basis threat merely FOUO rather than classify it at a higher level, still, I do not think the sky is going to fall because the 220 pounds figure slipped out.

First, a building's setback distance, that space between the bomb and the building, is all-important. A building with setback will withstand damage from a bomb blast much, much, better than one without. The Oklahoma City Federal Building had no setback at all, and the World Trade Center had less than zero setback since it allowed visitor's vehicles into an underground parking garage. So those examples are really not pertinent.

Second, the sizes of the OKC and NYC bombs were much larger than the typical or most frequently seen vehicle bomb, either in the U.S. or overseas. Reliable data on terrorist vehicle bomb sizes is hard to obtain - I don't mean that it's particularly classified, just that hardly anyone collects it - but my own research indicates that the median size of all vehicle-borne bombs that have been used around the world going back more than two decades is right around 200 or so pounds.

And lastly, just because the design criteria cited 220 pounds does not mean the building would collapse under 221 pounds. Buildings have multiple architectural and structural requirements, including non security-related ones, that will result in a considerable margin of error.

So I agree with Ms. Hensley, the Corps' deputy project manager. They can't protect every target against the largest vehicle bomb ever built, and they must seek a reasonable level of protection commensurate with the threat.

I just wish the Corps would show one tenth of the CIA's tenacity when it comes to holding on to its secrets.

P.S. - What about our much-maligned Fortress Embassies? How big a bomb can they resist? Is that also 220 pounds?

Well, that is a Matter of Official Concern that can not - yet - be referenced from a publicly available source of information. But there is this reassuring statement from a compendium of security design criteria:

The Department of State [building security] criteria ... are controlled information, [however] their approach is to enforce both an anti-ram and anti-personnel standoff distance, provide a debris mitigating and forced entry ballistic resistant (FEBR) façade, provide a regular moment resisting frame that is inherently resistant to progressive collapse and to design the structure to resist the blast induced base shears. Both the magnitudes of the design basis threats (DBT) and the performance criteria for the DoS Buildings are generally much more arduous than the corresponding requirements imposed by either the ISC or UFC Criteria [which govern domestic government buildings].

So don't worry. We're "much more arduous" than our domestic counterparts when it comes to this bomb blast stuff.


Anonymous said...

TSB: My wife says all the best alien recoveries were in USSR. Here is one she found.

Anonymous said...

GOOD POST TSB! I think the brits already let out that lemon juice thing cause I read it in the book
"Agent Zigzag". gwb

TSB said...

Whether it's UFOs or invisible ink, evidently "the truth is out there."

Anonymous said...

I think if the Russians had reverse-engineered the UFO we would have seen
Putin emerging from one by now! gwb

Anonymous said...

US doctors 'hid signs of torture' at Guantanamo
By Steve Connor, Science Editor
Doctors working for DOD compromising their ethical values?? In my experience you have to do it almost daily or you will be replaced tomorrow. It's the military! You do what you are told.
One of the very best doctors at Ft. Hood was fired for insisting on going home to be with her gravely ill father. (Things were very busy at the clinic!) War is a very bad thing! gwb