Sunday, January 31, 2010

They Should Call This "Antisocial Networking"

Would you be this man's Friend?

Personally, I would not. He's Colin Gunn, a British career criminal who is doing a 35-year sentence for conspiracy to murder, and he has 565 friends on a Facebook account which the authorities in his maximum security prison kindly allowed him to maintain.

The UK Justice Secretary's office says inmates are prohibited from having social network accounts, but it turns out that Gunn wasn't the only felon using Facebook. Critics suggest that prison authorities may have bent the rules because they feared being accused of infringing, even ever so slightly, on Mr. Gunn's human rights.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Scam Bomb Detector Finally Banned in Britain

As was noted tonight on National Public Radio, authorities in Britain have finally taken action against the perpetrator of a murderous fraud, the scam bomb detector that is currently marketed under the name "ADE 651." This device, which consists of an antenna, an empty box, a set of plastic cards and a massive load of snake oil, has been sold to gullible security agencies all over the world. Iraqi agencies have spent $85 million on them and continue to insist, against all evidence, that the ridiculous things work.

The video embedded above is from the BBC's Newsnight program, and my favorite moment comes at about the 7 minute and 30 second mark when the wizened old scientist solemnly notes that the plastic case which houses the operating components of the ADE 651 is, upon his scientific observation, totally empty.

I've posted about this outrageous fraud before and linked to decades-old U.S. government reports, such as this one and this one, that documented the utter impossibility of using the ADE 651 to detect bombs or anything else.

Let's hope the export ban will finally break the evil spell that has been cast on suckers the world over by the ADE 651 - or as I call it, the PLACEBO 60K (Predatory Lucrative Advanced Confusinator Explosive-Detecting Bankable Opportunity @ $60,000). On the other hand, new suckers are being born every minute.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Not So Footloose on the Washington Mall

Just saw some bad news in the Washington Post today. Does this court decision mean that the traditional Washington's Birthday Midnight Rave on the Mall will be called off?

Haiti: Local Staff Update

Thanks to Diplopundit for locating an official update on U.S. Embassy Haiti's local staff. The status so far: six killed, nine injured, and 28 still unaccounted for. Of course, we should add to that the still-unknown number of family members of our local staff who surely were also killed or injured.

The human impact of that loss needs no comment. As an aside, the loss of so many local staff also hinders the embassy's recovery efforts as administrative functions - even such things as processing purchase orders so that emergency funds sent to post after the earthquake can be spent - go undone as the Foreign Service staff and TDYers concentrate on more immediate concerns.

Is there such a thing as Locally Engaged Staff TDYers who could be sent to fill in after a crisis? Maybe, but I suspect that most of our local staff are truly irreplaceable due to their unique personal relationships with and vernacular understanding of the local environment.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sad News Released Today

Statement on State Department Family Members Killed in Earthquake

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton today [January 26] paid tribute to members of the State Department family killed in the earthquake in Haiti. Speaking to State Department and USAID staff at a town hall meeting, the Secretary honored the memories of Victoria DeLong, a Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, and the family of Andrew Wyllie, a decorated State Department officer working for the United Nations in Haiti. He lost his wife Laurence and his two young sons Evan and Baptiste in the disaster. A transcript of her remarks follows:

"I thank all of you from throughout the Department, our colleagues from AID who have been working literally around the clock since January 12th. The needs are overwhelming. We are trying to meet the humanitarian needs in this period, while at the same time working with the Haitian Government, the UN, and other countries and organizations to plan for the longer term. When I spoke to family members who had lost loved ones – Victoria DeLong – and then I spoke with Andrew Wyllie – they both thanked me as Secretary for the outpouring of support that they had received from colleagues. In Victoria’s case, from people who had served with her, who knew her, who had reached out to the family, who had really demonstrated the closeness of community that exists among us. And for Andrew Wyllie, who inconceivably, unimaginably lost his wife on her birthday and his seven-and-a-half and five-year-old children, he mentioned specifically the names of those who had been working with him in these very difficult days to recover the bodies of his wife and children. And again, the sense that it was not even just a community, but a large and extended family came through in everything he said to me. That certainly is the way I feel after a year here, working with many of you, but of course, many, many more with whom I do not work on a daily or a weekly basis, but who I know are toiling in offices and posts and missions and projects across the world on behalf of our country, our values, our interests, our security, to build that better future that we think every person deserves and to create the opportunity for every child to live up to his or her God-given potential."

I understand that several members of the embassy's locally engaged staff in Haiti were also killed or injured, but so far I've seen no reliable numbers. A co-worker who is helping with the recovery effort tells me that almost half of the LES are not currently at the embassy, which is an ominous sign.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Foreign Affairs Security Training Center: Last Chance For Comments

As previously noted, there are plans to build a new Foreign Affairs Security Training Center at a site on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Today, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which is the State Department's agent in this matter, announced three February public meetings to address public concerns and inform the local community about the project.

Reportedly, GSA has decided that it did not adequately address concerns raised at the previous four or five public meetings, so it has extended the time allowed for public comment until February 19th.

Two public forums will be held at the Queen Anne’s County High School Auditorium, on Saturday, February 6th (3:30-5:30pm) and again on Wednesday, February 10th (6:00-8:00pm). In addition, there will be a small group workshop at the same location on Saturday, February 6th (1:00-3:00pm).

There has been significant local opposition to this development project so far (read about it here), so these last public forums ought to be well attended and lively.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Good Reminder

Yesterday, Fox News reported that approximately half of the houses used by the U.S. embassy staff in Haiti were destroyed in the earthquake. And tonight, I heard one of their TV anchors remark that our embassy staffers in Port-au-Prince are not only relief workers in this crisis but are also victims of it themselves, having lost friends and co-workers as well as their homes.

I thought that was a refreshing perspective. Our Foreign Service members are often criticized or derided in the wake of disasters such as the Haitian earthquake, but I hope that at least some of the American public will reflect on the fact that our embassy staffers fully share the personal crisis that the earthquake inflicted on Haitians.

Good Collection of Haiti Updates

The New York Times' Lede news blog has a very good collection of the latest updates on the crisis in Haiti.

Two especially informative sources are the twitter updates of Ed Pilkington, correspondent of the UK Guardian, and Richard Morse, manager of the Olaffson Hotel (one of the main news media camps in Port-au-Prince and also the model for the fictional Hotel Trianon in Graham Greene's 1966 novel about Haiti, The Comedians).

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Video of the Haitian Earthquake

Some video of the moment the earthquake hit, captured by cameras on the perimeter wall of the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince:

Predator Delivers Karma After 24 Years

A U.S. Predator drone over North Waziristan was the instrument by which Karma was brought to one of the murderers of Indian heroine Neerja Bhanot, the young woman who was the senior flight purser on the hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 in 1986, according to the Times of India.

From 24 yrs after Pan Am hijack, Neerja Bhanot killer falls to drone:

Half of India's population today wasn't born when she died in 1986 in a hail of gunfire on a hijacked plane after courageously saving scores of passengers, a feat for which she was posthumously awarded the Ashoka Chakra in India, Tamgha-e-Insaniyat in Pakistan and the Justice for Crimes Award in the US. Earlier this week, some 24 years after her heroism, one of her killers died a dog's death in the badlands of Pakistan, reportedly shot to pieces in a US drone attack.

The saga of Neerja Bhanot transfixed India at a time where there was no 24-hour news television and it had little to do with the fact that her father was a New Delhi journalist. She was a flight attendant on Pan Am Flight 73 as it headed out of Mumbai to Karachi en route to Frankfurt and onward to New York City. Four armed men dressed as airport security guards stormed the plane in Karachi. The cabin crew managed to alert the pilots, who decamped, effectively grounding the flight.

In the hours-long ordeal that followed, Neerja showed exemplary courage, attested by some 350 passengers who survived the nightmare, although some 20 died and 120 were wounded after hijackers opened fire on them when Pakistani commandos prepared to storm the plane. Among her acts of courage was her refusal to collect US passports and hiding some of them as the hijackers sought to isolate Americans and Indians. She knew they meant business when one of the hijackers pulled Rajesh Kumar, a 29-year-old Indian American California resident to the front of the aircraft, asked him to kneel at the door, and shot him in the head when their demand for a new flight crew was not met.

Neerja died shielding three children from gunfire as a bloody massacre erupted on the plane. The hijackers, who were said to be from the Abu Nidal Organisation, were eventually captured, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in 1988. But in a Pakistan that became increasingly permissive about terrorism, the sentences were later commuted to life in prison.

In 2001, Zayd Hassan Abd Al-Latif Masud Al Safarini, the hijacker who shot Rajesh Kumar among others, was captured by the FBI in Bangkok after he was released in Pakistan and was on his way back to Jordan. He was taken to the US where he was sentenced to a 160-year prison term he is now serving in Colorado. Four others who were in Pakistan's Adiala jail were freed in January 2008 even as the US fumed about Islamabad's action. The FBI announced a $5 million bounty on their head, pretty much ensuring their days are numbered.

Earlier this week, Pakistani intelligence officials announced that a January 9 missile strike in the North Waziristan tribal region killed Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, one of the hijackers. His affiliation is disputed. The FBI's web site lists him as a Palestinian with possible Lebanese citizenship. The Pakistani officials called him an al-Qaida member, but the FBI site says he was a member of the Abu Nidal Palestinian terrorist group.

There are no doubts about Neerja's affiliation though. She belongs to India's Hall of Courage.

I've heard the concept of Karma defined as 'justice without the satisfaction,' but it sounds to me like the Indians are pretty satisfied with the "dog's death" that was delivered to Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim.

A Tale of Two Superpowers

The UK Telegraph points out the difference between the EU and a superpower as regards their respective actions on the Haiti crisis.

Compare and contrast the initial responses of two "major world powers" to the Haitian earthquake disaster. Within hours of Port-au-Prince crumbling into ruins, the US had sent in an aircraft carrier with 19 helicopters, hospital and assault ships, the 82nd Airborne Division with 3,500 troops and hundreds of medical personnel. They put the country's small airport back on an operational footing, and President Obama pledged an initial $100 million dollars in emergency aid.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the European Union geared itself up with a Brussels press conference led by Commission Vice-President Baroness Ashton, now the EU's High Representative – our new foreign minister. A scattering of bored-looking journalists in the Commission's lavishly appointed press room heard the former head of Hertfordshire Health Authority stumbling through a prepared statement, in which she said that she had conveyed her "condolences" to the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, and pledged three million euros in aid.

The Telegraph item is an indictment of the EU's inaction coming from a right-leaning publication, but it's not fundamentally different from the friendly account provided by an EU-philic web publication:

[The EU’s new foreign minister, Catherine] Ashton's office already leapt into action on Wednesday (13 January) as news emerged of the scale of what looks like the worst natural disaster since the Asian tsunami in 2004 ... Ms Ashton chaired a meeting in Brussels of European Commission officials from the foreign relations, development and environment departments as well as experts from the EU Council and the Situation Centre, the EU member states' intelligence-gathering hub.

And she chaired not just a single meeting, mine you, but several meetings at which promises were discussed.

The meeting agreed to trigger €3 million in emergency aid, signed off by development commissioner Karel de Gucht, and to look into further financial assistance, such as advance payments from the commission's €28 million annual development budget for Haiti.

It also decided to send officials from the commission's environment department to the earthquake zone to assess damage and to task an environment department unit to co-ordinate pledges from Belgium, Sweden, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Norway, Iceland and Luxembourg to send personnel and equipment.

Ms Ashton on Wednesday also attended a separate meeting of EU member states' ambassadors in Brussels and may travel to Haiti personally in future.

-- snip --

Ms Ashton is on Thursday to meet with Spanish defence minister Carme Chacon to see what else can be done.

While Ms. Ashton conducts her whirlwind round of meetings, it appears that everything useful that is actually being done is being done by a few individual states acting without benefit of EU bureaucracy. As the EU Observer further reports:

Meanwhile, EU member states are carrying out the vast bulk of Europe's response on a bilateral basis with Haiti, with the former colonial powers in the region - France, Spain, the UK and the Netherlands - taking the lead.

France, the former colonial ruler in Haiti, has sent two military planes carrying 85 rubble-clearing experts and medical staff, with the country's development minister, Alain Joyandet, set to travel to the country in the coming days.

Spain has sent three planes with over 40 staff and 150 tonnes of supplies and pledged an extra €3 million. The country's secretary of state for Latin America, Juan Pablo de Laiglesia, is on his way to Haiti to help run the relief effort.

The UK has sent over 70 rescue specialists and 10 tonnes of kit. The Netherlands has donated €2 million and will send a 60-person search-and-rescue team.

The joke about NATO is that the acronym stands for "No Action, Talk Only." So EU must stand for, what, Extraordinarily Unhelpful? Exceptionally Unresponsive? Eerily Unanimated? Extravagantly Unhurried? Expected to be Useless? Exceptionally Utopian? Expensive but Unproductive? Egregiously Unpurposed? Essentially Unreal? Elegantly Unhurried? Egotistic but Unresourceful? Evidently Unready? Eternally Underperforming? Effete and Unfruitful? Excited but Unavailable? Exhausted and Unnecessary? Eloquent but Unprepared? I can keep them coming all day long.

FBI = Forging Borrowed Images

Last week, the FBI announced that its whiz-bang scientific staff had applied cutting edge technology to produce new age-advanced images of 18 terrorist suspects for the State Department's Rewards for Justice website. [By the way, one of those suspects, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, won't get any older thanks to Predator drones.] One of the images - the one on the right, above - was purported to be of Public Enemy Number 1, Osama bin Laden. The photos were circulated around the world, and the FBI took a bow for its scientific crime-fighting expertise: "These new images are powerful examples of how advances in technology and science can be used to help find and bring to justice wanted persons," according to the head of the FBI's Science and Technology Branch.

Today, it turns out that Osama's altered image was not entirely the product of new advances in technology and science, but was actually taken from a photo of a shifty-looking character - on the left, above - that an FBI technician found on the internet. Even better, the unwitting stand-in for Osama is a Spanish Communist Party leader. He is not amused, and threatens to sue. See today's WaPo story here.

There is more detail in the UK Telegraph's story (FBI admits Spanish politican was model for 'high-tech' Osama bin Laden photo-fit). A few quotes:

The digitally altered image of an older and greying Bin Laden was meant to show how the world's most wanted terrorist might now look without his trademark turban and long beard. It was released in a renewed effort to locate him, more than eight years after the September 11 attack which he ordered and directed.

But it created an unexpected stir in Madrid when a Spanish MP recognised strong elements of himself in the image and complained to the US.

-- snip --

The FBI claimed to have used "cutting edge" technology to reproduce new images of 18 of the most wanted terrorist suspects for the State Department's Rewards for Justice website.

But yesterday Ken Hoffman, a spokesman the FBI, admitted that a technician "was not satisfied" with the hair features offered by the FBI's software programme and instead used part of a photo of Mr Llamazares, found on the internet. "The technician had no idea whose image he had found and no dark motive for using it," he said.

I don't know whether or not Llamazares is really a dead ringer for bin Laden, but doesn't he resemble a famous dead terrorist by the name of Achmed?

Haitian Earthquake Still Not Over

There have been 47 severe aftershocks so far (see the USGS data here), none of them less than 4.5 magnitude and all at 10 kilometers depth.

Is the seismic event really over, or could there be another major quake that would impact the relief efforts?

What Could We Learn From Northern Virginia's Networked Neighborhoods?

Marisa at Making Sense of Jihad discusses the state of Northern Virginia's ethno-cultural landscape and suggests that researchers into radicalization might benefit from studying this modern melting pot.

NOVA happens to be my neighborhood, and I often think thoughts similar to hers as I go about my daily business among the Persian kabob shops and Korean BBQs, the Salvadorean papusa wagons that seem to be at every construction site, the Ethiopian barristas who work at the Starbucks across from my office, the Mongolian cultural school that's hosted in an Arlington Public Schools building (evidence of the effort that our Mongolian immigrant community, among others, exerts to prevent their kids from assimilating), and so on and on.

A few quotes:

There is a Persian kabob house at the intersection of Little River Turnpike and Beauregard Street. If you take a window seat and look out across the street you will see the typical landscape of Northern Virginia: an ethnic "strip mall" along a busy road. It's just one small commercial development among thousands in the crowded suburbs of Washington, DC.

The mall's road sign is symbolic of the community that tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants now call home. At the top of the sign is the Grand Mart logo. Grand Mart is a large ethnic supermarket chain, catering to practically every immigrant community in Northern Virginia (I wrote about a similar store at the other blog last year). There is also a pho, a "pollo place," a traditional Asian cafe, a sizable "dollar store," and, yes, a halal meat market. Far from being isolated in an urban ethnic ghetto, Northern Virginia's immigrant Muslim community is solidly working and middle class and coexists within this ethnic cacophony where words like "pollo," "halal" and "pho" are commonly seen and heard side-by-side.

Numerous studies including a recent US Department of Justice report released last week, conclude that there is no common narrative for radicalization, and no consistent profile for a violent Muslim radical. In the words of a recent LA Times article, "...researchers seeking lessons on preventing extremism found no definitive pattern of how the suspects turned to violence and no geographic center of radicalization in the U.S." However, if researchers can find out why this networked and interdependent community in Northern Virginia produces so many violent Muslim radicals, I think it would greatly improve our ability to understand our adversary.

Friday, January 15, 2010

New DS Training Center Site Plan

A site schematic diagram for the planned Foreign Affairs Security Training Center has been released to the public.

The site development looks fine, but the remote location - on Maryland's Eastern Shore - will probably make it impossible for DS agents to do day trips there for routine training tasks like firearms requalifications.

(Not So) Temporary Protected Status Decision Coming Soon

Earthquake shifts Haiti immigration debate:

In the wake of this week's earthquake, the United States has halted the deportation of undocumented Haitian immigrants. Now, immigrants' rights advocates and Florida lawmakers are pushing the administration to grant Haitians Temporary Protected Status, a special dispensation given to immigrants who cannot return to their homelands.

Friends of mine who work for DHS Citizenship and Immigration Services were scrambling yesterday to gather data on the Haitian presence in the U.S., and projecting the immigration impact of granting Temporary Protected Status. They tell me that TPS is definitely coming.


Update (6PM):

My friends were right about that.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Just About All" U.S. Embassy Personnel in Haiti Accounted For

From today's on-the-record briefing by State Department Counselor Cheryl Mills, USAID Administrator Raj Shah, and U.S. SOUTHCOM Commander General Douglas Fraser:

In terms of Embassy personnel on the ground there, we have about 172 personnel who are there under chief-of-mission authority. As of 8:00 a.m., we had accounted for just about all of them. There were eight personnel who were wounded, four who had been seriously wounded. We have already had U.S. Coast Guard heels on the ground to be able to medevac them to get appropriate care. And so we are beginning to see that happen as well.

We have ordered the departure of approximately 80 Embassy spouses, children, and non-essential personnel. Those will begin happening later today so that we can ensure that the infrastructure and resources that are there can be properly concentrated on those who are in need. The Coast Guard will have planes actually arriving, I believe, this afternoon. And I’m sure General Fraser will be able to speak to that to help and assist in that evacuation process.

The Embassy structure has remained intact and so it has become a point of support. And it has been providing medical support and other support for Haitians and Americans and others who have been able to reach the Embassy.

Those Fortress Embassies occasionally have their uses. The U.S. Mission in Haiti is fortunate to have moved into a new office complex last year, a nice seismically-resistant one with lots of infrastructure support, independant electrical power and water treatment, and which is located close to the airport. The old embassy was a rickety little structure and was way too close to the now-devastated center of Port-au-Prince; in fact, it was only eight blocks from the National Palace that collapsed.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Anyone Home at U.S. Embassy Haiti?

Hillary Clinton made some official remarks about today's earthquake in Haiti. The New York Times put up a very useful page with links to sources in Haiti - twitter users, web sites, etc. - that are providing immediate information on the crisis, including the above photo of the collapsed Presidential Palace. But the U.S. Embassy website has got nothing as of 10:45 PM. In fact, it's hard to find any item on that site that's more current than January 7th.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

One Fine European Parliamentarian

Sophie in 't Veld, wearing the flag of the European Union (photo from Flicker)

The New York Times carried a report yesterday on the rush by European nations to begin using body scanners on air travelers immediately. There seems to be only one official who is calling for a little thinking and reasoning before installing new bells and whistles at every airport gate.

Sophie in ‘t Veld [see her personal and EU web sites], a Dutch member of the European Parliament and an expert on privacy issues, expressed concern that some member states were rushing to use scanners without first allowing for a thoughtful public debate. “These are ad hoc measures, without the governments having any clear idea of what exactly they are trying to achieve,” she said Friday in a telephone interview.

“I understand that the public is clamoring for instant solutions,” Ms. in ‘t Veld said. “Scanners and other technologies can be very useful tools in the fight against terrorism, but they are no more than that.

“Ideally, people with bad intentions should be identified long before” they pass through an airport’s final security checkpoint, she said.

Thank you! Scanners are just that, a tool. Let's please define our security requirements before jumping ahead to the solution.

What is the best assessment of the evolving terrorist threat to aviation, and how vulnerable are various types of aircraft to it? How small an amount of explosive can we realistically expect to find on or about a person, and how best to find it? Is body-scanning 100% of travelers the best use for the next gazillion dollars of public spending? Are we really reducing risk with enhanced passenger screening, or just placating a panicky public?

Until governments can reach consensus on questions such as those they really can't have a "clear idea of what exactly they are trying to achieve."

Sophie in 't Veld is my new hero. I wonder if there is any way I can cast a write-in vote for her?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Background Briefing on Christmas Day Terror Plot

Senior State Department officials gave the press a briefing today following the release of the White House review of the Christmas Day terror plot. It shed some light on the question of why the State Department did not immediately know that Abdulmutallab had a U.S. visa, and why the lack of that knowledge wasn't really pertinent to the matter of why the visa wasn't revoked before he got on his flight to the U.S.

Read the entire briefing here. A few quotes:

QUESTION: The one thing that the report says about the State Department is that there was a misspelling of the name. Whose misspelling was that?



SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Someone checked, and I’m not going to go into who, but some --

QUESTION: No, no, no. I’m asking which agency, not which specific person.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: State Department. State Department checked to see if the person had a visa. There was a dropped letter in that – there was a misspelling. They used a very – they checked the system. It didn’t come back positive. And so for a while, no one knew that this person had a visa.

-- snip --

QUESTION: So, wait, can I just finish my question? So I’m not – so when it went to NCTC, then they spelled it right and you realized that he had a visa?


QUESTION: So you’re just saying for like a week or so, or a couple of weeks?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No – I don’t know if anyone – I don’t think anyone – no one may have checked for a visa until Christmas Day.

-- Snip --

QUESTION: Do you think that the misspelling of the name and not finding the fact that he had a visa had anything to do with whether he would be classified a PB3 [potential terrorist] or a B3 [terrorist]?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. Well, P3B was put in because there was a possibility, because he’s –


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- the interview. As far as being anything else, no, I don’t think there was – I don’t think the not knowing that he didn’t have a visa, not reporting that – and the report says that. It says: “A determination to revoke his visa, however, would have only occurred if there had been a successful integration of the intelligence by the CT community, resulting in his being watch-listed.” So --

QUESTION: So even if he was he was spelled – even if it was spelled right and you knew he had a visa, he still wouldn’t have been – it still wouldn’t have been revoked?


-- Snip --

QUESTION: Isn’t – actually, isn’t the visa issue kind of a bit of a red herring here, because –


QUESTION: If he had made – if he had gotten onto the 3B list, it doesn’t matter if he had a visa or not; he wouldn’t have been able to get on the plane.

QUESTION: That’s right.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Remarks on Planned Diplomatic Security Training Center

The State Department has sent out a press release (here) with Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Director Jeffrey W. Culver's remarks at a public meeting on the planned DSS training center in Queen Anne's County, Maryland.

Presumably, he dispelled local concerns (see some of them here) about the center, especially those based on a misunderstanding about intentions for heavy weapons training.

Tell Them Your Travel Security Experiences

The New York Times asks International Travelers: Share Your Security Experiences.

It's rather a loaded question, still, judging by the comments I browsed not many travel security experiences were happy ones.

The Most Effective Aviation Security Measure is Boring

The price for hilarious optical illusions has gone up considerably since these 1960s comic book ads

From a Cato Institute post re: bodyscanning Captain Underpants:

If you’ll forgive a bit of frank cynicism, I predict we’ll end up debating body imagers because they’re big, flashy, sexy tech with lots of cool scifi visuals for the weekly newsmags and cable news shows to use. The anchors get to say “naked” a lot, and air travelers get to feel like they’re being protected by cyborgs from the future. Meanwhile, measures that actually enhance security, like reinforced cockpit doors, tend to be rather more boring and invisible to the average person.

Reinforcing cockpit doors was, indeed, an extremely pertinent countermeasure to the aviation terrorism threat, but also probably the least remarked-upon security measure taken since 9/11.

Why is that? Can't TV news producers make forced-entry attacks on airliner flight decks as visually interesting as millimeter microwave imaging devices? Can't they find anyone in their vast stables of talking heads who wants to debate the finer points of American Society for Testing and Materials criteria? (OK, probably not.)

Some of the reason might be the disparity in financial interest. Cockpit doors were a $40 million one-time cost (and the most cost-beneficial aviation security measure ever, according to this paper), whereas the TSA's favorite body scanner goes for $160K apiece and there are tens of thousands of potential sales at stake. But I suspect the bigger reason is that physical barriers are such a blue collar thing that news media producers fear they can't report on the topic without coming into contact with people who use tools for a living and get grease under their fingernails.

On the other hand, there is no end of techy types and civil libertarians who want to talk about body scanners, plus they get to imagine people with their clothes off.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Aviation Security Crisis Continues

The first week of the new decade is only two days old and already we've had the following security alerts and emergencies.

If you put up a fight, you won't make your flight

Award winning war correspondent Michael Yon was detained and handcuffed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Yesterday by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel.

According to Yon, “they handcuffed me for failing to cooperate. They said I was impeding their ability to do their job.”

Regarding the incident in Seattle, Yon was adamant the TSA agents had overstepped their bounds: “If I am the guy on that passport and I don’t have any contraband in my luggage, it is a matter for the FBI, not the TSA ... TSA people are out of control.”

And people say that German police don't have a sense of humor

A German man was temporarily detained at Stuttgart airport on Tuesday after he repeatedly told security personnel that he had explosives in his underwear, police said.

The police said in a statement that the family would not be refunded for the cost of their canceled trip and could "expect a fine of up to 1,000 euros ($1,444) ... and possible costs for the police operation."

Letting TSA screeners use their own discretion is never a good idea

On a post-Christmas flight out of New Orleans last week, the TSA confiscated young Josh Pitney’s Play-Doh.

The child’s mother Christy Pitney [said] "And the man from TSA was taking every [Play-Doh] can out at a time and putting it on a table, and Josh saw and he started fussing. I tried to explain that those were the rules, but it turns out it’s not prohibited on the TSA’s website - so apparently those are not the rules."

Christy was right. Play-Doh is not a prohibited item and it is allowed on board ... However, because plastic explosives can be camouflaged to look like Play-Doh, a TSA spokeswoman says screeners are told to use their own discretion.

Bad dog!

All checkpoints at the Lindbergh Terminal of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport have reopened after being closed for a short time, after a suspicious piece of luggage was found by a bomb-sniffing dog, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

The TSA reported that at about 1:45 p.m., a canine team was conducting routine screening of operations at MSP when they were alerted on a bag on a luggage carousel number 12. TSA contacted the local police department and Bloomington Police Department bomb squad.

The bag was not a passenger's bag and was never on a flight, according to airport spokesperson Pat Hogan. It was the end bag the airport crews throw on the carousel to signal that all luggage is unloaded.

Suspicious honey, and possibly toxic

Authorities say the suspicious material inside luggage that prompted the shutdown of the Bakersfield airport turns out to be five soft drink bottles filled with honey.

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood says the bottles, inside a checked bag at Meadows Field, had tested positive for traces of an explosive.

Youngblood says investigators are trying to determine whether there was something in the honey or on the bag that caused security alarms to go off shortly before 7:30 a.m. Tuesday.

The discovery of the suspicious material halted flights to and from the airport. Two security officers reported feeling ill after being exposed to the bottles.

Security test goes wrong

Irish police have released a man held over an explosives find, after Slovak authorities admitted planting them in his luggage as part of a security test.

Airport security detected seven of the illicit items, but the eighth - 90g of research development explosive - managed to escape detection.

Slovak authorities were reportedly trying to test screening procedures for checked-in luggage by placing items with unwitting passengers.

Heavy sleeper missed by sleepy TSA agents

The Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport is investigating how a Pensacola Christian College student from Korea ended up spending the night at the airport undetected.

The student, Enoch Hwang, was found asleep at a Delta airlines gate at 4:15 a.m. Sunday when an agent of the airline arrived to open the gate for business.

According to an incident report, Hwang told airport officials, in broken English, that he arrived at the airport on a Delta flight at about 5 p.m. Saturday ... He spent the night sleeping in the seats near Gate 8 next to the concourse window and next to a support column.

According to the report, Transportation Safety Administration officials left the concourse at 7 p.m. Saturday and two TSA employees walked to the end of the concourse and back to the checkpoint without noticing Hwang ... Another search was conducted at 11:50 p.m. Saturday by airport police and they did not spot Hwang either ... A search done at 3:10 a.m. Sunday morning did not uncover Hwang.

And your point is?

Cuba has lodged a protest with the top US diplomat on the island over extra screening for Cuban citizens flying into the US, calling the rule a "hostile action" meant to justify America's trade embargo.

Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry's North American affairs office, said the new security controls were "discriminatory and selective."

TSA = Touching Sensitive Areas

Security for international travel is being ramped up this week. Just yesterday, Senator John Kerry was denied a visa to visit Iran, and a suspicious traveler bearing a passport that identified her as "Joan Rosenberg AKA Joan Rivers" was detected and turned away by an alert airline gate agent in Costa Rica.

Of more importance to me personally was the decision by TSA to require enhanced screening for U.S.-bound travelers coming from 14 particular countries:

The Transportation Security Administration announced Sunday that it will begin enhanced screening procedures Monday on any U.S.-bound air passenger traveling through "state sponsors of terrorism or other countries of interest" such as Pakistan, Yemen and Nigeria.

The TSA said in a statement announcing the new measures that "effective aviation security must begin beyond our borders."

A senior government official, not authorized to speak on the record, provided CNN with the full list of 14 countries that fall under the TSA's "countries of interest" label -- which will automatically trigger the enhanced screening.

[They are the terrorist sponsoring states of] Cuba, Sudan, Syria and Iran [plus] Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen, the government official said.

I've been to eight of the 14 countries of interest, and have every prospect of going back to some of them in 2010, so before long I'll be body-scanned and given an "enhanced pat-down" (which means a pat-down that touches "sensitive" areas of the body) on my return travel. That will be an unpleasant experience, but I wouldn't mind it if I thought it would make air travel more secure. But will it really?

Supposedly, body scanners and enhanced pat-downs will "better enable [TSA] officers to identify and detect hidden items in the most sensitive areas of the body," such as Abdulmutallab's weaponized BVDs (photo here). The problem is that any search intrusive enough to discover objects hidden in the most sensitive areas of the body is too intrusive to be acceptable to the traveling public, especially the litigious American traveling public. And any search not intrusive enough to discover something in or near a body cavity would not have discovered the kind of explosive devices that Abdulmutallab and others have attempted to use. The problem has a name: "the tampon paradox."

TSA tried enhanced pat-downs for secondary inspections after 9/11, and the resulting tsunami of protests and law suits forced them to go back to regular pat-downs, which do not involve the breast and groin areas. I predict the same thing will happen again when body scanners are put into general use at U.S. airports, only even faster.

A failure of enhanced screening could end up being a good thing. There has been a pattern to aviation security measures that looks like a dialectic process: every spectacular terrorist incident has been followed by an immediate and ill-considered overreaction by TSA or its predecessor agencies; that overreaction sooner or later became unsustainable and collapsed; finally, a consensus formed around a reduced, but greater than original, level of traveler inconvenience.

At least one time, that pattern resulted in a really good idea. After the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988, a great deal of money and effort went into an effort to develop a 100% effective technology for detecting explosives in checked luggage. Eventually, the big brains admitted that there was no 100% effective technical means to do that, however, it also occurred to them that there didn't really have to be one. A better approach was to determine the smallest amount of explosives that could reliably be detected with existing technology (x-grams of plastic explosive, for example), acknowledge the fact that amounts up to x-grams might be inside screened luggage, and then put screened luggage inside cargo containers that had been harden to resist the effects of explosive devices up to x-grams. This is called the design basis threat approach to risk management, and the Federal Aviation Administration employed it in the 1990s to develop blast-hardened cargo containers as a reasonable solution to the exploding luggage problem.

With any luck, eventually we'll see that pattern repeated in response to the threat of person-borne improvised explosive devices inside commercial aircraft. TSA ought to admit to itself that such devices, whether carried externally or internally, are not detectable with 100% reliability. Then it should pick a charge weight that represents its best guess at the largest amount of explosive which could get through the most intrusive traveler search that we are actually willing to perform (x-grams). And then harden any vulnerable points on the aircraft that could readily be accessed by a passenger and where x-grams of explosive would be enough to do catastrophic damage.

That approach would reduce the problem to an engineering matter, at which point realistic solutions might be achievable. Perhaps airline cabins would have to be redesigned to eliminate some seats (like the one where Abdulmutallab was seated) that are too close to the fuel tanks or wings, or to place protective panels over the cabin walls and windows so as to get a critical few inches of stand-off distance between the skin of the airframe and the postulated explosive threat. Even if vulnerable points couldn't be eliminated entirely, they could be reduced to a level that is the optimum trade-off between blast resistance and airline economics.

No security solution will be perfect, but I would call that one an improvement over the situation we have now, where millions of passengers will be patted-down enough to annoy them but not enough to eliminate the threat.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Blackwater Charges Rightly Dismissed, But Accountability Questions Remain

So all charges have been dismissed against the five former Blackwater protection contractors who killed 17 Iraqis in Baghdad's Nisour Square on September 16, 2007, due to the U.S. Justice Department's improper use of debriefing statements the contractors were compelled to make to their State Department supervisors. (See one of those statements here.) OK. I think that's a just decision, although a bitter outcome.

What's more, even if Judge Ricardo M. Urbina had permitted use of the statements, the charges still ought to have been dismissed for the reason that the law the defendants were charged under, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdication Act, applies only to Defense Department contractors overseas and the defendants were contractors to the State Department, not Defense. The prosecutors were forced into the ridiculous contortion of pretending that the defendants' employment by the State Department "related to supporting the mission of the United States Department of Defense in the Republic of Iraq," as it says in the first paragraph of the indictment, as if the State Department were a subsidiary of Defense.

Which begs the question why wasn't there any applicable U.S. law, or Iraqi law, or Status of Forces Agreement, or any other legal means of redress? The State Department had employed protection contractors in Iraq for three years at the time of the Nisour Square incident, but the following day the State Department's spokesman was unable to answer a direct question about legal accountability:

QUESTION: Many Iraqis think that these security contractors operate outside the law and that they're not held accountable when incidents such as -- such as these happen. Under what law would they be held accountable? Would it be U.S. law because they're operating --


QUESTION: I mean, what are the rules of engagement? Sorry, that's three questions. What are the rules of engagement here and under what law would they be held accountable? Iraqi --

MR. MCCORMACK: It's a good question. You know, I could -- I could probably give you an answer that is a common sense, man-in-the-street answer, but that wouldn't necessarily have been run by our lawyers first, so I'd want to actually consult with the lawyers before I give you a definitive answer.

QUESTION: Can you check that?

QUESTION: Yeah, can you find that out?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, sure.


MR. MCCORMACK: I'll be happy to, yeah. Yeah.

The spokesman never could come up with a clear answer to the question in the next few days and weeks, which is indication of a failure on the part of the State Department to plan for the eventuality that one of the many heavily armed contractors it employed in extremely high threat activities might actually shoot someone someday.

To make matters worse, the State Department had been employing private contractors to handle protective security details in dodgy jurisdictions for 17 years at the time of the Nisour Square incident. In 1994, State contracted with MVM to protect Haitian President Aristide when he returned to Haiti after being deposed three years earlier. After that, more contractors from other firms were hired for protection assignments in the former Yugoslavia (2000), the West Bank and Gaza (2002), Afghanistan (2002) and finally Iraq (2004). My memory is hazy on this, but I think there was a questionable shooting incident in the former Yugoslavia that was not legally resolved before the contractors were hurriedly sent out of the country. For State to be caught flat-footed on the question of legal accountability in 2007 was, frankly, deplorable.

I understand that a system of accountability has now been provided for private security contractors in Iraq. But has the lesson been learned and applied to all the other foreign locations where we employ private citizens in protection assignments? We owe them as well as the host governments a better answer than "Hum ... good question ... I'll check on that ... yeah."