Category Archives: Counter Terrorism

Homeland Security Hasn’t Made Us Safer

Anne Applebaum’s op-ed for Foreign Policy doesn’t mince around:

Hardly anyone has seriously scrutinized either the priorities or the spending patterns of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its junior partner, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), since their hurried creation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Sure, they get criticized plenty. But year in, year out, they continue to grow faster and cost more — presumably because Americans think they are being protected from terrorism by all that spending. Yet there is no evidence whatsoever that the agencies are making Americans any safer.

DHS serves only one clear purpose: to provide unimaginable bonanzas for favored congressional districts around the United States, most of which face no statistically significant security threat at all. One thinks of the $436,504 that the Blackfeet Nation of Montana received in fiscal 2010 “to help strengthen the nation against risks associated with potential terrorist attacks”; the $1,000,000 that the village of Poynette, Wisconsin (pop. 2,266) received in fiscal 2009 for an “emergency operations center”; or the $67,000 worth of surveillance equipment purchased by Marin County, California, and discovered, still in its original packaging, four years later. And indeed, every U.S. state, no matter how landlocked or underpopulated, receives, by law, a fixed percentage of homeland security spending every year.

As for the TSA, I am not aware of a single bomber or bomb plot stopped by its time-wasting procedures. In fact, TSA screeners consistently fail to spot the majority of fake “bombs” and bomb parts the agency periodically plants to test their skills. In Los Angeles, whose airport was targeted by the “millennium plot” on New Year’s 2000, screeners failed some 75 percent of these tests.

Terrorists have been stopped since 2001 and plots prevented, but always by other means. After the Nigerian “underwear bomber” of Christmas Day 2009 was foiled, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano claimed “the system worked” — but the bomber was caught by a passenger, not the feds. Richard Reid, the 2001 shoe bomber, was undone by an alert stewardess who smelled something funny. The 2006 Heathrow Airport plot was uncovered by an intelligence tip. Al Qaeda’s recent attempt to explode cargo planes was caught by a human intelligence source, not an X-ray machine. Yet the TSA responds to these events by placing restrictions on shoes, liquids, and now perhaps printer cartridges.

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Read the whole thing »

Bruce Schneier on Stuxnet

Security guru Bruce Schneier has been offering careful observations on the Windows worm Stuxnet since 7 October. Bruce linked the recent NYT article today. Since Bruce did not make note of any glaring glitches in the article, I recommend reading Bruce’s 7 October article, then the NYT article:

This long New York Times article includes some interesting revelations. The article claims that Stuxnet was a joint Israeli-American project, and that its effectiveness was tested on live equipment: “Behind Dimona’s barbed wire, the experts say, Israel has spun nuclear centrifuges virtually identical to Iran’s at Natanz, where Iranian scientists are struggling to enrich uranium.”

(…)

My two previous Stuxnet posts. And an alternate theory: The Chinese did it.

Where I draw the line

Roger Ebert has had enough. His essay is well worth reading:

It appears that not a single TSA agent has declined to perform a full-body pat down of airline passengers. That includes patting down small children. They’re not patted down on a routine basis, but on some occasions they can be and they are. A child under 12, sometimes way under 12, may be required to remove outer clothing and be touched on such areas as the genitals.

Would you take this job? I don’t believe I would. But it’s worth reflecting that employment as a TSA agent is a good job in these hard times of high unemployment. The starting pay is $12.85 an hour, better than Wendy’s for an employee who doesn’t need a high school diploma. Wages go higher. The 40 hours of training are paid for by the government. Agents are given uniforms, badges, “a choice of health care plans,” and power.

Read the whole thing »

Close the Washington Monument

More wisdom from security guru Bruce Schneier:

Securing the Washington Monument from terrorism has turned out to be a surprisingly difficult job. The concrete fence around the building protects it from attacking vehicles, but there’s no visually appealing way to house the airport-level security mechanisms the National Park Service has decided are a must for visitors. It is considering several options, but I think we should close the monument entirely. Let it stand, empty and inaccessible, as a monument to our fears.

(…) Terrorism isn’t a crime against people or property. It’s a crime against our minds, using the death of innocents and destruction of property to make us fearful. Terrorists use the media to magnify their actions and further spread fear. And when we react out of fear, when we change our policy to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed — even if their attacks fail. But when we refuse to be terrorized, when we’re indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail — even if their attacks succeed.

We can reopen the monument when every foiled or failed terrorist plot causes us to praise our security, instead of redoubling it. When the occasional terrorist attack succeeds, as it inevitably will, we accept it, as we accept the murder rate and automobile-related death rate; and redouble our efforts to remain a free and open society.

Read the whole thing »

The 'Israelification' of airports: High security, little bother

I have been very impressed with how Israeli airport security works. This article outlines the methodology.

“It is mindboggling for us Israelis to look at what happens in North America, because we went through this 50 years ago,” said Rafi Sela, the president of AR Challenges, a global transportation security consultancy. He’s worked with the RCMP, the U.S. Navy Seals and airports around the world.

“Israelis, unlike Canadians and Americans, don’t take s— from anybody. When the security agency in Israel (the ISA) started to tighten security and we had to wait in line for — not for hours — but 30 or 40 minutes, all hell broke loose here. We said, ‘We’re not going to do this. You’re going to find a way that will take care of security without touching the efficiency of the airport.”

That, in a nutshell is “Israelification” – a system that protects life and limb without annoying you to death.

(…) “We have a saying in Hebrew that it’s much easier to look for a lost key under the light, than to look for the key where you actually lost it, because it’s dark over there. That’s exactly how (North American airport security officials) act,” Sela said. “You can easily do what we do. You don’t have to replace anything. You have to add just a little bit — technology, training. But you have to completely change the way you go about doing airport security. And that is something that the bureaucrats have a problem with. They are very well enclosed in their own concept.”

Bruce Schneier says the Israeli method doesn’t scale to US traffic volumes. I’m not so sure about that. But the Israeli approach requires investing MUCH more in training a highly motivated staff. And MUCH less in hardware.

Flight 253 + Schneier + Security Theater

It’s magical thinking: If we defend against what the terrorists did last time, we’ll somehow defend against what they do one time. Of course this doesn’t work. We take away guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters. We take away box cutters and corkscrews, and the terrorists hide explosives in their shoes. We screen shoes, they use liquids. We limit liquids, they sew PETN into their underwear. We implement full-body scanners, and they’re going to do something else. This is a stupid game; we should stop playing it.

Security expert Bruce Schneier on the predictable response of TSA to Flight 253.

(…) And what sort of magical thinking is behind the rumored TSA rule about keeping passengers seated during the last hour of flight? Do we really think the terrorist won’t think of blowing up their improvised explosive devices during the first hour of flight?

For years I’ve been saying this:

Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.

This week, the second one worked over Detroit. Security succeeded.

EDITED TO ADD (12/26): Only one carry on? No electronics for the first hour of flight? I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first class and giving them free drinks.

Schneier has been lecturing on the absurdity of “Security Theater” ever since I can remember — at least since the TSA sillies began post 9/11. Three years ago Bruce wrote on a particular case where theater might be appropriate — the RFID tagging of new babies in maternity wards — makes the mom feel more secure. But that is a very rare case.

Of course, too much security theater and our feeling of security becomes greater than the reality, which is also bad. And others — politicians, corporations and so on — can use security theater to make us feel more secure without doing the hard work of actually making us secure. That’s the usual way security theater is used, and why I so often malign it.

Bruce has posted a more detailed analysis on 1/7/10:

(…) Yes, the Amsterdam screeners allowed Abdulmutallab onto the plane with PETN sewn into his underwear, but that’s not a failure either. There is no security checkpoint, run by any government anywhere in the world, designed to catch this. It isn’t a new threat; it’s more than a decade old. Nor is it unexpected; anyone who says otherwise simply isn’t paying attention. But PETN is hard to explode, as we saw on Christmas Day.

Additionally, the passengers on the airplane worked. For years I’ve said that exactly two things have made us safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door and convincing passengers that they need to fight back. It was the second of these that, on Christmas Day, quickly subdued Abdulmutallab after he set his pants on fire.

To the extent security failed, it failed before Abdulmutallab even got to the airport. Why was he issued an American visa? Why didn’t anyone follow up on his father’s tip? While I’m sure there are things to be improved and fixed, remember that everything is obvious in hindsight. After the fact, it’s easy to point to the bits of evidence and claim that someone should have “connected the dots.” But before the fact, when there millions of dots — some important but the vast majority unimportant — uncovering plots is a lot harder.

Despite this, the proposed fixes focus on the details of the plot rather than the broad threat. We’re going to install full-body scanners, even though there are lots of ways to hide PETN — stuff it in a body cavity, spread it thin on a garment — from the machines. We’re going to profile people traveling from 14 countries, even though it’s easy for a terrorist to travel from a different country. Seating requirements for the last hour of flight were the most ridiculous example.

(…) What we need is security that’s effective even if we can’t guess the next plot: intelligence, investigation and emergency response.

Bruce Schneier on the David Brooks NYT essay

(…) There’s a pervasive belief in this society that perfection is possible. So if something bad occurs, it can never be because we just got unlucky. It must be because something went wrong and someone is at fault, and then things must be fixed. Sometimes, though, this simply isn’t true. Sometimes it’s better not to fix things: either there is no fix, or the fix is more expensive than living with the problem, or the side effects of the fix are worse than the problem. And sometimes you can do everything right and have it still turn out wrong. Welcome to the real world.

Terrorism: Bowing to "World Opinion"

Prof. Sowell looks at the latest from the Obama administration:

In the string of amazing decisions made during the first year of the Obama administration, nothing seems more like sheer insanity than the decision to try foreign terrorists, who have committed acts of war against the United States, in federal court, as if they were American citizens accused of crimes.

Terrorists are not even entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention, much less the Constitution of the United States. Terrorists have never observed, nor even claimed to have observed, the Geneva Convention, nor are they among those covered by it.

But over and above the utter inconsistency of what is being done is the utter recklessness it represents. The last time an attack on the World Trade Center was treated as a matter of domestic criminal justice was after a bomb was exploded there in 1993. Under the rules of American criminal law, the prosecution had to turn over all sorts of information to the defense– information that told the Al Qaeda international terrorist network what we knew about them and how we knew it.(…)

Please continue reading… Consider the future – do you think that MI6 or French Intelligence will be willing to share their intelligence with U.S. agencies?

The Madrassa myth

Harvard’s Asim Khwaja shines a spotlight on what is really going on in Pakistan. The true story is sizzling growth in private schools, while Madrassas have been static (not growing) since 2000. The Madrassa myth is politically expedient so it continues to dominate Congress and the press. An excerpt:

<snip>

Using the latest publicly available educational census data, Madrassas in 2005-06 still only accounted for 1.3 percent of enrolled children (In Pakistan’s four provinces), versus 34 percent in non-religious private schools and the remainder in public schools. The graph below shows that while there is indeed some increase in madrassas over time, the far more striking growth is for non-religious private schools.

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Moreover these non-religious private schools are increasingly catering to the middle and poor class. With monthly fees less than a days’ unskilled wage rate, they are affordable and attract students from even the poorest households. Madrassas are therefore simply not the schools of last resort. For the average Pakistani child, even among the poor living in rural areas and in urban slums, the most likely alternative to a decrepit public school is not a madrassa but a private school, or no schooling at all. Moreover, despite the low fees and low wages (a fifth of public sector teacher wages) and less qualified (local women) teachers, they offer substantially higher quality education than public schools (likely by better incentivizing and selecting their teachers).

<snip>

[1] Religious School Enrollment in Pakistan: A Look at the Data (with T. Andrabi, Pomona, J.Das, DECRG World Bank and T. Zajonc, Harvard). Comparative Education Review, Vol, 50, No. 3, August 2006 and A Dime a Day: The Possibilities and Limits of Private Schooling in Pakistan (with T. Andrabi, Pomona, J.Das, DECRG World Bank). Comparative Education Review, vol. 52, no. 3, August 2008. Also see the LEAPS project website that details more of our research on the Pakistani educational sector at www.leapsproject.org.

[From The Madrassa myth]

Counterterrorism: Survival optional

Thomas Sowell again:

It used to be said that self-preservation is the first law of nature. But much of what has been happening in recent times in the United States, and in Western civilization in general, suggests that survival is taking a back seat to the shibboleths of political correctness.

We have already turned loose dozens of captured terrorists, who have resumed their terrorism. Why? Because they have been given “rights” that exist neither in our laws nor under international law.

These are not criminals in our society, entitled to the protection of the Constitution of the United States. They are not prisoners of war entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention.

There was a time when people who violated the rules of war were not entitled to turn around and claim the protection of those rules. German soldiers who put on U.S. military uniforms, in order to infiltrate American lines during the Battle of the Bulge, were simply lined up against a wall and shot.

Nobody even thought that this was a violation of the Geneva Convention. American authorities filmed the mass executions. Nobody dreamed up fictitious “rights” for these enemy combatants who had violated the rules of war. Nobody thought we had to prove that we were nicer than the Nazis by bending over backward.

Continue reading…
In a related op-ed Thomas Sowell examines the silliness of the “torture debate”. An excerpt:


One of the many signs of the degeneration of our times is how many serious, even life-and-death, issues are approached as talking points in a game of verbal fencing. Nothing illustrates this more than the fatuous, and even childish, controversy about “torturing” captured terrorists.

People’s actions often make far more sense than their words. Most of the people who are talking lofty talk about how we mustn’t descend to the level of our enemies would themselves behave very differently if presented with a comparable situation, instead of being presented with an opportunity to be morally one up with rhetoric.

What if it was your mother or your child who was tied up somewhere beside a ticking time bomb and you had captured a terrorist who knew where that was? Face it: What you would do to that terrorist to make him talk would make water-boarding look like a picnic.

<snip>

But if the United States behaves that way it is called “arrogance”– even by American citizens. Indeed, even by the American president. There is a big difference between being ponderous and being serious. It is scary when the President of the United States is not being serious about matters of life and death, saying that there are “other ways” of getting information from terrorists.

Maybe this is a step up from the previous talking point that “torture” had not gotten any important information out of terrorists. Only after this had been shown to be a flat-out lie did Barack Obama shift his rhetoric to the lame assertion that unspecified “other ways” could have been used.

For a man whose whole life has been based on style rather than substance, on rhetoric rather than reality, perhaps nothing better could have been expected. But that the media and the public would have become so mesmerized by the Obama cult that they could not see through this to think of their own survival, or that of this nation, is truly a chilling thought.

When we look back at history, it is amazing what foolish and even childish things people said and did on the eve of a catastrophe about to consume them. In 1938, with Hitler preparing to unleash a war in which tens of millions of men, women and children would be slaughtered, the play that was the biggest hit on the Paris stage was a play about French and German reconciliation, and a French pacifist that year dedicated his book to Adolf Hitler.

<snip>

If we have reached the point where we cannot be bothered to think beyond rhetoric or to make moral distinctions, then we have reached the point where our own survival in an increasingly dangerous world of nuclear proliferation can no longer be taken for granted.

Continue reading…

CIA Says Pelosi Was Briefed on Use of 'Enhanced Interrogations'

Intelligence officials released documents this evening saying that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was briefed in September 2002 about the use of harsh interrogation tactics against al-Qaeda prisoners, seemingly contradicting her repeated statements over the past 18 months that she was never told that these techniques were actually being used.

In a 10-page memo outlining an almost seven-year history of classified briefings, intelligence officials said that Pelosi and then-Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) were the first two members of Congress ever briefed on the interrogation tactics. Then the ranking member and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, respectively, Pelosi and Goss were briefed Sept. 4, 2002, one week before the first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The memo, issued by the Director of National Intelligence and the Central Intelligence Agency to Capitol Hill, notes the Pelosi-Goss briefing covered “EITs including the use of EITs on Abu Zubaydah.” EIT is an acronym for enhanced interrogation technique. Zubaydah was one of the earliest valuable al-Qaeda members captured and the first to have the controversial tactic known as water boarding used against him.

Continue reading… Paul Kane in the Washington Post.

More at ABC’s The Note.