Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 23, 2006

’24′ vs. Reality – Hollywood meets Homeland Security

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christian Beckner on June 23, 2006

The Heritage Foundation hosted an event this morning on “24 and America’s Image in Fighting Terrorism” that was probably as close as the homeland security policy community will ever get to the world of the glitterati, bringing together think tankers with the producers and cast members of ’24′. The auditorium at the Reagan Building was packed with an overflow crowd (which included Justice Clarence Thomas) for the event. Homeland Security Watch was there.

Sec. Chertoff kicked things off with a few remarks before heading off to the DOJ press conference on the Miami terror plot (and adding a non-subtle jab at NYC and DC leaders that this plot proves that terrorism is a “national problem”). Turning to the show, he noted that it reflected real life in its portrayal of the decisions that leaders must make, constantly forced to choose “a best choice among a series of bad options” in an environment of imperfect information that always seems more orderly in hindsight. But he added that in real life, you can’t resolve problems in 24 hours, and that perseverance is the real key to winning the war on terror. And he noted that in reality successed depended not on the extraordinary feats of a Jack Bauer, but on the quiet, resolute work of thousands of “real heroes,” doing their jobs behind the scenes each day, at DHS, other agencies, and at the state & local level.

When asked how ’24′ compared to reality, he noted that “DHS doesn’t have an operations center like the CTU,” (although later it was pointed out that the set designer for ’24′ also helped design the operations center at the National Counterterrorism Center) and that unlike in ’24′, “we don’t get information using measures that violate the law.” And he wistfully noted that the governments’ technologies often paled in comparison to ’24′, commenting that he had never seen a computer crash on the TV show.

The event then shifted to a panel session moderated by Rush Limbaugh, featuring think tankers Jim Carafano from Heritage and my former boss David Heyman from CSIS (described by Limbaugh as the “token moderate” on the panel), along with producers Howard Gordon, Joel Surnow, and Robert Cochran, and actors Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe), Carlos Bernard (Tony), and Gregory Itzin (President Logan). (Click here for a larger pic).

The session was weighed down at times by Limbaugh’s tendentious and leading questions; he was constantly striving to get the panelists to confirm his notions that Hollywood, foreigners, and liberals don’t like the show and/or aren’t hip to the war on terror, rather than acting as a neutral, inquisitive moderator of the discussion. But in spite of that, the panel session was very interesting, and at times quite funny.

A lot of the discussion focused on the relationship between art and reality, looking at the extent to which ’24′ looks to the real war on terror for ideas and conversely, how government officials might consciously or unconsciously model their own decisions after the show. The producers noted that Seasons 2 and 4 were consciously drawn upon real events in the war on terror. And Limbaugh pointed out that a number of senior government officials – including Cheney and Rumsfeld – are fans of the show.

Is the conduct of the war on terror influenced by the show? The evidence was inconclusive, but Carafano made the point that it would be bad idea to execute the war on terror based on the show, commenting that “this is not how you stop terrorism.” Instead, he argued (echoing Chertoff’s earlier comments) that fighting terrorism involves a lot of unglamorous, mundane work over months and years, quietly taking place outside of the political and media cycle. He wistfully noted that he wished more people in the general public would spend as much time learning about and researching real homeland security and counterterrorism efforts as they do watching ’24′ – a sentiment with which I heartily concur.

The producers were asked a few times what sources they used for their plot lines. Their answer, by and large: “we make it up.” Carafano noted that he hoped would-be terrorists would use the show for the purposes of developing terrorist tradecraft; if they did, he said, they would likely fail miserably.

The discussion also touched upon the public reaction to the show. Surnow commented that “everybody from Rush to Barbra Streisand likes the show.” Heyman suggested a potential reason why the show resonates across the political spectrum: it allows the viewers to have both “justice” (nabbing the bad guys) and “process” (action within a legally-accepted system) – when in the real world it’s often difficult to have both. Carafano pointed out that most of the non-Americans with whom he’s discussed ’24′ enjoy the show, because of its quality, adding that people take away things from it based on their preconceived notions.

Some other interesting or humorous tidbits:

– Surnow noted that when he original came up with the idea for a show that takes places over 24 hours, his first thought was to do a romantic comedy that chronicles a wedding over the course of the day. Needless to say, it was a good move not to go with that.
– One of the producers joked that next season the bad guys will be “Swedish terrorists.” A joke perhaps – but then again, perhaps he hasn’t heard of surströmming.
– When asked how ’24′ has changed her life, Rajskub wrily commented that “strangers touch me now,” and that “people think I’m a better person.” Later, apropos of nothing (and perhaps somewhat freaked out to be speaking at the Heritage Foundation with Clarence Thomas and Rush Limbaugh 10 feet away) she pointed out that she wasn’t wearing a bra.

Overall, a very interesting and fun event, the likes of which we’re unlikely to see again in the homeland security policy world for a long time to come. The full program is archived already on C-Span’s website as a video clip, and I imagine it’ll be re-airing on their stations over the weekend.

Update (6/23): The AP’s take on the event.

Update 2 (6/24): The Washington Post covers the event.

Heritage event on “24″ and the war on terror

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christian Beckner on June 23, 2006

The Heritage Foundation is holding an event this morning on the TV show “24″ and how it relates to the war on terror. Sec. Chertoff is speaking, and Rush Limbaugh is moderating a panel with homeland security experts and producers and cast members of 24. I’m lucky enough to have a ticket and am heading downtown in a few minutes to attend. It looks like C-Span is covering it, so you can either watch the clip online or on TV at C-Span 3 if you have that station.

I’ll post a full review & commentary on the event later in the day.

NYT reveals secret program to combat terrorist financing

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Investigation & Enforcement — by Christian Beckner on June 23, 2006

The New York Times published their latest bombshell story today, about a secret program that has been in existence since shortly after 9/11 to detect terrorist-related financial transactions on a global basis, via the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a bank consortium that runs a messaging service used to communicate financial transactions on a global basis. From the story:

The program is limited, government officials say, to tracing transactions of people suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda by reviewing records from the nerve center of the global banking industry, a Belgian cooperative that routes about $6 trillion daily between banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and other institutions. The records mostly involve wire transfers and other methods of moving money overseas and into and out of the United States. Most routine financial transactions confined to this country are not in the database.

Viewed by the Bush administration as a vital tool, the program has played a hidden role in domestic and foreign terrorism investigations since 2001 and helped in the capture of the most wanted Qaeda figure in Southeast Asia, the officials said.

The program, run out of the Central Intelligence Agency and overseen by the Treasury Department, “has provided us with a unique and powerful window into the operations of terrorist networks and is, without doubt, a legal and proper use of our authorities,” Stuart Levey, an under secretary at the Treasury Department, said in an interview on Thursday.

The story goes on to note the role of the program in tracking down Southeast Asian terror ringleader Hambali, discuss the legal issues associated with it, and tell the story of how the program came into existence and the turmoil within the federal government and with SWIFT over its scope.

I’ve been critical of the NSA program that was revealed by the same New York Times reporters in December. But I think this program is very different, and plays a valid and important role in the war on terrorism, for three reasons:

First, unlike the NSA program, it doesn’t involve a far-ranging “vacuum” of data, but instead apparently uses the data on a targeted basis, focusing on known terror suspects and well-defined investigations. As Levey notes in the story, “We are not on a fishing expedition.” SWIFT acts as a gatekeeper to the data; the CIA and the Treasury Dept. don’t own or control it.

Second, there are strict safeguards in place to prevent misuse of the data, involving system controls to prevent misuse and an outside auditing firm to ensure compliance.

Third, financial data is different from personal communications; from a philosophical standpoint, I would argue that the former is inherently less deserving of privacy protection than the latter.

Based on the content of the story, I’m glad that this program exists – and although I usually err on the side of openness and disclosure, this is one program that I would’ve been fine to see remained cloaked in secrecy. This story could cause would-be terror financiers to rethink their money movement activities; and if SWIFT were to pull back from cooperation with the US government because of any controversy generated by this story (it’s still too early to judge the political fallout from it, if any), then that would be a real shame.

Update (6/23): The Washington Post summarizes the administration’s response to the story today. And be sure to check out Dennis Lormel’s post over at the Counterterrorism Blog – he was involved with program, and provides a solid defense of it.

Update 2 (6/23): While I rue the fact that this program has been made public, in no way do I concur with the press- bashing that has followed the release of this story. We live in a democratic society with a free press – a reality that sometimes makes it difficult for us to pursue clandestine activities over the long-term, but ultimately makes us a stronger nation, by creating a strong civic society and providing a check on harmful or overzealous government behavior. Would we be a stronger nation in the war against terror if we had lived in authoritarian state that censored or bullied the press? No. We would be weak, because we would undermine our greatest strength: our civic patriotism and belief in America. Those who would criticize the New York Times for publishing this story need to acknowledge that the same rights and freedoms that allow them to publish this story are the rights and freedoms that make us strong as a nation, and that we’re fighting to preserve and protect in the war on terror.

June 22, 2006

CAP releases report on biosecurity

Filed under: Biosecurity — by Christian Beckner on June 22, 2006

The Center for American Progress (CAP) released a report entitled “Biosecurity: A Comprehensive Action Plan” at an event in DC today. The well-written report argues for an integrated approach to biosecurity (combating both natural and mandate threats), surveys the state of biosecurity today, and offers a number of recommendations on how to improve the system on a global basis.

The report discusses a number of interesting issues; for example, I found this passage on pages 42-43 particularly interesting:

Since 9/11, for example, the Bush administration has placed a new emphasis on “laboratory threat characterization,” which includes the development and study of known and putative biowarfare agents to guide the development of medical countermeasures. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC), currently being built at Fort Detrick, Md., will include a Biological Threat Characterization Program (BTCP) to examine how bioterrorists might use genetic engineering and other advanced techniques to convert viruses andbacteria into more deadly and effective weapons. Such defensive research includes creating and assessing genetically modified pathogens that an enemy might in theory develop.

This type of research does more harm than good. Given the vast genetic diversity of microorganisms, it is extremely unlikely that the United States could anticipate the specific organisms that an enemy might create. Instead, the genetically engineered pathogens would simply be potential offensive weapons in their own right. Thus, even though the research is for defensive purposes, other countries may not take us at our word. Instead, they may view such experiments as possible cover for offensive activities — in part because many U.S. biodefense projects are shrouded in secrecy.

This is a difficult issue. A journal article published in 2005, Biological Threat Characterization Research: A Critical Component of National Biodefense, makes the opposite argument: that focusing only on known pathogens is shortsighted, and threat characterization research can link intelligence with biosecurity and make it possible to anticipate and develop countermeasures against future threats. But the authors of this paper also argue that super-strong safeguards are necessary – an acknowledge of sorts that there are real risks created by this kind of research. But all it would take is one malcontent working at Fort Detrick to circumvent security and take a bioengineered pathogen out of the lab and release or sell it. Is that a risk that we’re willing to take? Or is the alternative risk – not being prepared to face future threats – a worse outcome? This is a difficult call, and something that needs more debate and consideration that it’s received to date.

Overall, a good report by CAP - and a useful set of recommendations that should be carefully weighed and considered.

FBI arrests 7 in terror plot

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on June 22, 2006

Given the limited information so far, it’s hard to know what to make of this as of tonight:

The FBI has arrested seven people in the US city of Miami who were planning to blow up Chicago’s Sears Tower and other targets, officials say.

No weapons or bomb-making equipment was found as the arrests were made over the past two days.

The seven, reportedly mainly Americans, were detained in the poor Liberty City district in northern Miami.

They had no apparent link to al-Qaeda or other international groups, according to officials quoted by AP.

Another source, quoted by the Reuters news agency, said that the group had been infiltrated by a US agent, whom the members believed to be connected with al-Qaeda.

Given the timing, perhaps there’s a connection to the Toronto plot? DOJ and the FBI are having a news conference tomorrow to provide more details.

Is the border bill dead?

Filed under: Border Security,Congress and HLS — by Christian Beckner on June 22, 2006

The Los Angeles Times reports yesterday on plans by the leadership of the House of Representatives to hold field hearings this summer on the immigration and border security legislation, instead of moving forward to conference with the Senate on the legislation:

The plan, unveiled almost a month after the Senate measure passed, is the latest sign of reluctance among the GOP House leadership to try to negotiate a compromise bill that would include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Conservatives say that element — a central part of the Senate measure — is the equivalent of amnesty.

House leaders insisted Tuesday that they still hoped to negotiate with the Senate. But the schedule for the hearings, set for July and August across the country, makes it unlikely that the two chambers can reach a final agreement before the November elections.

When Congress reconvenes in September, most lawmakers will be preoccupied with their campaigns; traditionally, little important business gets done at that time.

Failure to produce a bill would be a huge setback for Bush, who has prodded lawmakers to pass immigration legislation that — like the Senate legislation — would toughen border enforcement but also create a guest worker program and offer millions of illegal immigrants a way to gain legal status.

Democrats interpreted the House decision to hold town-hall-style meetings as an effort to stop the Senate legislation.

“The Republican House wants to defeat the immigration bill,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “This is a stall.”

I’ve been describing the border legislation using baseball metaphors from time to time over the last six months. This is the legislative equivalent of Alfonso Soriano’s refusal to play in the outfield for the Nats during spring training – a position that he relented on a few days later, after public pressure.

This is a risky game for the House Republicans to play. By stalling the bill, they’re not only postponing the immigration-related portions of the bill, but also important measures on border security. Perhaps the Republicans figure that they can still achieve most of their border security objectives via the appropriations process instead. Nevertheless, they could find themselves subject to a negative backlash for doing nothing to improve security at the border. And if the Democrats take back the House of Representatives in November – a real possibility – then they will have lost their window of opportunity to craft a bill that is too their liking, and we’ll back to square one in the 110th Congress.

House holds hearing on homeland security grants

Filed under: Congress and HLS,State and Local HLS — by Christian Beckner on June 22, 2006

The House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing yesterday on the state & local grant issue. The prepared statements by NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, DC mayor Tony Williams, and DHS Under Secretary George Foresman are available on the committee website, at the preceding links. GovExec provides a good summary of the hearing:

The District of Columbia’s Democratic Mayor Anthony Williams and New York City’s Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged committee members to examine the funding formula the department used to make grant awards. They both said they support the department’s strategy of using a risk-based approach to make grant awards.

But Bloomberg said the process is “fundamentally broken” and should be reassessed by Congress. “The application process should not be a test for who can write the best college term paper for their class,” Bloomberg said.

Both mayors said another problem involves the department’s preference for financing technology and equipment over personnel and overtime. “The world is not what you see on CSI,” Bloomberg said, referring to the popular television show where investigators use technology to solve crimes. “It is as personal a business as anybody can find.”

Williams added, “I think that technology gets overbilled.” Williams and Bloomberg also said that cities should be given multiyear funding streams in the grants process. King added he plans to meet with Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, Thursday in an effort to find agreement on legislation that would overhaul the department’s funding formula.

This last sentence is particulary interesting. The House and Senate have sparred in the past two years over the framework for homeland security grant distribution, with the House favoring a more risk-based approach and the Senate trying to preserve mandatory state allocations. It’s possible that they could cut a deal that tilts the urban area risk formula more strongly in favor of the super high-risk cities, in exchange for preserving the 0.75% minimums in the state grant program.

June 21, 2006

House Dems release report on rail & transit security

Filed under: Ground Transport Security — by Christian Beckner on June 21, 2006

The Democratic staff of the House Homeland Security Committee released a report yesterday entitled “Detour Ahead: Critical Vulnerabilities in America’s Rail and Mass Transit Security Programs.” The report provides a solid overview of this issue, looking at the history of threats to rail and mass transit systems, chronicling was DHS has done to address these threats, and putting forward a set of immediate recommendations for how to improve security in these critical systems.

The report acknowledges that security in rail and mass transit systems is inherently difficult, given the open nature of these systems, in comparison with “closed systems” such as the commercial aviation sector. It does not recommend measures that would harm the efficiency of these systems. But it makes a strong case that much more can be done to improve security, by focusing on clarifying jurisdictional issues among competing agencies, investing in security training for rail and mass transit workforces, and setting a clear agenda for next-generation technologies that could improve the security of the sector.

Overall, a solid and balanced report, and one which DHS should take seriously.

Sen. Inhofe holds up chemical security legislation

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Infrastructure Protection — by Christian Beckner on June 21, 2006

I’m usually an even-tempered guy, but CQ has a story today (by subscription) that infuriates me:

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The chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has put a hold on chemical security legislation, raising concerns about provisions he said could require chemical companies to convert to safer chemicals.

Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, will hold a hearing Wednesday on IST [inherently safer technology]. But the lawmaker has already told colleagues that he will block the Senate chemical security bill (S 2145), which was adopted by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, last week, if it leaves room for officials at the Department of Homeland Security to require chemical conversions.

“We have concerns about the remaining IST provisions in the bill,” said spokesman Matthew Dempsey, adding he hoped the issues could be worked out before the bill is moved to the Senate floor for consideration.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, has said she does not believe there is IST language in the bill. Ranking member and cosponsor Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., tried to insert language mandating chemical conversions at the markup but lost overwhelmingly.

Inhofe and others believe the bill still leaves the issue unresolved and want language explicitly outlawing DHS from recommending IST. An amendment to the bill doing that was introduced by Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio, at the markup, but it also failed.

CQ also posts a letter from Inhofe to Collins and Lieberman asserting that the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee doesn’t have the jurisdiction to advance this legislation.

I agree with Inhofe that there should not be a mandate for inherently-safer technologies in chemical security legislation. And you know what? The Collins-Lieberman bill doesn’t have any such language. An amendment that would have added IST language failed on a 5-11 vote. Inhofe’s spokesman claims that there are “IST provisions in the bill.” Huh? Where? I’ve read the bill several times, and two words that appear nowhere in the bill – you can check for yourself – are “inherently” and “safer”.

The CQ article states that Inhofe and Voinovich want specific language that prohibits DHS from mandating the use of IST’s at chemical plants. But Inhofe’s own chemical security bill in 2003 (S. 994, 108th Congress) didn’t contain that specific language. Why is he so concerned now? After all, the President of the American Chemistry Council seems fine with the IST perspective in the Collins-Lieberman bill:

“ACC is encouraged by the direction of the debate in which the panel clarified the bill’s essential focus on security by limiting government’s ability to mandate chemistry processes,” American Chemistry Council President Jack N. Gerard said in a statement.

So what’s Inhofe’s beef? Is it simply the jurisdictional issues he mentions in his letter, which conveniently ignore the fact that the rules of the 109th Congress give the HSGAC jurisdiction over critical infrastructure protection? Or is the chemical industry pushing an all-or-nothing, no-compromises line behind the scenes, while sounding reasonable in the media?

From a security perspective, the best bill is one that neither requires nor prohibits DHS from compelling a given chemical facility to use ISTs, but rather allows government experts to make scientifically-driven risk assessments, and impose remedies where private sector inaction puts the American people at undue risk – a system that the Collins-Lieberman bill would help create. For the vast majority of chemical facilities, there will be no need or cause for the government to compel the use of ISTs. But there could very well be cases where, at a given facility, the use of ISTs is best and/or most cost effective way to improve security – perhaps the only way in a rare example. In that case, doesn’t it make sense to allow DHS to have an IST option in its security toolbox?

If Sen. Inhofe holds up this legislation either because of this IST issue, or jurisdictional pique because it’s not an EPW bill, then he is rolling the dice with the lives of Americans. If he wants to submit an amendment on the floor, that’s his right. But holding up the bill through legislative machinations is a disservice to the security of the nation. We’ve already waited far, far too long for chemical security legislation to pass. The time for playing games is over.

June 20, 2006

Port security: motivating the private sector

Filed under: Port and Maritime Security — by Christian Beckner on June 20, 2006

The Seattle P-I published a good opinion piece by P.J. Crowley and Robert Housman today, on the topic of port security. They make the case for the passage of the GreenLane Maritime Cargo Security Act (S. 2459), and argue that the private sector needs to view security as “a core mission, not a market option.” and state that voluntary programs like C-TPAT “leave the U.S. economy vulnerable to the lowest corporate denominator.”

On the basis of this argument, they make five recommendations:

  1. Make C-TPAT mandatory for companies participating in global trade, and internationalize it through the World Customs Organization;
  2. Strengthen enforcement of supply chain security;
  3. Require companies to certify the security of their manufacturing and transport networks;
  4. Require companies to disclose in SEC filings what they’re doing to invest in security and comply with homeland security regulations;
  5. Cap liability for companies that meet strong supply chain security standards.

I agree with the general theory of this piece, and the importance of finding ways to move beyond the current paradigm of companies treating security as “overhead.” But I’m wary of making C-TPAT mandatory for every company that engages in global trade – which in theory implies every mom & pop company that sells and exports goods on eBay. A better, and more risk-based approach is to keep it voluntary, but make major efforts to sharpen both the carrots of participation and the sticks of non-participation.

DOJ IG report on the FBI and Moussaoui

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Investigation & Enforcement — by Christian Beckner on June 20, 2006

The DOJ inspector general has released an updated version of their report (44mb pdf) on the FBI’s handling of intelligence information related to the 9/11 attacks, now including a 120-page chapter on the FBI’s pre-9/11 investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui that had been previously withheld due to his trial. Much of the information in the narrative is well-known, but that doesn’t make it any less chilling in retrospect. For example, on page 163 of the pdf, a conversation from August 27, 2001:

According to [Minneapolis-based Special Supervisory Agent] Gary’s notes of the conversation, [Special Supervisory Agent in the Radical Fundamentalist Unit] Martin told them that “what you have done is couched it in such a way that people get spun up.” Gary told the OIG that after Martin made this statement, Gary said “good” and then stated that Minneapolis was trying to keep Moussaoui from crashing an airplane into the World Trade Center. Gary’s notes of the conversation indicate that Gary stated, “We want to make sure he doesn’t get control of an airplane and crash it into the [World Trade Center] or something like that.” According to Gary’s notes, Martin responded by stating that Minneapolis did not have the evidence to support that Moussaoui was a terrorist. Gary’s notes indicate that Martin also stated, “You have a guy interested in this type of aircraft. That is it.”

The report finds no evidence of “intentional misconduct” or attempts to “deliberately ‘sabotage’ the Minneapolis FBI’s request” for a FISA warrant. And it casts blame widely, as noted in the Washington Post today:

Fine concluded that senior FBI managers failed to move aggressively to gain a warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings before Sept. 11. But unlike previous public criticisms of the FBI’s bungling of the case — which have focused on senior FBI managers in Washington — Fine’s analysis said there was plenty of blame to go around.

The inspector general said former FBI lawyer Colleen Rowley, who gained fame as a whistle-blower when she pointed out the errors by headquarters, had failed to properly guide agents on what type of search warrant to seek.

He said agents in Minneapolis, who have been hailed for warning supervisors about Moussaoui, rushed to open an intelligence investigation before realizing that they would need a criminal search warrant. The so-called “wall” that existed at the time between intelligence and criminal investigators has been blamed for the failure to examine Moussaoui’s belongings until after Sept. 11.

The Minneapolis field office might share some of this responsibility, but I still think, after reading the narrative, that most of the responsibility lies with the FBI HQ in this case. There may have not been willful misconduct, but an over-controlling bureaucratic ethos is often just as harmful. For example, on page 164 of the PDF:

Martin also wrote, “I need to ask you guys to do me a favor. In the future, please contact and pass info to me and allow me to talk with [an FBI detailee to the CIA] and [the CIA]. Things work much better when our agencies are communicating HQ to HQ.”

It’s this type of hierarchical, bureaucratic mentality that needs to be killed off if we’re going to succeed in the war on terror.

FEMA misses its hiring deadlines

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on June 20, 2006

Sec. Chertoff speaking at a press conference (transcript not available online) on April 6, 2006:

We’re on a path now to get about 95 percent of the vacancies [at FEMA] filled in the department by June 1, which is kind of our target date.

Sec. Chertoff speaking on CNN on May 2, 2006:

We’re on a path now to get about 95 percent of the vacancies filled in the department by June 1.

A GovExec article last Friday:

In a briefing Friday with reporters, FEMA Director R. David Paulison said the agency has hired about 85 percent of the workers it needs. This is the same percentage he offered when asked by a reporter May 23 about progress toward a goal of reaching 95 percent of capacity before June 1, when the hurricane season began.

Initially, the agency set a mid-May deadline for meeting that goal. Paulison pushed that date back to June 1, and the agency further delayed it to July, according to a FEMA fact sheet given to reporters last month.

But when pressed Friday for comment on when the agency would finish hiring, Paulison said he did not know and could not provide a date.

I’m not that concerned about this from the perspective of hurricane preparedness; the number of FEMA employees is not the most important proxy for readiness, given the critical importance of state and local officials in any response effort. And I’d rather see FEMA take the time to hire good people than hire warm bodies off the street. But that said, I don’t understand why DHS and FEMA made this promise in the first place, and why they didn’t have the information to walk back from it sooner.

G8 ministers consider Internet antiterror strategy

Filed under: Infrastructure Protection,International HLS — by Christian Beckner on June 20, 2006

As mentioned previously, the G8 justice and interior ministers (including Sec. Chertoff in the latter category) met last week in Moscow. The transcript of their wrap-up press conference is now available online, and one issue stands out amid the litany of other items on the agenda. Russian Minister of the Interior Rashid Nurgaliyev noted the following:

We discussed the necessity of improving effective countermeasures that will prevent IT terrorism and terrorist acts in this sphere of high technologies. For that it is necessary to devise a set of measures to prevent such possible criminal acts, including in the sphere of telecommunication. That includes work against the selling of private data, counterfeit information and application of viruses and other harmful computer programs. We will instruct our experts to generate unified approaches to fighting cyber criminality, and we will need an international legal base for this particular work, and we will apply all of that to prevent terrorists from using computer and Internet sites for hiring new terrorists and the recruitment of other illegal actors.

There’s not a lot of specificity in these remarks, but they’re interesting to the extent that they suggest a connection between the “protection” side of cybersecurity (i.e. defeating hackers and viruses) and the role of the Internet as a means for communication, recruitment, and training.

Are these two things connected, and are there common tools that can be used to combat both threats? Or is this simply a case of two things that seem like they should be related, but are actually quite distinct from one another? There likely are some commonalities in terms of tracing and monitoring illicit activities on the Internet, and there is perhaps increasing convergence between the people involved with cybercrime and online jihadi activities. But there are differences. Preventing cybercrime is largely a matter of playing defense, whereas learning about terror-related activities online requires proactive efforts.

In any case, an interesting idea…and one worthy of further discussion. What do you think?

UK terror watchdog highlights general aviation threat

Filed under: Aviation Security,International HLS — by Christian Beckner on June 20, 2006

The United Kingdom’s top terrorism watchdog, Lord Carlile, released his annual report on the Terrorism Act of 2000 on Monday. At the press conference to release the report, he mentioned a number of concerns with security in the UK, most notably in the area of general aviation. From the Financial Times:

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Private jets could be used to stage terror attacks, Britain’s security watchdog said on Monday in comments that could prompt tighter regulation of the corporate aviation industry.

Security advisers to the Department of Transport have in recent months consulted leaders in the growing global industry about additional policing measures, increased passenger information, and restricting the use of foreign air strips thought particularly vulnerable to terrorist use.

Public concern about vulnerability of the industry to terrorism was aired on Monday by security experts and by Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, the government terror watchdog.

“It is possible to purchase, from reputable companies, piloted flying hours in sophisticated executive jets capable of high-speed travel from continent to continent,” Lord Carlile says in his latest review of government terrorism strategy. “The risk of hijacking is not fanciful.”

Sally Leivesley of Risk Analysis UK, who has undertaken risk assessments on behalf of several governments, said: “Small jet aircraft in the air or on the runway unfortunately do represent a huge risk of al-Qaeda-type terrorism using ‘back-door’ entry – in other words, surprise tactics on apparently secure premises.”

Lord Carlile said he was worried about the potential of terrorists exploiting fractional ownership in which a company or individual buys or leases an interest in an aircraft and in return uses it or a similar aircraft at short notice over a certain number of hours or days per year.

General aviation security is an area of concern in the United States as well. Certain types of large general aviation aircraft are subject to TSA-type screening, but the security of smaller aircraft is largely dependent on voluntary, industry-led efforts. These efforts are effective to an extent, and the clubby nature of the general aviation community makes it easier to detect aberrant or suspicious behavior. Small planes can’t carry out 9/11-type attacks, given the fact that small aircraft have only a small fraction of the kinetic energy of a large commercial plane (cf. the crashes in Tampa and Milan). But there are other threat scenarios where general aviation aircraft could be a deadly tool, potentially used to disperse WMD’s, or crash into high-vulnerability facilities, or smuggle a nuclear device into the United States. The best way to deal with these threats is better intelligence, and a more focused effort in the federal government to detect potential general aviation plots.

For more on general aviation security, check out this CRS report from December 2005.

June 19, 2006

Becker and Posner examine the DHS grant issue

Filed under: Risk Assessment — by Christian Beckner on June 19, 2006

Worth reading: a fascinating exchange – in three posts – between Nobel-winning economist Gary Becker and Judge Richard Posner (who has written a couple of books on homeland security-related topics) on their joint blog, on the topic of the rationale and methodologies for homeland security grants, in light of the recent controversy over the funding cuts to DC & NYC. There are some interesting thoughts in the posts, including a proposal by Becker to require states & cities to match some of the federal grant funds:

The Department of Homeland Security should offer to give cities a certain number of dollars for each dollar they spend on antiterrorist activities. For example, if a city spent $30 million, they might get an additional $60 million from the federal government. In this example, a city would get to spend $3 dollars for each dollar they used from their own funds to fight terrorism.

Federal matching of this type discourages cities from cutting back on their spending to fight terrorism since they lose say $3 dollars for each dollar they cut back. Matching grants also induce cities to give de facto recognition to the fact that each dollar they spend helps residents of other cities as well by improving the overall American fight against terrorism. The ratio of federal spending to city spending should be a measure of the ratio of the benefits to other cities compared to the benefits to the city spending their own money to fight terrorism.

…and a solid analytical construct by Judge Posner about how to prioritize and consider the cost & benefits of homeland security grants:

Ideally, one would like the grant moneys to be allocated in such a way as to maximize the excess of benefits over costs. The costs are relatively straightforward, but the benefits are not. The benefits of an antiterrorism measure, for each potential target, depend on (1) the value of the target (not just in terms of financial loss, of course) to the United States, (2) the likelihood of its being attacked, (3) the likely damage to the target if it is attacked (which requires consideration of the range of possible attacks), and (4) the efficacy of a given measure to prevent the attack or reduce the damage caused by it. (2) and (3) are probably the most difficult to estimate accurately, because to do so would require extensive knowledge of the plans, resources, number, location, and motivations of potential terrorists. But (4) is very difficult too, because the effectiveness of increasing the number of policemen, or of installing surveillance cameras on every block, or of increasing the number of SWAT teams, or of taking other measures of prevention or response, is extremely difficult to assess in advance.

Overall, an interesting exchange by two very smart guys.

Canada increases funding for transport security

Filed under: International HLS — by Christian Beckner on June 19, 2006

Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper announced C$254 million in new spending in transportation security last Friday (spread over two years), including C$26 million for air cargo security, C$133 million for air passenger screening, and C$95 million for rail and marine security. The Globe and Mail and CBC reported last Friday on the plus-up in funding, adding details and noting its timing in the wake of the disruption of the Toronto terrorist plot earlier this month. However, these funds were included in the budget documents released at the beginning of May, which include C$1.4 billion in new spending on homeland security over a two-year period. And the funding increase is consistent with the Conservatives’ election promises to increase spending on domestic security earlier this year.

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