Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 21, 2006

Report positively assesses DHS use of RFID

Filed under: Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on August 21, 2006

The DHS inspector general released a report today entitled “Additional Guidance and Security Controls Are Needed Over Systems Using RFID at DHS” which takes a comprehensive view of the Department’s use of RFID technology, building on work in recent IG reports (see here and here). The report gives DHS relatively positive marks for its use of RFID, one that belies a lot of the recent criticism of the Department’s use of the technology:

CBP, TSA, and US-VISIT have implemented effective physical security controls over RFID tags, readers, computer equipment, and databases supporting the RFID systems at the sites visited. No personal information is stored on the tags. Sensitive information is maintained in and can be obtained only with access to the system’s database.

Within this broader positive context, the report offers several points of criticism, but these are more about management and internal process than the actual use of the technology. The report concludes with the following recommendations to the DHS CIO:

• Develop and implement policy and guidance that addresses security controls for systems being implemented using RFID technology.
• Direct the DHS RFID Coordination Group to finalize its charter and ensure that all components using or planning to use RFID technologies are represented in the group.
• Ensure that components adhere to DHS information security procedures (that is, perform vulnerability assessments and review user access at least annually) for all systems using RFID technology.

This report probably won’t reassure the Spychips crowd, but it indicates to me that DHS is making progress at using RFID technology responsibly.

Is there still a terrorist threat? (Yes)

Filed under: Risk Assessment,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on August 21, 2006

The new issue of Foreign Affairs arrived in the mail over the weekend. It contains an article by John Mueller, a professor at Ohio State University, with the unfortunately-timed title of “Is There Still a Terrorist Threat? The Myth of the Omnipresent Enemy.” In the piece, Mueller attempts to argue that there essentially is no meaningful terrorist threat from al-Qaeda to the United States anymore, an argument that seems highly dubious in light of the recently-revealed UK aviation plot. To be fair, that plot was uncovered after the publication deadline. But that doesn’t excuse the significant logical flaws in Mueller’s arguments.

At the beginning of the essay, Mueller writes:

But if it is so easy to pull off an attack and if terrorists are so demonically competent, why have they not done it? Why have they not been sniping at people in shopping centers, collapsing tunnels, poisoning the food supply, cutting electrical lines, derailing trains, blowing up oil piplines, causing massive traffic jams, or exploiting the countless other vulnerabilities that, according to security experts, could so easily be exploited?

One reasonable explanation is that almost no terrorists exist in the United States and few have the means or the inclination to strike from abroad.

Mueller then looks at the improvements in homeland security since 9/11. Commenting on the remaining gaps in elements of the nation’s infrastructure protection and border security, he wonders why terrorists haven’t struck again. He offers several explanations for this fact (a well-integrated U.S. Muslim community, terrorists biding their time), but then dismisses these arguments. Instead, he prefers this argument:

A fully credible explanation for the fact that the United States has suffered no terrorist attacks since 9/11 is that the threat posed by homegrown or imported terrorists — like that presented by Japanese Americans during World War II or by American Communists after it – has been massively exaggerated. Is it possible that the haystack is essentially free of needles?

Mueller goes on to try to defend this hypothesis by references to the fact that the FBI has uncovered few terrorist plots or groups in the United States since 9/11 (which is true, at least in the official record), by citing improved international cooperation in combating the terrorist threat, and by arguing that (in other words) that al-Qaeda has lost its mojo.

This entire chain of logic in the piece, as briefly summarized above, is flawed in its failure to note these three real phenomena:

  1. Deterrence: Mueller fails to consider or acknowledge that new protective and/or intelligence measures by the United States and other countries have had a deterrent effect on the movement, entry, and activities of potential terrorists for U.S.-based plots, above and beyond their protective and interdictive functions.
  2. Layered Security: In Mueller’s identification of gaps in homeland security, he writes as if these weaknesses are single points of failure that should lead directly to an attack, not considering the fact that there are multiple layers of security in our system, none of them flawless, but that together make it more difficult to plan and execute an attack.
  3. Desire to Surpass 9/11: Mueller doesn’t even mention the solid hypothesis that al-Qaeda is biding its time in terms of attacking the United States so that its next attack will be equal to or more “spectacular” than 9/11. For example, the revelations in Ron Suskind’s recent book “The One Percent Doctrine” about the ‘mubtakkar’ subway plot support this theory.

Finally, the last section of the article throws out these cheap canards:

But while keeping such potential dangers in mind, it is worth remembering that the total number of people killed since 9/11 by al Qaeda or al Qaeda-like operatives outside of Afghanistan and Iraq is not much higher than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States in a single year, and that the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000–about the same chance of being killed by a comet or meteor.

It drives me crazy when people use statistics in this fashion to try to demean the risks that we face from international terrorism. And Mueller uses them in very misleading ways. First, they’re highly selective – notice the decision to remove Afghanistan and Iraq from the totals. Second, they’re wrong. This document notes that there were 341 bathtub drownings and 332 bathtub drownings in recent given years (2000, 2003). Assuming that this statistic falls within a predictable range each year, it’s a lot lower than the combined casualties from al-Qaeda-related attacks in Madrid, London, Moscow, Amman, Riyadh, and Bali, among many other cities, over the past five years. (Did Foreign Affairs fact-check this? And the comet/meteor statistic?) Third, it’s misleading to compare accidental deaths, which government in most cases has little ability to prevent beyond existing product safety activities, to acts of international terrorism where government’s role is paramount and the consequences of an attack far exceed its raw casualty total. Fourth, and most importantly, this type of analysis is retrospective, failing to acknowledge that future attacks could be much more severe then anything we’ve seen so far.

New terrorism report available from MIPT

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on August 21, 2006

The Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT) published their 2006 Terrorism Annual yearbook recently, which contains the following articles:

  • Change and Continuity in Terrorism Revisited: Terrorist Tactics, 1980–2005
  • Maritime Terrorism in the Contemporary Era: Threat and Potential Future Contingencies
  • Ready to Detonate: The Diverse Profiles of Female Bombers
  • Subversion and Terrorism: Understanding and Countering the Threat

The last part of the report contains terrorism statistics for 2005, derived from the RAND-MIPT Terrorism Incidence database.

TWIC dispute stalls new regulations

Filed under: Port and Maritime Security,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on August 21, 2006

The Federal Register today contains a notice from the Coast Guard and TSA regarding the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program, announcing a decision to modify the earlier Notice of Proposed Rule Making, following pressure from members of Congress about the rules:

TSA and Coast Guard have concluded that facility and vessel owners and operators will not be required to purchase or install card readers during the first phase of the TWIC implementation. Additionally, a requirement to purchase and install card readers will not be implemented until the public is afforded further opportunity to comment on that aspect of the TWIC program. The details of this approach will be explained in the next rulemaking.

Washington Technology reported last week that biometric industry representatives are upset about this change, which presumably cuts into their revenue estimates for TWIC. If there are legitimate concerns about which technologies to use (an issue that is hamstringing the similar PASS program) then it makes sense for a slight delay to work these out. But this change should not permanent, because it undermines the core rationale for the TWIC program of being able to reliably validate the IDs of workers at a port.

DHS S&T directorate under scrutiny

Filed under: DHS News,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on August 21, 2006

The Washington Post had a story on Sunday about the Science and Technology (S&T) directorate at DHS, a piece written in the wake of recent coverage about gaps in aviation security research over the last few years. The article does a solid job of summarizing some of the difficulties that S&T has faced since it was created 3 1/2 years ago. A passage from it:

Despite spending billions of dollars to defend against everything from dirty bombs to anthrax, the administration has not delivered a coherent long-term strategy to underpin its rhetoric, said Albert H. Teich, director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Budgets have fluctuated, and personnel has turned over at a rapid rate, according to many who have worked with the department. Nearly all Homeland Security Department research activities will be cut for the first time next year, Teich said.

“The fundamental question that has not been answered adequately is: Where does science and technology fit into this country’s homeland security strategy?” said Michael A. Levi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Science and Technology Directorate was formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to set national priorities and end the fragmentation across the government of research into weapons of mass destruction. Its mission includes deploying state-of-the-art detection systems and developing new kinds of response gear, as well as assessing emerging threats.

But with DHS’s well-documented start-up problems, the S&T Directorate has been thinly staffed and deprived of money. Its reorganization was put on the back burner by Secretary Michael Chertoff, who took over in March 2005. Meanwhile, its management problems sapped the confidence of administration officials and congressional funders, analysts said.

I think this assessment is generally correct, and I think the two key words in this passage are “thinly staffed.” There are a lot of good people in the S&T directorate, but not enough of them, and too much of the management and strategic work of the directorate has been outsourced to other government labs and outside contractors. There’s not enough “there” there. It makes sense for outside entities to be doing the actual research and development, but there needs to be a more dynamic core. Hopefully Adm. Jay Cohen’s new leadership and S&T’s pending reorganization will address these gaps and strengthen the directorate.

My only critique of the story is that its claim that the budget for S&T is being cut in half is misleading, since a very large share of that cut is the result of a shift of R&D funds to the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. But overall, an interesting story.

August 18, 2006

Book review: ‘Unconquerable Nation’

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Risk Assessment — by Christian Beckner on August 18, 2006

Brian Michael Jenkins from RAND, one of the foremost terrorism experts in the world who has been studying the subject since the 1970s, released a new book this week, entitled “Unconquerable Nation: Knowing Our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves.” The full text of the book is available at this link in PDF format. It’s the first full-length book that Jenkins has written since 9/11, and well worth the wait; it’s one of the best analyses of how we’ve waged the war on terror over these last five years, and offers solid recommendations about the course we need to follow in the coming years.

Jenkins takes the title of the book from Sun Tzu: “Being unconquerable lies with yourself.” His overarching point in the book that America’s ability to prevail in the war on terror depends on a ethos of clear resolve and patient discipline, not fear and hasty reactive gestures. On that point, he writes:

This philosophy alters Americans’ mental model of today’s conflict. It elevates the necessity of knowing the enemy, something we have not made sufficient effort to do. It moves us from relying almost exclusively on the projection of military power and viewing homeland security as physical protection to mobilizing our spirit, courage, and commitment. While we strive to destroy our terrorist enemies by reducing their capabilities, thwarting their plans,
frustrating their strategy, and crushing their spirit, we must also rely on our own psychological strength to defeat the terror they would create. Instead of issuing constant warnings and alarms, we must project stoicism and resolve. Instead of surrendering our liberties in the name of security, we must embrace liberty as the source and sustenance of our security.

The section on “Basic Beliefs” from pages 14-16 distills his key observation about the war on terror over the last five years:

– The enemies we face have changed fundamentally.
– Patterns of armed conflict have also changed.
– Unrelenting pressure on the al Qaeda organization and its terrorist allies has forced the jihadists to operate at a lower, but still lethal, level. However, the United States has neglected the political war.
– Although President George W. Bush warns Americans that “the war on terrorism will take a while,” it is not clear that either those in the administration or average citizens at home fully comprehend what that means—or the great challenge it presents, especially to an impatient society.
– Americans must be ferociously pragmatic for the long term.
– The invasion of Iraq was a dangerous distraction.
– In the longer struggle against the jihadists and future terrorist foes, we will ultimately prevail.
– America’s courage is its ultimate source of security.
– Homeland security begins at home.
– Whatever we do, American values must be preserved.

These may be truisms, but if so, they’re important ones, and they aren’t discussed enough in the dialogue between our nation’s leaders and the American public today. As a result, too many people in the United States are unable to put threats to the nation in context, and become overly influenced by fear. Too many people expect perfect security, an unrealistic objective in a free society. Too many people believe that you can win the war on terror by taking moral or legal shortcuts, and don’t account for the long-run negative impact that these decisions have on our ability to build the foundations of support that we need at home and abroad to be successful. And too many people believe that it can be won without shared sacrifice and civic participation, something that our nation’s leaders have not asked the entire American people to make on the homefront.

Chapter Five of the book concerns homeland security. Before I summarize it, let me implore you to read the whole chapter, not just this overview. He begins the chapter by analyzing the millenial tensions and the changes in societal context – a globalized economy, dangerous new technologies – that created a kind of “fin de siècle apprehension” even before 9/11. The attacks of 9/11 made this national mood combustible, putting the country on edge, but in a “schizophrenic” way: “Dire warnings of imminent danger were accompanied by admonitions for Americans to go on about their business as usual.”

He then describes how post-9/11 uncertainties caused a shift in the nation’s risk analyses from “threat-based assessments” to “vulnerability based-assessments.” Because the threats were amorphous and often unknowable, officials were forced to look at vulnerabilities. But vulnerabilities are everywhere in a free society, causing a scramble for prioritization. Jenkins describes how this competition for resources leads to “threat advocacy,” which different stakeholders and interest groups competing to highlight their vulnerabilities, and officials and the media focusing attention on the latest attack or plot, rather than developing a consistent risk-based framework that prioritizes resources and can combat multiple threats simultaneously.

Jenkins then offers a series of principles and recommendations about how the United States can better “face the foe within,” as summarized in this paragraph:

We need to spend the next several years doing things very differently. We need to get more realistic about risk. We need to increase preparedness by educating and mobilizing all Americans to participate in homeland security. Amid the proliferating bollards and barriers and gates and guards, we need to understand security better and to accept its limitations—yet we must also take the opportunity to rebuild America’s decaying infrastructure. We need to improve local intelligence without succumbing to national paranoia about “sleeper cells” and fifth columns. We need to build a better legal framework for preventive interventions against terrorists, but we also need to ensure proper oversight to prevent the abuse of those preventive interventions. In all these areas of conduct, we need to remember our core national values and to uphold them as we move forward. Otherwise, the terrorists will truly have won, even without following through on any of their plans of attack. Their terror alone will have sufficed. We will have unilaterally surrendered.

Each of these excellent points is covered in more detail in the section that follows, from pages 153-176. The section entitled “Enlist the Public” is particularly good. Jenkins writes:

The best way to increase our ability as a nation to respond to disasters, natural or man-made, is to enlist all citizens through education and engagement, which also happens to be a very good way to reduce the persistent anxieties that afflict us. We have not done this.

The federal government’s decision to tell citizens to go on living their lives, offering only the vague admonition to be vigilant, has “encouraged dependency,” rather than “promoting self-reliance,” Jenkins says. He argues that there needs to be a much strong commitment to public education on homeland security, and that doesn’t mean websites and pamphlets. Instead, he says:

We need to aggressively educate the public through all media, in the classrooms, at town halls, in civic meetings, through professional organizations, and in volunteer groups. This means more than speeches in front of the American flag. The basic course should include how to deal with the spectrum of threats we face, from “dirty bombs” to natural epidemics, with the emphasis on sound, easy-to-understand science aimed at dispelling mythology and inoculating the community against alarming rumors and panic.

He goes on to talk about other elements of civic education and preparedness, one that resembles the concept of “total security” utilized in Scandinavian countries (see this book for more info).

I could go on with the review, but I’ll stop there, and finish by noting that the book contains an excellent bibliography, taken from Jenkins’ own library and broken into a number of categories. Overall, an excellent book – highly recommended.

German authorities disclose rail terror plot

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on August 18, 2006

German authorities today disclosed a terror plot targeted at regional trains that was disrupted several weeks ago, as reported by Deutsche Welle:

Two suitcases containing bombs and found on trains in Germany were likely to have formed part of a terrorist plot, German investigators said Friday.

The bombs were found in the German cities of Dortmund and Koblenz on July 31 with German Criminal Police Office (BKA) chief Jörg Ziercke saying that were arranged to explode simultaneously at 2:30 p.m. Neither of the bombs was detonated.

“It’s more likely than unlikely that there was a terrorist background,” Ziercke told a news conference in Wiesbaden. If the around 25-kilo (55-lb.) suitcase bombs had exploded they would have lead to “a fireball” in the train carriages and an “indeterminate number of injured and possible deaths,” he said.

Speaking in Berlin Friday, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble also warned that Germany should brace itself for similar attempts. “Unfortunately, we must assume that the danger of a repeat of these attempted attacks.”

The recent plot that this most resembles is the Madrid bombings, which were also targeted at regional commuter trains, and detonated with near-simultaneity. German authorities released pictures of men that they believe were connected to the plot, taken from video surveillance of train stations – another proof point for the value of this technology. Coverage of the story in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (in German) notes that a menu from a restaurant in Lebanon was found near one of the bombs, a potential hint (or deliberate false lead?) about the origin of the plot.

Update (8/19): One of the suspects has been arrested.

HLS in DC, Aug. 21-25, 2006

Filed under: Events — by Christian Beckner on August 18, 2006

Below is a list of homeland security policy events in the DC area next week (as well as the occasional listing outside of DC). I post a list each week and will sometimes update mid-week when I find new items. You can always find current and previous postings under the “Events” category tab at right. And please note that many events require prior invitations and/or RSVPs.

8/21-8/22: Systems Integration in Biodefense conference. Ritz Carlton DC, 1150 22nd St NW.
8/21-8/25: 2006 DHS Security Conference and Workshop. Baltimore, MD.
8/22-8/24: Infragard 2006 National Conference. Renaissance Washington Hotel, 999 Ninth St NW.
8/22: Center for American Progress event on “Disaster: A Look at the Response and Recovery One Year After Katrina” with the authors of the new book Disaster. National Press Club, 529 14th St NW, 1pm.
8/22: Airport and Seaport Inspections User Fee Advisory Committee meeting. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW, 1pm.
8/23: George Mason University Mercatus Center event on “The Crisis of Katrina: Lessons for Preparedness and Response.” National Press Club, 529 14th St NW, 9am.
8/23: Women in Government Relations Homeland Security Task Force meeting. Canadian Embassy, 501 Pennsylvania Ave NW, 12 noon.
8/24: Heritage Foundation event on “Grassroots Response: Citizens Taking Care of Citizens During Disasters” with former Virginia Gov. Gilmore et al. 214 Massachusetts Ave NE, 10am.
8/24: Center for Immigration Studies event on employment verification. 1522 K St NW, Suite 820, 12 noon.

(Please e-mail me if you have suggestions about additions to this list for this week, or future weeks).

Report analyzes Katrina media coverage

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on August 18, 2006

The C-Span website links today to an interesting new report from the Partnership for Public Service that analyzes the media coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath over the last twelve months:

Covering Katrina: Trends in Katrina Media Coverage Initial Analysis from the Top Ten National Newspapers and Ten Gulf Coast Newspapers

The three key findings from the report, none of which are particularly surprising:

– Katrina Received 10x the Coverage as Florida Hurricanes. The top ten papers in the country published 13,901 articles mentioning Hurricane Katrina in the eleven months following the storm. The ten selected Gulf Coast papers published 23,348 articles during that time. By comparison, all four of the hurricanes that struck Florida in 2004 drew less than 10% of coverage of Katrina in both the top ten and the Gulf Coast newspapers.
– Stories Were More Likely to Connect FEMA, Government with Fraud, Waste. ‘Fraud’ and ‘waste’ are more than twice as likely to appear in articles that mention FEMA as in those that do not. About 9% of the stories in the top ten papers and 11% of the stories in the Gulf Coast papers that mention FEMA also mention waste or fraud.
– Poverty and Lessons Learned Received Little Coverage. Poverty coverage was initially very limited and even less sustained than overall coverage. By November 2005, less than 4% of national coverage and less than 2% of Gulf Coast coverage mentioned poverty. Discussion of issues related to governmental reform and lessons learned from the event were even less a part of the stories. Overall, less than 1% of the Katrina stories in top ten or Gulf Coast newspapers mentioned ‘lessons learned’.

And the report concludes by suggesting the need for more stories on the following topics:

These topics include issues such as improving human capital management, emphasizing better collaboration and coordination between government agencies and among government and non-government organizations during a disaster, and focusing on long-term prevention and mitigation strategies that reduce the likelihood of another disaster like Katrina.

“Nanny patrol” on the US-Mexico border

Filed under: Border Security — by Christian Beckner on August 18, 2006

More evidence from the Washington Times that the deployment of National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border was and is a bad idea from a cost and security standpoint:

National Guard troops deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border as part of President Bush’s plan to free U.S. Border Patrol agents have been assigned bodyguards — some of the same agents the soldiers were sent to relieve.

Several veteran Border Patrol agents in Arizona told The Washington Times they were issued standing orders to be within five minutes of National Guard troops along the border and that Border Patrol units were pulled from other regions to protect the Guard units — leaving their own areas short-handed.

The agents, who refer to the assignment as “the nanny patrol,” said most of the Guard troops are not allowed to carry loaded weapons, despite a significant increase in border violence directed at Border Patrol agents and other law-enforcement personnel over the past year.

The National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), which represents all 10,000 of the agency’s nonsupervisory agents, said the presence of more than 6,000 Guard troops on the border has allowed a few hundred agents to be reassigned from administrative to field duties, but that “about the same number are now assigned to guard the National Guard troops.”

I have a lot of respect for the difficult, thankless work that the National Guard and the Border Patrol do. But I’ve thought that this deployment was a bad idea from day one, and this story exposes the decision to deploy these National Guard troops for what it is: a political exercise that runs contrary to everything that Sec. Chertoff espouses about a risk-based approach to border security. (And it’s contrary to what Sec. Chertoff thought five months before the decision was made). There are so many other ways in which the $756 million/year that we’re spending for this initiative could be better used: fully funding the DNDO instead of slashing its budget, increasing the Department’s intelligence budget, staffing up a chemical security oversight office, etc. It’s a shame that political exigencies are trumping solid risk-based threat and vulnerability analysis on this issue.

Port security: shutting down the system

Filed under: Port and Maritime Security — by Christian Beckner on August 18, 2006

An interesting story today from the AP that looks at security activities at Port Newark, and recounts an incident there several years ago:

Five years ago, as he stood next to the trailer that was hauled from Port Newark, the cell phone of Kevin McCabe, the seaport’s chief inspector for what would later become the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, bleated urgent rings from high-level state and federal officials demanding to know what was inside the container.

“I told them, `We don’t know yet, but I’m standing about three feet away from it, so if anything happens, I’ll be the first to know,”‘ McCabe recalled.

Sweat poured and pulses raced as authorities pondered what their next move should be. They were minutes away from a decision to shut down the seaport, Newark International Airport, and part of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Just in time, more sophisticated radiation detection equipment arrived from New York City in an unheard-of 22 minutes, and was able to determine that the cargo inside was harmless, and that the readings were generated by bolts of Egyptian carpet, a source of naturally occurring radiation.

“The economic consequences of shutting those things down would have been immense, but we were afraid we could have had a real potential catastrophe on our hands,” McCabe said.

This story raises an interesting question: what are the appropriate conditions for a decision to shut down a port, in response to a suspicious incident? It’s also a timely question, in the wake of a similar scare that shut down part of the Port of Seattle earlier this week. The reaction to this recent incident was less severe than the potential consequences described in the Newark anecdote above, but we’re still operating in a mode where the natural reaction to an anomalous incident is to escalate the response in a way that is disruptive to port operations.

Perhaps this is the only good option, given the need to quickly protect people and mitigate against the potential consequences of a threat. Or are there ways to improve system awareness and not be forced to make these costly decisions? This is a challenging issue for the agencies responsible for port security, and one that is easy to second-guess after any incident. I hope and expect that the key agencies (e.g. Coast Guard, CBP, FBI, local entities) will continue to work on this issue, consistent with the Maritime Operational Threat Response plan, and make the port system more resilient in the face of these threats.

August 17, 2006

The Daily Show on CNN’s ‘Target: USA’

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Humor — by Christian Beckner on August 17, 2006

This Daily Show clip from Wednesday night delivers a deserved smackdown of CNN’s “Target: USA” day of coverage on Monday in the wake of the aviation security plot:

The media plays a valuable and necessary role in terms of educating the American public about homeland security and highlighting threats and vulnerabilities that the government has not adequately addressed. Often this is the only effective way to spur the government into action in certain areas. But when this news as presented as an endless litany of threats, without due regard for which threats are the greatest priorities from a risk-based perspective, then that only serves to confuse people and inspire fetal position-inducing fear in the general public.

TSA finds explosives residue at WV airport

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Christian Beckner on August 17, 2006

From a release sent out a few minutes ago by TSA:

Two Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security officers discovered explosive residues on two containers of liquid in a carry-on bag brought by a passenger at the Huntington Tri-State Airport (HTS). At 9:15 a.m. this morning Transportation Security Officer (TSO) Joshua Messinger and TSO Clifford Barker discovered the residues while screening bottles filled with liquid substances. Last week, TSA banned liquids and gels on commercial aircraft.

….The officers noticed the prohibited liquids inside a traveler’s carry-on bag during screening at the checkpoint. The bag was opened and the contents tested with an Explosives Trace Detector. The item tested positive for explosives and a retest confirmed the results. At that point, local law enforcement was notified and an explosives detection canine team arrived to provide further confirmation of the presence of explosive material.

TSA proceeded to evacuate the airport after these explosives residues were detected, reopening it later in the morning. This incident shows that for all of the aviation screening system’s imperfection, it can be effective at locating and identifying suspicious items moving through the checkpoint, probably to the point that it acts as a deterrent against aviation-related terror plots.

More on this story from the Charleston (WV) Gazette:

Airport Manager Larry Salyers said Thursday afternoon that the woman was 28 years old and originally from Pakistan. He said the woman lives in the Tri-State area with her husband and used to live in Jackson, Mich.

The woman bought a one-way ticket on Wednesday from Huntington to Detroit via Charlotte, N.C., Salyers said. She was traveling alone, he said.

The FBI is questioning the woman this afternoon but she has not been arrested, according to the AP.

Update (8/18): The explosives residue turned out to be from cosmetics. Even so, I think TSA acted exactly as it should have in the course of this incident.

Judge rules NSA surveillance program unconstitutional

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Legal Issues — by Christian Beckner on August 17, 2006

Breaking news this afternoon:

A federal judge in Detroit ordered a halt to the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program, ruling for the first time that the controversial effort ordered by President Bush was unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor wrote in a strongly-worded 43-page opinion that the NSA wiretapping program violates privacy and free-speech rights and the constitutional separation of powers between the three branches of government. She also found that it violates a 1978 law set up to oversee clandestine surveillance.

The Justice Department said that it was appealing the decision and that the parties to the lawsuit had agreed to delay the judge’s order until the appeal could be heard.

Obviously this is only the start of the legal process on this question; I would expect this issue to go all the way to the Supreme Court, even if Congress authorizes the program. You can read the opinion here. And Memeorandum captures the blog reaction this afternoon.

Update 1 (8/17): I just read the opinion. One interesting implication is that even though the government presented additional classified details about the program to the judge, these details did not convince her that the Terrorist Surveillance Program was greater in scope than what is already publicly-known, with the possible exception of the case’s data mining claim, which she did throw out based on the invocation of the state secret privilege. Instead, she says that the key elements of the program are publicly known, in her denial of the request to dismiss based on the state secret privilege:

It is undisputed that the Defendants have publicly admitted to the following: (1) the TSP exists; (2) it operates without warrants; (3) it targets communications where one party to the communication is outside the United States, and the government has a reasonable basis to conclude that one party to the communication is a member of al Qaeda, affiliated with al Qaeda, or a member of an organization affiliated with al Qaeda, or working in support of al Qaeda. As the Government has on many occasions confirmed the veracity of these allegations, the state secret privilege does not apply to this information.

Update 2 (8/17): Cogent detailed analysis of the opinion from Glenn Greenwald.

Book Review: ‘Critical Infrastructure Protection and Homeland Security’

Filed under: Infrastructure Protection,Risk Assessment — by Christian Beckner on August 17, 2006

One of the most difficult challenges that the Department of Homeland Security has faced in the past three years has been its efforts to identify, prioritize, and protect critical infrastructure consistent with a risk-based methodology. The recent ruckuses over homeland security grant allocations and asset databases that contain popcorn shops and petting zoos are symptoms of this broader challenge.

One cause of this difficulty is the lack of a common set of models, frameworks, and terminologies for understanding critical infrastructure threats and vulnerabilities. There have been dozens of efforts to develop risk models for different type of infrastructure in the past few years, but too often these have seemed haphazardly-designed or only applicable to a narrow segment of infrastructure.

Ted Lewis’s new book, “Critical Infrastructure Protection and Homeland Security: Defending a Networked Nation” is an important step is remedying this intellectual gap. The book attempts to develop a systematic, structured approach for analyzing critical infrastructure, one that acknowledges the complexity of many of the nation’s key systems but identifies commonalities and linkages among the different national infrastructures. As Lewis, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, writes in the introduction:

The question addressed by this book is, “what should be protected, and how?” This question is nontrivial because of the enormous size and complexity of infrastructure in the United States. The solution is made even more challenging by the entangled regulatory and system interdependencies of the various infrastructure sectors. The answer is to allocate the nation’s scarce resources to the most critical components of each infrastructure—the so-called critical nodes. In short, the best way to protect infrastructure is to identify and protect (harden) the critical nodes of each sector. But what parts of these vast structures are “critical?” This question is key. I claim that the optimal policy for critical infrastructure protection is to identify and protect a handful of critical assets throughout the United States. For example, perhaps less than 100 essential servers maintain the World Wide Web. There are perhaps fewer than a dozen critical nodes in the nation’s energy supply chain, and maybe as few as 1000 key links in the major power grids that all other sectors depend on so heavily.

The first three chapters of the book provide strategic context and historical background. Chapters 4-6 of the book develop a fully-formed theory of critical infrastructure protection, one that plots out system nodes and links, and conducts risk assessment based on network theory and fault tree analysis. This method, which Lewis refers to as “Model-Based Vulnerability Analysis” is the type of dynamic analytical framework that needs to inform homeland security grant allocation decisions, which today (at least from external impressions) seem to be based on a static picture of the nation’s infrastructure that undervalues the importance of hubs and linkages.

The chapters that follow take a deeper look at key infrastructure sectors, such as water, power, energy, telecommunications, and Internet, adjusting the model for the unique characteristics of each sector.

The book is written as a student textbook, but it should be equally valuable for current practitioners. You can read the preface and first chapter here, as well as order it. For those whose jobs involve making decisions about critical infrastructure, or who have a general interest in the topic, this book is a very worthwhile investment.

New RAND study models consequences of a nuke attack on a port

Filed under: Port and Maritime Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Christian Beckner on August 17, 2006

RAND released a new report today that’s not recommended for bedtime reading, entitled “Considering the Effects of a Catastrophic Terrorist Attack.” The report, mentioned in this L.A. Times story today, uses scenario analysis techniques to predict the potential short-term and long-term repercussions of a 10kt nuclear attack on the Port of Long Beach. The report considers the possibility of devastating near-term consequences, in terms of death, injury, property destruction, panic, mass evacuation, and energy shortages. And it looks at the potential long-term consequences of such an attack, focusing on the impacts on the global supply chain and the national economic system. On the former issue, the report predicts the following conflict between security and economic interests:

In terms of global shipping, the main tension might be between the political aim of preventing a future attack and the business interest in seeing that U.S. ports and the global shipping supply chain continue to operate. The only way to completely mitigate the risk of a second strike would be to close all U.S. ports and suspend all imports indefinitely. This would be the national security community’s likely position. Yet in business terms, this position would be untenable. The loss of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles alone, which handle 30 percent of U.S. shipping imports, would already be substantial. All U.S. ports combined carry out 7.5 percent of world trade activity. Accordingly, the business community would likely call for ports to stay open, or to reopen as early as possible.

But harsh realities facing the financial and real estate communities might prove a barrier. The Long Beach attack might cripple an insurance industry struggling to absorb massive losses from claims. Insurance would be in tremendously short supply—particularly for terrorist and nuclear risks. Without it, ports and related infrastructure could not operate. Further complicating the issue is the high probability that people would flee port cities, severely depleting local labor supplies. Given these conditions, all U.S. ports would likely close indefinitely or operate at a substantially reduced level following the attack. This would severely disrupt the availability of basic goods and petroleum throughout the country.

This current probability is a key reason why the global supply chain needs better awareness about what’s moving through it. With better information, officials can more easily track down the perpetrators and develop assurances that another attack is not looming, and will therefore not be compelled to shut down the entire supply chain. This awareness will make the supply chain more resilient, and mitigate the long-term consequences of any attack.

Overall, a very interesting report, and one that drives home the fact that combating the nuclear terrorism threat needs to be the #1 priority of U.S. national security.

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