Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 19, 2006

Canadian gov’t issues Maher Arar report

Filed under: International HLS,Investigation & Enforcement — by Christian Beckner on September 19, 2006

The commission looking into the rendition of Maher Arar issued its final report yesterday, an 800+ page tome that strongly criticizes Canada’s lead law enforcement and intelligence agencies for their actions in this case. The report does look into the details of US actions on this case. The full report is available here, and the Washington Post has a solid overview of the report in this story, and Glenn Greenwald has a cogent analysis of the case in this blog post.

September 13, 2006

Terrorism prevention: the public gap

Filed under: Investigation & Enforcement — by Christian Beckner on September 13, 2006

Worth reading: a good post this week from fellow homeland security blogger David Stephenson on the gap in the government’s efforts to engage the general public on appropriately spotting suspicious activity and knowing what to do with this information. He laments the lack of broad public engagement on this issue by the FBI and DHS:

By contrast, when was the last time you were asked to help prevent another 9/11? When did you see information from the FBI to help you distinguish between benign activities of an unfamiliar immigrant group and a terror cell’s dry run — not to mention what information would be helpful to authorities and how to report it?

….There is NOTHING on this issue on the entire DHS web site — apparently, all they think the public is capable of is using the Ready.gov site to prepare ourselves to wait out the first 72-hours after a disaster — nothing more demanding than that.

And he notes how new personal technologies have changed the playing field for observing and reporting suspicious activities:

Equally important, the technological genie is out of the bottle now when it comes to cameraphones, videophones, and increasingly powerful smartphones. Reporting suspicious activities by the general public will become more and more common whether we like it or not, so the challenge is to set up workable programs to channel this information while preserving privacy and civil liberties, and make the general public into responsible eyes and ears to extend.

Read the whole thing.

August 21, 2006

Aviation terror plot: 11 suspects charged

Filed under: Aviation Security,Investigation & Enforcement — by Christian Beckner on August 21, 2006

From the Guardian this afternoon:

Eleven of the 24 people arrrested in connection with the alleged aircraft bomb plot are to face charges, the Crown Prosecution Service announced today.

At a joint press conference, the head of the Metropolitan police’s anti-terrorist branch, revealed that investigations had found bomb making equipment, the chemical hydrogen peroxide and a number of “martyrdom” videos.

Deputy assistant commissioner Peter Clarke said police also had “highly significant” surveillance that would be used in evidence against the suspects.

Eight of the eleven have been charged with two offences of conspiracy to murder and a new offence of preparing acts of terrorism contrary to section five of the Terrorism Act 2006.

The other three have been charged with other offences under the Terrorism Act 2000.

The CPS said 11 others are still in custody and a woman has been released.

Here’s the link to the official release from the Crown Prosecution Service on the charges.

August 15, 2006

Posner: US needs an MI5

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Investigation & Enforcement — by Christian Beckner on August 15, 2006

Judge Richard Posner, one of the nation’s top thinkers on matters of homeland security and intelligence, argues in today’s Washington Post in favor of the creation of an MI5-type organization in the U.S. government:

Intelligence succeeded in part because of the work of MI5, England’s domestic intelligence agency. We do not have a counterpart to MI5. This is a serious gap in our defenses. Primary responsibility for national security intelligence has been given to the FBI. The bureau is a criminal investigation agency. Its orientation is toward arrest and prosecution rather than toward the patient gathering of intelligence with a view to understanding and penetrating a terrorist network.

The bureau’s tendency, consistent with its culture of arrest and prosecution, is to continue an investigation into a terrorist plot just long enough to obtain enough evidence to arrest and prosecute a respectable number of plotters. The British tend to wait and watch longer so that they can learn more before moving against plotters.

The FBI’s approach means that small fry are easily caught but that any big shots who might have been associated with them quickly scatter. The arrests and prosecutions warn terrorists concerning the methods and information of the FBI. Bureaucratic risk aversion also plays a part; prompt arrests ensure that members of the group won’t escape the FBI’s grasp and commit terrorist attacks. But without some risk-taking, the prospect of defeating terrorism is slight.

MI5, in contrast to the FBI (and to Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, with which MI5 works), has no arrest powers and no responsibilities for criminal investigation, and it has none of the institutional hang-ups that go with such responsibilities. Had the British authorities proceeded in the FBI way — rather than continuing the investigation until virtually the last minute, which enabled them to roll up (with Pakistan’s help) more than 40 plotters — most of the conspirators might still be at large, and the exact nature and danger of the plot might not have been discovered. We need our own MI5, not to supplant but to supplement the FBI.

This is an idea that I’ve supported for a long time, given all of the difficulties that the FBI has faced with changing its culture and developing an effective intelligence capability. The counterargument against this idea has always been that it’s too hard, and that it would take too long. (The 9/11 Commission considered an MI5 recommendation, but backed away from it for this reason). But we’re now five years out from 9/11, and the FBI still hasn’t fully digested its new intelligence role. How much longer can we afford to leave this institutional gap unfilled?

For more interesting commentary from Judge Posner, check out his blog.

August 14, 2006

Aviation terror plot: Sunday night update

Filed under: Aviation Security,Investigation & Enforcement,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on August 14, 2006

News from the last 24 hours related to the UK terror plot:

1. British Home Secretary John Reid said on Sunday that the UK had disrupted four major terror plots in Britain since the July 7, 2005 transit attacks, and said that police were investigating two dozen current plots.

2. This Sunday Times story takes a close look at the events that triggered the UK’s response on Thursday morning, telling how MI5 and Scotland Yard sprung into action following the arrest of plot mastermind Rashid Rauf in Pakistan. And it provides new biographical information on the plotters.

3. The Guardian reports on Monday that the suspected ringleader of the aviation plot, Rashid Rauf, is providing details “that directly link the conspiracy to al-Qaida in Afghanistan.”

4. The British government reduced their threat level from Critical to Severe on Sunday, an indication that the UK officials no longer think that “an attack is expected imminently.” The Department of Homeland Security matched this change shortly thereafter by reducing the threat level on flights bound from the UK to the US from Red to Orange. The rest of the aviation sector remained at Orange.

5. Sec. Chertoff made the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows, clarifying that no U.S. links to the plotters have been found. In related news, this story in the New York Times describes how Sec. Chertoff and a small cadre of DHS officials prepared for the response prior to Thursday’s arrests.

6. TSA amended its travel rules slightly on Sunday, clarifying that baby formula and medications would be allowed on flights, and that shoe removal would now be mandatory for all passengers at all airports. The transport authorities in Britain also relaxed their carry-on rules today, now allowing passengers to take on one small bag (but no liquids or gels).

7. This AP story describes different types of explosive detection equipment that are relevant for liquid/gel explosive threat.

8. Interpol’s Ron Noble criticizes British officials in a NY Times op-ed for not using Interpol’s international information-sharing mechanism’s in the aftermath of the arrests, and makes the case for the value of this type of information-sharing.

August 12, 2006

UK terror plot: links to 7/7?

Filed under: Aviation Security,Investigation & Enforcement,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on August 12, 2006

The pace of reporting on the UK terror plot has slowed down somewhat in the last 24 hours, but there have been a number of interesting developments today:

1. The Times of London reports today on potential links between this plot and the July 7, 2005 transit attacks in London:

….Scotland Yard is investigating possible links between the men arrested on Thursday and other British terrorists, including the July 7 bombers. They are concerned that some of those now in custody visited Pakistan last year at the same time as two of the London bombers. Pakistani intelligence sources are examining whether any of those arrested on Thursday attended the same madrassa, or religious school, as the 7/7 bombers.

2. MSNBC is reporting this afternoon on a disagreement between US and UK officials earlier this week on the timing of efforts to roll up the plot. According to MSNBC, the UK officials wanted to wait, and see where the threads of the plot led; the US officials wanted to act, fearing that an attack could take place. The report asserted that US officials threatened to act on their own against the Pakistani suspects, prompting the British officials to move faster to arrest the individuals in the UK. No word yet from official sources on this report.

3. Fox News was reporting earlier that the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is potentially connected to the plot. A story in The Hindu looks at a broader net of Pakistan-based terror groups that might be connected to the plot.

4. The situation is improving but still problematic at airports in the UK, with many cancellations and extensive delays. Insurance companies in the UK refuse to insure valuables checked in the cargo hold, raising a new set of concerns about the UK’s emergency measures. The aviation system in the United States returned to a state of relative normalcy yesterday, as travellers were prepared for the new policies. NPR reports here on Sec. Chertoff’s press conference at National Airport on Friday afternoon.

August 11, 2006

UK terror plot: American connections?

Filed under: Aviation Security,Investigation & Enforcement,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on August 11, 2006

[UPDATED BELOW - APPARENTLY NO U.S.-BASED LEADS]

ABC News is reporting this morning that the FBI is looking into potential connections between the plotters in the UK and people in the United States:

U.S. law enforcement sources tell ABC News the FBI is investigating new leads that involve a possible connection between people in the United States, in major east coast cities, and the London bomb plotters.

In an interview with ABC News this morning, White House Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend said while there is currently no indication of any plotting in the United States, she confirmed, “There are leads that the FBI is running.”

There’s also new information today on the depth of the connections to al-Qaeda and Pakistani militant groups to this plot, at the link above and in this Times of London piece.

Other developing news over the last few hours:

1. The US Embassy in India released an advisory warning American citizens of a pending al-Qaeda attack in Delhi and/or Mumbai. No evidence so far of a direct connection to this plot.

2. The NSA was apparently involved with intercepting the group’s communications. (Note to those who think this has anything to do with recent NSA controversies: it doesn’t. This is what the NSA has always done. The NSA does surveillance on British subjects with the British government’s consent, and the UK’s GCHQ returns the favor when necessary. The new NSA terrorist surveillance program is controversial primarily because it is the NSA directly conducting domestic surveillance on U.S. persons.)

3. British transport authorities are debating about how to transition the emergency aviation security measures into sustainable policies.

4. DHS gets good marks for its initial response yesterday in a WaPo story.

More updates to follow.

Update 1 1:30 PM EST (8/11): The Daily Mail reports that the intended target date for the attack was next Wednesday, August 16th. No other media source has reported on this yet, so I would mark down this story as speculative at this point.

Update 2 1:40 PM EST (8/11): The UK Ministry of Health has issued guidelines regarding the “procedure for taking essential medicines on flights.”

Update 3 1:51 PM EST (8/11): An interesting article over at Huffington Post features the perspective of a former head of the FAA’s Red Team.

Update 4 3:21 PM EST (8/11): Italy arrests 40 people “linked to Islamic groups.”

Update 5 3:34 PM EST (8/11): ABC News has updated their story on potential U.S. leads:

In the last several weeks, the FBI dispatched over 200 agents from FBI Headquarters and had agents in every FBI field office running down leads and looking for any angle or connection to the U.K. plot and suspects, according to FBI and Justice Department officials.

As part of this effort, MI-5 and British security services provided a list of the suspects’ names to U.S. officials. The FBI, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and other agencies spread around the intelligence community ran the names through all of their various databases looking for any information drawing a nexus between the U.K. suspects and any U.S. individuals or other U.S. connections. There were some hits for phone calls made to relatives who live in the U.S., but so far none of these leads has developed any evidence of terrorism or plotting inside the United States.

According to one Justice source, as the FBI looked for leads, there was a spike in the number of FISA applications submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to establish court-approved secret wiretaps and surveillance on potential terrorism suspects.

As noted yesterday, at this time, counter-terrorism officials have not been able to find any links inside the U.S. associated with this plot.

UK terror plot: evening wrap-up

Filed under: Aviation Security,Investigation & Enforcement,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on August 11, 2006

It’s not easy to comprehend and summarize all of the information about the UK terror plot at the end of a long day. This post contains 40+ updates from throughout the day about the plot, and this post offers my initial general reactions. Even with all of the information that that’s come up since the story broke, there’s still a lot more to learn about the plot, especially with up to five key plotters still at large in the UK. And the story about how the aviation system reacts to this challenge is only beginning to unfold. In the coming days we’ll have to address the following questions:

  1. Which changes to screening will be temporary, and which will be permanent?
  2. What can be done to immediately improve the performance of the aviation screening system?
  3. Will this lead to a new impetus for risk assessment or pre-credentialing of passengers in the aviation system?
  4. Will this plot lead to new government action on a related vulnerability, air cargo security?
  5. What will be the new resource requirements for aviation security? Does DHS need supplemental funding for FY06?
  6. How will this affect other homeland security-related legislation on border security, port security, and chemical plant security that is currently before Congress? Will the plot distract attention from these important bills, or will the renewed attention to homeland security give them new impetus? (I could foresee aviation provisions being attached to the port bill when it comes to the floor of the Senate in early September).

In spite of all of these spending aviation security challenges, I still think that the main story today is one of good news: British officials wrapped up this plot before it could transpire. Spending on this type of intelligence and police work is one of the most effective ways to fight terror – note that MI5, for all of its vaunted status, has a budget only in the range of $360 million/year. The United States still has a structural gap in its domestic intelligence capabilities that keeps me worried about our ability to detect a similar plot.

Finally, if you’re still looking for more information tonight, check out CQ’s coverage of the plot, which they’ve made publicly-available at this link. Their reporters have written a number of interesting stories tonight, and the page includes links to a number of relevant source documents. Also recommended: the package of stories from The Guardian and The Times of London. Especially recommended is Gerard Baker’s stirring essay from the latter paper. An excerpt:

Events such as yesterday’s near-miss should remind us that September 11, 2001, gave birth to a radical and dangerous new world. It required the US — an imperfect country to be sure, but the only one with the power and the will to defend the basic freedoms we too easily take for granted — with its allies to remake the international system. It provided a terrifying harbinger of much larger atrocities to come, when terrorists and their state supporters get hold of weapons with which they can kill millions, not thousands. This new enemy is not like old enemies. It is fundamentalist and suicidal and apocalyptic. The old system, rooted in a liberal philosophy that relied on patient diplomacy and made a virtue of being slow to respond to attacks, was unequal to this new challenge. The new system required rapid action to open up the Middle East, the festering root of all these threats to modernity.

I’ll be posting frequently on this plot and its aftermath over the coming days and weeks. Be sure to check back.

Update 1 1:10 AM EST (8/11): This Washington Post story, just posted online, provides new information on the origins of the investigation:

It all began with a tip: In the aftermath of the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings on London’s transit system, British authorities received a call from a worried member of the Muslim community, reporting general suspicions about an acquaintance.

From that vague but vital piece of information, according to a senior European intelligence official, British authorities opened the investigation into what they said turned out to be a well-coordinated and long-planned plot to bomb multiple transatlantic flights heading toward the United States — an assault designed to rival the scope and lethality of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings.

By late 2005, the probe had expanded to involve several hundred investigators on three continents. They kept dozens of suspects under close surveillance for months, even as some of the plotters traveled between Britain and Pakistan to raise money, find recruits and refine their scheme, according to interviews with U.S. and European counterterrorism officials….

Update 2 2:06 AM EST (8/11): This Time Magazine story contains info on the FOUO memo, entitled “Possible Terrorist Use of Liquid Explosive Materials in Future Attacks”, sent out by DHS and the FBI to local law enforcement on the threat.

Update 3 2:50 AM EST (8/11): The names of 19 of the suspects, via the Times of London.

August 10, 2006

Initial reactions to the UK terror plot

Filed under: Aviation Security,Investigation & Enforcement,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on August 10, 2006

I’ve spent most of the day focused on breaking news regarding the UK terror plot. As a clearer picture of the plot has started to emerge, it’s possible to start to draw broader lessons and implications from it.

1. God bless the Brits. I’m flying to Europe via Heathrow within the next month, and their work could very well have saved my life. The UK government’s efforts to disrupt the plot were exemplary, exhibiting the characteristics that have led me to frequently praise their domestic intelligence capabilities. Is domestic intelligence where it needs to be in the United States? Given all of the difficulties that the FBI has faced over the past five years in building an intelligence capability, I’m afraid not.

2. It’s quite likely that these new aviation security screening realities will persist for some time to come. Does TSA have the resources today to handle this extra workload? I doubt it. Congress should return to Washington tomorrow or early next week for a quick session to provide emergency supplemental funding to DHS, intelligence agencies, and states for these new needs, including new funding for investments in appropriate screening technology.

3. I think the Homeland Security Advisory System was used appropriately today. Flights from the UK to the US were clearly at high risk, and ‘Critical/Red’ was appropriate. And Orange was appropriate for the rest of the aviation system. This approach of using targeted alerts is far superior to the old model of national threat alerts, which caused the nation’s response to be pell-mell, without clear prioritization of resources.

4. It’s been amazing to watch the ripple effects of the disruption of this plot today, as its consequences have spread from the UK all the way to North America and Asia. Was this a necessary outcome? Probably in this case, but watching it unfold makes me think that more forethought is necessary on how we build resilience into global trade and travel networks, so that when these events happen, the costs aren’t overly exacerbated by our response. This is an issue I’ve written about previously here.

5. Finally, a message to anyone who is politicizing this incident, from across the political spectrum: cut the crap. Given the specifics of this incident, any effort to use this story for partisan gains and smears is inappropriate, and a distraction from the important and ongoing challenge of rooting out the threat. There can be disagreement on other issues, but the fight against the threat posed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates is one that should be solely driven by what’s best for American national security, not what’s best for a political party in November.

UK breaks up major aviation terror plot

Filed under: Aviation Security,Investigation & Enforcement,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on August 10, 2006

[FREQUENT UPDATES BELOW - SCROLL DOWN]

Major breaking news from across the pond:

British police said on Thursday they have thwarted a plot to blow up aircraft in mid-flight, arresting a number of people in the London area.

Police said the aim of the plot was to detonate bombs smuggled on board aircraft in hand luggage.

“A major terrorist plot to allegedly blow up aircraft in mid-flight has been disrupted in a joint, pre-planned, intelligence-led operation by the metropolitan police anti-terrorist branch and security services,” a police spokesman said.

He said police believes that the intention was particularly to target flights from Britain to the United States.

Police had arrested an unspecified number of people in London during the night. He gave no further details.

More details available from the Guardian and the BBC, indicating that security is being immediately stepped up at all UK airports, including an absolute prohibition on all carry-on baggage (except necessary personal effects) for all flights departing the UK.

Update 1 2:20 AM EST (8/10): The United Kingdom has raised its threat level to the highest level – CRITICAL. And here’s the Ministry of Transport’s official statement.

Update 2 7:54 AM EST (8/10): 21 people arrested in association with the plot. Flights targeted were headed from the UK to New York, DC, and California on United, Continental, and American. DHS makes an announcement: Code Orange for the U.S. aviation sector, Code Red for UK flights bound to the U.S. (the first time the U.S. has used Code Red). DHS press conference forthcoming. Airports are cracking down on carry-on luggage, focused on carry-on liquids. The BBC reports on major chaos in the global travel system. More to follow.

Update 3 8:10 AM EST (8/10): DHS holding their press conference now. Chertoff: “plot appears to have been well planned and advanced.” Using “liquid explosive devices” and detonators disguised as “beverages, electronic devices” etc. Suggestive of al-Qaeda plot, but not conclusively. Believes that the Brits have significantly disrupted the plot. Announced Code Red/Orange changes mentioned above. Will be temporarily banning all liquids as carry-ons in aircraft cabins on U.S. flights, with exceptions for baby formula and medicine. Additional new security measures for TSA. Extra air marshals en route to the UK for coverage. CBP stepping up screening & targeting measures. Indicates high-level of cooperation with the Brits on this (unclear since when).

Update 4 8:20 AM EST (8/10): TSA’s Kip Hawley: this was “a surprise to many of us.” Major changing to screening procedures is ‘no liquids’ in carry-ons.

Update 5 8:27 AM EST (8/10): Chertoff: an “advanced” plot, that was in the “final stages of execution.” United States became more involved in this investigation in the last two weeks, as new information emerged on the UK side. Chertoff says reminiscent of the Bojinka plot. Plotters were looking at different airlines, focused on U.S. carriers. The plot was evidently to bring on benign items, and assemble on the plane to make a bomb. FBI’s Mueller: this plot had “earmarks” of an al-Qaeda attack.

Update 6 8:33 AM EST (8/10): UPI: most plotters “were thought to be British citizens of Pakistani origin.”

Update 7 9:00 AM EST (8/10): Why the hell is BBC America showing “Cash in the Attic” and not the latest BBC news???

Update 8 9:33 AM EST (8/10): The U.S. government has apparently been briefed on this plot frequently by the Brits for at least the last two weeks. One news station reported that the decision to change alert levels in the U.S. was made yesterday.

Update 9 9:38 AM EST (8/10): MSNBC now says the plot was to blow up ten planes simultaneously, over the Atlantic. Definitely sounds like Bojinka redux. They’re also reporting that other countries, including Australia, Japan, and South Korea, are making changes to their aviation security procedures, although I don’t see this reported in these countries yet.

Update 10 9:44 AM EST (8/10): UK home secretary John Reid says all of the “major players” in this plot have been apprehended, and says the threat alert change was a “precautionary measure.”

Update 11 9:57 AM EST (8/10): National Guard activated in Massachusetts for deployment at Logan Airport.

Update 12 10:05 AM EST (8/10): Canada announces changes to aviation security procedures: “liquids or gels in containers of any size are not permitted to be brought onboard by passengers; this includes liquids or gels in carry-on baggage.”

Update 13 10:07 AM EST (8/10): CNN reports that U.S. officials are privately saying that they are confident that they will find al-Qaeda links to this plot – a question dodged in the earlier press conference. Given the increasingly decentralized nature of al-Qaeda, it’s unclear what this would actually mean.

Update 14 10:10 AM EST (8/10): The stream of statements over the last few hours from Scotland Yard is available here.

Update 15 10:20 AM EST (8/10): Stratfor’s analysis available here. And be sure to keep tabs on the Counterterrorism Blog throughout the day.

Update 16 10:30 AM EST (8/10): Are there ties between this plot and the 7/11 subway bombings? No evidence so far, but it’s worth noting that two of the 7/11 bombers grew up in or near the town, High Wycombe, where some of the plotters were caught.

Update 17 10:36 AM EST (8/10): CNN reports, based an interview with a senior U.S. official, that the UK acted because “a tripline had been reached, they thought they were out of time.”

Update 18 10:45 AM EST (8/10): For more information on the UK terror alert system, which was just publicly announced last month, see this recent post. Also, UK Home Secretary John Reid gave a speech last night to a UK think tank eerily foreshadows today’s news.

Update 19 11:00 AM EST (8/10): A press release from Customs and Border Protection details their stepped-up response: “As part of the response to this heightened threat condition, CBP will perform intensive passenger screening, prior to departure from the gate, of all flights scheduled for departure from the U.K. and destined for the U.S, including the risk-based screening of manifest information. In addition, passengers on these flights and all other international flights will be subjected to heightened inspections upon arrival in the United States. Specifically, CBP will increase enforcement efforts in international arrival areas, using risk-based targeting and deploying special response teams including baggage and aircraft search teams, baggage x-ray equipment, specially trained canine units, and explosive detection technology.”

Update 20 11:22 AM EST (8/10): DHS has just issued a fact sheet entitled “Guidance for Airline Passengers.” The transcript of the earlier press conference is also now available on the site.

Update 21 11:33 AM EST (8/10): Expert on CNN says it looks like a “peroxide-based liquid explosive.” For more on this threat, see this link and this one.

Update 22 11:44 AM EST (8/10): Wall Street reacts: Aviation stocks (AMR, UAUA, CAL) all down, but have recovered somewhat since the market opened. Key aviation security stocks (e.g. GE, LLL, ASEI, OSIS, VISG) all up, some sharply. The transparent plastic bag market is also likely to benefit, but ZipLoc is owned by privately-held S.C. Johnson.

Update 23 11:48 AM EST (8/10): CNN reports no evidence yet of ties to “core” al-Qaeda; instead looks at this point like a “franchise” plot. CNN also indicated a potential link to recent arrests in Pakistan.

Update 24 11:55 AM EST (8/10): A brief statement by Pres. Bush on the tarmac in Green Bay: “The cooperation on this venture was excellent.” “We’re safer than before 9/11, but obviously still not completely safe.” Says that traveler inconvenience is necessary. No new information in his statement.

Update 25 12:23 PM EST (8/10): Interpol has issued a press release congratulating the Brits. And the Air Transport Association, which represents U.S. airlines, has issued a press release and a Q&A in response to the disruption.

Update 26 12:32 PM EST (8/10): Confirmation from the AP of stepped-up aviation security measures in Asia.

Update 27 12:36 PM EST (8/10): Fox News is reporting that the plot involved multiple attackers on the same flight, who would carry on components of the bomb separately, and then assemble on-board. Also reporting that the plotters were researching potential flights, but had not yet booked tickets.

Update 28 1:07 PM EST (8/10): TSA has posted a new FAQ on the changes to aviation security.

Update 29 1:18 PM EST (8/10): Gov. Schwarzenegger has called in the National Guard to support airport security in California. Also, check out this current Q&A with the WaPo’s Dana Priest on the plot.

Update 30 1:56 PM EST (8/10): NORTHCOM on the plot: “Senior USNORTHCOM and NORAD officials were notified and began coordinating with Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to ensure full situational awareness and appropriate response posture because of this plot. “We continue to monitor the situation and remain vigilant,” said Maj. Gen. William G. Webster, Director of Operations for U.S. Northern Command.”

Update 31 2:07 PM EST (8/10): The Guardian reports on the investigation of the houses where the suspects were arrested. The head of a major mosque in Birmingham is quoted as follows:

Dr Mohammad Naseem, chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque, said he remained circumspect about the basis on which today’s arrests were made. “With the track record of the police, one doesn’t have much faith in the basis on which people are detained,” he said.

“And it poses the question whether the arrests are part of a political objective, by using Muslims as a target, using the perception of terrorism to usurp all our civil liberties and get more and more control while moving towards a totalitarian state.”

This quote is a dire sign of just how bad the radicalization problem has become in the UK. The Times of London has a similar piece online.

Update 32 2:28 PM EST (8/10): ABC News has identified the three apparent ringleaders of the plot: Rashid Rauf, Mohammed al-Ghandra, and Ahmed al Khan. It notes that “two of them are believed to have recently traveled to Pakistan and were later in receipt of money wired to them from Pakistan, reportedly to purchase tickets for the suicide bombers.” ABC News also reports that the explosive gel was to have been concealed in a sports drink bottle, and detonated using the flash from a disposable camera.

Update 33 2:31 PM EST (8/10): A link to a Rashid Rauf from Birmingham, UK. Apparently runs a Pakistani restaurant there.

Update 34 3:10 PM EST (8/10): Scanning for liquids: As it becomes increasingly apparent that this plot involved some type of liquid explosive, I would expect DHS to move swiftly to develop and purchase new scanning technologies for liquid containers. There has already been some work done on this issue. For example, Narita Airport in Japan has deployed a “liquid inspection device” as of 2004. Millimeter-wave imaging technology is relevant to this problem. Wired Magazine reported in 2002 on a range of potential technologies. The New York Times has a new story up on the issue. The challenge in any effort to use new technology will be deployment, and figuring out how to use it in a way that does not overly hamper the aviation system.

Update 35 3:34 PM EST (8/10): The Birmingham Mail newspaper in the UK reports on the local investigations in the Midlands.

Update 36 3:41 PM EST (8/10): This AP story provides an interesting cross-section of commentary on the U.S. government’s reaction to the plot.

Update 37 3:59 PM EST (8/10): CNN just reported (citing the AP) that the plotters were two days away from a “dry run” to test the attack.

Update 38 4:23 PM EST (8/10): A posting from a British message board on the town where many of the plotters lived:

Having lived in High Wycombe for the best part of a decade, it does not surprise me that raids have taken place there today.

The claims that this will do harm to the community that enjoys good relations is utter garbage. There are numerous police no go areas in the town and an effective bar on Asian youths entering the town centre in the evening. I wonder how long our multi cultural society will be able to tolerate the pressures building up on it in this day and age.

Update 39 4:32 PM EST (8/10): Sec. Chertoff was just interviewed by Wolf Blitzer. Chertoff says its “clear that the plan was multiple planes at the same time.” An attack that had “the potential to kill hundreds or thousands of people.” “No intent to make the plane into a weapon.” Chertoff didn’t provide a clear answer as to why DHS hasn’t done more to prepare for this liquid explosive threat, arguing that they haven’t yet had a chance to look at the particulars. He provided no clear timeline for reducing the threat level – said that these decisions will be based on the investigatoin and on future threat analysis. While not attributing the attack to al-Qaeda, he noted that “We are dealing with a plan that is every bit as sophisticated as the kind of plans we’ve seen al-Qaeda carry out” and that this is “a kind of threat similar to an al-Qaeda threat.” The interview concluded with Sec. Chertoff agreeing with an earlier statement by Sen. Collins that this is the most significant terrorist plot since 9/11.

Update 40 6:30 PM EST (8/10): A message by TSA administrator Kip Hawley to TSA employees.

Update 41 6:35 PM EST (8/10): More updates from ABC News. “Most but not all” plotters have been rounded up (at least five people still at large, according to the report). Also, new details on the Pakistani connection: “Intelligence officials tell ABC News the plot’s trail leads to Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, where money for the plot was wired to London. Officials say two of those arrested in London came here in the last few months for explosives training with known al Qaeda commanders.” ABC News gives the name of a commander for the plot, who is still at large: Matiur Rehman. This is the first link I’ve seen between the plot and “core” al-Qaeda.

Update 42 6:38 PM EST (8/10): An ABC News story on Matiur Rehman from March 2006.

Update 43 9:50 PM EST (8/10): ABC News reports that the British had an undercover operative on the inside of the plot, and that five plot ringleaders are still at large. The Times of London takes a closer look at liquid explosives.

Update 44 10:02 PM EST (8/10): These two articles, from the Chicago Tribune and McClatchy newspapers, paint a very sobering picture of the challenges awaiting the aviation security system. Both quote Billie Vincent, who for my money is the world’s top expert on aviation security, noting that it’s very difficult to prevent the entry of these type of materials onto airplanes within our current security regime.

Update 45 10:15 PM EST (8/10): Two good stories up on Slate: Dan Benjamin on the Bojinka plot and its relevance, and Fred Kaplan on “What We Can Learn from British Intelligence.”

Terror-related arrests in Ohio

Filed under: Investigation & Enforcement — by Christian Beckner on August 10, 2006

Hitting the newswires tonight:

Two men were charged Wednesday with money laundering in support of terrorism after authorities said they found airplane passenger lists and information on airport security checkpoints in their car.

Deputies stopped Osama Sabhi Abulhassan, 20, and Ali Houssaiky, 20, both of Dearborn, Mich., on a traffic violation Tuesday. They found the flight documents along with $11,000 cash and 12 phones in the car, said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks.

Prosecutor Susan Vessels declined to say how the phones, cash or flight information involved terrorism.

Abulhassan and Houssaiky admitted buying about 600 phones in recent months at stores in southeast Ohio, said sheriff’s Maj. John Winstanley. The men said they sold the phones to someone in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb.

Right now, it appears that this was a local interdiction; it looks like the local officials were only bringing in the FBI after the fact. I’ll update this post as additional information comes along.

Update 1 (8/10): More from the Marietta (OH) Times, where the arrests took place, suggesting that the phones purchased are “suspected of being shipped overseas and used to detonate roadside bombs.”

Update 2 (8/10): ABC News looked into questionable sales of disposable cell phones in January. Here’s a similar story in another town in Ohio in March. Here’s a blog post with a similar story in Kansas in late July. And here’s a May 2006 post on a message board from a store clerk in Arkansas expressing concern about Tracphone purchases:

Ok I work retail part-time a couple of nights a week and we get these people come in and they all want the Tracphone Nokia 1100 pre-paid cell phones!!! Every time these weird customer’s ask for them these people end up buying everyone we have in stock (like eighteen to thirty of them at once). My boss told me we get twenty phone calls a day asking for these phones. So tonight I was helping this twenty something year old guy and he asked if we had some and I said “yea we’ve got 12 of them” we he bought them all and I asked what he does with them and he told me that some guy in California is buying every Nokia 1100 cell phone because they are untraceable when you make calls on them???? These phones sell for $19.99 and the guy in Cali pays double for these phones. All I have to say is WTF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

July 17, 2006

Orange on the horizon?

Filed under: Investigation & Enforcement,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on July 17, 2006

DHS and the FBI released the following threat memo over the weekend, as reported at ABC News:

Escalation of Arab-Israeli Conflict Could Impact the Homeland

“The abduction of Israeli soldiers by the Palestinian terrorist group HAMAS and the militant Shi’a group Hizballah and the subsequent Israeli military response have escalated the already volatile situation in the region. ……… While DHS and the FBI have no information indicating an imminent threat of attack in the Homeland, it is possible that individuals residing in the United States, who sympathize with the various parties to the conflict, could act on their grievances.

DHS and the FBI have no indicators that individuals are preparing to conduct such action at the current time, but we urge vigilance during this heightened state of tension in the Middle East. DHS and the FBI will continue to keep recipients advised of any change in the threat situation.”

There’s no doubt that Hezbollah maintains a significant international reach. This NY Post story from May 2006 discusses current FBI investigations into potential Hezbollah sleeper cells in the United States. Canada is reputed to have a similar Hezbullah presence, and the State Department and numerous other sources note the presence of cells around the world.

But is there intent to carry out attacks in the U.S. or elsewhere in the west? This is the question that government analysts are likely trying to answer right now. This threat warning is perhaps something of a ‘CYA’ as they investigate and monitor activity.

The Washington Post reported in April that Iran would activate terrorist cells around the world, including Hezbollah cells, if it were attacked by the United States. Could the conflict between Israel and Lebanon, if it continues to escalate, lead to the same outcome? Right now, I find this unlikely, because I don’t think it would be to Hezbollah’s tactical advantage to draw the United States more deeply into this conflict. In a post yesterday at the Counterterrorism Blog, Dennis Lormel suggests that Hezbollah would not want to endanger its North American fundraising activities. But these tactical calcuations could change quickly as events unfold. And we shouldn’t necessarily assume that groups or individuals will act rationally in situations like this.

Given this evolving and uncertain threat environment, I would not be surprised to see DHS raise the threat level to Code Orange (High) by the end of July, if the conflict in the Middle East continues to escalate.

July 7, 2006

House amendment threatens to withhold DHS grants

Filed under: Border Security,Investigation & Enforcement — by Christian Beckner on July 7, 2006

The AP reports today on an amendment (H.Amdt.968) that was passed in the House’s version of the FY 2007 appropriations bill for DHS that would potentially block cities from receiving certain types of federal funding, including DHS and DOJ grants, if they are circumventing federal laws that require law enforcement officers to report immigration violators to federal authorities:

Cities and states that aid illegal immigrants without reporting them to the authorities risk losing millions of dollars in homeland security and other federal money under two spending bills approved last month by the House.

The bills, which fund the departments of Homeland Security, Commerce, State and Justice, were amended to refuse federal money to any city or state with policies that prohibit local government officials from alerting federal authorities about possible immigration law violators.

House lawmakers say several cities and states allow criminal suspects to escape deportation because local officials, including police officers, turn a blind eye to the immigration law passed in 1996.

It is unclear what will happen to the immigration provisions when the spending measures are considered in the Senate.

But the prospect outraged New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who raised the issue during a Senate immigration hearing in Philadelphia this week, threatening “one heck of a battle” if Congress cuts off homeland security and justice dollars.

Bloomberg said New York City protects residents’ confidentiality when they report a crime or seek medical care or education.

The city’s policy complies with the 1996 law, he said. But he said some members of Congress have questioned it and asked for the Justice Department to review all state and local policies.

“We believe the review will validate our approach,” Bloomberg told the Senate Committee. “But whatever the findings, let me be clear: The way to deal with this issue is not – not – by reducing the safety and security of our nation.”

I agree with the underlying rationale of this amendment; I don’t think that it’s right for cities to maintain so-called “sanctuary” policies in contravention of federal immigration law. But I strongly disagree with using homeland security grant funding as a cudgel in this dispute, in the same vein by which I’m vehemently opposed to any effort to use homeland security as a bargaining chip for any other political goal or objective. Homeland security funding is too important to be used as leverage in a dispute like this: it should be off the table.

June 23, 2006

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 20, 2006

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.

June 19, 2006

WaPo looks at worksite enforcement trends

Filed under: Border Security,Investigation & Enforcement — by Christian Beckner on June 19, 2006

The Washington Post has a front-page story on worksite enforcement of immigration laws today, which puts the recent high-profile campaign to crack down on companies that violate the law in context:

Between 1999 and 2003, work-site enforcement operations were scaled back 95 percent by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which subsequently was merged into the Homeland Security Department. The number of employers prosecuted for unlawfully employing immigrants dropped from 182 in 1999 to four in 2003, and fines collected declined from $3.6 million to $212,000, according to federal statistics.

In 1999, the United States initiated fines against 417 companies. In 2004, it issued fine notices to three.

The government’s steady retreat from workplace enforcement in the 20 years since it became illegal to hire undocumented workers is the result of fierce political pressure from business lobbies, immigrant rights groups and members of Congress, according to law enforcement veterans. Punishing employers also was de-emphasized as the government recognized that it lacks the tools to do the job well, and as the Department of Homeland Security shifted resources to combat terrorism.

I think that DHS is now headed in the right direction on this issue, focusing on enforcing the law while also recognizing that there need to be legal means for companies to hire non-U.S. citizen workers for jobs that are unlikely to be filled by Americans. But as the story acknowledges, it has a long way to go. Flashy PR-driven mass arrest operations are not the basis for a sustainable worksite enforcement strategy. And there’s a risk that this renewed vigilance will wane if and when immigration and border security issues move out of the public spotlight.

On a related noted, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing this afternoon on the topic of worksite enforcement; testimony by the GAO’s Richard Stana includes many of the statistics cited in this story.

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