G. Gordon Liddy on Terrorism

I remember reading this fictional account by G. Gordon Liddy when it first appeared in Omni in 1989. I wouldn't say he "predicted attack on America," but he did produce an entertaining piece of fiction.

The rendering of U.S. jet equipment inventory unusable cannot be attributed to the events of second August. The intelligence community and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are, however, unanimously in agreement that the two are part of the same overall operation. This conclusion is based primarily upon the evidence taken from the body of a female slain by SEAL Team 3 on second August in the San Diego area while she was participating in the attack on the national electrical power distribution system (next heading). But for this fortuitous event, the sudden failure of several aircraft belonging to each U.S. carrier would still be blamed on age (a la the 1988 Aloha aircraft incident, when metal fatigue caused the roof of a Boeing 737 to rupture in flight). As it is, we have had to ground the U.S. civil commercial aviation fleet for an indefinite time, but at least we know what to look for. Japanese intelligence has confirmed that the body that the body of the woman slain by the SEALs is that of a member of their "Red Army" group. On her person was an item at first thought unrelated to her mission: what appeared to be a U.S.-made Magic Marker, which, although not dried out, did not mark. The fluid it contained has now been identified by researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as nearly chemically identical to our classified liquid metal embrittlement (LME) agent. Unfortunately, prior to being added to the classified technologies list, the LME agent was discussed in open literature.

Posted on December 9, 2005 at 4:16 PM • 16 Comments

Comments

Glauber RibeiroDecember 9, 2005 5:12 PM

You know what's coming, right? No more magic markers allowed in airplanes.

Roy OwensDecember 9, 2005 5:16 PM

Secret sabotage such as this could work, but to fool crash investigators, the 'liquid metal embrittlement (LME) agent' would have to contain elements normally found in post-crash aluminum alloy aircraft skins.

As an example, if mercury is one of the elements in 'LME', its presense in the failed sheet would be anomalous and would likely cue extensive analysis, which might well lead to the other anomalies, prompting the conclusion that the metal had been deliberatedly doped with something to cause the failure.

JarrodDecember 9, 2005 6:14 PM

I think I actually have this issue at home. Now I have to go see if I can find it.

I knew I was keeping that box around for something. :)

RogerDecember 9, 2005 10:30 PM

Liquid metal (specifically, aluminium alloy) embrittlement agents do exist, have been discussed in the open literature (including safety posters at airports!) and are already on the list of things prohibited from aircraft -- and have been for many years, in fact long before Liddy wrote that article. The main concern is accidental leakage rather than terrorism. As a form of terrorism (rather than industrial sabotage) it's a non-starter, because the aircraft failure occurs long after application, so even the attacker doesn't know if he was actually responsible.

The Magic Marker would not be a particularly effective way to apply it. The material has to come in direct contact with structurally significant aluminium alloy components, and there is no such access from within the cabin. Conceivably you could attack unpainted doors while standing in a jetway, but I suspect people would object.

The rest of his scenarios are interesting, although they could not be undertaken on such a scale by any known terrorist group; it would have to be a Spetsnaz operation as a prelude to war, as he suggests.

His suggested threat on EHV tranformers seems to be basically accurate. Liddy didn't notice it first (it seems to have been formally discussed as early as 1950!), but since about 2002 it has come to be regarded as a serious problem, and steps are being taken to rectify it -- although they do not seem to have progressed very far to date. The basic problem is that these are very large, heavy and expensive machines (hence, few spares are kept), they are relatively invulnerable to natural disasters (hence, there is little redundancy and few spares are kept), yet they can be destroyed surprisingly easily by deliberate attack. This is compounded by the fact that they are manufactured to order with an lead time of over a year. The National Academy of Science discussion can be found here:
http://www.nap.edu/books/0309084814/html/177.html

Paul CrowleyDecember 10, 2005 4:31 AM

Will an electromagnetic bomb actually destroy the data on a hard drive? I guess it would fry the circuitry, but that's a different question...

SteveDecember 10, 2005 8:49 AM


@Roy -

I think you're missing the real point. If an attacker was able to sabotage a handful of aircraft in a way that wasn't easily detectable, the entire US air fleet would have to be grounded until every aircraft could be thoroughly examined. The idea isn't to have it be undetectable after a crash, it's to have it hard to detect *before* a crash.

MozDecember 10, 2005 10:39 AM

@paul;

It will be harder to destroy magnetic material than destroying electronics, but yes, at a sufficiently close range / high power, magnetic storage could be effectively destroyed too. However, the shielding from the hard disk case will probably make this power level very high. Magnetic tapes in a _closed_ fireproof safe should be very hard to destroy. Circuitry is, however, a major weak point and that would probably include the circuitry in the semiconductor plants which would be required to rebuild the hard disks.

@bruce:

I liked this bit; definitely forward looking:

"They are being questioned by CIA, over the protests of the FBI, because in this rare instance CIA methods are justified for domestic use and are not in the FBI repertoire."

But I also noticed this memo is speicfiically designed to play to your own personal predjudicies "There is no substitute for human inspection by trained personnel. " :-)

jammitDecember 10, 2005 12:09 PM

This falls under the generic heading of sabotage. It would be possible to make a chemical that could weaken metal. As an example, companies that maintain, build, or repair jet aircraft engines can't have any chromed tools because if you try and tighten a titanium bolt with one it will weaken the bolt. If I was a terrorist I could fly a prop plane into an airport that accepts jets and private planes, and crop dust the runway with chrome dust. I'm sure a jet airplane will probably suck some in during takeoff and the failure rate of the jets that take off would be random.

Jim HyslopDecember 10, 2005 10:20 PM

@jammit:
"crop dust the runway with chrome dust." I think you just discovered the next Movie Plot Threat!

Bruce SchneierDecember 11, 2005 9:43 AM

"I think you're missing the real point. If an attacker was able to sabotage a handful of aircraft in a way that wasn't easily detectable, the entire US air fleet would have to be grounded until every aircraft could be thoroughly examined. The idea isn't to have it be undetectable after a crash, it's to have it hard to detect *before* a crash."

Agreed.

AnumDecember 12, 2005 8:57 AM

@Bruce " "'crop dust the runway with chrome dust.' I think you just discovered the next Movie Plot Threat!"

Someone call Spielberg."

Make that "nano-bots" created by a well meaning but misguided scientist istead of the boring old crome and you've got yourself a block buster.

Thomas SprinkmeierDecember 12, 2005 4:40 PM

""""I think you're missing the real point. If an attacker was able to sabotage a handful of aircraft in a way that wasn't easily detectable, the entire US air fleet would have to be grounded until every aircraft could be thoroughly examined. The idea isn't to have it be undetectable after a crash, it's to have it hard to detect *before* a crash."

Agreed."""

All that's needed is a belivable claim that such sabotage has taken place. This might be even better (*): the 'sabotage' will never be found (because it didn't actually happen). Any future crash might then be attributed to it.

The effect on consumer confidence of not being able to find (and fix) the sabotaged planes ("we didn't find anything, therefore (we hope) there is nothing to find") will be greater than that of finding and fixing a few faults ("we found and fixed everything, isn't the system working well!").

(*) or worse, depending on your point of view.

@havvok
Can you tink of a way of adding dinosaurs or a really big monkey to the plot? Will the hero save the day by uploading a virus to the 'bots?

Ruler4YouJune 16, 2010 7:19 AM

I remember reading this article as well. It was a classic KISS principle from both the LME and the attack on the electrical grid. Simple and cheap. But 100% possible.

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