Coast Guard Solicits Hollywood to Help with Movie Plot Threats

Really:

Trying to avoid a failure of imagination in its uncharted new role, the agency has even called in screenwriters from Hollywood to help sketch terrorism situations.

"The biggest change is that the Coast Guard has gone from being an organization that ran when the bell went off to being a cop on the beat at all times," said Capt. Peter V. Neffenger, who recently gave up command of the port here for a position in Washington and who consulted with the screenwriters.

Anyone who's watched Hollywood's output in recent years knows that screenwriters aren't the most creative bunch of people on the planet. And anyway, they can have all of these ideas for free.

Posted on May 22, 2006 at 7:49 AM • 26 Comments

Comments

Justin WienckowskiMay 22, 2006 8:44 AM

For Bruce and other readers: What is your opinion of the effectiveness of this strategy?

I've noticed one of the major ongoing critiques of US security policy is that agencies are so focused on trying to prevent terrorist events, which are relatively rare, that they have failed to implement security systems that handle events effectively and fail gracefully.

Is this just another example of that?

DevanMay 22, 2006 8:59 AM

@Justin, that is precisely the problem. You cannot plan to prevent every single possible outcome; all you can do is plan to mitigate the damage *regardless of the method of attack*.

JimMay 22, 2006 9:28 AM

I just watched a movie called Stealth. It's about an unmanned jet that learns from people and downloads all the music on the Internet. It went kind of crazy and blew up a big military gas station in the sky. Then it blew up a North Korean helicopter that was shooting at it, by flying into it after it ran out of ammo. Good work is independent of technology.

AnonymousMay 22, 2006 10:10 AM

@Jim, if you look closely at one of the monitors towards the end of the film, you can see that said AI is written in TeX. No wonder it went insane!

Mike SherwoodMay 22, 2006 10:42 AM

I'm sure I've said this before, but the whole situation reminds me of the movie "Brazil". When something blows up or catastrophically breaks, it's easy to blame it on terrorists. That prevents people from wondering if it's the constant state of disrepair and lack of focus on maintenance that might be a more likely cause.

Katrina provided a good example of what substandard work, a city below sea level, and a storm could do to a large community. If everyone(individuals, neighborhoods, cities, and states) could work on being more self sufficient, we'd be in a better place to determine what threats exist that are significant and can be realistically addressed. Doing something at a local level is far more likely to have a positive impact than providing more possible ideas to the federal government to put on their list.

Looking for threats to spend money to mitigate against is a dead end. There are people who are hording Tamiflu in case there's a bird flu epidemic in the US that starts going person to person. Sure, that's a possible threat, but it seems unlikely enough at this point. Putting a disproportionate amount of resources into any specific and unlikely threat doesn't make sense.

RoyMay 22, 2006 11:19 AM

We know that there was too much Hollywood when the Coast Guard buys man-stopping SAMs that are indetectable with x-ray vision.

Seriously, I think this behaviour comes from fear. Everyone in charge knows that if something happens, it will be his butt in the line of fire - unless you can show that you spent every damn cent for protection against even the faintest threat scenario.
Every protection will have its weak points, and mistakes will happen - but this behaviour will not change unless the people in charge are allowed to make mistakes.

Roy

TimTheEnchanterMay 22, 2006 12:32 PM

@Anonymous

Why do movies have that, they go and ruin a perfectly good plot by using an unbelievable "program" on screen. ;-)

Does their budget not even stretch to getting some piece of random GPL code and shewing it instead.

Though I agree about TeX, one of the joys of my time at Uni.

Davi OttenheimerMay 22, 2006 12:37 PM

"screenwriters aren't the most creative bunch of people on the planet"

A funny point gone awry. Not all screenwriters are from Hollywood. And screenwriters aren't necessarily the "idea" people in the process anyway...

The fundamental problem, actually, is that the system of management that the USCG and other US enforcement does not allow/foster imagination at the localized level. From what I've seen, it's a military organization most like the Army that wants to go entirely top-down, leaving the people on the scene prepared to react and operate in a very coordinated and scripted fashion. It's the rigidity of their management style that ultimately creates the largest gaps in their control capabilities. Better to have people who are trained and enabled to react/respond/report and build community support. It's more expensive than the top-down automation approach in terms of investment per soldier, but the return on that investment is far higher.

What you want is a certain amount of "we can solve this together" and "let's find a better way" attitude. You don't generally get that from the Coasties today, you get shock and awe. In fact, I highly recommend anyone who spends a good deal of time in a US port-of-call to try and get to know or make idle conversation with your local USCG. Good luck looking down the barrel of that machine-gun. They say they depend on building out their network, but alas, the one's I've met appear more often to be interested in becoming a Hollywood action character (lifting weights, slinging high-caliber machine-guns, and looking for a maiden in distress) than a trusted and well-connected officer who has earned the respect and support of their port-of-call.

As the article explained:

"Until the terror attacks, 'I didn't know a ship was coming in until I looked out the window and saw it,' said Capt. Stephen V. Metruck, a veteran of West Coast operations who is based in Seattle."

Disconnected, perhaps?

I think the biggest change they could make is to make their troops more independent and accountable to local needs, while serving national interests. If you depend on volunteers and a network of support, then you might want to build an infrastructure that can handle that kind of REAL information dissemination and reaction, rather than plug in a couple high-paid screenwriters at the top who are totally removed from reality.


Tim HarrisMay 22, 2006 12:41 PM

Uhm. Nice to see psychological operations in full force. I doubt the coast guard are the only ones having a bit of push and pull in Hollywood right now. Sounds like good 'ole 1950's propoganda during wartime to me. I mean, come on. Hollywood was predicting passenger planes crashing into buildings way before any suit with a phd and a title came into office.

cjcMay 22, 2006 1:18 PM

You shouldn't build your response plan to fit Movie Plot A or Movie Plot B, but Movie Plots may have a useful place in testing your plan. After you've developed your response plans to handle generic events, getting some Movie Plot-style attacks from an outside source who didn't play a roll in building the response plans can be helpful way to test it. What better than a movie plot to use in your simulation exercises?

kvenlanderMay 22, 2006 3:07 PM

The real reason they are doing this is that in case something happens, they can say "nobody imagined using..." and they have the receipts to prove it!

Koray CanMay 22, 2006 3:40 PM

Fabricating terror scenarios is a bit like generating random public key pairs with the hope that a terrorist group will generate one of such key pairs themselves. It's a resource hog and comforts only those who think that the scenario-space is small.

The right thing to do is to find out why those people are so pissed of at the US of A and either a) to show them that they shouldn't be pissed off, or b) to stop pissing them off.

if option A was viable, you'd think they could have brainwashed everybody in the world by now with the amount of money spent. And I think option B is not viable, either, for it probably conflicts with their economic interests. So they create option C where they just take the revenue from pissing off, and spend some of it on symbolic anti-terrorism measures to put the voters to sleep.

altjiraMay 22, 2006 4:14 PM

On or about August, 2004, I had a personal experience with the USCG, "looking down the barrel of that machine-gun." I found the experience encouraging.

I was contracted to make improvements on the corrosion-control systems on an underwater fuel pipeline in a major US port. My Navy contact had assured me that security forces had been notified of my activities, but I didn't know that he had only notified naval security, not the USCG or Harbor Police.

So when I anchored a rented small vessel less than 100 meters off the shore of a military facility, got out into the water and started lowering large objects, it was the Coasties who came by to check me out. It was a small patrol boat with a youngish kid in charge. I was really impressed. I was treated courteously, but all the hip holsters were unbuttoned, and a second boat showed up and stood off about 150 meters away while I was taken onboard with what little paperwork I had. My crew remained on my boat.

They were very patient and respectful, but my ex-infantry senses told me I had at least three different weapons ready to train on me at all times, but they kept them pointed down. I thought that the 15-20 minutes it took to independently verify my identity and activities were pretty reasonable, considering that they had no heads up. I also felt compelled to keep my hands in plain sight at all times.

In all, I was pretty impressed with the USCG for their vigilance, respect, preparedness, and resourcefulness. I don't know how they trained those young men and women, but they were doing something right back then, and there was no gratuitous bravado.

- A former US Army Sapper Leader

antibozoMay 22, 2006 5:56 PM

There was no failure of imagination before 9-11. There was a failure to watch "X-Files" spinoff "The Lone Gunmen" which depicted, on prime-time television, the exact scenario--flying a passenger jet into the World Trade Center--six months before the tragedy occurred. Here, the screenwriters actually got it right... scarily right.

AndrewMay 22, 2006 9:02 PM

Out in the real world, the US Coast Guard was a better agency at preventing terrorism prior to 9/11 than it is now.

You see, they had missions that brought them into contact with the boating community, and earned our respect. Buoy maintenance, search and rescue, maritime law enforcement. So with our many eyes and ears (and radios), we would let USCG know if we saw something odd or unsavory.

Now they are playing counter-terrorist from centralized facilities, nobody talks to them, and they are nothing but a bunch of annoying cops with guns who don't know boats and aircraft nearly as well as they used to.

Big thanks to the Department of Homeland Security. Should have left USCG under Transportation where it belongs.

ChoiceWordsMay 22, 2006 10:19 PM

Movie plot threats aside, I found the Capt's comment interesting: "The biggest change is that the Coast Guard has gone from being an organization that ran when the bell went off to being a cop on the beat at all times".

That's an interesting choice of words, seems to indicate that we are just one step closer to having a standing army...

Davi OttenheimerMay 23, 2006 1:13 AM

@ altjira

Kudos for the example. You have an interesting perspective and almost make it seem like we should prepare to become accustomed to "hip holsters...unbuttoned" and "at least three different weapons ready to train" on us.

Not my ideal scenario for how to start the day at work. But more importantly, your example perfectly supports my point that the USCG needs to focus on better awareness/information management. Had they been aware of who you are and what you were doing in their jurisdiction, they wouldn't have needed to waste precious resources checking your creds (again) while somewhere else a risk or threat was real.

False alarms like the one you describe can easily turn into a denial of service and generate huge holes in a defence force that has no reliable information or trusted source(s). And you can bet that the courteous treatment goes right out the window when young teams with lots of firepower realize they are running blind (without the information gathering skills/tools they need to be effective).

pwMay 23, 2006 3:38 AM

@Davi,

Surely better preparedness would only have minimally affected this scenario; ok, it may have taken a couple of minutes instead of 15 in this case, but if people without authorisation had turned up they would have taken just as long to deal with, so a DoS would be just as effectived.

You could argue that given the trusted information, the invalid party could be rejected immediately, but would have to be escorted away etc.

To me the example given shows that general procedures were in place to deal with the general threat of unknown persons entering a secure area and a proportionate response (this is only an assumption of course without knowing the actual risks involved), but in general I would prefer to see people well trained in handling the unexpected, rather than rejected it out of hand.

pw

altjiraMay 23, 2006 10:07 AM

@ Davi

I respectfully disagree. In my case, it was technically my fault that USCG and HP had not been notified, and given what I was doing (the anodes I was emplacing could easily have been mines or communications intercept equipment), I would have been surprised if I hadn't been jacked up. I even budgeted time for it. Routine guarding and patrolling is incredibly difficult - it's tedious, it's boring, and it has the potential at any moment to explode into lethal violence. Dealing with anomalies appropriately is the mark of a security force that is highly trained and effective; that's why I was impressed.

Back in the military, when I was tasked with securing a location, I would test my personnel with attempted penetrations to gage their effectiveness. These tests would vary from innocuous civilians to full-out black bag jobs. (My guys and I were quite happy to return the favor when other NCOs asked me to test their men.) Far from being a DoS, these tests were vital training. I'm no Dick Marcinko, but I did the best I could.

In a publicly accessible area, a professional security force will generally reach a point of balance with the civilian population. Locals quickly learn what is acceptable and what is not; they know what they can expect to encounter when they trespass and will take precautions based on the severity of the consequences. And since they usually have some control over methods of access, they will advise tourists and strangers to take similar precautions. These levels are adaptable; in the military at least, threat conditions are posted at facility entrances. I know it's going to take longer to get in when I see charlie signs out instead of the usual alphas.

A professional security force monitors such events. They are logged and the logs routinely reviewed. When the levels of incidents increase, more effort is put into public awareness. You see more outreach or more signs going up. Community involvement and interaction is very important. And counter to your expectations, it is very easy to be polite with a loaded M60 machinegun, for it is rare not to be treated with politeness.

Perhaps my perspective is skewed; but I am personally relieved to be challenged, and to have someone be willing to point a gun at me and use it, if I try, for instance, to get on the flightline at Minot during a nuclear operations readiness inspection or into a B2 hanger at Wightman. I don't want just anyone to be able to do that.

AnonymousMay 23, 2006 6:26 PM

@ChoiceWords:
"That's an interesting choice of words, seems to indicate that we are just one step closer to having a standing army..."

Que? What on earth are you talking about? USA has had a standing army since August 7, 1789.

Movie ScountMay 24, 2006 7:33 AM

Well, if we can have a movie script about the terrorist threat of snakes on airplanes, it seems to me the Coast Guard could use a movie script about the terrorist threat of giant squids on cruise ships.

Hans GranqvistMay 24, 2006 9:58 AM

"Anyone who's watched Hollywood's output in recent years knows that screenwriters aren't the most creative bunch of people on the planet" is short-sighted.

It's like saying "Anyone who's seen the increasing number of Snake Oil crypto solutions in recent years knows that cryptographers aren't the most intelligent bunch of people on the planet."

How ya like 'em beans?

The movies get messed up in the development process, when everyone in the production chain feel they need to have their say.. .

Retired CGNovember 4, 2006 9:51 AM

"Now they are playing counter-terrorist from centralized facilities, nobody talks to them, and they are nothing but a bunch of annoying cops with guns who don't know boats and aircraft nearly as well as they used to."

"screenwriters aren't the most creative bunch of people on the planet"

Based upon most of the negative comments on this post, I'd have to say creativity is lacking. The fellow that was stopped and checked out buy a local small boat crew, accurately describes how most CG security boardings occur. His comments, however honest and convincing, seem not to sway the many minds already made up about the Coast Guard and possibly the military in general. I just retired from the Coast Guard after 26 years and I just can't see how we forgot any of our missions or how to fix and fly aircraft after 9/11. We just got a big magnifying glass on a few we were already doing.

Another comment implied we were an inflexible "top-down" organization. This opinion was posted well after Katrina. Again, your bias seems to be undiluted by the many essays in the media about our very success in response to Katrina was based upon the flexibility our local commanders, and individuals have to respond to events. The Coast Guard, and Federal Wildlife Officers have repeatedly been cited as the few federal responders that "got it right" during Katrina.

Most of what we did in the Coast Guard was routine and boring, just like any other job, but there were those "hair-raising" moments that might make for a good story or script. Most never fit the Hollywood mold of what constitutes action/adventure and will never make it past the first cut. From my point of view, our experiences were much more exciting, scary, and adventure filled than fiction.

I've read many an article in the media about what we did on certain operations. Amazing how many errors get through and how often important facts were excluded.

A sinister bias based upon a political agenda from the left or right? ....sometimes.

Mostly laziness from what I've seen.

John LJanuary 22, 2007 10:19 PM

Great posting. Imagination is the key to any future attack on the U.S., as it was with the 9-11 debacle that changed this world into the forseeable future.

No terrorist attack is going to be made by Middle-Easters posing as terrorists! As the 9-11 cells did so effectively, they'll look harmless, show no weapons, and use the most disguisable method to deliver the weapons to their targets. Sort of like the illegal aliens who "hide in plain site" by the millions now. They're not terrorists (we hope), but they're right there, every one sees them, yet no one takes alarm.

America's vigilance always needs more imagination, because it will be our imagination alone that allows us to see what's coming...hopefully in time.

John L

John LJanuary 22, 2007 10:21 PM

Great posting. Imagination is the key to any future attack on the U.S., as it was with the 9-11 debacle that changed this world into the forseeable future.

No terrorist attack is going to be made by Middle-Easters posing as terrorists! As the 9-11 cells did so effectively, they'll look harmless, show no weapons, and use the most disguisable method to deliver the weapons to their targets. Sort of like the illegal aliens who "hide in plain site" by the millions now. They're not terrorists (we hope), but they're right there, every one sees them, yet no one takes alarm.

America's vigilance always needs more imagination, because it will be our imagination alone that allows us to see what's coming...hopefully in time.

John L

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