Vague Threat Prompts Overreaction

It reads like a hoax:

The Police Department set up checkpoints yesterday in Lower Manhattan and increased security after learning of a vague threat of a radiological attack here.

[...]

The police learned about the threat through an item on the Web site debka.com -- a site that Mr. Browne said was believed to have Israeli intelligence and military sources -- that said that Qaeda operatives were planning to detonate a truck filled with radiological material in New York, Los Angeles or Miami. Officials say the Web site carries reports that are often wrong, but occasionally right.

Occasionally right? Which U.S. terrorist attack did it predict?

Come on, people: refuse to be terrorized.

Posted on August 16, 2007 at 6:04 AM • 39 Comments

Comments

PaeniteoAugust 16, 2007 6:26 AM

This all makes sense under the CYA (Cover Your Ass) assumption.

The real issue is: How do we provide incentives for sensible reactions? How do we measure the efficiency or the value of security precautions and security reactions (or, non-reactions for that matter)?

Naturally, as long as you could be liable (losing your job, at least) for something, you will protect yourself.

Something like explicit non-liability of responsible officers sounds like a bad idea, too.
How about liability for overreactions / "false positives"? Would be hard to define that in a sharp way.

Nick LancasterAugust 16, 2007 6:27 AM

I'll grant that it is probably easy enough to acquire a tanker truck of some kind, but where would this radiological material have come from?

And we're supposed to regard a website that supposedly has secure information and is 'occasionally wrong' but also 'occasionally right' as a sensible and reliable source?

With all due respect to the hardworking men and women in law enforcement, this sounds like nothing more than a CYA.

ThomasAugust 16, 2007 6:41 AM

Maybe they are occasionally right, when the predict that "deep darkness will come upon the earth"...
... what may be correct every night in most parts of the world
;)

SteveJAugust 16, 2007 6:45 AM

To be fair, in order to be "occasionally right" it doesn't necessarily have to predict an attack. If it accurately identifies a group of plotters then it is "right" even if it doesn't have enough information to know what and when they are plotting.

Of course, anyone can be "occasionally right" by making enough guesses. The police who acted on its information haven't indicated whether it is right any better than average...

Also, assuming they thought this through at all, for US police to act based on a website with "Israeli intelligence contacts" presupposes that either:

a) the website has better contacts than US intelligence, or
b) US intelligence would not pass on information about an imminent threat to a US city.

If (b) is true, then the police shouldn't be ineptly "covering their asses", they should be shouting from the rooftops that US intelligence is useless. If (a) is true, then why is the State Department wasting its time on Israeli arms deals, if not in return for both covert and overt co-operation?

Conclusion: the police didn't think this through at all. Anyone with a website can now create a major security alert in New York.

KanlyAugust 16, 2007 6:58 AM

More Security Theater:

In Australia a couple of days ago a package somehow went through security without being checked. They evacuated the entire bloody terminal and held everything and everyone for hours while they ordered all the passengers out and rescreened everyone. Of course, nothing was found.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2007/08/14/2004257.htm

In Sydney soon they're hosting APEC: The Asia/Pacific Talkfest. They're shutting down the city for a day, building a big concrete wall, screening everyone. They could have held it in the nations capital 4 hours away which it's much better designed for. An excuse for politicians and security actors to puff out their chests and feel important (a few months before an Australian election). "You know Honey, at school they all laughed at me. Mr Thickie they called me, but today I made the world safe! Oh if they could see me now."

http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSSYD15177420070808

It's the world's most expensive stage show. It's supposed to impress us, but I'm just tired of it.

KanlyAugust 16, 2007 7:09 AM

@Paeniteo: "How do we provide incentives for sensible reactions? Naturally, as long as you could be liable (losing your job, at least) for something, you will protect yourself."

At some point business screams, but it has to get pretty bad. Trouble is politicians love this sort of thing. It scares people, and scared people vote for militarist Presidents. It's the easy way to campaign. Business tends to like these guys anyway, so mentally writes it as a one-off. If it happened every week, that might get their hackles up. For the employees who panic, it's a case of CYA and no business would dare sack them for doing it. Can you imagine the headlines the media would run?

As Bruce says, you have to educate the public to stop running around like scared cattle and think for themselves. The bad news: A long and hard battle. There's a lot of 'Dumb' out there, politicians know it and play on it.

The good news: People are getting numb and things like Cherkoff's 'Color-coded Gut Threat Level' have become a joke. On TDS they mock it. This is a good sign.

Michael AshAugust 16, 2007 7:18 AM

In college I learned that you shouldn't base your research on random shady interweb sites. I guess NYPD has yet to learn this lesson.

It's interesting to consider that they're lying about this being the source of the information in order to cover up the real source. Better everyone thinks their incompetent than to reveal where they really got the info from. But then you wonder why they just didn't say that they can't tell people about the source of the information. This idea probably assumes far too much competence in the higher levels of government.

Rich GibbsAugust 16, 2007 7:34 AM

"Occasionally right? Which U.S. terrorist attack did it predict?"

Indeed. I can predict the weather and be occasionally right without even looking out the window, especially if my forecasts are vague enough. ("We'll have rain sometime this week.")

This sort of thing also reminds me of a remark that Prof Jim Lorie at Chicago made about people that forecast the direction of the stock market: "Some of them have been right, once in a row."

AnonymousAugust 16, 2007 7:36 AM

Could it be that with the Padilla trial ready to go to the jury, in Miami, the Go'berment wants us to worry about dirty bombs again.

elsieAugust 16, 2007 7:39 AM

You know, you could make a bundle selling "Refuse to be terrorized" gear at Cafe Press ... I'd buy a bumper sticker & a t-shirt for a start.

Colossal SquidAugust 16, 2007 7:59 AM

"Come on, people: refuse to be terrorized."

I'm not terrorized, but the idiots in charge of my country seem to be. Therein lies the problem.

theMezzAugust 16, 2007 8:08 AM

How do YOU know it is an "overreaction". How do YOU know what was prevented? You cannot measure what did not happen. Do you have the same data the NYPD has?
In reality - you do not KNOW it was an overreaction or not... do you???

BetaAugust 16, 2007 8:46 AM

@Michael Ash: It's interesting to consider that they're lying about this being the source of the information in order to cover up the real source. Better everyone thinks their incompetent than to reveal where they really got the info from.

If they're lying, maybe the real source is even more preposterous and they posted the rumor themselves in order to... nah, I think they're telling the truth.

BetaAugust 16, 2007 8:46 AM

@Michael Ash: It's interesting to consider that they're lying about this being the source of the information in order to cover up the real source. Better everyone thinks their incompetent than to reveal where they really got the info from.

If they're lying, maybe the real source is even more preposterous and they posted the rumor themselves in order to... nah, I think they're telling the truth.

John DaviesAugust 16, 2007 9:08 AM

@theMezz

If a plot had been foiled then it would get 24hr news coverage complete with smug politicians telling us how many millions of lives have been saved.

False alarms, however ridiculous, are not newsworthy any more.

elanecuAugust 16, 2007 9:21 AM

This seems to be their track record:

"With regard to DEBKAfile’s record, our readers may recall that in 2003, our counter-terror sources exposed the massive recruitment campaign al Qaeda ran worldwide for an army of jihadis to fight US forces in Iraq under the command of a Jordanian terrorist called Abu Musab al Zarqawi.

Again, in 2005 - and up until the present - we warned that al Qaeda was building networks in Egyptian Sinai and the Gaza Strip.

Had the powers-that-be responded in timely fashion to these advance alerts, the situation in both troubled places might have evolved differently."

Nick LancasterAugust 16, 2007 9:58 AM

@TheMezz

I also understand that a secret division of the NYPD, formed at the behest of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, conducts daily sweeps of the harbor to prevent attacks by large Japanese monsters.

While being mindful of the fact that we can 'rationalize' away risks - we do it every time we speed, or forget to buckle our seatbelts - arguing for invisible evidence of a possible plot is laughable.

It starts with my previous question: where would this radiological material come from? Smuggled into the country? Stolen from a lab? From where? By who? How?

The exaggeration of the threat by linking it with a 'tanker truck' to increase the scope is also suspect. How much material would be needed to contaminate a medium through which it could be spread, and what kind of concentrations/durations are we looking at?

Given that bad security looks just like good security until it fails, we really need to be intelligent consumers here and think carefully about our nation's unhealthy obsession with terrorists/terrorism.

C GomezAugust 16, 2007 10:07 AM

We have to stop electing politicians who conduct witch hunts any time there is a successful attack.

Witch hunts lead to CYA policies that waste time and resources. Better to waste resources on vague threats and innuendos than to be in the precinct station when the makeshift bomb goes off and injures no one. If the latter happens, several administrators and chiefs and experienced officers have to be fired to placate the witch hunts.

John R CampbellAugust 16, 2007 10:14 AM

"Occasionally Right", hmmmm??

A stopped clock may have a better accuracy rate.

(sighs)

The real problem is that our News organizations _love_ spreading fear and terror because it SELLS and makes them money, so, without them taking terrorists seriously, no terror would spread far or last for long. Having a government that uses this for leverage does not help.

The worst thing you can do for terrorists is to take them seriously.

ForRealAugust 16, 2007 12:03 PM

Exercising security around low probability threats trains both the security police and the population in "learning to live with it".

The events in the world's current financial markets are far more relevant to the purpose of Homeland Security than 911.

911 allowed Homeland Security (and many other bad things) to happen. The purpose of this "security" will be clear soon.

RoyAugust 16, 2007 12:07 PM

This may simply be naked greed.

People on the public payroll can seize on any excuse, no matter how flimsy or absurd, to run up extra overtime.

Joe BuckAugust 16, 2007 12:13 PM

debka is run by a bunch of hard-line neocons. They are "often wrong" because they make stuff up to promote their agenda, though mostly they just cherry-pick material that supports their case.

StormcrowAugust 16, 2007 1:29 PM

I focussed on debka.com immediately post 9/11.

If there is anyone here present who still thinks these clowns can be credited with being anything better than Pox News with Alzheimer's, may I suggest a simple exercise?

Simply select a dozen of the more inflammatory stories at debka.com and track the events they reference forward two years. From OTHER sources, as well as from debka.

If you do this one right, by the end of that time, you wouldn't use debka for the input to a random number generator, let alone any process requiring something resembling hard intelligence.

The fact that someone on the NYPD is confusing debka's spewage for quasi-reliable intellgence input means that this person or persons badly need to be employed somewhere ELSE.

The drive-through lane at Mac Donald's comes to mind.

OverblownAugust 16, 2007 2:28 PM

Hmm. And only one day after the airing of the report that "average citizens" of the U.S. pose a mounting threat to American security.

Probably just a coincidence.

RealistAugust 16, 2007 3:23 PM

"Officials say the Web site carries reports that are often wrong, but occasionally right."

They must be banking on the observation that even a clock that has stopped working shows the correct time twice a day...

JoshuaAugust 16, 2007 4:47 PM

I traveled to NYC by bus on Saturday and sat next to a recently-returned Iraq vet. The news broke while we were on the bus, and he brought up the story on his cell phone.

At one point, I asked, somewhat rhetorically, "If they were planning to do a real attack, why would they announce it ahead of time? Why wouldn't they just do it?"

He was actually pretty quick on the response: "Probing. The insurgents used to fire random mortar attacks at us, just one mortar shell before they packed up and left. They just wanted to see what we would do."

DylanAugust 16, 2007 6:29 PM

@Joshua
Everyone dies, the terrists are evil. Nobody dies, the terrists are probing. Either way there are terrists and they want to get us all!

I am not afraid.

JoshuaAugust 16, 2007 6:54 PM

At what point did I say you should be afraid?

My point, as much as I had one, is that overreacting to uncredible threats is not just a waste of time and money but probably actually makes us less safe.

DigitalCommandoAugust 17, 2007 1:07 AM

Does the NYPD have a new unit known as The Extrapolated Internet Terror Fantasy Creation Unit? God forbid they ever get their hands on a National Enquirer! Most of the past terror "threats" were attempted by idiots that make the 3 stooges look like phd's. Yet Law Enforcement locks on to these stories, blowing them totally out of proportion, to keep the dumb in tow and to ensure an uninterrupted flow of "toy money" from the DHS so they can buy new armored trucks, 8 thousand dollar telescopes and a whole host of other esoteric privacy invasion tools, none of which will actually be used against terrorists, despite their claims to the contrary. What we really have here is a huge technology grab that's fueled by falsely created fear with a race to obtain every piece of spying equipment possible before the tide turns when Americans wake up, and begin to understand the civil liberties reduction scam known as "the war on terror". So slide back in your easy chair and watch the insane and ridiculous parade of new "threats" that will continue to emerge.

RationalRealistAugust 17, 2007 1:08 AM

Residents of Portland, Oregon are becoming increasingly concerned in that we appear to be the subjects of a "model nuclear attack" called Operation Noble Resolve being conducted next week by DHS, the Oregon National Guard, and private security companies. Though Portland seems to be the planned epicenter of the attack, the City of Portland is not included in the C&C of the scenario. This would be apparent retaliation for Mayor Tom Potter's refusal to cooperate w/ FBI integration w/ PDX's police force over concerns that Portland police would be asked to spy on religious and political groups.
The "go-live" phenomenon, as seen in September 11 (Operation Trident [FEMA], Noble Guardian, Northern Vigilance, etc.) and in London on 7/7 (Visor Consultants), has many citizens concerned, especially in light of recent Executive Orders granting special emergency powers to the President, as well as the recent refusal of the administration to provide Continuity of Government plans to Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon.
Our mainstream media refuses to notice or care, and only community radio and blogs are covering this. The idea is that if there is an intention to create a false flag attack, that the more information in the public mind, the less likely they are to pull it off.
Please direct some attention to your brothers and sisters out west next week as we are studied as subjects of "nucear terrorism" conducted by an administration with it's back desperately to the wall.
Mr. Schneier, I respect you a great deal and recognize that I'm only offering speculation here. If you delete this post from the front facing site, I don't blame you, but I suggest you keep it around.
The operational dates are from August 20-August 24, 2007.

Nick LancasterAugust 17, 2007 1:18 AM


It's not just the practice of 'probing' (prairie dogging) that could be in play here ... it's the patterns of response. How many times do we have to do this full-bore 'ohmygodterrorists!' comedy routine before it wears down the edge of our first responders?

It can't ALL be an emergency, all the time, every time. There has to be a structured response, a 'fail safe' that allows us to better distinguish the bad intel from the good intel without leaving us overly vulnerable.

I have trouble believing that the best tradeoff is to act like a bunch of headless chickens every time a 'threat' pops up on the radar.

KristineAugust 17, 2007 2:32 AM

Maybe it's not just ass-covering as much as ass-indispensable-making: There are some people who have gotten themselves a nice place in the system where they can make a living, are important etc. They do not want to lose it, so they talk about the attacks they "prevented", about the "threats" they have to counter etc. Then they keep their position, maybe they get more money, they continue to be seen as important, they do not feel superfluous...

Sometimes I think that real solutions are not desired, simply because then some people's work would not be useful anymore. But with fake solutions, they not only can say "we did something" (CYA), but also "we have to do more" (AIM).


Kristine

Geoff LaneAugust 17, 2007 12:44 PM

As the overwhelming majority of all bomb threats are false, it would seem best to treat all bomb threats as false. Real terrorists don't pre-announce their actions when they really want to blow something up. Occasonally, this will result in a bad result, but so will any other reaction.

When some anonymous group learns it can cause 20 or 50 percent of the disruption from a threat rather than going to the trouble, and risk, of planting a real bomb, they will just swamp the country with threats.

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