Large Signs a Security Risk

A large sign saying “United States” at a border crossing was deemed a security risk:

Yet three weeks ago, less than a month after the station opened, workers began prying the big yellow letters off the building’s facade on orders from Customs and Border Protection. The plan is to dismantle the rest of the sign this week.

“At the end of the day, I think they were somewhat surprised at how bold and how bright it was,” said Les Shepherd, the chief architect of the General Services Administration, referring to the customs agency’s sudden turnaround.

“There were security concerns,” said Kelly Ivahnenko, a spokeswoman for the customs agency. “The sign could be a huge target and attract undue attention. Anything that would place our officers at risk we need to avoid.”

The move is a depressing, if not wholly unpredictable, example of how the lingering trauma of 9/11 can make it difficult for government bureaucracies to make rational decisions. It reflects a tendency to focus on worst-case scenarios to the exclusion of common sense, as well as a fundamental misreading of the sign and the message it conveys. And if it is carried out as planned, it will gut a design whose playful pop aesthetic is an inspired expression of what America is about.


Posted on July 28, 2009 at 4:23 PM62 Comments


Thomas July 28, 2009 4:34 PM

To protect the USA, wouldn’t it be easier to just sell all the land to Canada and Mexico, and then declare the USA a virtual entity? The Terrorist could never attack it!

David July 28, 2009 4:36 PM

I literally do not understand. As if a US border station is more of a target because it says “United States” on it? Very peculiar. Should customs agents not wear badges, either? Or act in any way like customs agents? That would certainly make them stand out as customs agents, which of course is exactly what they are. I wish the author had pushed the customs agency for a little more explanation…

Jon July 28, 2009 4:59 PM

Maybe they’re hoping the Terrorists won’t notice just how close they are to the US, and move on to a more attractive target. Like, oh, Newfoundland or St. Pierre et Miquelon.

havvok July 28, 2009 5:00 PM

No no no… Customs and Border Protection has just had a mix-up. They thought they were removing the “United States” from America, which turns America into a target and creates undue risk.

Removing the sign does nothing to reduce the risk to Canada and Mexico of attacks against North America.

Seriously though, really? REALLY? Come on. What are you paying them for?

Todd Jonz July 28, 2009 5:23 PM

Why not just rearrange the letters to read “Unstated Site”? That would undoubtedly throw the terrorists off the track.

Mithrandir July 28, 2009 5:32 PM

@Thomas No, no. Then we’d switch to worrying about cyberterrorists. Suicide forkbombs…

Really though, they should just set up a checkpoint well away from the actual border, and force people to cross blindfolded…

Roxanne July 28, 2009 5:34 PM

Clearly we need to get rid of all of those American flags at government office buildings, too…. :-/

Sam July 28, 2009 5:34 PM

“The sign could be a huge target”

I think they aren’t worried about building being identified, but of the sign itself literally being a target – of bored canadian rednecks with rocks, pellet guns, etc.

Not that that excuses it, but at least it makes some sort of sense…

Ctmf July 28, 2009 6:20 PM

I think their point was that the sign was flashy enough to become an icon, like the Hollywood sign. Something the terrorist would want to strike as a symbolic substitute for the U.S. itself. Which is really no big deal – better that than some other alternatives – unless some unsuspecting customs agent happened to get caught in the action.

Unlikely, sure. Paranoid? Maybe. Not as ridiculous as it first sounds, though.

paprika July 28, 2009 6:56 PM

I guess they wanted to make the sign clear for all those heading to the US. As in “in case you were confused or uncertain, you are about to enter the United States”. Now people just won’t know what border crossing they are at. I feel sorry for them.

Peter E Retep July 28, 2009 7:09 PM

Maybe it’s security-by-obscurity?

They’re trying to hide the U.S.
or its borders!!!

Bwiwwiant, hu-hu-hu!
Sh-sh Wabbit Twacks!

Aaron July 28, 2009 7:46 PM

“I think their point was that the sign was flashy enough to become an icon, like the Hollywood sign.”

I think I’ll second the “delusions of grandeur” motion. All of the giant buildings, flashy tourist traps and majestic monuments in this country, and these bozos became worried that a sign on a building that 99% of nation wouldn’t have known existed if it weren’t for this news story would make the target list at all, let alone the top?

Random fruitknobbery at work. This is why people hate paying taxes so much. Government seems to be a haven for idiots who can’t cut it as menials.

Kai Howells July 28, 2009 8:22 PM

“There were security concerns,” said Kelly Ivahnenko, a spokeswoman for the customs agency. “The sign could be a huge target and attract undue attention. Anything that would place our officers at risk we need to avoid.”

If anything, it’s the building not the sign that’s a target. Simply by being there, the building has attracted attention…

Michael Seese July 28, 2009 8:29 PM

As stated by someone else, my first thought was “security through obscurity.” But now I’m thinking security through idiocy. Or, to paraphrase Elmer Fudd, “Shhhh! Be vewy vewy quiet, and the tewwowists won’t find us.”

Warll July 28, 2009 8:51 PM

Has it really not occurred to you guys that this is really just a PR thing? As a Canadian I can very well see how that sign can be taken as pompous. Besides think about it, do you really want border guard houses being synonymous with your nation?

George Hampton July 28, 2009 9:17 PM

Recently here in western NY, the external fixed cranes for servicing the Robert Moses Power Plant were painted battle ship gray. These had been red since the plant was built and were a sort of landmark for the plant. I spoke to a friend of mine who works there and he confirmed that the reason for the color change was indeed protection against terrorism. We had a spirited discussion about all of the real vulnerabilities of the power grid and how ridiculous it would be to target the tons of concrete at the plant and not the distribution system. The easiest scenario just involved a big wrench and three or four of the HV transmission towers. But I guess a coat of neutral colored paint makes people think the government is protecting them.

David Donahue July 28, 2009 10:35 PM

Any thought that the sign could work well as a honeypot? Move it a safe distance from the buildings and guards, cover it in alarms and wait for the terrorists (from Canada?) to attack it instead of the guards, buildings and actually valuable assets.

Keep a spare set of letters around if you like to rapidly rebuild it anytime it’s damaged.

Seriously though, this is sad. The thinking is “Lets not make anything we can be proud of because someone may want to break it”. Very short sided.

Tom Welsh July 29, 2009 3:23 AM

Why didn’t they follow through logically, and replace the sign with an equally prominent one saying “Mongolia” or “Paraguay”?

Better still, why not “Afghanistan”? The terrorists would never think of attacking that country, because (as everyone knows) it’s their support base. Every terrorist needs a support base, and if deprived of one will just shrivel up and die.

Martin July 29, 2009 3:50 AM

It’s a pity the architects didn’t subtitle the sign, so that it said:

“United States
land of the free and home of the brave”

perhaps then it would not have been removed.

Maybe the US could follow Prince’s example and put up a sign:

“The country formally known as the United States (don’t confuse us with those guys who believe in freedom)”

Mike July 29, 2009 4:09 AM

I think the problem is a photo OP problem.

They do not want a photo of a big visible border crossing sign and building which is scared by the black of a rocket or explosives.

Removing the sign means the building does not look so “significant” when damaged.

Gweihir July 29, 2009 4:44 AM

Fear is the mind-killer….

Seems in some people there is not a lot left to kill.

jon July 29, 2009 4:46 AM

If people know where the border is, or what country they are entering, then the terrorists have won.

BF Skinner July 29, 2009 5:07 AM

Now that the terrorists don’t know where the US begins we’re safe! Next we have to start randomly moving border crossings so they are at least moving targets. They’ll never be announced until 10 minutes before they’re opened.

@warll ” is really just a PR thing”
If it was a PR thing why not say it was a PR thing?

I know! They are just putting the sign on the OTHER SIDE of the checkpoint. That way the terrorists will think Canada is the US. Good Thinking CBP!

Ian Eiloart July 29, 2009 5:32 AM

So, they’re trying to hide the USA from Canadians, now? That’s taking security by obscurity to extremes, isn’t it?

js July 29, 2009 5:36 AM

@paprika: Now people will go “What’s this? The border between the USA and Canada? I though I was crossing between Sweden and Paraguay! Dang! You guys should put up signs!”

Roy July 29, 2009 6:12 AM

Are they unaware the United States can be found on most world maps? (I cannot vouch for maps from Fox News.)

Mark R July 29, 2009 6:38 AM

I don’t want to sound insensitive, but aren’t border guards there to protect the border? Wouldn’t terrorists attacking the people who are guarding the border be sort of a best-case scenario from a defense viewpoint?

In other words, isn’t it precisely the problem with terrorists that they attack innocent civilians instead of defense forces?

There are so many layers of stupidity in this onion, it’s giving me a headache.

Another Kevin July 29, 2009 7:22 AM

@Clive Robinson –

‘Encumbrant’? Love it! I’ll have to remember that turn of phrase.

Lyle July 29, 2009 7:51 AM

“delusions of grandeur” is close to the mark. I grew up there, and I think I understand the mindset. Almost everyone up there feels ignored and unimportant in comparison to New York City. Telling yourself that you’re in special danger of attack from the public enemy #1 is a way of telling yourself that you’re special, of declaring to the world that you’re important. The true fear is not the fear of being attacked, but the fear of being ignored.

GPE July 29, 2009 8:37 AM

Well, I think we should put up a sign, in big friendly yellow letters, that says:

“This is NOT the United States.”

Then we’d all be safe!

(Note to self: Apply to DHS for stimulus money to implement this brilliant plan.)

UNITED STATES July 29, 2009 9:13 AM

Too bad, as it is a very nice architectural element.

As a compromise, they could have first tried painting the letters a more subdued color.

Or change it to “Mexico” in order to confuse America’s hat.

Dave July 29, 2009 9:43 AM

Martin hints at the real reason for taking down the sign–the country you enter at that station isn’t the United States anymore. When you defecate all over the principles on which the country was founded and shred the constitution, you should stop referring to it by the same name.

derf July 29, 2009 9:52 AM

Well, not wearing bullet proof vests, neck braces, back braces, wrist braces, knee pads, elbow pads, shin guards, mouth guards, ear plugs, sunscreen, or sunglasses could also put these officers at “risk” of something. Shouldn’t these items be required attire then?

The answer to Francis Scott Key’s melodic query is a definitive nyet.

Mark July 29, 2009 10:14 AM

Government officials assume that terrorists are Muslim and Arab, and therefore stupid and not quite human. Therefore they tend to approach security as if potential attackers are children, or perhaps ravens. They think that a terrorist would bother to attack a little known, insignificant building just because it has a brightly colored “United States” sign.

But in fact, successful terrorists select targets in order to maximize the psychological impact of and media attention to the attack. They make this selection carefully and they plan carefully. They would not bother to attack some border crossing in the middle of nowhere, and they’re not going to be attracted by merely shiny objects.

The most obvious example is the 9/11 attacks themselves. AQ didn’t attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon because they thought it would maximize the impact to the U.S. infrastructure, or because those buildings are big or brightly lit. They chose those targets because they were famous, near big media companies, and had symbolic value greater than the practical value of the buildings.

There is no way a terrorist would attack this border crossing even if they had a big “SHOOT HERE” sign in front.

Jon Stewart July 29, 2009 10:37 AM

@Roy “(I cannot vouch for maps from Fox News.)”

the only map they have only has the US floating in one big ocean.

BF Skinner July 29, 2009 10:40 AM

I propose the alternative in large friendly letters

“Don’t Panic”.

It may be the only intellible thing a said to a person on the visit into the US.

JKB July 29, 2009 12:37 PM

You know what the real problem is? The built the crossing too close to the road. I mean, it leads right to them. It’s almost like someone blazed a trail.

C July 29, 2009 1:45 PM

Well someone deserves a raise. Perhaps they could go the extra mile and put someone else’s country on there.

I vote China. The Canadian terrorists will never figure it out…

Moderator July 29, 2009 2:26 PM


“In related news….”

For really, really small values of “related.” I don’t usually mind when you bring up other security issues related to the one at hand, but that was not at all on topic for the thread or for the blog.

mcb July 29, 2009 2:36 PM

“Anything that would place our officers at risk we need to avoid.”

If officer safety is their primary concern then the braintrust at Customs and Border Protection had better take away their guns, badges, and uniforms and have them telecommute. Then they’ll be as safe as a remote order taker at a fast food drive through. If that doesn’t eliminate enough risk the CBP can remove the bathtubs from their employees’ homes and schedule weekly sponge baths. Risks reduced… Ninnies!

Greg July 29, 2009 4:23 PM

I think they aren’t worried about building being identified, but of the sign itself literally being a target – of bored canadian rednecks with rocks, pellet guns, etc.

Absolutely. Therefore, we should sell the Statue of Liberty and the St. Louis arch for scrap, and sell “Memorial Gravel” from the explosive destruction of Mount Rushmore.

After that, fill in the Grand Canyon and close all of the Krispy Kreme stores. Leave nothing that screams “America!” like a giant hole and deep-fried lard, sugar and flour.

Brandioch Conner July 29, 2009 6:38 PM

How about we look at this from the “worst case” scenario?

Exactly … what … would happen should the “terrorist attack” come to pass?

Yes, some of our officials would lose their lives. Some of our property would be destroyed. And … ?

As Bruce has pointed out (many times), if the terrorists are going to attack, this is just moving the target from one location to a different one.

Would you rather the terrorists give themselves away by attacking a no-where customs station or by attacking an elementary school?

Clive Robinson July 30, 2009 1:56 AM

I suspect the problem is realy to do with a “conflict of culture”.

The clue is in,

‘”At the end of the day, I think they were somewhat surprised at how bold and how bright it was,” said Les Shepherd, the chief architect of the General Services Administration’

Hmm let me think, did it kind of stand out in a way that was “not fitting with it’s setting” or as we would say in England “Like a pimple on a pig’s backside”.

There is probably nothing wrong with the building it probably has “architectural merit” as a modern design, but up on the border it is just plain wrong, and in the setting it has been placed in it realy is a major “eye sore” and as such realy does attract “unwanted attention”.

We have similar problems in the UK with Lord Rogers (architect) and Prince Charles. Lord Rogers likes Glass and Steel as “Exciting and modern making a bold statment”, Prince Charles sees it as being significantly out of place in a “traditional setting” such as a Cathedral or Georgian square.

It’s a culture clash, one see’s their design as a counterpoint between the future and the past, the other as desecration.

Try seeing it from the bod on the “front lines” place, imagine you are sitting there dealing with Joe Public day after day each face new but making the same “Smart Alec” comment comparing the sign on your building to a “Golden Arches” drive through.

How long before you would want to be out there either with the “crowbar” (prybar) or “holding the ladder” for the bloke that is.

Yes the people working their feel like they are targets much as you would if you had to sit at the security desk of a traditional style bank where everybody is wearing sober business suits appropriate to the setting and you have to wear bright yellow spandex like a Glam Rock Star.

Everybody in the area of the sign knows the sign just does not fit.

But for the person in a high place far away who has decided for whatever reason it’s “exciting and modern”….

The only way you siting under the sign could get rid of it is by comming up with a sufficiently compeling reason to get over the entrenched “exciting and modern” idea.

I can immagine what starts as somebody “under the sign” phoning their imediate boss who’s in another place and saying “what on earth made XXX think this is a good idea?”. The boss in order to pour “oil on troubled waters” would make some soothing comments and finding it’s fire not water they are pouring the oil on, asks “well whats wrong with it”. The poor bod who feels like he’s under a curse not a sign and who has had enough would say something like “Don’t you understand it’s like a custom made target for people to snipe at” meaning “It makes every bozo make the same dum comment, clever and the guys here have had enough”.

The immedate boss “gets the message” and phones up the beuracratic tree. The message arives at YYY who gets told “This high visability sign makes our staff easy targets sooner or later there is going to be an embarising incident”.

They hear the message not for what it actually is but as a “beuracratic CYA” way of saying “it’s a significant security risk and you’d better act before it happens”. YYY puts 2 and 2 together and come up with 7 phones XXX and says “I’ve been told that that new sign is a significant security risk” XXX either ask’s “what sort” or thinks “terrorist” as that’s the current “significant security risk” they think of…

Then somebody let’s a “gentalman of the Press know” that an expensive new sign is being taken down shortly after it’s been put up. They smell a story and rather than go and see they start asking questions in a certain way and get a headline sound bite.

Clive Robinson July 30, 2009 4:13 AM

@ Another Kevin,

“‘Encumbrant’? Love it! I’ll have to remember that turn of phrase.”

Don’t thank me, thank amongst many Politico’s Sen. Lovrgrove who in a GAE commitee hearing (Feb 18, 93) possed the following,

“Representative Flarety, would you support… …in a contest between an encumbrant and a challenger, many of the perks… …the encumbrant has… …to boost the encumbrant… …Would you be supportive of an attempt to eliminate those perks?”

Obviously I had to edit for the sake of clarity 😉

Jon July 30, 2009 4:44 PM

[Alec Guinness voice]This is not the United States you’re looking for.[/Alec Guinness voice]

Huh. As I was typing that, I realised it works on several levels 🙁

Bill P. Godfrey July 31, 2009 2:38 PM

@Moderator “I don’t usually mind when you bring up other security issues related to the one at hand, but that was not at all on topic for the thread or for the blog.”

Worth doing a weekly “Open Mike” post?

Dave July 31, 2009 3:01 PM

Next logical step:

“Boarder guards committed suicide in an attempt not to become targets for terrorists”

So sad …

Heidi August 4, 2009 8:39 AM

When I went to the NYTimes article, the first thing I noticed was the large picture of the building, because it’s a photo that I would have thought twice about taking myself in the US, for fear of harassment by bored security or police. (It’s happened to me before.)

Then I remembered it was probably taken from the Canadian side of the border. 🙂

Anyway, the mentality lamented in the article is widespread and runs deep.

bob August 4, 2009 8:54 AM

@Bill P. Godfrey: The’ve tried your idea – see “Too Many Security Warnings Results in Complacency”

spaceman spiff August 15, 2009 11:17 AM

I think they should just change the sign to “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here”…

Weevie August 15, 2009 4:40 PM

Another interesting point of border security is that if you take the Black Ball Lines ferry from Port Angeles, WA to Victoria, BC, the boat is accompanied up to the US-Canada border by two US government boats with machine guns on deck. Once the ferry is in Canadian waters the US government boats turn back. There is no armed Canadian boat escorting the ferry from the edge of Canadian waters into Victoria harbour. Minutes before the ferry docks in Victoria all the crew put on lifejackets and they order the passengers to be seated. The crews are not wearing lifejackets when leaving the US Port Angeles nor are passengers required to be seated at any point on the US side.

Clive Robinson August 16, 2009 12:37 AM

@ Weevie,

“Minutes before the ferry docks in Victoria all the crew put on lifejackets and they order the passengers to be seated. The crews are not wearing lifejackets when leaving the US Port Angeles”

It sounds like the Canadian unlike the US authorities have actually done a proper risk analysis on passenger survivability.

That is your chance of surviving a passenger immersion accident (due to a ferry overturning, falling overboard etc) in cold water is minimal say ave of 20mins so it’s worth while wearing a life jacket close to port where you have a reasonable prospect of being pulled out in that time period.

Oh and you risk of being attacked by Pirates / terrorists past the 51st parellel was zero (though keep your eye on the latest news on the Russian 5000 ton freighter that has “allegadly” been taken by Pirates somewhere off of Copenhagen)…

Paul T August 16, 2009 11:08 AM

I think I’m going to get into the sign making business and offer my services to the US government. The beauty is that I’d only need one fat signed contract and then get someone to whisper into a bureaucrat’s ear that the sign(s) would be a security risk. Order canceled, but money paid in order to avoid legal problems with canceling a contract.

Maybe punishing stupidity through clever schemes is the ONLY way the government can learn to start using common sense again. Sheesh!

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