Entries Tagged "9/11"

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Counterterrorism Security Cost-Benefit Analysis

Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security,” by John Mueller and Mark Stewart:

Abstract:The cumulative increase in expenditures on US domestic homeland security over the decade since 9/11 exceeds one trillion dollars. It is clearly time to examine these massive expenditures applying risk assessment and cost-benefit approaches that have been standard for decades. Thus far, officials do not seem to have done so and have engaged in various forms of probability neglect by focusing on worst case scenarios; adding, rather than multiplying, the probabilities; assessing relative, rather than absolute, risk; and inflating terrorist capacities and the importance of potential terrorist targets. We find that enhanced expenditures have been excessive: to be deemed cost-effective in analyses that substantially bias the consideration toward the opposite conclusion, they would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 1,667 otherwise successful Times-Square type attacks per year, or more than four per day. Although there are emotional and political pressures on the terrorism issue, this does not relieve politicians and bureaucrats of the fundamental responsibility of informing the public of the limited risk that terrorism presents and of seeking to expend funds wisely. Moreover, political concerns may be over-wrought: restrained reaction has often proved to be entirely acceptable politically.

Posted on April 6, 2011 at 6:03 AMView Comments

Wiretapping the Internet

On Monday, The New York Times reported that President Obama will seek sweeping laws enabling law enforcement to more easily eavesdrop on the internet. Technologies are changing, the administration argues, and modern digital systems aren’t as easy to monitor as traditional telephones.

The government wants to force companies to redesign their communications systems and information networks to facilitate surveillance, and to provide law enforcement with back doors that enable them to bypass any security measures.

The proposal may seem extreme, but — unfortunately — it’s not unique. Just a few months ago, the governments of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and India threatened to ban BlackBerry devices unless the company made eavesdropping easier. China has already built a massive internet surveillance system to better control its citizens.

Formerly reserved for totalitarian countries, this wholesale surveillance of citizens has moved into the democratic world as well. Governments like Sweden, Canada and the United Kingdom are debating or passing laws giving their police new powers of internet surveillance, in many cases requiring communications system providers to redesign products and services they sell. More are passing data retention laws, forcing companies to retain customer data in case they might need to be investigated later.

Obama isn’t the first U.S. president to seek expanded digital eavesdropping. The 1994 CALEA law required phone companies to build ways to better facilitate FBI eavesdropping into their digital phone switches. Since 2001, the National Security Agency has built substantial eavesdropping systems within the United States.

These laws are dangerous, both for citizens of countries like China and citizens of Western democracies. Forcing companies to redesign their communications products and services to facilitate government eavesdropping reduces privacy and liberty; that’s obvious. But the laws also make us less safe. Communications systems that have no inherent eavesdropping capabilities are more secure than systems with those capabilities built in.

Any surveillance system invites both criminal appropriation and government abuse. Function creep is the most obvious abuse: New police powers, enacted to fight terrorism, are already used in situations of conventional nonterrorist crime. Internet surveillance and control will be no different.

Official misuses are bad enough, but the unofficial uses are far more worrisome. An infrastructure conducive to surveillance and control invites surveillance and control, both by the people you expect and the people you don’t. Any surveillance and control system must itself be secured, and we’re not very good at that. Why does anyone think that only authorized law enforcement will mine collected internet data or eavesdrop on Skype and IM conversations?

These risks are not theoretical. After 9/11, the National Security Agency built a surveillance infrastructure to eavesdrop on telephone calls and e-mails within the United States. Although procedural rules stated that only non-Americans and international phone calls were to be listened to, actual practice didn’t always match those rules. NSA analysts collected more data than they were authorized to and used the system to spy on wives, girlfriends and famous people like former President Bill Clinton.

The most serious known misuse of a telecommunications surveillance infrastructure took place in Greece. Between June 2004 and March 2005, someone wiretapped more than 100 cell phones belonging to members of the Greek government — the prime minister and the ministers of defense, foreign affairs and justice — and other prominent people. Ericsson built this wiretapping capability into Vodafone’s products, but enabled it only for governments that requested it. Greece wasn’t one of those governments, but some still unknown party — a rival political group? organized crime? — figured out how to surreptitiously turn the feature on.

Surveillance infrastructure is easy to export. Once surveillance capabilities are built into Skype or Gmail or your BlackBerry, it’s easy for more totalitarian countries to demand the same access; after all, the technical work has already been done.

Western companies such as Siemens, Nokia and Secure Computing built Iran’s surveillance infrastructure, and U.S. companies like L-1 Identity Solutions helped build China’s electronic police state. The next generation of worldwide citizen control will be paid for by countries like the United States.

We should be embarrassed to export eavesdropping capabilities. Secure, surveillance-free systems protect the lives of people in totalitarian countries around the world. They allow people to exchange ideas even when the government wants to limit free exchange. They power citizen journalism, political movements and social change. For example, Twitter’s anonymity saved the lives of Iranian dissidents — anonymity that many governments want to eliminate.

Yes, communications technologies are used by both the good guys and the bad guys. But the good guys far outnumber the bad guys, and it’s far more valuable to make sure they’re secure than it is to cripple them on the off chance it might help catch a bad guy. It’s like the FBI demanding that no automobiles drive above 50 mph, so they can more easily pursue getaway cars. It might or might not work — but, regardless, the cost to society of the resulting slowdown would be enormous.

It’s bad civic hygiene to build technologies that could someday be used to facilitate a police state. No matter what the eavesdroppers say, these systems cost too much and put us all at greater risk.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com, and was a rewrite of a 2009 op ed on MPR News Q — which itself was based in part on a 2007 Washington Post op ed by Susan Landau.

Three more articles.

Posted on September 30, 2010 at 6:02 AMView Comments

Ray McGovern on Intelligence Failures

Good commentary from former CIA analyst Ray McGovern:

The short answer to the second sentence is: Yes, it is inevitable that “certain plots will succeed.”

A more helpful answer would address the question as to how we might best minimize their prospects for success. And to do this, sorry to say, there is no getting around the necessity to address the root causes of terrorism or, in the vernacular, “why they hate us.”

If we don’t go beyond self-exculpatory sloganeering in attempting to answer that key question, any “counter terrorism apparatus” is doomed to failure. Honest appraisals would tread on delicate territory, but any intelligence agency worth its salt must be willing/able to address it.

Delicate? Take, for example, what Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the “mastermind” of 9/11, said was his main motive. Here’s what the 9/11 Commission Report wrote on page 147. You will not find it reported in the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM):

“By his own account, KSM’s animus toward the United States stemmed…from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.”

This is not the entire picture, of course. Other key factors include the post-Gulf War stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, widely seen as defiling the holy sites of Islam.

Add Washington’s propping up of dictatorial, repressive regimes in order to secure continuing access to oil and natural gas — widely (and accurately) seen as one of the main reasons for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not to mention the Pentagon’s insatiable thirst for additional permanent (sorry, the term is now “enduring”) military bases in that part of the world.

[…]

The most effective step would be to release the CIA Inspector General report on intelligence community performance prior to 9/11. That investigation was run by, and its report was prepared by an honest man, it turns out.

It was immediately suppressed by then-Acting DCI John McLaughlin — another Tenet clone — and McLaughin’s successors as director, Porter Goss, Michael Hayden, and now Leon Panetta.

Accountability is key. If there is no accountability, there is total freedom to screw up, and screw up royally, without any thought of possible personal consequences.

Not only is it certain that we will face more terrorist attacks, but the keystone-cops nature of recent intelligence operations … whether in using cell phones in planning kidnappings in Italy, or in allowing suicide bombers access to CIA bases in Taliban-infested eastern Afghanistan … will continue. Not to mention the screw-up in the case of Abdulmutallab.

Posted on January 15, 2010 at 7:22 AMView Comments

Leaked 9/11 Text Messages

Wikileaks has published pager intercepts from New York on 9/11:

WikiLeaks released half a million US national text pager intercepts. The intercepts cover a 24 hour period surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.

[…]

Text pagers are usualy carried by persons operating in an official capacity. Messages in the archive range from Pentagon, FBI, FEMA and New York Police Department exchanges, to computers reporting faults at investment banks inside the World Trade Center.

Near as I can tell, these messages are from the commercial pager networks of Arch Wireless, Metrocall, Skytel, and Weblink Wireless, and include all customers of that service: government, corporate, and personal.

There are lots of nuggets in the data about the government response to 9/11:

One string of messages hints at how federal agencies scrambled to evacuate to Mount Weather, the government’s sort-of secret bunker buried under the Virginia mountains west of Washington, D.C. One message says, “Jim: DEPLOY TO MT. WEATHER NOW!,” and another says “CALL OFICE (sic) AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. 4145 URGENT.” That’s the phone number for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Continuity Programs Directorate — which is charged with “the preservation of our constitutional form of government at all times,” even during a nuclear war. (A 2006 article in the U.K. Guardian newspaper mentioned a “a traffic jam of limos carrying Washington and government license plates” heading to Mount Weather that day.)

FEMA’s response seemed less than organized. One message at 12:37 p.m., four hours after the attacks, says: “We have no mission statements yet.” Bill Prusch, FEMA’s project officer for the National Emergency Management Information System at the time, apparently announced at 2 p.m. that the Continuity of Operations plan was activated and that certain employees should report to Mt. Weather; a few minutes later he sent out another note saying the activation was cancelled.

Historians will certainly spend a lot of time poring over the messages, but I’m more interested in where they came from in the first place:

It’s not clear how they were obtained in the first place. One possibility is that they were illegally compiled from the records of archived messages maintained by pager companies, and then eventually forwarded to WikiLeaks.

The second possibility is more likely: Over-the-air interception. Each digital pager is assigned a unique Channel Access Protocol code, or capcode, that tells it to pay attention to what immediately follows. In what amounts to a gentlemen’s agreement, no encryption is used, and properly-designed pagers politely ignore what’s not addressed to them.

But an electronic snoop lacking that same sense of etiquette might hook up a sufficiently sophisticated scanner to a Windows computer with lots of disk space — and record, without much effort, gobs and gobs of over-the-air conversations.

Existing products do precisely this. Australia’s WiPath Communications offers Interceptor 3.0 (there’s even a free download). Maryland-based SWS Security Products sells something called a “Beeper Buster” that it says let police “watch up to 2500 targets at the same time.” And if you’re frugal, there’s a video showing you how to take a $10 pager and modify it to capture everything on that network.

It’s disturbing to realize that someone, possibly not even a government, was routinely intercepting most (all?) of the pager data in lower Manhattan as far back as 2001. Who was doing it? For that purpose? That, we don’t know.

Posted on November 26, 2009 at 7:11 AMView Comments

FBI/CIA/NSA Information Sharing Before 9/11

It’s conventional wisdom that the legal “wall” between intelligence and law enforcement was one of the reasons we failed to prevent 9/11. The 9/11 Comission evaluated that claim, and published a classified report in 2004. The report was released, with a few redactions, over the summer: “Legal Barriers to Information Sharing: The Erection of a Wall Between Intelligence and Law Enforcement Investigations,” 9/11 Commission Staff Monograph by Barbara A. Grewe, Senior Counsel for Special Projects, August 20, 2004.

The report concludes otherwise:

“The information sharing failures in the summer of 2001 were not the result of legal barriers but of the failure of individuals to understand that the barriers did not apply to the facts at hand,” the 35-page monograph concludes. “Simply put, there was no legal reason why the information could not have been shared.”

The prevailing confusion was exacerbated by numerous complicating circumstances, the monograph explains. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was growing impatient with the FBI because of repeated errors in applications for surveillance. Justice Department officials were uncomfortable requesting intelligence surveillance of persons and facilities related to Osama bin Laden since there was already a criminal investigation against bin Laden underway, which normally would have preempted FISA surveillance. Officials were reluctant to turn to the FISA Court of Review for clarification of their concerns since one of the judges on the court had expressed doubts about the constitutionality of FISA in the first place. And so on. Although not mentioned in the monograph, it probably didn’t help that public interest critics in the 1990s (myself included) were accusing the FISA Court of serving as a “rubber stamp” and indiscriminately approving requests for intelligence surveillance.

In the end, the monograph implicitly suggests that if the law was not the problem, then changing the law may not be the solution.

James Bamford comes to much the same conclusion in his book, The Shadow Factory: The NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America: there was no legal wall that prevented intelligence and law enforcement from sharing the information necessary to prevent 9/11; it was inter-agency rivalries and turf battles.

Posted on November 12, 2009 at 2:26 PMView Comments

Terrorist Havens

Good essay on “terrorist havens” — like Afghanistan — and why they’re not as big a worry as some maintain:

Rationales for maintaining the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan are varied and complex, but they all center on one key tenet: that Afghanistan must not be allowed to again become a haven for terrorist groups, especially al-Qaeda.

[…]

The debate has largely overlooked a more basic question: How important to terrorist groups is any physical haven? More to the point: How much does a haven affect the danger of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, especially the U.S. homeland? The answer to the second question is: not nearly as much as unstated assumptions underlying the current debate seem to suppose. When a group has a haven, it will use it for such purposes as basic training of recruits. But the operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home, and few recruits are required for even very deadly terrorism. Consider: The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States.

In the past couple of decades, international terrorist groups have thrived by exploiting globalization and information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens.

By utilizing networks such as the Internet, terrorists’ organizations have become more network-like, not beholden to any one headquarters. A significant jihadist terrorist threat to the United States persists, but that does not mean it will consist of attacks instigated and commanded from a South Asian haven, or that it will require a haven at all. Al-Qaeda’s role in that threat is now less one of commander than of ideological lodestar, and for that role a haven is almost meaningless.

Posted on September 21, 2009 at 6:46 AMView Comments

Eighth Anniversary of 9/11

On September 30, 2001, I published a special issue of Crypto-Gram discussing the terrorist attacks. I wrote about the novelty of the attacks, airplane security, diagnosing intelligence failures, the potential of regulating cryptography — because it could be used by the terrorists — and protecting privacy and liberty. Much of what I wrote is still relevant today:

Appalled by the recent hijackings, many Americans have declared themselves willing to give up civil liberties in the name of security. They’ve declared it so loudly that this trade-off seems to be a fait accompli. Article after article talks about the balance between privacy and security, discussing whether various increases of security are worth the privacy and civil-liberty losses. Rarely do I see a discussion about whether this linkage is a valid one.

Security and privacy are not two sides of a teeter-totter. This association is simplistic and largely fallacious. It’s easy and fast, but less effective, to increase security by taking away liberty. However, the best ways to increase security are not at the expense of privacy and liberty.

It’s easy to refute the notion that all security comes at the expense of liberty. Arming pilots, reinforcing cockpit doors, and teaching flight attendants karate are all examples of security measures that have no effect on individual privacy or liberties. So are better authentication of airport maintenance workers, or dead-man switches that force planes to automatically land at the closest airport, or armed air marshals traveling on flights.

Liberty-depriving security measures are most often found when system designers failed to take security into account from the beginning. They’re Band-aids, and evidence of bad security planning. When security is designed into a system, it can work without forcing people to give up their freedoms.

[…]

There are copycat criminals and terrorists, who do what they’ve seen done before. To a large extent, this is what the hastily implemented security measures have tried to prevent. And there are the clever attackers, who invent new ways to attack people. This is what we saw on September 11. It’s expensive, but we can build security to protect against yesterday’s attacks. But we can’t guarantee protection against tomorrow’s attacks: the hacker attack that hasn’t been invented, or the terrorist attack yet to be conceived.

Demands for even more surveillance miss the point. The problem is not obtaining data, it’s deciding which data is worth analyzing and then interpreting it. Everyone already leaves a wide audit trail as we go through life, and law enforcement can already access those records with search warrants. The FBI quickly pieced together the terrorists’ identities and the last few months of their lives, once they knew where to look. If they had thrown up their hands and said that they couldn’t figure out who did it or how, they might have a case for needing more surveillance data. But they didn’t, and they don’t.

More data can even be counterproductive. The NSA and the CIA have been criticized for relying too much on signals intelligence, and not enough on human intelligence. The East German police collected data on four million East Germans, roughly a quarter of their population. Yet they did not foresee the peaceful overthrow of the Communist government because they invested heavily in data collection instead of data interpretation. We need more intelligence agents squatting on the ground in the Middle East arguing the Koran, not sitting in Washington arguing about wiretapping laws.

People are willing to give up liberties for vague promises of security because they think they have no choice. What they’re not being told is that they can have both. It would require people to say no to the FBI’s power grab. It would require us to discard the easy answers in favor of thoughtful answers. It would require structuring incentives to improve overall security rather than simply decreasing its costs. Designing security into systems from the beginning, instead of tacking it on at the end, would give us the security we need, while preserving the civil liberties we hold dear.

Some broad surveillance, in limited circumstances, might be warranted as a temporary measure. But we need to be careful that it remain temporary, and that we do not design surveillance into our electronic infrastructure. Thomas Jefferson once said: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Historically, liberties have always been a casualty of war, but a temporary casualty. This war — a war without a clear enemy or end condition — has the potential to turn into a permanent state of society. We need to design our security accordingly.

Posted on September 11, 2009 at 6:26 AMView Comments

Terrorist Risk of Cloud Computing

I don’t even know where to begin on this one:

As we have seen in the past with other technologies, while cloud resources will likely start out decentralized, as time goes by and economies of scale take hold, they will start to collect into mega-technology hubs. These hubs could, as the end of this cycle, number in the low single digits and carry most of the commerce and data for a nation like ours. Elsewhere, particularly in Europe, those hubs could handle several nations’ public and private data.

And therein lays the risk.

The Twin Towers, which were destroyed in the 9/11 attack, took down a major portion of the U.S. infrastructure at the same time. The capability and coverage of cloud-based mega-hubs would easily dwarf hundreds of Twin Tower-like operations. Although some redundancy would likely exist — hopefully located in places safe from disasters — should a hub be destroyed, it could likely take down a significant portion of the country it supported at the same time.

[…]

Each hub may represent a target more attractive to terrorists than today’s favored nuclear power plants.

It’s only been eight years, and this author thinks that the 9/11 attacks “took down a major portion of the U.S. infrastructure.” That’s just plain ridiculous. I was there (in the U.S, not in New York). The government, the banks, the power system, commerce everywhere except lower Manhattan, the Internet, the water supply, the food supply, and every other part of the U.S. infrastructure I can think of worked just fine during and after the attacks. The New York Stock Exchange was up and running in a few days. Even the piece of our infrastructure that was the most disrupted — the airplane network — was up and running in a week. I think the author of that piece needs to travel to somewhere on the planet where major portions of the infrastructure actually get disrupted, so he can see what it’s like.

No less ridiculous is the main point of the article, which seems to imply that terrorists will someday decide that disrupting people’s Lands’ End purchases will be more attractive than killing them. Okay, that was a caricature of the article, but not by much. Terrorism is an attack against our minds, using random death and destruction as a tactic to cause terror in everyone. To even suggest that data disruption would cause more terror than nuclear fallout completely misunderstands terrorism and terrorists.

And anyway, any e-commerce, banking, etc. site worth anything is backed up and dual-homed. There are lots of risks to our data networks, but physically blowing up a data center isn’t high on the list.

Posted on July 6, 2009 at 6:12 AMView Comments

Why Is Terrorism so Hard?

I don’t know how I missed this great series from Slate in February. It’s eight essays exploring why there have been no follow-on terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11 (not counting the anthrax mailings, I guess). Some excerpts:

Al-Qaida’s successful elimination of the Twin Towers, part of the Pentagon, four jetliners, and nearly 3,000 innocent lives makes the terror group seem, in hindsight, diabolically brilliant. But when you review how close the terrorists came to being exposed by U.S. intelligence, 9/11 doesn’t look like an ingenious plan that succeeded because of shrewd planning. It looks like a stupid plan that succeeded through sheer dumb luck.

[…]

Even when it isn’t linked directly to terrorism, Muslim radicalism seems more prevalent—and certainly more visible—inside the United Kingdom, and in Western Europe generally, than it is inside the United States.

Why the difference? Economics may be one reason. American Muslims are better-educated and wealthier than the average American.

[…]

According to [one] theory, the 9/11 attacks were so stunning a success that they left al-Qaida’s leadership struggling to conceive and carry out an even more fearsome and destructive plan against the United States. In his 2006 book The One Percent Doctrine, journalist Ron Suskind attributes to the U.S. intelligence community the suspicion that “Al Qaeda wouldn’t want to act unless it could top the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with something even more devastating, creating an upward arc of rising and terrible expectation as to what, then, would follow.”

[…]

From a broader policy viewpoint, the Bush administration’s most significant accomplishment, terrorism experts tend to agree, was the 2001 defeat of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime and the destruction of Bin Laden’s training camps. As noted in “The Terrorists-Are-Dumb Theory” and “The Melting Pot Theory,” two-thirds of al-Qaida’s leadership was captured or killed. Journalist Lawrence Wright estimates that nearly 80 percent of al-Qaida’s Afghanistan-based membership was killed in the U.S. invasion, and intelligence estimates suggest al-Qaida’s current membership may be as low as 200 or 300.

[…]

The departing Bush administration’s claim that deposing Saddam Hussein helped prevent acts of terror in the United States has virtually no adherents, except to the extent that it drew some jihadis into Iraq. The Iraq war reduced U.S. standing in the Muslim world, especially when evidence surfaced that U.S. military officials had tortured and humiliated prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison.

[…]

When Schelling, Abrams, and Sageman argue that terrorists are irrational, what they mean is that terror groups seldom realize their big-picture strategic goals. But Berrebi says you can’t pronounce terrorists irrational until you know what they really want. “We don’t know what are the real goals of each organization,” he says. Any given terror organization is likely to have many competing and perhaps even contradictory goals. Given these groups’ inherently secret nature, outsiders aren’t likely to learn which of these goals is given priority.

Read the whole thing.

Posted on June 3, 2009 at 1:35 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.