Entries Tagged "9/11"

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Michael Chertoff Parodied in The Onion

Funny:

“While 9/11 has historically always fallen on 9/11, we as Americans need to be prepared for a wide range of dates,” Chertoff said during a White House press conference. “There’s a chance we could all find ourselves living in a post-6/10 world as early as next July. Unless, that is, we’re already living in a pre-2/14 world.”

“1/1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5,” Chertoff continued for nearly 45 minutes, “12/28, 12/29, 12/30, 12/31—these are all plausible and serious threats.”

Not very far from reality. Refuse to be terrorized, everyone.

Posted on January 14, 2009 at 12:04 PMView Comments

Jim Harper Responds to My Comments on Fingerprinting Foreigners at the Border

Good comments:

Anyway, turning someone away from the border is a trivial security against terrorism because terrorists are fungible. Turning away a known terrorist merely inconveniences a terrorist group, which just has to recruit someone different. The 9/11 attacks were conducted for the most part by people who had no known record of terrorism and who arrived on visas granted to them by the State Department. Biometric border security would have prevented none of them entering.

(Another option is physical avoidance of the border — crossing into the United States from Canada or Mexico at an uncontrolled part of the border. I know of no instance of this occurring (successfully), but it could. And, most importantly, there’s no cost-effective way to prevent it.)

In summary, border biometrics have some benefit! They are at best a mild inconvenience to terrorists — an inconvenience that the 9/11 attacks mostly anticipated. But that’s not zero benefit! It’s just negligible benefit.

Posted on December 12, 2008 at 6:21 AMView Comments

Security Perception: Fear vs Anger

If you’re fearful, you think you’re more at risk than if you’re angry:

In the aftermath of September 11th, we realized that, tragically, we were presented with an opportunity to find out whether our lab research could predict how the country as a whole would react to the attacks and how U.S. citizens would perceive future risks of terrorism. We did a nationwide field experiment, the first of its kind. As opposed to the participants in our lab studies, the participants in our nationwide field study did have strong feelings about the issues at stake — September 11th and possible future attacks — and they also had a lot of information about these issues as well. We wondered whether the same emotional carryover that we found in our lab studies would occur — whether fear and anger would still have opposing effects.

In pilot tests, we identified some media coverage of the attacks (video clips) that triggered a sense of fear, and some coverage that triggered a sense of anger. We randomly assigned participants from around the country to be exposed to one of those two conditions — media reports that were known to trigger fear or reports that were known to trigger anger. Next, we asked participants to predict how much risk, if any, they perceived in a variety of different events. For example, they were asked to predict the likelihood of another terrorist attack on the United States within the following 12 months and whether they themselves expected to be victims of potential future attacks. They made many other risk judgments about themselves, the country, and the world as a whole. They also rated their policy preferences.

The results mirrored those of our lab studies. Specifically, people who saw the anger-inducing video clip were subsequently more optimistic on a whole series of judgments about the future — their own future, the country’s future, and the future of the world. In contrast, the people who saw the fear-inducing video clip were less optimistic about their own future, the country’s future, and the world’s future. Policy preferences also differed as a function of exposure to the different media/emotion conditions. Participants who saw the fear-inducing clip subsequently endorsed less aggressive and more conciliatory policies than did participants who saw the anger-inducing clip, even though the clip was only a few minutes long and participants had had weeks to form their own policy opinions regarding responses to terrorism.

So, to summarize: we should not be fearful of future terrorist attacks, we should be angry that our government has done such a poor job safeguarding our liberties. And that if we take this second approach, we are more likely to respond effectively to future terrorist attacks.

Posted on March 23, 2008 at 12:42 PMView Comments

First Responders

I live in Minneapolis, so the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River earlier this month hit close to home, and was covered in both my local and national news.

Much of the initial coverage consisted of human interest stories, centered on the victims of the disaster and the incredible bravery shown by first responders: the policemen, firefighters, EMTs, divers, National Guard soldiers and even ordinary people, who all risked their lives to save others. (Just two weeks later, three rescue workers died in their almost-certainly futile attempt to save six miners in Utah.)

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of these stories is that there’s nothing particularly amazing about it. No matter what the disaster — hurricane, earthquake, terrorist attack — the nation’s first responders get to the scene soon after.

Which is why it’s such a crime when these people can’t communicate with each other.

Historically, police departments, fire departments and ambulance drivers have all had their own independent communications equipment, so when there’s a disaster that involves them all, they can’t communicate with each other. A 1996 government report said this about the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993: “Rescuing victims of the World Trade Center bombing, who were caught between floors, was hindered when police officers could not communicate with firefighters on the very next floor.”

And we all know that police and firefighters had the same problem on 9/11. You can read details in firefighter Dennis Smith’s book and 9/11 Commission testimony. The 9/11 Commission Report discusses this as well: Chapter 9 talks about the first responders’ communications problems, and commission recommendations for improving emergency-response communications are included in Chapter 12 (pp. 396-397).

In some cities, this communication gap is beginning to close. Homeland Security money has flowed into communities around the country. And while some wasted it on measures like cameras, armed robots and things having nothing to do with terrorism, others spent it on interoperable communications capabilities. Minnesota did that in 2004.

It worked. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek told the St. Paul Pioneer-Press that lives were saved by disaster planning that had been fine-tuned and improved with lessons learned from 9/11:

“We have a unified command system now where everyone — police, fire, the sheriff’s office, doctors, coroners, local and state and federal officials — operate under one voice,” said Stanek, who is in charge of water recovery efforts at the collapse site.

“We all operate now under the 800 (megahertz radio frequency system), which was the biggest criticism after 9/11,” Stanek said, “and to have 50 to 60 different agencies able to speak to each other was just fantastic.”

Others weren’t so lucky. Louisiana’s first responders had catastrophic communications problems in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina. According to National Defense Magazine:

Police could not talk to firefighters and emergency medical teams. Helicopter and boat rescuers had to wave signs and follow one another to survivors. Sometimes, police and other first responders were out of touch with comrades a few blocks away. National Guard relay runners scurried about with scribbled messages as they did during the Civil War.

A congressional report on preparedness and response to Katrina said much the same thing.

In 2004, the U.S. Conference of Mayors issued a report on communications interoperability. In 25 percent of the 192 cities surveyed, the police couldn’t communicate with the fire department. In 80 percent of cities, municipal authorities couldn’t communicate with the FBI, FEMA and other federal agencies.

The source of the problem is a basic economic one, called the collective action problem. A collective action is one that needs the coordinated effort of several entities in order to succeed. The problem arises when each individual entity’s needs diverge from the collective needs, and there is no mechanism to ensure that those individual needs are sacrificed in favor of the collective need.

Jerry Brito of George Mason University shows how this applies to first-responder communications. Each of the nation’s 50,000 or so emergency-response organizations — local police department, local fire department, etc. — buys its own communications equipment. As you’d expect, they buy equipment as closely suited to their needs as they can. Ensuring interoperability with other organizations’ equipment benefits the common good, but sacrificing their unique needs for that compatibility may not be in the best immediate interest of any of those organizations. There’s no central directive to ensure interoperability, so there ends up being none.

This is an area where the federal government can step in and do good. Too much of the money spent on terrorism defense has been overly specific: effective only if the terrorists attack a particular target or use a particular tactic. Money spent on emergency response is different: It’s effective regardless of what the terrorists plan, and it’s also effective in the wake of natural or infrastructure disasters.

No particular disaster, whether intentional or accidental, is common enough to justify spending a lot of money on preparedness for a specific emergency. But spending money on preparedness in general will pay off again and again.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD (7/13): More research.

Posted on August 23, 2007 at 3:23 AMView Comments

More Than 10 Ways to Avoid the Next 9/11

From yesterday’s New York Times, “Ten Ways to Avoid the Next 9/11”:

If we are fortunate, we will open our newspapers this morning knowing that there have been no major terrorist attacks on American soil in nearly five years. Did we just get lucky?

The Op-Ed page asked 10 people with experience in security and counterterrorism to answer the following question: What is one major reason the United States has not suffered a major attack since 2001, and what is the one thing you would recommend the nation do in order to avoid attacks in the future?

Actually, they asked more than 10, myself included. But some of us were cut because they didn’t have enough space. This was my essay:

Despite what you see in the movies and on television, it’s actually very difficult to execute a major terrorist act. It’s hard to organize, plan, and execute an attack, and it’s all too easy to slip up and get caught. Combine that with our intelligence work tracking terrorist cells and interdicting terrorist funding, and you have a climate where major attacks are rare. In many ways, the success of 9/11 was an anomaly; there were many points where it could have failed. The main reason we haven’t seen another 9/11 is that it isn’t as easy as it looks.

Much of our counterterrorist efforts are nothing more than security theater: ineffectual measures that look good. Forget the “war on terror”; the difficulty isn’t killing or arresting the terrorists, it’s finding them. Terrorism is a law enforcement problem, and needs to be treated as such. For example, none of our post-9/11 airline security measures would have stopped the London shampoo bombers. The lesson of London is that our best defense is intelligence and investigation. Rather than spending money on airline security, or sports stadium security — measures that require us to guess the plot correctly in order to be effective — we’re better off spending money on measures that are effective regardless of the plot.

Intelligence and investigation have kept us safe from terrorism in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. If the CIA and FBI had done a better job of coordinating and sharing data in 2001, 9/11 would have been another failed attempt. Coordination has gotten better, and those agencies are better funded — but it’s still not enough. Whenever you read about the billions being spent on national ID cards or massive data mining programs or new airport security measures, think about the number of intelligence agents that the same money could buy. That’s where we’re going to see the greatest return on our security investment.

Posted on September 11, 2006 at 6:36 AMView Comments

How to Not Fix the ID Problem

Several of the 9/11 terrorists had Virginia driver’s licenses in fake names. These were not forgeries; these were valid Virginia IDs that were illegally sold by Department of Motor Vehicle workers.

So what did Virginia do to correct the problem? They required more paperwork in order to get an ID.

But the problem wasn’t that it was too easy to get an ID. The problem was that insiders were selling them illegally. Which is why the Virginia “solution” didn’t help, and the problem remains:

The manager of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles office at Springfield Mall was charged yesterday with selling driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and others for up to $3,500 apiece.

The arrest of Francisco J. Martinez marked the second time in two years that a Northern Virginia DMV employee was accused of fraudulently selling licenses for cash. A similar scheme two years ago at the DMV office in Tysons Corner led to the guilty pleas of two employees.

And after we spend billions on the REAL ID act, and require even more paperwork to get a state ID, the problem will still remain.

Posted on July 19, 2005 at 1:15 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.