Entries Tagged "assassinations"

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Conspiracy Theories

Fascinating New Scientist article (for subscribers only, but there’s a copy here) on conspiracy theories, and why we believe them:

So what kind of thought processes contribute to belief in conspiracy theories? A study I carried out in 2002 explored a way of thinking sometimes called “major event – major cause” reasoning. Essentially, people often assume that an event with substantial, significant or wide-ranging consequences is likely to have been caused by something substantial, significant or wide-ranging.

I gave volunteers variations of a newspaper story describing an assassination attempt on a fictitious president. Those who were given the version where the president died were significantly more likely to attribute the event to a conspiracy than those who read the one where the president survived, even though all other aspects of the story were equivalent.

To appreciate why this form of reasoning is seductive, consider the alternative: major events having minor or mundane causes — for example, the assassination of a president by a single, possibly mentally unstable, gunman, or the death of a princess because of a drunk driver. This presents us with a rather chaotic and unpredictable relationship between cause and effect. Instability makes most of us uncomfortable; we prefer to imagine we live in a predictable, safe world, so in a strange way, some conspiracy theories offer us accounts of events that allow us to retain a sense of safety and predictability.

Other research has examined how the way we search for and evaluate evidence affects our belief systems. Numerous studies have shown that in general, people give greater attention to information that fits with their existing beliefs, a tendency called “confirmation bias.” Reasoning about conspiracy theories follows this pattern, as shown by research I carried out with Marco Cinnirella at the Royal Holloway University of London, which we presented at the British Psychological Society conference in 2005.

The study, which again involved giving volunteers fictional accounts of an assassination attempt, showed that conspiracy believers found new information to be more plausible if it was consistent with their beliefs. Moreover, believers considered that ambiguous or neutral information fitted better with the conspiracy explanation, while non-believers felt it fitted better with the non-conspiracy account. The same piece of evidence can be used by different people to support very different accounts of events.

This fits with the observation that conspiracy theories often mutate over time in light of new or contradicting evidence. So, for instance, if some new information appears to undermine a conspiracy theory, either the plot is changed to make it consistent with the new information, or the theorists question the legitimacy of the new information. Theorists often argue that those who present such information are themselves embroiled in the conspiracy. In fact, because of my research, I have been accused of being secretly in the pay of various western intelligence services (I promise, I haven’t seen a penny).

Lots of good stuff in the article, including instructions on how to create your own conspiracy theory.

Posted on August 14, 2007 at 6:17 AMView Comments

Security and Class

I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone talking about class issues as they relate to security before:

On July 23, 2003, New York City Council candidate Othniel Boaz Askew was able to shoot and kill council member and rival James Davis with a gun in school headquarters at City Hall, even though entrance to the building required a trip through a magnetometer. How? Askew used his politicians’ privilege — a courtesy wave around from security guards at the magnetometer.

An isolated incident? Hardly. In 2002, undercover investigators from Congress’ auditing arm, the General Accounting Office, used fake law enforcement credentials to get the free pass around the magnetometers at various federal office buildings around the country.

What we see here is class warfare on the security battleground. The reaction to Sept. 11 has led to harassment, busywork, and inconvenience for us all ­ well, almost all. A select few who know the right people, hold the right office or own the right equipment don’t suffer the ordeals. They are waved around security checkpoints or given broad exceptions to security lockdowns.

If you want to know why America’s security is so heavy on busywork and inconvenience and light on practicality, consider this: The people who make the rules don’t have to live with them. Public officials, some law enforcement officers and those who can afford expensive hobbies are often able to pull rank.

Posted on October 19, 2006 at 12:25 PMView Comments

Assassins Don't Do Movie Plots, Either

From “Assassination in the United States: An Operational Study of Recent Assassins, Attackers, and Near-Lethal Approachers,” (a 1999 article published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences):

Few attackers or near-lethal approachers possessed the cunning or the bravado of assassins in popular movies or novels. The reality of American assassination is much more mundane, more banal than assassinations depicted on the screen. Neither monsters nor martyrs, recent American assassins, attackers, and near-lethal approachers engaged in pre-incident patterns of thinking and behaviour.

The quote is from the last page. The whole thing is interesting reading.

Posted on June 7, 2006 at 1:15 PMView Comments

Aircraft Locator a "Terrorist's Dream"

The movie plots keep coming and coming. Here’s my nomination for dumb movie plot of this week:

Skies ‘now terrorist’s dream’

Australia’s proposed new aviation tracking system would make it easier for terrorists to locate aircraft, aviation campaigner Dick Smith said today.

Mr Smith said a plan by Airservices Australia to replace radar tracking of planes with the Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS ­ B) system would allow terrorists to track every aircraft in the sky.

“Government policy using conventional radar makes it almost impossible for a terrorist or a criminal to locate the position and identity of an aircraft,” Mr Smith said.

“With ADS ­ B it’s the opposite because all you need to track every aircraft is a small, non-directional aerial, worth $5.”

Under the present system, a terrorist can locate the position of an aircraft by looking up. And if a terrorist is smart enough to perform this intelligence-gathering exercise near an airport, he can locate the position of aircraft that are low to the ground, and easier to shoot at with missiles. Why are we worrying about telling terrorists where all the high-altitude hard-to-hit planes are?

Now I can invent a movie plot that has the terrorists needing to shoot down a particular plane because this or that famous personage is on it, but that’s a bit much.

Posted on May 29, 2006 at 12:00 PMView Comments

Air Force One Security Leak

Last week the San Francisco Chronicle broke the story that Air Force One’s defenses were exposed on a public Internet site:

Thus, the Air Force reacted with alarm last week after The Chronicle told the Secret Service that a government document containing specific information about the anti-missile defenses on Air Force One and detailed interior maps of the two planes — including the location of Secret Service agents within the planes — was posted on the Web site of an Air Force base.

The document also shows the location where a terrorist armed with a high-caliber sniper rifle could detonate the tanks that supply oxygen to Air Force One’s medical facility.

And a few days later:

Air Force and Pentagon officials scrambled Monday to remove highly sensitive security details about the two Air Force One jetliners after The Chronicle reported that the information had been posted on a public Web site.

The security information — contained in a “technical order” — is used by rescue crews in the event of an emergency aboard various Air Force planes. But this order included details about Air Force One’s anti-missile systems, the location of Secret Service personnel within the aircraft and information on other vulnerabilities that terrorists or a hostile military force could exploit to try to damage or destroy Air Force One, the president’s air carrier.

“We are dealing with literally hundreds of thousands of Web pages, and Web pages are reviewed on a regular basis, but every once in a while something falls through the cracks,” Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Catherine Reardon told The Chronicle.

“We can’t even justify how (the technical order) got out there. It should have been password-protected. We regret it happened. We removed it, and we will look more closely in the future.”

Turns out that this story involves a whole lot more hype than actual security.

The document Caffera found is part of the Air Force’s Technical Order 00-105E-9 – Aerospace Emergency Rescue and Mishap Response Information (Emergency Services) Revision 11. It resided, until recently, on the web site of the Air Logistics Center at Warner Robins Air Force Base. The purpose is pretty straight-ahead: “Recent technological advances in aviation have caused concern for the modern firefighter.” So the document gives “aircraft hazards, cabin configurations, airframe materials, and any other information that would be helpful in fighting fires.”

As a February 2006 briefing from the Air Force Civil Engineer Support Agency, explains that the document is “used by foreign governments or international organizations and is cleared to share this information with the general global public…distribution is unlimited.” The Technical Order existed solely on paper from 1970 to mid-1996, when the Secretary of the Air Force directed that henceforth all technical orders be distributed electronically (for a savings of $270,000 a year). The first CD-ROMs were distributed in January 1999 and the web site at Warner Robins was set up 10 months later. A month after that, the web site became the only place to access the documents, which are routinely updated to reflect changes in aircraft or new regulations.

But back to the document Caffera found. It’s hardly a secret that Air Force One has defenses against surface-to-air missiles. The page that so troubled Caffera indicates that the plane employs infrared countermeasures, with radiating units positioned on the tail and next to or on all four engine pylons. Why does the document provide that level of detail? Because emergency responders could be injured if they walk within a certain radius of one of the IR units while it is operating.

Nor is it remarkable that Secret Service agents would sit in areas on the plane that are close to the President’s suite, as well as between reporters, who are known to sit in the back of the plane, and everyone else. Exactly how this information endangers anyone is unclear. But it would help emergency responders in figuring out where to look for people in the event of an accident. (Interestingly, conjectural drawings of the layout of Air Force One like this one are pretty close to the real deal.)

As for hitting the medical oxygen tanks to destroy the plane, you’d have to be really, really lucky to do that while the plane is moving at any significant speed. And if it’s standing still and you are after the President and armed with a high-caliber sniper rifle, why wouldn’t you target him directly? Besides, if you wanted to make the plane explode, it would be much easier to aim for the fuel tanks in the wings (which when fully-loaded hold 53,611 gallons). Terrorists don’t need a diagram to figure that out. But a rescuer would want this information so that the oxygen valves could be turned off to mitigate the risk of a fire or explosion.

[…]

An Air Force source familiar with the history and purpose of the documents who asked not to be identified laughed when told of the above quote, reiterated that the Technical Order is and always has been unclassified, and said it is unclear how the document can be distributed now, adding that firefighters in particular won’t like any changes that make their jobs more difficult or dangerous.

“The order came down this afternoon [Monday] to remove this particular technical order from the public Web site,’ said John Birdsong, chief of media relations at Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, the air base in Georgia that had originally posted the order on its publicly accessible Web site.

According to Birdsong, the directive to remove the document came from a number of officials, including Dan McGarvey, the chief of information security for the Air Force at the Pentagon.”

Muddying things still further are comments from Jean Schaefer, deputy chief of public affairs for the Secretary of the Air Force. “We have very clear policies of what should be on the Web,” she said. “We need to emphasize the policy to the field. It appears that this document shouldn’t have been on the Web, and we have pulled the document in question. Our policy is clear in that documents that could make our operations vulnerable or threaten the safety of our people should not be available on the Web.”

And now, apparently, neither should documents that help ensure the safety of our pilots, aircrews, firefighters and emergency responders.

Another news report.

Some blogs criticized the San Francisco Chronicle for publishing this, because it gives the terrorists more information. I think they should be criticized for publishing this, because there’s no story here.

EDITED TO ADD (4/11): Much of the document is here.

Posted on April 11, 2006 at 2:40 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.