Entries Tagged "tradecraft"

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Snowden's Dead Man's Switch

Edward Snowden has set up a dead man’s switch. He’s distributed encrypted copies of his document trove to various people, and has set up some sort of automatic system to distribute the key, should something happen to him.

Dead man’s switches have a long history, both for safety (the machinery automatically stops if the operator’s hand goes slack) and security reasons. WikiLeaks did the same thing with the State Department cables.

“It’s not just a matter of, if he dies, things get released, it’s more nuanced than that,” he said. “It’s really just a way to protect himself against extremely rogue behavior on the part of the United States, by which I mean violent actions toward him, designed to end his life, and it’s just a way to ensure that nobody feels incentivized to do that.”

I’m not sure he’s thought this through, though. I would be more worried that someone would kill me in order to get the documents released than I would be that someone would kill me to prevent the documents from being released. Any real-world situation involves multiple adversaries, and it’s important to keep all of them in mind when designing a security system.

Posted on July 18, 2013 at 8:37 AMView Comments

Ricin as a Terrorist Tool

This paper (full paper behind paywall)—from Environment International (2009)—does a good job of separating fact from fiction:

Abstract: In recent years there has been an increased concern regarding the potential use of chemical and biological weapons for mass urban terror. In particular, there are concerns that ricin could be employed as such an agent. This has been reinforced by recent high profile cases involving ricin, and its use during the cold war to assassinate a high profile communist dissident. Nevertheless, despite these events, does it deserve such a reputation? Ricin is clearly toxic, though its level of risk depends on the route of entry. By ingestion, the pathology of ricin is largely restricted to the gastrointestinal tract where it may cause mucosal injuries; with appropriate treatment, most patients will make a full recovery. As an agent of terror, it could be used to contaminate an urban water supply, with the intent of causing lethality in a large urban population. However, a substantial mass of pure ricin powder would be required. Such an exercise would be impossible to achieve covertly and would not guarantee success due to variables such as reticulation management, chlorination, mixing, bacterial degradation and ultra-violet light. By injection, ricin is lethal; however, while parenteral delivery is an ideal route for assassination, it is not realistic for an urban population. Dermal absorption of ricin has not been demonstrated. Ricin is also lethal by inhalation. Low doses can lead to progressive and diffuse pulmonary oedema with associated inflammation and necrosis of the alveolar pneumocytes. However, the risk of toxicity is dependent on the aerodynamic equivalent diameter (AED) of the ricin particles. The AED, which is an indicator of the aerodynamic behaviour of a particle, must be of sufficiently low micron size as to target the human alveoli and thereby cause major toxic effects. To target a large population would also necessitate a quantity of powder in excess of several metric tons. The technical and logistical skills required to formulate such a mass of powder to the required size is beyond the ability of terrorists who typically operate out of a kitchen in a small urban dwelling or in a small ill-equipped laboratory. Ricin as a toxin is deadly but as an agent of bioterror it is unsuitable and therefore does not deserve the press attention and subsequent public alarm that has been created.

This paper lists all known intoxication attempts, including the famous Markov assassination.

Posted on June 14, 2013 at 7:15 AMView Comments

Bad CIA Operational Security

I have no idea if this story about CIA spies in Lebanon is true, and it will almost certainly never be confirmed or denied:

But others inside the American intelligence community say sloppy “tradecraft”—the method of covert operations—by the CIA is also to blame for the disruption of the vital spy networks.

In Beirut, two Hezbollah double agents pretended to go to work for the CIA. Hezbollah then learned of the restaurant where multiple CIA officers were meeting with several agents, according to the four current and former officials briefed on the case. The CIA used the codeword “PIZZA” when discussing where to meet with the agents, according to U.S. officials. Two former officials describe the location as a Beirut Pizza Hut. A current US official denied that CIA officers met their agents at Pizza Hut.

Posted on November 30, 2011 at 6:57 AMView Comments

How Smart are Islamic Terrorists?

Organizational Learning and Islamic Militancy (May 2009) was written by Michael Kenney for the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s long: 146 pages. From the executive summary:

Organizational Learning and Islamic Militancy contains significant findings for counter-terrorism research and policy. Unlike existing studies, this report suggests that the relevant distinction in knowledge learned by terrorists is not between tacit and explicit knowledge, but metis and techne. Focusing on the latter sheds new insight into how terrorists acquire the experiential “know how” they need to perform their activities as opposed to abstract “know what” contained in technical bomb-making preparations. Drawing on interviews with bomb-making experts and government intelligence officials, the PI illustrates the critical difference between learning terrorism skills such as bomb-making and weapons firing by abstraction rather than by doing. Only the latter provides militants with the experiential, intuitive knowledge, in other words the metis, they need to actually build bombs, fire weapons, survey potential targets, and perform other terrorism-related activities. In making this case, the PI debunks current misconceptions regarding the Internet’s perceived role as a source of terrorism knowledge.

Another major research finding of this study is that while some Islamic militants learn, they do not learn particularly well. Much terrorism learning involves fairly routine adaptations in communications practices and targeting tactics, what organization theorists call single-loop learning or adaptation. Less common among militants are consequential changes in beliefs and values that underlie collection action or even changes in organizational goals and strategies. Even when it comes to single-loop learning, Islamic militants face significant impediments. Many terrorist conspiracies are compartmented, which makes learning difficult by impeding the free flow of information between different parts of the enterprise. Other, non-compartmented conspiracies are hindered from learning because the same people that survey targets and build bombs also carry out the attacks. Still other operations, including relatively successful ones like the Madrid bombings in 2004, are characterized by such sloppy tradecraft that investigators piece together the conspiracy quickly, preventing additional attacks and limiting militants’ ability to learn from experience.

Indeed, one of the most significant findings to emerge from this research regards the poor tradecraft and operational mistakes repeatedly committed by Islamic terrorists. Even the most “successful” operations in recent years—9/11, 3/11, and 7/7—contained basic errors in tradecraft and execution. The perpetrators that carried out these attacks were determined, adaptable (if only in a limited, tactical sense)—and surprisingly careless. The PI extracts insights from his informants that help account for terrorists’ poor tradecraft: metis in guerrilla warfare that does not translate well to urban terrorism, the difficulty of acquiring mission-critical experience when the attack or counter-terrorism response kills the perpetrators, a hostile counter-terrorism environment that makes it hard to plan and coordinate attacks or develop adequate training facilities, and perpetrators’ conviction that they don’t need to be too careful when carrying out attacks because their fate has been predetermined by Allah. The PI concludes this report by discussing some of the policy implications of these findings, suggesting that the real threat from Islamic militancy comes less from hyper-sophisticated “super terrorists” than from steadfast militants whose own dedication to the cause may undermine the cunning intelligence and fluid adaptability they need to survive.

Posted on November 18, 2009 at 1:45 PMView Comments

How Not to Carry Around Secret Documents

Here’s a tip: when walking around in public with secret government documents, put them in an envelope.

A huge MI5 and police counterterrorist operation against al-Qaeda suspects had to be brought forward at short notice last night after Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism chief accidentally revealed a briefing document.


The operation was nearly blown when Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick walked up Downing Street holding a document marked “secret” with highly sensitive operational details visible to photographers.

The document, carried under his arm, revealed how many terrorist suspects were to be arrested, in which cities across the North West. It revealed that armed members of the Greater Manchester Police would force entry into a number of homes. The operation’s secret code headed the list of action that was to take place.

Now the debate begins about whether he was just stupid, or very very stupid:

Opposition MPs criticised Mr Quick, with the Liberal Democrats describing him as “accident prone” and the Conservatives condemning his “very alarming” lapse of judgement.

But former Labour Mayor of London Ken Livingstone said it would be wrong for such an experienced officer to resign “for holding a piece of paper the wrong way”.

It wasn’t just a piece of paper. It was a secret piece of paper. (Here’s the best blow-up of the picture. And surely these people have procedures for transporting classified material. That’s what the mistake was: not following proper procedure.

He resigned.

Posted on April 10, 2009 at 7:06 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.