Entries Tagged "war on the unexpected"

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Obama's Continuing War Against Leakers

The Obama Administration has a comprehensive “insider threat” program to detect leakers from within government. This is pre-Snowden. Not surprisingly, the combination of profiling and “see something, say something” is unlikely to work.

In an initiative aimed at rooting out future leakers and other security violators, President Barack Obama has ordered federal employees to report suspicious actions of their colleagues based on behavioral profiling techniques that are not scientifically proven to work, according to experts and government documents.

The techniques are a key pillar of the Insider Threat Program, an unprecedented government-wide crackdown under which millions of federal bureaucrats and contractors must watch out for “high-risk persons or behaviors” among co-workers. Those who fail to report them could face penalties, including criminal charges.

Another critique.

Posted on July 29, 2013 at 6:28 AMView Comments

The Terrorist Risk of Food Trucks

This is idiotic:

Public Intelligence recently posted a Powerpoint presentation from the NYC fire department (FDNY) discussing the unique safety issues mobile food trucks present. Along with some actual concerns (many food trucks use propane and/or gasoline-powered generators to cook; some *gasp* aren’t properly licensed food vendors), the presenter decided to toss in some DHS speculation on yet another way terrorists might be killing us in the near future.

The rest of the article explains why the DHS believes we should be terrified of food trucks. And then it says:

The DHS’ unfocused “terrorvision” continues to see a threat in every situation and the department seems to be busying itself crafting a response to every conceivable “threat.” The problem with this “method” is that it turns any slight variation of “everyday activity” into something suspicious. The number of “terrorist implications” grows exponentially while the number of solutions remains the same. This Powerpoint is another example of good, old-fashioned fear mongering, utilizing public servants to spread the message.

Hear hear.

Someone needs to do something; the DHS is out of control.

Posted on November 15, 2012 at 6:45 AMView Comments

How To Tell if Your Hotel Guest Is a Terrorist

From the Department of Homeland Security, a handy list of 19 suspicious behaviors that could indicate that a hotel guest is actually a terrorist.

I myself have done several of these.

More generally, this is another example of why all the “see something say something” campaigns fail: “If you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get amateur security.

Posted on November 9, 2012 at 1:32 PMView Comments

The DHS Partners with Major League Soccer to Promote Fear

It seems to be harder and harder to keep people scared:

The Department’s “If You See Something, Say Something™” partnership with the MLS Cup will feature a “If You See Something, Say Something™” graphic that will aired on the video board during the MLS Cup championship game in Carson City, Calif. Safety messaging will also be printed on the back of MLS Cup credentials for staff, players, and volunteers and in game day programs distributed to fans. Throughout the MLS season “If You See Something, Say Something™” campaign graphics appeared on video boards and on the MLS website, and the “If You See Something, Say Something™” Public Service Announcement was read at games.

Will there also be “If You See Something, Say Something™” Day, with Janet Napolitano bobbleheads given to all the kids?

This kind of thing only serves to ratchet up fear, and doesn’t make us any safer. I’ve written about this before.

Posted on November 28, 2011 at 7:26 AMView Comments

Bin Laden's Death Causes Spike in Suspicious Package Reports

It’s not that the risk is greater, it’s that the fear is greater. Data from New York:

There were 10,566 reports of suspicious objects across the five boroughs in 2010. So far this year, the total was 2,775 as of Tuesday compared with 2,477 through the same period last year.

[…]

The daily totals typically spike when terrorist plot makes headlines here or overseas, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said Tuesday. The false alarms themselves sometimes get break-in cable news coverage or feed chatter online, fueling further fright.

On Monday, with news of the dramatic military raid of bin Laden’s Pakistani lair at full throttle, there were 62 reports of suspicious packages. The previous Monday, the 24-hour total was 18. All were deemed non-threats.

Despite all the false alarms, the New York Police Department still wants to hear them:

“We anticipate that with increased public vigilance comes an increase in false alarms for suspicious packages,” Kelly said at the Monday news conference. “This typically happens at times of heightened awareness. But we don’t want to discourage the public. If you see something, say something.”

That slogan, oddly enough, is owned by New York’s transit authority.

I have a different opinion: “If you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get amateur security.”

People have always come forward to tell the police when they see something genuinely suspicious, and should continue to do so. But encouraging people to raise an alarm every time they’re spooked only squanders our security resources and makes no one safer.

Refuse to be terrorized,” people.

Posted on May 5, 2011 at 6:43 AMView Comments

Close the Washington Monument

Securing the Washington Monument from terrorism has turned out to be a surprisingly difficult job. The concrete fence around the building protects it from attacking vehicles, but there’s no visually appealing way to house the airport-level security mechanisms the National Park Service has decided are a must for visitors. It is considering several options, but I think we should close the monument entirely. Let it stand, empty and inaccessible, as a monument to our fears.

An empty Washington Monument would serve as a constant reminder to those on Capitol Hill that they are afraid of the terrorists and what they could do. They’re afraid that by speaking honestly about the impossibility of attaining absolute security or the inevitability of terrorism — or that some American ideals are worth maintaining even in the face of adversity — they will be branded as “soft on terror.” And they’re afraid that Americans would vote them out of office if another attack occurred. Perhaps they’re right, but what has happened to leaders who aren’t afraid? What has happened to “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”?

An empty Washington Monument would symbolize our lawmakers’ inability to take that kind of stand — and their inability to truly lead.

Some of them call terrorism an “existential threat” against our nation. It’s not. Even the events of 9/11, as horrific as they were, didn’t make an existential dent in our nation. Automobile-related fatalities — at 42,000 per year, more deaths each month, on average, than 9/11 — aren’t, either. It’s our reaction to terrorism that threatens our nation, not terrorism itself. The empty monument would symbolize the empty rhetoric of those leaders who preach fear and then use that fear for their own political ends.

The day after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to blow up a Northwest jet with a bomb hidden in his underwear, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said “The system worked.” I agreed. Plane lands safely, terrorist in custody, nobody injured except the terrorist. Seems like a working system to me. The empty monument would represent the politicians and press who pilloried her for her comment, and Napolitano herself, for backing down.

The empty monument would symbolize our war on the unexpected, — our overreaction to anything different or unusual — our harassment of photographers, and our probing of airline passengers. It would symbolize our “show me your papers” society, rife with ID checks and security cameras. As long as we’re willing to sacrifice essential liberties for a little temporary safety, we should keep the Washington Monument empty.

Terrorism isn’t a crime against people or property. It’s a crime against our minds, using the death of innocents and destruction of property to make us fearful. Terrorists use the media to magnify their actions and further spread fear. And when we react out of fear, when we change our policy to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed — even if their attacks fail. But when we refuse to be terrorized, when we’re indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail — even if their attacks succeed.

We can reopen the monument when every foiled or failed terrorist plot causes us to praise our security, instead of redoubling it. When the occasional terrorist attack succeeds, as it inevitably will, we accept it, as we accept the murder rate and automobile-related death rate; and redouble our efforts to remain a free and open society.

The grand reopening of the Washington Monument will not occur when we’ve won the war on terror, because that will never happen. It won’t even occur when we’ve defeated al Qaeda. Militant Islamic terrorism has fractured into small, elusive groups. We can reopen the Washington Monument when we’ve defeated our fears, when we’ve come to accept that placing safety above all other virtues cedes too much power to government and that liberty is worth the risks, and that the price of freedom is accepting the possibility of crime.

I would proudly climb to the top of a monument to those ideals.

A version of this essay — there were a lot of changes and edits — originally appeared in the New York Daily News.

I wish I’d come up with the idea of closing the Washington Monument, but I didn’t. It was the Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott’s idea, although he didn’t say it with as much fervor.

Posted on December 2, 2010 at 10:41 AMView Comments

Unsolicited Terrorism Tips to the U.S. Government

Adding them all up, the U.S. government “receives between 8,000 and 10,000 pieces of information per day, fingering just as many different people as potential threats. They also get information about 40 supposed plots against the United States or its allies daily.”

All of this means that first-time suspects and isolated pieces of information are less likely to be exhaustively investigated. That’s what happened with underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Intelligence agencies had heard that a Nigerian was training with al-Qaeda, received information about a Christmas plot, and read a couple of intercepts about someone named Umar Farouk (no last name) before Abdulmutallab’s father walked into a U.S. embassy to report him. No one ever figured out that these seemingly unrelated pieces of intelligence referred to the same plot, so intelligence agencies didn’t pour enough resources into investigating it.

As I wrote in 2007, in my essay: “The War on the Unexpected”:

If you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get amateur security.

Posted on November 18, 2010 at 6:13 AMView Comments

Vigilant Citizens: Then vs. Now

This is from Atomic Bombing: How to Protect Yourself, published in 1950:

Of course, millions of us will go through our lives never seeing a spy or a saboteur going about his business. Thousands of us may, at one time or another, think we see something like that. Only hundreds will be right. It would be foolish for all of us to see enemy agents lurking behind every tree, to become frightened of our own shadows and report them to the F.B.I.

But we are citizens, we might see something which might be useful to the F.B.I. and it is our duty to report what we see. It is also our duty to know what is useful to the F.B.I. and what isn’t.

[…]

If you think your neighbor has “radical” views — that is none of your or the F.B.I.’s business. After all, it is the difference in views of our citizens, from the differences between Jefferson and Hamilton to the differences between Truman and Dewey, which have made our country strong.

But if you see your neighbor — and the views he expresses might seem to agree with yours completely — commit an act which might lead you to suspect that he might be committing espionage, sabotage or subversion, then report it to the F.B.I.

After that, forget about it. Mr. Hoover also said: “Do not circulate rumors about subversive activities, or draw conclusions from information you furnish the F.B.I. The data you possess might be incomplete or only partially accurate. By drawing conclusions based on insufficient evidence grave injustices might result to innocent persons.”

In other words, you might be wrong. In our system, it takes a court, a trial and a jury to say a man is guilty.

It would be nice if this advice didn’t seem as outdated as the rest of the book.

Posted on July 1, 2010 at 1:05 PMView Comments

If You See Something, Think Twice About Saying Something

If you see something, say something.” Or, maybe not:

The Travis County Criminal Justice Center was closed for most of the day on Friday, May 14, after a man reported that a “suspicious package” had been left in the building. The court complex was evacuated, and the APD Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit was called in for a look-see. The package in question, a backpack, contained paperwork but no explosive device. The building reopened at 1:40pm. The man who reported the suspicious package, Douglas Scott Hoopes, was arrested and charged with making a false report and booked into the jail. The charge is a felony punishable by up to two years in jail.

I don’t think we can have it both ways. We expect people to report anything suspicious — even dumb things — and now we want to press charges if they report something that isn’t an actual threat. Truth is, if you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get amateur security.

I think this excerpt from a poem by Rick Moranis says it best:

If you see something,
Say something.
If you say something,
Mean something.
If you mean something,
You may have to prove something.
If you can’t prove something,
You may regret saying something.

There’s more.

EDITED TO ADD (5/26): Seems like he left the package himself, and then called it in. So there’s ample reason to arrest him. Never mind.

Posted on May 26, 2010 at 9:16 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.