Sunday, October 31, 2010

Cargo threat

The news is abuzz about the ink cartridges bombs placed in cargo shipments in London and Dubai bound for synagogs in Chicago. The story illustrates a huge gaps that TSA and other security agencies continue to perpetuate. The TSA in particular focuses all of its manpower and technology on screening passengers while virtually ignoring cargo shipments. When airlines installed lockable cabin doors on their cockpits, the cargo industry was largely exempt. Part of the reason for this imbalance is the sheer volume of cargo. Ask any US Customs inspector working the ports on the East coast. They are lucky if they can stop 10 percent of the total volume of shipping containers for additional searches. The TSA is not equipped nor staffed to start checking cargo airports. But this latest threat does show that we are not as safe as we think, even with passengers removing their shoes.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

European Airlines Say US Security Goes Overboard

The British introduced layered security to their airports a decade or more before we ever heard of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or Osama Bin Laden. The Provisional Irish Republican Army's (PIRA) fondness for remotely detonated bombs forced British security to adopt new methods of what we now call homeland security. Therefore, I find their comments about our airport security procedures to be especially well founded. It has always seemed superfluous to me to remove shoes and pull laptops out of the luggage. We already are passing through scanners, metal detectors, and ion scanners (used for detecting chemical traces on surfaces). These additional steps really don't add anything to the process except additional time and opportunity for bottle necks whenever someone forgets to remove an item.

The article goes on to point out the biggest grievance I have with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), namely a complete lack of reviewing policies and procedures. Once a new policy or process is implemented, the TSA does not go back and review the efficacy of the new practice. Take removing your shoes as an example. This was done in reaction to Richard Reid's attempt in 2002 to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes. Only the United States requires shoe removal and other than Reid's failed attempt, I cannot find any other instance of an attempt to smuggle explosives in shoes. Of course while we were busy removing our shoes, Abdul Muttalab hid liquid explosives in his underwear. The two cases should have the TSA focused on detecting the chemical signatures and not the means by which they chemicals are being smuggled. While I hate to think of this what if someone figures out how to either swallow a condom filled with one chemical while hiding the other chemical in another body cavity? Sounds far fetched and gross until you realize this is how drug smugglers have been doing it for years.

The basic problem is unlike Europe, which has small countries with only a handful of international airports, we have dozens of international airports with scores of smaller airports. Getting our procedures consistently applied throughout is almost impossible. The TSA needs to seriously re-evaluate what threats they can stop and how best to detect those threats without inconveniencing passengers further. While TSA is busy insuring shoes are removed, how many other transportation nodes are being left vulnerable?


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

NPR receives bomb threat; timing suggests link to Juan Williams firing

The story that just won't die. Juan Williams has been making his opinions known on Fox News and the O'Reily factor for years. The fact he only now got in trouble makes me wonder if the whole thing was more about his $2 million deal with Fox News and not his comments. NPR reacted badly in that this whole fiasco occured during the autumn fund drives for their member stations. I also think NPR grossly miscalculated that amount of negativity that Mr. Williams' firing would generate. NPR was innudated with angry emails and phone calls demanding that they lose federal funding (which is around 2 percent). The GOP were quick to jump on the bandwagon with the elections only a week away. Mr. Williams kept the fans flamed by condemning NPRs actions and calling them censorship. This all made for a good last week but things had already started to quiet down by Friday. Now we have a bomb threat and we get to hear this rehashed all over again. The question that probably is getting obscured though is; what other stories has NPR aired that might have caused someone to want to bomb NPR?


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why the US has turned against Obama

Michael Barone's piece is a very informative look at the last century or so of American politics through British eyes. The picture that accompanies the article holds though another clue to what may happen in November. Michele Obama has adopted the mantle of fashionista on a mission to take her friends on every junket possible. The media has the false perception that Americans are universally enraptured with fashion. If you walk the streets of Manhattan or Beverly Hills, then such a conclusion may seem valid. But walk down the streets of Cincinnati, St Louis, Pittsburgh, or San Antonio and a different emphasis becomes apparent. Jobs are far more important in these cities than latest fad of some designer. Ohio in particular has lost over 400,000 jobs and I don't see any fashion designer bringing those back to the Buckeye state. The disconnect between people's concern about their welfare and Michele Obama's jet setting lifestyle has caused people to become very dissatisfied with the President. As the press fawns over Mrs. Obama's latest gown, the majority of Americans are dealing with foreclosures and layoffs. While the first lady has nothing to do with policies, she has become the symbol of a government out of touch with the public. Mrs. Obama is her focus on all things Pravda reminds me of that other out of touch lady, Marie Antoinette. Certainly there are many other reasons voters will change the face of both the House and Senate this November but the first lady presents the best symbol.


Monday, October 25, 2010


I find the whole Wikileaks debacle pretty despicable. There are untold amounts of operational military information being put on the web without regard to how many US military, as well as Afghani and Pakistani, personnel are being endangered. That being said, I think Wikileaks is helping to keep the light off of a much more interesting question; how is that much information getting into the hands of Wikileaks in the first place?

In conflicts up to and including Desert Storm, deployed military personnel could only communicate by regular mail and 5 minute phone calls home. Most of this was limited as the time to write a letter or call home was controlled by other factors (such as combat, maintenance, or traveling to the next battle). The war in Afghanistan and Iraq were the first major conflicts of the 21st Century where cell phones, digital cameras and email were de rigueur. Deployed personnel for the first time in history could instantaneously send digital images to anyone with an email address. It was difficult to control the photos, videos and emails coming out of theater. Soldiers (including airmen, Marines, and sailors) started to create blogs about their experiences. The military had little choice but to encourage this free advertisement to keep recruiting numbers up. Facebook took off in 2008 and the US military found shutting down access resulted in outcries from the personnel as well as their families.

Basically social media and 21st Century technology has outstripped the Department of Defense's ability to regulate the information leaving their facilities. Some may ask, couldn't they just shut down access? It has been tried but this also shuts down the ability for military personnel to communicate with their family. In today's society, young people expect to be in touch with friends and family 24/7. Placing them in an restrictive environment not only goes against their expectations, it also is fruitless. Soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors are taught to be resourceful if nothing else. If there is a server to be connected with, they will figure out how to get there.

The article I linked here at first sounds like just desserts. In his pursuit of all things US military, Mr. Assange has lost his way and his people are quitting. The more interesting story though is how did thousands of documents get sent t Wikileaks without the Department of Defense doing something about? There are some highly paid general officers in charge of cyber that need to be asked how this happened under their watch. We don't need to see Airmen Snuffy being paraded in front of a court martial unless he is standing trial with the senior officers responsible for letting this mess get this out of control.


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Dept Homeland Security Sec Janet Napolitano doesn't volunteer

The DHS public affairs chief should be fired. Setting up this event without thought to how stupid it looks that the Secretary would not volunteer reinforces fears of full body scanners. Of course, it doesn't help when the secretary then goes on to say the following;

"Those who read the images are not actually physically at the gate, so they cannot associate an image with an individual person at all," she said.

"And the machines are set so that no image is retained."

The first statement means there are images that people would be uncomfortable with strangers seeing. The second statement means the machines are capable of retaining the images and some idiot will reset the machines. All of this so we can pretend we are safer from the boogey man.


Friday, October 22, 2010

"Cheese-eating surrender monkeys"

The quote of course is from The Simpsons and refers to the Battle of France. Many unflattering versions of history have the Battle of France as pretty much a surrender to Germany. I can't help but think about that quote as I read about the nationwide strike that is paralyzing the City of Light and the rest of France.

When Americans think of France, they tend to think of an artsy nation full of liberal thinking egalitarians. History tends to show a different side. The huge economic disparity between the monarchy and peasants led to the French revolution, which in-turn gave the world Emperor Napoleon. After ridding themselves of monarchs and despots, the bourgeois settled in to try their hand at running things. The bourgeois begat the Vichy. The bourgeois subjugated much of sub-Saharan Africa. The French did such a wonderful job of persecuting the Muslims of Angola that it is rather surprising that 9/11 happened on American versus French soil. The United States is struggling with how they feel about Muslims (something Juan Williams chose to dive into head first) but we have nothing on the French.

The French worker sees themselves aligned with the peasant class of the revolution but with a sense of privilege. A brief example, an eight hour work day in France includes lunch time. In the US, lunch is not considered part of the 8 hour work day so most Americans work 9 or more hours. Most Americans get a 30 minute lunch break, many get 60 minutes. In France, lunch is much more of a relaxed concept with no set amount time. French workers work less hours than Americans yet they get paid more. The French pension system is much more robust than what the average American can expect. Maintaining such a system though is bankrupting the country. Never mind all of that, the French worker is so entitled that if they feel these privileges threatened, a strike is inevitable. I wonder if Mr. Sarkozy will surrender?

France in turmoil as nationwide strike over pension reform stretches on

Thursday, October 21, 2010

More on full body scanners

The real point is how we've allowed the basic tenet of our legal system, innocent until proven guilt, to be obfuscated by the requirement for increased security. New technologies are employed with only a modicum of support (i.e. full body scanners will prevent liquid explosives from being smuggled on board)/ How many attempts have been made? (answer; only one so far, Abdulmutallab) The public was assured full body scanners were NOT invasive in what was actually viewed by the technicians. It was shortly after the fielding that it was learned knuckle-heads at LaGuardia were able to see female passengers most intimate parts. Furthermore, the system could archive the images. Yes there are terrorists out there who would like to attack Americans but their numbers are few and they are not hiding behind every corner. We must not forsake our civil and legal rights in response to some terrorist "boogeyman".

Pilot Refuses Full-Body Scan, Says TSA Doesn’t Make Travel Safer « CBS New York – News, Sports, Weather, Traffic and the Best of NY

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Big Brother, UK style

Apparently plans are being revived to require a cell phone providers to archive all data records on customers for the past year. The point of this? To allow law enforcement to review anyone (and potentially everyone) that is engaged in suspicious behavior. The British government seems hellbent on pushing security over the rights of their citizens.

Every email and website to be stored - Telegraph

The importance of writing by hand

I started to carrying a Moleskine notebook to jot down thoughts for my writing. I use only cursive writing in my notebook and have noticed my thoughts tend to be better developed and elegant. I read an article a few months ago that showed the notebooks of Mark Twain. He constantly was taking notes representing a turn of phrase or observation that would later inspire some part of his writing. Using a notebook helps keep me on track mentally to get through the myriad of crap required of a program chair. I notice the students in my classroom that take notes do better in class than those that just sit and stare. It is discouraging to watch students to ignore the need to take notes. I also teach a college survival skills course and these first time students have no idea how to take notes. The students don't seem to know what to do with their hands unless it is a keyboard of some kind. One young lady emphatically assured me she can take all of her notes on her phone. Sorry, no dice as we don't know if students are texting or taking notes on their handheld device. The students remain unable to comprehend the importance of using a pen and paper to improve their classroom experience. The article below shows this is not just a Western phenomena, Chinese children are beginning to forget how to form characters (idioms) that represent more than just a single sound.

How writing by hand makes kids smarter - The Week

Monday, October 18, 2010

DHS and DoD joining cyber efforts

Secretary Gates and Secretary Napolitano released a joint statement last week announcing their respective agencies would be combining efforts to better coordinate on cyber warfare. It makes sense given the USAF new Cyber Command and creation of whole new cyber career field. DHS is extremely lacking in the manpower to have any impact on preventing cyber terrorism. What isn't clear is what the Department of Defense gets from working with DHS. The military is focused on enemy forces overseas and in the case of Afghanistan, destroying those forces. DHS looks at protecting the homeland mainly from a law enforcement perspective. I imagine DHS is hoping to have access to all of those DoD and NSA resources to keep eyes on threats overseas. The reverse relationship does pose some concerns for civil rights. Could the Department of Defense gain access to law enforcement information on US citizens? Title 10 of the US Code specifically prohibits the use of military forces on US soil except for specific exceptions including martial law. Intelligence oversight specifically prohibits the use of DoD resources to target US citizens for the purposes of gathering information. By combing the efforts of the two agencies, intelligence oversight could be avoided without specifically violating the law.

DHS: Joint Statement

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Pentagon braced for the release of 400,000 Iraq files on Wikileaks

I wonder how much was leaked by contractors and not the military? There is a lot of stupid shit going on in Iraq and Afghanistan but leaking information to a civilian website is not the way to handle it.

A task force of 120 people has been assembled to assess the potential implications and damage of the disclosure of the documents, which promises to eclipse the recent release of more than 70,000 classified US military files on the Afghanistan war.

Pentagon braced for the release of 400,000 Iraq files on Wikileaks - Telegraph

Saturday, October 16, 2010

BBC News - Merkel says German multicultural society has failed

History is full of examples where multi-culturalism has failed yet the United States continues to pretend it will work. The results have been everything from MS-13 to the rise of ridiculous DHS policies to protect us from "terrorists".

BBC News - Merkel says German multicultural society has failed

Orwell hadn't seen anything yet!

Yasir Afifi, a 20-year-old computer salesman and community college student, took his car in for an oil change earlier this month and his mechanic spotted an odd wire hanging from the undercarriage.
The wire was attached to a strange magnetic device that puzzled Afifi and the mechanic. They freed it from the car and posted images of it online, asking for help in identifying it.
Two days later, FBI agents arrived at Afifi's Santa Clara apartment and demanded the return of their property — a global positioning system tracking device now at the center of a raging legal debate over privacy rights.

Oil change reignites debate over GPS trackers - Yahoo! News

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Espionage at Iranian nuclear facilities

“Iran revealed for the first time Saturday that some personnel at the country's nuclear facilities were lured by promises of money to pass secrets to the West, but that increased security and worker privileges have put a stop to the spying.”

If the reverse were true, the US government would be escalating towards war with Iran. As Iran doesn’t have the massive military complex of the US, they are much more likely to resort to terrorism. Terrorists could either overtly attack the US using conventional means (bombs, hijacked aircraft, small rifle companies) or something like the Stux worm. In either case, the public acknowledgement of espionage in their nuclear facilities means relations between Iran and the West remain tenuous.

Iran acknowledges espionage at nuclear facilities -

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

True cost of cheap food

The United Fruit Company led the way in exploiting Central America. At one time, 90% of the population of Guatemala owned only 10% of the land. The UFC owned the rest of the country. The UFC grew bananas for exports and the local residents weren't allowed to grow crops for their own consumption. Most people in the US have never heard of the UFC. Even those who listen to NPR and buy free trade coffe may not understand the true cost of being able to buy strawberries year round. Exploiting agrarian based economies for our own consumerism will lead to further terrorist groups being formed.

True cost of cheap pineapples in UK supermarkets | Environment | The Guardian

Monday, October 4, 2010

Be very afraid

Hardly a month goes by without someone in authority reminding us to expect another attack imminently. I have lost count of statements from MI5, the police and other experts that an attack is a matter of "not if, but when". The attacks never occur, or are brilliantly thwarted, like the one reportedly prevented this week, apparently by dropping bombs from drones on Pakistani villages. What is noticeable is that the tempo of such threats increases immediately before Christmas and when the security lobby is involved in a fight over money, as now.

Be very afraid – we are being fleeced by purveyors of fear | Simon Jenkins | Comment is free | The Guardian

Sunday, October 3, 2010


According to Webster's dictionary, a mercenary is one who merely serves for wages, especially a soldier hired into foreign service. Mercenaries have been around ever since monarchs contracted out their warfighting. The Hessians hired by the British during the American revolution are perhaps the an example familiar to high school history students. Another example is the French Foreign Legion. Legionnaires are all from foreign nations which gave the French government the option of denying culpability should the legion commit actions deemed illegal, immoral or simply unsavory.

Mercenaries allow governments to immediately summon armed soldiers when needed and forgo the cost of maintaining a large standing military. Sending one's military into an area implies all types of liability issues that can be avoided through the use of mercenaries or what is now commonly referred to as private military institutions (PMI). These "contractors" can be hired by anyone with enough money and can be used to avoid obvious ties with their employer. You can't hide the fact that the 10th Mountain Division or 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit represent the United States. Their presence and actions represent the larger intentions of the United States government. On the other, those the mercenaries represent are far less clear cut. Often it is difficult to determine even which contractor is responsible as the mercenaries direct report may be a sub-contractor from another PMI.

PMIs entice former military personnel with lucrative contracts. In 2004, I met some going into Afghanistan. For 2 years in-country, they would make $200,000 which is quite a supplement to their E-8 retirements. Their are no health benefits for these contractors, no retirement plan and no survivor benefits. If you survive, you get a nice paycheck. Get hurt or killed and you get nothing (to be sure, there is some working compensation benefits for those who get injured but this is a far cry from what military personnel are used to under the DoD system).

It is disconcerting but not really surprising that there are now more private security firms even with the exploits of Blackwater making the news. Even Blackwater is still around, albeit under a new name. The article points out the Secretary Clinton had promised Blackwater (now renamed as "Xe") would be barred from all federal contracts. While I'm no fan of Secretary Clinton, I can't see her being able to keep her promise given the inordinate amount of money that has changed hands between Erik Prince (founder of Blackwater) and the federal government. He just knows too much about where the bodies are buried to be barred from getting additional contracts.

What is perhaps the most concerning of all though is the use of Blackwater and other PMIs during domestic disaster response. Blackwater sent a huge contingent of armed personnel and equipment to Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The lucrative disaster relief market is just too good for these contractors to pass up. If you think about it for a moment, it makes some sense. Most of the workers sent to disaster sites are aid workers with little to no military training. The aftermath of a large scale disaster usually means lawlessness, theft, and general chaos. Using soldiers to maintain the peace is fraught with peril. Soldiers shooting or abusing US citizens makes front page news and could lead to bigger problems. Contractors on the other hand can be summarily fired and should the need arise, prosecuted and sent to jail....end of story.

Mercenaries are nothing new and will with us as long as we have some form of government. We just need to be vigilant of their presence and actions.

Exclusive: Blackwater Wins Piece of $10 Billion Mercenary Deal | Danger Room |

Friday, October 1, 2010

Cyber superweapon

The Stuxnet worm, originally set to attack Iran, is now attacking China. In what sounds like something out of a J.J. Abrams production, the malware is designed to attack industrial systems by overriding system safeguards that could lead to catastrophic failures. Boilers could explode, reactors could meltdown, toxic waste could be released into the air or water systems. Stuxnet is able to exploit our desire to manage multiple plants remotely using computer systems and the Internet. Remote access requires connection to the Internet which exposes the systems to malware. This new superweapon malware makes WMDs almost passe. A terrorist group now can turn a country's industrial plants into multiple WMDs. No need to telegraph an attack by stockpiling biological or chemical agents for an attacks. A terrorist group now doesn't risk being discovered based on the telltale signs of stockpiled radioactive material. The military may now be a relic as well since a malware program could do more damage in a few minutes compared to days or weeks for a conventional military attack. A future scenario could be a single terrorist group holding an entire nation hostage by threatening to shutdown all of their factories and power plants.

Stuxnet 'cyber superweapon' moves to China