Tuesday, December 15, 2015

If You See Something . . . Whatever

            So I saw something. And I tried to say something.  And it was just too hard, so I gave up.
            I’m not going to name the airport, but many of you have flown through it.  You have to catch a shuttle between terminals. The shuttle goes across the (very large) flight line, so you don’t have to pass through security again.
            As soon as the door closed on the shuttle I was riding, a middle aged man in a business suit and long curly hair took out his phone and began taking a video.  He took one long, running shot that panned around the inside the shuttle, filming every passenger and every seat. Then, keeping the camera rolling, he panned outside the window.  As the shuttle passed closely behind wide-body jets, he bent over, filming first the baggage carts and handlers, then up into the cargo holds as the bags were loaded.  He filmed the undercarriage of each aircraft as we passed by – the wheels and the wheel wells above. He filmed vehicles on the flight line, and the uniforms of people driving those vehicles.  As we approached the destination terminal, he took one more long sweep around the inside.  As his lens passed where I was standing with my bag, I gave him a salute. Not the kind I learned in the Army – the kind I learned driving in New Jersey.  He didn’t seem to notice. He was focused on filming the door as it opened, and the process of passengers filing into the new terminal. Then he turned off the camera, put it in his pocket, and entered the terminal, too. 
“See something, say something!” I thought.  So I followed closely behind and started looking for someone to whom I could “say something.”
I pondered quickly what I was going to say.  I decided to say exactly what I had seen – somebody doing something very unusual and potentially dangerous – and nothing else.  I would let the cops sort out what to do with that information.
Except there were no cops.  No security officers. No airline employees in coats who might be managers with an idea of what to do. Just harried gate agents trying to get passengers on board the next flight. Would they know who to contact if I broke to the front, and angered everyone standing impatiently in line by saying, “Hey, that guy just took pictures of the flight line!”  What guy?  He was walking fast.
So I looked for a security phone, with a direct line to someone who would care that I wanted to “say something.”  Nope.  No signs with directions or phone numbers, either.
We had entered at the far end of the terminal. At about the midpoint, as we passed the exit for baggage pick up, he turned his head and glanced back. He saw me keeping pace several yards back, so he spun quickly to the right and stopped at a kiosk. I looked straight ahead, and kept up my pace, but stopped at the next kiosk, moving around it until I could watch him approach. He passed me walking briskly again. I swung in behind and fumbled for the camera on my phone.  I walked faster, and as I passed him on my left, I tried to shoot a picture with my right hand. It was not a good shot – it only caught the back of his head.
But at the sound of the camera, he spun hard away from me and sprinted toward an exit into the concourse.  Not to the baggage claim – we had passed that – but out into the crowd. The crowd was thick. I couldn’t follow.
I looked around one last time. I had seen something. I wanted to say something to somebody. Anybody. I walked to the only person who was there day after day and might have a clue about what to do – a lady selling pizza from behind a counter.
“Hey,” I said.  “What do you do if you have an emergency here?”  She looked at me blankly. “I don’t know” she answered honestly. She paused.  “Call 911?”
As I turned back toward my gate I pondered what I would say if I called 911 and got the perpetual response: “Is this emergency? 
“Not yet,” I thought.  “Not yet.”
I have been writing, thinking, and teaching about homeland security since 1999. I have heard people in authority preach “See something, say something” a thousand times.  But if I can’t figure out what to do at the moment of truth, what chance does an average citizen have?
And if those authorities are not going to give us a way to comply, why keep repeating that empty phrase? 
And why actively demonize anybody who complies, like school officials who saw something apparently designed to look like a briefcase bomb, carried to school by someone who looked like the last three dozen guys who tried to kill us. Too bad he didn’t dress like a nun. That way we could have called a SWAT team without being berated by the President or threatened with prosecution by the Attorney General.
Actually, I think the phrase “See Something, Say Something,” is a good one. After every major event – to include school shootings and real workplace violence – somebody says, “I knew something was wrong with that guy. I just didn’t want to make trouble for anybody.” Fortunately, authorities are helping us all stay out of trouble, by making sure that if we decide to talk, we have no idea who to call.
 Fixing that won’t be easy. Open up a national tip line and it will no doubt be swamped by crank calls and people reporting their neighbors for loud noise. But tip lines also work. Law enforcement just has to sort through a lot of alluvial wash to get to the few flakes of gold.  But that is the whole point of the See Something, Say Something campaign.
Working together more than a decade ago, the FBI and DHS published a helpful (if too long – 47 pages – and too technical) guide explaining what sorts of things citizens ought to be reporting – indicators that a person was recruiting terrorists, supporting them, or communicating with them. Perhaps they could update that, shrink it to a useful size, and post it where we would see it at public locations and likely targets, like airports, malls, and sports stadiums.  Maybe they could create a universal Say Something Line (maybe an 811 number) that rings locally no matter where you are when you call. And maybe they could use automation and vetted contractors to sort through the chaff for the grains of wheat.
That might make it worth our while to Say Something, if we See Something – if we knew somebody would actually Do Something as a result.

By the way . . . every word of the story above is true.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Austin or Boston

            Interest in national and homeland security is cyclical. Nobody pays much attention to security until there is a big event, and then everybody wants to know why nobody was paying attention. Well, pay attention now, because an even bigger event than Paris or Mali (or the hotels in Mumbai, or the ballet in Moscow, or the schools in Beslan, Chibok, or Peshawar) is coming.
     -- In ISIS, we have an enemy who hates us because we exist. There may be opponents who hate our freedoms, or values, or policies overseas, or who are motivated by poverty and oppression. They may be assuaged by engagement and soft power. But we also have enemies who see our existence as an affront to their god. They are growing.
     -- They are enabled by global communications, transportation, distribution of scientific expertise, and the computer revolution. Soon they will be enabled by the biological revolution.
     -- Eventually they will acquire the chemical, radiological, nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction experts have been warning about for two decades.
     --  When they get such weapons, they will use them. They must. Failure to do so would delegitimize their leaders now attracting volunteers by promising to destroy the West.
      --We are unprepared for such attacks. We have some domestic forces dedicated to WMD response – a few hundred National Guard troops here, and a few thousand active duty troops there. But we are unprepared legally, bureaucratically, scientifically, and psychologically for an attack that kills tens of thousands and destroys the ability of the government to govern.
This is the “Austin or Boston” threat.
The entire structure of emergency response in the US is built upon the principle of local leadership. Mayors and county officials make key decisions and use their resources until exhausted. Then governors and state officials supply resources and guidance. When that fails, the federal government steps in with resources, but the locals remain in charge. At no point do the feds take over from the locals.
Responding to a major WMD attack would require massive resources, lots of practice, and if an entire state government were destroyed (as with a nuclear weapon in Austin or Boston), some mechanism to control the response and restore the state and local government. We do not have such mechanisms today. We have not even thought seriously about establishing them.
      We need to do that right now while everyone is paying attention.  And before our opponents gain the weapons they seek, and use them in the ways they promise.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Explaining Syria . . . today

See the last entry in Thinking Enemy for a discussion of how the current anarchy in the Mideast began. This entry addresses the Syrian mess - - as simply as I can explain it.

                Syria is located Northwest of Iraq, bordering Turkey, with its back to the Mediterranean. It contains several valuable ports and the routes for the lucrative movement of oil from countries in the region.  Composed of many factions and religions, it was ruled with a rough hand by the Assad family starting in 1970. It supported the US with intelligence and other means during the war against Saddam. The Obama Administration saw a way to advance their vision of US values by encouraging Assad’s overthrow in the Arab Spring.

Now imagine please . . . the geographic situation described above as a crossroads in a densely populated area where seven roads run together, creating seven-pie shaped territories at 6, 8, 10, 12, 2, 3 and 5 o’clock respectively. The seven territorial “pies” intersect and overlap, each ruled by a gang at war with one or more of the others. Also every segment contains populations from the other segments, some only large enough to be victims, but some significant enough to threaten stability from within.

Gang 6 is fighting gangs 8 and 10, as well as gangs 3 and 5, but they are allied with gang 12, and indifferent to gang 2.   

The 10’s are fighting the 6’s, but would like a major piece of 8’s territory where many of their relatives live.

Gang 5 is fighting everybody but would like to ally with gang 3, except their last emissary was beheaded as an answer.

The 2’s risk collapse from attacks by the 3’s, and are allied with the 12’s in response, but domestic religious and ethnic minorities within 2 fear the alliance with 12 more than the radical teachings of 3, and invite this most bloodthirsty of gangs in.

You get the picture.  Every “pie shaped wedge” has a flexible list of friends and enemies, with many of their own people dwelling in other sectors, and many restive people from those other segments threatening domestic revolt.

In the midst of this multi-sided gang war with its indistinct boundaries and mixed populations, an outside agent (the US) weighs in with plans to train and deploy thousands of proxy fighters.  It recruits people who want to fight 6, but plans to use them only against 3, in an alliance with 2, who by the way hates them. One of the most respected US generals suggests (no kidding) maybe we can use 5 to attack 3 inside 2, even though 5 remains at war with us, our ally 2 and their ally 12. (12 having also waged an undeclared war against us for a decade.)

And another outside agent (Russia) is sending troops to work with 12 to support 6 against gangs 8, 10, 2, 3, and 5 (all of whom are fighting each other), even though it might accidently engage US troops and begin a wider war in the process.

I have used gangs and pie shaped territorial wedges numbered like the face of a clock because it is less confusing than writing out the names of the participants.  But obviously 6 represents Syria, 8 is Turkey, 10 the Kurds, 12 Iran, 2 Iraq, 3 ISIS and 5 Al Qaeda.  Each is fighting some or all of the others, and each has ethnic and religious enemies from the others mixed into their territorial slice.  If this sounds crazy, it is.

In fact it is even crazier than it sounds, because the violence is beyond description. Fathers are beaten to death before their families. Children are crucified and buried alive. Women are stripped and sold in slave markets. Recently the 5’s caught four men from 12 fighting for 2. They hung them upside down and burned them alive, claiming this is what 12 and 2 (our ally) had recently done to captives of their own.  Who knows – maybe so. And of course, 6 is still dropping massive nail bombs onto civilian neighborhoods in order to cleanse their territory and create mass refugee movements.  (It’s working.) The US is flying air attacks from 8 against 3 in support of 10, while 8 launches independent attacks against our ally 10 from the same airfields.

Good grief.

So why not just get the hell out and let them eat each other?  Great question. 

Well first, remember that we started this rock slide by failing to ensure stability when we replaced Saddam, and then compounded the problem by overthrowing more strongmen, thereby creating anarchy that supported our values even less.  (Honestly, can’t anybody here play this game?) 

Second, we have committed to support some people (like 10, the Kurds) who fought with us and will be massacred if we abandon them. 

Third, the instability is already spreading, as radicals and fanatics and disaffected minorities in other countries see the possibility of overthrowing their rulers. Now we are back to looking at threats to American survival interests (oil) across the Mideast. 

And finally, the most radical and most threatening participants in all the gangs have attracted tens of thousands to their cause. If they are victorious, their attraction will grow, and their graduates will return to their homes (to include in the US) with new skills, ready to put them to use. We need to break the cycle of success there in order to reduce the danger of metastasis.

Is there a simple lesson from all this?  Yes.  If you combine enough bad ideas from academicians, politicians, diplomats and the military, you can break Humpty Dumpty in a way that can’t be put back together again. Perhaps we should be asking whose fingerprints are all over the shattered glass.  We won’t have to look far.