Thursday, November 15, 2007

Two impossible things before breakfast

Yesterday was a surreal experience. I testified before the House Homeland Security Committee with Kip Hawley, the TSA Administrator, about the recently surfaced April 2006 TSA management email that clearly by its terms was intended to alert screeners to covert testing being conducted at the time by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General. In "Alice in Wonderland " fashion, Hawley claimed that the words didn't mean what they said. Without any evidence to substantiate it, he claimed that the sender thought the covert teams might not be legitimate government testers but Al Qaeda operatives probing the system for weaknesses. There was no mention of Al Qaeda or terrorists in the email. The testers were described as being from DOT or the FAA, and it's true that neither agency is now authorized to test aviation security. But, reading the message in full, it's clear on its face that the sender meant to give screener's the heads up so as to improve their performance on a legitimate government security test. Contradicting himself, Hawley continued to call the sending of the message a "mistake," and to applaud the swift recall of the message. If the email was meant not as a tip off to compromise a legitimate test but to alert screeners to a terrorist probe, what was the mistake in sending it, and why was it recalled? And, why, by the way, has TSA not released the recall message? Clearly, the message was recalled because somebody figured out that tipping off the screeners to a legitimate test, once it inevitably leaked out, would be hugely embarrassing to TSA.

The second impossible thing Hawley insisted upon was the consistently poor performance of screeners in spotting concealed weapons (even, by the way, according to insiders, when screeners are tipped off) was more of a good thing than a bad thing. Screeners are missing things because they're constantly tested, and the tests are intentionally being made harder and harder. Indeed so, and that's as it should be. Terrorists (or, at least, the ones we need most to worry about) will be wily about concealing weapons, not amateurish, so we want the tests to be as "real world" as possible. But, it can't be a good thing that screeners keep missing concealed weapons year after year, time after time, investigation after investigation. Just today, TSA's before another House committee defending itself against the latest GAO report indicating a failure to spot concealed bombs (consistently, at 19 airports around the country, this time).

I'm reminded of the Alice in Wonderland quote about being asked to believe six impossible things before breakfast. At least TSA's asking us to believe only two impossible things!

Friday, November 09, 2007

FBI issues holiday season warning to LA and Chicago shopping malls

Though "raw" intelligence, the FBI was right to pass on to LA and Chicago shopping malls a purported warning of an Al Qaeda attack during the upcoming holidays. One of the lessons of 9/11 for government is it is better to pass on warnings, however imprecise and indeterminate, than to sit on them until disaster strikes.

It would be prudent for the owners/operators of at least the largest and/or most popular shopping malls in these two cities to start deploying (or, as the case may be, intensify) armed police patrols; bomb detection and chemical sensors; and survelliance cameras. Such measures might well deter would be terrorists, and they would certainly reassure shoppers that the powers that be are vigilant and on the proverbial case.

We can never make ourselves invulnerable to terrorism. But, we can and should take commonsense steps like these to decrease the chances of a terror attack, and to minimize the consequences of attacks not prevented.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

TSA compromises undercover tests

This coming Tuesday I'm to testify at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on the revelation that, in at least one instance, TSA intentionally compromised undercover tests of screeners' ability to spot concealed guns, knives, and bombs. (The tests in question were, apparently, those of the Inspector General). It's criminal that TSA apparently cares more about its reputation than the security of the nation. Pretending that screeners are better than they are at spotting deadly weapons won't fool terrorists; it only fools ourselves.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

GAO report on border inspectors' laxity

It is shocking that, according to GAO, Customs and Border Protection inspectors allowed at least 21,000 into the country last year who oughtn't to have been admitted because of immigration law violations or criminality. The concern, of course, is that if these miscreants can scam the system, so can terrorists, especially terrorists as wily as Al Qaeda.

This gaping hole in our nation's security is easy to explain. There are too few inspectors. The relative few we have aren't adequately trained. (And, needless to say, these two problems are related. If you have too few inspectors to begin with, you can't spare any of the few you have for training.) Supervisors don't hold inspectors to account, and supervisors aren't held to account for not holding inspectors to account. Morale is low throughout the Department of Homeland Security, and CBP is no exception. Then, there's the creeping complacency that comes from the absence of follow-on attacks since 9/11. And, to be fair to the inspectors, part of the problem is the huge number (about 8,000) of forms of identification that those who try to cross the border through legal points of entry can present. This is why Secretary Chertoff is right to push back hard against those in Congress - Republicans and Democrats alike - who balk at the planned implementation this coming January of the requirement for land border crossers (including Americans) to present passports. Finally, paradoxically, the consequence of the Administration's commendable doubling of Border Patrol agents and additional efforts to stem the flow of illegal immigration is encouraging people to try to sneak in through legal ports of entry.

Perhaps the most shocking thing is DHS' defense of itself. The New York Times account had DHS pointing out that its current regulations allow inspectors to waive people into the country without looking at any documents at all if the travelers can somehow otherwise convince the inspector that they are Americans. DHS should be ashamed of such a regulation, and it should get rid of it post-haste, rather than using it as a justification for behavior that threatens the nation's security. Heaven help us.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Law is what we say it is

Thank goodness for congressional hearings. They're often the only way to get a straight answer out of government officials.

For some time, I and other security experts have been calling for 100% screening of air cargo in the hold of passenger planes. About a fifth of the cargo transported by air is transported on passenger planes. Unlike luggage, virtually no cargo is screened before being loaded onto planes. As a result, of course, a terrorist could easily plant a bomb that could blow a plane right out of the sky.

The good news, or at least so we thought, was that the bill recently signed by the President to implement the remaining 9/11 Commission recommendations, among other things, mandated 100% screening. It didn't do so fast enough for my taste; the deadline was within three years, though Britain, Israel, and the Netherlands all screen 100 % of air cargo for explosives right now, suggesting that it's technologically and economically feasible at the present time.

But, we learned from Secretary Chertoff's testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee yesterday that the Administration deems there to be even more wiggle room in the law than there actually is. Under intensive questioning from Congressman Ed Markey (D. Mass), a longtime proponent of 100% air cargo screening, Chertoff conceded his intention to permit, at least to some degree, shipping companies to continue to do their own screening. When asked by Markey whether DHS intended to comply with the law by having the government take over the screening function, Chertoff's reply was, " If there is a philosophical issue that you can't trust private industry to do anything, then I have to say, you've got no business getting on an airplane."

Excuse me? Mr. Secretary, the whole point of creating TSA after 9/11 and federalizing the airport screening function as to passengers and luggage was the bipartisan recognition that, left to their own devices, airlines will put profit before security.

Much has been written about the President's use of "signing statements" to indicate which provisions of new laws he intends to ignore. Without so much as a signing statement this time, the Administration will apparently ignore a key post 9/11 recommendation that this new law was intended to implement. As a consequence, chalk up another victory for industry, and, terrorists.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Read it Twice, and still can't believe it

Today's Congressional Quarterly Homeland Security newsletter story that DHS is now letting private companies evaluate whether other private companies have strict enough security programs in place with regard to maritime commerce would be funny if it were a joke. But, it isn't a joke.

The "C-TPAT" or "Customs Trade Partnership" Against Terrorism program was already laughable. In exchange for filing paperwork with DHS claiming to have a rigorous security regime in place, shipping companies can reduce dramatically (by some accounts, to zero) their chances of having their cargoes inspected, thereby speeding their flow through the supply chain. Any audits to confirm that firms' security representations are, in fact, true, were done only after the fact, turning Ronald Reagan's sensible "trust, but verify" dictum on its head. The last time I checked, a couple of years ago, only 11% of the companies in the program had been subjected to audits to confirm their representations. And, also by the way, any verification that was done by DHS was not only after the fact, but also limited to whatever features of the program shippers deigned to allow DHS to scrutinize. Loopholes big enough for the Titanic to slip through, you might say.

But, at least, until now, it was DHS that was doing the validation. The notion that, going forward, private companies will be doing the asssements of other private companies, for a fee, is beyond belief. What incentive do private companies have to examine other companies vigorously? Haven't we seen this movie before? Private companies ran airport security before 9/11. The whole point of creating TSA and federalizing screeners was the belated recognition that, left to their own devices, private industry will put profit ahead of security every time.

Will we ever learn?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Profile in Courage

Profiles in Courage is, of course, the title of the book that 1960 presidential candidate John F. Kennedy authored (or, at least, is said to have authored), helping to launch him into the White House. This campaign season's most plausible aspirant for the the JFK mantle of youth, vigor, and optimism is Barack Obama, Democrats and Republicans alike can agree. He himself is no slouch in the book department. While his have won no Pultizer Prizes (as Kennedy's did), they have both become runaway bestsellers.

But, this post isn't about the Senator's books, nor is really about his campaign, even. I'm still a Republican, and this isn't meant to be a political endorsement of any candidate. But, precisely because I believe so strongly that the issue of homeland security should be treated in a nonpartisan manner, I feel compelled to salute the "gentleman from Illinois" for being a "profile in courage" on this issue.

Contrary to time (dis)honored tradition, the Senator, a member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, introduced an amendment that would have the effect of cutting the share of scarce homeland security dollars directed to the key early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. The 9/11 Commission and most, if not all, security experts (I, of course, among them) have been arguing for 100% allocation of these funds on the basis of risk. It is an inarguable fact that New York, Washington, DC, and other large cities are far more likely to be the targets of a terror attack than Ames, Iowa, or Keene, New Hampshire. (Okay, we can argue about Las Vegas.) Congress being Congress, it's next to impossible to get to 100%, risk-based funding, but the best you can do is to reduce the minimum allocated to small states. That's exactly what Sen. Obama has proposed.

Putting principle over politics is exactly what presidents should do, especially when, as here, the security of the nation is at stake. So, Senator, kudos, and may your example be followed by your rivals and, ultimately, whichever one of you winds up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue a little less than 2 years from now.