Wednesday, June 10, 2015

10-Jun-15: Taking counter-terrorism measures seriously: are we all on the same page?

PreCheck program probably makes sense if it's done right, but
is it? [Click to visit TSA site]
As the summer travel season gets into full-swing, millions of passengers passing through airports are going to encounter security officials and the counter-terror processes they administer. Most of us, one way or another, justify the inconvenience, and often the indignity, of the experience with the thought that, on the whole, it contributes to our personal security. And it stops the terrorists.

But it's far from being that simple. A syndicated Agence France-Presse report, datelined Washington DC and published in the early hours of this morning, includes revelations that ought to stop travelers in their tracks:
Dozens of US airport workers linked to terror: officialAFP | June 10, 2015
Last week, Homeland Security head Jeh Johnson announced new measures to improve security screenings at American airports after investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives and weapons through checkpoints dozens of times.... [A] report revealed that American airports had hired dozens of people with terror links. The Transportation Security Agency is already reeling after a recent Department of Homeland Security report found that investigators could sneak fake bombs and weaponry through security with a 95 percent success rate... [T]he TSA failed to detect at least 73 people with links to terrorism who were hired by US airports... Becky Roering, an assistant security director at the Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport, told the hearing that former "badged" employees had even gone to Syria to join the Islamic State group... More than a million people have signed up for the TSA's PreCheck program, and another seven million have been randomly chosen for expedited boarding checks. In one case, a former member of an extremist organization found himself randomly given access to the PreCheck line but a TSA worker recognized him and alerted his superior... "TSA is handing out 'PreCheck' status like Halloween candy in an effort to expedite passengers as quickly as possible," Roering said... Roering also said TSA staff have low morale and work in a climate of fear and distrust.
In another news source today, the same TSA official is quoted offering some background for the bizarre state of affairs:
Roering said enrollment in the program had fallen short, with only about a million people signed up. So the TSA had started letting unapproved passengers go through the quicker PreCheck screening lines despite the risks. ["TSA Whistleblower Says PreCheck Is Weak Point in U.S. Airport Security", Reuters, today]
The report criticizing the US Transport Safety Authority happens to have been the subject of an interrupted Senate discussion yesterday (Tuesday) in Washington.
...U.S. Capitol Police received a bomb threat that forced the evacuation of a hearing on the TSA in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Secret Service officers covered up the press cameras in the briefing room during the evacuation to protect methods and practices used by the agency to investigate bomb threats... [T]he first bomb threat was made targeting a specific location, which is what caused the USCP to take the threat more seriously. The aide said the caller described a device that had been placed in the Homeland Security Committee offices on the third floor of the Dirksen building. [CNN, June 10, 2015]
Then just a couple of hours later, 
In the middle of White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest's daily briefing, officials told all reporters to evacuate the briefing room. The North Lawn of the White House was also cleared. The Secret Service said a bomb threat had been called in at 1:53 p.m. to the DC Metropolitan Police Department targeting the briefing room specifically... Secret Service officials said they couldn't discuss any potential connection between the White House and Capitol Hill threats. [CNN, June 10, 2015]
In slightly bizarre White House briefing yesterday right after the bomb threat [check the first two minutes of the video clip], it's made clear that only a single chamber in the entire White House complex was evacuated. That was the room in which the news people had been assembled for the briefing. Make of it what you will.

Fourteen years after the events of 9/11, how seriously are the dangers posed by terrorism taken in the US? Leaving the ongoing fiasco at the TSA aside, it's interesting to note how the White House, where the second of the two threatening phone calls was directed yesterday, reacted:
Earnest said President Barack Obama, who was in the Oval Office at the time, was not moved during the evacuation. First lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia, who were in the residence at the time, also were not moved. "I have complete confidence in the professionalism of the men and women of the secret service to make judgments about what's necessary to keep all of us safe," Earnest told reporters during the briefing after it resumed, though it remained unclear why only part of the complex had been evacuated. [CNN, June 10, 2015]
Israel police unit checks suspicious object (which did indeed
turn out to be an explosive device) in Petach Tikva,
near Tel Aviv, April 27, 2014 [Image Source]
Daily life in Israel is frequently interrupted by events we call "Hefetz Hashud", literally "suspect object" and meaning something has been found that might possibly be a security risk to people in the area and we're going to check it but meanwhile this bus is being stopped and you should get off, or this road is being blocked, and you will have to wait where you are while the sappers are called to the scene. And so on.

The overwhelming majority of those incidents, once carefully checked, turn out to be nothing, usually a forgotten shopping bag. But not always. In a hyper-critical society, Israelis rarely complain when this happens to them. Living in a terror-rich environment eventually brings you to take such things in your stride.

No comments: