Tuesday, January 27, 2009

ABC's "Homeland Security USA"


A recently developed series along the theme of catastrophe prevention is “Homeland Security USA” on Tuesday nights on ABC, website here.

Tonight the emphasis was on illegal aliens and the war on drugs. The early part of the program presented the problems of “mules”: people who have swallowed nuggets of packaged cocaine or controlled substances. Stomach acids can eat through these, releasing the substance as a deadly toxin. Other mules try to import cash illegally, as in one case at the Canadian border. Substances are often hidden in vehicles, as in wheelwells.

Libertarians are often critical of the war on drugs, but other authorities believe that drug traffic (such as poppies in Afghanistan) and cartels are closely connected to terror organizations.

Another problem for border agents is illegal animals. The concern over foot-and-mouth disease in livestock was mentioned. This was a big problem in early 2001, after an accidental outbreak in Britain and Europe, to the point that for a few months returning airline passengers had to sterilize their shoes.

The Border Patrol in Buffalo was shown assisted a lost homeless man. High security patrolling still often intersects with humanitarian police work.

The show was rather didactic and heavy in tone, but with more use of actors than typical on comparable History Channel shows.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fox "24": delayed Season 7, provocative ethical problems; could the fictitious "CIP" device really work?


In the fall of 2003, theater chains (especially National Amusements) and public places like the Washington DC Metro started advertising the quasi-real-time drama “24” on Fox, which would take our fictitious government minute-by-minute through various terrorist response scenarios.

The seventh season did not start until Sunday Jan 4, since the WGA Writer’s strike delayed production by Fox.

But the situation in the first two hours (which I finally got to playing today) is a corker. Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) is our first female president, and was apparently elected on a “do not negotiate” platform. She is like a humorless Sarah Palin, not easy to caricature on SNL. The moral dilemma is awful, to be sure. American forces have battled radical Islamist warlords in the backward country of Sangala (aka Somalia), but are threatened with horrific domestic consequences if they do not withdraw after security in American information technology infrastructure is hacked.

Taylor makes a lot of the prospect that native women and children will perish if American forces withdraw. But the threat is a CIP device in the US which would bring down all planes (having breached FAA computers) and possibly worse, suggesting a possible EMP attack. Although the fictitious country here is a small African "failed state", the "between the lines" implication seems to invoke a grim possibility that conservative columnists mention in connection with Iran (and remember, Fox is supposed to be a "conservative" media company politically).

Now all of this is suggestive, but inconclusive. There is a lot of criticism of FAA computers as being old (even with vacuum tubes) and proprietary; they could hardly be hacked from the Internet. In fact, one of Obama’s infrastructure priorities would be to upgrade the FAA Air Traffic Control System (and associated employment) to 21st Century standards. Furthermore, Pentagon and intelligence computers would not have any connection to the Internet (or would they, for reverse spying). And military computers are supposedly hardened with Faraday devices to protect them from EMP. So the whole scenario sounds implausible. It would be a bit like saying, if I disconnected my own computer from broadband and disabled the wireless card, a sleuth could still tell what I am typing with some sort of satellite overhead. I have heard people say that is possible.

Colm Feore is absolutely chilling as Henry Taylor, and you almost expect him to say “Give me what I want and I’ll go away” (from “Storm of the Century”).

An earlier season presented a fictitious first black president, Wayne Palmer (D. B. Woodside). Each season is separated by some months from the previous one, and many different scenarios have been developed. In one season (when Palmer was president), a small suitcase nuke was detonated in suburban Los Angeles, with 12000 deaths, and there was a threat to set off more of them. In another there was a deadly new virus. Palmer actually has to ask a character to sacrifice himself. There is also a sequence involving a teenage son’s trying to save his father.

Earlier in the Season 7 premiere, there was a curious variation on the standard polygraph (given to highly cleared employees even if not admissible normally), with some implied intimidation or humiliation. The female examiner says, “I’m going to have to lift up your shirt” and applies electrocardiographic electrodes (no shaving). What follows is some illegal rendition, that can become life threatening indeed.

But I suppose that a future episode could use the MRI lie detector (Cephos and No Lie MRI), as discussed in this reference.

Picture: Nellie’s on U St in Washington DC (my photo, early 2008). “24” has a lot of outdoor neighborhood shots, and I thought I caught a glimpse of Nellie’s.

P.S. Peter Bergen has been discussing the "rehabilitation" of ex-jihadists in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and even Singapore, on CNN today.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

History: The Universe: Stopping Armageddon: asteroids


Tonight, Jan. 6, The History Channel held the first of its "The Universe" “Stopping Armageddon” programs, this one focused on how to stop an asteroid.

A ten mile asteroid would create a 100 mile crater and extinguish human life. Such an asteroid can hit perhaps every 500 million years. An asteroid the size of a few hundred meters exploded over Siberia in 1908 (Tunguska) and would destroy a city. It probably occurs every 500 years. The program discussed the possible impact of Apophis in 2029 or 2036 (NASA link), and the “keyhole” effect that could increase the probability of a hit in 2036.

Many technologies may be possible to prevent an asteroid hit. The best chance is to deflect it, and the farther away it is when hit by a deflecting object, the better, because the less it has to be deflected. It is not a good idea to blow a large asteroid up into pieces, several of which could still do severe damage when falling to Earth. The European Space Agency has on the drawing board a “Don Quixote” kinetic impaction device. Another concept is the “gravity tractor” and a far out design would be laser deflection.

We are likely to find even more near-Earth objects. Jupiter probably saves us from many impacts, and a large asteroid may have hit Mars a couple billion years ago, destroying most of its atmosphere and magnetic field, resulting in the desert planet today.

Continue PBS series: "Upping the Ante": what makes our "enemies" tick?


The third program in the PBS Series “Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future, Our Choice” (website) is “The New Face of Terror: Upping the Ante”.

This 90 minute documentary (followed by discussion) looks at the psychology behind asymmetric actors, going back as far as “The Battle of Algiers” back around 1960. It covers the deaths of 11 Olympic athletes from Israel in 1972, playing out on global television (and confounding rather incompetent West German authorities – I had just been in the country early that August). It covers the 1983 Marine Barracks attack in Lebanon, and then the 1995 subway attack in Tokyo.

The film covers the history of Osama bin Laden only briefly, emphasizing the effect of the “Lion’s Den Operation” against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which it says was a military defeat but a psychological victory.

In covering Al Qeada’s strike in 1998 on embassies in two countries in Africa, it highlights the fact that Al Qaeda could strike in two distant locations simultaneously and was willing to kill so many natives (and women and children) just to get to a few Americans.

The film covers the rise of radical Islam in Britain, where one man says “there’s more to life than what you do for a living” while he does his prayers, and says that he would like to see Britain accept sharia law for Muslim citizens.

It covers a 17 year old Palestinian boy in Gaza (very timely now), who is angry because family members were killed, and then a Sri Lanka teen who joins “the Tigers”, a separatist group, because he says that the government killed his parents (a theme similar to the 1999 film “The Terrorist”, covered on this blog Dec 3, 2008).

The film points out that many terror cells are led by relatively well educated but psychologically disaffected men, but they recruit from young men with poor economic prospects and brainwash them with the idea that Paradise will be better than this life.

What causes this nihilism? It’s true that Islam has centuries old historical grievances (the film mentions the Crusades, almost with the brevity of CNN’s “Thousand Years of History” back at the end of 1999). But there is always a tendency for ideologies, once they become concerned about the connection between moral and justice, to focus on the topic of individual wrongdoing, which can include the failure to do one’s part in the world. There is a natural tendency for people who are put upon to want to see others made aware of the burdens they carry or sacrifices they believe they have to make. The radical Left in the United States was sometimes like this (and in Communist China the epitome of that kind of thinking was Mao’s Cultural Revolution). But particularly in Palestine there is another element at work: personal shame, at having territory and property expropriated by force by Israel. Shame can be a most unacceptable emotion, leading to the desire to see others share it.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

PBS "Avoiding Armageddon" examines chemical and biological WMD's


The first DVD in the PBS Frontline Series “Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future, Our Choice” is “Silent Killers, Poisons and Plagues”. The documentary (90 minutes) traces the evolution of chemical and biological weapons. The film places more emphasis on their history than on detailed speculations of how they could be used now.

The first example of biological welfare may have occurred in colonial America, when the British used smallpox-contaminated garments against the native populations in the French and Indian Wars.

Chemical warfare developed rapidly during World War I, when the Germans developed chlorine gas, which could effective poke holes in infantry lines. Chlorine would cause suffocation, and then the Germans added mustard gas, which would cause severe skin burns and peeling. Soldiers could improvise gas masks with urine-soaked clothes, but effective protective masks were developed. Army Basic Training later would include use of the protective mask, and sometimes trainees were exposed to chlorine (I was exposed only to tear gas in 1968).

Japan actually used biological warfare against China in 1939 with plague-infested fleas. That’s the most recent use of biological warfare in modern times. The Japanese also infected individual Chinese and performed vivisection, as did Nazi Germany in the concentration camps.

President Nixon helped advocated a Biological Weapons Treaty in 1972, which was supposed to stop stockpiling. Nevertheless, both the United States and the Soviet Union carried on clandestine experiments in chemical and biological warfare, and the former Soviet Union has many stockpiles related to a number of deadly agents. In 1971, there was a miniature epidemic of smallpox near the Aral Sea when Soviet experiments went wrong.

The first act of biological terror in the United States may have occurred in 1984 when restaurants in The Dalles, Oregon had salads contaminated with salmonella by the Rajneeshee Attack, in a bizarre attempt to keep voters home from an election and gain political control of an area. The documentary at one point refers to the agent as a “virus” but it was actually a bacterium.

The worst chemical attack in modern times occurred in Japan in 1995 on the Tokyo subway when the Aum Shinrikyo attacked it with sarin gas. The group’s founder, Shoko Asahara,, was a psychopath who wanted to rule Japan and wanted the power to push a button.

The film covers the anthrax attack that followed 9/11 in the fall of 2001, through the United States Postal Service. But the documentary was made before the supposed resolution of the case by the FBI in 2008, as caused by a Fort Detrick scientist.

The film discusses the grim possibility of reintroduction of smallpox, and only briefly refers to the fact that we have stopped vaccinations. It proposes a concept called “ring immunization,” starting with health care workers.

The documentary also mentions the idea of a “stealth agent” which infects people silently and does not cause symptoms while the infection is spread person to person. HIV behaved this way, but was transmitted only by direct blood contact, not casual contact.

The film is followed by a panel discussion and interviews lead by Frank Sesno, and includes David Franz and Joe Wackerle, who said that bioterror could be the gravest threat of all, even become civilization-threatening.

Remember, on December 1 2008, the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism said that there was a greater than 50/50 chance of a WMD terror attack on a western city by 2013, and the most likely WMD would be biological (rather than nuclear).