Friday, August 04, 2006

Christmas Fears

I don't recall ever being afraid of Santa Claus, reindeer, elves, Christmas trees or anything else associated with Christmas. Nor have I ever lost any sleep worrying that my Christmas tree might burst into flames or that strings of lights with faulty wiring might cause an electrical fire. On the whole, Christmas has always been a relaxed and enjoyable time for me.

Okay, there was that time at my grandparents' house when, after the wood fire in the fireplace burned down several hours after we had gone to bed, it got so cold that I thought we all might freeze to death. And there was that time camping with my college roommate on New Year's Eve in the Davis Mountains of Texas when the sounds of some huge beasts outside the tent had me terrified. (It turned out that a local rancher had grazing rights in the state park and, for whatever reason, the herd was on the move in the middle of the night.)

I almost forgot. Those who think there's a "war on Christmas" unnerve me.

But I was a little more than unnerved, though, on Christmas Day in 2003. Until I read Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine, I didn't know precisely what was responsible for my insecurity.

During the 2003-2004 academic year, my sons and I were living in Florence, Italy. We spent the ten days before Christmas traveling in Spain. (In Toledo just outside the cathedral, a young man came up to me and said, "Weren't you my Little League baseball coach?" I was.) On Christmas Eve we flew to Paris and checked into a hotel to await our flight home to the United States the next day.

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing. On December 21, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security raised the terrorism alert level to Orange (High). According to CNN,

The move was based mostly on information gleaned from a high volume of "chatter" among suspected terrorists, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said.

Ridge warned of possible strikes more devastating than the al Qaeda airliner attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York and Washington, and told CNN on Monday that airplanes remain terrorists' weapon of choice.

By Christmas Eve, CNN International, which I was watching in the hotel, was full of vague warnings about threats to airliners flying into the United States from France. Then and there I began to rethink the decision to go home for the holidays. The boys and I had seriously considered staying in Europe to travel some more. I watched the news intently trying to pick up some bit of information that would help me make a decision about whether it would be safe to get on a flight bound for New York under the circumstances.

A story posted on the CNN web site on December 25, 2003, offers some sense of what was going on as we could assess it at the time:

A government source said passengers traveling on Air France flights into at least one airport in the United States will be subjected to greater pre-departure screening.

In addition, the source said those booked onto flights departing Mexico bound for several airports in the United States also will be subjected to more screening. The source refused to identify the U.S. airports involved.

The intelligence suggests major cities such as Las Vegas, Nevada; Los Angeles; New York; and Washington, are possible targets, although the names of small, rural communities have come up as well, the officials said.

The focus on Air France flights from Charles de Gaulle International Airport to LAX (combined with what appeared to be very tight security at CDG) ultimately convinced me that it was safe to fly. We were flying American from CDG to JFK in New York and then on to Dallas-Fort Worth.

There were, of course, no 9/11-type attacks on the United States around Christmas 2003. We now know that that fact was not owed to the cancellation of several Air France flights into the United States or to any other preventive measures taken in response to the warnings issued by the United States Government. On the contrary, the warnings themselves were faulty.

The warnings, Suskind reveals (pp. 284-90), were based on CIA analysis of suspected al Qaeda steganography. (My colleague, Dan Caldwell, introduced me to steganography in an early draft of the chapter on cyber-threats in Seeking Security in an Insecure World.) Suskind writes:

Steganography is the hiding of coded messages within transmitted formats--moving and still images, computer files containing photos, and even sound transmissions. Communicating this way is complex, and labor-intensive. Even with decoding equipment it is difficult to decipher a numerical billboard hidden behind photos or streamed images. Even for leading experts in the practice, a group called steganalysts, it is a realm of false positives--patterns that may mean something, or may not, and usually don't.

But CIA's Office of Science and Technology was convinced that it had discovered the darkest imputations tucked within the "crawl"--the summary of headlines that runs along a TV screen's bottom edge--of the Al Jazeera daily broadcast. In the numerology, [CIA deputy director for science and technology Don] Kerr and his team asserted, were plans for an attack that would exceed 9/11. . . .

What CIA, using the technical services of a private company, served up to the President was astonishing in its specificity and its sweep. Some numbers indicated more than two dozen flights and flight times. Other hidden compressed numbers showed the coordinates for targeting--the unfortunate places where international flights, loaded with passengers, fuel, and, possibly, chemical or biological agents, would be bound once they entered U.S. airspace from less carefully controlled foreign airports. The targets ran from ocean to ocean, Los Angeles to New York. There were coordinates for the White House, the Space Needle in Seattle, and the tiny, rural Virginia town of Tappahannock.

Suskind goes on to describe the decision President Bush made to take the steganalysts' warnings seriously and the precautions that were taken as a result, including Secretary Tom Ridge's announcement that "extremists abroad are anticipating near-term attacks that they believe will either rival or exceed" the 9/11 attacks. These precautions included putting pressure on the French to cancel certain Air France flights to the United States.

Suskind concludes his account of this episode this way:

By February 2004, the postmortems were already under way. There was nothing to it, to any of it.

The steganographic analysis carried little more soundness than medieval numerology.

A CIA manager involved in these deliberations struggled, a few years later, to place it all in context.

"One problem with technologists," he said, "is they always feel underappreciated. So when they're front and center, on stage, they put as much data on the table as possible."

But the problem was much broader. It had to do with the wages of fear; a situation in which right-minded people, en masse, all deviate downward toward a state of panic.

"No one says, 'There's no proof!'" the CIA manager exhorted, his voice rising. "We've reached the point where no one is willing to not report something because they feel it's nuts. There is no threshold. Everything is reported, everywhere. There is no judgment in the system. No one is saying, 'Based on my experience, this person is a lying dog.' No one is saying, 'These reports are completely without any foundation.'"

No one with access to the intelligence on which threat assessments are based is making judgments. Meanwhile, those of us without access to the intelligence--that is, all of us outside the highest levels of government--have no way to make judgments about terrorist threats for ourselves. We are forced to rely on the judgments of those with access.

The failure to make judgments about national security, with the political risk that judgments would entail, is a source of insecurity in itself--and it has been since long before 9/11.