Tag Archives: Occupy Wall Street

In which I give the DHS a rare thumbs up

I believe we’re in a time of relatively low terrorist activity.  I don’t have any hard data to back that up with (mostly because I’m too lazy to do the work) but I’m just not seeing a lot of serious threats of a magnitude beyond the odd crazy shooter.

That being said, what do you do with a homeland security community that finds it just doesn’t have that much to focus on in terms of immediate threats?  Well, you could looks at that sort of thing as an opportunity and take advantage of the time to build subject matter expertise, refine processes, drill practices, that sort of thing.

Alternately, you could flail around, afraid that this dip in terrorist activity represents a threat to your job security and try to latch on to anything that can even remotely be considered a threat.

Case in point:  The Occupy movement.  With the exception of Oakland, the movement has been non-violent and criminal activity has been limited to ‘regular’ criminal activity (what one would expect in any large gathering of people) or activity normally associated with protest activity.  In few exceptions there’s little in the movement that can be described as politically motivated violence (or even property damage) that typically defines terrorist activity.

But, when al-Qaida isn’t around to be a convenient bogey man to ensure job security you take what you can get.

From Gawker (yes, Gawker) comes this story about how DHS resisted attempts to get sucked into the whole Occupy issue, despite proddings from state and local partners.  In fact, early on, DHS appears to have given the correct response to queries about the subject:

In October 2011, the documents show, the Los Angeles Fusion Center (one of dozens of surveillance centers that coordinate state, local, and federal intelligence) sent a query to DHS’s intelligence division seeking information on “any DHS products identifying and/or describing criminal activities and/or potential civil disobedience associated with the Occupy Wall Street protests nationwide” and the number of “arrests…made, type and number of weapons confiscated, communication used to plan these crimes, etc.”…The intelligence division flatly denied the request: “The information being requested does not fall within the scope of I&A’s authorities. Arrests being made at these protests are a criminal matter and the protesters are engaged in constitutionally protected activity…. DHS should not report on activities where the basis for reporting is political speech.”

Ah, yes…fusion centers.  Those *ahem* ‘Centers of Analytic Excellence‘.  And don’t kid yourself into thinking this was just one fusion center.

Unfortunately, DHS was unable to withstand the weight of requests and:

…there are several instances of DHS gathering and distributing intelligence on Occupy protesters without much justification.

…officials in the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties took a hard line on curbing DHS intel-gathering on Occupy after the Pittsburgh Office of Emergency Management released a bulletin, apparently produced with DHS help, on potential threats the movement posed. “Both myself and [redacted] are somewhat concerned that several items contained in this Intel Bulletin might be advocating surveillance and other countermeasures to be employed against activities protected under the 1st Amendment,” wrote one official in an October 7, 2011.

This is the sort of slippery slope that occurs when you don’t have good procedures and clear standards in place.  Things get sloppy.  Corners get cut.  Mandates expand in an effort to appear relevant.  All without oversight or discussion.  It just evolves that way.

On the plus side (well, maybe for you) the Gawker article has over 300 pages (!) of DHS communications about Occupy that I, dear reader, will go through to see if there’s anything interesting.  Up front, however, part one of the document dump is pretty favorable to the DHS (although one wonders what is under those redactions).  They clearly do not want to get entangled in the Occupy morass regardless of how many requests they get.

Good for them.

As an aside, while part 1 mostly follows one email trail, towards the end of the document you can see the sort of drivel that passes for ‘quality’ intelligence products.  Basically, cut and paste work from open source material laced with wide speculation and unexamined assumptions.

 

Homeland security, the dark side and fear

I often joke with my law enforcement friends that they see people divided into two groups:  criminals and others who just haven’t been convicted yet.

Of course, jokes like that are funny because they usually contain an element of truth.  Unfortunately, that sort of outlook also permeates much of the homeland security community as well.  When it comes to how homeland security is conducted, therefore, citizens are seen through the lens of paranoia and suspicion.  That’s why you get treated like livestock at the airport, aren’t allowed to take pictures when you’re at the train station, or have a file on you if you’re Muslim, brown and anywhere near New York City.

It also leads to a lack of any real attempt to engage with the public about terrorist threats and countermeasures.  And so…here’s the latest.

My opinion is this is a bullshit report (you can read it here).  I get that everyone is going to spin this as intrusive government surveillance of constitutionally protected activity but I think that misses the real story (or stories).

  • This is a calorie free report.  It doesn’t contain any real insight or analysis but that might be fine.  The Occupy movement had a lot of people scratching their heads so some context might be fine.
  • The conclusion is both banal and troubling.

The growing support for the OWS movement has expanded the protests’ impact and increased the potential for violence. While the peaceful nature of the protests has served so far to mitigate their impact, larger numbers and support from groups such as Anonymous substantially increase the risk for potential incidents and enhance the potential security risk to critical infrastructure (CI). The continued expansion of these protests also places an increasingly heavy burden on law enforcement and movement organizers to control protesters. As the primary target of the demonstrations, financial services stands the sector most impacted by the OWS protests. Due to the location of the protests in major metropolitan areas, heightened and continuous situational awareness for security personnel across all CI sectors is encouraged.

That’s pretty standard language and I think you could safely translate that as:

“We don’t have any evidence of a threat but a) in order to justify our jobs we need to say something is threatening b) don’t want to find ourselves on the wrong side of a senate testimony is things go wrong and c) our overlords are already treating this like a threat and nothing else will get through the system.”

It is worthwhile to note that this isn’t a ‘law enforcement sensitive’ document and, therefore, probably had a fairly wide distribution within the private sector.

The extent of private sector/homeland security cooperation is the real story here. 

People should be asking how much information is being shared back and forth between the two communities and how each respond to the others needs.  How much do private sector priorities drive intelligence and investigative priorities?  Does the relationship allow for inappropriate exchanges of information based upon personal relationships (the revolving door is not limited to federal government employees and industry) or political considerations?

And the whole idea of information operations remains unexplored territory.  It’s not just that few in the community are familiar with the concept, even fewer have a shred of interest in it or believe it has value.  It’s almost as if they’re institutionally incapable of processing that sort of information.

And as the environment changes dramatically (as it may be doing now) this inability to change one’s perspective to things of rising importance will mean that we continue to apply old solutions to new challenges.

That tends to not work out so well.

So, why do they do this sort of thing?

Paul Pillar comes to the rescue while discussing an article in the latest Foreign Affairs (which I haven’t read yet but it’s on my list).  He describes the numerous reasons why the homeland security community is hardwired  to exaggerate risks (and to be fair, this also extends to law enforcement).  In particular, I’d like to point your attention to the following excerpt:

The bureaucracies’ role in the exaggeration process is less a matter of pecuniary interests than of engrained expectations. The biggest annual presentation that the director of national intelligence, for example, is required by law to make to Congress is supposed to be about worldwide threats. So naturally he describes a world that appears to consist mainly of threats.

And just about every agency involved in homeland security has to produce some sort of periodic threat assessment.  Sometimes such reports are mandated by law or regulation and sometimes they’re needed for budgetary/institutional interests.  Whatever the reason, however, the fact remains that the expectation is for the threats to always be high.  Think about it, how many times can you recall a threat assessment (either about a country on the other side of the globe or about the local crime problem in your neighborhood) that said things were getting less threatening?

Sometimes you’ll hear that it’s ‘our job’ to err on the side of caution and that may be true.  But that only works if it’s somebody’s job to act as a counterbalance and view things through a lens of realism. And let’s face it, there ain’t nobody at that helm…

The obligatory Wall St. post

Well, since the Occupy Wall Street protests are the flavor of the week, it’s probably about time I get off my Duff and figure out what I have to say about them.  I’ve had a huge amount of difficulty in writing about this and have started and discarded draft after draft.  This one may be no more coherent than those that were banished to the electronic hell that is the delete button but I suspect I won’t be able to do much better anytime soon.

From an intelligence perspective protests like this are a bit difficult to deal with.  People have an inalienable right to assemble and protest…BUT…let’s face it, the ‘haves’ tend not to like it when the ‘have nots’ get uppity.  In this regard it fundamentally doesn’t matter if the ‘have nots’ are from the left (Occupy Wall St.) or the right (Tea Party).  Both make the powers of the status quo nervous (and perhaps others) and when those people are nervous they tend to call upon the forces security forces to do something.

The question is what should they (and here I’ll refer specifically to intelligence)do?  I think the default answer should be a qualified nothing.  Studying trends in political rhetoric, activism and protest is important if for no other reason than to be able to identify what’s ‘normal’ and if there are any indicators of such movements veering from ‘acceptable’ activities to violence.  That prevents people from freaking out when some knucklehead writes on his facebook page that 20,000 anarchists are going to burn down your city.

I’m reasonably confident you can do that without embracing a police state, needing to focus on individuals or worrying about if person X attends anti-war rallies or person Y is a member of the NRA.  In order to make sense of these things, however, you need context.  You can only get context by observing and studying something.

However, we live in highly partisan times.  Everything is political.  So, people (like me) were a bit freaked out in 2009 when protesters were showing up at rallies with a wide array of firearms and talking about ‘watering the tree of liberty with blood’ while participants seemed honestly befuddled that anyone could interpret anything they were doing as threatening.  I suspect that for some who have moved beyond disdain for the Occupy movement they’re equally freaked out that the Bastille is about to be stormed and the guillotine sharpened.

This makes understanding context both very necessary AND very difficult.  Asking anyone to delliver an assessment on something as complex as a grassroots, multi-cause political movement when the limit of their knowledge about such movements might be what they heard about the Battle for Seattle is going to be fraught with peril.

So, for example, a leftist group recently placed several firebombs  near Berlin’s train station.  The group apparently objects to Germany’s role in Afghanistan and the imprisonment of Bradley Manning.  It’s not hard to imagine someone linking that event with the Occupy movement that’s trying to go international (I’m very confident you can find a ‘free Bradley’ sign down there or an anti-war message) and before you know it you’ll see all sorts of alerts and assessments talking about the ‘potential’ for terrible, terrible things to happen.

Further, these things can fall victim to the echo chamber of the media (both old and new).  The more you hear of protests like this, the more significant (and, depending on your point of view, potentially threatening) and immediate they seem.  Here’s where the current system of hundreds of agencies charged with doing intelligence in the U.S. breaks down.  The intense pressure for every agency to have something to say about these major events (so they can demonstrate to their overlords that they’re ‘all over’ the situation) translates into hundreds of bulletins, alerts, notifications, etc.  And, I suspect, even if they ALL say that something along the lines of ‘there’s no information of a credible threat posed by event X’ the simple fact that everyone is generating reports (and flooding inboxes around the nation) seeing this flood of reporting will have an effect (conscious or not) on how recipients view these protests.  After all, people don’t get alerts about the local Girl Scout cookie sale at the supermarket.  But if you crafted an assessment that said something like:

“While we have no evidence of a threat, the possibility remains that a psychotic Girl Scout might get brainwashed by al-Qaida and inject cookies with weaponized anthrax.”

I’m pretty confident that if you get enough agencies to put their stamp on such things you’d see a pretty dramatic drop in cookie sales (that’s good…more for me!).

That firebreak or reality check should be something analysts are prepared to handle.

On other Occupy news:

Some dude seemed to want to win the Douchy Person of the Year 2011 recently when he (an assistant editor of a conservative rag) decided to run a false flag operation.  He joined an anti-war group with the intent of going to a protest and confronting police.  One assumes his intent (in addition to winning the DPotY 2011) was to create the impression that these protesters are dangerous, violent and must be crushed.

I suspect someone missed their glory days of frat pranks a bit too much.

In any case, this is relevant here, again, because of the issue of context.  While this certainly isn’t a trend (with an n=1) it can be valuable to know that partisans may attempt to infiltrate movements in order to discredit them and (at least in this case) there can be real public safety consequences (the protest ended with police deploying pepper spray).

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It is surprising that even though it is 2011, representatives of the status quo still think the best way to deal with these sorts of things is through heavy handed repression.  While we no longer unleash dragoons to cut through the unwashed masses the idea that everything will go back to normal if we crack a few heads seems a bit dated and counter-productive.

Probably not the sort of trendline you want to see if you're a robber baron planning on spending the next couple of weeks short selling the children of the poor while doing lines of cocaine off the shapely bottoms of a bevy of Eastern Eurpean prostitutes.

Nate Silver tries to derive how much attention the protests have gathered throughout their life and

comes to the (not too startling) conclusion that police (perceived) over reactions led to significantly increased media coverage of the event.  Now, I suppose if you were a tool of capitalist oppression you could parley increased attention to an information campaign designed to alienate the population from the movement and we’ve certainly seen some examples of that in stories that highlight the drum circles and hippy dippy types.  That’s a pretty tough tiger to get by the tail, however, and one wrong move (like pepper spraying a young woman) can cause you to lose control of your message pretty quickly.

Gregory Djerejian  has what may be the best post on the subject I’ve seen.  Read it now…thank me later.

“I believe some minded to be more wedded to the status quo may be more rattled than they have been to date by the Tea Party (which in its aim to minimize Government’s role has an agenda often convenient to Wall Street’s current mood). This is because they are directing their ire squarely towards the real elites of the country, rather than their paid up for marionettes sitting in Washington.”