Friday, November 26, 2010

The electromagnetic pulse threat

A single nuclear warhead could disrupt the entire country in an EMP attack.

One afternoon last summer, an afternoon thunderstorm moved through my hometown of Villa Rica.  Lightning from the storm knocked out power in most of the town.  Without power, all commerce stopped.  We had intended to order a pizza, but the restaurant employees told us that they couldn’t cook anything electricity.  Even if they had food to sell, we wouldn’t have been able to buy it since they couldn’t use the cash register.  Across the street, grocery store customers with full carts of food found that they couldn’t buy anything either.  Police had their hands full directing traffic since all of the traffic lights in town were out.

Now imagine that the blackout is not confined to one town, but is spread across the whole country.  It also is not confined to the electrical grid.  Nothing electrical is working.  Your car engine might die.  Your cell phone is dead.  Even the battery in your watch is dead.  Instead of a thunderstorm, you have likely experienced an electromagnetic pulse attack.

An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack is a specific type of attack with a nuclear weapon.  Rather than leveling a city, the object of an EMP attack is to destroy a developed nation’s economy by destroying its electrical infrastructure.  The attack would also sever the command and control links between the government and military units making it difficult or impossible to fight back or coordinate relief efforts.

The effects of EMP after a nuclear airburst detonation were first observed after tests in the 1960s.  In one test, codenamed Starfish, a 1.4 megaton nuclear warhead exploded at 250 miles (400 km) over the South Pacific and damaged electrical and telecommunications systems almost 900 miles (1400 km) away in Hawaii.  Street lights failed, circuit breakers popped, burglar alarms were set off.

The EMP is a spike in gamma radiation following a nuclear detonation.  The first energy pulse is sent out within a few billionths of a second that damages electronics over a wide (hundreds of miles) area.  A second component that is similar to lightning follows next over the same area.  Finally, a third component is a slower, longer lasting pulse that can cause disruptive currents in electric transmission lines.  The third component is of a more limited range than the first two.  The three different components each cause separate damage.  Further, damage from later components builds upon the damage caused earlier.

An EMP attack would be carried out by exploding a large nuclear weapon at a high altitude above the target country.  The explosion of a large (at least one megaton) weapon several hundred miles above the United States between Chicago and Kansas would destroy or disrupt a majority of the US electrical capacity.  The extent of the damage would depend on the altitude and yield of the weapon.

Because the weapon would have to be boosted hundreds of miles above the earth, terrorist groups like al-Qaeda would not be able to mount an EMP attack.  On the other hand, there are indications that terrorist regimes in Iran and North Korea are working to develop EMP technology.  The Iranians have already test fired their missiles in a profile that is consistent with an EMP airburst.  Both nations have Scud missiles that could launch a lower-altitude EMP attack, but the Iranians also possess Shahab-3 medium range missiles that could detonate a warhead in space for maximum effectiveness.

Additionally, the Iranians have demonstrated the ability to launch Scud missiles from cargo ships.  This could be used to launch a surprise attack on US cities.  A freighter approaching port cities such as New York, Los Angeles, or Savannah could, without warning, launch strikes into the US heartland.  Depending on the version of the missile, a freighter hundreds of miles off the coast of Savannah could easily strike Atlanta with either a conventional nuclear warhead or an EMP airburst.  The jihadis on board could then sink the ship, leaving no clues as to the origin of the attack.  For maximum effectiveness, simultaneous attacks on several ports or seaboard cities could be coordinated.

Depending on the altitude of the airburst, there might be little or no physical damage or immediate loss of life.  After the explosion, the energy pulse would travel at the speed of light and simultaneously fry electronics within the effective radius of the weapon.  Commercial computer equipment, from traffic lights to telecommunications equipment would be affected.  Power surges from overloaded electric lines would short out computers and appliances.  Cars and trucks with electric ignition systems would shut off causing accidents and traffic jams. 

The long term effects would be disastrous.  There be no electricity until power lines and transformers could be replaced.  This might take years.  In the meantime, commerce would grind to a halt.  Food would quickly disappear from store shelves.  Produce would rot in warehouses since refrigeration systems would not work.  Cars that still worked could not be refueled since the electric pumps at gas stations would not work.    Telephone, internet, radio, and other methods of communication would all be down.  The economy would screech to a halt.

People would be isolated and stranded, unable to communicate, and running out of food.  This would inevitably lead to civil unrest.  There would likely be a societal breakdown similar to that seen after Hurricane Katrina, only this time the scale might well be national.  Law enforcement and relief agencies would be quickly overwhelmed.  Starvation, disease, and violence would run rampant.  The death toll could be in the millions.

In 2001, Congress formed the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United State from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack.  The commission has published several reports and studies on the EMP threat.  They have also issued recommendations for preventing and minimizing the EMP threat.  The most important recommendation is to prevent attacks from occurring in the first place.  This means preventing rogue nations from obtaining the technology to launch an attack.  Unfortunately, the nuclear cat is already out of the bag in North Korea and soon will be in Iran.

Second, commercial electric systems such as generators, turbines and transformers should be shielded and configured to minimize the damage from sudden shutdown or attempted restart after an attack.  Many military systems are already somewhat shielded as a legacy of the Cold War, but civilian electrical systems are completely vulnerable.

An additional solution is to implement an effective antimissile system.  The US already has a limited anti-ballistic missile capability in the form of ground-based interceptors in Alaska and US Navy Aegis cruisers armed with SM-3 missiles.  Other programs are currently under development.  The missile threat from rogue nations is different from the Cold War threat posed by the Soviets.  The terrorists would be able to launch far fewer missiles, but they might come from a shorter range, similar to a launch by a Soviet submarine.  Our current capabilities should be expanded and shorter range anti-missile defenses should be added to defend America’s coastal cities.

Even if an attack never occurs, many of these preparations would also help to minimize the damage from traditional blackouts and power failures.  The effects of a solar super storm, in which the sun ejects massive solar flares, would be similar to an EMP attack on a global scale.

Additionally, individuals should also prepare.  Whether we are faced with an EMP attack or some other disaster, individual Americans need to be able to fend for themselves for a time until relief agencies can help them.  In a burglary or home invasion, that might mean fending off an intruder for long minutes until police can arrive.  In a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake, help might take days to arrive.  In the case of electromagnetic pulse attack, there might be no help for weeks or months.  To learn how to begin preparing your home for an emergency, click here.

In the midst of a Great Recession and with the federal debt at record levels, it is difficult to think about more government spending to protect our electrical grids.  Nevertheless, as radical and homicidal extremists like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il gain, and share, the nuclear and missile technology to launch EMP attacks that could literally destroy our economy and bring the US back into the stone age, we must ask ourselves whether we can afford to tempt fate and do nothing.  History has shown that both Iran and North Korea are more than willing to strike first if they believe that they can get away with it.

For more information:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Are Muslim women exempt from TSA screening? (and other myths)

Muslim woman in a hijab (Steve Evans)

Today I once again don my tinfoil hat to tackle a series of internet rumors about the new TSA screening procedures.   These procedures include body scanners and random pad-downs (what most people would probably being frisked).  I am actually taking an airline flight from Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport today.  While riding in from the parking lot, I had the rare opportunity to talk to a TSA officer on an informal basis about the new procedures.  While many of his answers are incorporated into this article, I will respect his anonymity. 

Are Muslim women wearing burkas exempt from screening?  One rumor making the rounds is that Muslim women wearing hijabs (scarves that cover the head and face) or burkas (loose garments that cover the entire body, leaving an opening for the eyes) would be exempt from TSA screening due to religious reasons.  This rumor seems to stem from a press release by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) that notes that Muslim scholars say that full body scans are a violation of Islamic law.  The press release gives a list of recommendations that include the suggestion that they ask to pat themselves down, but does not claim that they be exempt from screening.

According to the officer I spoke with, the only instance in which self-pat-downs are allowed is in the case of turbans.  The wearer still must go through screening, including the body scan, but is allowed to pat down the turban himself.  The TSA screener then conducts a chemical test of the wearer’s hands to ensure that no explosives are present.  This exception is due to the religious significance of the turban to Sikhs and is consistent with CAIR’s recommendations.

Note that CAIR does not claim that Muslims are exempt from either body scans or pat-downs.  The press release notes that “if you opt out of the full-image body scanner, you have the right to request that the manual search be conducted in private.”  This is a tacit acceptance of the fact that Muslims do have to abide by the law and undergo body scans, pat-downs, or in some cases both. 

Afghan woman in a burka (Steve Evans)
Further, the TSA website notes that travelers who wear baggy clothing or head coverings could be subjected to additional screening, rather than being exempted.  A claim that President Obama exempted the Muslim women from screening appears to be ungrounded in any sort of reality.

Can the TSA search me if I decide to leave the airport and not fly?   According to my source, it depends on where you are in the line when you decide to leave.  If you are simply standing in the queue, you are free to leave without being searched.  However, if you have placed your personal items on the conveyor for screening, you have committed to being searched.  If you attempt to leave the line after placing your items on the conveyor, the TSA considers you to possibly be dangerous.

Is there a radiation hazard from the body scanners?  Officially, the TSA says that it would take 1,000 scans to approach the maximum allowable radiation dose.  Unofficially, my source confirmed this, saying that it would take several scans to equal the radiation from a normal medical x-ray.  Thinking logically, a medical x-ray must penetrate the body, while a TSA x-ray need only penetrate clothing.  Considering this, even flight crews and frequent flyers should have nothing to worry about.

Additionally, only about half of airport scanners use x-rays.  The remainder use millimeter-wave technology that poses no known health risk.  If you are still concerned about the risk of radiation, however, you have a right to request a pat-down.

Are travelers subject to strip searches?  One viral video that generated a lot of anger and angst showed the TSA screening a shirtless toddler.  In another case, a man stripped down to his briefs after refusing the body scan.  In both cases, the travelers themselves took the initiative to remove their clothing.  The toddler’s shirt was reportedly removed by his father (who remained with him).  The man who stripped to his briefs was arrested on unspecified charges (public nudity?). 

The TSA does not have the right to strip search travelers in public.  They do have to right to subject you to additional screening if they cannot determine that your clothing is free of threatening items.  You have the right to request that the additional screening take place in a private room.  The additional screening will be performed by a TSA officer of the traveler’s gender and does not include being stripped.

Can airlines opt out of TSA screening and hire private security firms?  This is partially true.  Airports, not airlines, are responsible for security screening.  The airport authority does have the right to contract with private security firms for screening rather than using the TSA.  If the airport elects to use private security, travelers are still subject to the same regulations and searches as at TSA-served airports.

A pat-down by a Customs-Border Patrol officer
Is Opt-out Day a good idea?  Some critics of the TSA plan to hold a National Opt-Out Day on November 24, 2010.  The idea is to protest the use of body-imaging screeners by asking all travelers to ask for pat-downs.  Theoretically this would punish the TSA by overwhelming screeners because pat-downs take longer and require more officers than use of the screening machines.

This is not a good idea.  The threat is real.  It has been less than a year since Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day 2009 with a bomb in his underwear.  Prior to that there was the liquid-gel explosive threat of 2006 and Richard Reid’s shoe bomb attack in December 2001.  There are plenty of terrorists who want to kill Americans and if disgruntled passengers choose to cause problems for the TSA, resources will be wasted and the chances of a real terrorist getting through are increased.

Additionally, travelers who try to overwhelm the TSA are also causing problems for their fellow travelers.  By trying to slow down screenings on one of the busiest travel days of the year, they are going to cause innocent travelers to be delayed, miss their flights, and possibly miss Thanksgiving celebrations with their family as well.  Further, if you elect to opt –out of body screening, you will be subjected to a pat-down (groping) by TSA officers yourself.  Most people do not consider this a pleasant experience.  Opt-out Day is a dumb idea.  Don’t do it.

Can’t we just screen Muslims since only Muslims are blowing up airplanes?  No.  Aside from legal and constitutional restrictions on racial profiling, this is not a practical idea since Muslims are a religious group, not a racial one.  First, not all Arabs or Middle Easterners are Muslims; they can be Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, etc. 

Second, Muslims can be average white or black Americans.  There are a growing number of western converts to Islam.  John Walker Lindh is a white American who was captured in Afghanistan while fighting for the Taliban in November 2001 after converting to Islam.  John Allen Muhammad, the DC Sniper, was a black US Army veteran who converted to Islam before launching his 2002 jihad.  Another white Muslim convert, Washington National Guardsman Ryan Anderson, was convicted of spying for al Qaeda in 2004.  Additionally, Muslims from countries such as Bosnia, Chechnya, and Azerbaijan are also Caucasians.  Further, Arab Muslims have reportedly disguised themselves as Hispanics as well.

Profiling is needed, but it should not be racial profiling.  Instead, as Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation suggests, profiling should be used to screen out travelers who are not a threat.  For example, screening flight crews, young children, military personnel (Nidal Hasan notwithstanding) and the elderly is a waste of TSA resources.  Remaining travelers should be placed into high or normal risk categories.  If a traveler is high-risk, such as travelers from countries such as Yemen or Pakistan, if there is specific intelligence about the traveler, or if traveler is on a TSA watch list, then the traveler should be subjected to rigorous screening.  Medium-risk travelers should be subjected to normal screening and random pat-downs.

Are all the horror stories blown out of proportion?  Probably not.  There are cases where the TSA agents were almost certainly excessive in their actions.  Two examples are the man, whose urostomy bag was ruptured during a pat-down, soaking him in urine, and the flight attendant who was forced to remove her prosthetic breast.  TSA agents should be better trained to deal with situations like these.

Additionally, the TSA announced today that it would change its procedures for searching small children.  In one case, a cell phone video showed a child screaming after a pat-down triggered by her teddy bear.  I am not aware of any cases in which terrorists have attempted to use children or their toys to commit a bombing, but given their lack of respect for human life, particularly the lives of infidels, such a plot is not out of the question.

As you go to the airport, check the TSA website for tips on how to make your screening fast and trouble free.  Respect the TSA officers and your fellow passengers.  Remember that the TSA is on your side.  The sole reason for the agency’s existence is to protect airline flights from terror attacks.  Through a combination of intelligence coups and good luck, they have been successful in the years since the September 11 attacks.  Reserve your anger for the terrorists who make the whole ordeal necessary.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Are TSA screenings effective and constitutional?

Two Standing Around

Thanksgiving week is one of the busiest travel times of the year.  This year many travelers, me included, will be undergoing new searches by the Transportation Security Administration.  The new searches, which include highly detailed body scans and random pat-downs, have many fliers up in arms. There is a movement to opt out of the body scans in protest, and some are even claiming that the scans are a violation of the Constitution’s fourth amendment.  Still others are concerned about the health risk of radiation from the body scanners.

Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where my trip will originate, is one of the airports that has the new imaging technology, so if you plan on flying through ATL be prepared to submit to the body scan or a pat-down.  The TSA insists that there is little to fear from the machines and that a traveler would have to have 1000 scans before approaching the maximum allowable radiation dose (although some radiation experts dispute the TSA’s claim).  This is especially true since not all scanners use x-rays.  About half of airport scanners use millimeter-wave technology and have no known health risks.  If you are a frequent flyer or are still concerned, you can opt for a pat-down.

As far as privacy concerns go, the scanners do produce detailed images of the traveler’s body parts beneath their clothes.  According to the TSA, the images are viewed by an officer in a remote location who cannot see the traveler.  The officers in the security lane with the traveler cannot see the images.  The images cannot be “stored, transmitted, or printed.”

On the other hand, if you opt for (or are randomly selected for) a pat-down, you can expect a somewhat intrusive search.  According to many, the pat-downs are very thorough and include touching of genitals and breasts.  The pat-downs are conducted by officers of the same gender as the traveler.  The traveler also has the right to request that the pat-down be conducted in a private room.

The question of whether the scans and searches violate the fourth amendment seems to be a simple one to answer.  The attacks on September 11, 2001 are less than a decade in the past.  A few months later, Richard Reid tried to blow up an American Airlines flight with a bomb concealed in his shoes.  In 2006, terrorists tried to attack eight flights with explosives disguised as common liquids or gels.  Less than a year ago, on Christmas Day, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight enroute from Amsterdam to Detroit.  Mutallab had a bomb sewn into his underwear.  More recently, cargo flights enroute to the US were unsuccessfully attacked.  It is not hard to see that the threat is real and there are still lots of terrorists out there who are willing to trade their lives to kill as many Americans as possible. 

The fact is that these searches are not being conducted on random citizens on the streets.  They are being conducted on people who have chosen to fly on airliners.  Flying on an airliner is not a right.  When a traveler buys an airline ticket, they know they must be searched and are effectively consenting to that search.  If the traveler does not want to be searched, there are other travel options available that include driving, taking a bus or train, or using a private aircraft.  These searches almost certainly meet constitutional muster.

More questionable are reports that some travelers are being told that they cannot choose to leave the security line and exit the airport without being screened.  Unless there is some probable cause or suspicion beyond the fact that the traveler merely does not want to be screened, it seems that they are perfectly within their rights to leave the airport without submitting to any sort of screening.

The big question is whether the screening is effective.  It is clear that the TSA is a reactive agency.  They were created to combat box cutters.  They implemented shoe scanning after Richard Reid’s bomb attempt.  They limited liquids in 2006.  Now they are implementing body scans to meet last year’s threat.  The new TSA procedures will do nothing to prevent a terrorist from smuggling weapons or explosives in a body cavity.  There have already been reports that the terrorists are considering using explosive implants in breasts or buttocks.  How do we screen for that?

It is going to be necessary for the TSA to one day admit that profiling is a necessary tool.  Security efforts should be focused on travelers who present the biggest threat rather than democratically assuming that all passengers are equally dangerous.   Resources are wasted screening children, the elderly, flight crews (although I am aware of one incident in which a flight attendant was on a TSA watch list) and randomly selected passengers while more threatening passengers escape screening.

This is not to say that travelers should be racially or religiously profiled.  Even if this were constitutional, it would not work.  It is true that all recent terrorist attacks have been committed by Muslims, but it is impossible to tell someone’s religion by looking at them.  For example, Jews and Arab Muslims share a common heritage from the Middle East and can have similar appearances.  Similarly, there have been reports of Arab terrorists disguising themselves as Hispanics. 

Likewise, not all Muslims are Arab.  There are a growing number of western converts to Islam.  John Walker Lindh is a white American who was captured in Afghanistan while fighting for the Taliban in November 2001 after converting to Islam.  John Allen Muhammad, the DC Sniper, was a black US Army veteran who converted to Islam before launching his 2002 jihad.  Another white Muslim convert, Washington National Guardsman Ryan Anderson, was convicted of spying for al Qaeda in 2004.  Additionally, Muslims from countries such as Bosnia, Chechnya, and Azerbaijan are also Caucasians.

Another common thread of airline terror attacks since 9/11 is that they originated from other countries.  Unfortunately, due to the increasing number of terrorist attacks and plots by American Muslims, we cannot assume that domestic flights are safe.

Instead, security forces should use the Israeli model.  The Israelis take security seriously and have not had an airline hijacking since a failed attempt in 1970.  TSA should look for suspicious travelers and suspicious behavior.

It seems that many (although not all) of the most over-the-top claims about TSA harassment stem from the poor behavior of travelers.  People who lose their temper, don’t follow the rules, or carry metallic copies of the Bill of Rights can expect to get extra screening.  If you don’t want to undergo a body scan, you will get a pat-down.  Don’t bother arguing if you want to fly.

Travelers should keep in mind that the TSA really is on their side.  If they want to be angry at anyone about their screening experience, they should focus that anger on the terrorists who make it necessary.