A status report on a chemical-detection system, when to keep technological innovations close to the vest, and Alaska’s head of homeland security.
Before his most recent of three tours in Iraq, a Marine sergeant named Ray spied a front-page story in the San Diego Union-Tribune about an improvised explosive device (IED) countermeasure developed by an Army agency; the device had yet to be deployed overseas. Ray, a combat engineer who has been injured twice by explosives—once by a land mine and once by an IED—was surprised to read about the technology, especially considering that the article went into detail about the way the electronic jamming worked and the number of such devices that would be on hand in the field.
“We get these things out there that work great for the first six months, then the terrorists counter them,” says Ray. “Once they know what we are doing, it’s easy for them to counter [the devices].”
Obviously, having the media report on the countermeasure before it is even deployed shortens that window of effectiveness. But the problem isn’t just the media aggressively digging up information; companies making the devices are anxious to highlight their accomplishments.
Company press releases and Web sites are easy sources for subversives who want to tap into the latest technologies and cook up ways to counter them, defense officials speaking at a recent forum at the Technical Support Working Group (TSWG) Explosives Detection Conference in Miami said. “We are at war. We need to be very careful about what we say about capabilities and limitations,” says a Defense Department official who wished to remain anonymous.
Not everyone agrees. Edwin Bundy, an associate with Booz Allen Hamilton’s antiterrorism division and a former bomb technician, believes the overall tendency for people within government or the private sector is to cloister away too much information on tactics, techniques, and procedures. But even Bundy acknowledges that terrorists mine public information. “[T]hey are collecting open source information,” he says.
The problem arises when the level of detail is significant. For instance, if sensor technology for explosives is described to the point where the detection ranges are given, subversives can plan their operations outside of those parameters. “Just publishing effective safe distances already provides the terrorists a channel to know where to place a device or operate,” says an air marshal in a U.S. field office.
Ray has also seen news dispatches regarding how many rounds per minute certain weapons could fire, another operational detail that could help the enemy. He noted other leaks regarding force fields and Kevlar systems. “Theres way too much information out there,” says the Marine. “I understand a lot of people are concerned about the safety of the Marines and soldiers overseas, but the public doesn’t need to know what is being done.”
Bundy advises private companies to divulge minimal information in public and rely on a client-to-producer venue for disseminating details. He also recommends that as companies develop a new technology, they bear in mind at all times how the enemy is going to defeat it.
One bomb prevention official at the Department of Homeland Security says the need for caution prevents the department from sharing as much as it might otherwise want to with the American public. “[Y]ou can’t have the plan for invading Normandy on the front page,” he says. “The challenge for the private sector is how you hawk your wares while considering the opsec [operational security]. The playbook has changed for everyone.”