Sunday, March 9, 2014

Malaysian Airlines–When Will We Get Serious About Intelligence?

The human spy, in terms of the American espionage effort, had never been terribly pertinent. - Aldrich Ames

As the world awaits an update on the status of the Malaysian Airlines flight that has gone missing, much of the media has become gripped by the news that two of the passengers on the flight were using passports that were stolen at different times – one from an Austrian citizen and one from an Italian.

The news, whether related to the disappearance of the flight or not, is complicated by the statistical improbability that the two stolen passports would be on the same flight.

Add to this the seemingly unusual event that the airline tickets for the two passengers were purchased together implies that the two travelers were known to each other and therefore the statistical improbability of the two stolen passports traveling together transforms into a statistic probability.

And finally, Interpol revealed today that both passports were noted in their database as stolen but since airlines rarely check passenger passports against this database prior to boarding (according to Interpol and other aviation sources), the success rate of using a stolen passport to get on an aircraft anywhere in the world seems fairly high. <<On a side note, I am reminded of the Air Canada flight a couple of years ago where a senior citizen was denied the right to board an aircraft because her passport had expired while she was on vacation.  She was clearly a threat, wasn’t she?>>

All that being said, we must acknowledge that whether the passport incident is related to the loss of the Malaysian Airlines flight or not remains unclear and is pure conjecture by a sensationalist-focused media.

And meanwhile in the Ukraine

Despite having tapped almost every land line, email, cell phone, public conversation, social media platform and McDonald’s Happy Meal box, events in the Ukraine have allegedly caught the world by surprise.  While the events have calmed down somewhat, there was a 24-48 hour window where we may have come closer to a larger “international event” than people realize despite the gigantic intel engine that can proudly predict what each of us will have for breakfast tomorrow.

All of this makes me wonder how serious we really are about security and how effective the billions we are spending really are.

Assessing the ROI of Intel Collection

We now know that in the days and weeks leading up to 9/11, we had the intel to predict and possibly prevent the event but we had a collision of too many people holding onto too many disconnected bits of information, either wilfully not sharing it because of “specific agency ego” or sharing it but needing the right people to connect the dots.

The Christmas Bomber attempted to blow up a flight headed into Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009, by igniting plastic explosives hidden in his underwear and was foiled when his sweat-laden underwear would not ignite.  Then Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano claimed that it was the work of the intel agencies that had prevented the attack when in fact, the passengers owe their Life to the likelihood that the only difference between a controlled landing and an explosive one was that the nervous bomber had sweated himself into failure.

Don’t forget that the Shoe Bomber also flubbed his mission, easily circumventing our security procedures at the time.

And we haven’t figured out yet how to deal with explosives surgically implanted inside terrorists.

In the case of the stolen passports on the Malaysian Airlines flight today, we know that Al Qaeda routinely uses stolen passports to hide their identity and yet we don’t screen passports to determine whether they are authentic or not, even though the technology to do so is relatively simple to implement.  It’s such a mundane, simple thing to check that it seems almost pathetic that our great counter-terrorism engine could be circumvented by such a simple act as offering a stolen passport.  Meanwhile, it took us a long time to be allowed to bring nail clippers, the notorious WMDs that they are, on board an aircraft again.

The Bottom Line

We spend billions on intel and counter terrorism and while we have many claims from the intel industry that the money is well spent and has prevented many incidents, we still have too many significant events happening while the probability of future events is a lot higher than people realize.

It makes me wonder:

  1. Despite the billions that we spend, why do we always seem to be a step behind many of these people who have almost no budget?
  2. Are we so focused on the potential for complex problems that we fail to see the relatively simple approaches that some of these terrorists use?
  3. Do our laws complicate the work of law enforcement, forcing them to tiptoe around our rights so much that it creates loopholes that terrorists can exploit?
  4. Is our ego so great that we assume that lots of money and technology can always beat someone who is insanely (and I use that word literally) passionate about achieving some goal in as simple a form as possible while at the same time being relatively uneducated (at least as we perceive them to be)?

And finally there is this question:

How can we do better before something really catastrophic undermines all of us?  Think of the Ukraine situation rapidly developing into something else by accident.

Security agencies are forced to run the gauntlet between honoring our rights and freedoms and protecting us against terror attack.  Their efforts are complicated by a select few who use the power they have to their advantage (think of J. Edgar Hoover’s abuse of power).

I wonder if this gauntlet (almost a no-win for the intel industry), coupled with ego, some scattered instances of corruption and black budgets that have lost sight of their real goals, have created a scenario where money that could be spent on other things will be wasted while events that threaten us personally or internationally will happen anyway.

If that’s the case, what’s the point? 

Maybe all of this “stuff” about security and counter-terrorism is just a charade and serves a different purpose, serving a different intention and a different master that we are not aware of.

But that’s all conspiracy stuff, isn’t it?

Or is it?

I’m not a conspiracy person but as a strategy person, what I see does not add up.  The dots are not connecting predictably or intelligently, with a missing element clearly present that prevents those dots from connecting cohesively.

Understanding that missing element and the person or persons who own it or influence it matters … if we have the courage, the ability and the will to seek the answer.

Meanwhile, for the record, I will be having corn flakes tomorrow morning, but somebody already knew that, didn’t they?

And yet we can’t do better where it matters.

It makes me wonder why.

How about you?

In service and servanthood,


PS On a related but unrelated note, the widow of a pilot lost on 9/11 has recently revealed that the cockpit of a commercial aircraft can still be compromised in less than 5 seconds and aviation sources have revealed that they believe that potential terrorists appear to be rehearsing on US commercial flights for some type of event.

Given that, here is an important call to action for you.

When the next event happens (and it will), you must act surprised and outraged because oftentimes it seems that that’s what we do best despite data to the contrary.

We can and should do better.

It provides interesting insight into the human experience as to why we do not.

As for today, let us keep the families of those lost in our thoughts and prayers, that they may find strength during this time of difficulty.

And toss in an extra prayer for the rest of us, that we may find the strength and courage to create a world that honors our potential.

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