Monday, February 14, 2011

WMDs in America?

Call it the non-story of the week. It generated a fair amount of buzz in Southern California, but if you live outside the region, you probably didn't hear a word about it, unless you frequent Big Journalism and other media watchdog sites.

Here's what happened: last week, KGTV, the ABC affiliate in San Diego, aired a story on port security. It's a timely topic; not only is the city home to the nation's second-largest naval base, it's also a major hub for shipping activity. Dozens of giant container ships dock at San Diego's port facilities each month, and there are legitimate fears about terrorists using one of those vessels to smuggle WMD into the country.

KGTV's investigation, by reporter Mitch Blacher, included an interview with Al Hallor, the assistant port director and a senior official with Customs and Border Protection. When Blacher asked about efforts to detect WMD in the San Diego area, he received a rather surprising response. From the KGTV website:

"So, specifically, you're looking for the dirty bomb? You're looking for the nuclear device?" asked Blacher.

"Correct. Weapons of mass effect," Hallor said.

"You ever found one?" asked Blacher.

"Not at this location," Hallor said.

"But they have found them?" asked Blacher.

"Yes," said Hallor.

"You never found one in San Diego though?" Blacher asked.

"I would say at the port of San Diego we have not," Hallor said.

"Have you found one in San Diego?" Blacher asked.

The interview was interrupted before Hallor was able to answer the question.

Bob McCarty of has the video, and it's definitely worth a look. A p.r. official from CBP is present during the interview, though off-camera. Watch Hallor's reaction when Blacher asks about the discovery of "Weapons of Mass Effect" at U.S. ports. Mr. Hallor clearly pauses--and looks towards the public affairs officer--before finally acknowledging the discovery. Then, when KGTV's Blacher tried to learn if such weapons have been found in San Diego, the p.r. rep brings the interview to a sudden end.

Customs and Border Protection later released a statement saying that Hallor "misspoke," though it took them three weeks to offer that explanation.

CBP has not specifically had any incidents with nuclear devices or nuclear materials at our ports of entry. CBP is an all-threats agency. The purpose of many security measures is to prevent threats from ever materializing by being prepared for them. And, we must be prepared to stop threats in whatever form they do materialize at the border, whether it’s an individual or cargo arriving by land, air, or sea. Regardless of what the contraband or threat is, we’re being smart, evaluating, and focusing in on anything or anyone that is potentially high-risk.

The agency has not said why Hallor not allowed to answer the question; why it terminated the interview, or why its clarification was so long in coming. But whatever the reason, the agency didn't do itself any favors, and the entire incident has only raised new questions.

First, let's take CBP at its word and assume that Mr. Hallor was wrong when he answered Blacher's question. How could a senior homeland security official--the assistant director of the Port of San Diego--get it so wrong? Clearly, weapons of mass effects covers a lot of territory, but you've either found them coming into the country--or you haven't. Based on his answer, Hallor apparently knew of a WME/WMD discovery and tried to affirm that--until the public affairs officer effectively silenced him.

On the other hand, if Mr. Hallor mis-characterized another incident as a WME/WMD find, that doesn't exactly inspire confidence, either. Someone in his position has at least a SECRET security clearance, meaning Hallor has access to a wide variety of intelligence information pertaining to homeland security threats. Additionally, we don't suppose the CBP official has a history of making things up, either. Obviously, something in Hallor's experience or knowledge base triggered the affirmative response to Blacher's question.

Finally, if Mr. Hallor was truly mistaken, why did it take CBP so long to issue their clarification?If there have been no WMD/WME discoveries, the agency should have issued a statement immediately, and not waited three weeks to respond. You'd also think CBP would have provided more details. For example, the thwarted Times Square car bomb plot was an attempted WME attack. Was that what Mr. Hallor was referring to? If so, the feds should have been more clear in explaining the official's remarks.

To be fair, CBP's delayed explanation isn't totally beyond disbelief. Had WMD/WME been found in a U.S. port, it's likely the discovery would have been leaked almost immediately--and not disclosed casually to a local TV reporter in San Diego. But that's about the only scenario that lends credence to CBP's version of events. And with that scenario, you must accept that one of the principal homeland security officers in San Diego County is clueless on one of the most important issues facing his organization. Otherwise, why would he make a statement with no basis in fact?

On the other hand, maybe Mr. Hallor was being a little too candid. That theory raises all sorts of questions that remain unanswered, such as what was found, where and how it was being shipped into America.

This much we know: Al Qaida has a long-standing interest in WMD. Their capabilities in that area have improved modestly in those areas in recent years, despite severe damage inflicted on their leadership and fund-raising operations--essential elements in any WMD/WME attacks. We also know there was a major WMD operation in the Atlanta area late last year, with the feds stopping all trucks on I-20 during rush hour, and running them through a radiation scanner. Sources told WSB-TV the activity was "real world" and not a drill, though various spokesmen later tried to "walk back" that remark. Sounds like the same p.r. tactic recently attempted in San Diego.

One more point. It's probably unrelated (at least, that's what government officials would have you believe), but this recent item also caught our eye: early last month, the Federal Communications Commission announced plans to test Presidential Alerts in the near future.
As an agency official told Federal News Radio in Washington:

"The primary goal is to provide the President with a mechanism to communicate with the American public during times of national emergency," said Lisa Fowlkes (Deputy Chief of the FCC's Homeland Security Bureau). The change, she said, is that prior to last week's order there was no rule in place to call for or allow a test from top to bottom.

Fowlkes said, "There's never been a test from top to bottom where it's issued by FEMA and it goes straight down to all the different levels of EAS to the American public. So this is a way for us to glean, okay, if there were an actual emergency and the federal government needed to activate the Presidential EAS, making sure that it actually works the way it's designed to."

Now that there's a rule in place, the next challenges are going to be working with all the stakeholders on timing of the test and to reach out to the public so they understand it's a test and not a real emergency, Fowlkes said.

To someone who spent years in radio (before having the good sense to join the military) this announcement was stunning. Broadcasters have worked with the FCC for years on the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and its predecessor, the Emergency Broadcast System or EBS. There was always some provision for the president (or the national command authority) to provide information through the system in the event of a cataclysmic event. But for more than 50 years, no one saw a need to test the presidential capabilities, despite nuclear dangers during the Cold War, and real-world events like 9-11.

And what sort of event might warrant activation of the Presidential EAS? How about a domestic terror attack, using weapons of mass destruction or a weapon of mass effect?


Bill said...

I think the key phrase in both statements was:

CBP has not specifically had any incidents with nuclear devices or nuclear materials at our ports of entry.

Note "at our ports of entry."

Not a categorical "nuclear devices or nuclear materials have not been found."

If you reread Hallor's statement, it seems clear that some type of nuclear device or nuclear material-based WMD was found in San Diego, just not at the port (perhaps after it had already passed through the port and on to another location, or having entered by other means, such as over our all too porous border with Mexico; those drug tunnels can be used to smuggle in a lot more than drugs, and I'm sure Al Qaeda would pay the Mexican drug lords just about anything they asked.)

Vigilis said...

The female "Assistant Public Affairs Officer" who interrupts (and answers for) Hallor in the video has not been identified, yet she seems to possess censorship over Hallor. Is she in reality a USCG officer assigned by DHS? That is my tentative guess.

The press has certainly not been thorough in its coverage. It seems extremely unusual for a public relations official not to be identified by full name, because their authority is conveyed both by their title and non-anonymity

This is certainly a very suspicious development, and was perhaps manufactured and approved by Napolitano to arouse the public as a thought- experiment in advance of replacing in April the color-coded Threat Level System with an undefined system designed to better convey threats locally.

I must also note that while the short definition of WMD has not specifically included "psychological and/or economic damage to the United States", the newer term (circa 2001-2005) WME does.

salesjerk said...

Today the UT tries to revise the "story" ...

If it smells like $hit ... Just say'n