Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mr. Snowden's "Helpers"

Today's reading assignment, from Edward Jay Epstein, writing in The Wall Street Journal. He expounds on points we made in a previous post, examining the "assistance" given to Edward Snowden in exposing the NSA's enhanced surveillance efforts:

In March 2013, when Edward Snowden sought a job with Booz Allen Hamilton at a National Security Agency facility in Hawaii, he signed the requisite classified-information agreements and would have been made well aware of the law regarding communications intelligence.


Mr. Snowden took that position so he could arrange to have published classified communications intelligence, as he told the South China Morning Post earlier this month. The point of Mr. Snowden's penetration was to get classified data from the NSA. He subsequently stated: "My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked, that is why I accepted that position."


Before taking the job in Hawaii, Mr. Snowden was in contact with people who would later help arrange the publication of the material he purloined. Two of these individuals, filmmaker Laura Poitras and Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald, were on the Board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation that, among other things, funds WikiLeaks.

In January 2013, according to the Washington Post, Mr. Snowden requested that Ms. Poitras get an encryption key for Skype so that they could have a secure channel over which to communicate.

In February, he made a similar request to Mr. Greenwald, providing him with a step-by-step video on how to set up encrypted communications.

So, before Mr. Snowden proceeded with his NSA penetration in March 2013 through his Booz Allen Hamilton job, he had assistance, either wittingly or unwittingly, in arranging the secure channel of encrypted communications that he would use to facilitate the publication of classified communications intelligence.

On May 20, three months into his job, Mr. Snowden falsely claimed to his employer that he needed treatment for epilepsy. The purpose of the cover story was to conceal his trip to Hong Kong, where the operation to steal U.S. secrets would be brought to fruition.

As Mr. Epstein observes, Snowden's flight to Hong Kong was anything but a spur-of-the-moment decision. We're guessing that the self-styled "whistle-blower" could afford the airfare on his $10,000 monthly salary from Booz, Allen Hamilton. But coordinating--and paying for--the other elements in his "expose" is a completely different matter. Hong Kong is a pricey destination, and we're guessing he didn't stay in the local equivalent of Motel 6. There's also the matter of the safe house where he spent part of his stay; retainers for his Hong Kong legal team and of course, the private jet flight that eventually took him to Moscow.

It's a plan with a lot of moving parts, and not something that was orchestrated solely by Mr. Snowden. Obviously, Greenwald and Poitras were major players (along with the WikiLeaks organization), but even those individuals (and Julian Assange's outfit) don't have the resources to pull of this sort of caper without a little extra help. That might have come from Chinese and Russian intelligence organizations, which may have accessed Snowden's electronic library of state secrets during his stay in Hong Kong and more recently, Moscow.

And here's another question for you to ponder. Why did Greenwald (a well-known, left-wing blogger and journalist) and Poitras, a celebrated documentary film maker, respond to the queries of Edwin Snowden, then an unknown defense contractor? Virtually anyone who blogs or makes films about the shadowy world of intelligence receive "over-the-transom" messages from insiders who claim to have devastating information on just about any issue or topic you can imagine. Most are cranks, and their e-mails are summarily deleted.

Yet, there was something in Snowden's initial communications that intrigued both Greenwald and Poitras, to the extent they were soon following his instructions for setting up encrypted communications, which would eventually be used to help Snowden leak state secrets and plot his escape from U.S. authorities. What was it about Edwin Snowden that brought Greenwald and Poitras into the loop--and made them willing accomplices?

Or, was their participation cleverly orchestrated by outside parties, to support the cover story of a idealistic whistle-blower, bent on exposing government wrong-doing, while attempting to evade its legal tentacles? Judging by their past actions, both Mr Greenwald and Ms. Poitras aren't exactly friends of the federal government--or American democracy. New Zeland blogger Trevor Loudon discovered that Greenwald has been a featured speaker at various socialism conferences since 2011, and Laura Poitras was present on a Baghdad rooftop just before a passing U.S. military patrol was ambushed in 2006--a rather odd coincidence that put her on the government's radar. Details from The Weekly Standard:

But perhaps it isn't such a mystery why the U.S. government might want to question Poitras if you simply crack open John R. Bruning's 2006 book, The Devil's Sandbox: With the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry at War in Iraq. Contary to Greenwald's claim that Poitras has never been accused of any wrongdoing, Devil's Sandbox details the explosive allegation that Poitras had foreknowledge of a November 20, 2004 ambush of U.S. troops but did nothing to warn them.

Brandon Ditto led the platoon that came under fire that day. Speaking Tuesday evening by phone with THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Ditto said it seemed that Poitras "had pre-knowledge" of the ambush. He recalled the events he witnessed that day, confirming the details described in Devil's Sandbox.

During a patrol of Adhamiya early in the morning of November 20, two soldiers in Ditto's platoon noticed a woman standing on a rooftop next to a man while holding a camera. They found that very odd. "Usually when you see someone planted on a rooftop with a camera, they're waiting for something, and right after that is when we got ambushed just down the road," Ditto told me Tuesday night. "So it seems that she had pre-knowledge that our convoy, or our patrol, was going to get hit."

Ms Poitras (and her supporters) have likened the government interviews--and searches at our borders--to harassment. Members of the Oregon National Guard, who were ambushed in Baghdad that day, see it a bit more differently.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Price of Admission

The Edward Snowden affair grows curiouser and curiouser by the day, as Alice might say.

As of this writing, the man who exposed the crown jewels of NSA's intelligence-gathering activities is still on the international concourse at the Moscow Airport, apparently awaiting a flight to Havana, the next stop on his way to Ecuador.

So far, Mr. Snowden has missed at least two flights to Cuba, but (apparently) he has little to worry about--at least on the Russia leg of his global adventure. Various Russian leaders, including Vladimir Putin, have stated they have no intention of turning Putin over to U.S. authorities. True, there is no formal treaty covering such matters between the United States and Russia, but we have extradited at least seven individuals back to Moscow in recent years. As in most aspects of the bi-lateral relationship, extradition is clearly a one-way street.

But the travels of Edward Snowden raise some rather interesting (and dangerous) possibilities. While much of the world hails him as a hero, there is the very real chance that Snowden is nothing more than a spy, masquerading as a whistle-blower. As Bloomberg reported yesterday:

U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating whether Edward Snowden’s leaks may be a Chinese intelligence operation or whether China might have used his concerns about U.S. surveillance practices to exploit him, according to four American officials.

The officials emphasized there’s no hard evidence yet that Snowden was a Chinese agent or that China helped plan his flights to Hong Kong and then to Moscow, directly or through a witting or unwitting intermediary. Rather, they are duty-bound to probe such a worst-case scenario for the U.S., said the officials, who are familiar with the case and asked not to be identified to discuss classified intelligence.

To be fair, the potential "Beijing connection" may be little more than an effort by the intel community--and the Obama Administration--to cover their collective posteriors. Counter-intelligence officials were reportedly aware of Snowden's massive download of NSA collection documents in mid-May, about the time he left Hawaii and traveled to Hong Kong.

Yet, the collective resources of the FBI (on American soil) and the CIA (overseas) were unable to prevent Snowden from leaving the United States. Equally embarrassing, the same agencies have had difficulty keeping up with him as he circles the globe, and there has been no talk about possibly nabbing him. Might we suggest a little light reading about the Mossad operation that capture Adolf Eichmann in Argentina?

Meanwhile, there are hints that Snowden may have shared that treasure trove of top secret documents with his Chinese hosts during that sojourn in Hong Kong. Call it the "price of admission." While the former British colony enjoys more autonomy (and freedom) than other parts of China, the harboring of an individual like Mr. Snowden doesn't happen by accident, or without the approval of senior leadership in Beijing.

And, given the fact the Chinese have been so accommodating to the former intelligence analyst, it's quite likely they got something in return; namely, detailed information on NSA collection efforts against the PRC's computer networks. With that sort of windfall, it's quite reasonable that Beijing would offer protection, clearance for a private jet flight on to Moscow, and other forms of compensation.

In other words, Snowden may be no different from Robert Hanssen, Rick Ames, John Walker and other turncoats who sold out their country for good, old-fashioned cash. After all, Snowden needs some way to pay the bills, beyond future income for book and movie deals. For the type of information he may have provided, Snowden could receive millions of dollars from spymasters in Beijing and Moscow. That could support a very comfortable lifestyle in Havana, Quito, or other locations beyond the reach of American extradition laws.

And, consider this recent revelation. Snowden has admitted that he applied for the contractor job at Booz, Allen, Hamilton because it meant greater access to information on the NSA program. He reportedly took a substantial pay cut (down to $120,000 a year) to change jobs, and he spent just a few months with the contractor's Hawaii operation before stealing the NSA files and heading to Hong Kong. Sounds more like espionage than a whistle-blower operation.

As we noted in a previous post, issues raised by Snowden regarding domestic spying and the collection of data on millions of Americans deserve a full debate. But the "leakers" real motives also deserve closer examination. His (apparent) willingness to share information with China (and other hostile powers) suggests a motive beyond protection of our civil liberties.


ADDENDUM: While it's hard to find a winner in this sordid mess, but we think we've found one: the public relations department at Booz Allen Hamilton. Read or watch any media piece on Snowden and it's difficult to find a mention of his former employer. With all the intention focused on NSA and its activities, the century-old management consultant firm (which derives 99% of its income from the federal government) has remained quiet--and out of the limelight.

Not bad, considering the fact that Booz Allen Hamilton made the decision to hire Snowden and assigned him to the post that granted access to some of the nation's most sensitive intelligence secrets. And not bad, given the fact that company security failed badly when their employee was downloading reams of sensitive documents. Wouldn't surprise us if members of the firm's p.r. staff get bonuses for their handling of this "crisis," bonuses derived from federal dollars provided by you, the taxpayer.

Monday, June 17, 2013

In Our Name

Like most spooks, past and present, we've been watching the NSA affair with a great deal of interest--and more than a little concern.

Readers will note that we didn't refer to the agency's mass acquisition of personal information (on millions of Americans) as a "crisis."  After all, political leaders of every stripe have assured us that accessing your phone records and the data-mining of your internet activities is a necessary tool in the war on terror.  In fact, this may be the only time in recent history that President Obama; Senator Diane Feinstein, Senator John McCain, and Congressman Mike Rogers have agreed on something.  Their logic goes something like this: in the battle against unseen enemies, with the ability to inflict mass chaos and casualties with no warning, it's sometimes necessary to surrender a bit of your privacy, in exchange for "security."  Hold that thought; we'll get back to it in a minute.

Of course, we would have never learned the extent of the NSA's activities without the "efforts" of one Edward Snowden, a high school drop-out who subsequently washed out of Army basic training.  Despite a limited education and tissue-thin resume, Mr. Snowden landed a $200,000 a year job as an employee of Booz, Allen, Hamilton, the venerable defense contractor.

Assigned to a post in Hawaii, Mr. Snowden said he quickly learned of the NSA surveillance program and grew concerned.  So, one day he took a flash drive to work--in direct violation of security policies--and downloaded a trove of documents describing what the agency was up to.  Then, he hopped a plane for Hong Kong, where he shared the information with the UK Guardian.  And the rest, as they say, is history, though we're far from the bottom in the NSA imbroglio.

Since the Guardian's first story appeared last month, Snowden has been described as everything from a hero to a traitor.  The erst-while whistleblower claims he is not trying to evade authorities, but it's clear that he didn't choose Hong Kong on a whim.  Extraditing him from that locale may prove far more difficult than securing his legal return from a place like Canada or Great Britain.  Meanwhile, some are suggesting that Snowden may face a more sinister fate, at the hands of a government assassin, or on the receiving end of a drone-fired missile, the current, preferred method for eliminating certain enemies of the state.

While Mr. Snowden isn't exactly a sure bet for old age, his legacy is far more complex.  For starters, he clearly violated the non-disclosure agreements he signed upon receipt of his security clearance, and his disclosures have clearly damaged national security.  For that, he is deserving of punishment, after a full and fair trial.   If Snowden truly wanted whistle-blower status, there is a mechanism for that, the same one followed by William Binney, J. Kirke Wiebe, Thomas Drake and Edward Loomis, all former NSA officials who filed a formal complaint against the agency in 2002, alleging that it wasted "millions and millions of dollars" on Trailblazer, a system designed to analyze communications traffic carried on various networks, including the internet.

For their troubles, each of these individuals lost their security clearances, while Binney and Wiebe were treated to a full-scale FBI raids on their homes in 2007.  The whistle-blowers were threatened with criminal prosecution, but those charges later evaporated, though Drake eventually entered a guilty plea to a single misdemeanor count of "exceeding the authorized use of a computer."  All paid a steep price for their actions, but they worked within the system.  The same cannot be said of Edward Snowden.

In fact, Mr. Binney believes that Snowden may have already crossed the line from whistle-blower to traitor.  From the Washington Free Beacon:

Snowden “is transitioning from whistleblower to a traitor” by leaking information on clandestine operations designed to gather intelligence on the Russian and Chinese governments, Binney said.

“That’s not a public service,” he insisted.

Certainly he performed a really great public service to begin with by exposing these programs and making the government in a sense publicly accountable for what they’re doing. At least now they are going to have some kind of open discussion like that.

But now he is starting to talk about things like the government hacking into China and all this kind of thing. He is going a little bit too far. I don’t think he had access to that program. But somebody talked to him about it, and so he said, from what I have read, anyway, he said that somebody, a reliable source, told him that the U.S. government is hacking into all these countries. But that’s not a public service, and now he is going a little beyond public service. 

We would argue that Snowden has morphed into full-blown celebrity leaker, following the model of Julian Assange.  There will be more media interviews and perhaps even a book or movie deal before the feds find some way to corral Edward Snowden.  Looking towards his own future, Snowden should remember that Assange is currently holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, avoiding the threat of extradition to Sweden (on sexual assault charges) if he sets foot outside the diplomatic compound.  Meanwhile, the man who supplied many of the documents leaked by Assange (US Army Private Bradley Manning) is facing a long stint at Leavenworth for downloading thousands of classified documents from DoD computer networks, reports that were eventually published at Assange's WikiLeaks website.

Still, even critics concede that Snowden has a point.  As Mr. Binney and his fellow whistle-blowers testified, NSA has been collecting data domestically for years, with the willing assistance of telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon.  And the program has moved well beyond the "selective" program described by intelligence officials when the agency's warrantless wiretapping program was exposed in 2005.

According to various sources, the NSA has the ability to gather virtually every phone call, e-mail and internet search on the planet, then run them through incredibly fast computer networks, mining the data that helps identify activity patterns.  Commercially-available encryption systems still pose a challenge, but NSA is working on that problem, too.  At a research center in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, agency scientists and engineers are building super computers capable of running at exaflop speed--that's one million, trillion operations per second.  Very useful in performing complex tasks, such as logging and categorizing every phone call dialed in America every day (emphasis ours), or performing brute force calculations required to break advanced encryption systems.

By some accounts, NSA has already achieved an incredible breakthrough in computer speed, creating machines in the 10-20 petaflop range, optimized for code-breaking.  Others suggest the agency isn't quite there yet, opining that the new Utah Data Center is being built to store vast amounts of information until the next generation of NSA computers can begin plumbing its voluminous haul.

So why does this matter?  In the post 9-11 era, most Americans believe that increased surveillance is a necessity, to prevent future, disastrous attacks on our country.  But that begs an obvious question: why does Verizon hand over the phone records for my 90-year-old neighbor, a retired school teacher who spends most of her time gardening?  Clearly, she poses no security threat, but her monthly phone logs have been dutifully passed on to Fort Meade, along with those of millions of other Americans who simply signed on with a telecom company for internet or phone service.  Her only "crime" was selecting a communications provider who decided to get in bed with the NSA, perhaps in exchange for future, favorable rulings from the FCC and other government regulators.  

And what happens to that data?  In recent weeks, we've learned that another federal agency, the IRS, shared information from Tea Party groups (and other conservative organizations) with left-wing media organizations, which then published or broadcast the "leaked" data.  Clearly, the IRS (and its databases) were utilized to suppress the activities of political groups the government didn't like.  What assurances do we have that the mountains of data being collected by NSA--which absolutely dwarf what the IRS has on hand--won't be used for similar, nefarious purposes?

Or for that matter, can we trust the government with information collected (supposedly) for the public good?  The same metadata on your personal habits, financial transactions and other activities can be easily gathered by other federal agencies as well.  Suppose your credit or debit card activities reveal a pattern of frequenting fast food joints, visiting bars or liquor stores and purchasing cigarettes.  Wonder what the Obama death panels would do with that data?

Of course, the feds would tell you that such ideas are far-fetched--even ludicrous.  Besides, increased surveillance is necessary to keep us safe (or so we're told).  The government also insists that its domestic monitoring has actually foiled "several" terrorist plots; the exact number depends on who you're talking to.  That invites an obvious retort: if the program was working so well, why did it fail to detect such obvious threats as Major Nidal Hassan, the Army psychiatrist who was communicating with known Al Qaida terrorists overseas before going on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood?

Or how about the Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the bombings at this year's Boston Marathon.  Russian security services provided two separate warnings about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who had just returned from a year in Dagestan, a visit that (reportedly) included visits with Muslim terrorists.  If the NSA program is working so well, how did the older sibling escape the NSA dragnet, even with a tip-off from a foreign security service?  No intelligence agency is perfect, but the examples of Hassan and the Brothers Tsarnaev offer disturbing counter-points to the "success" of the NSA program.

Edward Snowden deserves to be punished, but the debate he has spurred must also be a part of the public discourse.  Wisconsin Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, who will never be confused with an ACLU member, says on-going surveillance activities go "far beyond" what was envisioned in the 2001 Patriot Act, a law that Mr. Sensenbrenner played a key role in crafting.  It's time to ask exactly what is being done in our name, and what we've surrendered in our collective yearning for "safety."                                                      

Monday, June 10, 2013

Will Assad Prevail?

Not long ago, it was difficult to find any credible analyst who thought Syrian President Bashir Assad would remain in power more than a few weeks.  Conventional wisdom held that Assad was a goner; it wasn't a matter of if he would be overthrown, but when.  With Rebel forces gaining ground (and Assad's army crumbling around him), the demise of the Syrian dictator seemed all-but-inevitable.

But such predictions proved premature, to say the least.  Not only has Mr Assad managed to fend off the rebels, there are signs he may be gaining the upper hand.  Just last week, regime forces recaptured Qusayr, a key town that links Damascus with its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.  Fighting in that area was described as fierce and key Hezbollah units suffered heavy casualties, but for now, Assad and his partners hold the key terrain, sustaining an overland route needed to keep the regime in power.  In fact, a senior Israeli official recently stated that be expects Assad to prevail.  While other Israeli representatives quickly distanced themselves from that comment, a growing number of analysts (in the Middle East and Washington) privately concur with that assessment.

Why have Assad's fortunes improved so dramatically?  For starters, his friends in Tehran and Beirut have gone "all in" with their support.  Thousands of fighters from Hezbollah and the IRGC Qods force are fighting alongside Assad 's troops.  Russia has also made a dramatic show of support, promising to send S-300 air defense missiles to Syria.   Delivery of those weapons would greatly complicate Israeli or western efforts to establish no-fly zones over civilian areas or target arms transfers to Syrian or Hezbollah.  The tepid U.S. response to that vow suggests that Moscow, Tehran and Hezbollah have little to fear from Washington.

Conversely, the Syrian opposition remains beset by in-fighting and factionalism.  Most of the early, secular leaders have been replaced by Islamic radicals, who are now fighting among themselves.  Obviously, it's hard to topple a dictator when the various anti-regime elements are battling each other.  And of course, the intramural fighting lessens some of the pressure on Assad's forces, giving them more time to re-arm and regroup.

Just how much has the situation changed?  Experts interviewed by The Wall Street Journal say that Assad's fall is "unlikely" in the foreseeable future, a remarkable shift from assessments offered only two months ago:

Some intelligence analysts now think Mr. Assad could hold onto power or even prevail in the conflict. That view is at odds with those of others within the intelligence community who think recent military gains by Syrian government forces and Hezbollah fighters aren't likely to alter the overall trajectory of a conflict that they still think will end with Mr. Assad's removal, the officials said.
In April, the U.S.'s top intelligence official told Congress that the opposition was slowly but surely gaining the upper hand in the civil war and that Mr. Assad's capabilities were deteriorating more rapidly. U.S. officials now say the U.S. underestimated the extent to which Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Russia would double down in support of Mr. Assad, staving off—if not reversing—the regime's decline. 

While some members of Congress have urged the administration to provide lethal aid to the Syrian rebels, the Obama Administration has been reluctant to pursue that course.  Fox News military analyst Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer, believes the window for providing effective aid to the rebels has "passed," and believes the U.S. should remain on the sidelines--permanently.

Others disagree.  Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee sent a letter to President Obama this week, urging him to provide weaponry to the rebels.  But, as many observers have noted, the administration's actions in Syria have often failed to match its rhetoric.  With Assad now gaining the upper hand, it seems unlikely that Washington will step in and provide more lethal support to the rebels.  It is also worth noting that Damascus has a few "friends" in the administration (including Secretary of State John Kerry), making it even tougher to cobble together a military aid package for the rebels.

To be sure, Assad's survival is far from guaranteed.  But he's in a much better position now than he was a couple of months ago.  Now, with rebel forces in disarray--and logistical support dwindling--Bashir Assad may be able to weather the storm and eventually prevail.  Indeed, if the current trajectory holds, we may look back on the past two years as another lost opportunity, much like Iran's Green Revolution of 2009.  Given an opportunity to significantly damage (or even remove) an implacable foe, the west blinked, and allowed an enemy to survive.  The consequences of that decision will be felt for decades to come.          

Sunday, June 02, 2013

A Time for Reflection

A radar image on the El Reno, Oklahoma tornado on 31 May; the convergence of red and green shows the location of the twister; the small, pink dots represent the GPS locations of storm chasers pursuing the storm.  Three of those killed by the tornado were experienced chasers (Twitter image @JustinHobson85, via The Capital Weather Gang)  

As a native of tornado alley (southern branch), I was riveted by last night's images from Oklahoma City.  In some respects, they represented a nightmare scenario for meteorologists, law enforcement, rescue teams and emergency managers: powerful, long-track tornadoes taking direct aim at a major metropolitan area, during the evening rush hour.  So far, at least ten individuals are confirmed dead in the region's second major tornado outbreak in as many weeks.  Three of the victims were veteran storm chasers, once featured on a Discovery Channel reality show.

While that loss of life is tragic, it could have been much worse.  The Friday night tornadoes moved through some of the most heavily populated communities in central Oklahoma, including the city of Moore, which is still recovering from last month's deadly twister that killed 24 residents.  Watching those deadly funnels plow through suburban and urban neighborhoods served as a stark reminder of nature's fury and the fact that some tornadoes will exact a human toll, particularly if you're caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Last night, the "wrong place" were the interstate highways that bi-sect Oklahoma City.  The evening's first deadly twister literally followed I-40 across the region, while other tornadoes moved along I-35, which runs north and south through the state.  On a late Friday afternoon, both freeways were crowed with commuters, truckers, vacationers, storm chasers and local residents trying to flee the storm.

Which brings us to a rather interesting post in today's "Capital Weather Gang" blog in the Washington Post.   Based on what happened in OKC, they have (rightly) described Friday as the "day that should change tornado actions and storm chasing forever," noting that some of the storm's victims were motorists caught on local interstates when the tornadoes arrived.  And the storm chasing community wasn't immune, either.  A GMC Yukon that was part of the Weather Channel's chase team was caught in a tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma, sending the vehicle tumbling more than 200 yards.  Meteorologist Mike Bettes and two videographers in the SUV were injured.  An vehicle driven by another chaser lost its hood when it ventured too close to the same funnel.

Mr. Bettes later stated that his "life flashed before his eyes" during those horrifying moments.  And he counts himself lucky.   According to state officials, five of the nine people killed in the Friday tornadoes died in their cars.  Now, authorities are trying to figure out why so many individuals were on the road as life-threatening storms approached.

One reason was timing; super-cell thunderstorms developed rapidly on Friday afternoon and began generating tornadoes as thousands of motorists were heading home.  The interstates became parking lots; traffic slowed to a crawl as the twisters arrived, tossing cars into the air and tipping 36-ton tractor-trailer rigs on their sides.  Portions of I-35 and I-40 were closed for several hours during the height of the storms, as first responders tried to reach stranded and injured motorists.

But there is also evidence that some residents took to the roads in an effort to escape the approaching twisters.   At one point, TV meteorologist Mike Morgan of KFOR-TV suggested that viewers might be able to drive away from the El Reno storm (the Post has a link to that portion of the station's coverage, around the 8:30 mark in that segment).  Other media outlets have published or broadcast accounts of individuals who evaded the Moore tornado in their cars.  Collectively, that coverage may have encouraged more people to take to the roads, and "drive to safety."

Obviously, that "approach" is fraught with peril.  Motorists trying to flee the storm only create more congestion on the roads.  Making matters worse, they are often driving into conditions that are already dangerous--even when you exclude the tornado threat.  Heavy rains, street flooding, inoperable traffic signals and high winds are just some of the hazards faced by drivers attempting to flee the storm.  And in some cases, residents actually abandon safe locations and wind up in the middle of a tornado.

One of the best examples of this mistake occurred on "Terrible Tuesday," the storms that struck Wichita Falls, Texas and surrounding areas on April 11, 1979.  Forty-two people died in the twister that struck the Texas city, and researchers who studied the storm made a startling discovery: 25 of the victims perished in their cars, and many left homes that were undamaged by the storm.  Attempting to flee the tornado, many residents actually drove into danger and some paid for that mistake with their lives.  

More than 30 years later, it's hard to believe that people in the heart of tornado country are still trying to outrun storms.   It also a bit puzzling that some media outlets may be encouraging individuals to take to the roads when they may be safer at home.   In fairness, some people do need to bug out before a tornado, most notably those who live in mobile homes.  There is also a school of thought that residents who don't have an underground shelter should evacuate when facing an "unsurvivable" storm, like the one that struck Moore last month, or the 1997 F-5 tornado that devastated Jarrell, Texas, leveling homes and sucking asphalt from local roads.

But it's almost impossible for a casual observer--or frightened resident--to make that determination  in the moments before a tornado arrives.  That's reason enough for most people to stay put and stay off the roads.  At the height of Friday's tornado emergency, the NWS in Norman tweeted that I-35 looked like a "parking lot," jammed with motorists who--literally and figuratively--had no place to go.  As bad as it was, it could have been much worse.
As for the storm chasers, they know the danger and accept the risks that come with their occupation.  You can also make a case that their observations aid meteorologists in understanding tornadoes.  But there may be limits to their contributions.  The Capital Weather Gang reposted an item from Dr. Charles Doswell, a veteran storm chaser and severe weather expert who bemoaned the devolution of chasing:

I can’t say I have any wish whatsoever to seek to keep up with what chasing has become…

I look at the videos people claim are fantastic on FB [Facebook] but I see almost no quality video. Most of it is the “edgy” sort of “reality video” that’s all the rage these days. People cheering and having “stormgasms” while they bounce down some road on the way to a close encounter. In those close encounters, for the most part, the video sucks (by my standards).

And that brings us to one of the real culprits behind all of this: the media.  While TV coverage of severe weather provides a valuable public service, it's no secret that the "wall-to-wall" attracts more eyeballs.  By some estimates, non-stop coverage of weather events boosts a station's audience by 15-20%, the same viewers who may come back for the local news, featuring the same reporters, anchors and meteorologists who were covering the storm.  So it's little wonder that many local stations spend hours tracking severe weather, touting their contributions to public safety, while quietly watching their audience share.  

The same holds true for cable outlets like Discovery and The Weather Channel.  Both have found ratings gold in storm chasing, and events like the annual "Tornado Hunt" on TWC are heavily promoted and publicized.  Attracting--and keeping--an audience, depends (in part) on getting the most spectacular video, giving some chasers more reason to push the envelope.  TV executives should examine their own motives in airing that footage and putting such programs on the air.  Unfortunately, that group is the least likely to engage in any degree of introspection.

It is worth noting that the three chasers who died Friday, Tim Samaras, his son Paul and Carl Young had decades of experience and had a reputation for being cautious.  Both Tim Samaras and Young were meteorologists and Paul Samaras provided photographic support for their expeditions.  Much of their work focused on developing instruments that could be placed in the path of a tornado and provide better measurements of its fury.  But nature has no respect for scientific curiosity and on a street in El Reno, Oklahoma, the three men ran out of room.  And time.