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How a cult created a chemical weapons program

A really, really interesting report from The Center for a New American Security about how Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo developed its own chemical weapons program, and what factors enabled it to successfully attack a Tokyo subway with sarin gas. I'm still reading through this and will probably have something longer to say later. But it's got some very interesting examples of things I've noticed in other analyses of successful terrorist attacks: Groups can do things that make them seem comically inept, and they can fail over and over, and still end up pulling off a successful attack. In the end, some of this is about simple, single-minded perseverance. You don't have to be a criminal mastermind. You just have to be willing to keep trying long after most people would have given up. (Via Rowan Hooper) Maggie

TOM THE DANCING BUG: "Hello! You've Been Targeted For a Drone Assassination!" Helpful Info From Your U.S. Government


Please always be visiting the TOM THE DANCING BUG WEBSITE, and when you are not, please always be following RUBEN BOLLING on TWITTER.

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Homeland Security memo warned of violent threat posed by Occupy Wall Street

An October, 2011 Department of Homeland Security memo on Occupy Wall Street warned of the potential for violence posed by the "leaderless resistance movement." (via @producermatthew).

Update: Looks like there's a larger Rolling Stone feature on this document:

As Occupy Wall Street spread across the nation last fall, sparking protests in more than 70 cities, the Department of Homeland Security began keeping tabs on the movement. An internal DHS report entitled “SPECIAL COVERAGE: Occupy Wall Street [PDF]," dated October of last year, opens with the observation that "mass gatherings associated with public protest movements can have disruptive effects on transportation, commercial, and government services, especially when staged in major metropolitan areas." While acknowledging the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of OWS, the report notes darkly that "large scale demonstrations also carry the potential for violence, presenting a significant challenge for law enforcement."

Tourists deported from U.S. for Twitter jokes (Updated)

Two U.K. tourists landing in L.A. were detained and deported because of tweets joking about "diggin' up" Marilyn Monroe and "destroying" America.

According to DHS paperwork, Leigh Van Bryan was matched to a "One Day Lookout" list, placed under oath, and ultimately denied entry and put on a plane back to Europe.

"[He wrote] on his tweeter[sic] website account that he was coming to the United States to dig up the grave of Marilyn Monroe," DHS officials wrote on his charge sheet. "Also on his tweeter[sic] account Mr. Bryan posted that he was coming to destroy America."

Interviewed by highly-respected British newspapers such as The Sun and The Daily Mail, Leigh Van Bryan says that the tweet — "Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America" — referred merely to partying. Added a friend: "He would not hurt anyone. He is gay."

Bryan has now made his Twitter account private, thereby ending the DHS's ability to track his terror plans.

UPDATE: Ted Frank says we're "racial profiling" in this post. [Via Glenn Reynolds]

"Boing Boing correctly points out (via Alkon) that this is silly—but the reason we know this is silly is because you and I and Boing Boing are racially profiling."

We've run countless posts similar to this one, about detained travelers of all ethnicities — but this one involved racial profiling!

We know the deportation is silly not because of Van Bryan's innocuous whiteness—that's in your head, Ted—but because the methodology is dumb. It's silly because search alerts for keywords on Twitter will never catch a terrorist on his way to the airport; it will merely impose pointless burdens on travelers regardless of national origin.

This poses an interesting question: of all our posts on DHS shenanigans, why was it this one that got noticed today by some conservatives? Actually, it's a boring question: it's because it offered them an opportunity to project their inclination toward racial profiling onto others. It creates the impression that everyone is at it regardless of agenda, and that inconvenience to innocents is therefore the price of our collective failure to recognize that racial profiling is common sense. "We want [the] DHS to have the flexibility to detain hypothetical Islamic fundamentalist Mohammed Abbasi if he were to make a similar threat on the Internet that is less likely to be a joke," writes Frank.

On the contrary, I don't want the DHS wasting its time on any of this nonsense.

(Frank also mistakenly attributes the non-sequitur "He is gay" quote from Van Bryan's friend to us. Why? Perhaps, like the DHS, his attention is tuned in to the wrong things.)

Did NYPD police chief violate code of conduct by lying about Islamophobic video?

Gothamist digs into whether NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly's statements and actions regarding the production of an Islamophobic propaganda film "screened on a continuous loop for over 1,200 NYPD officers" may have been a violation of NYPD conduct codes. If you're new to the story, first read this NYT item, then this followup. Xeni

Homeland Security Internet Watch List leaked; Boing Boing omitted from list of must-read sites for domestic spying

I am outraged that our blog once again failed to make it on to the list of websites the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's command center routinely monitors. The grandfather of all rogue leak sites, Cryptome, published a copy of the 2011 edition of the government document (PDF link to document copy). Apparently, there's a new 2012 version some have seen, on which a current round of news coverage is based.

There's a Reuters article summarizing its significance here:

A "privacy compliance review" issued by DHS last November says that since at least June 2010, its national operations center has been operating a "Social Networking/Media Capability" which involves regular monitoring of "publicly available online forums, blogs, public websites and message boards." The purpose of the monitoring, says the government document, is to "collect information used in providing situational awareness and establishing a common operating picture."

The document adds, using more plain language, that such monitoring is designed to help DHS and its numerous agencies, which include the U.S. Secret Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency, to manage government responses to such events as the 2010 earthquake and aftermath in Haiti and security and border control related to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"This is a representative list of sites that the NOC will start to monitor in order to provide situational awareness and establish a common operating picture under this Initiative," the document reads.

Oh fine, so, the imminent Yeti invasion isn't something that needs to be monitored? The anal probe menace posed by illegal Martian invaders? No concerns about the toxicity of homemade sauerkraut as a biological weapon?

I mean, fucking MySpace and Hulu are on the list! Really? I'm surprised Friendster was omitted. And they're watching Flickr and YouTube and Huffpo! But our hard-hitting coverage of steampunk watches and DIY spaceships doesn't merit a click? Whatever, DHS. We don't want those ill-gotten clicks.

But there's still hope. "Initial sites listed may link to other sites not listed. The NOC may also monitor those sites if they are within the scope of this Initiative."

UPDATE: Leaked DHS internet watchlist "mistakes" msthirteen.com, skeevy German site about 13yo girls for MS-13 gang news.

TSA defends cupcake confiscation

('Shoop-Illustration: Xeni Jardin)

On the TSA blog, a defense of the recent confiscation of a cupcake at Las Vegas International airport over concerns the tasty morsel was a terrorist threat. Cory blogged about the incident on Boing Boing, and pointed to a parody song about it here. The internet loves cupcakes and hates the TSA, so predictably, this one went very viral.

The federal agency's explanation for the incident focuses on the fact that the traveler's cupcake was transported in a jar:


I wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t your everyday, run-of-the-mill cupcake. If you’re not familiar with it, we have a policy directly related to the UK liquid bomb plot of 2006 called 3-1-1 that limits the amount of liquids, gels and aerosols you can bring in your carry-on luggage. Icing falls under the “gel” category. As you can see from the picture, unlike a thin layer of icing that resides on the top of most cupcakes, this cupcake had a thick layer of icing inside a jar.

In general, cakes and pies are allowed in carry-on luggage, however, the officer in this case used their discretion on whether or not to allow the newfangled modern take on a cupcake per 3-1-1 guidelines. They chose not to let it go.

Read the rest here. It all makes perfect sense now.

Update: Rebecca Hains, the woman whose cupcake-in-a-jar is the tasty center of this international terror emergency, is not impressed with the agency's response. She tells Boing Boing, "The TSA is stooping to misrepresenting the facts about my cupcake in their blog post! TSA response to losing face: misstatements."

CIA threat-tracking technology is fascinating, creepy

Palantir is security software that helps CIA analysts take innocuous events (man comes to U.S. on temporary visa, man takes flight training classes, man buys one-way ticket from Boston to California) and put them into a context where potential threats can become more apparent (the one man is actually several, and they're all on the same flight).

The technology is based on a system developed by PayPal, and it's interesting because it's one of the few examples of counter-terrorism work that is actually proactive. Instead of adding increasingly elaborate airport security rules that are merely responses to the most recently exposed plot, a program like Palantir has the potential to spot plots in the making with less hassle to the general public. That could make it a good thing. On the other hand, Palantir comes with plenty of its own privacy and civil rights concerns. This Bloomberg BusinessWeek story is pretty "rah rah rah" in tone, ironically cheering on all the things that make Palantir seem rather creepy to me. But it is a great example of why countering terrorism is really just one long string of incredibly difficult choices. What matters more, who makes that call, and how do we balance a reasonable desire for safety with a reasonable desire to not be creeped the hell out by our own government?

In October, a foreign national named Mike Fikri purchased a one-way plane ticket from Cairo to Miami, where he rented a condo. Over the previous few weeks, he’d made a number of large withdrawals from a Russian bank account and placed repeated calls to a few people in Syria. More recently, he rented a truck, drove to Orlando, and visited Walt Disney World by himself. As numerous security videos indicate, he did not frolic at the happiest place on earth. He spent his day taking pictures of crowded plazas and gate areas.

None of Fikri’s individual actions would raise suspicions. Lots of people rent trucks or have relations in Syria, and no doubt there are harmless eccentrics out there fascinated by amusement park infrastructure. Taken together, though, they suggested that Fikri was up to something. And yet, until about four years ago, his pre-attack prep work would have gone unnoticed. A CIA analyst might have flagged the plane ticket purchase; an FBI agent might have seen the bank transfers. But there was nothing to connect the two. Lucky for counterterror agents, not to mention tourists in Orlando, the government now has software made by Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley company that’s become the darling of the intelligence and law enforcement communities.

The day Fikri drives to Orlando, he gets a speeding ticket, which triggers an alert in the CIA’s Palantir system. An analyst types Fikri’s name into a search box and up pops a wealth of information pulled from every database at the government’s disposal. There’s fingerprint and DNA evidence for Fikri gathered by a CIA operative in Cairo; video of him going to an ATM in Miami; shots of his rental truck’s license plate at a tollbooth; phone records; and a map pinpointing his movements across the globe. All this information is then displayed on a clearly designed graphical interface that looks like something Tom Cruise would use in a Mission: Impossible movie.

As the CIA analyst starts poking around on Fikri’s file inside of Palantir, a story emerges. A mouse click shows that Fikri has wired money to the people he had been calling in Syria. Another click brings up CIA field reports on the Syrians and reveals they have been under investigation for suspicious behavior and meeting together every day over the past two weeks. Click: The Syrians bought plane tickets to Miami one day after receiving the money from Fikri. To aid even the dullest analyst, the software brings up a map that has a pulsing red light tracing the flow of money from Cairo and Syria to Fikri’s Miami condo. That provides local cops with the last piece of information they need to move in on their prey before he strikes.

Fikri isn’t real—he’s the John Doe example Palantir uses in product demonstrations that lay out such hypothetical examples. The demos let the company show off its technology without revealing the sensitive work of its clients.

Mexico's "War on Drugs" leads to catastrophic rise of murder, torture, "disappearance"

Human Rights Watch reports that instead of reducing violence, the ‘war on drugs’ in Mexico has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and "disapparances." Read the report. [Video Link]

Mexico: moderator of online discussion forum about narcos reported as tortured, decapitated by narcos (UPDATED)

UPDATE: One media outlet in Mexico reports that there is no proof that the man killed in Nuevo Laredo on Wednesday was a social media user. Police say they are still investigating. Unlike in previous cases involving administrators/contributors to the online message board in question, the newspaper affiliated with that forum has not come forward to confirm the identity of the dead.

UPDATE 2: Nuevo Laredo Live reports that the man killed is "not one of our collaborators," but "a scapegoat" whose murder serves to send a message of fear.


The moderator of an online discussion forum about local cartel-related crime is reported to have been killed in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Near the corpse, a "narco manta," or sign taking responsibility for the murder, was found and points to the ultraviolent cartel known as the Zetas.

Wired News reports that the victim was a 35-year-old man who went by the nickname “Rascatripas” or “Scraper” (literally, “Fiddler”) on the web-based chat network Nuevo Laredo en Vivo where he served as a community moderator. The body was handcuffed, with signs of torture, and was decapitated and was placed next to a monument for Christopher Columbus about a mile south of the Texas border. That same site has previously been used as a dumping ground for victims of this form of crime.

The discussion board in question is the same one at the center of the near-identical murder of two other Nuevo Laredo residents two months ago. They were outed as active participants in the site's crime-tip forum, and they were gruesomely murdered as "snitches." Their bodies were dumped in the same location, with a sign indicating that their killing should serve as a warning for others who share information about cartel activities on the internet.

Snip from Wired.com:

Below the man’s body was a partially obscured and blood-stained blanket. Written on the blanket in black ink: “Hi I’m ‘Rascatripas’ and this happened to me because I didn’t understand I shouldn’t post things on social networks.”

The discovery of the body Wednesday morning brings the total number of bloggers and social media networkers apparently killed in the past three months by organized crime in Mexico — and in the border city of Nuevo Laredo — to four.

One important caveat: some who cover this news beat point out that there are insufficient confirmed details to report the identity of the victim as fact just yet. Neither the police, the family of the deceased, nor the operators of the web forum have validated early online reports. It is possible that the victim's actual identity is not what the sign next to the body states. It is possible that the killing was staged by the Zetas or some other individual or entity for any number of purposes.

Given the nature of cartel-related crime in the region, those facts may take time to confirm. But the message delivered seems clear.

Read the rest

Governments turn to hacking techniques for surveillance of citizens

"It's an open market. You cannot stop the flow of surveillance equipment."—Jerry Lucas, head of the Intelligence Support Systems conference showcasing technology that corrupt regimes around the world use to spy on, and censor, their citizens. Article by Ryan Gallagher in the Guardian. Xeni

Anonymous vs. Zetas: is #OpCartel a flop, hoax, or honeypot?

[Video Link] Over the last few days, word has spread of a purported #antisec operation by Anonymous against the most brutal of all Mexican drug cartels, Los Zetas. One element in the story is this video, above. Weeks after it came out, George Friedman's Austin Texas-based consulting firm Stratfor issued this report, and media gobbled it up. A story was born: "Anonymous is taking on the most feared drug cartel in the world, for great justice."

What was unusual about the way this story spread was the speed at which it was amplified by credulous reports from larger media outlets, despite a dearth of confirmable facts. This op got lots of press, fast. Faster, in fact, than it got support from Anons.

Geraldine Juarez and Renata Avila were two of the earlier voices I read expressing doubt about the prevailing storyline—a report by Juarez is here. Some I spoke to within Mexico wondered if the Mexican government (no bastion of purity) might be involved.

Over at Wired News, a must-read piece by Quinn Norton that cinches the deal for me (and in it, she references the aforementioned Global Voices item). Quinn's been covering Anonymous extensively for some time, and I trust her spidey sense on this one.

Read the rest

Hasan Elahi: "Giving the F.B.I. What It Wants"

We've blogged before about artist Hasan Elahi, who learned in 2008 that he was being tracked as a terror suspect by the U.S. for undisclosed reasons. He has never been charged with a crime, but that's hardly needed these days, thanks to the Patriot Act (which recently turned 10). The New York Times this weekend ran a sort of manifesto from Elahi, in which he describes how he transformed this extraordinary act of surveillance into an extraordinary work of art.

In an era in which everything is archived and tracked, the best way to maintain privacy may be to give it up. Information agencies operate in an industry that values data. Restricted access to information is what makes it valuable. If I cut out the middleman and flood the market with my information, the intelligence the F.B.I. has on me will be of no value. Making my private information public devalues the currency of the information the intelligence gatherers have collected.

Read the whole thing: Giving the F.B.I. What It Wants (NYT, thanks Miles O'Brien).

Also: Clive Thompson wrote this feature about him in Wired back in 2008.

(IMAGE: Top, art by Elahi which incorporates surveillance data about his location and activities. Middle, one of the FBI surveillance images of his whereabouts. Bottom, Mr. Elahi, via Wikipedia.)

The FBI and the War On Us: Racial profiling on an "industrial scale"

Justin Elliott in Salon: "New documents obtained by the ACLU show that the FBI has for years been using Census data to “map” ethnic and religious groups suspected of being likely to commit certain types of crimes." Xeni

Awlaki's 16-year-old son killed by US drone

Glenn Greenwald rounds up a number of reports related to the killing of al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son by an unmanned aerial drone from the US:

Two weeks after the U.S. killed American citizen Anwar Awlaki with a drone strike in Yemen — far from any battlefield and with no due process — it did the same to his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, ending the teenager’s life on Friday along with his 17-year-old cousin and seven other people.

Initial US reports stated he was 21, but a birth certificate obtained by The Washington Post shows that he was born 16 years ago in Denver. According to the boy's grandfather, he and his cousin were at a barbecue and preparing to eat when they were killed.

(thanks, @ioerror)