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Cops and Robbers

Cop Tech Key to Iraq Fight?

Saturday, January 13th, 2007

All the talk is about more U.S. troops. But if there’s going to be a shot in hell of winning the war in Iraq, it’ll be up to the Iraqi police, argues Bing West in the current Atlantic. And those cops will need to be equipped with the latest crime-fighting gear.

In the United States, a cop who pulls you over calls up your record and finds out where and when you were last stopped, and what the charge was. The Chicago police [well, some of ‘em — ed.] carry a device that takes fingerprints and transmits them over the radio, with the results of a database search received in minutes.
In Iraq, the police have no detective equipment; no reliable identification system has been widely fielded. As a result, American soldiers on patrol futilely call in [if they can even call — ed.] the phonetic spelling of Iraqi names on whatever ID card they are handed…) A few enterprising American rifle companies have conducted their own independent censuses, employing rudimentary spreadsheets and personal digital cameras. But no central information system exists.
This is the greatest technical failure of the war. For all of our efforts, we have ignored one of the most fundamental axioms of counterinsurgency warfare: an insurgency cannot be defeated if the enemy cannot be identified.

Now, of course, tech alone isn’t a solution. There needs to be a major upgrade of the Iraqi police, which West calls “among the most wretched in the world. New York City cops send some 26,000 criminals to prison every year; in Baghdad, with twenty times the murder rate, that number is at best 2,000.” And the local cops are often in bed with militias like the Mahdi Army.
But “when U.S. military manpower and technology work hand in hand with” competent Iraqi cops, “the combination can be effective,” West says.

Every day, aerial cameras hover over Anbar; some are mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and others on helicopters; some are infrared, others stream down video in sharp, brilliant colors. I was in a company operations center in Haditha when Captain Bert Lewis, the air officer, pointed at a screen showing a video feed… On the screen, we watched a man in a white dishdasha hastily scooping dirt over a boxy package, while cars passed by without slowing down.
“FedEx delivery,” Lewis said, to general laughter. “I don’t believe this dude.” The Nissan drove away as the man finished packing dirt around the improvised explosive device, or IED…
“Nail that sucker,” Lieutenant Joshua Booth said… The man looked up and down the street, and then ran south. The picture tilted, then zoomed in, holding him in the center of the frame. A series of black numbers scrolled along the right edge, updating the GPS coordinates. The target, solidly built and in his mid-thirties, had left the road and was now running along the riverbank…
As a Quick Reaction Force patrol closed on the GPS coordinates, the fugitive sat down in the shade of a palm tree, beckoning to someone on the river. Just as a square-nosed wooden skiff punted up to the man, the QRF, mounted in two Humvees, converged on the riverbank. The man scrambled to his feet, saw he had no place to run, and half-raised his arms to show he had no weapon.

(Big ups: PC)

Net Smuggling Ring Exposed

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

Over the last few weeks, the Philadelphia Inquirer has been slowly spooling out one of the most interesting, most ambitious journalistic undertakings of the year: an 8-part series — complete with a ton of online extras — on an Internet drug-smuggling ring, importing illegal pharmaceuticals into this country from India. Here’s a snippet from the first installment. But, when you’ve got some time, do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.

Whenever DEA supervisor Jeff Breeden grew nervous, he would rub his forehead with his left hand. Now, as the arrest briefing began, Breeden dug deep into his brow.
Tomorrow’s worldwide takedown of the Bansal network was to be monitored from this drab conference room overlooking Independence Mall.
The network supplied a rainbow of pills — painkillers, sleep aids, sedatives, stimulants, steroids, psychotropics, erectile-dysfunction medication. Thousands of orders a day.
Who knew who made this stuff, where it came from, what was in it? The public health risk that Internet drugs posed, Breeden thought, was incalculable.
Yet no one in DEA had ever worked a major global online pharmacy investigation. He knew it was a career case, one colleagues would always link to his name. Breeden? Yeah, he’s the guy who supervised the Internet pill case out of Philly.
To take down the network, agents were using a number of weapons — surveillance, undercover buys, cell-tower pings, trash pulls, e-mail wiretaps, bank subpoenas, immigration reports, even provisions of the Patriot Act. Agents here had flown to Australia, Costa Rica and India.
As Breeden listened to the arrest briefing, he thought about everything that could go wrong.
Would foreign banks and governments cooperate? Or would they protect the targets, allowing Akhil and others to flee with millions? Would magistrates in several states authorize search warrants in time? Would the bad guys be there when agents raided their homes at dawn? Had any of them gotten wind of the premature arrest in New York? Did Akhil, as he implied in e-mails, really have a mole inside U.S. Customs?
Had they overlooked anything?

The MySpace Murders

Tuesday, November 28th, 2006

varo_distance.jpgOver the summer, I spent months investigating a triple-homicide in Tacoma, Washington. The results are in this month’s Wired magazine; it’s my first article as a contributing editor there.
The story centers around Daniel Varo, one of three friends shot in the head by a buddy from the MySpace online social network. When Varo died, his far-flung collection of relatives and friends gathered on MySpace, to console each other, to plan his memorial, and to vent their rage over his murder. People who had never met face-to-face suddenly became the most trusted of confidants. Along the way, they discovered that Varo didn’t completely disappear when he died. Varo had had spent so much time online that scraps of his life lingered on the Web — a ghost in the networked machines.
I’m really proud of the piece. I hope you’ll give it a read.
And if you want to dive further into Varo’s story, you can check out court documents, the killer’s now-deleted MySpace pages, and a reporter’s notebook.
Lastly, think about giving some money to Varo’s memorial fund. You can make donations through PayPal to danielvaromemorialaccount@yahoo.com. Finish the story, and you’ll see why this matters.

Poulsen Busts MySpace Perv

Monday, October 16th, 2006

Five months ago, hacker-legend-turned-Wired-News-editor Kevin Poulsen wrote an automated script that searched MySpace’s 1 million-plus profiles for registered sex offenders. Soon, the program figured out that one — 39-year-old Andrew Lubrano — “was back on the prowl for seriously underage boys.” Suffolk County, NY cops were alerted. And Poulsen got to go along with them, as they busted the scumbag. Reason # 987 why Poulsen is my hero.

World Cup: Time to Whoop Ass

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

I don’t like football (read: soccer) any more than you do. But we can probably agree that the arrival of those lustful football fans on German soil for the World Cup is a good test for a multi-national security force.
littledutchboy.jpgA combination of Stella Artois, 30 degree heat and discussion about my native England’s “chances” create a mental state capable of (and fit for) quite a lot of punishment. And it’s not just the Germans that want a chance to beat the crap out of these morons.
13 Countries have queued for an opportunity to get on the action with about 80 uniformed British officers taking part in the largest joint police operation in European history. Its also worth noting the threats to this World Cup are roughly comparable to those in a modern battlefield — peaceful and violent demonstrators, far right/left wing groups, multi-ethnic /multi-religious group tensions and possible foreign terrorism will make affective security and policing a challenge.
Along with the usual surveillance equipment associated with modern sporting events, some of the 2006 World Cup technology includes:

* Fast Fingerprinting devices allowing German police to transmit identification data to be matched against archives stored in the central database of the German Federal Intelligence Service.
* Facial recognition CCTV in the stadiums will allow cameras to record biometric facial features of suspected hooligans which can be checked in real time against photos stored in the central database.
* RFID chips in more than 3 million tickets will include identification information that will be checked as holders pass through entrance gates. Those with the tickets have had to provide personal data such as name, address, nationality, and passport number (with minor outrage)
* NATO AWACS planes and the German Air Force will patrol the skies above Germany throughout the tournament maintaining an exclusion zone around the stadiums.
* 5,000 private security, 7,000 German army troops and 30,000 German police (luckily unarmed) are supplemented by volunteer groups; most notably the now militant “Die Hasselhoff, Die.”

The Germans are being quite coy on the cost of all this, other than it’s “less” than the $1 billion spent in the Athens Olympics. They actually seem more impressed with their new ball and the game’s motto: “a time to make friends”.
For me, the World Cup just wouldn’t be the same without Henry “4–4-2″ Kissinger, so for you nervous first-timers here’s a snippet of his 2000 word coma-fest explaining the game — you should wake up around mid-July, well after the end of the tournament:

In eight groups of four, each team plays the others in its group. The top two teams of each group advance to a sudden-death round…Manipulating a ball by foot along a 110-yard-long field into an opposing goal requires skills analogous to ballet…This turns the game into a kind of geometry of finding uncovered open spaces from which to launch an unimpeded shot on the goal…The result was a kind of total football: whatever the assigned position of the player, he had the additional task of reinforcing the center of gravity, attack or defense, depending on the situation.

Steven Snell

Draft Patrick Fitzgerald?

Monday, June 12th, 2006

Right now, military “prosecutions only happen when a commander decides to have them,” writes Defense Tech pal Eric Umansky in today’s Slate. “If an officer believes somebody under his command might have done wrong, then the commander can go after him and bring charges. Or not. It’s all up to his discretion.“
In light of the Haditha, Abu Ghraib, and other investigations, Umansky argues, “What we need is an independent prosecutor’s office, a place where a Patrick Fitzgerald-type can hang his hat and go after wrongdoing wherever it may be in the chain of command.“
What do you guys think? Is Eric on to something, or not?
UPDATE 06/13/06 07:32 AM: “Umanksy isn’t necessarily wrong, but he isn’t exactly right either,” says John over at Op For.

It is true that commanders have exceptional power when it comes to the prosecution and punishment of their troops, but the way Umansky spins the story makes it sound like individual commanders are the end all/be all for military justice. In reality, the military legal system –from investigation to prosecution– is an incredibly complex, multi-layered entity, in which the unit commander is a single stone in the technicolored mosiac

Chicago Cops Crack Heads, Ride Scooters

Wednesday, May 31st, 2006

Chicago cops have a well-deserved reputation for being the toughest guys in a tough town. But you’ve got to wonder how many heads they are going to have to crack to keep that reputation up, now that more and more officers are riding around the Windy City on Segway scooters.
segway_cop.jpgThe CPD is spending about a half-million dollars to buy up 100 scooters and parts. That’s on top of the 50 Segways already in use at O’Hare and Midway airports, and around the lakefront.
Cops have become a key market for the scooter-maker, after the machines failed to catch on with the general public. Around the country, 125 law enforcement agencies now use Segways, the company claims.

In Los Angeles County… officers prize it because it allows them to stand a head taller than they would on foot, so they can see over crowds and cars and project a more prominent presence at events like the Rose Bowl parade.
The scooters, which travel as fast as 12.5 mph, also allow an officer on patrol to cover a much greater distance than on foot, and go indoors, onto elevators and other places bigger vehicles can’t. Blair said the added efficiency allows a force to cut down on the number of patrol officers on each shift and recoup the Segway’s cost in as quickly as a month.
Several bomb squads such as those in Ventura County, Calif., and Little Rock, Ark., use Segways to transport officers in bulky bombproof and hazardous-material suits that can weigh as much as 100 pounds. The Segway allows them to scoot in and out of a scene quickly, without having to waddle in on foot.

Last year, Segway came out with its i80 police model, which features a longer battery life, giving the scooter the an energy efficiency equivalent of 450 miles per hour gallon — with no emissions. The machine also boasts “Reflective Trim [that] helps establish your presence and enhance officer visibility” and a “Comfort Mat [that] alleviates fatigue that can occur when standing for long periods.” Not that Chicago cops get tired. Ever.
(Big ups: Gizmag)

Anybody Got a Decent Explanation…

Wednesday, May 24th, 2006

… for this?

The Veterans Affairs Department learned about the theft of electronic data on 26.5 million veterans shortly after it occurred, on May 3, but waited two weeks before telling law enforcement agencies, officials said Tuesday.
The officials said investigators in the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were furious with the leaders of the veterans agency for initially trying to handle the loss of the data [possibly the largest data theft ever] s an internal problem through the agency’s inspector general before coming forward.
Officials said the investigators in the Justice Department and F.B.I. had complained that the delay might have cost them clues to the whereabouts of the data, stored on computer disks that were stolen in a burglary on May 3 at the home of an agency employee in Maryland.

UPDATE 3:09 PM: This gets even better. VA Secretary Jim Nicholson “was not told about the missing data until the night of May 16, or 13 days after the discs containing the data were stolen in a burglary at the residence of a department employee who had taken them home without authorization… [T]he secretary called the Federal Bureau of Investigation once he learned of the theft.“
UPDATE 4:40 PM: Axe has a killer piece for Military​.com today on Iraq vets’ struggle to adjust to post-war life.

Cell Phones Full of Clues

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

I’ve got a story in today’s New York Times. Here’s how it starts:
The case against Dan Kincaid was strong. A homeowner in northern Boise, Idaho, had identified Mr. Kincaid, 44, as the person who had broken into his suburban house. But eyewitness testimony isn’t always rock solid, and Mr. Kincaid was refusing to talk. The police wanted more. So they searched Mr. Kincaid’s BlackBerry e-mail-capable phone electronically, and found all the evidence they needed.
cell-phone.jpg“Just trying to find a way out of this neighborhood without getting caught,” Mr. Kincaid wrote to his girlfriend on Aug. 1, 2005, shortly after he had been spotted. “Dogs bark if I’m between or behind houses. … “
“Cops know I have a blue shirt on,” he continued. “I need to get out of here before they find me.“
Faced with his e-mailed admission, Mr. Kincaid agreed to a deal with prosecutors over that crime and a string of others. In February, he pleaded guilty to five counts of grand theft, resisting arrest and burglary.
“We seized his phone,” said Detective Jeff Dustin of the Boise Police Department, “and instead of a jump shot, this case is a slam dunk.“
Cellphones are everywhere: 825 million were sold last year, according to the market research firm IDC. And the phones do more than just dial numbers. With expanded memories, increasingly sophisticated organizer tools and sharper cameras, they are playing ever larger roles in the lives of almost everyone including criminals. Drug dealers, rapists and murderers across the country have been caught based, at least partly, on the electronic gadgets they carry around.
But extracting clues and leads from mobile electronics is no cakewalk. Unlike personal computers, 90 percent or more of which use the Windows operating system, cellphones rely on a confusing jumble of software that varies from manufacturer to manufacturer and even phone to phone. Data is often hidden or encrypted. And as long as a phone is connected to its cellular network, there is always a chance that its call histories and text messages will be erased, deliberately or otherwise.

Read the rest here.

Top G-Men: Terror Ignorance is Bliss

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006

A few weeks back, I wrote about the seemingly unshakeable culture of technophobia at the FBI — and how nearly a third of Bureau employees still don’t have e-mail accounts, as a result.
ace_g_man_stories_194304.jpgBut that’s not the only bad habit that the G-Men are having trouble breaking. As Jeff Stein reports in his must-read CQ Weekly cover story, there’s still a willful ignorance about terrorists and their methods — even at the FBI’s highest levels.

Now listen to the testimony of Gary M. Bald, the FBIs top counterterrorism and counterintelligence official, in a legal deposition last year. Questioned under oath in a whistleblower lawsuit brought by an Arab– American FBI agent, Bald was asked whether he knew the difference between Sunni and Shia, the two strains of Islam at war with each other as much as with the United States.
Bald waved off the question. You dont need subject matter expertise, he said. The subject matter expertise is helpful, but it isnt a prerequisite. It is certainly not what I look for in selecting an official for a position in the counterterrorism [program]. In other words, he didnt know the answer: that a 1,400-year-long schism over who should lead Islam, originating in fierce succession battles after the death of Mohammed in 632 A.D., is still being played out between nuclear aspirant and Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, not to mention the armed factions battling for control of U.S.-occupied Iraq. The religious passions that drive the different branches of the Islamic world and the fervor that leads some to violence against the West was not on his radar screen.
Nor could Bald, or other top FBI counterterrorism officials questioned last summer, explain the web of relationships of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist organization with other key fundamentalist figures and groups
hat its techniques for recruiting informants change on the basis of a persons ethnic background, culture or language, according to testimony by John E. Lewis, another top counterterrorism official at the bureau. It doesnt make any difference whether somebodys from the Middle East or a white supremacist or from Australia, Lewis said, meaning that Middle Eastern terrorists rat out their brethren for the same reason Klansmen do: for money, revenge and disenchantment with the cause.
That the FBIs American recruits spoke the Klans language in Mississippi and understood its culture and politics was not seen as any kind of special advantage thats being lost in the battle against foreign terrorists. Under further questioning, Lewis also admitted that he had no previous counterterrorism experience himself.

UPDATE 1:48 PM: “The salient fact is that, approaching five years after 9/11, we still do not have a domestic intelligence service that can collect effectively against the terrorist threat to the homeland or provide authoritative analysis of that threat,” John Gannon, a former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence, told the Senate Judiciary Committee today. “It is not enough to say these things take time. It could not be clearer from the Intelligence Communitys experience over the past 25 years that it is extraordinarily difficult to blend the families of intelligence and law enforcement, and that the Bureaus organizational bias toward the latterfor deep-seated historic reasons–is powerful and persistent.“
Read more testimony here.