Category Archives: History

Pirates and Terrorists

US Warship tracks Somali Pirates Recent events in the waters off the Somali coast are probably a sign of things to come. Pirates there have been a serious problem for many years (although historically dwarfed by the waters near Indonesia or even Nigeria), and the modern Navy has tended to only intervene and respond to civilian vessels after a mayday. This means that the Pirates are essentially taking the opportunity to attack highly vulnerable and ill-prepared victims.

The main difference between pirates and terrorists seems to be that the latter is motivated by some political mission, whereas the former are just hoping to increase their wealth by force (motivated by greed). When we heard about the cruise ship that was hit with an a RPG, but managed to repel the attackers with a loud noise, we were led to believe there were just pirates afoot (and not internationally funded criminal syndicates with a political agenda).

While that’s likely, one has to wonder at what (economic) point does the market for pirates give way to the politics of terrorists? Al Qaeda, of course, has been rumored to be discussing the use of vessels, including large fuel tankers, at sea in the same fashion as they had used airplanes on 9/11. Makes sense that they would discuss any vehicle under the sun given the nature of suicide bombing and the need to rapidly and discreetly “insert” themselves into a civilian zone.

Relative spatial density of reported pirate incidents in the Gulf of Aden for 2008
Therefore, if the threat of pirates increases far enough and ships remain vulnerable, eventually terrorists will make the glaringly obvious connection. The question then becomes whether countermeasures will be able to detect and prevent sufficient numbers of attacks to catch all those that might be linked to terror motives, and whether the root cause should/can be addressed rather than the symptoms.

I picked up a morsel of news several months ago that SEALs were actively training to rescue a large ship that had been commandeered in the Indian Ocean. The shipping company decided to pay a ransom (e.g. pirate motives were satisfied) rather than have the US military take it back by force. It’s hard to say more without the full details but it seems lucky to me that all those attackers wanted was money. My guess is the Navy was thinking the same thing, and the Seals were probably extremely disappointed in having their mission cancelled, so it’s no surprise to now hear in the mainstream press that US warships have started engaging the threat more and more proactively. The AP report regarding the latest Somali case notes that:

The Churchill is part of a multinational task force patrolling the western Indian Ocean and Horn of Africa region to thwart terrorist activity and other lawlessness during the U.S.-led war in Iraq

“Thwart terrorist activity and other lawlessness” is exactly what I am talking about. Does this mean the US Navy is now set to enforce the law in International waters? And do they need to mention multinational forces and the Iraq war in order to justify enforcing the law? The article also mentions “The Navy said it captured the dhow in response to a report from the International Maritime Bureau in Kuala Lumpur on Friday…” but it remains to be seen why this pirate ship in particular was of interest to the US Navy and why this is making mainstream news.

Beyond the threats of lawlessness, we still must face the general issue of vulnerability of ships. Although I’ve seen some improvements, I have to say that things like electrified fences have serious draw-backs. Aside from falling into one yourself, it is a single control point and rather prone to failure (electricity is not plentiful or reliable at sea) as well as somewhat easy to work around (attackers might just move on to the next vessel, but if they are everywhere what would stop them from just developing insulation/shorting equipment?). While naval engineering has made great strides in making boats more seaworthy, this has not translated into innovation in private boating anti-piracy measures. When you think of the boating industry in general, do consumers want to spend money on teak fittings, extra shipping capacity, or surveillance cameras and ammunition? Thus, I think the best answer today actually is a reduction in threats, which means that (multi)national forces will have to find ways to cooperatively police the International waterways before the path of the pirates is joined by terrorists. I hate to say it, but it reminds me of the “great Naval powers”…what would Admiral Nelson do?

Attacks by country


2019: Updated to add UNOSAT maps to replace deprecated secure-marine.com links

Security Slogans: Ctrl-Alt-Del when you leave your seat


Few of us are probably lucky enough to invent something as contagious as a Security-Tubby or a Barney character. Instead, we are stuck with the task of creating “fun” posters with slogans.

One of my more successful ones so far has been based on the saying “Ctrl-Alt-Del when you leave your seat”.

People tell me that no matter how rediculous they might find security slogans at first, eventually this one grows on them and they can’t help but sing it aloud when they leave the office. You know you have won over your users when they start to beg for more effective ways to comply with the “Ctrl-Alt-Del song”.

I usually give them a tip like the following:

Although a screen lock button is already provided in most X distros, including Linux, Windows folks are usually in need of a shortcut. They’re simple to create with the following command:

%windir%\system32\rundll32.exe user32.dll,LockWorkStation

Then change the icon to something that looks like a “lock”. The orange key seems most popular among XP users (consistency helps the helpdesk) and can be found in the following library:

%SystemRoot%\system32\shell32.dll

Lock Workstation Icon

Just put the button wherever convenient (desktop, taskbar, start, etc.) Although the setup is easily scripted and deployed over the network, sometimes it is best to hand it out to all your users like a present during the holiday season — “Security wishes you a safe and secure holiday. We hope you enjoy this new button.”

And believe it or not, people who start using this button will still say “hey, I did the Ctrl-Alt-Del thing, go check my screen”, even though they no longer are touching the keyboard when they step away. Ah, the power of security slogans.

loose lipsUnfortunately not all slogans are as catchy. Messages from security easily get lost in the sea of information users have to process every day and most of the other material they hear is so polished that phrases like “don’t get hooked by phishers” tend to blend right into the wallpaper. Thus, I believe the world of security would be far better off if more wordsmiths and poets were employed to craft our message, perhaps even at the state or federal level. Nothing too fancy would be necessary as the slogans that always seem to do best are the simple ones — “loose lips might sink ships”.

America and the Con

While I was reading about the history of the Hart-Rudman national security commission (sometimes also known as Hart-Gingrich or the Hart-Rudman-Gingrich), I ran into an interesting Weekly Standard article (Issue 35, May 29, 2000) by Tom Donnelly.

Donnelly was deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century at the time. This is the same organization that has tried to make a case for the President’s search for WMD in Iraq as late as April 2005, so bear with me. (Note: for a more realistic conservative’s view of the WMD debate, check out the book “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration”)

Donnelly called his article in 2000 “Newt Gingrich’s Last Boondoggle” and he gave a fascinating look at the beliefs of the group that ultimately pressured the President into invading Iraq.

This article was published before Bush took the reigns of the country by an order of a conservative federal Supreme Court, so the reasoning expressed in the article illustrates why/how Bush could have began his term buoyed by the lofty dream of absolute US hegemony.

For example, Donnelly very harshly criticizes Hart and Rudman for arguing “that American strategy must ‘compose a balance’ between the goals of freedom and stability.”

Donnelly suggests that trying to strike such a balance in the world would be meaningless as the concepts of right and wrong can be easily judged by America and the resulting policy would be one of struggle against evil, not some kind of compromise:

But in a world where so many nations remain ruled by dictators, liberty and stability are often at odds. How, for example, is the United States to “compose a balance”? between liberty and stability in China? If stability reigns, so will the Chinese Communists. If America works to advance freedom in China, there will almost certainly be turmoil.

Make no mistake about it. That is a policy of destabilization meant to allow control of a country’s future by whomever is strong and big enough to fill the vacuum. It is the same means-justify-the-end argument used throughout the Cold War, coupled with the idea that it is far better to err on the side of right-wing economics than go for something undefined in the middle that might be susceptible to the left.

It begs the question what Mozambique would have looked like if someone hadn’t assassinated Mondlane (February 3, 1969). Killing a powerful liberal-but-left American university professor of history, a respected leader within FRELIMO, ended his moderating influence over a freedom movement. FRELIMO was operating more peacefully under Mondlane as he and immediate colleagues left out rigid dogma or hierarchy; they openly invited interplay of conflicting views and positions. His assassination by the US regressed freedom and propelled turmoil.

Donnelly was arguing that the Cold War did not really end; it just changed a little and there was an adversary with a different flag. Thus his reasoning was probably that the US would be foolish to miss their opportunity to take a seat at the head of the table and assert themselves again as a moral authority through some kind of de-ontological ethics. He then indicates that no compromise or collaboration with other countries is necessary when you have the kind of superiority demonstrated by the success in cold war conflicts:

The report disavows the habits of leadership, power, and principle that unexpectedly won the Cold War. Alas for Hart and Rudman, these strategic habits may be hard to break; and since they made America into history’s “sole superpower,” some will wonder why they need breaking.”

It is almost as though if you have been right once, you will be right again no matter what the situation.

However, while the US might have “won” a superpower conflict when the primary adversary stood down, that does not translate directly into unquestionable control of the remaining geopolitical affairs. This is the crux of the mistake made by think-tanks like Project for the New American Century.

The situation was not like one of the Rocky movies where a heroic fighter beats the odds is left standing in a ring over the dispirited opposition. Quite the contrary, while one particular risk became lessened other high-risk security issues became more critical; threats and vulnerabilities changed so the overall risk equation shifted but still needed to be heeded.

Even Tom Clancy’s writing was tapping into this philosophy by the late 1990s (Rainbow Six, Rogue Spear), which reflected that the military establishment itself could see engagements ahead would require a more indigenous, sophisticated and delicately balanced response than that of giant missile defense systems and Big Red One rolling over and occupying vast expanses of foreign territory. Goodbye John Wayne, hello Mr. Bond (or Alpha team), you might say.

The risk algorithms of national security and international relations were clearly evolving in a way that many, including Hart-Rudman, could see. So, by the summer of 2001, intelligence and anti-terrorism experts were literally yelling into the ears of the Bush Administration that Hart-Rudman’s recommendation of “a finer calculus of benefits and burdens” really would be necessary.

Richard Clarke’s “roll back” presentation suggested a strategy for the US to strike right at the heart of al Qaeda training camps and put the terrorist group on warning in February 2001. Yet the Bush Administration walked away from the table announcing they were going to handle things the old-fashioned way, on their own timeline and without interference.

It really boiled down to the desire for a new policy founded on a concept of shared balance and co-existence versus the old policy of total elimination. Nuance versus hubris. Many suggest that the elimination policy group was bolstered by the events during the Reagan administration that led to the unexpected change in the policy of the USSR. But this “proof” of the policy had more to do with timing and admission of failure rather than the success of any direct assault or overwhelmingly powerful US strategy.

Some could say that the US outspent the Soviets, but even that was hard to prove. It was like the countries were drag-racing and the US won because the other car ran out of gas or had a mechanical failure, but the Reagan administration walked away believing they were the better driver. Thus an elimination policy group formed and believed that unilateral leadership based on superior moral ground (like Kant’s categorical imperative) had won a war during their watch.

Moreover, they believed that this success needed to be further capitalized upon or lost forever. Some were so caught up in this dream-like state that they were offended by any suggestion of uncertainty about the state of US supremacy. Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney, found the reality of geopolitical issues so threatening that she simply resigned from the commission in protest:

Cheney was unhappy with the suggestion that American power was bound to decline: “Emerging powers will increasingly constrain U.S. options regionally and limit its strategic influence. As a result, we will remain limited in our ability to impose our will. . . .”?

The irony is almost too thick to avoid. The ex-Regan administration member Cheney resigned because she could not deal with reality. The only alternative, impose her view on those who recognized the new security risks ahead, must have been unsuccessful and so she quit the team. It is only logical that she and her husband from that point onward were planning to deep-six the recommendations of the final report and knew what to do when it was handed to the Bush Administration in 2001. Incidentally, during the 9/11 events she was reported to have turned down the official debriefing from the anti-terror task force so she could hear the reports from CNN.

At the end of the day it was an uncompromisingly myopic stance of the Bush Administration coupled with the inability to process information about the real and present dangers to the country that arguably precipitated the ease with which al Qaeda staged their attack on 9/11 — Bin Laden’s minions did not fit the image of what the Bush Administration, and the Cheney couple in particular, were willing or able to accept as a credible threat. They therefore not only fumbled the job of understanding risk, but they ignored and actively distanced themselves from the voices that tried to raise alarm before disaster struck. Like a heavy-weight fighter brushing off idea that bar-room punches of a welter-weight were of any concern, the Bush Administration didn’t understand that the inauspicious new adversaries not only had motive, but the means to do serious and lasting damage.

In conclusion, and unfortunately for the US, a series of ill-conceived security decisions by the Bush Administration were made based on a tired and romantic view of a world that probably never really existed.

Six years later the world is left to hope that the Bush Administration has started to realize, as Gorbachev once did, that the value concept of a giant conventional superpower could be long past its shelf date. The idea of imposing unilateral will by generating endless turmoil abroad today does in fact exhaust a powerful nation, even America, and can actually end up eroding the base of power and undermining relationships.

It was easy to see how this policy would lead to a quagmire of undesirable and taxing battles on multiple fronts where success would come only by lowering expectations. Do the American leaders today have the strength to admit the mistake and swallow their pride? Unlikely. And so the real danger now is that leaders, facing the exhaustion of their nation, may forgo the high road of true democracy by becoming accountable and instead choose the path of desperation — quick fixes intended to create the illusion of success at any cost, without regard for the true damage they may cause to their country and its freedoms.

Why Christmas is a holiday

Because congress adopted a federal holiday on June 26, 1870. Simple.

Why, you ask?

Well, it had an inauspicious beginning in the country. It was so controversial (decadent) in the 1700s that it was actively banned by Puritains, including those who left England to settle the early American states. Perhaps more importantly it was shunned by the Founding Fathers since it was considerd an English tradition and irrelevant to the observance of religion. Alas, Digital History suggests by the early 1800s Christmas in America had become just another famously drunken, lewd and riotous event, rivaling the decadence of old King Charles’ England:

But despite the Puritans’ best efforts, Christmas in America became an excuse for dangerous hell raising. At Christmastime, men drank rum, fired muskets wildly, and costumed themselves in animal pelts or women’s clothes – crossing species and gender. In New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities, they formed Callithumpian parades, which involved beating on the kettles, blowing on penny trumpets and tin horns, and setting off firecrackers.

Sounds like a blast, no? Well, the fun obviously never lasts forever and so things eventually came to a head when, according to the History Channel, the effects of Christmas coupled with a rise in poverty and class conflict of the early 19th Century gave concern to those who were in power:

In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This catalyzed certain members of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.

The new message was that people should stay home, sit by a fire, and drink and eat themselves senseless instead of partying outside with others. And so, out of the political discord of 150 years ago we can today say thank you to the federal government for inventing a national tradition and opening the door for America’s two great factions, corporations and religions, to fight over control of the “real” meaning of this holiday.

Nast's Santa
Thanks should also go to Thomas Nast, arguably the father of modern American political illustration, for creating the modern American image of Santa Claus during the Civil War…it might be worth noting that Santa was always pro-Union and anti-slavery.

Oh, and why December 25th? Apparently Pope Julius I wanted something to compete with the popularity of the festival “Saturnalia”, and probably found it most convenient to just rebrand the pagan holiday with a new name. Merry Saturnalia had a bad ring to it, I guess (especially since the word implied an “inversion of order” instead of something Christ-like).

Personally, I think the holiday should be celebrated on June 26th before someone starts another winter riot over the latest must-have expression of modern faith, like an XBox.

Historians rate the US presidents

I’ve been writing too many comments again on Schneier’s blog lately, so I thought I’d post a few interesting things here instead. This article from the History News Network caught my attention with some interesting insights into the risks from various Presidents and how they stack up from a historian’s point-of-view:

The George W. Bush presidency is the worst since:
In terms of economic damage, Reagan.
In terms of imperialism, T Roosevelt.
In terms of dishonesty in government, Nixon.
In terms of affable incompetence, Harding.
In terms of corruption, Grant.
In terms of general lassitude and cluelessness, Coolidge.
In terms of personal dishonesty, Clinton.
In terms of religious arrogance, Wilson.

And then there are the oft-cited Bush quotes that give another perspective on how some might use his own words to conclude he may be worse than so many of his predecessors:

“You don’t get everything you want. A dictatorship would be a lot easier.”
— From Paul Begala’s “Is Our Children Learning?”, Governing Magazine July, 1998

“If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.”
— CNN.com, December 18, 2000

“A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, there’s no question about it.”
— Business Week, July 30, 2001