Thursday, August 17, 2006


A few weeks ago the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy Project, run by Steven Aftergood, posted a DHS reported entitled "Counter MANPADS Progam Summary" on its website. And so the report was downloaded by quite a few people, until this week.

"A July 31 Department of Homeland Security report to Congress on the status of defenses against shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles was removed from the Federation of American Scientists web site after DHS objected (pdf) to its publication," wrote Aftergood.

"DHS urged that the unclassified report, marked For Official Use Only, be taken offline and, upon consideration, we agreed to do so.

"The Report has never been released by DHS to the public because it contains sensitive information such as the transition of military technology for potential civil use, systems performance of the prototype systems being developed by DHS and its partners, and the reliability of such prototype systems," wrote DHS deputy associate general counsel William H. Anderson."

Then Anderson threatened the Secrecy Project.

"Due to the sensitive nature of the Report, I request that your organization immediately remove the Report from its website."

"If the Report is not removed from your website within 2 business days, we will consider further appropriate actions necessary to protect the information contained in the Report."

Aftergood's Secrecy Blog added further comment from a Congressional staffer who had downloaded his copy of the report from FAS.

"[The staffer] said that executive branch restrictions on unclassified information had become a growing hindrance to Congressional oversight. If the document is really sensitive, he suggested, 'it should be classified.'"

Aftergood wrote that FAS would mull over whether it would keep the report off-line, republish portions of it, or the entirety.

Of course, Dick Destiny blog, wearing its official GlobalSecurity.Org senior fellow T-shirt, had also downloaded a copy of the report from FAS. And actually read it.

And upon perusal, it is possible to see why DHS might want to control its dissemination. The anti-MANPADS systems under consideration, manufactured by BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman for addition to commercial airliners, don't work.

A few days after FAS' posting of the report, Associated Press filed a story on it.

"It could be 20 years before every U.S. passenger airplane is outfitted with a system to protect it from small portable missiles, according to a government report obtained Monday by The Associated Press.Under a test program, BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman developed laser-based systems over the past two years that still don't meet the reliability standards set by the Homeland Security Department . . . " wrote the AP.

The DHS' threatening stunt set up a situation in which it's OK for reporters to have seen the summary, but perhaps not private citizens. This left it up to journalists to inform the public. And when AP chose to inform, it wrote:

"Ultimately, Congress is going to determine whether it wants to support a wide-scale deployment of Manpads countermeasures to the aviation industry," said William Knocke, Homeland Security spokesman.

But you have just read, paradoxically, that a Congressional staffer downloaded his copy from FAS, not the Department of Homeland Security. And that government orders restricting the distribution of unclassified materials were becoming an increasing hindrance to oversight.

The AP news article tended to emphasize the sunny side of the DHS report -- vendor-inspired promises and blandishments that the systems would only cost 1 million dollars per item if the purchase and manufacture of 1,000 units could be guaranteed. It was a boiling down of what amounted to a wild-ass guess by the vendors and DHS, backed up by wishfully-plotted cost graphs and charts, none of which bore any data points anchored to reality.

Associated Press did ask for comment from John Meenan, "executive vice president for the Air Transport Association.

Meenan, wrote the AP, "questioned whether the cost of such systems matches the security risk."

"The counter-Manpads proposals we have seen reflect more vendor say so than security prioritization," said Meenan to AP.

Also included in the summary was descriptions of DHS's anti-shoulder-fired missile system strapped-down chicken test, one which the report refers to as a "sterile" military trial.

Such a trial, the report admits, doesn't come close to replicating conditions as they exist at a busy commercial airport. The strapped-down chicken testing involved single shot fires by shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles against the systems being tested.

"Both the contractors meet the requirement for single missile engagements but do not meet the requirement for simultaneous time of impact dual missile engagements."

And since the systems are not deployable and not installed, it is difficult to understand how publishing a report with a sentence describing the results of testing of such systems makes any difference to national security at all.

Additional testing was recommended by DHS because they, again, did not approach replication of a commercial airport's traffic and ground conditions.

Other limitations elucidated by the report:

The current systems aren't reliable enough to use in a commercial flight. They break down and require repair with a frequency which is OK for military use, but far too high for the flight hours logged by commercial jetliners.

But one of the most sticky problems, one not mentioned by AP, are the systems' generation of false alarms.

"Test data indicate that the systems do not meet the requirement at this time," reads the report.

False alarms aren't so important in a war zone but they become critically important in a busy commercial air traffic environment over the United States near urban air terminals.

False alarms would cause the complete halt or disruption of commercial air traffic and the emptying of airports and surrounding areas in a search for terrorists. False alarms would cause notification of what is called the Domestic Event Network. The problems associated with false alarm of an anti-aircraft missile attack on a commercial jetliner could be said to be substantial, economically back-breaking, or worse than terrorists.

The DHS report gave no solid indication of how this problem might be overcome. Near the end of the report, DHS suggests that "processing capability" and software "improvements through discrimination algorithms."

Another significant obstacle is the control of sensitive military technology. Normally, this is handled by the military, but pasting military hardware to a privately owned jetliner creates a system in which airflights must apply for export licenses under the ITAR, or International Traffic in Arms Regulations. The ITAR defines export of weapons and military technology in a myriad of ways which could be broadly applied to commercial jetflights with anti-aircraft missile defense pods strapped to their bellies.

Two dilemmas associated with this issue are pictured below and speak for themselves.

When the government threatens the Secrecy Project over publication of something like the Anti-MANPADS system project summary, the knee-jerk reaction is one of disgust and superciliousness toward the agency.

As has been written previously, DHS is abysmal at providing important information from the war on terror to the American public. It's a type of arrogance which works from the idea that officials in charge know better than everyone else, and that they'll take care of things just fine.

So we don't have to be aiding the enemy by making any information available to citizens.

This is rather easily countered by pointing out that the only thing one can prove about the restriction of information, as in this case, is that it demonstably gets in the way of legitimate oversight and decision-making.

Recall, once again, the words of a Congressional staffer who had downloaded the DHS report in question from the Secrecy Project.

"[The staffer] said that executive branch restrictions on unclassified information had become a growing hindrance to Congressional oversight. "

What sensitive information must be kept from the public, if any, will -- sooner or later -- be determined by FAS. And Dick Destiny blog is betting it will come down in favor of republishing it, or most of it.

Upon examination, I could only find one sentence that might be of theoretical use to terrorists. But it's one that would occur to anyone reading about the threat posed by anti-aircraft missiles aimed at jetliners, anyway. Plus, the DHS systems, not being ready, are only imagined as deployable in the future, at which time a report on the same systems would look quite different.

The mechanics of the Internet being what they are, the report is still available here (Dig those Northrop Grumman Adsense ads!)

If you enjoyed this article, you surely might like the next, on secrecy and security outrages.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Of course, Dick Destiny blog, wearing its official GlobalSecurity.Org senior fellow T-shirt, had also downloaded a copy of the report from FAS."

So why haven't you posted a link to your copy of the PDF, set up a collection of overseas mirrors, or started a bittorrent? Is it because you concur with the FAS decision to keep it off the Net? Why devote an entire blog to a tease?
Why perpetuate the split between "journalists" and the public?

9:01 PM  
Blogger George Smith said...

Because it's no tease and a link appeared containing an HTML'd version of the report appeared prior to my writing this one. So I linked to it. And it is, indeed, an overseas mirror. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

In any case, there's no split between "me (journalist)" and the "public." Take some time to read the rest of the blog over the past couple months. You'll see plenty of material presented transparently.

I made my attitude on the DHS report clear in the piece.

As for the original .pdf, Steven Aftergood is my friend and happens to be enjoying a 'timeout' right now. (Which was so noted at the end of the last Secrecy Bulletin.)

So before others take matters in hand, he certainly deserves the time to meditate on it and make his own moves with regards to the matter.

In any case, I wouldn't be too quick to assume the DHS .pdf won't show up on the net again.

12:06 PM  

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