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Inside Jobs, Surveillance and the Ports’ Controversy: The Wisdom of Crowds

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The almost instant and widespread negative reaction to the proposed sale of the contract for port operations in several major U.S. cities to a firm owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates is based on the intuition –held obviously by many, many people– that the deal would make America more vulnerable to terrorist attack.

That intuition is not based on crude typecasting of all UAE citizens as potential terrorists. Rather, it seems to be based on a general understanding that (1)big, successful crimes involve either extensive surveillance and/or cooperation by an “insider,” and that (2) ownership of the port operations by the UAE increases the likelihood of both.

These are not irrational reactions.

From an account of one of the most successful “inside jobs” in history:

On December 11th, 1978, just before dawn, a gang of seven men carried out a daring robbery at the Lufthansa Air Cargo Terminal at Kennedy Airport in Queens, New York. Their prize was eight million dollars in cash, unmounted jewels of undetermined value, foreign currency and gold. No one was ever convicted for this crime. None of the stolen goods were ever recovered and at least thirteen people connected to the crime were murdered or disappeared, missing presumed dead.

The Lufthansa heist was achieved with the help of an insider, as have been other airport robberies, including a 1968 insider-assisted robbery of Air France, also conducted at Kennedy Airport:

Hill spent weeks planning the Air France theft with the assistance of the foreman of the company’s cargo deck, Bobby “Frenchy” McMahon. The European airline was building a new strong room to replace the old iron cage that previously housed valuables, and was using the cargo office as a temporary safe. But the 25-year-old Hill could only watch in frustration while selling hijacked cigarettes at the airport as the strong room was eventually completed with a door that required two keys. Frenchy McMahon held one – but the other was kept on a keyring on the belt of a ‘straight’ guard. The guard was a bachelor and Hill set him up with a beautiful hooker in order to separate him from his belt. He cut a copy of the key and waited for the call from Frenchy.

Just before midnight on a Saturday, Henry Hill and Tommy DeSimone walked up to the steel door of the cargo hold, slipped in the keys, and walked out with a suitcase jammed full with seven white canvas bags. He paid $60,000 to Sebastian Aloi of the Columbo crime family and $60,000 to his own capo, Paul Vario, in tributes before the robbery was even discovered.

There are scores and scores of inside job stories, and hundreds of films have depicted crimes that depended upon the assistance of an insider. Part of the American reaction to the port deal is the familiarity with the risk posed by an “insider” scheming with wrongdoers on the outside.

To the argument that the UAE company will not be in charge of security comes the response that neither were the insiders on the Lufthansa or Air France jobs in charge of formal security. They just had access and misused it.

The second issue revolves around the well-known penchant of al Qaeda for conducting detailed surveillance of its targets.

On December 18, 2001, then cting Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counter Terrorism Division, J. T. Caruso, gave testimony to a Senate subcommittee on the nature and operational characteristics of al Qaeda. One key portion of that testimony:

Prior to carrying out the operation, Al-Qaeda conducts surveillance of the target, sometimes on multiple occasions, often using nationals of the target they are surveilling to enter the location without suspicion. The results of the surveillance are forwarded to Al-Qaeda HQ as elaborate “ops plans” or “targeting packages” prepared using photographs, CADCAM (computer assisted design/computer assisted mapping) software, and the operative’s notes.

Since 9/11 there has been a steady stream of stories of people detained for taking pictures of landmarks or of presence in sensitive areas with camera equipment etc. One of the mantras of the age of terror is: “Report any suspicious activity to law enforcement authorities.”

Regarding the ports, the public, pundits and political figures instantly sensed that hostile surveillance would be easier to conduct by employees of a UAE company that is the owner of the management contracts for the ports. The reply that everyone is vetted and checks out ignores not only the example of the FBI’s 15 year mole Robert Hanssen –who was vetted and checked out for a decade and a half while passing the deepest secrets of the U.S. to the Soviets– but also every other spying case in the world’s history and the fact that the ports’ contract could extend for years and years, instantly making the UAE company a target for penetration by al Qaeda.

It is also undeniable that the era of electronic data transfers means that significant amounts of data on port operation becomes instantly available to the new company, data that if it was harmless, would be available to the public. The amount of information that the new company will possess about the operations of the ports that is not generally available to the public is one measure of the increased vulnerability that foreign ownership of the ports by a nation with very active al Qaeda cells poses.

The widespread negative reaction suggests a “Wisdom of Crowds” moment that the Adminsitration should study closely.


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