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June 24, 2003

Buying an attack on the Brooklyn Bridge
Posted by Teresa at 09:30 AM *

I don’t see why the NYTimes is in such a fluster about this supposed terrorist threat to the Brooklyn Bridge. I just wish everyone who plotted to attack NYC were as incompetent as Iyman Faris.

The guy’s a naturalized American citizen living in Columbus, and he’s alleged to have pleaded guilty to having provided support to terrorists. I say “alleged” because this took place in closed proceedings. The story is that he’s been traveling to Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2000, communicating with Al Qaeda operatives and even meeting with Osama bin Laden. And what was this group’s brilliant plan? They were going to use blowtorches to cut the suspension cables on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Yeah, right. Whadda buncha maroons. Have you ever looked at those things?

The Brooklyn Bridge has four main suspension cables. Each is a shade under sixteen inches in diameter, almost fifty inches around. They’re made of Mr. Roebling’s wire rope; that is, multiple twists of steel wire, which in the cables are under a considerable amount of tension. According to another story in the Times, the reason the terrorists were going after the Brooklyn Bridge was because it’s the only bridge whose main support cables all come together at the ends, in two small rooms 15 or 20 feet beneath the walkway. If you cut through one or two cables the bridge might come down, but I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on it. One of the many lovable features of the Brooklyn Bridge is that it’s notoriously over-engineered.

As it happens, the cable rooms are protected by security cams, sensors, alarms, 24-hour foot patrols, and a police boat that’s constantly kept nearby. The police can respond to a tripped alarm within seconds. On the Manhattan side, it would be embarrassing if they couldn’t respond quickly; the bridge comes down right next to the main police complex. But if Iyman Faris (et presumably al.) had somehow managed to neutralize all the security measures, which is extremely unlikely, and, dragging his cumbersome equipment behind him, had made his way into one of the cable rooms, he’d still have had a hell of a task before him.

Those cables are big. The workspace is small. The wire would conduct heat away from the working area, so you’d have to be pouring on the heat to get any cutting done. The room would rapidly get hot and fill with fumes. And while I might be mistaken about this, I do believe the older-style wire rope unlays itself, violently and almost instantaneously, when it’s cut or broken. You wouldn’t want to be anywhere near those wires as they came unlaid. You definitely wouldn’t want to be stuck in a small room with a volatile oxyacetylene torch setup when they did it.

But say you managed to cut through one cable. At that point, the effects would be visible from orbit. The bridge would not fall down. And you would not be given the opportunity to cut through the other cables.

It was a doofy idea. Nice to be reminded that these guys aren’t evil-genius supervillain masterminds.

Gene Healy and Jacob Sullum have both commented on one of the more disturbing aspects of this case: that Iyman Faris may have decided to plead guilty and tell all because the prosecutors threatened to declare him an “enemy combatant”—in which case, like Jose9 Padilla, he could have been subject to indefinite “preventive” detention without ever being charged, tried, or given access to legal counsel.

Here’s my question: Why is this happening at all? There may have been some compelling reason to bust this man, but I don’t see it. John Ashcroft’s been touting this case as a significant blow struck against terrorism, but Iyman Faris is small potatoes. He doesn’t seem to have been terribly effectual, and his Al Qaeda buddies are no prizes either. If we’d left him in situ and monitored the hell out of him, he could have been a worry and expense and distraction to Al Qaeda, and they to him, and we could have recorded all their contacts and message traffic to see what we could see. And if he’d ever looked like he was going to actually accomplish something, we could have collared him before he did it.

But let’s suppose it was necessary to arrest him. Why are we trumpeting it to the world? We have Faris dead to rights, and he’s cooperating. That could have been very useful. At absolute minimum, he would have continued to cost Al Qaeda whatever attention and resources it takes for them to maintain contact with an agent. They would have thought they had a working agent where they had none. And again, we could have gone on monitoring their contacts and communications. That’s at minimum. The additional benefits that might have accrued from our having turned one of Al Qaeda’s agents are incalculable, and unfortunately will now remain that way.

The conduct of this case does not appear to have increased security for the citizens of the United States as its primary goal.

In closing, I give you the Telegraph:
Critics of Mr Ashcroft have accused him of exaggerating the importance of relatively low-level al-Qa’eda operatives. They say that he is intent on securing unprecedented powers for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
And also the New York Times:
Justice Department officials decided to announce the case at a time when Mr. Ashcroft has been put on the defensive by charges from his own inspector general this month that the department mistreated many illegal immigrants after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in its aggressive pursuit of terrorist suspects.

The Faris case allowed Mr. Ashcroft to claim another high-profile victory in the campaign against terrorism, and he compared it to other significant prosecutions against terrorist supporters in Detroit, Lackawanna, N.Y., and elsewhere. Although he declined to discuss details, he said the timing in making the case public was driven solely by law enforcement concerns.

“I firmly believe that for us to have announced this case a day sooner would have carried with it the potential of impairing very important interests,” Mr. Ashcroft told reporters today.
I can well believe that to have announced the case sooner—or, more pertinently, later—would have impaired some interests that Mr. Ashcroft considers important. Forgive me for thinking that those interests are primarily his own.
Comments on Buying an attack on the Brooklyn Bridge:
#1 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 11:06 AM:

This seems to be the standard procedure in Crisco Johnny's War on Terror: we grab the little fish, throw rocks at the Big fFsh so they swim down to their caves at the bottom of the pond and call it a day. Only, the Big Fish are still there of course but pay no never mind to that little fact. We can't see them, ergo, they have ceased to exist. Until of course they pop back up to do something dastardly and unthinkable (except that so far Bin Laden seems to be cribbing from Tom Clancy, so their evil unthinkable plans really aren't that unthinkable. Which brings up the point I've been pondering for some time: Perhaps we should keep a closer eye on Mr. Clancy).

#2 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 11:24 AM:

I have never seen the Brooklyn Bridge, but I can imagine that the cables are pretty thick. Going with other famous bridges, once during my mad love obsession with San Francisco I memorized all the stats on the Golden Gate Bridge, including the fact that the cables are comprised of 25,752 wires each. I was so excited when I finally saw the cross-section of wire that they have on display at the foot of the bridge, and the exact number quoted there.

I also remember being really upset and perturbed right after Sept. 11th, when Gray Davis told the media that there had been a threat to the GGB. I was really upset that somebody wanted to destroy MY bridge. (I guess that personalised things that much more--and gave me even more sympathy for the folk of NYC.)

But yeah. I pity the foo' that tries to use a blow torch to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge. He's in for a rude shock.

#3 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 12:07 PM:

I wonder if the plan went something like:

1. Hijack the tracked mobile space shuttle launch pad, with fueled-up shuttle on top.

2. Drive to Brooklyn before anyone notices

3. Point the shuttle engines at the bridge cables

4. Boom! Buwahahah

#4 ::: Chuck Nolan ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 12:14 PM:

At one point during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, a cable in tension got loose ( I don't remember exactly but I think it was in the process of being connected to the Manhattan anchorage), snapped away quite violently, with loss of life of workers, etc. The bridge deck wasn't there yet, of course. I recall reading at one point tht all four cables would need to be cut to drop the desk, as its stiffening truss would be capable of holding it in place with any one cable cut. So, if they succeeded in cutting one (after many, many hours of torching), the only loss of life would be to those in the anchorage cutting the cable. Presumably, someone would notice this and intervene before other cables could be cut. Who dreams this stuff up?

Count on Ashcroft for meaningless grandstanding. It's only one of his offenses against what was once a great country.

#5 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 12:29 PM:

I bet the next dastardly Al Qaeda plot will be one to fill in the Grand Canyon. Or maybe a plot to sink Hawaii.

Any other suggestions?

#6 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 12:40 PM:

Oh, they're not silly; that's not the same thing as not being (generally) particularly smart nor possessed of an engineering cast of mind.

(Everyone who started thinking of what would work to cut the bridge cables, raise your hands...)

Crisply decisive symbolic single acts are really hard to pull off; I really do hope that various terrorists continue to try for those instead of going for crudely destructive.

#8 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 01:00 PM:

The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants severed the Brooklyn Bridge with an eighteen-wheeler of explosives in the most recent Ultimate X-Men TPB. Getting a truck that size onto the bridge would be the primary challenge there.

#9 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 01:02 PM:

Lots of things. It's not hard to cut steel, even very large billets of multi-strand cable. We've done so for decades. Personally, I'd use a diamond disc cutter on this particular job, unless I'm cutting them outside, in which case, a cutting torch will do just fine, thank you.

TNH is correct that the cable itself makes a pretty decent heat sink -- but so do I-Beams, which, since they are solid and flanged, are *better* heat sinks. But Oxy-Aceteylene torches are hot, they cut I-beams quite nicely. Plus, that steel is old. It's almost certainly low-grade, compared to modern standards, loaded with carbon. It'll cut easily. But it'll cut slowly. One doesn't make a cut through 16" of steel quickly with any sort of cutting mechanism, abrasive or plasma based.

However, there's one thing you *must* remember to do before you cut stranded cable. If you don't firmly tie off around the ends, then you're going to have bad things happen. The Brooklyn Bridge (indeed, almost all suspension bridges) has cables that were wound in place. They'll unwind in interesting ways.

Of course, if you want to drop the bridge, you don't cut with grinder or torch. There are much faster ways to cut through steel, if precision isn't critical. Left as an exercise to the student.

#10 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 01:11 PM:

Mutant termites! Disguised as harmless, everyday cockroaches!!

#11 ::: Paul Riddell ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 02:30 PM:

For some reason, the plan as described (and every article I've read makes me wonder how much gibberish was added by the authorities, in the way every missing steer is suddenly a victim of "Satanic worship" out here once a cop opens his mouth) reminds me of one of those "World's Dumbest Criminals" books. My favorite story along that line concerned three guys who broke into a business and stole the safe. Well, they couldn't open the safe right there, so they tied a rope to it, attached the rope to the back of the car, and towed it home. After a short distance, the casters on the bottom gave out, and witnesses described the scene as "looking like they were towing a Roman candle." The police only had to follow the divots taken out of the asphalt to the perps' house, where they were still deliberating how to open the safe when arrested. When asked why they took it home, one said that he was going to crack it open with a crowbar.

As far as stupidity is concerned, that rates right up there with using blowtorches to cut the Brooklyn Bridge lines. It's not quite as brilliant as when an old high school classmate of mine and a few friends decided to hold up a Wendy's, not realizing that half of the local police force was inside to take advantage of free meals for on-duty officers and not noticing the number of marked cars (including the SWAT truck) in the parking lot...

#12 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 02:46 PM:

"We don't catch the brilliant ones." -- Police officer, commenting on the capture of two guys caught trying to pour water into a dummy cardboard car battery stolen from a display in a gas station window.

I'm afraid that this is a "can't lose" story for Ashcroft. The only people who are going to get seriously bent about it are the ones who already know that Ashcroft and the Administration are a bunch of self-serving fear-mongering spinmiesters.

The fact that the guy actually travelled around and talked about sabotage will mark him as good as guilty in most people's eyes. Pointing out that he's probably a nebbish star-struck by the idea of actual Al-Qeada members talking to him would just get you labeled as a fellow traveller.

* * *

Now, for consistency's sake, the Justice Department should start tackling our own home-grown terrorists: militia members who for years entertained each other with plans for taking out the feds. If talk is as good as intent, they're all as guilty as the Brookly Bridge Bozo. Arrest every one of 'em and send them to Cuba.

#13 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 03:00 PM:

I seriously wonder how much the press release of the details of the evil plot was MacGyvered so as to be unfeasible for the viewing audience at home, as opposed to what they may have actually been planning.

If Canadian engineering students can dangle a Volkwagen bug from the Golden Gate Bride, couldn't terrorists use the same tactic to dangle one from the center of the Brooklyn Bridge, filled with explosives? Heck, why dangle anything if you could just use the evil mutants plot to blow things up?

It also occurs to me that Al Quaida is using blind squirrel tactics. After all, they tried to blow up the World Trade Center once, didn't succeed, then tried another tactic and did.

Even a blind squirrel eventually finds a nut.

#14 ::: Bill Altreuter ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 03:05 PM:

I found the story disturbing for several reasons. The "my bridge" reaction, of course-- I don't like movies that destroy my bridge (to my way of thinking, the worst part of "Godzilla"). The way Ascroft et al are using this sort of threat to keep people's anxiety level ramped up. And the idea that this was such a stupid plan that it couldn't have been the real plan, which means the real plan is something horrible.

I suppose that my third issue derives from my second, but, still.

#15 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 03:24 PM:

Erik -- Yeah, putting seizing on a steel rope on both sides of a proposed cut is standard at any size.

So let's say he seizes it, which is a job all by itself. Then he cuts through, which is either going to take a big cutter, or several cuts to widen the kerf. At the point that the cable parts -- either because he's cut through it, or because he's cut through enough of it that the tension snaps the remaining bit -- there's going to be a tremendous release of energy. Even if the component wires don't unlay, it's going to be a dangerous place to be. Whiplashing broken ends are a major factor in wire rope-related casualties.

Kevin, I'm not sure that counts. You can do anything with a Volkswagen.

Bill, I've never been able to find a name for the fallacy where you say "They can't possibly be doing what it looks like they're doing -- that would be stupid!" It's one I've frequently fallen into over the years. But considering how plentiful the world supply of stupidity is, I think it's entirely possible that their plan was in fact that dumb.

If enough people attempt acts of terrorism, some will succeed. If you interpret all the successes as evidence of diabolical cleverness, and all the failures as evidence that there are a lot of terrorists out there and we just haven't caught the diabolically clever ones, you'll live in a scarier universe than logic would suggest is strictly necessary.

#16 ::: Paul ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 03:55 PM:

'Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.'
--Hart Crane, To Brooklyn Bridge

#17 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 04:01 PM:

The torch scheme is stupid. If it was me, I'd be thinking more in terms of serious pyrotechnics -- shaped charges or thermite -- although obtaining same, getting them onto the cables, and making them
do the job (rather than going "bang" spectacularly
but ineffectually) is a specialist job, and it sounds like this guy was a few screws short of a full set.

Incidentally, has the current state of terror-o-phobia in the UK caught the US headlines yet? (Senior cops warning that a British 9/11 is going to happen, it's only a matter of when, not if?)

#18 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 04:07 PM:

Occasionally you will have examples of what I call "horror movie syndrome," where the villains plot is incredibly stupid and lame, but it succeeds because the heroes and especially the law enforcement officers (redshirts for a horror movie) are even more stupid.

Example? Well, just yesterday an Osama bin Laden in a pink ballgown crashed Prince William's 21st birthday party, went up on stage, kissed him, and took his microphone. This next to the Queen of England and most of the royal family.

Crashing the party as Osama-in-drag is a pretty stupid thing. However, the security was even more stupid.

I don't think success is a measure of diabolical cleverness so much as the fact that occasionally hack horror writers get to do the script. If you can have one stupid person, why not two or three?

Which is also a scary world to live in.

#19 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 04:25 PM:

So if this guy can travel to Afghanistan, meet Osama, and do all these neat things, why can't we get a nice CIA agent into al Qaida, traveling to Afghanistan, meeting Osama, and otherwise being nifty in place? I mean, heck, that kid from California did it, why not one of our guys?

On this particular guy, it's possible that they did try to flip him and it didn't work. Maybe they announced it at the moment that the gaff would have been blown regardless -- he'd been recalled to Pakistan, we didn't dare let him out of our sight and he was running out of excuses on why he couldn't go?

While Ashcroft himself is a walking disaster area, not everyone at every level in law enforcement is so eager to get George elected that he'll compromise the safety of his own wife and kids to see it happen.

#20 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 04:44 PM:

So if this guy can travel to Afghanistan, meet Osama, and do all these neat things, why can't we get a nice CIA agent into al Qaida, traveling to Afghanistan, meeting Osama, and otherwise being nifty in place? I mean, heck, that kid from California did it, why not one of our guys?

John Walker Lindh never met Osama. And I suspect that there's a serious paucity of CIA agents who would seem like plausible Al-Qaeda recruits -- does the CIA want to risk these suddenly very valuable human assets on a mission that's fairly unlikely to pay off in useful, plot-foiling intelligence?

#21 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 05:52 PM:

T- yes, there will be whiplash -- but he's cutting a cable at the anchor -- one that's under tremendous tension. Newton's laws say that most of that energy is going to the long part of the cable -- the first thing it'll do is head to the other shore at high speed. If you are cutting at the anchor itself, the cable won't move horizontally until it is at some distance from you. (So says the guy who has cut tense cables. You cut them *at the anchor* -- the short peice left behind is the one that can hit you, and the guys killed in accidents are killed because the wire parts in the middle. You make sure the cable has enough tension that it doesn't whip around until it's pulled a few feet -- and you keep your body away. It's not hard.) The shuttle used a similar trick with the four very large bolts that hold it to the launch pad. When the SRBs fire, the frangible nuts explode. But you can't have four foot long bolts flying around. So, the bolts are put under tremendous tension -- 80Klbs, IIRC. When the nuts fire, the tension shoots the bolts straight down, into a very large bucket of sand, which catches them and absorbs enough energy so they don't bounce back up.

A large suspension bridge's cables are going to act like bolts for the first few moments after they part. Think of a two meter long section of the cable, just lying on the shore. How much energy do you need to bend it? Lots. Now, put it under tremendous tension. Until that tension is released and the cable gains enough kinetic energy, it'll pull straight out, along the force vector of the tension. Once that cable gets momentum and the tension drops, that's a whole different story -- people on the bridge are going to have a very bad time.

Of course, unless you have four people, it doesn't matter how you cut them, torch or abrasive. Everyone in the world will notice when cable #1 parts, you've got more to cut to drop the bridge. Plus, it will take time, and lots of it, to split those cables.

Note well that you don't have to cut all the way through all the cables. As each cable parts, the load it was carrying transfers to the other cables. Once a partially severed cable's tensile strength falls below the tension actually on that cable, it will start to fail (at first, by deformation) and will lose some ability to carry the load -- which will transfer to the other cables remaining. Eventually, it runs away -- a cable fails, the load transfers, putting all the cables above failure, and they rapidly part. A similar failure reaction is what caused the WTC towers to collapse -- and the first tower to fall was the 2nd tower hit -- but it was hit lower, and there was more building above the crash site to support.

Charlie Stross nails it. If you are going to do this, you use explosives. Specifically, you use linear shaped charges. The flexible ones may not be powerful enough to shear the whole cable in one go -- but fire them on all four cables at once, and you'll almost certainly weaken them below parting strength. The newer RDX-in-copper ones are basically linear versions of HEAT rounds, which are designed to penetrate tank armor. Ideally, you use a scissors charge, but those have to be place perfectly. So, use simple linear charges. Put three per cable, each 120 degrees apart around, fire all of them together. Presuming you use large enough charges, the cables will part. They may not go at the same time, but as each one fails, the other (damaged) ones will see the load increase, and a runaway failure occurs.

The rub? Getting them, and getting enough time to place 12 charges. Assume the bad guy doesn't care about living after the blast. A person, with some minor training, should be able to wire and fire in about 10 minutes, once he gets in. The space to set the charges -- I've never been in the Brooklyn Bridge's anchor house -- you need enough space to place the charges. I'm assuming that they inspect the cable, so there will be space to do so. And, of course, you need to get into a very carefully watched place and not be noticed until you are close enough to done that the time to respond is less than your time to fire.

Where do you find out information about such charges?Where else?

Of course, the way they are treating him is completely unconstitutional. Except that, so far, the courts have basically declared the 6th amendment to be meaningless, and if the courts say that the law is constitutional, it is, no matter what the Constitution may say.

This is why we've lost. Ashcroft can do what he will, if the courts, the congress and the media don't challenge him. The courts have agreed with him, the congress has passed his legislation, and the media has let this go with little comment. Ashcroft now has the power to make anyone dissapear by merely saying so.

This differs from tyranny how?

#22 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 06:48 PM:

Erik, is it silly of me to be worried about you posting that?

#23 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 06:53 PM:

Steve, what's the CIA for, if not to send guys in to try to infiltrate Al Qaeda?

Jim, the guy's a truck driver, and unless they're misreporting it, he doesn't seem to have had the kind of relationship where you report in every 48 hours. If we can't figure out how to arrest him without tipping off the guys in Pakistan, we don't know what we're doing.

#24 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 08:02 PM:

No, it's not silly. I fully expect each declaration of "enemy combatant" to be more and more of a sham, until merly daring to support a democrat who isn't kotowing to the regime is enough.

What may be silly is the idea that we won't have an election. Somehow, however, I doubt that our new lords and masters would dare risk thier power on something as risky as a fair election. I'm merly wondering if they'll just subvert it, or cancel it outright. Logic says it's much more politic to subvert it -- but history says that they don't care what the world thinks of them, so why bother with formalities? Expect a "Red" alert before the election date -- and no election.

As an exercise for the student, you may write the Fox/CNN/NY Times editorials justifying the cancellation of the 2004 election. Bonus points if you can blame it on Hilary and the French.

But, you know, I won't live in that world. They can come for me -- but dammned if I'll come along easy. Won't help, of course -- one more dead liberal is merley a good thing to them.

Of course, this is where I get berated for being depressing and giving up. Feel free to fire back, if you wish. However, I note the surest predictor for finding out what this regime is willing to do is to listen to any number of rational people declaare that even they won't do that.

Are you willing to state that, of course, we'll have a real election in 2004?

#25 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 08:08 PM:

No no no. I don't mean feeling uneasy about tweaking Ashcroft's nose. If he wants to get us, he will. I meant all the information about how to take out the cables.

#26 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 09:03 PM:

Jim -- there have been a number of stories about why the CIA hasn't done better at infiltrating; the one that most struck me was a manager saying that recruits tend to lose interest in field work when told they're going to have to lose several teeth and let the rest rot. Maybe they should recruit Navy SEALs and give them some modest training in how to get information out, instead of trying to get the clean-cut collegiates interested in dirty work?

#27 ::: Tim Kyger ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 09:41 PM:

I'm not worried a bit about anything happening to the Brooklyn Bridge. In addition to all of the security that Teresa noted is already in place, isn't the Headquarters of MIB there also?

#28 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 11:25 PM:

T - this is basic mechanics 101, combined with structural engineering 101. Anybody familiar with large scale construction has more than enough knowledge to do this. Or, say, anybody who grew up with a family that's made money in the large-structure construction/destruction trade. Don't know anybody like that, do we?

The finiky part is getting a perfectly clean cut that drops the bridge just so. This is why outfits like Controlled Demolition, Inc. get large sums of money. Blowing things up so they fall just so is hard. Blowing things up when you don't care? Eaiser.

Any bad guy who wants to do this can find the tools and techniques on the internet -- or ask someone in the construction trade, esp. mining. When you close a large mine, you have lots of things you have to take down, much made of huge hunks of steel. This is exactly the same idea as security disclosures, lock picking, and adulterating milk. The bad guys already know how.

#29 ::: Jordin Kare ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 11:55 PM:

Since Erik's talked about it, I'll note that he's quite right about linear shaped charges. Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I received -- quite unsolicited -- a catalog from a company that sold shaped charges by the foot, in a wide variety of convenient sizes, from little stuff that would cut 1/8" mild steel to 4" wide stuff *intended* for precision demolition of bridges and the like. It's tougher these days, but at the time, I could probably have gotten as much of it as I wanted with little more than a fake letterhead.

(I still wonder just what mailing list I got on, and how. I always thought that if I'd wanted to take up a life of petty crime, the small stuff would have been perfect for cutting Kryptonite bicycle locks.)

#30 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 01:02 AM:

Speaking of Kryptonite bicycle locks, while the locks are not easily cut with regular thief tools, I remember hearing that a number of engineering students found that a couple drops of liquid nitrogen allowed them to be shattered easily.

If the same principle were applied to the bridge cables--say, on a cold winter night when they'd already be significantly chilled--how much liquid nitrogen would be necessary, and what sort of delivery mechanism would you use?

I'd imagine some form of clip-n-drip system, made easier by the fact that as the out cables froze and snapped, the inner would be exposed.

(Note to Mr. Ashcroft. I'm plotting an action thriller here, and have already helped to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge once before {Wild Cards XI: Dealer's Choice}.)

#31 ::: andrew ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 02:39 AM:

Well we've got this schmoe who wants to be a big-time player. We've been watching him for a while, but not much has come of it because, well, he's kind of a joke. Richard Reid style.

Meanwhile, the national conversation is getting a little away from us. It's starting to sound like:
No Osama bin Laden.
No Saddam Hussein.
No peace in Iraq yet
No weapons of destruction - did Bush lie about that?.....

Hey, everybody, LOOK OVER HERE! A TERRORIST! A ginuwine evil-doer.

Why thank you ma'am, just doin' my job. You take care of that little one, ya hear! C'mon boys, let's ride.

...I could be wrong and this isn't cynically planned at all...or maybe it is, but assuming that politicians shouldn't shape facts, time events and control media stories is just naive, on my I should stop acting surprised.

#32 ::: aphrael ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 02:41 AM:

Teresa - if you're into nineteenth century history at all, David McCullough's Great Bridge was a fascinating expose of the backstory. :)

#33 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 08:53 AM:

Bike nabbers don't bother with LN2 -- hard to run around with dewars. They carry either expansion jacks or boltcutters. Boltcutters will cut chain and aircraft cable locks (provided the cutters are sharp) and jacks will eaisly split U-locks, esp. the way too large ones everyone buys. (The smaller the lock, the less space to get a jack into the shackle. Make sure the keyway is in the center, not the end, of the lockbar, otherwise, it's a trival thing to bend the weak end -- the end that isn't solid steel, because of the keyway and lock mechanism -- right off.)

So. How to lock your bicycle. Get *two* locks. One is a tiny hardened U-bolt -- on the scale of the Kryptonite Evolution 2000 Mini. You also get a cable lock, I prefer those that use cable, since if bolt/cable cutters aren't in very good shape and sharp, they won't cut the cable, they'll merely mash it some, and it'll take several minutes to part the cable, while chain will part easily.

You lock your rear wheel and frame to the rack with the U-bolt, which should be only large enough to do so, and no larger, then lock the front wheel and frame to the rack with the cable.Now, the thief needs to have both the jack and the cable cutters to get your bike. Very few to no thieves do so -- and a thief can only steal a certain number of bikes at once -- if he's on foot, that would be 1, if he's in a truck, that may be as many as 10. If you've got two locks, and the other bikes around you have one, they'll go for those first.

You have, of course, replaced that stupid seat quick release with an allen bolt, which means you don't have to walk around carrying your bike seat. Unless you ride off road on steep trails, you do not need to adjust your seat. Get rid of that quick release, and don't worry about thieves stealing your saddle. Thieves don't go for saddles or front wheels alone anyway, but vandals do.

Now, I don't suggest this for your $2000 ultralight racer. Not that it isn't secure enough. It it. It's just that if you are paying that kind of money for a bike, you are paying for a lightweight one, and the difference between a $1000 and $2000 bike is less than the weight of these locks. These bikes should never be parked except as home. Spend $500 on your commuting bike, and carry the locks, and save your mondo racer for long rides and the like, where you don't need to lock it -- because you're never getting off the bike and walking away.

#34 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 09:27 AM:

Steve, what's the CIA for, if not to send guys in to try to infiltrate Al Qaeda?

Honestly? I suspect the Arabic and Urdu speakers are largely busy translating documents. I'm sure there are a number of them doing field work, but the lack of people with needed language skills in the intelligence agencies has been a topic of much consternation in the press for a while. Thus the "scarce resource" factor I was mentioning. (If you've got 50 Urdu speakers*, how many of them can you afford to send off on undercover missions instead of translating open and closed source documents?

If I recall correctly**, part of the problem is that after a few double-agent scandals, the CIA decided that it wanted to start recruiting more wholesome people who seemed less likely to, say, sell information to the Russians. Who was cleancut and wholesome but still had language skills from oddball corners of the world? That's right: Mormons. Good for translating newspapers and technical documents; bad for infiltrating al-Qaeda.

Plus, like Chip says, how many of the (say) Farsi speakers want to go live in the middle of a tribal area of Afghanistan for several years trying to establish their terrorist cred?

Honestly, as Teresa suggests, I think human intelligence that we gather is much more likely to come under the Mafia model: arrest a few low-level guys and get them to turn.

* I should note that I'm making that number up. I have no idea if the CIA has 5, 50, or 5000 Urdu speakers on staff, though I certainly hope it's closest to the latter.

** And I may not be; this has the ring of an urban legend.

#35 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 04:29 PM:

Teresa, regarding whether Erik should have posted all that technical info about how to cut the cables: I suspect there are a fair number of people in various (para-)military forces around the world who have been thoroughly trained in blowing things up by the US. I would guess that over the years we've trained people in Iraq, Iran (maybe only during the Shah's reign), members of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and many other places. As a dilettante who's glanced at one or two out-of-date military demolition manuals many years ago, my first thought was "don't they have shaped charges for jobs like this?" So I doubt Erik's given away any secrets the terrorists (well, the competent ones) don't already know. If you're worried about Erik's post making him looking suspicious, I think that cat's long out of the bag.

Kevin, regarding liquid nitrogon: I think LN2 has a pretty low specific heat, while iron/steel has both high specific heat and pretty good heat conductivity. It would take a _lot_ more than a few drops of LN2 to get a bicycle lock cold enough to embrittle it. Now a little LN2 inside the keyway might be enough to embrittle the pins, though again the rest of the lock would be a decent heat sink. At any rate, to get a large steel cable really cold would probably take truckloads of liquid nitrogen. In a small room, you'd probably end up suffocating, because the vaporized nitrogen would lower the oxygen concentration.

Did you know you can stick your finger in liquid nitrogen briefly without damage? I tried it once, back when I was young and stupid. The low specific heat is part of the reason; the other part is that the first bit of heat from your hand vaporizes some LN2, producing a layer of nitrogen gas that doesn't conduct heat even as well as the liquid does. Kind of like a drop of water skittering around on a layer of steam on a frying pan, only in reverse.

#36 ::: LNH ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 04:47 PM:

You can also hold a drop of LN2 in your palm, as long as you keep jiggling it around so it doesn't stay over one piece of skin for more than a fraction of a second. Again, same effect as a water-on-pan, only it looks like it.

And then there's all the other stupid things physics students do with LN2 ...


#37 ::: Stuart Dimond ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 05:22 PM:

Charles Stross' suggestion of thermite has merit too. Actually my prefered mixture would be magnesium powder and potassium perchlorate. A couple of hundred pounds around the base of a cable would heat it very rapidly. The tensile strength would diminish and the cable will snap. An automated igniter is requisite. You don't want to be close when it starts to burn.

I used the mixture to amaze my friends when I was a teenager. A few ounces ignited on a paper plate would produce an intense green white column of flame fifty feet high. Awesome!


#38 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 07:51 PM:

And regarding the shortage of trained Arabic translators in the US military, here's one reason why:

"But as far as the Army is concerned, it’s better to have no Arabic translators than to have gay ones. News of the Army’s latest effort to protect us from the homosexual translating menace was broken in The New Republic by Nathaniel Frank, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, the superb think tank run by Aaron Belkin at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Frank reported that within one two-month period last fall, 'seven fully competent' Arabic linguists had been discharged from the Army’s elite Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., because they were gay."

#39 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2003, 08:12 PM:

"Fully competent" translators? At the end of 30 weeks at DLI, students in the Arabic program have finished consonants and are starting on vowels. They're less than half-way through the course.

What happened was that some troopers figured that they were so valuable that they could publically flout lawful orders, escape punishment, and establish a precedent.

They figured wrong.

Regardless what one thinks about the general orders that they disobeyed, being a soldier means obeying orders.

The policy is "Don't ask, don't tell."

I'd hate to find out later what other orders they felt didn't apply to them.

#40 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2003, 11:04 AM:

Steve of Snarkout writes:
"Who was cleancut and wholesome but still had language skills from oddball corners of the world? That's right: Mormons. Good for translating newspapers and technical documents; bad for infiltrating al-Qaeda."

Recruit fallen-away Mormons, then.

#41 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2003, 06:59 PM:

Your most effective humint guy won't be the scraggy dude with the AK crawling around the hills making a close personal committment to diarrhea. It'll be the old guy in the clean clothes who's sitting in the same spot at the coffeehouse in town all day every day, discussing the Koran with anyone who's interested, who once a week goes back to his room, pulls out a transmitter, and sends a coded report on what he's heard.

#42 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2003, 07:37 PM:

From James D. Macdonald,
posted on June 24, 2003 04:25 PM:
"So if this guy can travel to Afghanistan, meet Osama, and do all these neat things, why can't we get a nice CIA agent into al Qaida, traveling to Afghanistan, meeting Osama, and otherwise being nifty in place? I mean, heck, that kid from California did it, why not one of our guys?"

Actually we had a guy who was INVITED to go to an Al Qaeda camp and, as he tels it, the CIA decided it wasn't a good idea.

Read the book, "My Jihad" for the details. The author is an American who went to Chechnya on jihad and then went to the FBI to help them against people whom he saw as misusing jihad to commit terrorism.


#43 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2003, 07:55 PM:

Terry, why did the guy go to the FBI? Overseas ops are a bit out of their area. That sounds more like a CIA matter.

Alas, as those who know me will attest, I have no use at all for the CIA.

In my opinion they couldn't infiltrate someone from Grand Central Station to the south side of 42nd Street if they had a crosswalk and a green light.

The Company is incompetent from top to bottom. It should be disestablished and a new national intelligence organization built from the ground up.

True, such a new organization wouldn't be effective for a number of years, but we won't have lost anything. The current CIA isn't effective right now. Remember, we're talking about an intelligence service that learned about the fall of the Soviet Union by seeing it on CNN.

#44 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2003, 08:50 PM:

Because the people he was worrying about were looking to commit acts of terrorism in the US. When he got the invite to one of Bin Laden's camps they talked to the CIA.

As for your comment on the Arabic course, I must disagree, at the half-way point the students (Arabic is a sixty-seven week course) are tolerably fluent.

Since the aim of DLI is to train linguists to a 2/2 (two-two) level on a scale of 0-5 (with half marks offered, so that a 2/2+ is a very good score) where a 3/3 is the highest mark one can normally attain (higher marks require a very expensive test) and is equivalent of a native speaker with a high school education.

A person with a 3/3 can pass as a native, if the accent it clean.

At the halfway mark most students (esp those who are likely to pass) can carry on day to day conversation, and it is the fine details, comfort with the language and the vocabulary which are being worked on.

The accepted rate of instruction is 9 days equals a college quarter. When I finished the Russian Basic Course I was given a transcript with 47 credit hours.

Ten years later, with a lack of practice, I still manage to test at the bottom end of 2/2.

So the Army threw away a sizable investment (Basic Training, Military Occupational Specialty training, and 30 weeks of language training).


#45 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2003, 09:12 PM:

Back when I was at DLI/FLC (in '84 -- I did Latin American Spanish), the guys in the Arabic course who had entered at the same time I did told me what I just posted above here. I was graduating, they were getting ready to start vowels. Maybe they were kidding. I wouldn't know.

#46 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 12:04 AM:

Well, to get into a bit of shop talk (and based on five months with a buch of arabic linguists) the nature of arabic is such that they probably do get to a lot of the nitty-gritty of the verb matrix later than we got to the nitty-gritty of verb pairs in Russian, but I find it hard to believe that people I know who took Arabic 1 at Pasadena City College were all the way through the alphabet and making sentences in five hours a week for 18 weeks and guys at DLI were still not done with letters after 30 weeks of 36 hours each. I don't think it takes more than 30sq hours to learn the letters.


#47 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 12:59 AM:

James D. MacDonald wrote: What happened was that some troopers figured that they were so valuable that they could publically flout lawful orders, escape punishment, and establish a precedent...The policy is "Don't ask, don't tell." [...]I'd hate to find out later what other orders they felt didn't apply to them.

In at least one case (or two, depending on how you count) this is not what happened. The two guys were in bed together when someone came in unexpectedly to get them up (IIRC one of them had missed some kind of duty call, but I can't remember what).

These guys hadn't "told." There's a difference between "telling" and "getting caught," but they were kicked out anyway. Even if you believe in that asinine policy, that's just wrong.

#48 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 01:02 AM:

Kryptonite bicycle locks...

Now, there's a stupid product. What, you think Superman is going to steal your bike?

#49 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 03:40 AM:

Was there a lawful general order that said something to the effect of "be in your own bed, alone, by 2200"? It wouldn't matter if the person they found you with was male, female, civilian or military.

This is being presented as a gay v. straight matter rather than a follows-orders v. doesn't-follow-orders matter.

And the guy missed a work detail or muster? What in the world did he expect?

If there were a lawful general order to paint the inside of your belt buckle green, and some trooper didn't paint his, and by some series of coincidences his failure came to light, he'd get gigged for it. It wouldn't be necessary for the person finding the buckle to be looking for the infraction. Once it came to his attention the finder would be required to do something about it. There isn't the wink-and-a-nod I-didn't-see-that attitude that you get with civilians.

This is a far stricter system than most civilians can imagine, based on honor and obedience. The people who can't live with it are returned to civilian life.

"Just wrong"? It's exactly right.

#50 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 07:32 AM:

From Xopher,
posted on June 30, 2003 12:59 AM:
James D. MacDonald wrote: What happened was that some troopers figured that they were so valuable that they could publically flout lawful orders, escape punishment, and establish a precedent...The policy is "Don't ask, don't tell." [...]I'd hate to find out later what other orders they felt didn't apply to them.

In at least one case (or two, depending on how you count) this is not what happened. The two guys were in bed together when someone came in unexpectedly to get them up (IIRC one of them had missed some kind of duty call, but I can't remember what).

These guys hadn't "told." There's a difference between "telling" and "getting caught," but they were kicked out anyway. Even if you believe in that asinine policy, that's just wrong.


James is right, as far as it goes. Homosexual liasons are grounds for expulsion (so, for that matter are most heterosexual servicemembers love lives, and one might be able to make a case for an equal protection violation, esp in light of Lawrence).

Since the cases you state involve no less than two violations (sleeping with someone else, and, if they confessed, sodomies) they were just waiting to be toasted.

But had they been sleeping with a member of the opposite sex no one would have asked the questions which would've led to a court-martial for sodomy. They would've gotten a mid-sized slap on the wrist and it would've been forgotten.

But the don't ask don't tell policy makes having, "a propensity," to engage in homosexual behaviour grounds for expulsion. One need not act on the desires, admitting to them is enough, even if one has not violated the reg.


#51 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 07:34 AM:

I do not think there was such an order.

If there had been, I do not think a heterosexual couple would have been kicked out of the military. Penalized, yes. Well, maybe: probably the guys going to roust the guy out of bed would not have reported it at all. (Yes, that means I don't buy your notion that there's no wink-and-nod in the military; I've read too much written by people who've been there. Maybe you were in a stricter-than-average environment, I don't know.)

I do think he should have been punished for missing whatever-it-was; but IIRC it was unintentional--so he didn't "expect" anything. He wasn't aware he was missing anything.

The order is "Don't ask, don't tell." The Army disregarded its own order by "asking," (they SHOULD have ignored the presence of the other guy - they were asleep, not in the middle of having sex), and the order was NOT "don't ask, don't get caught." So it was the guys who went to get him up (and I don't think they broke the door down or anything) who violated orders, along with everyone they reported to.

#52 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 07:42 AM:

Terry: But had they been sleeping with a member of the opposite sex no one would have asked the questions which would've led to a court-martial for sodomy. They would've gotten a mid-sized slap on the wrist and it would've been forgotten.

Near-simultaneous posts...this is my point. They "asked" the questions. THEY violated the policy of "don't ask, don't tell." If the men in question had vigorously denied it ("Hell no! Dude, he just crashed here!") they would have (in theory) gotten away with it, but no honorable person should be required to lie.

That's the whole stupidity of it. If you want people to be honorable and obedient, don't make them weaken their honor by lying (and as a gay man, let me tell you that letting people assume you're straight feels like lying, which is all that counts), and don't give them orders which are a) obviously stupid, and b) very, very hard to obey. (One or the other is OK...if 'a' were an absolute prohibition there'd be no Americans in Iraq right now!)

#53 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 08:05 AM:

Christopher makes a good point: values like "honor and obedience" are ill-served by policies such as "don't ask, don't tell." Maybe the two guys in question are culpable, maybe not; but in a larger sense the policy is corrosive to exactly the kind of conservative values that hold military organizations together.

On a different subject, Xopher: "Kryptonite" is simply the brand name for the best-selling heavy-duty bicycle chain. I dunno whether they have a license from DC Comics, but I do note that, on mine, the padlock at the end of the chain is yellow...

#54 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 08:31 AM:

It's GOLD Kryptonite!!! Why, that's even worse!!

Seriously, I think I used to have one of those locks. I was just being silly.

#55 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 11:05 AM:

Patrick's correct: The "don't ask, don't tell" policy is corrosive.

In the post-Tailhook world heterosexual relationships are also fraught.

A number of policies need to be rethought to bring them into line with reality.

Our political leaders seem to be unwilling or unable to do the rethinking. As a result, silly through counter-productive through unjust things will continue to happen.

#56 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 05:25 PM:

And as a consequence, the military is viewed by the public as silly, counterproductive and unjust, rather than obedient and honorable.

I don't think the public is wrong in this perception.

The reason they're getting our tax dollars is not to wear prissy uniforms, play Souza marches, or publish recruitment posters which are just this side of Tom of Finland in terms of gay iconography, but to protect our country.

Currently we need Arabic speakers to do that, and the interests of national security are ill served by dismissing soldiers for being gay. Or, if it's a matter of "following orders," and the order is "Don't ask, don't tell," it seems there should be a number of people fired for asking.

However, with the current state of the world, this sort of thing is not a priority, and as a citizen, I'll demand that my military work on finding terrorist and WMDs, rather than things which even the Supreme Court just ruled are none of anyone else's business.

#57 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2003, 12:49 AM:

DC does not have a trademark on Kryptonite when applied to a commerical product completely unlike magazines.

Jim: If the students of Arabic were, as you say, only starting to learn vowels after 30 weeks, then I'd take that as evidence that Arabic is really fucking hard to learn. My suspicion is, instead, that you were being had-on. Regardless, even if Arabic is really fucking hard to learn, Terry's point is the right one: no matter how close those translators were to actually being ready to serve as translators, that's a lot of training wasted.

Too bad for all of us that the people who set military policy are afraid of queers. Do you really think that someone would have been busted completely out of the service for failing to paint his belt-buckle green? I posit not.

#58 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2003, 02:39 PM:

As I understand it, that would depend on how important they've decided it is to have a green-painted belt buckle.

#59 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2003, 04:19 PM:

Kevin: Arabic is really fucking hard to learn - even for natives. While most languages are spoken with (basically) adult competence by age 7 or so, Arabic speakers don't reach this level until around 14.

Or so I was taught in Linguistics class back in my undergrad days.

#60 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2003, 04:58 PM:

And as a consequence, the military is viewed by the public as silly, counterproductive and unjust, rather than obedient and honorable.

Kevin: I'm currently on a hellish deadline and my memory for sources is fairly well fried as a result, but I seem to recall somebody, either here or over in Electrolite, fretting at some point about a survey which purported to show that a higher proportion of the American public trusted the military than they did politicians.

So I'd say that there's at least a slight possibility that you're wrong.

Of course, if you were to rephrase the comment so that it said something more to the effect that you view the military as "silly, counterproductive and unjust, rather than obedient and honorable" . . . well, at that point, I wouldn't be able to do anything other than agree with you.

#61 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2003, 08:53 PM:


Well, while I could rephrase the statement down to simply speaking for myself, it's not incorrect to say that the general public, taken as a whole, is less concerned about the gay issue than the military brass is. We've got gay college professors, libarians, cops and just about every other sort of public servant, and the public, taken as a whole, has hardly batted an eye.

Compare this to the military brass, whose freaking out is only exceeded by the Boy Scouts, then I think it's fair to say that the public, taken as a whole, is very often viewing the military as silly (to be freaking out about something so trivial), counterproductive (to be doing the same), and unjust (for kicking out gays but not the wearers of non-green belt buckles or other equally silly infractions).

Individual soldiers? That's a different matter. But individual soldiers generally do not set policy.

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