A number of news venues and weblogs (notably Electrolite, which picked it up from Arthur Silber) have commented on the recent AP story about how the FBI is urging the police to watch out for people carrying almanacs:
The FBI is warning police nationwide to be alert for people carrying almanacs, cautioning that the popular reference books covering everything from abbreviations to weather trends could be used for terrorist planning.The first thing that struck me about that story was a sense of the familiar made strange. I know Kevin Seabrooke. Yon purveyor of information to terrorists used to work in Ad Promo at Tor, during which time Editorial’s nickname for him was “Captain America”. Next to Kevin, Norman Rockwell paintings look faintly debauched. It’s truly weird to run across him in the context of a nationwide FBI alert. On the other hand, it means there’s at least one quote in the story I can believe without question—not that I’d have thought anything else of the World Almanac.
In a bulletin sent Christmas Eve to about 18,000 police organizations, the FBI said terrorists may use almanacs “to assist with target selection and pre-operational planning.” It urged officers to watch during searches, traffic stops and other investigations for anyone carrying almanacs, especially if the books are annotated in suspicious ways.
“The practice of researching potential targets is consistent with known methods of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations that seek to maximize the likelihood of operational success through careful planning,” the FBI wrote.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the bulletin this week and verified its authenticity.
“For local law enforcement, it’s just to help give them one more piece of information to raise their suspicions,” said David Heyman, a terrorism expert for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It helps make sure one more bad guy doesn’t get away from a traffic stop, maybe gives police a little bit more reason to follow up on this.”
The FBI noted that use of almanacs or maps may be innocent, “the product of legitimate recreational or commercial activities.” But it warned that when combined with suspicious behavior — such as apparent surveillance — a person with an almanac “may point to possible terrorist planning.”
“I don’t think anyone would consider us a harmful entity,” said Kevin Seabrooke, senior editor of The World Almanac. He said the reference book includes about a dozen pages out of its 1,000 pages total listing the world’s tallest buildings and bridges but includes no diagrams or architectural schematics. “It’s stuff that’s widely available on the Internet,” he said.
The publisher for The Old Farmers Almanac said Monday terrorists would probably find statistical reference books more useful than the collections of Americana in his famous publication of weather predictions and witticisms.
“While we doubt that our editorial content would be of particular interest to people who would wish to do us harm, we will certainly cooperate to the fullest with national authorities at any level they deem appropriate,” publisher John Pierce said.
The FBI said information typically found in almanacs that could be useful for terrorists includes profiles of cities and states and information about waterways, bridges, dams, reservoirs, tunnels, buildings and landmarks. It said this information is often accompanied by photographs and maps.The FBI urged police to report such discoveries to the local U.S. Joint Terrorism Task Force.
That aside, this is just a phenomenally dumb move. The old hardcover family almanacs might or might not have gotten annotated, but your modern year-by-year trade paperback almanacs certainly do. If someone’s carrying an almanac around with them, there’s a good chance they’ll have jotted down notes in it. Who’s this going to catch? Schoolteachers. People with children. The more earnest sort of traveler. The last person I saw annotating an almanac in public was a nice woman who turned out to be a professional tour guide. One of her routes covers various sites and sights in my Brooklyn neighborhood. She was annotating her book because she’d just been out checking her route for changes.
What scares me, though, is how specifically the FBI has targeted almanacs, and how they haven’t mentioned travel guidebooks, high-resolution terrain maps, architectural guides, government directories, maps of underground water, power, and transit systems, lists of major industrial sites, the Yellow Pages for pete’s sake, or any of the other references that might reasonably be used at that stage.
I’m not just alarmed because this lets hypothetical terrorists escape scrutiny by taking their notes in a travel guide instead of an almanac. If you want to see how someone does research, look at how they imagine someone else doing it. If the almanac is the only documentation that comes to the FBI’s collective mind when they visualize potential terrorists engaged in “target selection and pre-operational planning,” what that suggests is that almanacs are pretty much what they’re working from when they’re doing their own target selection and pre-operational planning.
That’s unsettling. Almanacs are a great resource, a good place to start your research, but they’re the very definition of “general information.” Somehow, I feel as though I’d just found out that FBI agents were all recruited from the kids who did their class reports by copying stuff out of the encyclopedia.