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Securing territory with technology: Q&A with former DHS official Jack Thomas Tomarchio

Jack Thomas Tomarchio

Editor’s note: Jack Thomas Tomarchio is the former Principal Deputy Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis Operations for DHS. He currently serves as a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and is a television commentator, writer and speaker on national security issue. He is a member of the board of directors of SightLogix Corp. and serves on the board of advisors of Data Vision Group, LLC and A2BTracking Corp.

QUESTION: From a homeland security point of view, what stands out most about the bombings at the Boston Marathon?

JTT: One thing that is very striking about the Boston Massacre attacks is that this is the first time since September 11, 2001 that we’ve had a successful terrorist attack in the homeland that has resulted in the loss of life. I don’t know if I want to go as far as saying that is a game changer, but it’s a very significant development. As you know, we’ve had many attempted attacks in the past. We’ve had the Christmas Day 2009 attempt on Northwest Airlines Flight 234 over Detroit by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, known as the underwear bomber. We’ve had the attempt using an explosive device in Times Square by Faisal Shahzad. We’ve had the shoe bomber attempt by Richard Reid, who tried to detonate explosives packed into the shoes he was wearing on an American Airlines flight to Miami.

We’ve had other attacks that haven’t been successful. The single other attack that has been successful, besides the Boston Massacre, was the attack at Fort Hood by Major Nidal Hassan, who acting alone and with automatic weapons did kill a number of soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. Still, this is the first terrorist attack using an explosive device intended to produce mass casualties that’s been successful, and I think that makes it a very significant development in the terrorism genre.

How did the Boston Marathon bombings differ from criminal acts like the shooting in the movie theater in Aurora, CO, or the Newtown, CT, school tragedy?

Those two unfortunate events were the result of individuals who appear to have had a significant mental illness or some type of diminished capacity. In the case of Adam Lanza, he was a young man that apparently was so mentally ill that he essentially had to stay in his house, but unfortunately he had a house in which there was a substantial stash of automatic weapons. In the Aurora Colorado case, James Holmes, a graduate student in neuroscience, had also exhibited behavior issues. So those cases were different in that they were committed by perpetrators who seemed to be suffering some type of mental illness that caused them to commit thecrime. In the Boston attack we have two seemingly rational individuals, who, at least as we’re learning now from the interrogation of the surviving attacker, did this for some type of political reason, or as he informed his interrogators yesterday -- to defend Islam. So, these appeared to be attackers who were radicalized over the Internet and decided that it was incumbent upon them to commit a terrorist attack, either to commit to Jihad or to defend the Muslim faith.

What would you say that many of these events have in common?

Well, I think certainly they do have some things in common. The Boston attacks took place in what I would call a “soft target,” in which there were a lot of people but the security -- although not lax -- was maybe a little less stringent, because this was an open sporting event. You can’t really clamp down on an event like that, so the attack modality here was a couple of guys coming in with improvised explosive devices, essentially anti-personnel bombs filled with BBs and nails and other types of shrapnel, used for maximum effect to take out human beings in close rane.

This is a classic terrorist tool; we’ve seen this for years in places like Iraq, in places like Israel, in places like Afghanistan, even in places like India where the Tamil Tigers for many years were attacking targets in the Indian subcontinent.

Do you think that this idea of attacking soft targets, as opposed to something more securable, like a stadium or an airplane, is a trend?

Well, it certainly represents a harder target to secure. You know, when you’re dealing with an airplane, when you’re dealing with an enclosed structure -- a building, an indoor stadium -- you can usually control ingress and egress pretty easily. But, when you’re dealing with an open-air forum like an athletic event, that’s not even a stadium, there’s no entry gate, there are just people out in the streets.

Or when you’re dealing with a lower level type of event, maybe a golf game or a soccer game, or a high school football game where security is historically lax and where you want people to mingle as part of the experience, this represents a much tougher challenge for security and law enforcement to ensure that someone carrying a device or a weapon doesn’t get there and start taking out targets. So it’s a greater challenge. To answer your question, will it represent a new trend? I don’t know yet. I think it’s too early to tell.

Unfortunately, in the past we have seen that terrorists are often copycats. They look and see what’s worked before and they then adopt those tactics for their future operations. So, whether someone will get the idea that they should attack another marathon or race or crew regatta, where there are a lot of people remains to be seen. Looking at the past as a teacher, we have seen unfortunately that when something works once, terrorists usually like to go back and try it again. That’s disturbing.

There have been a number of news articles since this event that talk about technology that could prevent a tragedy like this. Do you think there’s any validity to this claim?

I think that every time we have one of these events we try to look for a technological solution. I do think that while in many cases technology will be part of the answer, it is not the only answer. We can’t completely terrorist-proof or crime-proof any place; we’d have to live in a society that would be something out of 198, and it would be a very difficult place to live in. I think our free and open society is an asset to our national culture.

Rather, there will be -- and there are -- technological solutions that can be brought to bear to harden some of these historically soft targets. I think that we will have to turn to some new technological solutions in the future. Those solutions run the gamut from very active to somewhat intrusive solutions, including X-ray machines and machines that could possibly trace odors, certain chemicals that might be used in explosives, to more passive technological solutions, like increased use of video surveillance or the increased use of thermal imagery. Those things, which I think in many cases the public is unaware of, will also probably be utilized in trying to address these challenges.

There have been some claims in the wake of the bombings that object-left-behind technology and face recognition technology could be helpful. What do you think about that?

Yes, I think those are great examples, especially in the area of facial recognition, which I’m fairly familiar with. Great strides have been made in that area with increasing pixel resolution and using certain algorithms to identify individuals. I think that there is a tremendous future for that type of technology, certainly even other technologies, such as looking at a person’s gait, how they act, certain psycho-social type of technologies -- there are actually algorithms for that -- to determine how a person’s activities may or may not indicate suspicious activity. I’ve also seen technologies that try to get a read on an individual and whether he’s perspiring or not. Some of those technologies have been very problematic, especially in the sporting environment. But they have been trying to utilize those in certain airport types of security solutions. There’s a whole raft of different things that are now on the market or are being developed, and I think that Boston will act as an accelerator to this technological development.

How did video surveillance technology help in actually apprehending these bombers?

Well certainly that was a huge game changer for law enforcement. The use of cameras here obviously identified the faces of these two suspects. I actually went on TV the day that those photographs were released by the FBI and said that these two men had about 12 to 24 hours of freedom or life left. That turned out to be true, because once video from the surveillance cameras fixed to buildings, along with images from people’s cell phones at the event and other videos of the event that were harvested captured these two men, they really had no place to go and no place to hide -- their time was up. There were literally thousands of images of the Boston Marathon that were looked at by the FBI in assembling this montage of photographs.

Certainly that’s a very important aspect of the solution that will help secure venues like that because now we have so much video and photographic evidence. So I think you’re going to see personal cameras and videos coupled with the use of industrial or stationary building security cameras to be a valuable tool in the future, not only for securing an open type environment like this, but also for harvesting evidence and eventually identifying the perpetrators.

Still, ultimately, we needed millions of eyes on the photographs and video to actually figure out who these individuals were. Is there a more advanced technology solution that helped to apprehend the bombers?

Well, in this case we saw the use of thermal imagery which is not actually a new technology. It’s been utilized for awhile and most effectively in combat theaters of operation, most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, but mainly in Afghanistan where our military forces utilizing drone technology and airborne technology from helicopters and aircrafts are able to take a thermal scan of an area of operations and locate moving bodies, due to their heat signature.

In the case of Boston we saw that where the second shooter was hiding out in a boat covered with a plastic tarp, helicopters’ aerial surveillance was able to pick up his heat signature inside the boat, which led the SWAT team to their man for apprehension. This is a very powerful technology that has been primarily used with great success for military operations, and which has become affordable in hand-held solutions for law enforcement purposes. In Boston, we saw it used for criminal apprehension and the use of this thermal imagery is a very, very powerful tool.

Can you speak a little bit to other ways that thermal technology can contribute to security operations, beyond what we have already discussed?

Certainly another way to do that is in the area of perimeter defense. For example, let’s say you want to secure the perimeter of a building or make sure that people aren’t trespassing or coming into a certain area that might be off-limits, or that you want to have a security buffer zone set up. Using this technology, you can very accurately detect individuals using a smart thermal sensor. That sensor, coupled with a higher-resolution camera such as a PTZ, gives you a photograph of an individual in real time and later on, from an optical sense and from a thermal sense, it gives you better certainty of who the individuals are, where they are, distance, and what they’re doing. So it’s another tool in the tool kit for securing a perimeter or an area, and it can automatically detect when people are where they are not supposed to be, with a high degree of accuracy and at costs that now make sense for commercial use.

With budgets under such extreme scrutiny right now, is it realistic for municipalities to be looking at these kinds of new technologies?

Certainly we’re under a time of very lean budgets and no one feels that pinch more than municipalities and local law enforcement, but I think that one of the lessons that’s been learned in the events of the past year, with activities or actions like Newtown, Connecticut and now the Boston Massacre bombings, is that the threat -- whether it be a criminal-inspired threat or a terrorist-inspired threat -- is real and it’s pervasive. And while we don’t live in a society like some of the places we’ve seen in Afghanistan or the Middle East, there are certainly a number of threats out there. I think when you have a high profile event like Boston or a situation with school shootings, for example like Virginia Tech, colleges, universities and municipalities are going to understand that we need a solution for this, because no place, no city, no town, is immune and it’s going to continue to happen.

Again, it’s not an epidemic, but it’s happening enough that people realize there are individuals out there who want to cause mass casualties. So, I think that what things like Boston have done and I think that what we’ve seen with Newtown, with a lot of the failed legislation for gun control, is that they spur politicians and governments to action. What you’ll see in the wake of Boston is a renewed sense that we have to secure these events, we have to find technologies that are not overly invasive, but that quietly and confidently protect the safety of our citizens and allow us to still to freely associate and enjoy ourselves. Certainly if I were an emergency planner or chief of police in a major metropolitan area I would be thinking that we need to get some solutions here to harden these targets. Fortunately, costs for effective solutions like thermal cameras are continuing to drop. I think money will be found.

Given that money is limited and that we can’t put a perimeter fence around the entire Boston Marathon route and have people go through metal detectors to go through it, what would make sense for applications with open areas? In light of everything that’s available and also effective, what makes sense right now for people to be looking at?

A couple of things. One, I think you have to look to see what type of technology is available and affordable that will provide wide-scope coverage of a large open area with video analytics tools. It will need to give law enforcement a clear view of the area that they’re concerned about, to allow them to harvest potential evidence, so that should an action occur or an attack occur or a crime occur, they’ll have the ability to use good, affordable video analytics.

There will also need to be changes in some of the procedures that accompany putting on these different events, with increased security. For example, trash cans will be removed from a longer route of a race, so that people can’t drop a bomb in the trash can. There will probably be increased use of sniffer dogs and certainly there will be increased public awareness, as the New York police say, “If you see something, say something.” We are really going to need a holistic approach to the problem. All the expensive cameras and technological devices and photo recognition and photo imagery are great, but that alone will not be the answer to the solution. It’s got to be holistic. It’s got to be the use of technology, the use of better physical security and procedures and public awareness, so the public knows that they’re part of the fight to secure the area that they’re enjoying. I think this will be key to trying to solve this problem.


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