Charles Faddis spent years thinking like a terrorist when he worked for the CIA, looking for vulnerabilities in other nations' infrastructure and learning how to exploit them. Now a private consultant, he writes in his most recent book, Willful Neglect: The Dangerous Illusion of Homeland Security, that the country is surprisingly vulnerable to a catastrophic terrorist attack. Just days before the attacks against the Moscow subway, he talked with U.S. News about potential gaps in homeland defenses, particularly public transportation. Excerpts:
You mention military bases as being at risk for an attack. What other facilities are at risk?
There are many types of installations that could be attacked to produce catastrophic results: liquid natural gas facilities, dams, rail and metro systems, hotels, bio research facilities, and the like. I went target set by target set and did research on them. I went out on the ground and started looking at examples of these facilities and having a look at the security. I went out and cased these facilities for at least a year, doing multiple casings a week of different targets. I was only turned away once.
Should you have been questioned?
Yes, undisputably. I didn't use operational techniques, go in disguise, for instance. I deliberately didn't use any secret tactics, sneaking around or the like. And I didn't break any laws in reporting this book. I wasn't playing games or anything. Most of it was just walking around the perimeter of these places.
What did you find?
We're not nearly as well protected as we need to be. It's not like there have been significant changes since 9/11 and I am debating if those measures are allocated in the right ways. In the vast majority of cases, absolutely nothing has changed since 9/11. Many security people are now billing themselves as counterterrorism specialists, whatever that means. But they have no idea how terrorists think or operate. What has happened is that we have lots of measures designed to prevent traditional security threats like vandalism, crimes where people are afraid to get caught. Those measures have very little to do with stopping a suicide attack, but we're putting them in place anyway. We're spending lots of money on things that are, in essence, corporate welfare. And we're leaving lots of simple, practical solutions untouched.
What are some of the useless measures?
Cameras are a great example. Sure, securing a chemical plant, for instance, involves [protecting against] many threats, vandalism, theft, and all sorts of other things. But if you are guarding against a car bomb or a truck bomb, a camera is a totally irrelevant piece of equipment. If a truck filled with explosives is driving towards your chlorine tank at 50 miles per hour, a camera is useless. The guy driving the truck doesn't care if his face is recorded, because he isn't planning to survive the attack. It might even help the bomber by recording the attack for publication.
That's exactly right. So, we need to think more about the threat we face rather than the threats we'd like to be facing.
Even the military gets it wrong. There are many military bases here in the U.S. where you just drive right up to a wooden swinging gate and show a photo ID to the guard. That is not even going to slow down the driver of a car filled with explosives with his foot on the gas pedal and planning to detonate himself inside the compound.
Since you left the CIA, you do consulting. Do you have any monetary interests here?
I do have a consulting business, but I don't have clients that I write about in the book. This is not a way to drum up business, and it's not written for security professionals.
Are low- or high-tech attacks more likely?
Both are dangerous, and both are likely. We have people who are self-radicalizing. The Fort Hood shooter, JihadJane, the guys in New Jersey, the subway bomb plotter in New York, the list goes on. We are still facing threats that are bent on conducting attacks, be they foreigners or domestic threats.
Why do they choose the targets they do?
The first element is the psychology of what they are trying to accomplish. They are trying to terrify and scare you. The more attention it gets, the better. The Mumbai attacks were great, from their point of view, because it was dragged out for days and days by the media, even as it was going on. It's also based on fortuitous circumstances. Terrorists are not going to go after very, very well-secured areas. They aren't planning to attack a building like the Navy SEALs. They start with places where they already have a certain amount of access.
The Department of Homeland Security would say that we can't protect everything.
Of course that's true, but it's also used as a way to dismiss all criticism. We need to do a better job securing the places that have a potential to produce mass casualties. That should be a priority. Is that going to stop terrorists from driving a truck bomb into a McDonald's? No. But it should stop them from driving that truck bomb into a chemical plant and killing thousands.
What's your worst fear?
Passenger rail. Something like Madrid or London. Some version of those types of attack would shut down the New York metro, cripple the city, paralyze the Northeast, kill hundreds, wound many more. Such an attack wouldn't even require someone to commit suicide. There's currently nothing in place to stop that. Every day that goes by without that happening is a free pass in my mind.