Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pennsylvania rejects Israeli "security" firm

ALL'S not well in the security game. Firms must have been rubbing their hands at prospects opened by outsourcing and the "War on Terror". Even my old employers graduated from providing night watchmen and parking attendants to delivering prisoners, in big new vehicles.

It's a global business too. I went into one west Middlesex hospital a few years ago and found the security, though based in a temporary wooden shed, were owned by by some firm based in Texas. They may have only been pretending they did not know much, so I'll resist saying anything about cowboys.

But it makes you wonder how politicians keep a straight face when insisting we need the private sector to create wealth after the public sector has been squandering it. Considering how keen they are to let their friends in the private sector move into money-making opportunities from the public services.

With the likelihoods of reduced police numbers and increased crimes coming from this government's policies, there could be more opportunities coming. But even in America, with its private prisons, and XE Services (Blackwater as was) toting guns in New Orleans as well as Iraq, its not all plain sailing.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has just ordered his state's Homeland Security director to cancel a $125,000 contract with an outfit called the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR). The Associated Press reports:

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Information about an anti-BP candlelight vigil, a gay and lesbian festival and other peaceful gatherings became the subject of anti-terrorism bulletins being distributed by Pennsylvania's homeland security office, an apologetic Gov. Ed Rendell admitted.

Rendell, who claimed he'd just learned about the practice, said Tuesday that the information was useless to law enforcement agencies and that distributing it was tantamount to trampling on constitutional rights. In recent weeks, several acts of vandalism at drilling sites spurred the inclusion of events likely to be attended by environmentalists and the bulletins began going to representatives of Pennsylvania's booming natural gas industry.

A Philadelphia rally organized by a nonprofit group to support Rendell's push for higher spending on public schools even made a bulletin, as did drilling protests at a couple of Rendell's news conferences this month as he toured the state to boost support for a tax on the natural gas industry.

"I am deeply embarrassed and I apologize to any of the groups who had this information disseminated on their right to peacefully protest," Rendell said at an evening Capitol news conference.

Rendell called the practice "ludicrous" and said the fact that the state was paying for such rudimentary information was "stunning."

Still, Rendell said he was not firing his homeland security director, James Powers, but he ordered an end to the $125,000 contract with the Philadelphia-based organization, the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, that supplied the information.

What AP did not mention is that ITRR is an Israeli "security" and "anti-terrorism" company -- and like most of such companies has close ties to Israeli military and intelligence. On ITRR's website it describes itself as "the pre-eminent Israeli/American security firm providing training, intelligence and education to clients across the globe."

As for training it boasts that "All ITRR courses are approved by the Israeli Ministry of Defense." ITRR lists among its "partners" such groups as "The Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute" and it lists its offices in Philadelphia and Jerusalem. ITRR also shockingly is a "partner" of Philadelphia University.

Thanks to Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Intifada for noticing this

Israeli officers and politicians - and many of the politicians begin as officers - have long been used to halting questions with the one word "bitachon" - security. Another trick is to rope in the naive, or those wishing to pretend naivity, into your confidence, supposedly, by imparting to them some privileged information, which would damn your targets, and exonerate you, if you were but free to disclose it.

Israeli military and security personnel have a history of involvement in America's backyard, Latin America and parts of Asia, either as sub-contractor for the CIA or directly for dictators, and they must be used to having the ear of politicians whom they provide with dirt on their opponents. But it seems in Pennsylvania the game is not so simple.

In any case, the myth of Israeli security expertise and infallibility took some knocks in the past year.

On Christmas Day, 2009, a Dutch passenger, Jasper Schuringa, on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit, heard some popping noises and saw smoke coming from the passenger a few seats in front. Scrambling over the seats, Schuringa grabbed a burning object which the man had between his legs, and managed to haul the man to the back of the plane while others put out the fire.

The man who had made the botched attempt to destroy the plane, an airbus with nearly 300 people on board, was arrested at Detroit and taken to hospital for treatment to his serious burns. Schuringa and another passenger also needed treatment. The would-be bomber was identified as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year old Nigerian who had allegedly joined Islamicist mujahaddin in Yemen.

On November 11, 2009, British intelligence had sent the U.S. a message indicating that a man named "Umar Farouk" had spoken to Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim spiritual leader supposedly tied to al-Qaeda, pledging to support jihad, but the notice did not mention Abdulmutallab's last name. Umar's own father, a Nigerian businessman, had been worried enough at what his son was getting mixed up in that he made a report to two CIA officers at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, on November 19, and told the embassy that Abdulmutallab might be in Yemen. Abdulmutallab's name was added in November 2009 to the U.S.'s 550,000-name Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, a database of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center. It was not added, however, to the FBI's 400,000-name Terrorist Screening Database, the terror watch list that feeds both the 14,000-name Secondary Screening Selectee list and the U.S.'s 4,000-name No Fly List.[81] Abdulmutallab's U.S. visa was not revoked either.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said several times on Sunday talk shows that "the system had worked", a statement that engendered some controversy. The next day they retracted the statements, saying that the system had in fact "failed miserably." Neapolitano had said the system did work once the incident occurred. Evidently all you need to make air travel safe is a brave Dutch passenger on every plane.

President Obama said publicly that Abdulmutallab's ability to board the aircraft was the result of a systemic failure that included an inadequate sharing of information among U.S. and foreign government agencies. He called the situation "totally unacceptable." He ordered that a report be delivered detailing how some government agencies had failed to share or highlight potentially relevant information about the suspect before he allegedly tried to blow up the airliner.

On January 27, 2010, an official from the U.S. State Department said that Abdulmutallab's visa was not revoked because federal authorities believed that it would have compromised a larger investigation. The official, Patrick F. Kennedy, said intelligence officials had told the State Department that letting Abdulmutallab keep his visa would allow for a greater chance of exposing the terrorist network.

In Britain, some of the media had gone into a frenzy, variously denouncing Yemen (actually a victim of terrorism and destabilisation) and University College London (where Abdulmutallab had studied) as havens of extremism.

Meanwhile, there were recriminations between security companies over what happened at Schipol. The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported:
"The Israeli firm ICTS International (not to be confused with ICTS Europe, which is a different company), and two of its subsidiaries are at the crux of an international investigation in recent days, as experts try to pinpoint the reasons for the security failure that enabled Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board Northwest flight 253 and attempt to set alight explosives hidden in his underwear.

A Haaretz investigation has learned that the security officers and their supervisor should have suspected the passenger, even without having early intelligence available to them.

At this time, ICTS and the Dutch security firm G4S are hurling recriminations at each other, as are the authorities at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, the Federal Aviation Authority and U.S. intelligence officials.

The failure was a twin flop: An intelligence failure, which U.S. President Barack Obama has already stated, in the poor handling of information that arrived at the State Department and probably also the CIA from both the father of the would-be bomber and the British security service; and a failure within the security system, including that of the Israeli firm ICTS.

The ICTS daughter company, I-SEC, has another daughter company - called PI (Pro-Check International). The firms provide security services to airports: consultation, instruction, training, inspection and supervision.

Two decades ago, ICTS adopted the system used in Israel, namely of profiling and assessing the degree to which a passenger is a potential threat on the basis of a number indicators (including age, name, origin and behavior during questioning). At the same time, a decade ago, the company developed a technological system called APS (Advanced Passenger Screening).

This system is based on a computerized algorithm, and is fed passenger information from the airline company. The system was offered to the Israel Airports Authority and the Shin Bet in the past, but rejected. According to the company's Web site, most of the large airlines in the United States use the system.

However - in real time - the system of ICTS failed. Even if U.S. intelligence failed and the name of the Nigerian passenger was not pinpointed as a suspect for the airline, he should have stirred the suspicion of the security officers. His age, name, illogical travel route, high-priced ticket purchased at the last minute, his boarding without luggage (only a carry on) and many other signs should have been sufficient to alert the security officers and warrant further examination of the suspect.

However, the security supervisor representing I-SEC and PI allowed him to get on the flight.

ICTS was established in 1982 by former members of the Shin Bet and El Al security. Menachem Atzmon, who has been chairman of the board of directors since 2004, holds the controlling shares in the firm.

The ICTS headquarters are in the Netherlands and the company is traded in the New York Stock Exchange. Some senior managers are Israeli, including the joint managing director Ran Langer.

Another important figure is Doron Zicher, general manager of I-SEC. Zicher has been in charge of operations in the Netherlands for more than two decades and has served as adviser to the Dutch Justice Ministry, which is responsible for setting guidelines for airport security.

The company prides itself on employing 1,300 persons and providing security services to airports in 11 countries including France, Britain, Spain, Hungary, Romania and Russia.

As well as the insight into methods, and pointing out how wide was ICTS interest, the Israeli paper also carried an article showing how capitalist aims for profit affect security, like other provisions, in this case at Israel's own main airport:

Haaretz probe: Israel airport security often carried out by untrained employees
New firm responsible for security checks pays lower wages, has trouble finding experienced employees.
By Zohar Blumenkrantz

As airports the world over tighten their security following the attempted Christmas bombing on a Northwest Airlines plane, the final security check at Ben-Gurion International Airport is being carried out by employees who have not been trained for the job, Haaretz has learned.

This month, the airport has been lacking professional security officers, because the new firm responsible for examining passengers and their carry-on luggage does not have enough staff.

The Airports Authority has been using its own staff to compensate for the lack of manpower, but some of these people did not receive the training to carry out the security checks necessary, security officers told Haaretz.

This is the last, most important security check, directly prior to embarkation. At this point, passengers have passed the first security interview and received a boarding pass, and said good-bye to anyone who is not traveling.

Here, passengers pass through a metal detector, and their carry-on luggage is scanned.

Until now, the check was carried out by L.M., a private firm, but in January, the role passed to another firm, Hatama.

Hatama, which won the Airports Authority tender, pays lower wages, and as a result is having trouble finding experienced, trained employees.

Many employees of L.M. refused to work for Hatama for lower pay. The Airports Authority staff members filling in the gaps generally work interviewing passengers and checking luggage. Only a few are trained to handle the X-ray machines used to scan carry-on bags.

The Airports Authority is responsible for teaching the private firms' staff how to use the X-ray machines. However, in at least one incident last week, untrained staff members were asked to operate the machines.

According to a security officer who spoke on condition of anonymity, the reinforcement employees received a short overview of the machine, which they then proceeded to operate.

"Special training is required to operate the X-ray machine," the officer told Haaretz. "But the rushed training that we underwent last week was a joke. I'm afraid I will be asked to do a job I do not know how to do, and that I will be unable to identify suspicious objects in passengers' hand luggage."

Other security officers complained that they are overworked because they have to make up for the lack of staff.

In response the Airports Authority said that passengers' security is "a primary concern," and that "all security checks are carried out by professional and trained personnel, with no exceptions."

But for many people, what may come as a surprise is the extent to which Israeli companies have established themselves in the security game in various countries, at airports and docks and more generally. Presumably what they offer for sale, as with technology, is expertise gained while maintaining a 43-year long military occupation. In Pennsylvania, it appears, they assumed they should operate with the same kind of politics.

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