I want to be clear about my background before my commentary on this week long bombscare that’s gripping the nation: I’ve served in the Secret Service Uniformed Division posted at the White House for 12 years, federal law enforcement for 29 years, but especially as a “Flying FAM” in the Federal Air Marshal Service, I received advanced and unique explosive training. It’s an unofficial motto for FAMS that “there is no backup at 30,000 feet in the air,” therefore Air Marshals are trained to identify and dispose of or at worst “mitigate” explosives while flying at cruising altitude. I won't go into more details.
Normally, on Earth, the protocol for suspected bombs is: evacuate, cordone off, and then the bomb squad or EOD team takes over but as a Federal Air Marshal, we were unique in that, if I encountered this exact device at 30,000 feet, my partners and I would deal with it on our own. So lets get real about this scare— and it's only that; this is just a big scare-- but that's the danger and we're inadequately equipped to deal with the increasing problem that is far to convenient for terrorists to employ.
This week over a dozen devices that appear to be bombs have been sent to key Democratic Party figure heads in USPS parcels. It is the leading new story this week. I say “appear to be bombs” because for anyone with a trained eye, these bombs are amateurish at best. These devices are a disjointed collage of bomb-like components— though the primary suspect has been apprehended and I won't use his name for ethical reasons-- the perpetrator is either seriously mentally ill or the scare alone was his goal.
Everyone who has any legitimate training in explosives has been holding their tongue. It’s time to say what we’ve all wanted to: these bombs are designed to scare: to cause evacuations, terror, lock down areas, but not to go explode— This doesn’t mean that they aren’t extremely dangerous, but the real danger is not what you might think. It is also something we need to prepare for that we haven’t.
This device was designed to look like a bomb out of a Hollywood movie— the clock, no end caps, and electrical tape? Give me a break.
The truth is, most professional bombs look nothing like what you see in a Hollywood movie— and no I don’t want to go into details. This perpetrator(s) did zero to cover his tracks from investigators. Any additional compatriots will be hunted down in days if not hours. This scenario is lukewarm compared to the scenarios law enforcement prepares for. For law enforcement this is just another day at work and, for some, welcome overtime pay.
Ignoring the suspicious stamps and the mailers, the cost of sending these "scare bombs" was probably no more than $100, but for the businesses that had to evacuate the cost is substantial and for the intended targets the psychological damage is severe.
Not one bomb went off. 100% of the evidence has been retained (with the exception of some that law enforcement have chosen to conduct controlled detonations on). This reveals that these scare-bombs were the work of an absolute amateur or were designed to cause terror. So, a week from now, in hindsight, we will find that the actual danger was not the device itself, but the cost of reacting to the device.
Obviously, just like law enforcement treats firearms as if they are real and loaded until proven otherwise, suspicious packages are always treated like legitimate and highly dangerous explosives. The most lethal danger from this specific incident would be complacency— because the next time the explosive might actually be real, made by a competent bomb-maker, and designed to kill.
The terror for this attack lies not in lives lost but the financial and psychological damages caused by how we react to them-- so we must change how we react to mitigate those damages.
The pundits are steeped in hyperbole for ratings. That’s not cynism. Having worked in the Secret Service and the Federal Air Marshal Service and part of Department of Homeland Security and having been abreast to all the threats the country faces, Bomb scares come in the forms of threatening phone calls, unattended luggage, and hoax devices and it's something law enforcement contends with every day in this country.
Most of the time these are hollow threats, but sometimes the bombs are very real. Today, we are prepared for real bombs, but we are inadequately prepared for fakes and hollow bomb threats. Law enforcement can say they don’t care about the financial and psychological damage that hoaxes cause but it’s highly counter-productive. Our reaction has lead to more and more threats! The United States has a policy of not negotiating with terrorism, but if the attack is psychological in nature, than the evacuation, cordoned off area, and investigation can be exactly what the terrorist intended— in essence, by not preparing for hoaxes, we are giving terrorists the opportunity to terrorize our societies.
Media companies, politicians, celebrities, and many private citizens receive real and fake explosives. The Secret Service, as I wrote of in Secrets of the Secret Service, has been dealing with the issue of mailed-bombs for over 100 years.
So how can celebrities, politicians, media companies and all big companies save themselves from hostile hoax acts?
1st, accept that if you are an extremely popular public figure or company, these kinds of things will happen. Like addiction, acceptance is the first step.
2nd, hire a private security company to screen and open parcels. Just like some companies decided creating their own internal legal representation is the most cost effective, some companies may want to create their own team and mail room to screen and open all parcels. In doing this, if and when a suspicious device or bomb or powder substance is discovered, the danger is only in the mail area and to employees that consented to the dangers of the job. Schools may want to consider similar strategies as we’ve seen numerous schools, especially Jewish schools, beleaguered by bomb threats for even weeks on end.
3rd, Most companies agree to a policy of not disclosing threats made to them because law enforcement believes it will hamper investigations (which is true) and because the victims understand that popularizing the issue will lead to more threats, suspicious packages, and all manner of dangerous attention.
So, part of the solution is to not popularize such attackers, be they active shooters or bomb makers. The Daily Mail is the only publication, to my knowledge, that refuses to publish the names of active killers and others should follow suit, but this decision comes from the media parent companies and not the individual writers themselves— I know this firsthand and I’m not happy about it.
4th, private citizens, companies, and government employees/politicians must take greater responsibility for dealing with threats they know are coming in the future-- and stop treating it like it's solely a problem for police. How do we know if something will occur in the future? Well, has it happened in the past? If yes, then preparations must be made.
The Secret Service learned this long ago. The White House mail room used to be underneath the Oval Office! If one of the mail bombs that had been sent to the president (and there were bombs) detonated in the White House mail room, it would have blown the President and his Office sky high. So? The Secret Service moved the mail room and uses many policies to screen mail.
This was an example where we didn't wait until we had a dead president to make the necessary changes. For some threats in Secret Service history, we haven't always been so proactive. If we plan in advance our solutions can be well thought out enough that they will be hardly interruptive! But if we are reactive, the solutions are extremely cumbersome. Just look at TSA today and our post 9/11 airports! Security needs to be at least a budget item but it must be done in a way that treats law enforcement as backup, as in "here comes the calvary." Our security apparatus' within private businesses need to be ready to receive problems. Wouldn't it be better if
We need to face reality, the Boston Marathon Bombers, two college males with minimal training put a city under martial law with their terror for several days and caused multiple casualties. As far back as New York City’s “Mad Bomber” in the 1950’s, New York has faced parcel bombs.
5th, the story of “Clock Boy,” the young teenager who was suspected of bringing a bomb to school, and how that incident was handled by the media and the cow-tailing school administration struck trepidation into the country for reporting suspicious behaviors and items. The truth is the Department of Homeland Security’s #SeeSomethingSaySomething public awareness strategy of treating civilians who are situationally aware as security assets thwarted the New York Times Square bombing attempt— and that actually was a very serious car-sized bomb— and it has thwarted many others. We need to hold in indemnity citizens who, in good faith, attempt to do the right thing and report suspicious people or items to police, just like a citizen is free of liability for giving life-saving CPR but who breaks ribs in the process.
With these five steps and realizing the the hoax and our response must be treated seriously, we can reduce the amount of threats and bombs/ bomb-scares and their damages on our country and economy.