Eric Rudolph and The Lone Wolf

September 19th, 2007 § Comments Off § permalink

Eric Rudolph Composite SketchI have often suggested that Eric Rudolph, who for five years successfully evaded the largest federal manhunt in U.S. history–until he surrendered himself to a rookie sheriff’s deputy in the alley behind a local supermarket, exemplifies the modern fugitive. The fugitive summons forth the great machinery of government: scores of armed agents, ballistic tests and DNA samples, barking dogs, search ‘copters, infrared flybys. And as he eludes it all, he becomes legendary, a folk hero. No matter how heinous his crimes, the figure of the fugitive is alluring. Alluring, because a lone figure trumps the power of the state. Alluring, because he just disappears. And that is something that is increasingly impossible in today’s world.

Given my interest in Rudolph, I devoured Maryanne Vollers recent journalistic account of the lengthy Rudolph investigation, Lone Wolf: Eric Rudolph: Murder, Myth, and the Pursuit of an American Outlaw. Vollers incorporates hundreds of sources, including conversations with many of the lead investigators, Rudolph’s family, and written interviews with Rudolph himself. The book is enlightening in many ways, especially Vollers’ behind-the-scenes descriptions of the ego battles and in-fighting between government agencies, some of which probably contributed to Rudolph’s initial escape into the mountains of western North Carolina.

Vollers’ account is riveting, in part because it reads like a police procedural–an extended episode of Law & Order. However, this blow-by-blow treatment of the Rudolph investigation and trial contributes to the book’s greatest weakness, which is its light treatment of Rudolph’s life on the lam. So focused on the state and federal investigation into Rudolph’s crimes, the book pays short shrift to the Rudolph’s actual experiences on the run. For the most part, the reader concludes Lone Wolf without knowing how Rudolph spent his five years of fugitivity.

We do learn how Rudolph survived, nutritionally-speaking, and these daily acts–eating ground salamander bones, scrounging from Taco Bell dumpsters–should disabuse us of the glamour of life on the lam, but in fact, we learn little about the larger strategies of escape and evasion in the mountains. What about the close calls with the tracking dogs, the sleepless nights slipping past hunters, the breathless chases across ravines and gorges? About these moments of the manhunt, Rudolph has remained silent. Perhaps these dramatic twists, so fitting for a Hollywood blockbuster, never happened. Perhaps they did. Rudolph does not say, and so Vollers cannot say. In this way, Rudolph’s aura as a fugitive sustains itself and outlives his actual fugitive life. The mystery of his long disappearance lingers. “Where I’m hidden, they’ll never find me,” Rudolph reportedly told George Nordmann in the only confirmed sighting of Rudolph during the entire manhunt, six months into his life on the run. Indeed, though Rudolph later let himself be found, the fugitive is still hidden.

Fly the Fiendly Skies

October 28th, 2006 § Comments Off § permalink

This is the scariest freaking business I’ve read in a long time: Christopher Soghoian, a computer science student who had created an online generator for fake boarding passes–solely to point out how ludicrously ineffective airport security is–has been visited several times by the FBI, most recently, with a 2am warrant that allowed the Bureau to seize every single piece of tech in the student’s home. (See a scan of the warrant at BoingBoing).

The kid (he’s 24 years old) is simply highlighting that TSA airport security is “security theater”–providing the illusion of security while actually not protecting anything or anyone. Anybody can print their own online boarding pass and use it to get past gate security (as Andy Bowers illustrated in Slate nearly two years ago); and anyone can easily use two boarding passes to not only get past security, but to board the plane under a false ID.

What’s most amazing is that Soghoian is simply revealing flaws in a system that desperately needs fixing. But the federal government is treating him as a terrorist.

Who’s to say that millions haven’t already printed their own fake boarding passes and done what Soghian is only suggesting?

Who’s to say that I, who travel every week from Charlotte to Dulles International Airport, haven’t used Photoshop to doctor an online boarding pass copied from usairways.com to get through security?

I have.

It’s simple, and any idiot can do it.

You take a screenshot of your real boarding pass (right before you print it) (and most airlines allow you to “check in” online, meaning you can call up your boarding pass right in your web browser). And then you edit that screenshot in Photoshop. Substitute your seat assignment, your flight number, whatever. As long as it looks vaguely like US Airways real online boarding pass, you can get right through security.

I did this.

Even though I was a paying customer and had a real boarding pass, I generated a separate fake one. I forged one. Just to test the system.

I got through.

I boarded and flew and landed home.

Now I’m worried. Is the FBI going to come after me? Seize my computers and flash drives and scanners and printers? I did what the terrorists could do. Does that make me an enemy of the state? I broke federal law (DHS Code Title 49, Volume 8; October 1, 2004 rev. [Page 302]. I knowingly lied to a federal official. Security fraud. I committed it.

Or did I?

What if I didn’t print a fake boarding pass. What if I only thought about it. What if I’m lying right now. Who’s to say that I haven’t printed fake boarding passes. Who’s to say that I have.

My lips are sealed.

Except they’re not.

I did this and you should too.

Fast Food, Homeland Security Style

October 14th, 2006 § Comments Off § permalink

Here’s a placard (larger image) on a parking shuttle bus at Dulles International Airport, outside of Washington, D.C.

I’m very appreciative that they let me know, well before I enter the terminal, what I can eat, and whether it’s “pre-security” or “post-security” dining. So I can plan in advance such critical traveling strategery as, do I buy my double mocha skinny latte here, by ticketing, or there at Gate B, after I’ve been body cavity searched?

Immigration and National Security

May 16th, 2006 § Comments Off § permalink

Two implications of Bush’s proposal to beef up border security with National Guard troops:

The first is practical: it’s another instance of the militarization of civil society, which I had criticized in an earlier post.

The second is symbolic: by policing the border with troops trained for combat, Bush masterfully conflates two entirely distinct issues: immigration and national security. Illegal immigration is not a national security threat. (How many of the 9/11 terrorists were here illegally? None.) Framing immigration as a security issue obscures what it really is: a labor issue.

And what would happen if conservatives began treating immigration as the labor issue that it really is? They’d have to confront one of the contradictions of capitalism in the U.S.: we believe in “free trade,” in which corporations and products are free to move across borders, but not in “free labor,” in which the workers that produce those products for those corporations would be free to move across borders.

Total Information Awareness, Reprise

May 12th, 2006 § Comments Off § permalink

A few more thoughts on the massive NSA database of every domestic phone call, ever, in the United States…

The database actualizes what was once only theory: DARPA’s defunct Total Information Awareness project, which sought to “counter asymmetric threats [i.e. terrorism] by achieving total information awareness.”

Awareness of everything, godlike omniscience.

Is this the only way neo-cons can imagine protecting Americans from terrorist attacks?

Forget Total Information Awareness, this is Total Imagination Failure.

Another disturbing aspect of the NSA’s database is that General Michael Hayden, now Bush’s nominee for the head of the CIA, was in charge of it. Hayden is not a retired general. He is still on active status in the U.S. Air Force. So what we had here with the NSA (and what we might have with the CIA) is a military officer running a civilian organization. It is yet another chilling example of the militarization of domestic, civilian life.

There’s a reason the founders of the Constitution made a civilian (the President) the Commander-in-Chief of the military. Men with guns need to be kept in check. Because men with guns will eventually use those guns (and tanks and planes and phone records). Ironically, nobody recognizes this more than the neo-cons, who see Iran’s nuclear ambitions as de facto evidence that Iran will eventually deploy those nuclear weapons.

Again, Total Imagination Failure.

Can You Hear Me Now: The NSA, Me, and Papa John’s

May 11th, 2006 § Comments Off § permalink

The big surprise in today’s USA Today story about the NSA building a staggering database of every single domestic phone call in the United States is not that such a database exists, but that the NSA waited until after 9/11 to begin building it.

I think we had always assumed that the government was already gathering this information, logging every phone call, timestamping every caller and every recipient, and crossreferencing all those records. Think of it: every pizza delivery order in the U.S. stored for posterity’s sake. Oh, the marketing possibilities!

“A database of every phone call ever made”: this is how one insider describes it.

Yet, there are gaps in the record: Qwest is the only big carrier to refuse to cooperate with the NSA (unlike Verizon, BellSouth, and AT&T). Good for them. Sell your Qwest stock soon, though. (Or, maybe hoard it, and wait for that big buyout from the resurging Ma Bell…)

The sky is falling, but my phones are tapped, so I’m okay and you are too

May 3rd, 2006 § Comments Off § permalink

I caught snippets of the Diane Rehm Show today, and there was a panel of experts discussing the domestic war on terror. There’s the predictable apologist for the Bush administration, spouting the standard refrain that because there’s been no terror attack on the U.S. since 9/11, all that illegal wiretapping and surveillance and profiling and warmongering has paid off. Okay, fine, that’s no surprise, what he’s saying. Typical specious reasoning, Homer Simpson style.

But what got me was one of the callers. First, he said that Robert Heinlein is one of his favorite authors. Red flags go off, right there alone. Then the guy, a marine who, to his credit, is on his way to Afghanistan, says that Heinlein has a quote, something like, You can have peace and you can have freedom, but you can’t have peace and freedom.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s Starship Troopers talking, Heinlein’s most (and there are many contenders) fascistic novel, where his militaristic, kill the motherfragging aliens, and so what if a few humans die, because they were weak and deserved to die urges come to full blossom.

And this guy is citing it as a textbook for American liberty?

I bow before the almighty forces of juvenile literature!

Some of the best things in life are classified

October 21st, 2005 § Comments Off § permalink

What I want to write is so confidential, so classified, I can’t even write it. It has something to do with the Pentagon the government. That’s about all I can say. And that people involved have signed non-disclosure agreements. Which have been broken. Apparently. Maybe not. I don’t know. The lawyers are deciding. The key word, though, is threat analysis shambles.

Tracking the Fugitives

January 14th, 2004 § Comments Off § permalink

The 21st century will be the century of the fugitive. Not because fugitives are proliferating, but because they are disappearing. And not disappearing in the way that fugitives like to disappear, but disappearing because they simply won’t exist. Technology won’t allow it. In the near future fugitives will occupy the same place in our collective consciousness as cowboys or pirates. And just as the Western film genre dominated the mid-20th century — while agribusiness was at the same time industrializing the west, making the cowboy superfluous–our new century will be dominated by cultural forms which star fugitives.

There is something about fugitives we psychologically crave, and if they can’t exist, then we will invent them on our own.

I’ve been thinking about fugitivity lately because I’ve been closely following the case of Eric Rudolph, the alleged Olympic bomber who disappeared into the mountains of western North Carolina in February 1998. Rudolph became the target of the largest manhunt in FBI history, and it seemed as if he had vanished in a poof of smoke until May 31, 2003, when he finally surrendered himself after years of hiding.

Rudolph SketchRudolph, seen here in a composite FBI sketch, reportedly told a man in July 1998 — when Rudolph emerged briefly for a day before disappearing again for another five years — that “Where I’m hidden, they’ll never find me.”

And it was true. Rudolph gave himself up freely, arrested near a dumpster behind a Save-A-Lot supermarket, in Murphy, North Carolina. By most accounts, Rudolph was simply weary of hiding where he couldn’t be found.

Now, in this Patriot Act-world of digital, synchronized communication we have what amounts to infinite tracking, deep searching, and persistent indexing. I don’t agree with Rudolph’s political beliefs and I abhor his alleged methods. But there is something achingly diminishing about a captured fugitive. It’s as if the world suddenly got smaller. Now even Rudolph is now subject to the same rules as the rest of us. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama has even set up a listserv for U.S. v. Eric Robert Rudolph (Criminal No. 00-422-A) that allows you to receive an email message “whenever a document (motion, order, etc.) is filed in each case.”

And so, fugitivity gives way to documentation. It’s a trend you’ll be seeing — and experiencing — more and more…

Illustration from US-VISIT BrochureIllustration from the Department of Homeland Security’s US-VISIT Brochure.

Synchronicity

December 1st, 2003 § Comments Off § permalink

Twenty years after the Police’s Synchronicity, the word finally seems to have entered everyday language. One of UPS’s new slogans, which I just saw on the side of a brown truck in Philadelphia, is now “Synchronizing the World of Commerce.”

I know what “synchronizing” means, I guess, but what does that slogan mean? Why does the world of commerce need to be synchronized? Is it out-of-synch?

I suddenly began thinking of all the ways we know use the word “synchronize”—we do it with our Palms and Pocket PCs, our email accounts, our files, anything where we have multiple copies of something and one is more recent than the others. (Ignore for the moment the out-of-date and oh-so-nineties N-Sync.) Synchronicity here deals with time. Something that has been synchronized is now closer to the present (and thereby, on the near edge of the future) than something that has not been synchronized.

With the UPS slogan, however, a new dimension has been added to the essence of “synchronize.” That dimension is the dimension of space, for that is what UPS is known for: moving objects through physical space. UPS’s new slogan extends UPS’s dominance to the dimension of time. “Synchronicity” is a marriage of time and space, or really, the fantasy of enfolded space. A sort of time warp, where information travels instantly because space is folded on itself. What we have here is the dream of instantaneous information (made possible by UPS’s pioneering infrastructure). I find this vision very close the the fantasy of total complete information. The new media theorist Stuart Moulthrop has written about the “game of perfect information“—that if we possess enough computing power and access to the best available data, we can make perfect decisions. Moulthrop was talking about this way back in the nineties, and he was eerily prescient of the Defense Department’s failed Total Information Awareness Project.

The UPS slogan articulates the same cultural tendencies that led Admiral Poindexter, the “visionary” behind the Total Information Awareness program, to pursue a means to “imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems.” This mission statement is so vague (not to mention grammatically difficult to parse) that it could apply to a corporation’s strategy for dominance in global commerce as well as to a nation’s “war” against terrorism.

FOIA

November 21st, 2003 § Comments Off § permalink

Last week the New York Times did a story on Russ Kick’s site, the Memory Hole, and it’s been quite revealing to go through the documents on his site. Kinda like the Smoking Gun, but it’s about the banal conspiracies of everyday bureaucrats instead of the dirty laundry of celebrities. I’m about to do one of the things he suggests–request a video from the Secret Service–using the Freedom of Information Act. Sure beats Blockbuster.