Incompetence at The Intercept and Leaking Culture

In January 2015, Benjamin Wittes described The Intercept staff as amateurs.  "They are amateurs in a world of professionals."  He had the foresight to predict a major slip that would result in the capture of a leaking source.  About the same time, we spoke internally of the significant holes in their leaking plan "Become a Source," namely, the advise to leak from personal computers in public coffee houses.  That an organization would recommend this indicates lack of basic understanding of end-point security behavior and common threats from state and private actors.

Checking Vitals for Journalists: Getting Back to Basics

We have had a few years to survey the journalist training-advising landscape, and even participate on occasion, and the clearest conclusion is that journalists take the easy road toward digital security and ignore the more important security routes.  On balance, it appears that 80% of online, seminar, and workshop gatherings focus on email, phone, and computer threats, plus electronic storage of data.  The remaining 20% of operational, physical, and personal security is well placed, but unfortunately run by digital forensics people who have little idea of where to begin.  The tenuous connection forged between digital and non-digital security is unprincipled, wayward, and on the whole a very dangerous course.

Survey of Recent Civil Unrest

We have seen an increase in disorganized and organized protests in the last few weeks.  One factor is seasonal: the weather warms up, and groups are more eager to get out.  Another is political, correlating with important dates like the French election, May Day, conferences and summits, and visits by leaders. Surveying a few protests that caught headlines because they involved violence, we stress the importance of estimating "tactics, techniques, and procedures" of both police and protestors/rioters.  The press should have a sense of how the police and protestors behave in a specific locale.  

Primer on Human Geography

Primer on Human Geography

Geography is intimately intertwined with preparing and planning activity in hostile zones, such as walking through a bad neighborhood or crossing the border from Azerbaijan into Iran.  For journalists this may be photographing mines in Franceville, Gabon, or interviewing human trafficking victims in Toledo, Ohio.  We must understand geography.

We want to study topographic and street maps, part of physical geography, but we need a sense of patterns and processes that shape human interactions within the environment, known as “human geography.”  That is, we analyze how people behave while living in their physical geography.  We want spatial visualizations of these patterns and processes.

Recap: Reporting in the Age of Alternative Facts conference

Were were honored to participate in the conference at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  The Department of Journalism sponsored an amazing one-day conference, free and open to the public, and it organized several workshops, one of which we attended as a panelist.

The panel was "Reporting Under Trump: Assessing Risk on America's Front Line."  We presented on reporting in civil unrest and riot conditions at home and abroad, but mostly here in America in urban environments.

Interview Preparation: Source Specific Research

My theme has been collecting information because, as I see from the outside looking in, journalists have lost focus under danger of losing information.  The primary effort is collecting, filtering, and reporting.  Just like military members in zones collecting for military value, reporters covering sensitive stories collect for story value.  And for that reason they need to research sources prior to questioning them.

Cellphone Use in DC (and elsewhere)

It is no secret that Washington, D.C., and the whole DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) area has the highest concentration of foreign intelligence officers in the U.S. and perhaps worldwide, considering number of officers per capita.  The real action is along Embassy Row and the Russian embassy.  The FBI teams track these officers, and in turn the officers carry out their collection missions.

Inauguration Day Recap

John Minchillo, Associated Press

John Minchillo, Associated Press

Russia Today posted a summary of D.C.'s report on the police's responses to protests.

The full report may be read here.

The Police Complaints Board focused on permits for persons to engage in First Amendment demonstrations even if they have not given notice; restrictions of protests; arrests and citation of non-compliant demonstrators; dispersing of demonstrators; use of warnings to crowds; use of police lines; officers’ visibility of names and badges; use of riot gear; use of non-lethal force; and granting the media full access to areas where demonstrations take place.

Mark Tennaly, Associated Press

Mark Tennaly, Associated Press

Bryan Woolston, Reuters

Bryan Woolston, Reuters

Takeaway Points

The innaguration was classified as a National Security Special Event.  The innaguration security forces included several federal and District of Columbia agencies, including Metropolitan Police, Secret Service, U.S. Park Police, Capitol Police, and the National Guard.  Moreover, the innaguration event attracted about 3,000 additional personnel from other jurisidictions.  Non-security personnel included the Police Complaints Board, which monitored Metro Police interactions with protestors, but it is unclear whether the Board was plain clothed or identifiable.  The report of course does not identify plain clothes and undercover officers roaming the crowds.

This event was a good opportunity to practice information sharing.  Teams in different parts of the city could have shared short reconnaissance briefs about government forces.  The Police Complaint Board example is one model:

A group of protesters were walking on Massachusetts Avenue N.W. near 12th Street, towards the police perimeter. MPD reinforced their northern barricade and had MPD officers in neon jackets, as well as National Guard standing at attention with baton in hand. The protesters passed by peacefully and joined the rest of the crowd. When the protesters got too close to the police line, the police began to walk forward while the protesters backed up. All interactions were calm, no physical force was used, and no arrests were made. 

Reconnaissance Report

This works in war, so it is well-suited for civil unrest.  And we do not need the detail required for reconnaissance of enemies.  Our purpose is First Amendment liberty.  We want a balance between lawful demonstration, media activity, and police presence.

A quick acronym to follow is SALUTE, which stands for size, activity, location, unit, time, and equipment.  For example, paraphrasing the report above: "About 15 officers, in line, Mass. Ave. adjacent 12th St., MPD, 10:00am, with neon jackets, batons, helmets, and a few with shields."

On the tactical level, SALUTE reports details information about what one might encounter.  More importantly, as the reporting team builds up these brief profiles, someone can track movements, identify staging areas and command centers, and monitor police and protestor movements through areas, aiming to avoid certain areas and certain units.  The reporter's intent is to document activity, and to do that safely and remain in circulation without being detained, she should navigate the scenes using the best information available.  That is real-time reporting on not only the demonstrators, but the police and other media.  

The Franklin Square scene escalated very quickly, and some journalists were arrested, which may have happened regardless of planning, but it is reasonably to think that some showed up to that area having little idea of demonstrator and police capabilities and behavior prior to the unrest.  Had police used batons, fired pepper spray, or arrested anyone before then?  Were demonstrators increasing activity that indicated arrests were coming?  Where were the fires?

No matter the chaos, the better position is to evaluate the major players in real-time by assessing their strengths and possible intent.  For instance, the U.S. Park Police dressed in riot gear that already arrested a few people deserves more caution than the uniformed Arlington County Police who are not carrying batons and detained no one.  One way to keep track is share SALUTE briefs in real-time, perhaps on social media or voice message system like Zello.  A Zello group can update easily by smartphone.


About 12 officers, arresting someone, sweeping area at intersection, half MPD in neon yellow, half outside unit police in blue wearing bike helmets, 12:40pm, some wearing riot helmets, handcuffs, side arms, SUV unit with K-9.