It's no secret we are vulnerable to lone nutcases with bombs

Nobody saw Anthony Warner coming.

Good morning, and Happy 3rd Day of Kwanzaa, a designer holiday fit for those who hate Festivus.

Today brings some closure to a few items.

First, we no longer have to wonder whether the government will operate tomorrow, or whether certain anemic pandemic aid provisions will become law. President Trump signed the omnibus Turducken—or Turporken might be a better name—which contains a measly $600 “stimulus” payment for people to pay off overdue bills, and a short extension of PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance), along with a trough full of pork and payoffs to Congress’ K-street corporatist masters (aka the defense industry).

Second, coronavirus is surging, like most experts said it would after months of lockdown, re-opening, and two major family holidays. But the costs of the cure in continued lockdowns has its own death toll. How lockdowns kill, is my piece over at The First.

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Third, we now know the identity of the man who blew up his camper, and himself, in downtown Nashville. His name is Anthony Warner, a plain, nondescript name for a man who seems to be plain and nondescript himself. Unmarried, 63, and all but invisible. To law enforcement trying to protect critical infrastructure, Warner is a nightmare scenario.

It’s no secret, and not a wakeup call.

One former assistant FBI director called the blast in Nashville “a wakeup call.”

If you ask, any FBI, ATF officer, or other investigator will tell you it’s no secret that nutcases from left field, with no prior motive, access to dangerous materials, and some specific knowledge are a vulnerability to our infrastructure.

Fortunately, the FBI and other agencies who protect our infrastructure keep a very careful ear tuned to people, places, and knowledge needed to pull something like this off. The danger of a “copycat” crime is certainly real, but let’s not overdramatize it. Most copycats lack most or all of the elements required to act on their desires. Let me put it this way: If you find someone willing to sell you bomb materials, you’re likely buying them from a federal agent who is going to arrest you when you show up.

The quiet guy, self-employed, with no known motive, willing to blow himself up with his evidence, is the guy who can take out AT&T service for greater Nashville. It’s not really a wake-up call that someone like that is difficult to stop.

When I was a lot younger, I used to do a lot of “wargaming.” Some of the scenarios us geeks did during gatherings (“conventions”) were put on by actual military or intelligence types. One I remember well involved all of us playing specific agency roles, with cards and briefings telling us the “rules” we had to follow, and with whom we could share information. It was unbelievably frustrating.

I “played” an FBI investigator, who could not easy get access to NRO, CIA or other intelligence without asking higher-ups, and was frequently denied. When trying to warn local law enforcement, they had other ideas and many times just ignored me. The scenario was a terrorist—coincidentally in an RV—driving across the country bent on blowing up something critical. It was our job to determine what he was targeting, and to stop him.

It just so happened, a few days before, I had watched a cable show about the Atchafalaya Control Point, also known as the Old River Control Structure, run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If this structure, which keeps the Mississippi River from retrograde flow into the Atchafalaya River, were destroyed, it would have a long-term and bad effect on U.S. commerce up and down the river. The “intelligence” I received pointed to this target, but I had to convince someone with authority to act.

At the literal last minute, as the perpetrator was driving toward the river structure, we managed to get the Army’s attention. Given that the site was under the auspices of the U.S. Army, they decided, with great overkill, to deploy Delta Force so they could claim a training exercise if I was wrong. The only evidence of the terrorist was “a smoking pair of boots,” the people who ran the scenario told us at the end, with a hearty “congratulations” to me for guessing the answer.

That was a contrived scenario, and we all knew something bad was being planned. My point is that the people who actually do this for a job run these scenarios all the time. As in constantly. They are always playing these “games” because it helps them focus and coordinate to catch people before the bad things happen.

With Warner’s RV, nobody knew, and he was able to blow up his bomb and himself, giving fair warning to anyone on the street Christmas morning. We may never know if he intended to take out the AT&T network switch that disrupted communications so badly.

There are a lot of vulnerable places in America. I’m not talking about “soft targets” like malls and Walmart. If enough copycats started showing up in those places, you’d see Americans adapt quickly. It wouldn’t be the kind of adapting gun control extremists want, either. You’d see people openly armed, everywhere. This is why killers tend to hit where and when people don’t expect, or aren’t armed. Copycats end up dead, like the man who opened fire at West Freeway Church of Christ in Texas. Dead copycats don’t inspire more copycats.

I’m talking about places more akin to the Old River Control Structure. Critical bridges, tunnels, river locks, electrical switchyards, generating stations, communications hubs. These are places that are hard to repair or replace quickly. They are places that can quickly disrupt our infrastructure. How dependent are you on the Internet? I can’t write or publish this without it, and you can’t read it.

Physically, we are vulnerable to lone wolves with knowledge and materials, the nightmare scenario for investigators. Electronically, we are vulnerable to state-sponsored hackers. The New York Times played down the connection between Warner and AT&T.

Investigators have not said whether there was any significance to the specific location where the R.V. was parked, in front of an AT&T transmission facility. The explosion caused disruption that reached across the region, cutting off cellphone and internet service to homes and business across parts of Tennessee and into Kentucky and Alabama. Flights were grounded and 911 operations were knocked offline. Mr. Warner’s only apparent tie to the company to come to light so far is a rather tenuous one: His father once worked for Southern Bell, which eventually merged into what is now AT&T. Law enforcement officials have said they are unsure whether there was any other connection.

Perhaps, and I’m speculating with no evidence, Warner thought that the Chinese were using AT&T 5G service to spy on Americans. And, yes, deeply embedded Chinese electronics could do that in the Internet of Things. IOT devices make up more and more of critical SCADA hardware (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) used to run our electrical grid, phone systems and other important infrastructure. Penetrating our SCADA networks gives an enemy the keys to our logistics, our economy, and our ability to defend our civilian population. We are vulnerable there, but we are well armed and prepared.

We are also vulnerable, and will always be, to the quiet lone wolf, who formerly possessed an explosives license, with the knowledge, materials, and time to hit us where we aren’t looking.

The alternative is to live in a paranoid dystopia, where everyone is suspect, because we’re always looking everywhere. The photo above is of the AT&T tower in Nashville, known locally as the Batman Tower. It’s ironic that Batman’s own biggest vulnerability is the lone wolf, with no prior contact with Batman, who is willing to die to kill the caped crusader. The fictional Batman, who lives in constant paranoia, knows there’s no defense against the guy he doesn’t see coming.

Nobody saw Anthony Warner coming. It’s unlikely there will be more of him because by definition, we will see it coming. Until the next time we aren’t looking, that is.

As bad as it seems, to me, it’s a decent trade to not live in constant fear and paranoia, and only harden our society’s vulnerable points to a certain level to stop threats, versus hardening everything to stop every possible threat. You may have a different opinion.

Photo by Lchader - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,