Tag Archives: CHAOS

US Rating Downgrade (S&P report)


Rating Action 

On Aug. 5, 2011, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services lowered its long-term sovereign credit rating on the United States of America to ‘AA+’ from ‘AAA’.

The outlook on the long-term rating is negative. At the same time, Standard & Poor’s affirmed its ‘A-1+’ short-term rating on the U.S. In addition, Standard & Poor’s removed both ratings from CreditWatch, where they were placed on July 14, 2011, with negative implications.

The transfer and convertibility (T&C) assessment of the U.S.–our assessment of the likelihood of official interference in the ability of U.S.-based public- and private-sector issuers to secure foreign exchange for debt service–remains ‘AAA’.


Download S&P’s 8-page report

(Right-click to download to disk. Left-click to open PDF in new window.)


Filed under Economy, Reason

Syria: Travel Warning (full text)

Travel Warning

Bureau of Consular Affairs


(Bold text below, our emphasis.)


August 5, 2011

The U.S. Department of State urges U.S. citizens in Syria to depart immediately while commercial transportation is available. Given the ongoing uncertainty and volatility of the current situation, U.S. citizens who must remain in Syria are advised to limit nonessential travel within the country. U.S. citizens not in Syria should defer all travel to Syria at this time. The Department of State ordered all eligible family members of U.S. government employees as well as certain non-emergency personnel to depart Syria on April 25, 2011. Embassy operations continue to the extent possible under the constraints of an evolving security situation. The Embassy continues to provide passport services, as well as other emergency services to U.S. citizens; however visa services are limited. The Syrian government has also placed severe constraints upon the travel of diplomats within Syria, limiting the ability of consular officers to provide assistance to U.S. citizens outside the city of Damascus. This Travel Warning supersedes the Travel Warning for Syria issued on April 25, 2011, to provide updated information on violent confrontations at demonstrations, increased security measures, and to note new restrictions on travel for U.S. Embassy personnel.

Since March 2011, demonstrations throughout Syria have been violently suppressed by Syrian security forces, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries and thousands of detentions. Demonstrations can occur with little or no warning anytime and anywhere, not just on Friday afternoons, as with many past demonstrations. Recent demonstrations have occurred on university campuses, main streets, public squares, mosques, and other places of public gathering. On July 11, 2011, the U.S. Embassy and other embassies in Damascus were violently attacked by people participating in a pro-government demonstration, resulting in the U.S. Embassy closing for one day. We remind U.S. citizens that even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence. U.S. citizens are urged to avoid the areas of demonstrations if possible, and to exercise caution if within the vicinity of a demonstration.

Several cities, including Damascus, have been placed under heightened security. Travelers on Syrian roads have encountered an increased number of checkpoints and roadblocks impeding travel and preventing entry to or exit from affected cities. On April 22, 2011, security forces prevented many from entering or leaving Damascus.

Syrian government constraints on observers, including the short-term detention of accredited diplomats, have made it difficult for U.S. Embassy personnel to adequately assess the current risks or the potential for continuing violence.

Syrian efforts to attribute the current civil unrest to external influences may lead to an increase in anti-foreigner sentiment. Detained U.S. citizens may find themselves subject to allegations of incitement or espionage. Contrary to the terms of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, of which Syria is a signatory, Syrian authorities generally do not notify the U.S. Embassy of the arrest of a U.S. citizen until days or weeks after the arrest. Moreover, in the past, security officials have not responded to U.S. Embassy requests for consular access, especially in the case of persons detained for “security” reasons.

Travelers should heed directions given by Syrian police and/or security officials and should always carry a copy of their passport as proof of citizenship and identity. Taking photographs of demonstrations, public gatherings, or anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest may result in questioning, detention, and/or confiscation of the images. Additionally, U.S. citizens should be aware that exhibiting disrespect toward political symbols or conversations on the topics of politics, religion, and other social issues could lead to arrest.

U.S. citizens should stay current with media coverage of local events and be aware of their surroundings at all times. Media coverage of local events may cause family and friends to become concerned for the welfare of their loved ones in Syria, and we urge U.S. citizens to keep in regular contact with family and friends.

U.S. citizens living or traveling in Syria are encouraged to enroll in the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive the latest travel updates and information and to obtain updated information on travel and security within Syria. U.S. citizens without internet access may enroll directly with the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. By enrolling, U.S. citizens make it easier for the Embassy to contact them in case of emergency. The U.S. Embassy in Damascus can be reached at all hours at 963-11-3391-4444; the fax number is 963-11-3391-3999. The Embassy’s website, available at U.S. Embassy Damascus, includes consular information and the most recent messages to U.S. citizens in Damascus.

For information on “What the Department of State Can and Can’t Do in a Crisis,” please visit the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ Emergencies and Crisis link at:  http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/emergencies/emergencies_1212.html

Up-to-date information on security can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the United States and Canada or, for callers outside the United States and Canada, on a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444. These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays).

For further information, U.S. citizens should consult the Department of State’s Country Specific Information for Syria. Stay up to date by bookmarking our Bureau of Consular Affairs website, which contains the current Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts as well as the Worldwide Caution. Follow us on Twitter and the Bureau of Consular Affairs page on Facebook as well.

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Filed under Conflict, Life, Reason

DPRK: N-Test, Take 2

It was early October, 2006. Overhead, satellites skimmed the sky above the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and took careful note of the goings-on below.

On the ground, as well as far beneath it, technicians busily prepared for North Korea’s highly-anticipated, first nuclear weapons test – an event that was confirmed in dramatic fashion on October 9th, when it appeared on one of the seismographs I was monitoring:

10-08-06 QIZ_24hrThough the event appeared on dozens of other seismographs, this one, from seismic station QIZ in Guangdong, China, seemed particularly interesting.

In the lower-right corner of this QIZ seismograph, you can see the “boom” of a large, explosive detonation. In comparison to normal seismic activity (seen in the middle section of the graph) the explosion created a much less jagged seismic ‘signature’ than a standard earthquake when it rolled into Guangdong. On other seismographs, the North Korean “bang” looked similar to a normal earthquake (except for its abrupt onset), but QIZ sits in a sort of sweet-spot when it comes to catching ‘vibes’ from North Korea.

Estimates of the test’s yield varied from 0.5 to 15 Kt (kilotons); the former figure coming from a US arms expert and the latter having been issued by the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation. A consensus developed, at least in Western circles, around the idea that the DPRK’s nuclear test had released energy equivalent to just over 800 tons of TNT (0.817 kT) – a relatively small bang in nuclear terms, but a concern nevertheless.

The US Pentagon officially considered the test to be “fizzle”, which is to say that it produced a yield substantially less than intended, but there was a lot of discussion in the media (and in “situation rooms” worldwide) about the actual meaning of the event.

Here’s the signature of the test, statistically smoothed:


States of Alarm
On October 11th, 2006, shockwaves of another variety rocked the debate when an earthquake prompted many to believe that another (larger) test had just taken place. (A quick review of the seismic data took the tension down a few notches.)

A couple of days later, the US confirmed that, according to air samples collected on October 11th, North Korea’s Oct. 9th detonation had indeed been a nuclear one. (Tension climbs back up – one notch.)

On October 16, 2006, the governments of the United States, Japan and South Korea simultaneously indicated that preparations for a second nuclear test were underway and that the test was likely imminent. (Two notches!)

And then… nothing. The days ticked by…

On October 18, 2006, the technicians on the ground seemed to be packing up and moving on to other duties, but no one seemed to know exactly why the seemingly imminent second test had been cancelled or postponed. There were, undoubtedly, some who took the opportunity to congratulate themselves for having bent the will of North Korea’s intransigent leader (and master prevaricator) Kim Jong-Il.

Meanwhile, North Korea quietly informed China that it was intending to conduct as many as three more nuclear tests.

But what happened between October 16th and October 18th?

Why, October 17th, of course!

And this:
10-16-06 QIZ_24hr

– a strong quake (R6.6); Papua, New Guinea region; as measured at QIZ

Most of the activity seen in the graph above is due to a strong earthquake (R6.6) that took place on October 17, 2006, near Papua, New Guinea (P.N.G.). However, in the midst of the recorded tremor there are some anomalies.

None of the other available seismometers showed the same sort of alternating signal cancellation and augmentation that can be seen in this graph from the QIZ seismo – the same seismometer that rendered the most unique “echo” of the October 9th nuclear test.

So, I had an idea:
What if I took the signature from the Oct. 9th test and compared it against the anomalies in the Oct. 17th seismograph?

A strange thing happened when I scaled the earlier signature by 245% (about six times the energy displacement of the Oct. 9th test):


The first peak of the previous signature (in Red) aligns perfectly with the maximum signal cancellation in the P.N.G. quake at Point A.

At Point B, the P.N.G. quake (but only when measured at QIZ) undergoes another transition.

The climb to the second peak (Point C) of the first signature coincides with a strong augmentation of the P.N.G. data.

At the next peak, Point D, the P.N.G. seismographic data suddenly changes once again.

Statistically speaking, the strong correlation between the two signals dramatically increases the likelihood that a second North Korean nuclear test did take place – eight days (almost to the minute) after the first … on the very day when the United States, South Korea and Japan were bracing for another blast.

Fizzle 2?
If the first test was more “fizzle” than “fissile”, then what are we to make of this possible second test?

Should we assume that the first test was supposed to yield 4kT (the information confided by North Korea to China) but could manage only 0.817kT?

Should we assume that the second yield (at ~5kT) was “better than expected”?

Or, dare we speculate that each test actually achieved its desired result?

If we logically travel down that path, we’ll find a number of devices with ‘dial-a-yield’. Some large. Some small. Among the lighter weight designs, there are tactical nuclear land-mines, nuclear demolition devices, so-called “back-pack nukes” and nuclear artillery ordnance that offer variable yield capability. Many of these offer a choice of three or more yields.

If the design tested by North Korean was based on one of those models, then it’s possible that they tested the same device twice (at two different yield settings) – and only got caught once. This (along with the geophysical facts) may help to explain why the signature of the first test matches up so well to the anomalies in the Oct. 17th readings.

Unfortunately, the device might also have a third setting of about 31kT.

comparebar(Note: This assumes a weapon with symmetrical scalability, but the range of selectable yields would ultimately depend on the geometry and energetics of the ‘undisclosed’ design.)

Variable yield devices, on average, tend to be smaller and lighter than the average nuclear warhead and are usually Plutonium-based, all of which makes them ideal for North Korea’s nuclear program, which is predicated upon its Plutonium-breeding reactor complex at Yongbyon. The smaller size and lighter mass of these types of devices also makes them suitable for reconfiguring as missile-deliverable payloads.

It was reported just last summer that the A.Q. Khan proliferation network had been flogging designs for advanced nuclear mechanisms for some time. To me, anyway, it looks like this could be one of them.

Take (n)
So, what has North Korea been up to for the past 2.5 years – besides shooting ballistic missiles over Japan and alternately dragging and stomping its feet?

Has the DPRK conducted any further nuclear testing?

Tough questions.

Many live seismographs from Russia and China have been off-line for a while now, making it more difficult to easily collect data from specific ‘listening posts’. Some have recently reappeared, but I have a hunch that more time will pass before we see QIZ – or any of the other Sino-Korean seismic sweet-spots – openly published again.

If the North Korean leadership figured out that they could muffle their nuclear tests in the noise produced by the frequent earthquakes of the Ring of Fire, then it’s possible that they may already have completed a number of limited yield tests since October, 2006, but larger tests (of 15, 20, 30kT or more) would definitely be more difficult to hide.

Echoes & Variations
QIZ responded to the Oct. 9th test with more gusto than many of the seismos located closer to the action, in South Korea. Even the one at Inchon, just over the border and across the peninsula, barely burped during the event window!

incnsig – from the INCN seismometer at Inchon, South Korea

This would seem to indicate that the nuclear test suites prepared by North Korea are “shaped” (the North Koreans are very good at digging) in order to avoid detection. The mountainous terrain and soil conditions around the site (near Kilchu) may also help to dampen vibrations.

One reason that such good measurements could be collected to the southwest is due to the shape of Korea Bay, on the Yellow Sea, which acts like a type of seismic echo chamber for the upper Korean peninsula – similar to the way that your voice is projected when you speak into the small, open end of a hollow cone.


Okay, so now you know.

But, what can we do about it?

To start, maybe we should take a penetratingly good look at every country that is known to have dealt with A.Q. Khan’s network – and pay special attention to the ones who are working aggressively on long-range missile programs. That second group (a very ‘exclusive’ club) appears to have only two members: North Korea and Iran.

Of course, there’s also Pakistan, but that’s a whole other predicament.

(Update: For info on the May 25, 2009 test window click here.)


Filed under Chicanery, Conflict, Images

Our False Sense of CyberSecurity

This week, we learned about a wave of successful on-line hacks of the US electrical grid. We also heard about a fast-evolving virus (Conficker C) that has been actively organising millions of infected/enslaved PCs worldwide into a very formidable (and potentially malevolent) Botnet.

On-line insecurity is nothing new, but it always represents a risk.

Some people might give these stories a second thought, but their third thought would probably be, “Nah, [insert name of responsible organisation here] will take care of it.”

We have long relied upon groups like Microsoft, Symantec and “the government” to shield us from the not-so-nice elements of network computing, but is it reasonable to assume that they will always be successful in defending us?

On September 11, 2001, many millions of Americans (and, globally, many hundreds of millions more) followed in horror and disbelief the events of that tragic day. The tools of destruction appeared to be nothing more than box cutters, duct tape, some flight training and, of course, four passenger jets laden with aviation fuel. Twenty-or-so fervent radicals (and their controllers) had succeeded in turning these mundane emblems of Western society into deadly weapons of massive destruction.

No one seemed to spend much time openly investigating whether compromises in digital infrastructure contributed directly or indirectly to the terrible outcome, but there are several clues which point to the possibility that this may be true:

The GPS Downgrade

On September 12th, GPS (global positioning system) resolution for unlicensed commercial and consumer use was reduced from 10 metres to 100 metres, even though there had been no formal acknowledgment that GPS had been used by the hijackers to guide the planes to their fatal destinies. In fact, the guidance gear aboard the aircraft would have been far superior to that which could be bought at the retail level by the attackers. This could be viewed as strictly a precautionary manoeuvre by the government, because there was no way of knowing whether further attacks were forthcoming, or it could have been based on a suspicion that the aircraft may have been guided to their targets by complicated auto-pilot reprogramming in the cockpit — or even remote control. Each of the targeted planes carried on-board remote guidance and control systems designed to permit air traffic control (ATC) to assume command in the event of pilot incapacitation.

(I heard the report of the GPS downgrade during a newscast by CFRB 1010AM on September 12th and verified the information on-line the next day but can find no links to those stories today. Sorry, you’ll have to do your own digging on that one.)

One of the hijackers (Ziad Jarrah) attempted to purchase four handheld GPS units from a flight store on August 22, 2001, but was only able to purchase one, along with some aeronautical charts. Zacarias Moussawi (the so-called “20th hijacker” who did not make it onto his flight or was for some other reason not included in the operation) tried to purchase some GPS equipment, asking whether it could be used for aeronautics. I don’t know if any GPS units were taken aboard any of the four flights; that didn’t appear to be covered in the official 9/11 Report. (PDF – 7.2 MB)

Slacker Flight Students

By some accounts, the hijackers who took their pre-attack flight training in the United States were poor students. However, they wouldn’t need to be very well-trained if all they had to do was to keep the flight crew from disengaging the auto-pilot. (The remote guidance systems installed in the planes required that the auto-pilot be engaged in order for remote control to be established.) Flying a large jet at high speed and low altitude takes a very good pilot with top-notch training. This is especially true in the case of the Pentagon strike because of the building’s relatively low physical profile.

“He [Hani Hanjour] was a pain in the rear. We didn’t want him back at our school because he was not serious about becoming a good pilot.”

— Duncan Hastie, Owner, CRM Airline Training Center in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Despite failing his flight certification and being graded unfavourably by several flight instructors, Hanjour is thought to have been at the controls of the flight that slammed into the Pentagon on September 11th — an assault requiring a high degree of skill.

One Year Later

Just over a year after the 9-11 attacks, the terror of random shootings gripped the Beltway. The first fatality in the area was James Martin, an employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In June, 2002, Mr. Martin cleaned, wiped and delivered ten retired NOAA computers to a school (PDF – pg.4) as part of a giving program that he personally championed.

(Note: NOAA’s network is directly linked to the US Air Traffic Control network because of the need for accurate and immediate weather reports.)

We may never know whether Mr. Martin found some evidence of unauthorised access in those federal machines, but if he had, he probably would have reported it to the FBI. Any such reports would be forwarded to the National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) and would certainly have come across the desk of the NIPC-FBI liaison at the fledgling InfraGard program.

InfraGard is an information sharing and analysis effort serving the interests and combining the knowledge base of a wide range of members. At its most basic level, InfraGard is a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the private sector. InfraGard is an association of businesses, academic institutions, state and local law enforcement agencies, and other participants dedicated to sharing information and intelligence to prevent hostile acts against the United States. InfraGard Chapters are geographically linked with FBI Field Office territories.

from the InfraGard website

Although the InfraGard program has since been expanded to include physical threats, it was primarily concerned in 2001 with the identification and containment of cyber threats to key digital infrastructure systems, including: electrical grids, water provision and treatment facilities, nuclear installations and commercial aviation systems.

The FBI analyst leading the program was Linda Franklin, who (like Martin) also happened to be killed by the Beltway Snipers. Ms. Franklin, shot down in front of her husband in the parking lot of a Home Depot in Fairfax, Virginia, was the driving force behind the InfraGard program, though her relative importance (with respect to cyber-security) was played down in most media reports. InfraGard established the Linda Franklin National Achievement Award in 2003.

InfraGard Franklin Award

Rest in peace, Linda, James, et al.

The ’Net Result

Technologically advanced societies rely heavily on the technology they create.

That’s both a strength and a weakness; a double-edged sword.

Is it possible to live by it without dying by it?

© 2009


Filed under Chicanery, Conflict, Economy, Reason