A litany of amateur mistakes

April 16, 2013
By: Eric Lundin

At 7:03 pm on November 1, 1955, a DC-6B (United Airlines Flight 629) crashed near Longmont, Colorado. The Civil Aeronautics Board and the FBI carried out a comprehensive recovery effort, and eventually pieced together most of the airplane. The tail had severed off cleanly, and when engineers from United and the manufacturer, Douglas Aircraft Corp., offered no viable explanation, the FBI considered it an act of sabotage.

Exhaustive interviews with family, neighbors, and business associates of the passengers led the FBI to focus on Jack Gilbert Graham, whose mother was a passenger. Graham had a suspicious past to say the least. A restaurant owned by Graham’s mother, and managed by Graham, had once been damaged by an explosion; years earlier Graham had been convicted of forgery; and recently he had filed an insurance claim on a pickup truck that had stalled on a railroad track. He also had a motive; before the flight, Graham had taken out a life insurance policy on his mother.

It didn’t take long to fill in the blank spaces. Little was left of Graham’s mother’s luggage; a store manager recalled a recent sale of two dozen sticks of dynamite and two electric blasting caps (to a customer later identified as Graham in a police lineup); while working at an electric supply company, Graham asked his employer about timers and timing devices; and he subsequently had purchased a switch-off type of timer and later exchanged it for a switch-on timer. Graham was found guilty and executed on January 11, 1957.

Fast-forward four decades. Timothy James McVeigh was driving through Oklahoma, near the town of Perry, in a car with no license plate. Oklahoma State Trooper Charles Hanger stopped McVeigh, which might not have amounted to much, but McVeigh was carrying a concealed weapon. Hanger arrested McVeigh, which might not have amounted to much, but Hanger later searched his police cruiser and found a business card McVeigh had hidden after his arrest. It was from a military surplus store, and on the back was a handwritten note: "TNT at $5 a stick. Need more." That probably would have amounted to something, but who knows? McVeigh might have been able to talk his way out of it. However, it was a damning piece of evidence, considering that ninety minutes before the arrest, a bomb had detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The FBI investigation was the most comprehensive criminal investigation in U.S. history, comprising nearly 30,000 interviews and a billion pieces of information. McVeigh was found guilty and executed on June 11, 2001.

Fast-forward about two decades. At approximately 2:50 EDT on April 15, 2013, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The first detonated outside the Marathon Sports store at 671 Boylston St.; the second about a block to the west. It’s a business district, and many businesses have security cameras these days. Hopefully the nearby businesses had cameras and the feeds were stored offsite so the footage can be retrieved. If so, the authorities might have a good start in the investigation.

The person or persons responsible might not have been as sloppy as Graham or McVeigh. They might have made cash purchases, bought supplies in small amounts at various locations over a long period of time to allay suspicion, and kept their mouths shut (something neither Graham nor McVeigh were good at). However, even if they took precautions, it’s probably just a matter of time before the noose starts to close on these worthless, useless vermin.

Footage from security cameras might not be much, but it's a start. Many other technologies are in use. Years ago the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) put together a program called Total Information Awareness, intended to use surveillance and information technology to track terrorist and other “asymmetric threats.” Research programs include:

  • Human Identification at a Distance (HumanID), which attempts to recognize faces and gaits at a distance of 500 ft.

  • Genisys, a method of collecting data from a variety of heterogeneous databases.

  • Evidence Extraction and Link Discovery (EELD), a set of technologies that can extract bits and pieces of related information in a vast database.

  • Effective Affordable Reusable Speech-to-text (EARS), which provides speech-to-text transcription, from a variety of sources using many languages, for nearly immediate analysis.

DARPA and other agencies at the top of the information-gathering ladder don’t typically advertise the extent of their capabilities, so it’s hard to tell how many such programs are in use, and how effective they are, but I am sure this is the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg. In other words, these agencies are using technologies that weren’t even envisioned when Hanger was searching the back of his cruiser, looking for anything McVeigh might have tried to hide.

It’s just a matter of time.
Eric Lundin

Eric Lundin

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8262