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Monday, February 14, 2011

Were WMDs Found in San Diego or Elsewhere in the US?

There's a local San Diego news (10 News San Diego, an ABC affiliate) video making the rounds, in which a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent seemed to have confirmed that weapons of mass destruction have been found by U.S. officials in the past. Maybe.

Bob McCarty at BigJournalism.com has an article here, coupled with a couple of shaky videos someone filmed while watching the TV news reports. The television news reports themselves are unwarrantably alarmist (especially once the raw footage of the interview is viewed), and the news anchors actively misconstrue what was really said by assistant port director Al Hallor.

The 10news.com article is better and can be found here. It reads:

"10News was granted access to San Diego's seaport for a firsthand look at how Customs and Border Protection officers safeguard against weapons of mass effect.

"'Given the open waterways and the access to the Navy fleet here, I'd say, absolutely, San Diego is a target,' said Al Hallor, who is the assistant port director and an officer with Customs and Border Protection.

"10News investigative reporter Mitch Blacher asked, 'Do you ever find things that are dangerous like a chemical agent or a weaponized device?'

"'At the airport, seaport, at our port of entry we have not this past fiscal year, but our partner agencies have found those things,' said Hallor."

This exchange came a bit later in the article:

"'So, specifically, you're looking for the dirty bomb? You're looking for the nuclear device?' asked Blacher.

"'Correct. Weapons of mass effect,' Hallor said.

"'You ever found one?' asked Blacher.

"'Not at this location,' Hallor said.

"'But they have found them?' asked Blacher.

"Yes,' said Hallor.

"'You never found one in San Diego though?' Blacher asked.

"'I would say at the port of San Diego we have not,' Hallor said.

"'Have you found one in San Diego?' Blacher asked.

"The interview was interrupted [by a public affairs officer] before Hallor was able to answer the question."

Huh.

Hallor is clearly hesitant and nervous in the interview. He is also clearly not used to being interviewed by the news which could be the reason for his nervousness (it was very obviously at least a partial factor). Did Hallor misspeak? If he did, he did so twice about the same subject, which is possible.

To their great credit, channel 10 has posted the raw video here. It's only about 6 minutes 30 seconds long, but it is very interesting. Check it out.

From the video:

(from about 2:53 in the video)

Blacher: Do you ever catch dangerous stuff, like uh... chemical agents, bombs?

Hallor: (sighs) Um... I don't know how to answer that one.

Hallor then asks a partially off camera woman, almost certainly the public affairs officer, about how to answer the question. Lots of inaudibles follow and not much of an answer is given.

In print this appears far more nefarious then it actually is on the video, but clearly Hallor and the public affairs officer have a list of "do not dos and mentions" in their guidelines regarding interviews. Another example of this, but hardly an alarming one, is at about 4:53 of the video when Hallor asks the likely public affairs officer if he should or should not talk specifically about the RID device, which is simply a part of the procedure to detect radiation in cargo containers.

The exchange about finding weapons of mass effect in San Diego transcribed in the 10 news article occurs at about 5:45 of the raw video. Right after the short largely inaudible exchange between Hallor, the public affairs officer and Blacher, this happens:

Blacher: Okay. You never found one in San Diego?

Hallor: (makes pained face before answering) I would say in the Port of San Diego, we have not.

Blacher: Have you found one in San Diego?

Hallor: (after about a six second pause) Trying to--

Public Affairs Officer (partially inaudible): Yeah, we'll just talk about the Port of San Diego. I'll follow up later because personally [inaudible] ever. So, I just want to double check to make sure we give them accurate information. So I'll follow up later about that.

As the 10 News article says, Customs and Border Protection sent this statement after the interview:

"CBP has not specifically had any incidents with nuclear devices or nuclear materials at our ports of entry. CBP is an all-threats agency. The purpose of many security measures is to prevent threats from ever materializing by being prepared for them. And, we must be prepared to stop threats in whatever form they do materialize at the border, whether it’s an individual or cargo arriving by land, air, or sea. Regardless of what the contraband or threat is, we’re being smart, evaluating, and focusing in on anything or anyone that is potentially high-risk.

"We were able to show you first-hand one example of how we evaluate segment risk, inspect, etc. in the cargo environment by air and sea here in San Diego. This is one portion of the CBP mission, and hopefully gives you some examples of how much has evolved in the past decade, with the new technologies we have at our disposal. This, coupled with document requirements at the border, advanced passenger and cargo information, better information sharing, and many other measures help us to secure the border - and each measure doesn’t work individually or in a vacuum, but rather in the layered security that we were able to demonstrate one facet of."

I don't quite know what to make of all this. Local news in Southern California (as local news does elsewhere, I am sure) often jump on "scoops" and excitedly over-report on subjects that turn out to be nothing-- such as the Southern California "missile" incident (it was an aircraft's contrail).

Was this incident another nothing? Most likely.

Much of Hallor's hesitancy appears to come from wanting to be as accurate and specific as possible to the questions asked, as well as being on guard to some out-of-context "gotcha" moment. Likewise his nervousness could have been entirely from being camera shy. Hallor's manner suggests that he is not often called upon to do television interviews.

That being said, clearly Hallor said something that he should not have. Either he misspoke or let something slip.

The questions are:

When Hallor answered "yes" to the question "Have they found them [weapons of mass effect]?", was he accurate?

Did Hallor misunderstand the question, or did he get a little confused by the line of questioning due to being nervous? Could Hallor have thought that the "they" in the question referred to the devices that detect radioactive materials?

It would seem that if weapons of mass effect had been found and that the knowledge of was well-known enough for Hallor to be privy it, it would be almost impossible to keep it out of the public eye for so long. And the sort of slips that Hallor makes throughout the raw video seem mostly due to stage fright and being very intent about not saying something that could be misconstrued-- a bit of irony there, I suppose.

That said, Hallor does seem to make the same mistake twice, and the statement from Customs and Border Protection addresses only "nuclear devices or nuclear materials at our ports of entry" and not non-nuclear weapons of mass effect. It's a little too specific for my tastes-- but, once again both government agencies and the media must play by the card regarding these sort of issues.

My bet is that this is all much ado but nothing-- but, I don't want to just completely dismiss the other possibility. It would certainly be nice if the media would follow up on this to confirm it one way or the other. I doubt that they will, though.

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