Homeland Security covers a broad range of threats to the security of American citizens on their own soil. This governmental agency is responsible for risks from without and within US borders ranging from weather and/or natural disasters to internal and international travel to foreign terrorist actions. The following is brief description of 30 Perplexing Homeland Security Cases. Topics included are: Natural Disasters/Severe Weather (6), Human Trafficking (2), Smuggling (4), Transportation Security (2), Border Security (2), Immigration Enforcement (2), Major Event Cases (3), Cyber Crime (3), Terrorism (3) and Current Events (3)
Natural Disasters and Severe Weather
Deepwater Horizon: BP oil spill response
On April 20, 2010, an explosion rocked the BP Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon,” killing 11 workers aboard. The oil platform, located 50 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana, burned for over 36 ours until the entire platform toppled and sank into the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, the oil well at the bottom of the Gulf was left wide open – and poured crude oil into the water. For nearly 90 days, oil flowed from the uncapped well into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico – threatening great environmental harm to the local and coastal waters and its residents. This largest oil disaster in American history was responded to by the Coast Guard and resolved in just over 5 months; cleanup efforts continued on for many more.
Super Storm Sandy
The National Response Coordination Center is the entity that coordinates Federal response to disasters and is staffed with representatives from many branches of Government. On October 27, 2012, the Administrator activated the NRCC to Level 1 (the highest) as the threat of Super Storm Sandy became greater by the minute. Sandy is the second-largest storm ever recorded, affecting the entire East Coast from Florida to Maine and spreading inland to Ohio and Indiana. Nearly 4 million people were directly impacted by Sandy, and the Homeland Security response was daunting. FEMA deployed the largest response team in its history (over 900); the response was effective and recovery went smoother than expected.
Homeland Security includes territorial waters. In September 2015, Hurricane Joaquin battered the Bahamas before heading to the Atlantic coast. The winds suddenly changed and the storm moved into the Atlantic. While the homeland was secure, ships were not! The US Coast Guard deployed rescue boats into the Category 5 storm (155 mph wind plus 50’ swells) to ensure safe passage – or rescue – of ships in the vicinity. The container ship “El Faro,” headed to San Juan with 28 American and 5 Polish crewmen aboard was disabled and taking on water. In the midst of that search and rescue operation, another distress call was received. Eventually, both vessels sunk, but the Coast Guard pushed their mission on despite the raging storm.
Joplin, MO Force F5 Tornado
Shortly after 5:30 p.m. on May 22, 2011, the town of Joplin, Missouri played host to the strongest tornado measurable – F-5. The twister left a path of destruction 2 miles wide and 15 miles long – nothing withstood its power. The Missouri Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 (MOTF-1), trained by the Department of Homeland Security, mobilized to stabilize the area’s electrical grid, find and rescue survivors and commence clean-up efforts. The team had just completed a detailed training exercise in St Louis, and they were quick to respond. Within days, several other teams arrived to assist in rescue operations. The storm caused $2.8B in damage and 158 people lost their lives.
Houston, TX Flood
In May 2015, Houston received heavy rain. It started on the 4th and continued for the rest of the month! By the 26th, the governor declared 37 counties as disaster areas; Houston was among the hardest hit areas. FEMA went into action and deployed many resources to coordinate emergency relief efforts, assist the residents with claims processing and help people through this severe weather event. Floods are particularly dangerous due to the temptation to not take the threat seriously enough – it doesn’t take much water to cause significant problems! The coordinated efforts of FEMA and State Agencies helped many Texans get through a serious difficulty.
Overseas Assistance: Nepal Earthquake
The Department of Homeland Security also offers help to victims overseas. On April 25, 2015, almost 9,000 people were killed and over 21,000 people injured in a magnitude 7.8 earthquake centered in Barpak, Gorkha in the Asian country of Nepal. The damage was immense – almost 50% of the country’s GDP! The Science and Technology Directorate (with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab) had developed “FINDER,” a search and rescue tool to help locate survivors under the rubble. Even after 4 days, FINDER was able to locate survivors; many were rescued after nearly a week of being buried alive. With the help of this technology, Homeland Security helped reduce the loss of life in Nepal.
Prostitution in Pennsylvania
Two men assembled a sophisticated and brutal prostitution ring in Allentown, PA in late 2013. When one prostitute was arrested, it was discovered that she was the victim of human trafficking and forced into sexual slavery at the hand of these two men. She reached out to the vice cop who had handled her case, who then contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) who covers this area of crime. The partnership between local law enforcement and Federal Agencies resulted in the capture and arrest of the two ‘business owners’ and justice was served. Additionally, all of their victims were given the assistance they needed to be restored to their normal lives.
Caught in the Air
Flight Attendants on U.S. airplanes are trained to recognize threats and risks as they keep a watchful eye on passengers, including victims of Human trafficking. The ‘Blue Lightning Initiative’ is administered by the Customer and Border Protection unit of the Department of Homeland Security; its training helped many flight attendants recognize victims and perpetrators in their work. In 2009, a flight attendant named Nancy noticed odd behavior between a woman and two children traveling together; the girl was sobbing uncontrollably while the woman seemed uncaring to the point of not knowing the children’s names! Once landed, Nancy reached out to the human trafficking hotline to report her observations; the resulting investigation led to a child trafficking ring in Boston, MA involving over 80 children brought in illegally from the Dominican Republic!
Illegal Drugs in the Caribbean
The Bahamas is not only a tropical island paradise, it is a stopover for the illegal drug trade. The Department of Homeland Security coordinated an effort with the US Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations called Operation Bahamas, Turks and Caicos (OPBAT) to combat the entry of drugs to US soil via the Caribbean. In September 2015, their efforts were rewarded with a drug bust that confiscated $2.5M worth of marijuana and captured many of the operatives involved in smuggling. The team was able to identify and track “go-fast” boats over successive nights; surface and air vessels pursued the boats and seized the cargo, vessels and six suspects were arrested and processed (in Nassau).
Between 2010 and 2012, over 80 kilos of heroin was brought to the US inside airline passengers, called ‘drug mules.’ This was the work of the Castillo Drug Smuggling Organization (CDSO) of the Dominican Republic. The drugs were packaged into “swallow-able” packets and ingested by couriers who were then flown into Philadelphia, PA, Newark, NJ and New York City. In September 2011, one of the ‘mules’ failed to arrive at the designated recovery location. This person had been detained by the Customs and Border Protection team who had discovered the smuggled drug packets. The investigation, joined by the Department of Homeland Security led to the capture, arrest and conviction of Hagino Castillo and his operatives.
Operation: Hidden Idol
For antiquities, the statement of validation is called a ‘provenance’ which acts similar to a ‘chain of Title’ in real estate. While difficult, these credentials can be manipulated or forged, allowing stolen works to appear legitimate at auction. An art dealer named Kapoor set up an intricate network of thieves and couriers to take stolen pieces and smuggle them into different countries in order to establish a false provenance before selling at auction for high profit. He is responsible for the theft and attempted re-sale of over 2,500 artifacts. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations’ (HSI) cultural property unit was able to locate these items in a Manhattan warehouse affiliated with Kapoor’s Gallery. Mr Kapoor is currently awaiting trial in India and the stolen property is in process of being returned to rightful owners.
Patrolling the Rio Grande
The Rio Grande is a 1,250 mile flowing network of waterways between the U.S. and Mexico which includes a variety of environments. Water depths vary from mere inches to 200’ along the border; rocks and other hazards appear and disappear at odd intervals. These are some of the challenges facing the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) when patrolling for drug smugglers. The CBP team “Riverine Force” is tasked with this patrol using specialized watercraft, air support and training to monitor the border. This coordinated effort was responsible for preventing $500,000 worth of marijuana from entering the country. While the smugglers escaped back to Mexico, 600 pounds of the illegal drug was confiscated.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Safety Administration does more than screen luggage for contraband. In June 2015, a passenger at New York’s JFK International Airport collapsed amid a violent choking fit. Her husband advised that she had been eating a doughnut which must have lodged in her throat. Despite many applications of the Heimlich maneuver, her throat remained blocked. The TSA Agent then started chest compressions and instructed her husband to breathe into her mouth while another agent called 911. After five minutes of exertion, the blockage finally dislodged and the woman breathed on her own. She shortly regained consciousness; thanks to the TSA training that provides all types of security to the general public.
Found and Lost
TSA screens every piece of luggage before it is loaded into the cargo hold of an airplane. This not only prevents in-flight disaster, it has saved lives on the ground. A screener at LaGuardia Airport in New York saw that a small dog was inside a suitcase. The Chihuahua has apparently climbed into the luggage unnoticed and wasn’t discovered by its owner! The traveler made arrangements for the pet to be returned home. At Newark Liberty International Airport in NJ, a Cartier watch valued at $100,000 was left behind. Its owner didn’t realize its loss until after he had landed in Japan. TSA helped confirm the ownership of the watch and ensure its safe return.
Nogales is a city that lies in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. It is divided by the U.S. Mexico border which includes a monitored entry gate. In 2011, responding to a vulnerability that had been discovered many years prior, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) established The Nogales Tunnel Task Force. As of 2014, over 100 tunnels have been detected and sealed off. Originally revealed as part of a routine inspection of wastewater drainage facilities, significant tunnel networks (used for both people and contraband) have been revealed and shut down to prevent further smuggling into the U.S.
Winter Weather Advantage
The Thousand Islands region along the St Lawrence River represents the border between the U.S. and Canada. Harsh winters freeze the river so solid in this area that motorized vehicles can drive across the river unhindered. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) staff is very familiar with the terrain and have many tools to keep this border secure. Once, Agents observed a man walking through a region wearing a snowmobile survival suit and sneakers. The Agents were able to track his path back to a abandoned snowmobile on the Canadian side of the border. Upon detaining the man, he was discovered to be a convicted Canadian felon – which made his entry into the U.S. illegal.
Capturing Wanted Criminals
The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) has a dedicated team: Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). This team works in conjunction with ICE to locate, arrest and deport illegal immigrants – many of whom are wanted in their home countries for crimes committed there. In 2014 alone, well over 300,000 such individuals were apprehended, processed and returned to the custody of their native Government. One such individual was Cesar Vega-Muñoz, head of a kidnapping/ransom organization that escaped custody in Mexico in 2010 and made his way to the U.S. ERO, partnering with international groups, was able to identify, locate and capture Munoz in 2011. ERO coordinated with Mexican authorities to arrange the extradition to face charges in Mexico.
Protecting Life at Sea
In May 2015, a passenger aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean noticed a dingy raft overloaded with people headed northerly toward Florida. She alerted the ship’s authorities who alerted the Coast Guard. Among its many duties, the US Coast Guard works to preserve life of anyone at sea; this precariously overloaded vessel presented a risk to its passengers. Approaching this home-made vessel in shark-infested waters presented some unusual challenges! All 27 passengers were rescued, given medical treatment and processed for return to Cuba. This was the first of three vessels intercepted by the Coast Guard, resulting in 50 migrants being rescued at sea.
Major Event Security
NFL Super Bowl
The NFL Championship Game, dubbed the Super Bowl, has a dizzying number of security needs. Because of the high publicity, large number of people in attendance (for the game and peripheral activities), the Department of Homeland Security takes a great interest in protecting all involved. In 2014, the game was played in MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ – in the shadow of New York City. To ensure that no harm came (a la “The Dark Knight Rises”) to fans, the DHA coordinated with the TSA, CBP and the US Coast Guard to prepare and monitor the event. As a result of these efforts, the only ones harmed were the Denver Broncos!
Papal Visit to Philadelphia
Visiting heads of state require specific security details; the Pope is no exception. In September 2015, Pope Francis toured Cuba and the U.S. including stops in Havana, Washington D.C., new York and Philadelphia. In instances like this, the US Secret Service oversees security under the National Special Security Events (NSSEs) category. Over 10 months’ of planning yielded the coordinated effort of the DHS, including the Coast Guard, CBP, ICE, TSA and FEMA as well as the State of Pennsylvania and city of Philadelphia to provide the best security for Pope Francis. Over 1 million people were anticipated in an environment specified as “open for business” in Philadelphia. This led to unprecedented cooperation between business owners and government agents, resulting in a very positive outcome.
2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament
When the world’s largest and most popular sporting event comes to an area, millions of fans come to see it. When the 2014 World Cup was hosted by Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, they were well prepared with help from the US TSA. The U.S. agency was involved to provide security for their country’s teams, so they partnered with local government agencies to coordinate efforts and provide training that would help Brazil prepare for the Olympics 2 years later. The TSA’s engagement under the Foreign Airport Assessment Program demonstrates the willingness to reach across borders to help protect our own through cooperation.
Child Porn and Illicit Activities
In November 2011, DHS Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) team was alerted to a possible victim by Danish law enforcement which had monitored websites known for the child porn trade (and worse). Denmark is a member of the Virtual Global Taskforce that works to detect online sexual abuse and rescue victims. Using high-end technology, a HIS agent was able to discern clues contained in the picture posted online that led to the victim’s whereabouts. The clue in the picture led the team to Kansas, where local agents drove miles of highway until they found the exact spot where the photo was taken. Working with local law enforcement, other clues and pictures were reviewed until they believed they had found the location of the victim. A raid was executed and the victim was found safe; the perpetrator was apprehended and brought to justice.
International Fraud using ATMs
In December 2012, a group of 8 people visited 140 different ATMs in New York City to withdraw $400,000 in cash – fraudulently. These criminals held specially encoded ATM cards with no withdrawal limits and emptied every ATM they encountered in less than 2 ½ hours. New York was not the only city impacted – the same activity was carried out simultaneously in 20 countries. The total loss was $5 million. This was the result of a cyber crime, or hack, of a credit card processor network to acquire account information and manipulate the data to increase the balance and remove the withdrawal limit. Then, paired cards are created and the withdrawals commence; and this crime involved only 5 accounts! After a second, larger heist just 3 months later, the Secret Service engaged with DHS HIS to focus on the street-level participants (called ‘cashers’). Using cyber forensics and information from an expansive network if field offices, HIS apprehended 7 members of the New York cell.
Denial of Utility Service
In December 2015, a massive blackout was experienced in the Ukraine involving 289 cities. Energy providers’ telephone lines were blocked as call centers were inundated with thousands of auto-generated calls. As the utility was forced to send field workers to reset local generators, a virus that had erased the engineers’ computers was discovered. This meant that the power had to be restored manually. The Department of Homeland Security’s National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) was contacted for assistance. The investigation has not officially named a culprit in the cyber-attack, but it has brought awareness to the vulnerability in the many networks and systems that citizens rely heavily upon.
Learning from Others
The March 2016 terrorist attack in Brussels, Belgium was a wake-up call to the world. The coordinated effort by the terrorists was effective: both the airport and main train station were rocked by explosions almost simultaneously. The impact included 35 dead and hundreds injured. One important lesson learned was that while terrorists no longer have access to secure areas of airports or buildings, they can still have impact in “soft-security” areas just outside secure areas. The U.S. took the opportunity to review and expand its own tactics to protect citizens at home, including closer scrutiny of anyone with access to airport terminals was implemented and a new team: Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR). These teams are deployed nationwide and closely monitor all areas of our transportation network. While terror tactics evolve and mutate, security measures adjust accordingly.
Time Square Car Bomb
On May 3, 2010, a SUV was carelessly parked near several theatres along Times Square in downtown New York. When smoke began pouring out from the back of the vehicle, 2 nearby vendors alerted a mounted police officer who called for backup. Evacuation efforts were immediately made; while there was no explosion (despite the contents of the vehicle being highly destructive), there was no obvious perpetrator, either. Law enforcement engaged the US CBP National Targeting Center (NTC) which helps identify people entering the country as potential threats (worth monitoring). Through cooperative efforts, the primary suspect was identified just two days later. He was captured attempting to flee the country. He is now serving a life sentence in prison.
2013 Boston Marathon
In April 2013, two pressure cooker bombs were detonated near the finish line of the famed Boston Marathon. Numerous bystanders and runners were injured. While emergency personnel tended to the wounded, DHS launched a lockdown of the area in an effort to prevent the escape of the perpetrators. This included highway monitoring, re-screening of airline passengers and examining the waterfront. Just 4 days later, as a result of the coordinated efforts to prevent their escape, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar were captured (Tamerlan did not survive the episode). The efforts of DHS and partner agencies resulted in the rapid conclusion of this investigation.
2016 U.S. Presidential Election
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) published a Joint Analysis Report (JAR) explaining the methods and tool used by Russian hackers to influence the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election. “The JAR reveals that two different actors participated in the intrusion into a U.S. political party, one in the summer of 2015… and the other in spring 2016.” Security researchers were able to identify some of the tools used, such as the XTunnel malware (believed to have been used in a DNC hack). Others include a backdoor against Linux machines, a trojan that targets OS X systems and malware to compromise Windows workstations. This is believed to be state-sponsored and international sanctions are still pending.
Continuing Partnership with the European Union
In November 2017, the “U.S – EU Ministerial Meeting on Justice and Home Affairs” occurred in Washington, D.C. to reaffirm the importance of partnership between U.S. and the E.U. concerning common threats to security. Specific topics of discussion included the importance of operational cooperation and effective information sharing, such as the Passenger Name Record (PNR) databases, terrorism financing and money laundering, the misuse of the internet for terrorist purposes, the importance of ensuring swift cross-border access by law enforcement authorities. The U.S. and the E.U. restated their commitment to continue common work scheduled a follow-up meeting in the first half of 2018 in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Terror Attack in New York City
In December 2017, an attempted terror attack was made in New York near Times Square during the morning commute. The perpetrator, a radicalized Bangladesh native, attempted a suicide attack with a home-made device in the name of the Islamic State. Along with local law enforcement, the DHS is involved with the investigation. Per a DHS press release, “We will continue to assist New York authorities with the response and investigation and we urge the public to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity. More broadly, the administration continues to adopt significant security measures to keep terrorists from entering our country and from recruiting within our borders. The enemy we face is persistent and adaptive. But they should know this: Americans will not be coerced by terrorism, and we will not allow it to become the new normal. We will fight back aggressively and bring terrorists to justice.”