Friday, January 13, 2006

Tracfones As Detonation Devices

Hat Tip: Mike’s America

According to ABC News, individuals from the Middle East and Pakistan are buying disposable cellular phones in mass quantities:

Federal agents have launched an investigation into a surge in the purchase of large quantities of disposable cell phones by individuals from the Middle East and Pakistan, ABC News has learned.

The phones — which do not require purchasers to sign a contract or have a credit card — have many legitimate uses, and are popular with people who have bad credit or for use as emergency phones tucked away in glove compartments or tackle boxes. But since they can be difficult or impossible to track, law enforcement officials say the phones are widely used by criminal gangs and terrorists.

"There's very little audit trail assigned to this phone. One can walk in, purchase it in cash, you don't have to put down a credit card, buy any amount of minutes to it, and you don't, frankly, know who bought this," said Jack Cloonan, a former FBI official who is now an ABC News consultant.

Law enforcement officials say the phones were used to detonate the bombs terrorists used in the Madrid train attacks in March 2004.

"The application of prepaid phones for nefarious reasons, is really widespread. For example, the terrorists in Madrid used prepaid phones to detonate the bombs in the subway trains that killed more than 200 people," said Roger Entner, a communications consultant. (Emphasis mine)

It has always struck me as pathetically hypocritical that terrorists, who despise free and open societies, will utilize the technology that is the product of such societies, in an attempt to destroy those same societies. This is also what makes them so dangerous, and the need to eliminate them so critical.

The incidents that raised the red flag:

In one New Year's Eve transaction at a Target store in Hemet, Calif., 150 disposable tracfones were purchased. Suspicious store employees notified police, who called in the FBI, law enforcement sources said.

In an earlier incident, at a Wal-Mart store in Midland, Texas, on Dec. 18, six individuals attempted to buy about 60 of the phones until store clerks became suspicious and notified the police. A Wal-Mart spokesperson confirmed the incident.

The Midland police report, dated Dec. 18 and obtained by ABC News, states: "Information obtained by MPD [Midland Police Department] dispatch personnel indicated that approximately six individuals of Middle-Eastern origin were attempting to purchase an unusually large quantity of tracfones (disposable cell phones with prepaid minutes attached)." At least one of the suspects was identified as being from Iraq and another from Pakistan, officials said.

"Upon the arrival of officers, suspects were observed moving away from the registers — appearing to evade detection while ridding themselves of the merchandise."

Other reports have come in from other cities, including Dallas, and from authorities in other states. Authorities in Pennsylvania, New York and other parts of Texas confirmed that they were alerted to the cases, and sources say other jurisdictions were also notified.

The growing use of the throwaway cell phones has been cited by President Bush as an important justification for expanding the wiretap laws under the Patriot Act.

"Law enforcement officials can now use what's now called roving wiretaps, which will prevent a terrorist from switching cell phones to get a message out to one of his buddies," Bush said on April 20, 2004.

Now, can we please move past worrying about the wiretapping Al Qaeda phone calls and take this threat seriously?

Other reaction:

Bryan Preston notes what was left out of the story:

The story points out that the Madrid bombers used pre-paid cell phones in their work. It doesn’t point out that the last time the press leaked operational information like this, it helped Osama bin Laden decide to move from satellite phones, which presumably the NSA had been using to track him, to harder-to-track means of communication including human mules hand carrying notes. That was quite a while before 9-11; the disclosure of the satellite phone tracking probably helped him stay alive long enough to make sure 9-11 happened.

Mike notes how the Patriot Act applies to these particular threats:

Democrats, who recently crowed about killing the Patriot Act, were also opposed to extending a provision for "roving wiretaps" which allows law enforcement to monitor individuals using any phone, not just wiretaps on specific phone numbers. Without that authority, the use of multiple disposable phones would make monitoring those calls nearly impossible. Law enforcement would have to go back to a court and get a new warrant every time a suspected terrorist grabbed another phone out of the bag.

Combine Democrat opposition to extending the Patriot Act with the leak describing the NSA program to monitor terrorist calls into the United States and you find Americans are at greater risk for terrorist attack.

Sister Toldjah issues a smack down:

When did the story on the NSA eavesdropping break? Dec. 16. I hope the “whistleblowers“ and those who once upon a time claimed to be so concerned about how leaks could damage our national security suffer some sleepless nights and restless days over this. A lot of them.

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