Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Plot Against Obama "no credible threat"

What We're Told
According to various news reports, three suspects were arrested Sunday. Erratic driving, a suspended driver's license, and a vehicle rented by someone else led to the first arrest, followed by two more upon questioning the first suspect. The three men, Tharin Gartrell, Shawn Adolf, and Nathan Johnson, were all high on meth when arrested. The initial arrest also netted two scoped rifles, a spotting scope, ammunition,two wigs, camouflage clothing, a bulletproof vest, two walkie-talkies, 4.4 grams of meth, and 3 fake IDs.

One or more of the men may have ties to white supremacists, although whether the ties are significant or just assumed because they were wearing swastikas or totenkopf insignia is not clear.

Security Response
Officials say there was "no credible threat" against Obama. Although the men made verbal threats against Obama and racist remarks concerning the White House, the plans were "more aspirational, perhaps, than operational," said US Attorney Troy Eid. "The law recognizes a difference between a true threat -- one that can be carried out -- and the reported racist rantings of a drug addict."

Ballistics Analysis

The real question is, could they have killed Obama with those weapons? It's been publicly released that the plan was to shoot Obama with a .22-250 sighted for 750 yards from a high vantage point.

Update: a New York Post story indicates the plotters also had a .270.

I did a little research. In consideration of the potential for misuse, I will deliberately alter some of the data I provide by enough to make it useless but not enough to reduce the clarity of the argument. I will also not link to any of my calculations, just the base data from which they were derived.

Although the corporate media persists in referring to the weapons found as "sniper rifles", the .22-250 is not a round any sniper would choose for a 750 yard shot. The most common rounds used by sharpshooters and snipers in western armies are probably the .308 (aka 7.62mm) or .50. Ballistically the .22-250 is vastly inferior to either the .308 or the .50.

At 750 yards the .22-250 firing a 60g bullet with a 3600 fps muzzle velocity will have a terminal velocity of about 1338 fps and deliver about 240 ft-lbs of energy.

At 750 yards the .308 firing a 180g bullet with a 2600 fps muzzle velocity will have a terminal velocity of about 1250 fps and deliver about 625 ft-lbs of energy.

Update: At 750 yards the .270 firing a 150g bullet with a 2822 fps muzzle velocity will have a terminal velocity of about 1900 fps and deliver about 1250 ft-lbs of energy. This particular load and round is very efficient.

At 750 yards the .50 firing a 660g bullet with a 2800 fps muzzle velocity will have a terminal velocity of about 1800 fps and deliver about 4800 ft-lbs of energy.

Tw0 hundred and forty ft-lbs is enough if you can put it in the right place. It's about 3/4 the impact from a point-blank .45 handgun. Assuming a 6 mph (roughly what's expected Thursday night) crosswind, a shooter would have to hold more than a yard to one side of and more than 12 feet above the intended target. Actually, above the intended target's position between 1 and 1 1/4 seconds in the future. A great shooter could do it, but it would take a great shooter.

Anyone who's using meth isn't going to make that shot. Meth use commonly raises blood pressure and heart rate and often produces tremors. None of these improve accuracy. Moving up to the .308 or the .50 means that less accuracy is required because there's more energy imparted to the target. If these guys were carrying a Barrett 82A1/M107 I think their threat would have been taken a lot more seriously.

On the basis of ballistic analysis alone, I believe that we have to conclude that these guys have seen Shooter a few too many times. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I did not see the movie, but I did read the book.)

Update: The report that they were carrying a .270 is considerably more worrisome. It would still take a fantastic shot, and it seems unlikely that a meth-head could make it. However, the .270 allows much more room for error. If the NYPost report is accurate, I would feel much less certain about their failure even if they managed to get a shot off. It appears to me that the local security forces may have downplayed this event.

Liquid Explosives Plot Response

It might be instructive to consider this threat and compare the response to the "liquid explosives" threat of 2006. A group of suspects was infiltrated by UK police and arrested, possibly on the insistence of the US.

The alleged plot (eight accused conspirators [out of 24 arrested] are on trial awaiting a jury verdict) involved creating explosives on board an airliner from multiple sources -- specifically hydrogen peroxide, sulfuric acid, and acetone (nail polish remover). By generating their own explosive on board, the alleged plotters planned to bypass security precautions in place. Several of the accused are alleged to have created "martyrdom videos", but have claimed that they were part of a documentary film. Three of the eight have pled guilty to one or more charges, and the jury has been deliberating for over a month on the remainder of the charges.

Skeptics expressed concern over both the reality and the feasibility of the alleged plot. There were no plane tickets, many of the alleged conspirators didn't even have passports (and thus could not have gotten on the transatlantic flights they were allegedly targeting), and there are significant questions about the feasibility of generating their own explosives on-board.

Photo Credit: Tim Boyle/Getty Images from the MSNBC website

Despite these concerns, there was an immediate ban on the carrying of liquids on board airliners. Given that the concern was the combination of several precursors into an effective explosive, the random mixing of confiscated materials in barrels seemed perverse.

More than two years later, without anyone demonstrating the feasibility of the alleged explosive plot, without a conviction after a month or more of deliberation, while the supposed explosive precursors are randomly mixed by TSA in trash barrels, we are still unable to carry water onto airplanes.

Threat Assessment & Response

It seems to me that we have a problem with threat assessment or response.

First, consider the initial official response. The response to the Obama plot was "no problem". The response to the Airliner plot was "the sky is falling! the sky is falling!" Is this difference a valid distinction between the realistic threats? No. Is it a valid distinction between the perceived threat? No. The Obama plotters appear to have motive and means. Whether they could actually achieve their aims is questionable, but they had an actually lethal weapon and some kind of a plan. They represent an immediate potential threat. The Airline plotters (who were under surveillance by the police) had no effective weapon, no tickets, and no access to their targets. They may have been a potential threat, but there was no immediacy.

Second, consider the actual threat levels. Neither of these plots was going to succeed. The Obama plotters could never have made the shot necessary. The airliner plotters were never going to manage to create a functional explosive on-board.

Third, consider the responding agencies. The Obama plotters are being assessed by the US Secret Service and local police agencies. The Airliner plotters were assessed (as little to no threat) by the local police, but re-assessed (as an enormous immediate threat) by national intelligence agencies and political figures.

Upon examining these points, I think a valid question arises: is there a political dimension to these responses?

Updated: Dave Neiwert @ FDL on the event

Updated: 20080828 10:45am : Added NYPost story, .270 ballistics, and additional conclusion at end of Ballistics Analysis section