Boston 'Cartoon' Terror No Laughing Matter

Just when I thought I had the topic and direction all sorted out for this edition of the Peoples Weekly Brief, the Cartoon Network generously provides new grist for the column mill by cleverly slapping up numerous odd (some say suspicious) devices on key infrastructure sites in Boston in a misguided attempt to promote one of their animated cartoon series.

If you happen to be in Boston while reading this, you definitely know of what I speak. If you are not in Boston, and statistically that would be the greater likelihood, you may still have noticed the 14 hours of continuous coverage generated by this bizarre event.

For all PWB readers who are in the dark on this one, let me provide a quick summary of events in the section titled “What was up with Boston on Wednesday?”

Cartoon Network, owned by Turner Broadcasting, has an evening programming dubbed “Adult Swim” during which it shows cartoons with a “mature” theme. One of their cartoons is called, and I am not making this up, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” If you haven’t seen Aqua Teen Hunger Force, it follows the crime fighting exploits of three key characters (each a different fast food item) who share a group house in New Jersey.

Huh? Exactly.

At some point, a decision was made to conduct a marketing campaign for the Hunger Force, and this is where perhaps a little adult supervision could have come in handy. The overall intention was to place laptop sized blinking pseudo billboards, featuring blinking lights in the shape of a supporting character, a Mooninite, making an obscene gesture, in locations where the appropriate demographic may view them. When I call the Mooninite a supporting character, I in no way mean to denigrate his/her acting abilities.

The blinking devices (some might say suspicious blinking devices) were in fact placed in outdoor locations in and around several cities, including New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle and San Francisco. In Boston, two young men, who may or may not be Aqua Teen Hunger Force fans, were hired by a marketing firm to place the devices. You and I, should we find ourselves with that job responsibility, might locate the devices around college campuses, hipster restaurants and nightclubs of the moment. Our two Boston mini-billboard placing gentlemen instead chose locations such as a girder below an interstate.

To immediately make our way to the satisfying ending, transit workers, police and others started spotting these devices around Boston and reports of suspicious devices came tumbling in. Much time, money, angst and effort was expended prior to realizing that the Mooninite, and the Aqua Teen Hunger Force, meant us no harm.

This section is titled “Lessons to be learned from the amazing case of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force and its resulting impact on our homeland security posture.” I’m working on being less wordy. Let’s consider what we learned from yesterday’s incident:

People in Boston from numerous walks of life were slow to recognize a Mooninite when they saw one. The Cartoon Network, it’s advertising department, associated marketing service providers and others failed to ask themselves…”In the current hyper sensitive environment where security and homeland defense top the concerns of many and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a sign warning of unattended packages, is it marginally moronic to inundate cities around America with laptop sized electronic gizmos slapped to buildings, girders and what-not without any effort to coordinate with local authorities?”

No one in Boston’s bomb squad apparently watches Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Visual recognition of the Mooninite by one of the officers as the situation unfolded could have saved the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has estimated the cost of the response to the incident to be possibly $500,000 or more.

This may or may not be paid back to the city by the Cartoon Network. Once the “threat” was truly understood, the predictable backlash came against the city’s law enforcement and other agencies involved, which were criticized for overreacting.

Well, here’s the way I see it. Having spent numerous years in the CIA (motto “We’re everybody’s scapegoat”), I am not in the least surprised at the tendency by some possibly well meaning Monday morning quarterbacks to say that the Boston response was excessive. However, in the world of counterterrorism, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. The authorities in Boston began receiving reports of suspicious packages placed around the city in an apparently coordinated effort. At what point would you not want them to take that seriously?

Remember from our earlier summary of events, the perpetrators had not bothered to alert the local authorities to their campaign. This would have been a simple process, but either was not considered or was discarded as being possibly too logical and grown-up for a campaign promoting a cartoon with characters named Fryloc, MasterShake and Meatwad. I am not making that up.

In reality, what happened in Boston proved to be an extremely good exercise for the first responders, federal authorities and others charged with keeping us safe. There’s always room for improvement in how the Department of Homeland Security, state and local authorities work with each other and respond to potential threats. That’s why they spend time training and running through various scenarios and table top exercises.

Responding to one suspicious package is difficult; multiply that by several spread around a city the size of Boston in the middle of a work week and you’ve got a very challenging scenario. Numerous agencies have to work together in the course of the response, sharing resources and responsibilities, managing communications, examining available intelligence databases for possible insight into the unfolding events… and this happened on a day when our British allies were busy rounding up terrorist suspects in the UK city of Birmingham, creating a heightened sense of concern over possibly coordinated terrorist actions.

Overreacting? You must be kidding. We should be heartened by the speed and energy expended in Boston when they initially received the “threat” reports. Aside from recovering the cost of the effort, even if that means Meatwad takes a paycut, we should assume the agencies involved in the response will consider this a case study to be examined for further ways to improve coordination, timing and operational strategy. The next blinking Mooninite making an obscene gesture may not be so harmless.

But that’s just my opinion. Let me know yours, and let me know what concerns you have about our homeland defense and security efforts. We’ll be talking about that in future columns.

Respond to the Writer

Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, and appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker also serves as a script consultant and advisor within the entertainment industry, lending his technical expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks," and the major motion pictures "Proof of Life" and "Spy Games."

Mike Baker is the Co-Founder of Diligence LLC, a leading global intelligence, security and risk management firm. Prior to starting Diligence, Mike spent over a decade and half with the CIA as a covert field operations officer. He is a regular contributor in the national and international media on intelligence, security, counterterrorism and political issues. He appears regularly on Fox News, as well as other major media outlets.