The daredevils flung themselves from the tower’s roof one-by-one. After an exhilarating freefall, each jumper deployed his parachute. They floated down, down, down in the neon-and-halogen streaked darkness, landing near the Goldman Sachs Building, where security cameras finally caught a glimpse of them.
The parachuting stunt made the news that morning. Sort of. The police were aware that at least two persons—probably men—had parachuted into lower Manhattan, landing near Goldman Sachs. What the police didn’t know was where the drop had originated.
As the world later learned, the jumpers are young men in their late twenties and early thirties—an ironworker, a carpenter, and a parachute instructor. They are thrill-seekers. BASE jumpers. They crave the bliss of leaping from great heights, from places that are often—usually—forbidden. More than whimsical daredevils, they pursue their thrills scientifically, calculating trajectories and factoring in weather conditions and traffic patterns, meticulously calibrating their jumps to avoid injury, death and harm to others. They craft their jumps as cleverly as Ferris Bueller planned his day off.
On “go” night the jumpers gained entrance to the WTC’s Freedom Tower (nearing completion, but not yet open to the public) by finding gaps—literal, not figurative, gaps—in the building’s security. The ironworker was actually a member of the 1 WTC construction crew, so he knew the site well. There were gaps here-and-there in the site’s security fences; the jumpers slipped through a narrow opening in the north fence. They took the stairs all the way to the top of the tower—more than a thousand feet—without any encounters with security. As the jumpers later reported, the few security guards on scene congregated together at ground level.
The daredevils climbed the tower. They waited hours—hours—for optimal conditions, then they wished each other well, and jumped.
The footage is invigorating, the rush palpable to anyone who views it. Landing safely, they stowed their parachutes and lit out for home. The parachute instructor, known for rogue BASE jumps, was questioned—but not arrested—by the police the next morning.
After the rogue jump, the ironworker went back to work the very next day, and continued to help to build 1 WTC. All three young men went about their daily lives. Weeks passed, and then months, with no law enforcement knock at their doors. But the NYPD and the Port Authority PD were putting the pieces together, bit-by-bit.
On Monday, March 24, 2014, the jumpers and a suspected accomplice (a “lookout”) were arrested. The daredevils now face up to seven years in prison.
By their own admission, the young men knew they might be arrested—even shot as terrorists—if they had been found on the site, and they are not surprised that they were eventually arrested. Their jump was extremely embarrassing to those tasked with defending not only NYC in general but the WTC in specific. The WTC is protected by dedicated members of a siloed network of entities that include the NYPD, the Port Authority, and private contractors. The leadership in charge of safeguarding the World Trade Center ended up with a big glob of egg on its face. A head of security resigned on March 28, 2014, only four days after the jumpers were arrested. Nobody likes to be embarrassed. Which might be why law enforcement and justice tended to bay for the jumpers’ blood; the young men face up to seven years behind bars for trespassing and glorious stupidity.
Some have rushed to the jumpers’ defense, including groups whose loved ones (9/11 victims and 9/11 first-responders) perished on September 11, 2001. While everyone can agree that the young men weren’t supposed to jump off the Freedom Tower, there is also a general consensus that it was hardly the crime of the century. Supporters argue that the young men’s flouting of the rules is much less important than the fact that the jumpers exposed critical gaps in the site’s security. Rather than tar and feather the boys—plucky, modern-day Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns—supporters contend we should focus instead on the security problems their escapade uncovered. The jumpers are the charmingly scampish Ferris Buellers to the system’s vindictive Principal Rooney. Are the daredevils the villains of this event, or those who failed to provide the Freedom Tower with thoroughly inadequate protection?
We are conditioned by post-9/11 films and television programs to believe that our national icons, monuments, treasures, and security targets are being guarded 24/7 by Jack Bauer-like patriots with incredible firearm and martial arts skills and legions of guards, soldiers, attack dogs, weaponry, and tech. There are cameras everywhere—right? And sealed doors that can be opened only with complex access codes and retinal scans. Good guys in Kevlar, armed to the teeth and carrying smart phones that connect back to Chloe-like computer geniuses, are on call at a moment’s notice to take down the bad guys. That’s the image that we believed in, and clung to, and that let us sleep soundly at night.
The Freedom Tower BASE jumpers lanced that belief, deflated it, exposed it as no more than hot air, smoke-and-mirrors, fantasy. They exposed the ugly and disturbing truth that even post-9/11 we are scraping by with holes in fences and non-working cameras and thinly stretched guard crews even at high-profile, high-risk target sites like 1 WTC. It’s unnerving, to say the least.
Did the young men’s BASE jump off the Freedom Tower serve as a wake-up call to those overseeing security at WTC? Once law enforcement began to piece together how the daredevils gained access to the tower, were lessons learned? Were security gaps quickly remedied?
Clearly not, as revealed by a kid from Weehawken.
* * *
In the wee early hours of March 16, 2014, about a week before the WTC BASE jumpers were arrested, a teen daredevil decided he wanted to scale the spire on top of the Freedom Tower.
The New Jersey boy entered the site through a hole in the fence. No guard noticed or stopped him. He climbed a jungle-gym of scaffolding until he reached the sixth floor, then, allegedly wearing a hard hat to look like a legit construction worker, he asked an elevator operator to run him up to floor 88. The operator complied. The young man then walked from the 88th to 104th floor—top of the world—and ghosted past a sleeping security guard (the only rooftop security measure in sight).
The BASE jumpers leaped off the Freedom Tower on September 30, 2013. The investigation of their stunt began almost immediately. Yet on March 16, 2014, there are still holes in the WTC site fencing. There is an alarming lack of guards. There are no cameras sending live feeds of intruders to watchful security officers. Instead, there is an elevator operator who transports a person without any ID or security badge up to the 88th floor. (He was subsequently reassigned.) And on the roof, there is a sleeping guard. (He was subsequently fired.)
Once he reached the rooftop of 1 WTC, the teen scaled its already-famous spire. The spire/antenna is an important architectural feature of the Freedom Tower because it raises the building’s official height to 1,776 feet, a reference to 1776, the year the United States declared its independence. Without the spire, the building tops out at 1,368 feet. Those good at math are already making the calculation: The spire is about 400 feet tall in its own right. 400 feet—about the height of a forty-story building.
The teen scaled the spire, taking photographs from his perilous perch. We live in an age of visual documentation. Everything from our kids’ first steps to our after-dinner crème brulé is not only memorialized but then posted in photographic and video formats to our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest accounts. Now, as never before, the entire world is a stage, and we are players on it. From the excruciatingly dull moments of our lives to those that are dazzlingly epic we frame, record, edit, and share those instants with the world. It was illegal to sneak into the site, and illegal and dangerous to climb the spire, but having done it, the teen simply had to record his victory. Top of the world. Here I am. Wish you were here.
After a couple of hours—still completely undetected—at the top of New York City, the young daredevil descended the tower. The way down led him right into the arms of security who (finally) realized something was wrong. The photographs of the climb that he had captured and posted would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt what he had done, just as the BASE jumpers’ GoPro footage was a smoking gun. Because the Weehawken climber was a teen, and because he didn’t BASE jump onto New York City streets, he faced far less severe penalties than the adult BASE jumpers.
* * *
Sometimes, perception is everything. We all see the world differently. What bores one person might interest another. What frightens one person might magnetically draw another individual.
Security experts tend to be rules-focused individuals. They like order. They like to experience order, and they like to create it. Policy, protocols, rules, regulations—those are the tools of their craft. We need these logical, rules-focused thinkers in the world. They shape and secure our civilizations. Without their input and influence, society might devolve into chaos. Long may they continue in their vital works.
Security experts often have a rather large blind spot.
Being rules-focused, they often cannot put themselves in the mind-frame of those who are thrill seekers, daredevils, extremists. Those who color outside the lines. The tricksters. The pranksters. The disruptors. Someone who, for example, feels hypnotically drawn to leap off a 1,368 foot-tall building. Or to scale a forty-story spire. Those who not only bend the rules, but break them into a million splinters, whether for a zealous cause, or just for the sheer fun of it.
Picture a middle aged security director, still fit but starting to run a bit flabby. When he sees a multi-story jumble of scaffolding at the base of a high-rise for which he’s responsible, what does he see?
Who would be loony enough to try to navigate that maze of planks and supports?
Similarly, when he looks at a one-foot gap in a fence, he thinks, Who would be daft enough to try to squeeze through there?
Many—though certainly not all—security personnel have a mental bias toward the logical, sensible, and predictable. It is difficult for them to conceive of what a mercurial personality would do. A thrill-seeking daredevil. A mentally disturbed person. An anarchist. A terrorist. How can a logically minded security leader anticipate and design against the incursions of the illogical—of the disruptor?
To a parkour daredevil like the Weehawken teen, the jumble of scaffolding at the base of 1 WTC didn’t look like a deterrent. It beckoned him like a playground. And the enormous spire didn’t scare him. It drew him like candy. Most of us would have been scared to death clinging to the slender spire, almost two-thousand feet above Manhattan. For the teen it was exhilarating. It was victory.
And to BASE jumpers like the Freedom Tower trio, the roof of 1 WTC emitted a siren song, calling them to leap, to fly—the leap of their lives.
Disruptors don’t think like security leaders. Being safe might be a priority (the BASE jumpers didn’t want to crash-land and die, for example, and made calculations to ensure safe jumps), but it’s not the priority. The rush, the fun, the challenge, the danger, the blast of adrenalin, the beauty of falling past the glimmering glass--those qualities trump safety every time.
Even security leaders who can think outside the box then have to contend with stingy funding at times. If they don’t have the budget to deploy sufficient guards, or for live camera feeds, and so forth, then they are hamstrung.
And even security leaders who can think outside of the box and have a fat budget have to contend with siloed information. By their very nature security entities tend to hoard and guard the information that comes their way, to compartmentalize it and share it oh-so grudgingly with rival and even partner organizations. In this fashion intelligence is fragmented, and confusion arises about which organization is responsible for which task. Conscientious employees, unsure what is or is not their responsibility, sometimes step back and take a wait-and-see attitude. In the meantime, the disruptors gain access to their targets and execute their pranks—or their terror missions.
So three major things are needed to improve the security of our most at-risk targets: a) sufficient funding, b) clear communication among silos, and c) security designers who think disruptively. With those three things we have a better chance to adequately anticipate, deter, and thwart disruptive incursions into our high-stakes locales.
Proper funding and inter-agency cooperation may be pipe dreams. Those challenges are as old as civilization.
But it wouldn’t be that difficult to enlist disruptor insights.
* * *
It’s September 20, 2014, and a forty-two year old man jumps the White House fence.
He is not overtly brandishing a weapon, nor waving a bomb. He’s just a guy. He sprints like mad toward the North Portico. It’s a distance of seventy yards. He sprints the distance, and nobody stops him.
He enters the White House by the unlocked North Portico door, knocks over a petite, lone Secret Service agent, and races eighty yards into the heart of the ground floor. Part of his mad dash takes him past a staircase that leads up to the President’s private residence.
Secret Service agents finally stop his mad dash. He is taken into custody. It turns out he is a homeless veteran coping with PTSD. He is carrying a 3 ½-inch folding knife on his person. He says he tried to gain access to the White House because he has something important to say to the President. There are things (the intruder says) the President needs to know. As the story unfolds over the next week, it becomes clear that there are things we all need to know—about the security of the White House.
It is revealed that the intruder has already come to the attention of law enforcement in recent months, multiple times, for having weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammo in his vehicle, and for strange behavior near the White House.
Early, heavily spun statements to the media claim that the intruder was stopped just inside the front door. Within days the truth of how deeply the man penetrated the ground floor is revealed.
Almost immediately the head of the Secret Service, still relatively new to the post and having been tasked with improving the Secret Service’s performance, is publicly and privately raked over the coals by enraged (some genuinely, some theatrically, some both) politicians on the House Oversight Committee. The head of the Secret Service resigns the day after her drubbing, citing a wish not to be a “distraction” detrimental to the investigation and the retooling of the agency.
In the days following the disruption, there is talk of drastic measures like setting up checkpoints around the White House in a one-block radius. There is talk of adding more agents, more surveillance cameras, more this and more that. But it becomes readily apparent to anyone following the story that what’s really needed is simply more common sense. If a few small but crucial things had been in place—locks on the front door; alarms that weren’t muted; a heavier security presence inside the door—the incident wouldn’t have gotten so out of hand. It’s not about big security; it’s about the right security. And White House security has to be designed with disruptors in mind.
One thing that became clear in the wake of the incident is how heavily siloed the White House is. There is a whole coterie of staff, including ushers, running the house, and there are Secret Service agents protecting the President and the First Family, and there is a National Parks presence, since this is a National Parks site. So … Who knows what, and when? How is intelligence shared? Who is responsible for what, and when? How did the ushers, who complained about the noise of the alarms, convince the Secret Service to mute the door alarms? Why were ushers dictating security measures?
The detriment of the silos is underlined by an earlier incident, when someone fired a gun at the White House in 2011. Although shots were heard and reported, agents seemed to be unable to decide what to do about them. Dismissed by supervisory staff as probably being vehicle backfire or gunfire exchanged between gang members on the streets beyond the White House, the gun shots were not investigated. It seems incredible in retrospect, but absent the actual sight of someone brandishing a shotgun, no one seemed able to pool data and launch an investigation or take any action, even the simple act of searching the premises for evidence of an attack. In the absence of clear communication, clear leadership, and imagination, nothing was done. It was left to a housekeeper to discover shattered glass and evidence of gunfire days later. At the White House. The President’s residence.
A similar indecision seems to have paralyzed the agents covering the White House lawn on September 20, 2014. While it certainly might be overkill (literally) to gun down, indiscriminately, anyone running across the White House lawn, or to release the hounds to mangle the intruder, simply letting the intruder close the distance with an unlocked, unalarmed door is an unacceptable alternative. Minimal force is indicated, as an intruder might be a mentally challenged individual, or a prankish teen, rather than a terrorist. But some type of force should have been employed, some type of takedown. Agents should have swarmed with TASERs or tear gas or rubber bullets—someone should have at least turned on the bl—dy lawn sprinklers.
It felt like no one knew what to do as the intruder raced across the lawn. No one knew what to do, so everyone waited for someone else to do something—but nobody did. Nobody stopped the intruder on the lawn, nobody raised a general alarm, and nobody swarmed the unlocked front door to help the lone, petite agent on duty fend off the disruptor. Fail, fail, fail.
To be clear: These agents are true patriots doing a vital and important job. These are dedicated individuals. But the security designs have glaring blind spots that need to be addressed. In this instance, the disruption of the White House, think of the Star Wars Death Star principle. A massive armored fortress might be able to defend against massive threats, but it can be curiously vulnerable to a surprise attack by a small, agile foe. The White House might have impeccable plans in place to defend against an epic terrorist attack, but it earned an “F” for its handling of a single disruptor. Two disruptors, if you count the incident of the sniper who shot out White House window panes in 2011.
* * *
Sufficient funding. Communication between silos. Insight into the minds of disruptors.
Security designers would do well to consult a variety of disruptors (and those who work with them) when designing security measures and protocols.
When designing any building or site which might be a prime terrorist target, leaders would do well to hire disruptors as consultants. That parkour kid, with the videos all over YouTube? That fearless BASE jumper you saw on that news show? That ex-con who served ten years for infiltrating Fort X? That psychotherapist who wrote the book on PTSD-driven behaviors? That award-winning videogame designer? That ex-con hacker? Get those experts into the design think tanks. They will see what the security guys miss. They will see the gaps, the opportunities, the temptations to which security brass are often blind.
* * *
Anyone who knowingly defies the law, who trespasses at restricted sites, is taking their chances. If caught they are going to pay consequences. That is right and fair.
But we need to promote security leaders who are fearlessly imaginative as well as logical. And we need to enlist disruptors in our security design and testing process. We can never plan for every eventuality, but the disruptors’ irreverent and thrill-seeking way of looking at the world could ultimately make us all much safer.
Leslie Le Mon is a Los Angeles-based writer, designer, and manager. She has worked in four high-rises in Downtown LA ... and one in Hollywood.
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