What on earth was the CIA doing putting plastic high explosive charges on schoolbuses and in hidden places in a Virginia public school in a “test” of K-9 dogs reportedly belonging to the Agency itself?
The story of the secret “test” broke because an alert mechanic doing a routine check on one of the Loudon County School District’s schoolbuses found a package of what turned out to be plastic explosive, packed in a plastic wrapper, jammed down in among some of the rubber hoses and electric wires around the engine. It had allegedly “fallen” from where it had originally been placed, was missed by the dogs and their handlers, and remained where it was stuck for two days, while the bus was unwittingly used to deliver some 26 young children to and from school on eight separate bus runs totaling 145 miles of driving.
I called the CIA’s “public information” office on Friday to ask for clarification as to why the CIA, which does not have a domestic policing function, would be operating, and testing, a K-9 bomb-detecting unit, given that such tasks in the US would normally be handled either by state and local police agencies, or by the FBI or the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). The office, though it was mid-day, was not answering its phones, and only had a voice mail recording, on which I identified myself as a reporter, left my contact information and requested a response on deadline. No surprise: I was not called back with an answer, and do not anticipate receiving one from an agency that is infamous for its secrecy. (The standard CIA response in my experience, when I’ve received one at all, is: “We have no response to that question.”)
Still, even for a notoriously opaque and obtuse government agency, this is a truly bizarre incident that cries out for answers.
If the goal is testing the ability of dogs to detect hidden explosives, there is no need to run that test in a real school and in the engine compartments of real buses that transport real children, or to place such charges, as the CIA also reportedly did, in hidden locations inside a real school building. (Actually, since what’s being tested is the dogs’ smelling ability, real C-4 wasn’t needed either — only objects that had been in placed in contact with the compound, or wrappers from the charges that would have carried the odor on them.) People may benefit in training exercises when the tests are tricked out to appear more real-life, but dogs don’t need that kind of reality-theater environment to hone or test their skills. Any old bus, or for that matter a rental truck, could have been used for the job. The engine compartment for a truck is exactly the same as for a bus, and dogs don’t care whether the body color of a vehicle being searched is yellow or not (they’re color-blind after all!), or whether it has a big box behind the cab, or two rows of seats. Ditto to using a functioning school building. Any building, including one of the CIA’s own buildings at its Langley headquarters, or on “The Farm” where agents are trained, would serve as well as a hiding place for explosive charges.
At best, using a real local school and real schoolbuses was an idiotic decision by CIA administrators.
Plastic explosive, as the Washington Post explained in a lengthy if fairly credulous article on the incident, while highly explosive, is also quite stable, requiring both a very high temperature and a shock wave to explode. The compound is, however, also flammable, and even if it didn’t explode if ignited, would act as an accelerant if there were an engine fire on a bus, or somewhere in a school building, making such a fire far worse and far harder to control. Plus, while this is being called a test, and while we are being assured that there was no detonator included along with the planted charges, how do we really know that is true? After all, the whole idea of using a real school and real schoolbuses was to simulate reality. How far did the testers want to take that reality?
Did the same people who thought it was important for the K-9 dogs to have yellow buses to work with think they should also see wires and detonators hooked up to the charges they were sniffing for? When something this apparently stupid is done, anything is possible, and given the CIA’s obsessive secrecy, we’re not going to get an answer unless some public body (Congress?, a Virginia legislative committee?) investigates and demands answers under oath.
Of course, there are darker possibilities to consider too, when we discover an incident like this.
There is plenty of evidence that over the past two decades, the US government and its intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have engaged in a number of so-called “false flag” operations, usually portrayed as “tests” gone wrong, or as “stings” designed to lure out alleged terrorists — though these latter operations usually turn out on investigation to have been wholly government-created incidents where low-wattage victims are talked into participating in a terrorism action either for pay, or under the belief that they are working for the government. There are just too many occasions when some crazy terror plot either gets prominently “uncovered” and “prevented,” or actually is attempted right when the government could use some increased public sense of panic to help pass some new law diminishing Constitutionally-protected freedoms, or higher spending on war and government intelligence agencies.
As one CIA veteran offers, “The only ‘innocent’ explanation as to why the agency was training locals on this is that the agency has more money than it knows what to do with, whereas others are not that flush,” but this source adds, “There are a host of other, more sinister possible explanations. This needs to be looked into.”
There are certainly enough bozos in the US government’s intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, including the CIA, for me to believe that this school explosives “testing exercise” was just a really stupid idea gone wrong. But I’m also suspicious enough to believe that it could have been something much more insidious that didn’t go as planned only because of the alertness of one school district mechanic.
The Washington Post quotes a CIA statement issued about the incident as saying the CIA plans to take “immediate steps to strengthen inventory and control procedures in its K-9 program” and promising that it will investigate its K-9 training program.
That’s clearly not enough. The CIA is the last agency that should be relied on to investigate itself about anything.