Security Theater at the Grand Coulee Dam

Security theater” is the term that Bruce Schneier uses to describe systems that look very exciting and dramatic (and make people feel better) but entirely miss the point in delivering any actual real world security. The world is full of systems like this and since 9/11 they’ve been multiplying.

Bruce also recently ran a competition for a “movie plot” security threat — the winner described an operation to fly planes laden with explosives into Grand Coulee Dam.

As it happens, I was recently actually at Grand Coulee Dam as a tourist — one of the many places I visited as I filled in the time between the SRUTI and CEAS academic conferences. Because this is a Federal site, provision was made from the beginning for visitors to see how their tax dollars were spent, and you can go on tours of the “3rd Power House” (an extra part of the dam, added between 1966 and 1974, and housing six of the largest hydroelectric generators ever made).

Until 9/11 you could park on top of the dam itself and wander around on a self-guided tour. Now, since the site is of such immense economic significance, you have to park outside the site and go on guided tours, of limited capacity. You walk in for about 800 yards (a big deal for Americans I understand) and must then go through an airport style metal detector. You are not allowed to take in backpacks or pointy things — you can however keep your shoes on. The tour is very interesting and I recommend it. You get to appreciate the huge scale of the place, the tiny looking blue generators are 33 feet across!, and you go up close to one of the generators as it spins in front of you, powering most of the NorthWest and a fair bit of California as well.

The security measures make some sense; although doubtless the place the bad guys would really like to damage is the control center and that isn’t on the tour. However….

… on the other side of the valley, a quarter of a mile from the dam itself, is a “visitor arrival center“. This contains a number of displays about the history of the dam and its construction, and if you have the time, there’s films to watch as well. On summer nights they project a massive laser light show from there (a little tacky in places, but they run white water over the dam to project onto, which is deeply impressive). You don’t have to go through any security screening to get into the center. However, and that’s the security theater I promised — you cannot take in any camera bags, backpacks etc!

No purses, backpacks, bags, fannypacks, camera cases or packages of any kind allowed in the visitor center.

What’s the threat here? I went to a dozen other visitor centers (in National Parks such as Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier, Mt. Rainier and Crater Lake) that were generally far more busy than this one. Terrorists don’t usually blow up museums, and if, deity forbid, they blew up this one, it’s only the laser lights that would go out.

7 thoughts on “Security Theater at the Grand Coulee Dam

  1. Q: What’s the threat here?

    A: Financial. A “successful” terrorist attack at a major visitor attraction would likely deter more tourists than the exact same attack at a minor visitor attraction. I don’t claim the USA applies this logic consistently btw.

    See e.g:
    “I think Egypt has paid a tremendous price. We’ve lost billions of dollars as a result of the terrorist activities over the past seven or eight years. We’ve lost jobs. We’ve lost people. Trust me, Egyptians want to live. This is a very peaceful nation.”

  2. Hmmm good point giafly. I wonder if we could get a handle on the size of this possible financial threat.

    Maybe some Americans could enlighten us as to the dependence or otherwise of the US tourist industry on foreign visitors? Or whether terrorist attacks in New York (for example) have deterred US inter-state tourists from going to that city.

    My 2p.

  3. I dont think anybody is all that worried about tourism.

    I think the concern might be “Special Atomic Demolition Munitions” that my have disappeared from the former Soviet Union during its breakup. Their yield might be 1/10 of a Hiroshima bomb, but still more powerful than any conventional devices. Here are some links to the American version:

    During World War 2, the development of the “bouncing bomb” showed how mere conventional explosives were employed in the destruction of German dams.

    The key was to detonate the explosive underwater, behind the dam and use the massive pressure of the water to help destroy the dam.

    It seems obvious to me that a small atomic device such as this; flown in a small Cessna, and a lone suicide pilot could crash into and deliver such a device directly in the reservoir behind the dam at its midpoint.

    Subsequent detonation by depth pressure sensors could ensure maximum impact and lead to a tremendous cascade of water down the Columbia River channel.

    As pointed out in Schneier’s article, There are another 10 dams downstream from Grand Coulee Dam that could possibly be destroyed or at least overtopped and inundated.

    Since the Columbia river dams feed power all the way down into California, this would effect the entire west coast energy supply. This would reverberate in disruption to major industry and subsequently in stock market investment in the area.

    Additionally, irrigation systems would be rendered useless and leave much of Eastern Washington Agriculture without water.

    I think the only thing that keeps terrorists from doing this is that the Dam isn’t as symbolic as the World Trade Center.

  4. All this talk of bombs and explosives is riveting… and I have no doubt that the authorities worry about small boats approaching the dam (why mess with a Cessna when you can use a canoe?)

    However, exactly how does keeping backpacks out of the visitor center help to mitigate the threat? That was the point of my article, to ask why conceptually sensible precautions at the dam site were also being applied to one of the many buildings that are hundreds of yards away?

  5. In reference to the canoe, there are floating net lines that keep out debris and boats (the semi-circular shapes seen at the bottom of the photos)

    …and I know the dam has snipers covering the Dam in the event of breaches by water, or vehicles that make a break for the center of the Dam. A car or boat would be filled with a great deal of lead in that event. An aircraft set into a dive from a sufficient altitude would be a kinetic object; just falling from gravity. No firearm or missile could really push it off course. It would kill the pilot, or even fragment the plane, but a sufficiently hardened device could survive the ordeal.

    In reference to the backpacks…well it’s a Federal Project, and therefore it’s considered a target. You may have not noticed the theater up above all the displays. It seats 139 people and they run several informational films up there. It’s a semi-notable stop on the tourist circuit and tour busses stop there off and on. A backpack filled with dynamite and nails could do quite a bit of damage to allot of people when such a place would be packed.

    Incidentally, my interest comes from the fact that I will be working at the base of the Dam in the town of “Coulee Dam” quite shortly, and these issues seem more relevant now.

    Derrick Johnson

  6. Could it be that somehow the structural integrity of the Center is linked to that of the dam?

    On second thought, that would be a weird link indeed! 🙂

  7. I went there in 1999, it was an interesting place. Of course, I was able to walk around and check out the place on my own. It was fun. NOW, this country is nothing but a mere JOKE. After all, terrorism is in everyones language anymore, you can’t do anything fun here in the US because of this crap. Why bother with any tours at all? After all, anymore everyones a terrorist.

    Welcome to theNEW USA, land of where everyones a terrorist.

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