Floating Security

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 11.25.57 AMGreetings! I’m back, just in time to refill the liquor cabinet. Thanks to Rayne, Jim, bmaz, and Ed for their fascinating posts while I was gone (and if you haven’t read it, I especially recommend Ed’s series on paradigms in economics).

As I mentioned before I left, I just took a vacation with my mom, who turned 75 during our trip. Because seeing Russia and Scandinavia were on her bucket list but she has mobility limitations, we decided to go on a Baltic cruise for the trip (it was my first cruise). Which meant, among other things, we we sailing from Germany past Poland and Kaliningrad to Lithuania on the last days of a NATO war game involving the Baltics, and we were docked in St. Petersburg for 3 days.

While I don’t know whether it was related to the war games, on the night of June 17-18, the ship took what a long-time sailor told us the next day seemed like an evasive maneuver at 2 AM that woke everyone I spoke to up. The following day, at around 6 (almost no one was awake because it was our one sailing day), the crew noted a ship tracking us on our starboard side that seemed very unusual to them. It pulled up ahead of the cruise ship far enough I couldn’t get a good picture or binocular check (it had a mostly red flag) when I returned, but was there for about 6 hours. I suck ass at military ship identification but it might have been a frigate. In any case, the New Cold War™ has not yet heated up sufficiently to turn our cruise ship into the Lusitania, so you’re all stuck with me.

I was just as interested in the security procedures for the ship. There are obvious measures (as those of you who have taken cruises surely know): a card check as you get on and off the boat every time, with metal detectors every time you get back on the boat. What I found interesting, though, were the less obvious measures, something you’d need to have for something that would otherwise be such an easy target but for which you wouldn’t want passengers to realize it. For example, there were undercarriage checks (the kind that are meant to be obvious in places like Brazil) that were not obviously visible. There were deck guards (one of whom got sheepish when I got into a conversation about the sunset he was taking a picture of), which are probably intended to minimize teenage pregnancies as much as anything else, but which keep a low profile on outer decks late at night. You couldn’t see security cameras anywhere, but I’m sure they were omnipresent. I’m really interested in the security checks employees undergo, as there can be up to 1,000 tip-dependent employees from developing nations on board. In any case, I imagine the cruise ship tracks everyone’s movement on board through use of key cards.

I was also interested in how cruise ship security intersected with Russian security (Russia has a 3-day exception to its visa requirement for cruise ship passengers who use a tour guide in Russia and return to their ship every night, but it requires going through customs every time you leave the ship and there is fine print that got a few people in trouble). Every time you left the ship, you’d first be scanned off the ship, then interact with a surly Russian border guard (I tried to little avail to butter them up with my very rudimentary Russian). On return, you’d go through a Russian metal detector to get into the port facility — but the guards only made you put bags through their x-ray machine, not all metal, and they pretty much ignored when you set off the metal detector. In other words, while Russia made a show of preventing weapons or bombs from entering the cruise ship terminal, it was pretty ineffective (there was a toll entry to get to the port itself by car, bus, or truck, though, which may limit what kinds of people could even get to the port). Then, you’d be checked out of Russia by the same surly border guards. Next you’d be checked into the boat and put through another metal detector upon entering the ship (though there were a few weak points to this process that I won’t mention). Though admittedly, the ship security was probably also designed as much to find booze and food that passengers were taking onto the ship, both of which had ostensible security purposes, but also served the cruise’s business model of ensuring captive consumption of booze on board.

In any case, the cruise ship obviously didn’t trust Russia’s security measures, but the latter probably rely much more on their own intelligence and policing.

All of which is to say the cruise ship is an exercise in a mix between security theater (the not entirely perfect metal detector on board) and more obscure but presumably more effective measures. Given the volume of passengers that have to be processed in quick order, it would seem to be proof that such an approach is possible in other areas (including aviation), but we choose not to use it. Or maybe cruise ships are 1) better able to do a cost-benefit analysis and 2) subject to fewer US laws. I’m now interested in more about how cruise ships carry out their security, though expect much of it is secret.

One final observation. I found Lithuania (Klaipeda, right on the border with Kaliningrad) to be the most fascinating stop, in part because it has been a cruise destination for a shorter period of time than, say, Tallinn, and so has not been transformed as much. Mom and I took a ferry to the Curonian Spit, then took a taxi down the spit and then back to Klaipeda; our taxi drivers were a son and then his father in succession. That’s where my (as I noted, very rudimentary) Russian was most interesting. At the ferry, I was told clearly not to use it at all by a maybe 55-year old woman. The son, who had excellent Hollywood English, was more measured. His father, who reminded that he had had to use Russia all through school and military service, was very happy to have a quasi conversation in Russian with me (we occasionally resorted to Polish and Czech at times, as better mutually comprehensible languages). I found the mixed feelings about Russian, in a place with a very audible Russian minority, to be fascinating. But then, Lithuania is ground zero for the New Cold War™ and I can understand how rising tensions exacerbate underlying divisions.

Anyway, that’s the sum of my impressions from being unable to entirely turn off the security side of my brain.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

18 replies
  1. Cheryl Rofer says:

    If the stranger in the Baltic States that you are trying to strike up a conversation with in Russian is a primary Russian-speaker, that will work. If their primary language is something else, probably not. However, if you can determine that your only common language is Russian, they are usually fine with that. It works in more or less the same way that walking up to a stranger in the US and speaking Spanish might, although there tends to be more fluency in Russian in the Baltic States.

    And it’s Tallinn.

    • emptywheel says:

      Thanks for the correction. I think I misspell Tallinn differently every time I write it, which is sort of hard to do.

      On the stranger, yeah, the one woman who told me not to use it had very little English. She just didn’t want Russian used. That’s fine–she was really sweet about the warning. And I don’t blame her.

  2. scribe says:

    The talk about Klapedia reminds me of an old German song. When I was stationed over there, Deutschlandfunk had a program, playing requests directed at former displaced persons living in the West as well as their friends and relatives living in the East, called “Von mir zu dir” (From me to you). “Joe in Frankfurt to his cousins Bob and Bill in Upper Silesia, their favorite song.” That kind of thing.
    Occasionally, they’d play the song whose lyrics went, in part (the only part I remember): “von Ems bis Memel-land, und Alpenrand bis Nordseestrand”.
    This translates as “from the Ems (Dutch border river) to the Memel land (i.e., Klapedia and its surrounding county) and from the edge of the Alps to the North Sea coast”.
    This was a cleaned-up version of part of the lyrics from the old, banned “Deutschland uber alles” (yes, banned) but (as I remember it from >30 yr ago) to a different tune. In other words, a territorial assertion.
    FWIW, the German government did not accede to the postwar boundaries until the final treaty, which came to fruition on reunification. Road maps in the 80s still showed the old boundary lines, in addition to the new ones.
    Not for nothing, this New Cold War (TM) thing turns out to have one of its potential flashpoints – sore spots? – in the same place as previously. Back in the late ’30s, the Memel Land was one of Germany’s pre-war demands. In those days, Klapedia was known as Memel and its surrounding county-plus, as the Memel Land. Germany demanded that Lithuania give it to Germany. Allegations of ethnic Germans on the Lithuanian side of the line, as I recall it. At that time, what’s now the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad was the northern half of German East Prussia (the southern half thereof is now part of Poland) and the city of Kaliningrad was known as Koenigsberg. In early ’39, the Lithuanians wound up giving the Memel Land to Germany, buying a year or so of peace until the line-drawing in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August ’39 (which also split up Poland) put them on the Soviet side of the line, a demarcation going from theoretical to real shortly after France fell – 75 years ago last week.
    A well-done article on the city: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klaip%C4%97da
    And, going further back, it turns out the Neman River, which empties into the Baltic at Klapedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neman_(river) was the boundary across which Napoleon crossed on his way to Moscow. Yet another flashpoint of history….

  3. Peterr says:

    While I don’t know whether it was related to the war games, on the night of June 17-18, the ship took what a long-time sailor told us the next day seemed like an evasive maneuver at 2 AM that woke everyone I spoke to up.

    Scene: 1:45 AM, aboard a Russian naval vessel somewhere in the Baltic, a somewhat sleepy radio operator suddenly sits up straight as a message comes in . . .
    Radio operator (into his headset’s microphone): Da! . . . Da! . . . Da!
    fiddles with buttons, ending one call and ringing for the bridge
    Radio operator: Comrade Captain! An urgent message from Moscow!
    Bridge: The captain is asleep. What is the message?
    Radio operator: Well wake him up — this is of the utmost importance.
    Bridge: It’ll be on your head, Comrade.
    Radio operator: It’ll be on your head if you don’t wake him quickly. Get the captain NOW!
    short pause
    Captain: This is the Captain. What does Moscow have to say that warrants waking me up like this?
    Radio operator: You know that cruise ship we’ve been shadowing, just for practice?
    Captain: Yes . . . what about it?
    Radio operator: Moscow has received a most unusual bit of intelligence, direct from NATO, about one of the passengers.
    Captain: NATO called us? Who is it that worries them, that’s aboard that ship?
    Radio operator: A woman who goes by the name “Emptywheel.”
    Captain hits buttons and alarms go off
    Captain: Attention all hands – battle stations! I say again, all hands to battle stations! . . .

  4. Rayne says:

    Hey EW, I thought of you specifically on Monday, when I ran across news of a DDoS on Poland’s LOT airlines that weekend. This episode smells to me, don’t think it was just a cyberkiddie prank. Coverage the next couple of days tried too hard to blow it off: “Oh, it’s just a little DDoS attack, nothing to see here, move along…”

    Except it shut down a national airline during “war games”…?

    Glad you’re back, tanned, rested, ready, or something like that, and without any international incident (that we know of). Heh.

    • wallace says:

      quote”My next series starts in a day or two. I’ll be looking at the proposed neoliberal paradigm and trying to set up an alternative that might be acceptable to progressives.”unquote

      Acceptable to progressives????? omg.

      note to self.. economist on the outside of the oligarchy wants approval from those that think that economists will save the day for the 99% before the collapse of the entire worlds economy decends into WW111 and total anarchy.

      • wallace says:

        btw…spare me. When EVER did an “economist” put himself on a soup kitchen serving line during those times when the economy was destroyed by economists full of shit.

  5. wallace says:

    Welcome back ew. I hope you had a good visit with your mom. It’s much more important than security bullshit, no matter which side of your brain enjoys it.

  6. bloopie2 says:

    All I can think is, how many countries did you pass close to from which someone could have launched a weaponized drone? All of them? Somehow I sense that technology is passing the security industry by.
    Glad you are home safe.

  7. Susan says:

    Marcy, I would love to take such a trip, and the cruise aspect of it sounds appealing.

    Could you tell me what cruise line you used?


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