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Monday, December 29, 2003

The Latest Menace: Almanacs?

One day last week, hundreds of miles from my home, I was hanging out in a drug store, waiting for my antibiotic prescription to be filled (sinus infection). While waiting, I checked out the magazine rack -- and ended up looking at the 2004 almanacs because there were no political or baseball magazines in the rack.

Now, someone in suburban Oklahoma is perhaps trying to remember that stranger who loitered and looked at the almanacs.


It turns out that the FBI has warned people to be on the alert for people with almanacs. No joking.

Ted Bridis has a story in the Associated Press today, which I got from Yahoo! News: "FBI Issues Alert Against Almanac Carriers." Here's a snippet:
The FBI is warning police nationwide to be alert for people carrying almanacs, cautioning that the popular reference books covering everything from abbreviations to weather trends could be used for terrorist planning.

In a bulletin sent Christmas Eve to about 18,000 police organizations, the FBI said terrorists may use almanacs "to assist with target selection and pre-operational planning."

It urged officers to watch during searches, traffic stops and other investigations for anyone carrying almanacs, especially if the books are annotated in suspicious ways.

"The practice of researching potential targets is consistent with known methods of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations that seek to maximize the likelihood of operational success through careful planning," the FBI wrote.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the bulletin this week and verified its authenticity.
So what are skeptics saying?
"I don't think anyone would consider us a harmful entity," said Kevin Seabrooke, senior editor of The World Almanac. He said the reference book includes about a dozen pages out of its 1,000 pages total listing the world's tallest buildings and bridges but includes no diagrams or architectural schematics. "It's stuff that's widely available on the Internet," he said.

The publisher for The Old Farmers Almanac said Monday terrorists would probably find statistical reference books more useful than the collections of Americana in his famous publication of weather predictions and witticisms.

"While we doubt that our editorial content would be of particular interest to people who would wish to do us harm, we will certainly cooperate to the fullest with national authorities at any level they deem appropriate," publisher John Pierce said.
Back to those worried about this threat:
The FBI noted that use of almanacs or maps may be innocent, "the product of legitimate recreational or commercial activities." But it warned that when combined with suspicious behavior — such as apparent surveillance — a person with an almanac "may point to possible terrorist planning."

The FBI said information typically found in almanacs that could be useful for terrorists includes profiles of cities and states and information about waterways, bridges, dams, reservoirs, tunnels, buildings and landmarks. It said this information is often accompanied by photographs and maps.

The FBI urged police to report such discoveries to the local U.S. Joint Terrorism Task Force.
I'm glad I didn't actually buy that almanac -- though I can see a copy of the Essential World Atlas from where I type...

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