The Homeland Directive

The Homeland Directive is a 2011 graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston, put out by Top Shelf Productions. It’s something of a political and medical thriller and doesn’t involve superheroes at all, so it’s a little different from our normal fare around here, but it’s a strong offering by a smaller publisher, so it’s definitely worth a look. We’re leaving the evaluation of the story and art to others, as normal, focusing instead on the legal aspects of the plot. Spoilers inside.

I. Dirty Money

The basic premise is that the Director of Homeland Security (which should actually be the Secretary of Homeland Security) is ordered by the President to ensure that there are zero terrorist attacks on US soil. So the Director… goes off the reservation a little bit. He has someone (we never really learn who) infect new US currency with a weaponized bacterium obtained during the breakup of the U.S.S.R. The theory is that if consumers can be scared away from using cash, the government will be better able to track us (more on this in a bit). Interestingly, they got one thing right: new US banknotes are indeed issued by Federal Reserve Banks. The notes themselves are produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which delivers new notes to the twelve regional Federal Reserve Banks, which are located, as the story relates, in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco.

There we actually run into a little hitch. The reason the main characters figure out that cash is the means by which the disease is spread rather than by person-to-person contact furthered by airline travel is because Cleveland and Richmond, where some of the first cases appear, aren’t exactly major travel hubs. But six Federal Reserve Banks are located in the top ten largest metropolitan areas in the US, and nine out of the twelve are in the top twenty. New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Atlanta also have massive airports, so I’m not sure how plausible it is to discard the travel theory so quickly.

In any case, infecting physical currency might well be a decent way to scare people away from cash, so it’s a rather ingenious concept, and the problem here isn’t that the plot wouldn’t work, but that discovering it might be even harder than they think. If anything, the concept is a little too devious, which only makes the story that much more serious.

II. Ubiquitous Surveillance

Also central to the story is the Bureau of Consumer Advocacy (BOCA), which engages in exceptionally detailed surveillance of pretty much everyone. First of all… BOCA doesn’t actually exist, as far as we know. The closest thing we’ve got is the Bureau of Consumer Protection, a section of the Federal Trade Commission, but the focus of the BCP is mostly on things like false advertising and some predatory lending practices. Stuff like that. They don’t really do surveillance, and truth be told, rarely take a pro-active stance on anything. The BCP is largely reactive, responding to consumer complaints, and does not actively police the marketplace for violations.

That being said, the kind of surveillance that BOCA engages in is distressingly plausible and has been the subject of conspiracy theories for years. Remember ECHELON? Signals intelligence program from the Cold War which many suspect has been repurposed for domestic use. There’s also Carnivore, which seems to have been replaced by NarusInsight, allegedly in use by the NSA to track all email and electronic communications. Even before 9/11, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994 required telecommunications companies to modify their hardware to permit law enforcement agents to tap in to communications networks. No one really knows whether or not this sort of detailed mass surveillance is happening, and the government won’t say (which isn’t exactly encouraging), but the fact of the matter is that, legal or not, the government could probably do this if it wanted to. The technology certainly exists, and they certainly can do if if they have a warrant. Warrentless surveillance has been controversial for a long time, but things have really stepped up post 9/11, so even if the particular system the authors describe does not exist per se, it’s absolutely a timely consideration of real issues facing the legal system.

III. The Rule of Law

Most generally though, the book seems to concern itself with federal agents acting essentially beyond the law. This, it is sad to say, does happen, and this kind of thing has been the subject of a number of federal cases in the last decade, including ACLU v. NSA, 493 F.3d 644 (7th Cir. 2007) (holding that plaintiffs lacked standing to sue as they could not produce evidence that they were the subjects of surveillance), and In re NSA Telecoms. Records Litigation, a ridiculously complicated series of lawsuits which were consolidated in the Northern District of California. Many of these were ultimately dismissed, as Congress granted retroactive immunity to telecom companies with the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

More than that, we’re all aware of things like Gitmo and the litigation surrounding the detention of alleged unlawful combatants. If the federal government really, really wants to do things that are illegal, as suggested in this story… it probably can, and the Constitution be damned. There’s a reason why entities like the ACLU and EFF exist.

IV. Conclusion

The Homeland Directive does contain wild illegalities, but they’re the sort of illegalities that are all too plausible, and the authors definitely deserve some credit for nailing how US currency is distributed via the Federal Reserve system. Here are some reviews, and an interview with Venditti.

15 Responses to The Homeland Directive

  1. Admittedly I haven’t read the story but if it actually worked as intended and people shunned money it strikes me it would have the effect of sending panic throughout the country (and world) and creating a recession that would eclipse even the one we’re in, which in turn would stand a fair chance of encouraging American militant groups. Off the reservation doesn’t even begin to cover it, this man would have to be not only mad but also rather dumb.

    • They wouldn’t shun money, just cash. There’s a difference. And the government had already developed a vaccine, which they intended to introduce after a while.

      What the story doesn’t really discuss is the potential effects on the underground economy. Drug dealers, strippers, prostitutes, etc. tends to deal in cash, because cash is hard to trace. But so do employees in otherwise legitimate business that are paid under the table, likely to evade taxes. Some estimates suggest that the black market is 8-10% of the legitimate market, which is a sizable amount of economic activity by any estimation.

      • The vaccine would help, but that doesn’t change the fact that somewhere down the line you have to move physical currencies around. Even if a large portion moved to a credit system there’s still all those people who prefer cash for one reason or another*. After that is still the fact that people are going to panic. We had all those humorous stories during the anthrax scare of people calling 911 over an envelope with keys inside, what would a serious (and potentially contagious) disease spread through money do?

        *Not just the black market but also migrant workers and low income families that prefer to keep their money out of the bank.

      • Ryan Davidson

        Again, the stated goal of the directive was the complete elimination of physical currency. Removing it as an option entirely. Whether or not that would actually work is open to question, but it was the point of the story.

      • Melanie Koleini

        Eliminating paper money would hurt the underground economy temporary but it would adapt pretty quickly.

        ‘Money’ is simply an object everyone agrees has a certain value. Postage stamps would work if there are no dollars around. Cocoa beans have been used as cash by some cultures. Some transactions could be done for barter or trade vouchers.

        Bitcoins (electronic money transferred directly from computer to computer) are already used for on-line transactions. If the correct encryption software is used they are suppose to be as untraceable as cash.

  2. Melanie Koleini

    From a legal standpoint, the story might work but from a biological standpoint the story has several major problems. Most obviously, if the Director of Homeland Security’s plane works, his mission has fails because HE JUST COMMITTED A TERRORIST ACT ON AMERICAN SOIL.

    I haven’t read the story. I’m assuming from the post that ALL new money is infected with the bacterium.
    If that is true then, the plan would start a pandemic (i.e. supper common epidemic). With so many people infected, there is an excellent chance the virus would mutate to either be contagious person to person or mutate so the vaccine wouldn’t work.

    If ALL the new money really is infected, it would likely mean the bacterium can transfer from one surface to another. This means anything the money comes in contact with (wallet, credit cards, driver’s license, a person’s hands, jean pockets, ect) would become a potential vector of infection. This would 1) make the illness appear to spread person to person and 2) make getting rid of paper money the least of people’s problems.

    Finally, if the bacterium can be easily killed by cleaning infected items then the paper money could be cleaned too. I’ve left enough bills in pants that went through the wash to know paper money is not destroyed by the washing machine. If it can’t be easily cleaned, see my last point.

    If only some of new money is infected and the bacterium does not readily transfer from surface to surface then the plan might work to scare people away from money. Very few people would actually get sick but panic might set in if the illness was linked to currency. My question is: how would it be linked? Does the bacterium cause a rash at the infection site? Do bank tellers and cashiers get sick first? And how bad is the illness? If it’s not serious enough people will wait a while before going to the doctor.

    • Not only an act of terrorism on US soil, but also a possible Crime Against Humanity to boot, if we run through the possible consequences as described.

      Assuming the guilty parties and the US Government survived, could they deal with a demand for International Criminal Court jurisdiction?

  3. I think we should give a thumbs up to that DHS. He is trying to stop terrorism at least. The real ones just make sure not to get blamed when terrorism does happen.

    Thanks. I think I’ll pick this up next time I stop by my favorite comic book store.

    • Well, in a technical sense this might not qualify as terrorism; it is perhaps instead a biological warfare attack against American citizens. I am not sure how that is preferable, really.

      What would the implications for this be? This seems like the sort of thing where we might leave the topic of “the President can pardon them,” because it seems likely that there would be public rejection of such a measure.

    • Many people try to stop terrorism every single day. Most of them focus on efforts like detecting homegrown efforts or encouraging people to come forward with their fears. Very few of them would even consider infecting cash* with some kind of bacteria on the rather dubious argument that it might harm the efforts of terrorists.

      *Whether or not it would even work instead of spreading a mass panic throughout the country and damaging the economy is another question.

  4. Depending on your definition, this act could be described as either “Terrorism” or “Act of War”. It’s definitely going to have negative effects on the President’s chances of being reelected if it gets out.

    The problem is that it would. Such a large scale plot would require a large number of people to be involved and more people to be suborned. No matter how screwed up the DHS is, a significant proportion of its members are there because they care about “protecting the American people” and even the career bureaucrats and bullyboys would be worried for their careers and possible jail time (or in a case like this, public lynching). Did it ever desribe how he managed to recuit sufficient numbers of trustworty phschopaths for this plot? What would be the case of whistleblowers under this situation?

    • Melanie Koleini

      I read an interview with the author. He said the President didn’t know about the plot and implied he would never have allowed it if he’d known. That would pretty much rule out a pardon for DHS.

      Plus, the Director was a hold-over from the last President’s administration (to maintain continuity in an important department) so the current President didn’t even choose the guy, he inherited him.

  5. I haven’t read the graphic novel but there may be another problem (possibly answered in the book). How much vaccine/cure IS there? There’s a cure for anthrax; the problem is that a sufficiently large pandemic would probably use up the available supply before everyone had been treated. Eventually enough would be made – but that would take months at least.

    Plus, US currency travels. A tourist gets a newly printed $20 bill in New York and flies to, say, London. Or Bankok. You’re talking global pandemic here. Maybe that means the Homeland Security director is hoping it will be thought of as a plague and not a terrorist bioweapons attack, though.

  6. Pingback: Labor Day 2012: Surrogates | Law and the Multiverse

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