Secretary Chertoff Brings Security Revelation to Capitol Hill … After Four Years

But will it change policy?

To the amusement of those of us who have focused on the security value of watch-listing for some time now, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said some interesting things on Capitol Hill last week. Reports CBS News:

“The terrorists are deliberately focusing on people who have legitimate Western European passports, who don’t appear to have records as terrorists,” Chertoff told lawmakers. “I have a good degree of confidence we can catch people coming in. But I have to tell you … there’s no guarantee. And they are working very hard to slip by us.”

Perhaps this is new information to Secretary Chertoff. Perhaps this is revelation to lawmakers. But some of us have had in inkling about this problem for a little while now. In August 2004, the 9/11 Commission reported that two out of three terrorist planners prefer clean-skin terrorists. (Sound like a toothpaste commercial?) From page 234:

Khallad claims it did not matter whether the hijackers had fought in jihad previously, since he believes that U.S. authorities were not looking for such operatives before 9/11. But KSM asserts that yound mujahideen with clean records were chosen to avoid raising alerts during travel. The al Qaeda training camp head mentioned above [not identified by name in the report] adds that operatives with no prior involvement in activities likely to be known to international security agencies were purposefully selected for the 9/11 attacks.

Given the availability of this tactic, I wrote in my book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood (available to anyone in Congress free for the asking going on two years now) that watch-listing is essentially impotent against terrorism.

So maybe Congress will now get it. But will it change policy?

Bob Blakely of the Burton Group has used the occassion of the millionth entry on the terrorist watch list to write on his personal blog about the chance of catching terrorists with watch-listing. He does an elaborate examination of the process given various reasonable assumptions about the number of border crossers and the number of terrorists, known and unknown. Read through it to take the nature of the problem and Bob’s thinking to heart, but here’s his conclusion:

[T]his system is trivially easy for even the dumbest terrorist to circumvent. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the thing to do to defeat this system is stop sending known terrorists through it. Catching a new recruit without a terrorist history happens only by accident, and it happens with very low probability. We’re spending God knows how many millions of dollars on this list, and it cannot possibly do the job for which it’s intended.

Bob has some understanding of bureaucratic behavior, and he has a clever answer to the question whether all this knowledge will change policy.

I realize that it’s bureaucratically impossible to dismantle a large government system which has been publicly criticized, so in a helpful and public-spirited gesture I’ll offer the following alternative suggestion:

Put everybody on the list.

It’s cheap, it’s fast, it’s inevitable eventually anyway as long as the list continues to grow at its current rate, and it makes checking people against the list really easy (you can do it even without a computer!).

Hilarious! That will satisfy the political impulse to double-down on bad policies, and once everyone is on it, the list can be ignored by our security bureaucracy, freeing it to focus on security measures that work.