Tag: john mueller

Cato Comments on TSA Body Scanners

In 2007, the president and CEO of the RAND Corporation, James Thomson, wrote up his impressions of the management at the Department of Homeland Security. “DHS leaders … ‘manage by inbox,’ with the dominant mode of DHS behavior being crisis management,” he wrote. “DHS implements most of its programs with little or no evaluation of their performance.”

If you want proof, look no further than the nation’s airports. Across the United States, the Transportation Security Administration harries American travelers daily, giving them a Hobson’s choice between standing, arms raised, before a nude body scanner or undergoing a prison-style pat-down. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Nearly two years ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered TSA to do a notice-and-comment rulemaking on its nude body scanning policy. Few rules “impose [as] directly and significantly upon so many members of the public” as the use of body scanning machines, the court said. Its ruling required the agency to publish its policy, take comments from the public, and consider them in formalizing its rules.

The last day to comment on the proposed rules is Monday, June 24th. You can submit your comments until then.

In our comment, Cato senior fellow John Mueller, Mark G. Stewart from the University of Newcastle in Australia, and I take the TSA to task a number of ways. The TSA fails to account for privacy in its proposed policy, even though the lawsuit that required the rulemaking was based on its privacy consequences.

The policy proposal that TSA issued is hopelessly vague. In fact, the court decision requiring the TSA to put its policies on record is more informative about what the rights of travelers and responsibilities of the TSA are.

Instead of placing its risk management work in the docket, TSA claims that its “risk-reduction analysis” is classified. There is almost no basis for treating such work as secret. Indeed, Mueller and Stewart have done a risk assessment of nude body scanners, published it in an article and their book, and spoken about it at public conferences. Their analysis has shown that the nude body scanning policy does not provide cost-effective security. Quite simply, spending money on nude body scanning buys a tiny margin of security at a price that is too dear. If you add non-monetary costs such as privacy and liberty, as well as opportunity costs such as time wasted due to body scanning, the cost-ineffectiveness of body scanners becomes all the more clear.

Travelers wary of TSA mistreatment choose driving over flying for many short or medium-length journeys. Given the far greater danger of driving, this means more injuries and as many as 500 more Americans killed per year on the roads. Outside of war zones, TSA policies visit more death on Americans than Islamist extremist terrorism has worldwide since 9/11.

The National Research Council found in 2010 that the risk models the Department of Homeland Security uses for natural hazards are “near state of the art” and “are based on extensive data, have been validated empirically, and appear well suited to near-term decision needs.” This is not the case with airline security. In fact, the TSA will accept risks of death that are higher than terrorism in order to maintain nude body scanning policies. The original body scanners, which applied x-ray technology, posed a fatal cancer risk per scan of about one in 60 million. Asked about this on the PBS NewsHour, TSA head John Pistole said this risk was “well, well within all the safety standards that have been set.” The chance of an individual airline passenger being killed by terrorism is much lower: one in 90 million.

TSA’s nude body scanning policies probably cause more deaths than they prevent. For this reason, we recommend in our comment that the TSA suspend the current policies, commence a new rulemaking, and implement a rational policy resulting from an examination of all issues on the public record. After comments close, TSA will issue a final regulation on a schedule it determines, after which the regulation can be challenged in court, and very likely it will.

Libertarians Shouldn’t Want Perfect Security—Reply to Professor Epstein

I was pleased to see last week that Professor Epstein had penned a response to my criticism of his recent piece on Hoover’s Defining Ideas in which he argued against treating protection of civil liberties and privacy as “nonnegotiable” in the context of counterterrorism. It is not the disagreement that is pleasing, of course, but the opportunity to air it, which can foster discussion of these issues among libertarians while illustrating to the broader world how seriously libertarians take both security and liberty.

What’s most important in Professor Epstein’s rejoinder is what comes at the end. He says that I should “comment constructively on serious proposals” rather than take an a priori position that civil liberties and privacy will often impede expansions of government power proposed in the name of counterterrorism.

I believe that Professor Epstein and I share the same prior commitments–to limited government, free markets, and peace. Having left it implicit before, I’ll state that I, too, believe that protection of life and property is the primary function of the state. But I also believe that excesses in pursuit of security can cost society and our liberties more than they produce in benefits.

Some years of work on counterterrorism, civil liberties, and privacy bring me to my conclusions. I had put in a half-decade of work on privacy before my six years of service on the Department of Homeland Security’s privacy advisory committee began in 2005. While interacting with numerous DHS components and their programs, I helped produce the DHS Privacy Committee’s risk-management-oriented “Framework for Privacy Analysis of Programs, Technologies, and Applications.” From time to time, I’ve also examined programs in the Science and Technology Directorate at DHS through the Homeland Security Institute. My direct knowledge of the issues in counterterrorism pales in comparison to the 30+ experts my Cato colleagues and I convened in private and public conferences in 2009 and 2010, of course, but my analysis benefitted from that experience and from co-editing the Cato book: Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It.

Whether I’m operating from an inappropriate a priori position or not, I don’t accept Professor Epstein’s shift of the burden. I will certainly comment constructively when the opportunity arises, but it is up to the government, its defenders, and here Professor Epstein to show that security programs are within the government’s constitutional powers, that such programs are not otherwise proscribed by the constitution, and that they cost-effectively make our society more secure.

The latter two questions are collapsed somewhat by the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of reasonableness, or “fit” between means and ends when a search or seizure occurs. And to the extent I can discern the program that Professor Epstein prefers, I have commented on it as constructively as I can.

You’re Eight Times More Likely to be Killed by a Police Officer than a Terrorist

It got a lot of attention this morning when I tweeted, “You’re Eight Times More Likely to be Killed by a Police Officer than a Terrorist.” It’s been quickly retweeted dozens of times, indicating that the idea is interesting to many people. So let’s discuss it in more than 140 characters.

In case it needs saying: Police officers are unlike terrorists in almost all respects. Crucially, the goal of the former, in their vastest majority, is to have a stable, peaceful, safe, law-abiding society, which is a goal we all share. The goal of the latter is … well, it’s complicated. I’ve cited my favorite expert on that, Audrey Kurth Cronin, here and here and here. Needless to say, the goal of terrorists is not that peaceful, safe, stable society.

I picked up the statistic from a blog post called: “Fear of Terror Makes People Stupid,” which in turn cites the National Safety Council for this and lots of other numbers reflecting likelihoods of dying from various causes. So dispute the number(s) with them, if you care to.

I take it as a given that your mileage may vary. If you dwell in the suburbs or a rural area, and especially if you’re wealthy, white, and well-spoken, your likelihood of death from these two sources probably converges somewhat (at very close to zero).

The point of the quote is to focus people on sources of mortality society-wide, because this focus can guide public policy efforts at reducing death. (Thus, the number is not a product of the base rate fallacy.) In my opinion, too many people are still transfixed by terrorism despite the collapse of Al Qaeda over the last decade and the quite manageable—indeed, the quite well-managed—danger that terrorism presents our society today.

If you want to indulge your fears and prioritize terrorism, you’ll have plenty of help, and neither this blog post nor any other appeal to reason or statistics is likely to convince you. Among the John Mueller articles I would recommend, though, is “Witches, Communists, and Terrorists: Evaluating the Risks and Tallying the Costs” (with Mark Stewart).

If one wants to be clinical about what things reduce death to Americans, one should ask why police officers are such a significant source of danger. I have some ideas.

Cato’s work on the War on Drugs shows how it produces danger to the public and law enforcement both, not to mention loss of privacy and civil liberties, disrespect for law enforcement, disregard of the rule of law, and so on. Is the sum total of mortality and morbidity reduced or increased by the War on Drugs? I don’t know to say. But the War on Drugs certainly increases the danger to innocent people (including law enforcement personnel), where drug legalization would allow harm to naturally concentrate on the people who choose unwisely to use drugs.

The militarization of law enforcement probably contributes to the danger. Cato’s Botched Paramilitary Police Raids map illustrates the problem of over-aggressive policing. Cato alum Radley Balko now documents these issues at the Huffington Post. Try out his “Cop or Soldier?” quiz.

There are some bad apples in the police officer barrel. Given the power that law enforcement personnel have—up to and including the power to kill—I’m not satisfied that standards of professionalism are up to snuff. You can follow the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project on Twitter at @NPMRP.

If the provocative statistic cited above got your attention, that’s good. If it adds a little more to your efforts at producing a safe, stable, peaceful, and free society, all the better.

Mueller Right; Terror Experts Wrong

John Mueller was right and everyone else was wrong. (Well, not everyone else…)

That’s Cato senior fellow John Mueller. He noted on the National Interest blog last week that 79 per cent of top terrorism experts queried in 2006 thought it was likely or certain that there would be another major terrorist attack in the United States by the end of 2011. They got it wrong.

When the survey came out, it touted these experts as the “very people who have run America’s national-security apparatus over the past half century.” Mueller lampoons them thus:

The Very People’s 79 percent error rate is especially impressive because, although there had been quite a bit of terrorist activity in Iraq and elsewhere during the four-and-a-half years between 9/11 and when the survey was conducted, none of these attacks even remotely approached the destruction of the one on September 11. Nor, for that matter, had any terrorist attack during the four-and-a-half millennia previous to that date. In addition, although terrorist plots have been rolled up within the United States, none of the plotters threatened to wreak destruction on anything like the scale of 9/11, except perhaps in a few moments of movieland-fantasy musings.

Mueller was one of few suggesting in 2006—and well before—that 9/11 might be more of an aberration than a harbinger.

Mueller’s studied correctness so far is not proof of what the future holds, of course. If you want to, it is certainly possible to cling to the threat of terrorism and the metastasis of policies that purport to address your fears. Part of terrorism’s design is its operation on fear to produce cognitive errors like probability neglect, for example.

But thanks to Mueller, terrorism is holding fewer and fewer people in thrall. It is a serious, but manageable security threat. Those still transfixed by terrorism may add another fear to their long list: They may be mocked by the man who knows the subject matter better.

John Mueller Joins Cato

I am pleased to announce that John Mueller, a leading scholar in the fields of political science, international relations, and national security, has joined the Cato Institute as a senior fellow.

All of us at Cato are very excited to have John as a colleague. Over the last decade as a professor of political science and as the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at the Ohio State University’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies, John has taken on the conventional wisdom in the national security arena with a rare combination of accessible, breezy prose and meticulous cost-benefit analysis. In particular, he has focused on how policymakers inflate national security threats at home and abroad.

His newest book, Terror Money and Security, which he presented at a recent Cato forum, examines whether the gains in security over the past decade were worth the funds expended. For the vast majority of U.S. homeland security and counterterrorism policies, John and his co-author, Mark Stewart, resoundingly conclude “no.”

As a member of the Cato Institute, John will contribute to our multitude of programs and publications while furthering his work on the subjects of security, defense, and U.S. foreign policy. Cato is fortunate to have such a brilliant scholar join its staff.

For more Cato Institute work on foreign policy and national security, go here.

How Much Homeland Security Is Enough? Monday Book Forum

At noon Monday, Professors John Mueller and Mark Stewart will be here to discuss their new book: Terror Security and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits and Costs of Homeland Security. Register here.

The question in this post’s title is the book’s. It quantifies Mueller’s skepticism about the utility of homeland security spending with cost-benefit analysis, which is Stewart’s specialty. They use this analysis, which is employed by various federal agencies as part of the regulatory review process, to show that little of what the Department of Homeland Security does is a good investment. That is, the bulk of its activities cost more—measured in lives or dollars— than they save. In the conclusion, where you find most of the book’s political science, Mueller and Stewart discuss why DHS avoids this sort of analysis—neither it nor its political advocates have much reason to advertise its wastefulness—and why that should change.

Alan Cohn, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at DHS, has boldly agreed to join the proceeding. DHS rules prohibit him from commenting directly on the book, but he will presumably defend his department and discuss how it considers policies’ cost and benefits, or what it calls risk management.

That all sounds very wonky, I know. Here is why the book and forum should interest those not particularly concerned with homeland security or risk analysis: the book calls a bluff. One of the great myths about U.S. national security is that it aims to maximize safety. Almost everyone speaks about security as if this were so.

The truth is instead that every security policy, indeed every government policy, is a choice among risks. Most policies aim to mitigate risk in some way and by expending resources expose us to other risks. Our policy preferences and ideologies are largely beliefs about which risks to combat socially and which to leave to individuals, or least how much attention we should pay to competing risks. Our society, it turns out, is willing to pay far more to save lives from terrorism than most other dangers. That is, we value lives lost from it far more highly than those lost in other ways. We trade small gains in protection from terrorists for substantial losses in our ability to combat other troubles.

By asking what U.S. homeland security would look like it if truly aimed to maximize safety against all dangers, Mueller and Stewart’s book makes plain that we have chosen to do otherwise. People that disagree about the merit of that choice should agree at least that it is one we should make openly. Democracies make better choices when they perceive them.

Bathtubs, Terrorists, and Overreaction

I dislike our national obsession with anniversaries and tendency to convert solemn occasions into maudlin ones; to fetishize perceived collective victimization rather than simply recognizing real victims. That kept me from joining in the outpouring of September 11 reflection, now mercifully receding. But I have reflections on the reflections.

The anniversary commentary has, happily, included widespread consideration of the notion that we overreacted to the attacks and did al Qaeda a favor by overestimating their power and making it easier for them to terrorize. Even the Wall Street Journal allowed some of the bigwigs they invited to answer their question of whether we overreacted to the attacks to say, “yes, sort of.”

Unsurprisingly, however, the Journal’s contributors, like almost every other commentator out there, did not define overreaction. It’s easy and correct to say we’ve wasted dollars and lives in response to September 11 but harder to answer the question of how much counterterrorism is too much. So this post explains how to do that, and then considers common objections to the answer.

That answer has to start with cost-benefit analysis. As I put it in my essay in Terrorizing Ourselves, a government overreaction to danger is a policy that fails cost-benefit analysis and thus does more harm than good. But when we speak of harm and good, we have to leave room for goods, like our sense of justice, that are harder to quantify.

Cost-benefit analysis of counterterrorism policies requires first knowing what a policy costs, then estimating how many people terrorists would kill absent that policy, which can involve historical and cross-national comparisons, and finally converting those costs and benefits into a common metric, usually money. Having done that analysis, you have a cost-per-life-saved-per-policy, which can be thought of as the value a policy assigns to a statistical life—the price we have decided to pay to save a life from the harm the policy aims to prevent.

Then you need to know if that price is too high. One way to do so, preferred by economists, is to compare the policy’s life value to the value that the target population uses in their life choices (insurance purchases, salary for hazardous work, and so on). These days, in the United States, a standard range for the value of a statistical life is four to eleven million dollars. If a policy costs more per life saved than that, the market value of a statistical life, then the government could probably produce more longevity by changing or ending the policy. A related concept is risk-risk or health-health analysis, which says that at some cost, a policy will cost more lives than it saves by destroying wealth used for health care and other welfare-enhancing activities. One calculation of that cost, from 2000, is $15 million.

In a new book, Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security,* John Mueller and Mark Stewart use this approach to analyze U.S. counterterrorism’s cost-effectiveness, generating a range of estimates for lives saved for various counterterrorism activities. I haven’t yet read the published book, but in articles that form its basis, they found that most counterterrorism policies, and overall homeland security spending, spend exponentially more per-life saved than what regulatory scholars consider cost-effective.

That is a strong indication that we are overreacting to terrorism. It is not the end of the necessary analysis however, since it leaves open the possibility that counterterrorism has benefits beyond safety that justify its costs. More on that below.

Objections to this mode of analysis have four varieties. First, people have a visceral objection to valuing human life in dollars. But as I just tried to explain, policies themselves make such valuations, trading lives lost in one way for lives lost in another. So this objection amounts to an unconvincing plea to keep such tradeoffs secret and make policy in the dark.

Second, people challenge the benefit side of the ledger by arguing that terrorists are actually far more dangerous than the data says. Analysts say that weapons of mass destruction mean that future terrorists will kill far more than past ones. One response is that you should be suspicious anytime someone tells you that history is no guide to the present. It tends to be the best guide we have, for terrorism and everything else. Our analysis of terrorists’ danger should acknowledge that the last ten years included no mass terrorism, contrary to so many predictions. Another response is that one can, as Mueller and Stewart have, include high-end guesses of possible lives saved to show the upwards bounds of what counterterrorism must accomplish to make it worthwhile. The results tend to be so far-fetched that they demonstrate how excessive these policies are.

A third objection is to claim that some counterterrorism costs are actually terrorism’s costs. Government should spend heavily to avoid terrorism, this logic says, because our reaction to the attacks we would otherwise fail to prevent will cost far more. In other words, if an expensive overreaction is inevitable, it helps justify the seemingly excessive up-front cost of defenses.

One problem with this objection is that it approaches tautology by treating a policy’s cost as its own justification. See, for example, Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent response to John Mueller’s observation in the Los Angeles Times that more people die annually worldwide from bathtub drowning than terrorism and the article’s suggestion that we might therefore be overreacting to the latter. Goldberg argues, essentially, that we have to overreact to terrorism lest we overreact to terrorism. Then, after his colleague James Fallows points out the logical trouble, Goldberg, without admitting error, switches to argument two above, while failing to acknowledge, let alone respond to, Mueller’s several books and small library of articles shooting that argument down.

Another problem with the inevitable overreaction argument is that overreaction might happen only following rare, shocking occasions like September 11. Future attacks might be accepted without strong demand for more expensive defenses. Moreover, the defenses might not significantly contribute to preventing attacks and overreaction.

The best objection to Mueller and Stewart’s brand of analysis is to point out counterterrorism’s non-safety benefits. The claim here is that terrorism is not just a source of mortality or economic harm, like carcinogens or storms, but political coercion that offends our values and implicates government’s most traditional function. Defenses against human, political dangers provide deterrence and a sense of justice. These benefits may be impossible to quantify. These considerations may justify otherwise excessive counterterrorism costs.

I suspect that Mueller and Stewart would agree that this argument is right except for the last sentence. Its logic serves any policy said to combat terrorism, no matter how expansive and misguided. We may want to pay a premium for our senses of justice and security, but we need cost-benefit analysis to tell us how large that premium now is. Nor should we assume that policies justified by moral or psychological ends actually deliver the goods. Were it the case that our counterterrorism policies greatly reduced public fear and blunted terrorists’ political strategy, they might indeed be worthwhile. But something closer to the opposite appears to be true. Al Qaeda wants overreaction—bragging of bankrupting the United States—and our counterterrorism policies seem as likely to cause alarm as to prevent it.

*Muller and Stewart will discuss their book at a Cato book forum on October 24. Stay tuned for signup information.

(Cross-posted from TNI’s The Skeptics.)