Tag: Mark Stewart

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.

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.

Terrorism Is Not an Existential Threat, But Fear Doesn’t Care About That

Last week, coincidence brought together a pair of worthy articles attacking the political adage that terrorism is an “existential” threat.

Gene Healy debunked “existential” in his Examiner column. “Conservatives understand that exaggerated fears of environmental threats make government grow and liberty shrink,” he writes. “They’d do well to recognize that the same dynamic applies to homeland security.”

John Mueller and Mark Stewart, meanwhile, have an article on Foreign Affairs’ web site titled: “Hardly Existential: Thinking Rationally About Terrorism.” They show that conventional assessment methods place terrorism so low on the scale of risks that additional spending to further reduce its likelihood or consequences is probably not justified.

But some readers literally can’t absorb what appears in the two paragraphs above. You might be one of them.

Exquisitely rational arguments like these are “cognitively invisible” in the face of fear, as Priscilla Lewis puts it in the forthcoming Cato book Terrorizing Ourselves. I assume the arguments of Healy, Mueller, and Stewart will be dismissed out of hand by people who view terrorism through their personal lens of fear.

Mueller and Stewart touch on this problem briefly:

Because they are so blatantly intentional, deaths resulting from terrorism do, of course, arouse special emotions. And they often have wide political ramifications, as citizens demand that politicians “do something.” Many people therefore consider them more significant and more painful to endure than deaths by other causes. But quite a few dangers, particularly ones concerning pollution and nuclear power plants, also stir considerable political and emotional feelings, and these have been taken into account by regulators when devising their assessments of risk acceptability.

We know enough to be confident of our security. The questions remaining include: How do we convince others to join the ranks of the indomitable Americans? How do we undercut the political advantage taken of terror fears? And how do we rein in the massive government growth produced by terror politics?