Tag: overreaction

Terrorism and Security Systems

Terrorism presents a complex set of security problems. That’s easy to see in the welter of discussion about the recent attempted bombing on a plane flying from Amsterdam into Detroit. The media and blogs are poring over the many different security systems implicated by this story. Unfortunately, many are reviewing them all at once, which is very confusing.

Each security system aimed to protect against terror attacks and other threats involves difficult and complex balancing among many different interests and values. Each system deserves separate consideration, along with analysis of how they interact with one another.

A helpful way to unpack security is by thinking in terms of “layers.” Calling it security “layering” is a way of describing the many different practices and technologies that limit threats to the things we prize. (It’s another lens on security, compatible with the risk management framework I laid out shortly after the Fort Hood shooting.)

Let’s think about some of the security layers deployed to protect people on airplanes against someone like the individual who sought to bomb this flight into Detroit. There are many different security layers. Examining how they worked or failed positions us to tune our security systems better for the future.

It would make sense to start with the security measure that ultimately ceased the attack—human intervention—and move out layer-by-layer from there. But we should actually start by pondering what course events might have followed if the attack hadn’t been thwarted when it was.

The design of airplanes is a security layer that this event did not implicate. Few people are aware that planes are designed to survive damage—even significant damage—and still remain aloft. The seat assignment of this would-be bomber comes into play here, of course. Did he seek out a seat along the wing intending to damage fuel tanks, or was it just a chance assignment? We don’t know yet.

Depending on how events might have unfolded in the event of an actual blast, various other layers may have come into play: pilot training, other design elements of the plane like redundant controls, availability of first aid equipment, flight crew training, and so on.

The good news—worth stating again because much commentary overlooks it—is that this plot failed.

The security layer we credit most for its failure is the direct intervention of other passengers. People who discuss only government programs or policies overlook an important, forceful, and highly adaptive security layer: empowered individuals. We should not prefer to rely on this kind of human intervention, of course—it kicks in far too late for comfort. But it is there, and in this case it worked.

Next, there is weapons detection. The consensus is strong that this layer failed, but this layer did some work, which also shouldn’t be overlooked.

To get it past anticipated security checks, the “bomb” had to be modified in a way that ultimately reduced it to a far less dangerous incendiary device. It wasn’t human intervention alone, but the combination of the weapons detection layer and the human layer that foiled the plot.

Nonetheless, given the consensus that weapons detection failed outright, it is likely that millimeter wave scanning (aka “strip-search machines”) will see broader adoption in air security, trumping privacy concerns that had dealt it some setbacks.

Another layer—more clearly a failure—was the watch list/no-fly list system (or systems). Watch-lists are porous when they’re at their best: They can only catch people already known to be threats, and then only those who are accurately identified at the airport.

Secretary Napolitano originally said that there wasn’t specific derogatory information to justify placing this person on a no-fly list, but unfolding reporting suggests that this was not the case. I agree that watch-listing failed, but I struggle to imagine how it could actually succeed. What general rule, administered on the scale required, could properly deny boarding to genuine attackers without unacceptably denying travel to thousands and thousands of non-attackers every year? Making sense of watch-listing is difficult, and it’s no surprise to me that this security layer failed.

A sibling layer is visa management. Unlike the last-minute decision whether or not to allow a person onto a plane, visa applications can be examined with some leisure, using not only lists of derogatory information but also information gathered from applicants and other sources.

Foreign nationals have no right to enter the United States, and the decision to exclude people seems well placed at this layer compared to last-minute use of watch-lists or no-fly lists.  By comparison to authorities in the UK, who evidently excluded him, it appears to have been error to allow the Detroit bomb plotter to have kept his U.S. visa. This is yet another security issue deserving investigation.

Other security layers, of course, include whatever intelligence  might have been picked up in Yemen and whatever actions might have been taken in light of it.

Are there more layers of security to examine? Undoubtedly there are.

One of interest to me might be called the “strategic layer”—steps to deny terrorists the strategic gains they seek. It is unclear what goal, if any, the Detroit bomb plotter had, but  U.S. National War College professor of strategy Audrey Kurth Cronin identifies a number of “strategies of leverage” terrorism seeks to exploit.

Terrorists are weak actors, unable to muster conventional forces that threaten a state directly. So they try to use the power of the states they attack to achieve their aims. Provocation is an example—getting a state to overreact and undercut its own legitimacy. Polarization is another: Most often in domestic contexts, terror attacks can drive wedges among different ethnic, religious, or cultural groups, destabilizing the state and society.

Mobilization is the strategy of leverage most likely at play here—seeking to recruit and rally the masses to a cause. There’s no argument that this alienated loner is an articulate strategist, of course, but his attack could signal the importance of terrorism to a worldwide audience, making terrorism more attractive to opponents of U.S. power.

Even a failed attack could send such a signal if U.S. government authorities allow it. I wrote in an earlier post how their reactions will dictate the “success” or “failure” of this attack as terrorism.

As to the strategic layer, I believe that, amid programmatic and policy failures, President Obama is due credit for his handling of communications. It was very pleasing to see a Washington Post story Monday headlined: “Obama Addresses Airline Security in Low-Key Fashion.” He is obligated to respond to domestic demands for communication, of course, but declining to exalt terrorism and this incident should not earn him demerits. It should earn him applause.

The alternative—hustling the president of the United States in front of cameras to make incautious statements—would send an unfortunate signal to the world: Any young man, from anywhere across the globe, can poke the president of the United States in the eye, even if his attack on a U.S. target fails. Such a message would invite more terrorist acts.

Attacks not mounted aren’t measured, of course, but attacks would likely increase if it appeared that attacking the U.S. and its interests could visibly fluster the U.S. president. The discipline shown by the White House during this event is an important contribution to our security from the next attack. Politicians beneath President Obama’s grade should take a lesson and control their reactions as well.

Next, I hope to see communications that subtly and appropriately portray the underwear bomb plotter as the loser that he is. I have declined to use his name, because this wretch should go namelessly to oblivion. And I am pleased to see that U.S. authorities have released an image of his underwear, half-suspecting that this was done to help make his legacy the indignity of being beaten by Americans and having his underwear displayed to the world. 

I am also pleased to see him called the “underwear bomber” in some news reports. I would call him the “underwear bomb plotter” because he only managed to light a fire. This is not to trivialize the attack, but to diminish the standing of the person who committed it. People around the world who might consider terrorism are watching how we react to this event, and I want no one to believe that following in the footsteps of the underwear bomb plotter is a good idea.

Let’s also observe that the plane he would have brought down bore innocent women and children. Among them likely were many good Muslim people. Had he succeeded, he would have added to the count of orphaned children in the world. This is not someone to emulate, and official communications should be sounding these themes if they aren’t already.

Given how difficult it is to physically foreclose all vectors of attack while maintaining our society as open and free, strategic communications like this—to deny terrorists the rhetorical gains they seek from us—are very important. Portraying this person as a wrongheaded failure is part of the strategic layer in our security, far preferable to treating him as a diabolical anti-hero.

This incomplete discussion is intended only to illustrate the many different security layers at issue in the underwear bomb plot. Thoughtful readers will undoubtedly find gaps and misstatements in this discussion based on more precise facts and better technical or programmatic knowledge than I have.

Thankfully, we have an opportunity to learn about our security from this failed attack. Had it succeeded, it appears that our society remains ill-equipped to maintain an even keel. The intensity of commentary and analysis on this event shows that a successful terrorist would likely knock us off our game. The impulse to do something—anything—would overwhelm us, and we would likely overreact by retaliating imprecisely, by pouring our energy into security measures that don’t actually work, and so on. Such missteps are congenial to terrorism, and we should try to avoid them.

Talking about Terrorism

Terrorists are named after an emotion for a reason. They use violence to produce widespread fear for a political purpose. The number of those they kill or injure will always be a small fraction of those they frighten. This creates problems for leaders, and even analysts, when they talk publicly about terrorism. On one hand, leaders need to convince the public that they are on the case in protecting them, or else they won’t be leaders for long. On the other hand, good leaders try to minimize unwarranted fear.

One reason is that we shouldn’t give terrorists what they want. Another is that fear is a real social harm, particularly when it is exaggerated. Stress from fear harms health. It causes bad decisions. For example, if people avoid flying and drive instead the number of added fatalities on the road will quickly surpass the dead from a typical terrorist attack. Most important, excessive fear causes policy responses that often damage the economy without much added safety. Measured in lives on dollars, reactions to terrorism often cost more than the attack themselves.

If leaders talk only about the danger of terrorism and everything they are doing to fight it, without putting danger in context, they may be on safe political ground, but they risk causing or prolonging groundless fear and encouraging all sorts of harmful overreactions. That is the Bush Administration’s counterterrorism record, in a nutshell. If leaders just say “calm down and worry about something more likely to harm you,” they will be butchered politically.

So a reasonable approach is to sound concerned but reassuring. You want to convince people that they are mostly safe without appearing complacent. I don’t like many of this administration’s counterterrorism policies, starting with Afghanistan, but thus far its communication about terrorism is far more sensible than the last administration’s. That includes the aftermath of this attempted Christmas Day attack.

The administration made it clear that it is unacceptable that a guy we just got warned about got onto a plane wearing explosives. But the President also said Americans should be generally confident in their safety from terrorism. He didn’t act as if this incident was the most important thing on his schedule this year or compare the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen to the Third Reich or what have you, exaggerating their capability and power. I wish he had gone further and said that detonating explosives smuggled on to a plane is tricky and that flying remains incredibly safe. (Jim Harper will soon have more to say here on the security failures and how to talk about them.)

In a different political universe, the President could describe the terrorist threat honestly. He would say that recent attempted terrorist attacks in the United States show more amateurism and failure than skill and success. He could add that we are fortunate that our greatest enemy, al Qaeda and its fellow-travelers, are scattered and weak compared the sorts of enemies we historically faced. He would sound more like Michael Bloomberg, who told New Yorkers that they had a better chance of being struck by lightening than killed by terrorists, after a particularly inept terrorist plot on JFK airport was uncovered. He could even quote Nate Silver, who calculates that in the last decade of US flights, there was one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 miles flown. It’s true, as Kip Viscusi demonstrates, that people don’t think like actuaries. They rightly value different sorts of deaths in different ways, and want more protection against terrorism than other dangers. But knowing the odds is still important in weighing the appropriate amount of concern and forming policy preferences. The president could also have treated voters like grown-ups and pointed out that whatever flaws in airline security that this attempted attack reveals, there is no such thing as perfect safety, and sooner or later even the finest security systems fail.

I also disagree with the argument that the trouble with our airline security or national security policy-making in general is insufficient presidential attention. Overall, we could do with a little more masterly inactivity in security policy, to use an old British phrase. Aviation security is another matter, but I struggle to see how presidential involvement would have fixed this problem. The 9-11 Commission did claim that September 11 occurred because leaders failed to pay sufficient attention to al Qaeda, but there, as in other matters, the Commission is wrong. At least in the executive branch, the attention paid to the threat in the 1990s was quite substantial, as you can see in this essay by Josh Rovner or in my contribution to this book. The historical record shows that the threat was well understood by security officials and the reading public. Time, for example, called Osama bin Laden the most wanted man in the world when they interviewed him in 1998. The trouble, in my opinion, was not misperception but our policies and the difficult and unprecedented nature of problem–a terrorist group ensconced in hostile country that refused to do anything about it.

Getting the line between confidence and vigilance right is not easy, but it starts with acknowledgment that there is such a thing as overreaction. That subject will be the on the agenda for our January 13 counterterrorism forum with James Fallows, State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Daniel Benjamin, Paul Pillar and others.

*My attempts to explain this stuff to Politico yesterday resulted in some confused and inaccurate uses of my quotes in this story by Carol E. Lee, which unconvincingly compares the Obama’s response to this terrorist attempt to his silly involvement in the Henry Louis Gates arrest fiasco. First, Lee absurdly uses me as example of “predictable” attacks from the right on Obama, when I said I was glad that the President said Americans should feel confident but that I’d have preferred if he’d done it more forcefully by saying flying remains safe and al Qaeda weak. That is more or less the opposite of the predictable take on the right. Then, she says that my views on the President’s response to the attacks referred to his post-press conference golf outing. I was talking about his overall response, or lack thereof, over the last several days. I can’t decipher the meaning of presidential golf.

‘Behind the Headlines’? Despite the Headlines!

STRATFOR—a group I hadn’t heard of before—provides, in their words, “geopolitical intelligence - independent, non-ideological and non-partisan analysis and perspective that is unavailable anywhere else in the world.” They also say they provide the “intelligence behind the headlines.”

Well, I was struck—delighted, really—to see them outright contradict the headlines in a report of theirs that mercilessly skewers H1N1 (swine) flu fears:

It has been five months since the A(H1N1) influenza virus — aka the swine flu — climbed to the top of the global media heap, and with the start of the Northern Hemisphere’s annual flu season just around the corner, the topic is worth revisiting.

If you take only one fact away from this analysis, take this: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes that hospitalization rates and mortality rates for A(H1N1) are similar to or lower than they are for more traditional influenza strains. And if you take two facts away, consider this as well: Influenza data are incomplete at best and rarely cross-comparable, so any assertions of the likelihood of mass deaths are little more than scaremongering bereft of any real analysis or, more important, any actual evidence.

One would expect “intelligence” reporting firms to have the same incentives as politicians and other media: drum up fear to drum up business. But there is value in providing actual facts and sound strategies for responding to world events. As a non-expert, I’m not able to evaluate the substance of the STRATFOR report or its conclusions, but I give it credibility as a statement against interest.

After the early ineptitude shown by the Obama Administration, I was beginning to think that the steady drumbeat of news about preparation for flu season was appropriate societal girding for what could be a notable disease outbreak. I am more inclined now to believe that we are flushing more money down the drain because of fears the administration generated.

Overreaction harms the country, and it is the responsibility of governments—if they take a role—to quell impulses toward overreaction when incidents of national significance occur.

The Coast Guard Kerfuffle: Normalcy Breeds Overreaction

Terrorists are weak actors who use violence to induce overreaction on the part of their stronger victims. That lesson was on display today when someone overhearing radio traffic from a routine Potomac River Coast Guard exercise misinterpreted it and alerted the media. Among the results was a 20-minute grounding of planes at Reagan Airport.

The good news is that the country is relatively safe. Americans and the national security establishment are tuned to the threat of terrorism. No attack to rival 9/11 ever occurred, and it’s unlikely that one ever will.

But the 9/11 attacks had a dastardly effect. To match the results of those attacks, we imagined that terrorists had outsized technical skills, support networks, and insights. Vigilance and continued antiterror efforts will ensure that they never do.

The bad news is that the government has never issued any reassuring signals. American society remains on edge and predisposed to overreact when something happens and — in this case — when nothing happened. The “scare” produced by the Coast Guard exercise illustrates how sensitive the country remains to terror fears.

Despite improved rhetoric and the promise of sensible, strategic counterterrorism, the Obama administration has yet to give the country confidence in its security. It has not articulated its counterterrorism plan and it has not created or implemented a terrorism communications plan. Unlike health care and education, these are responsibilities of the federal chief executive.

Without a strategy and communications plan in place, the administration will be at a loss to keep the nation on an even keel if and when any real terror incident occurs. The Obama administration must plan, and must be seen as having planned, if it is to prevent any future terrorism event from needlessly harming the country with panicky overreaction.

Based on what I’ve read, I see no fault in what the Coast Guard did, and I hope their review of the incident produces no changes in their procedures other than perhaps better preparation to quell overreaction.

Politicians in Thrall to Terrorism

Doug Bandow aptly finds the debate about Guantanamo detainees surreal. For my part, I see it as an exhibition of politicians put “on tilt” – and unwittingly executing the terrorism strategy.

The leadership of both parties appears not to understand that terrorism is designed to elicit self-injurious overreaction. Fear-mongering is a cog in the overreaction machine.

If they did understand this, they would see it as both a civic duty and politically rewarding leadership to exhibit bravery. Messages of indomitability and calm are the appropriate strategic response to terrorism.

Instead, what we have is a bidding war about who can be the most fearful of Guantanamo detainees – a group that is well under control itself and whose transportation and housing in U.S. prisons is entirely manageable.

Both parties are playing to a “base” of caterwauling Islamophobes while the bulk of the American public looks on bewildered and disappointed. Meanwhile, people around the world see that terrorism is a great way to express opposition to U.S. power and U.S. policies. Oops.

The Cost of Flu Fears - and Our Ongoing Vulnerability

The ever-sensible Shaun Waterman has begun to tally the cost of overreaction to the fear outbreak inspired by the H1N1 flu strain. He reports in ISN Security Watch:

Even the precautions that you take against this kind of global flu pandemic could knock about 1.9 [or] 2 percent off global [economic production]. That’s about a trillion dollars,” according to journalist Martin Walker, who cited World Bank figures from a study last year.

The Economist reported last week that the crisis in Mexico was costing Mexico City’s service and retail industries $55m a day - not because of the handful of deaths but because of people’s reactions. And that was even before the national suspension of non-essential public activities called for this week by the authorities there, which was expected to double that cost.

Waterman also cites my joke about moving Vice President Biden to an undisclosed location in future crises - not for his protection or government continuity, but to keep him away from the media.

It’s comedic wrapping on a substantive point: As long as people look to government leaders in times of crises, leaders have a responsibility to communicate carefully, according to a plan, and with message discipline. If they don’t, the damage can be very high.

Even if all Americans knew to dismiss the words of the Vice President as if he’s a “Crazy Uncle Joe” - and they don’t - foreign tourists certainly don’t know that. Biden harmed the country simply by speaking off the cuff.

Here, an outbreak of flu appears to have caused billions of dollars in damage to the world economy. One billion lost to the U.S. economy is about 145 deaths (using the current $6.9 million valuation for a human life). When overreactions restrict economic activity, that reduces wealth and thus health and longevity.

Now, imagine what might happen if the United States encountered a novel, directed threat - some kind of attack that inspires widespread concern. Will Vice President Biden and officials from a half-dozen agencies rush forth with personal observations and speculation? The results could be devastating, especially to a country that is already suffering economically.

People die from poor situation management, and it makes Americans worse off. Political leaders should not get a free pass for failing to communicate well just because it’s hard to do.

The Obama Administration should learn from its many errors in handling the rather benign H1N1 flu situation. It should train up for communicating in the event of a real emergency. If the Obama Administration fails to soothe nerves in the event of some future terrorist attack, that will be a clear failure of leadership.

Quelling Overreaction Is Part of the Job

On Sunday’s Meet the Press, David Gregory pressed a trio of federal officials about how comments on swine flu like Vice President Biden’s have caused overreactions across the country, such as the diversion of a plane because a passenger had flu-like symptoms, the cancellation of a rap concert, and a variety of other dislocations in American life.

Acting director of the Centers for Disease Control Dr. Richard Besser said:

Well, y’know, everybody is going to deal with their concerns in different ways, and that’s the nature of people. What we can do is try and tell them what the risks are - what do we know - share information as we have it, and continue to hit the messages of those things that can be really effective.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius lamely used the fact that people are flooding emergency rooms as an opportunity to promote health care reform … So that panicked insured people would flood doctors’ offices?

If government officials are going to manage a situation like this - and doubts have been raised that they should - their obligation is not just to report, but to actually manage. Allowing a cacophony of government voices to drive erratic behavior by people across the land is harmful to the country for all the resources it wastes.

The Obama Administration should have a disciplined plan for handling situations like this. The administration’s disorganized response here is a signal of the truly awful reaction we could expect should something serious happen, like a terrorist attack. Terrorism, of course, works by inducing self-injurious overreaction on the part of the victim state, so overreaction must be avoided.

This incident reveals that the country is exceedingly vulnerable to terrorism because communications plans are evidently not in place.

(The administration’s plan for any terrorist attack should prioritize moving Vice President Biden to an undisclosed location. Not for his security or for continuity of government - so he won’t appear in the media!)