Tag: terrorism

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.)

Al Qaeda: Never an ‘Existential Threat’

My Washington Examiner column this week celebrates 10 years without a major follow-up attack on American soil, and argues that the main reason the United States has been terror-free for a decade isn’t the unparalleled competence of the federal government’s terror warriors—it’s the fact that al Qaeda was never an “existential threat.”

I’ve written a number of columns and blogposts making the same point over the years, and yet, every time I write something that says “al Qaeda’s not so terrifying,” I feel compelled to knock wood, genuflecting to the superstition that merely saying ”we’re pretty safe” out loud will jinx us, and the moment a piece is published, the terrorists will morph into villains worthy of TV’s 24, moving from ineffectual gas-can bombs to nukes.

So far, though, it seems there wasn’t much reason to worry.

Last week, the Washington Post ran a piece entitled, “Who got 9/11 right, and who got it wrong? A pundit score card.” The Post erred badly by not including the distinguished political scientist and friend of Cato, John Mueller, who started making the case that the al Qaeda threat was overblown back when duct tape alerts were the “new normal.” I can’t think of any other prominent figure who got it right as early and as often as Mueller did.

As long as we’re giving credit for prescience, though, I’d like to toot my own horn (sure, it’s graceless, but nobody else is volunteering for the job).

As a larval pundit pecking away in obscurity through the early aughties, I suspected, before I’d ever read Mueller, that the al Qaeda threat was overblown—and I made that case wherever I could.

In September 2002, I reviewed Peter Bergen’s Holy War, Inc. for Liberty magazine:  “Osama bin Laden: Not as Scary as You Think” (.pdf ). In it, I asked whether al Qaeda was “as dangerous as federal powergrabbers have led us to believe.”

After recounting what Bergen reported about Mohamed Odeh, an al Qaeda operative involved in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania—who botched his own escape by trying to convince Pakistani immigration officials that terrorism was “the right thing to do for Islam,”—I ventured that “a lot of these folks don’t sound all that bright.” (Since then, I’ve become even more convinced that these guys were never the sharpest scimitars in the shed.)

In December 2002, when my now-defunct blog was young and DC was waiting for the other shoe to drop after 9/11, I wondered “What if There Isn’t Another Shoe?”: “If the American Jihad/mullahs under the bed/the-country-is-riddled-with-sleeper-cells theory is correct, then why so quiet?” I suggested: “maybe there aren’t that many of them,” which turned out to be true. (Here’s a reference, and you can find the original if you go here and scroll down.)

Ten years later, it’s heartening to know that what was once a fringe position—and a marker of being “unserious” about terrorism—is fast becoming the conventional wisdom.

The Convoluted Debate on Drones

The same week U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta declared “we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda”—an assessment that many believe reflects the efforts of seven years of CIA drone strikes—former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair called America’s “unilateral” drone war in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia a mistake. “Because we’re alienating the countries concerned,” Blair said, “because we’re treating countries just as places where we go attack groups that threaten us, we are threatening the prospects of long-term reform.”

Given that our Nobel Peace Prize–winning president has drastically escalated the use of these flying, robotic hitmen, there seems to be some confusion at the White House.

Speaking to attendees at the Aspen Security Forum, Blair said drone strikes in Pakistan should be launched only when America had the full cooperation of the government in Islamabad and “we agree with them on what drone attacks” should target. As explained elsewhere, this author accepts the efficacy of America’s drone war, but with enormous reluctance. That said, part of Blair’s assessment seems wildly out of touch. Why would Washington wait for permission from Islamabad to hunt al Qaeda?

First, individuals either within or with ties to Pakistan’s spy agency have collaborated with insurgents that frequently attack U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. That doesn’t speak well for Blair’s call for joint cooperation. Second, we’ve known for years that elements within Pakistan have thwarted — on several occasions — foreign-led attempts to find and take out terrorists. Even someone who is not wildly enamored with drones understands the argument for employing them unilaterally when confronted with uncooperative governments. Policymakers, however, should be weighing the ability to keep militant groups off balance against the costs of facilitating the rise of more terrorists, particularly in a country as volatile as Pakistan.

A statement even more out of step than Mr. Blair’s came from Michael E. Leiter, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center. Earlier this week at the Aspen Security Forum, Leiter contended that assessments that al Qaeda was on the verge of collapse lacked “accuracy and precision” and that al Qaeda’s leadership and structure in Pakistan “is still there and could launch some attacks.” He also raised concerns about the possible long-term effects of intensive CIA paramilitary operations on conventional espionage and analysis for issues like China: “The question has to be asked: Has that in some ways diminished some of its strategic, long-term intelligence collection and analysis mission?”

Leiter’s comments are troubling due to the basis for his concern about the effectiveness of counter-terrorism. To emphasize why the growing consensus that al Qaeda is “on the ropes” is premature, Leiter noted that the failed plot to blow up a vehicle in Times Square in May 2010 was carried out by an American trained by the Pakistani Taliban. This statement is misguided in what it implies. By no means can America ensure that terrorists never come from Pakistan, or anywhere else. Such an aim epitomizes our overreaction to terrorism. It gives planners in Washington not only a convenient justification to prolong the wars we’re already in, but also an open-ended rationale to intervene anywhere else. Let’s remember that the United States is already fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is threatening to launch a third against Iran, bombs remote villages in nuclear-armed Pakistan, and has expanded operations into Somalia, Yemen, and possibly elsewhere. This is especially concerning given the current construction of a not-so-secret U.S. air base in the Middle East for more targeted strikes in Yemen.

Unfortunately, the president’s choice to replace Mr. Leiter, Matthew Olsen, said at his confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he would define the strategic defeat of al Qaeda as “ending the threat that al Qaeda and all of its affiliates pose to the United States and its interests around the world.” This, too, is problematic. U.S. policy toward “ending the threat” from al Qaeda has been mainly through wars and intervention, and one of the many unintended consequences of American intervention has been the radicalization of Western-born Muslims.

Take, for instance, Somalia, where Washington has repeatedly tried and failed to bring order. Over the past two years, as many as 20 Somali-American men have disappeared from the Minneapolis area. Many analysts fear these men were recruited to fight alongside al-Shabab (“The Youth”), the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government the United States and Ethiopia overthrew in 2006. In describing Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized American of the Somali diaspora believed to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing, FBI director Robert Mueller said, “It appears that this individual was radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota.” Somalia is a classic case of how American intervention is forever self-perpetuating.

Debates over drones should not be cut and dry. Scholars, no matter the subject, should be “intellectually honest.” Supporters of counterterrorism can and should feel comfortable having reservations about the tactics employed, given Washington’s tendency for threat inflation. Drones may well become America’s new permanent wartime footing. Sadly, we will have learned nothing from 9/11 if drones provide policymakers a more antiseptic avenue for satiating their endless appetite for intervention.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

John McCain: Ever Confused, Always for War

Sen. John McCain has exhibited personal courage, but his geopolitical judgment is uniformly awful.  Over the last 30 years there has been no war or potential war that he has opposed.  In 2008 he wanted to confront nuclear-armed Russia over its neighbor Georgia, which started their short and sharp conflict.  It would have been ironic had the Cold War ended peacefully, only to see Washington trigger a nuclear crisis in order to back Georgia as it attempted to prevent the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from doing what Kosovo did with U.S. military aid:  achieve self-determination (by seceding from Georgia).

Now Senator McCain is banging the war drums in Libya.  But he seems to have trouble remembering who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

Although now crusading against Moammar Qaddafi, two years ago he joined Sens. Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham in Tripoli to sup with the dear colonel.  There the three opponents of tyranny whispered sweet nothings in the dictator’s ear, offering the prospect of military aid.  After all, the former terrorist had become a good friend of America by battling terrorists.

Andrew McCarthy reported on the sordid tale from the WikiLeaks disclosures:

A government cable (leaked by Wikileaks) memorializes the excruciating details of meetings between the Senate delegation and Qaddafi, along with his son Mutassim, Libya’s “national security adviser.” We find McCain and Graham promising to use their influence to push along Libya’s requests for C-130 military aircraft, among other armaments, and civilian nuclear assistance. And there’s Lieberman gushing, “We never would have guessed ten years ago that we would be sitting in Tripoli, being welcomed by a son of Muammar al-Qadhafi.” That’s before he opined that Libya had become “an important ally in the war on terrorism,” and that “common enemies sometimes make better friends.”

Obviously, that was then and this is now.  Along the way Senator McCain and his fellow war enthusiasts realized that Qaddafi wasn’t a nice guy after all.  Who knew?  I mean, he had only jailed opponents, conducted terrorist operations against the United States, and initiated a nuclear weapons program.  So earlier this year they demanded that the United States back the rebels, the new heroes of democracy. 

Until now, anyway.

Anyone who has covered civil wars won’t be surprised to learn that the insurgents aren’t always playing by Marquess of Queensbeerry rules.  Indeed, the opposition is united only by its hatred of Qaddafi.  It includes defectors, including  Qaddafi’s former interior minister who was just assassinated under mysterious circumstances; jihadists and terrorists, some of whom fought against U.S. forces in Iraq; tribal opponents of Qaddafi; and genuine democracy advocates devoted to creating a liberal society.  Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the good guys will win any power struggle certain to follow Qaddafi’s ouster.

The Obama administration claimed to enter the war to protect civilians.  Yet NATO has occasionally threatened to bomb the rebels if they harm civilians.  Reports of summary executions and looting by insurgent forces have emerged.  Now Senator McCain has written the opposition a letter—more polite than sending a drone, I suppose—demanding that the Transition National Council stop being mean to former Qaddafi supporters.

Reports the British Independent newspaper:

In his letter to the TNC, dated 20th July, Senator McCain, writing as “your friend and supporter,” pointed out “recent documentation of human rights abuses committed by opposition figures in the western Libyan towns of al-Awaniya, Rayayinah, Zawiyat al-Bagul, and al-Qawalish”. He continued: ” According to Human Rights Watch, a highly credible international non-governmental organisation, rebel fighters and supporters have damaged property, burned some homes, looted from hospitals, homes and shops, and beaten some individuals alleged to have supported government forces.

“I am confident you are aware of these allegations…. It is because the TNC holds itself to such high democratic standards that it is necessary for you and the Council to take decisive action to bring any human rights abuses to an immediate halt.”

Who would have imagined that a civil war could be nasty and that not everyone who opposes a dictator is a sweet, peace-loving liberal?  Certainly not John McCain.

The point is not that Qaddafi is a nice guy.  The world would be a better place if he “moves on,” so to speak.  But there’s no guarantee that a rebel victory will result in a liberal democracy dedicated to international peace and harmony.  And there’s nothing at stake that warrants involving the United States in yet another war in a Muslim nation—the fifth ongoing, if one counts the extensive drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, along with Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Senator McCain urges Washington to bomb or invade the sixth Islamic state, which is inevitable given his past behavior, it would be worth remembering how he has managed to be on every side of the Libya issue, supporting tyranny before he opposed it.  When it comes to war, the best policy is to do the opposite of what he advises.  Only then will America find itself finally at peace.

Finns Begin a Quixotic Quest for Prevention

In the aftermath of the Oslo terror attack, Finnish police—yes, Finnish—plan to increase their surveillance of the Internet:

Deputy police commissioner Robin Lardot said his forces will play closer attention to fragmented pieces of information—known as ‘weak signals’—in case they connect to a credible terrorist threat.

That is not the way forward. As I explored in a series of posts and a podcast after the Fort Hood shooting here in the United States, random violence (terrorist or otherwise) is not predictable and not “findable” in advance—not if a free society is to remain free, anyway. That’s bad news, but it’s important to understand.

In the days since the attack, many commentators have poured a lot of energy into interpretation of Oslo and U.S. media treatment of it while the assumption of an al Qaeda link melted before evidence that it was a nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic “cultural conservative.” Such commentary and interpretation is riveting to people who are looking to vindicate or decimate one ideology or another, but it doesn’t matter much in terms of security against future terrorism.

As former FBI agent (and current ACLU policy counsel) Mike German advises, any ideology can become a target of the government if the national security bureaucracy comes to use political opinion or activism as a proxy or precursor for crime and terrorism. Rather than blending crime control with mind control, the only thing to do is to watch ever-searchingly for genuine criminal planning and violence, and remember the Oslo dead as Lt. General Cone did Fort Hood’s: “The … community shares your sorrow as we move forward together in a spirit of resiliency.”

Al Qaeda’s Mythical Unity

The mythical al Qaeda is a hierarchical organization. After losing its haven in Afghanistan, it cleverly decentralized authority and shifted its headquarters to Pakistan. But central management still dispatches operatives globally and manages affiliates according to a strategy.

The real al Qaeda is a fragmented and unmanageable movement. In the 1990s, it achieved limited success in getting other jihadists to join in attacking the West. It was not managerial innovation but the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and other governments’ pressures that destroyed  the limited hierarchy al Qaeda Central had achieved. Its scattered remnant in Pakistan controls little locally and less abroad. The leaders have cachet but lack the material incentives that real managers distribute to exercise authority. Al Qaeda became bunches of guys with diminished capability.*

The myth is destructive to counterterrorism. Because tightly-run organizations are better at mass violence than disparate movements, the myth creates needless fear that encourages overly ambitious and expensive policies, like the war in Afghanistan. The myth increases the number of enemies we face, taking focus from real ones. Most jihadist militants hate Americans but don’t try to kill us. They fight locally. Attacking them risks making them into what we fear they are and stoking nationalistic resentment that increases their popularity.

My anecdotal sense is that events since 9/11 have increasingly brought commentators around to truth. Even so, the media, for simplicity’s sake, tends towards the myth. And the Obama administration, despite improving upon its predecessors’ absurdly broad definition of our terrorist enemies, still overstates al Qaeda Central’s unity and control of affiliates. More importantly, U.S. policies still pay insufficient attention to the distinction among various al Qaeda entities.

Here are three recent examples of this rhetorical error and its consequences:

(1) Since bin Laden’s death, U.S. officials, analysts, and pundits have claimed that the cache of emails found in his compound contradict recent intelligence reports downplaying his control. The emails, we are told, show that he was still running the show and that al Qaeda Central remained potent.

Last week, however, McClatchy quoted more anonymous officials suggesting that to al Qaeda types in Pakistan and beyond, bin Laden was like a “cranky old uncle” that you respectfully listen to and ignore. The Washington Post reported that the emails show al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan complaining about depleted funds, declining popularity, and CIA drones decimating their ranks.

The White House seems conflicted about which view of al Qaeda to take. It commendably wants to belittle al Qaeda, robbing it of mystique by portraying bin Laden as pathetic and weak. On the other hand, it needs the threat of a powerful al Qaeda to justify the war in Afghanistan and other controversial policies.

(2) Media reports often give the impression that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are the core of the militant group (Ansar al-Sharia) revolting in Yemen’s south. The implication is al Qaeda could soon control territory for the first time. Too little attention is given to the uncertain role AQAP plays among Yemen’s militants and its limited ties to al Qaeda Central. Bin Laden apparently asked AQAP’s leader to attack Americans rather than gathering territory locally, suggesting that its commitment to attacking us may be limited.

The point is not that we should ignore al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. But uncertainty about their role in Yemen and intent cautions against undifferentiated assaults on their leaders, let alone those of Ansar al-Sharia.

(3) Since our recent drone strike in Somalia on leaders of the al-Shabab insurgent group, the administration has claimed that Shabab’s leaders are plotting terrorism against American or western targets. The only evidence given for this assertion is vague claims of Shabab’s ties to Yemeni militants and its claim of responsibility for a 2010 terrorist bombing in Uganda. But that bombing came because Ugandan troops are in the African Union force fighting al-Shabab. While reprehensible, the attack does not show a desire to terrorize Americans.

At the risk of sounding quaint, Congress should make the administration substantiate its claims that Shabab is targeting Americans before we bomb them further. We have enough insurgents to fight these days outside Somalia.

*These positions are roughly those taken by Bruce Hoffman and Marc Sageman, respectively. My aim is not to perfectly state their views, however, but to describe general views in terrorism commentary.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Beware the Depends Bomber?

My Washington Examiner column this week is on TSA, the federal agency that’s its own reductio ad absurdum.

In the latest TSA atrocity, the agency forced a wheelchair-bound, 95-year-old leukemia patient to remove her adult diaper, for fear she might be wired to explode. “It’s something I couldn’t imagine happening on American soil,” her distraught daughter told the press: “Here is my mother, 95 years old, 105 pounds, barely able to stand, and then this.”

My God, what is she on about? Proper procedure was followed!

As I point out in the column:

in a classic case of “mission creep,” TSA is taking its show on the road and the rails.

Remember when, pushing his bullet-train boondoggle in the 2011 State of the Union, President Obama cracked that it would let you travel “without the pat-down”? Not funny—also, not true.

Earlier this year, Amtrak passengers in Savannah, Ga., stepped off into a TSA checkpoint. Though the travelers had already disembarked the train, agents made women lift their shirts to check for bra explosives. Two weeks ago, armed TSA and Homeland Security agents hit a bus depot in Des Moines, Iowa, to question passengers and demand their papers.

These raids are the work of TSA’s “Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response” (VIPR or “Viper”) teams—an acronym at once senseless and menacing, much like the agency itself.

All this is happening at a time when al Qaeda looks more harried, pathetic, and weaker than ever. But hey, you can never be too careful, right?

Feel Safer?