Tag: threat inflation

A World on Fire?

A sense of historical perspective and responsible rhetoric may be too much to ask of candidates at this stage in a presidential campaign. With fifteen contenders all looking to score points some hyperbole is to be expected. Even so the level of threat inflation and “world in flames” talk last night was troublesome given how at odds it is with fundamental trends in world affairs.

Here is just a sampling of last week’s overheated discussion of global dangers:

Donald Trump: “The world is blowing up around us. …These are extraordinarily dangerous times that we live in.”

Ben Carson: “We’re talking about global jihadists who want to destroy us. …They are an existential threat to our nation.”

Rick Santorum: “Yes, they (Iran) are radical Islamists, that’s true. But their particular version of it, which is an apocalyptic version, which is a death cult, they believe in bringing about the end of the - end of the world. If you - if you poll Iranians and Iraqis, Shiites in the region, more than two-thirds of them believe that the end of the world is going to come within their lifetime. …They believe in bringing about the end of times. That’s their theological goal and we are in the process of giving them a nuclear weapon to do just that.”

Mike Huckabee: “This is really about the survival of Western civilization.”

With the candidates competing to outdo each other’s apocalyptic visions of the threats facing the U.S., it is no surprise that their policy prescriptions for Russia, Syria, Iran, and ISIL displayed a distinct tendency toward irresponsibility and overkill. Of the candidates in the debate, only Rand Paul and John Kasich articulated more temperate visions of U.S. foreign policy, Paul suggesting that sometimes intervention makes things worse and Kasich that the U.S. should actually wait to see how Iran behaves before simply ripping up the Iran deal and pursuing more aggressive options.

The North Korean Threat: Disengage and Defuse

Americans lived for decades with the fear of instant death from a Soviet nuclear strike. The People’s Republic of China has acquired a similar, though more limited, capability. Nothing happened in either case, because even evil people who acted like barbarians at home refused to commit suicide abroad. 

So it is with North Korea. A Defense Intelligence Agency report that Pyongyang may have miniaturized a nuclear weapon for use on a missile has created a predictable stir. Yet the analysis was carefully hedged, and Washington’s top security leadership, ranging from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper dismissed the seriousness of the threat.  

If the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was lucky, it could successfully launch its longest range missile, topped by a warhead with explosives rather than a nuclear weapon, without the rocket blowing up or falling back on the DPRK. With additional luck, the missile might hit somewhere in Alaska or Hawaii, though Pyongyang would have little control over the actual strike zone. 

But if the missile “worked” in this way, the North’s luck would quickly end. The United States would launch several nuclear-topped missiles and Pyongyang, certainly, and every urban area in the North, probably, would be vaporized. The “lake of fire” about which the DPRK has constantly spoken would occur, all over North Korea. Pretty-boy Kim Jong-un wouldn’t have much to smile about then. 

Deterrence worked against Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. There is no indication that it won’t work against the North Korean leadership. There always is a risk of mistake or miscalculation, but that properly is a problem for Pyongyang’s neighbors.  

The latest DPRK crisis should trigger a policy shift in Washington. Once the immediate furor has passed, the Obama administration should begin bringing home the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the Republic of Korea, and then end America’s formal security guarantee. Once Washington no longer confronted the North, the latter would turn its ire elsewhere. 

The ROK should take over its own defense, while building a better relationship with democratic neighbors, most obviously Japan, which also has been threatened by the North. At the same time, the Obama administration should hint at a rethink of Washington’s traditional opposition to the possibility of South Korea and Japan building nuclear weapons. China should understand that failing to take strong measures to curb its ally’s atomic ambitions could unleash the far more sophisticated nuclear potential of America’s allies. 

North Korea is a practical threat to the United States only to the degree which Washington allows. Better policy-making would reduce America’s role in Pyongyang’s ongoing tragic farce.

DHS Fusion Centers: Small Part of Homeland Security Waste

Fusion centers are “pools of ineptitude, waste and civil liberties intrusions.” That’s the Washington Post’s summary of a report, two years in the making, released Tuesday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigation.

With all due respect to the Senate investigators, who did thorough and commendable work here, it does not take two years and 140 pages to reach their conclusion. Along with the ACLU, Cato scholars have made similar arguments for years.

Fusion centers grew from the revelation in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks that federal security agencies, states governments, and local law enforcement were failing to share information about terrorists. Although the attacks resulted as much from the difficulty of distinguishing pertinent information from the rest as from impediments in information-sharing, it was reasonable to address the second problem. But whether that required physical spaces devoted to information sharing—let alone the 70-plus of them we now have spread across the country—is another story.

The wisdom of that spasm of bureaucratic creation turned largely on the truth of the official insistence in the panicky aftermath of the attacks that the United States was rife with thousands of hidden al Qaeda operatives and that mass casualty attacks would occur with the regularity of extreme hurricanes. Predictably, there weren’t enough terrorists to go around. And it doesn’t take Max Weber to see that their dearth wouldn’t cause the searchers to slacken their efforts. Fusion centers became a classic solution in search of a problem.

One way to justify fusion centers was to expand their enemy to “all hazards.” A second was to exaggerate the terrorist menace, for example by insisting that its quiescence indicated that it was not weak or absent, but well-hidden and patient (note: the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, especially when you are searching a lot; it’s just not proof of absence). Of course, advocates overstated the fusion centers’ contribution to terrorism arrests. And even without arrests, they could conflate activity with success, by pointing to, for example, leads pursued and cases opened as if they were security itself. That last technique continues today in the pushback  to the Senate report.

Keep in mind that fusion centers, which cost federal taxpayers at most a few hundred million a year, are symptoms of a larger problem. The entire national security apparatus has grown by leaps and bounds since 2001 thanks to a threat that has, thankfully, proved vastly weaker than most thought.

Serial Innumeracy on Homeland Security

This post was co-authored with Mark G. Stewart, professor of civil engineering and director of the Centre for Infrastructure Performance and Reliability at The University of Newcastle in Australia.

At hearings of the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee earlier this month, former congresswoman Jane Harman (D-CA), now head of the Wilson Center in Washington, made a gallant stab at coming up with, and hailing, some homeland security functions that “execute well.”

At the top of Harman’s list was the observation that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) last year stopped more than 3,100 individuals from boarding U.S.-bound aircraft at foreign airports for national security reasons. Since these were plucked out of more than 15 million travelers that went through 15 pre-clearance locations overseas, it was, she exclaimed enthusiastically, “like picking needles from a haystack!”

Committee chair Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) waxed even more enthusiastic about the number, concluding grandly that it “took very sophisticated data systems and implementation of those systems to make that happen” and that “we’re all safer as a result of it.”

This was an exercise in serial innumeracy, of course, because the relevant statistic is not how many individuals were denied entry, but how many of those denied actually presented a security threat. Neither enthusiast presented relevant data, but, judging from the fact that no one apparently was arrested (we’d tend to know if they had been), the number was likely just about  zero. Nor was information presented about the problems or costly inconvenience inflicted upon the many who were likely waylaid in error.

Moreover, it is not clear where the Harman/Lieberman number even comes from. According to Homeland Security officials interviewed by Michael Schmidt for a recent article in the New York Times, only 250 people in each of the last two years were turned away or even pulled aside for questioning as potential national security risks by pre-clearance screeners. Maybe CBP is even more “sophisticated” at picking needles from haystacks than Harman and Lieberman give it credit for. Does that mean we’re even safer as a result? Or less so?

Schmidt also supplies information that calls into question the whole pre-clearance enterprise. Stimulated in considerable measure by the failed underwear bomber attempt to blow up an airliner flying from Europe to Detroit in 2009, the program is, as Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano stresses “an expensive proposition.” Although it has been instituted so far only in airports in Canada, the Caribbean, and Ireland, it already costs $115 million a year. Expansion to hundreds of other airports (including the one the underwear bomber actually took off from) is not only costly, but requires a major diplomatic effort because it involves cajoling foreign governments into granting the United States police-like powers on their own soil. The program has not foiled any major plots thus far, notes Schmidt, and he pointedly adds that it would scarcely be difficult for a would-be terrorist to avoid the few airports with pre-clearance screening to board at one of the many that do not enjoy that security frill.

But the main innumeracy issue in all this is that the key question, as usual when homeland security is up for consideration, is simply left out of the discussion. The place to begin is not “are we safer” with the security measure in place, but how safe are we without it.

We have calculated that, for the 12-year period from 1999 through 2010 (which includes 9/11, of course), there was one chance in 22 million that an airplane flight would be hijacked or otherwise attacked by terrorists.

The question that should be asked of the numerically-challenged, then, is the one posed a decade ago by risk analyst Howard Kunreuther: “How much should we be willing to pay for small reductions in probabilities that are already extremely low?”

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

More Skepticism on Romney’s Military Spending Promise

On Sunday, Defense News published a good article by Kate Brannen that looks into Mitt Romney’s plans for military spending. This is not the first examination of Romney’s lofty campaign promise to spend at least four percent of GDP on the Pentagon’s base budget. Since October 2011, when I first crunched the numbers on his plan, others have followed with their own estimates.

In my first analysis, his plan totaled $2.046 trillion above projected defense budgets based on CBO totals from FY 2012 to FY 2021. That total does not include war costs, nor does it take into account the possibility of military action toward Iran, which Romney has made clear is on the table, with or without Congressional approval. My number one question at the time—beyond the fact that GDP is not the proper guide for military spending—was: Where is this money going to come from?

In April, I recalculated Romney’s gimmick, adjusting my numbers with the help of my colleague Charles Zakaib, based on the Obama administration’s latest 10-year projections. We presented the data in the graph below:

The conclusion: Romney’s four percent gimmick would now necessitate $2.58 trillion in additional military spending above the new baseline. I tried to put this in context:

Romney’s Four Percent Gimmick would result in taxpayers spending more than twice as much on the Pentagon as in 2000 (111 percent higher, to be precise), and 45 percent more than in 1985, the height of the Reagan buildup. Over the next ten years, Romney’s annual spending (in constant dollars) for the Pentagon would average 64 percent higher than annual post-Cold War budgets (1990-2012), and 42 percent more than the average during the Reagan era (1981-1989).

Does Romney genuinely believe we have enemies that approach the Soviet Union’s might, let alone ones that are 42 percent more threatening? We would be wise to question his judgment if so.

Back in the realm of the reality, further cuts to military spending are fast approaching as sequestration looms. The debate in Washington is now largely focused on how much to cut from the defense budget and in what manner. This is consistent with what the majority of Americans favor and has sidelined those arguing for ever-greater military spending. And yet Mitt Romney remains committed to his Four Percent idea. In this instance, Romney should embrace his supposed conservatism and leave the spendthrift gimmicks to the opposition.

Much more in the podcast below:

Romney, Kerry Miss the Point on Threats: Size Matters

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) is the latest person to mock Mitt Romney’s declaration that the Russian Federation “is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe.” It was a pretty silly statement, particularly given the fact that Russia is a demographic basket case and a very humble economic power. But there’s all sorts of weirdness going on in Romney’s assertions and those of his critics.

Take, for example, Wolf Blitzer’s follow up to the Romney assertion:

BLITZER:  But you think Russia is a bigger foe right now than, let’s say, Iran or China or North Korea? Is that—is that what you’re suggesting, Governor?

ROMNEY:  Well, I’m saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world’s worst actors.  Of course, the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran.  A nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough.

But when these—these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them, when—when Assad, for instance, is murdering his own people, we go—we go to the United Nations, and who is it that always stands up for the world’s worst actors?

It is always Russia, typically with China alongside.

And—and so in terms of a geopolitical foe, a nation that’s on the Security Council, that has the heft of the Security Council and is, of course, a—a massive nuclear power, Russia is the—the geopolitical foe and—and the—and they’re—the idea that our president is—is planning on doing something with them that he’s not willing to tell the American people before the election is something I find very, very alarming.

In fairness to Governor Romney, it does seem like he realizes he’s made a gaffe here, so he tries to back up and take another run at it. But in doing so, he just makes it worse. Taking a mulligan, he tries to pivot from the Russia allegation by folding in Iran (“the greatest threat the world faces”) and North Korea, and gesturing at Syria.

It’s the same thing Kerry does in his condescending lecture to Romney:

We have much bigger problems on this planet in the Middle East, with the evolution of Egypt, with the challenge of Syria, terrorism, al-Qaeda in Yemen, and so forth.

Both of these guys should be ashamed of themselves. And they ought to be light-headed from the amount of threat inflation they’re doing. We spend too much time debating the relative size of our enemies and too little debating their absolute size. Every country at all times has a #1, #2, and #3 “geopolitical foe.” But the threat environments posed by those foes vary radically.

In a better world, American political elites would discuss the absolute level of threat they face rather than just bickering over our enemies’ batting order. As Ben Friedman and I recently wrote in Orbis:

The dirty little secret of U.S. defense politics is that the United States is safe—probably the most secure great power in modern history. Weak neighbors, vast ocean barriers, nuclear weapons and the wealth to build up forces make almost nonexistent the threats that militaries traditionally existed to thwart. Americans cannot seriously fear territorial conquest, civil war, annexation of peripheral territories, or blockade. What passes for enemies here are small potatoes compared with what worried most states at most times. Most U.S. military interventions affect U.S. security at best marginally. We have hopes and sometimes interests in the places where we send troops, but no matter how much we repeat it to honor the troops, it is untrue that they are fighting to protect our freedom.

Part of the reason our national security politics are pathological is that we focus disproportionately on debating which enemy is the biggest without stopping to ask how big the enemies are.

If your three biggest problems are being infected with Black Death, having a bull rhino charging at you, and being knee-deep in quicksand, you can wonder—for a few seconds, at least—which is your #1 problem. Similarly, if your three biggest problems are that you got into an argument with your spouse about who left a dish in the sink, your shoelaces are untied, and you can’t log in to Facebook, you can puzzle over which of those is bigger. But only a fool would miss the distinctions between the two scenarios.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Washington Post Defines Worst Fears Down

“Al-Qaeda bombmaker represents CIA’s worst fears.”

That’s the headline of a Washington Post story on Yemeni terrorists’ attempt to down a U.S. bound flight by placing a bomb on the body of an operative that turned out to be a CIA and Saudi agent. By straining to alarm readers about the bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the story makes three errors.

First, by defining the CIA’s “worst fears” as “a highly skilled terrorist determined to attack the United States,” the Post underestimates the imaginative capacity of intelligence officials and overrates Asiri’s prowess. The article uncritically quotes House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King’s claim that “Asiri is an evil genius. He is constantly expanding, he is constantly adjusting.” Whatever King means by “expanding,” “failing” would have been a better choice of words. In just one of the four Asiri plots mentioned in article did his bomb detonate properly. That one killed only its bearer, al-Asiri’s brother. The nearby target, Saudi’s Prince Nayef, suffered only minor wounds.

Second, the article dubiously claims that two of those plots nearly wreaked great damage:

If it were not for a technical problem (Abdulmutallab’s device failed to detonate) or solid intelligence tips (Saudi counterterrorism officials alerted authorities in Dubai and Britain to intercept the cargo planes), Asiri would have succeeded in staging a catastrophic disaster in American skies.

It is, however, questionable whether Abdulmutallab’s bomb, had it properly detonated, was powerful enough to cause his plane to crash. Even if it opened a hole, the plane might not have crashed.

In the second case, where bombs were hidden in printer cartridges on cargo planes, authorities tell us the detonators probably would have worked and could have downed the planes. But there remains a decent chance that detonation would have occurred while the planes were on the ground. Also, one reason that the devices made it on to cargo planes without detection is that they contain few people and thus justify less security. The death of a crew would have been tragic, of course, but “catastrophic disaster” is a stretch.

The likely success of terrorist plots can’t be assessed simply by looking at the stage of the plot that caused its failure. As Jim Harper argues, plots require success in a series of tasks, each of which drives down the odds of overall success. Bombs that are both difficult to detect and easy to detonate are tough to make, and competent bombers are hard to find. Borders have guards. Intelligence services employ double agents.

The article’s third error is its assertion that the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda has “taken advantage of Yemen’s political turmoil and seized large swaths of territory in the south.” That language conflates the terrorist group with a broader insurgency, confuses their goals, and overstates the group’s potency. The misperception invites a broad U.S. campaign against Yemen’s southern Islamists, which could heighten their enthusiasm for attacking Americans, creating the menace we feared.

Let’s review the record of the bombmaker who is labeled our “worst fear.” His organization has made no discernible progress towards its murky political objectives—though its Islamist protectors have gained territory amid a power vacuum. He has never produced mass violence nor apparently come close, and his most successful act of terrorism was to help his brother blow himself up. His next best effort resulted in a severe crotch burn for the bomber, who survived, talked to U.S. authorities for months, and is serving a life sentence.

That is “success” only under an exceedingly capacious definition. Bin Laden and his acolytes are being grandiose when they talk about bankrupting us. But their boasts show that “terrorism” remains a good label for their misbegotten efforts. They sustain their endeavors by imagining that violence, by generating fear and cost, will cause their enemy to fold and to accommodate their goals. By hyping their menace, we help them cling to that fantasy.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.