Tag: homeland security

“…the American homeland is the planet”

For years, my colleagues and I have been arguing that disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda does not require the occupation of Afghanistan or anywhere else. Wars are incredibly wasteful and counterproductive to the goal of stopping terrorism. Would-be terrorists, moreover, have reduced their dependence on “base camps” and “physical havens” because they can plan, organize, and train from virtually anywhere in the world.

Mike M. from Paradigm Cure ably sums up the broader problem from which our post-9/11 mindset stems:

That is the notion that it is the responsibility of the US government to keep Americans safe from all terrorist attacks, at all times; the insistence that one attack amounts to failure, that the standard for homeland security is perfection.


We await an American political leader who will tell us the Whole Truth:  That in the emerging connected and networked world, we cannot be made totally safe.  That despite their level efforts, life—and strategy—are full of choices, and tradeoffs.  In so many ways, American public life these last few decades has been all about the avoidance of truth, and choice, and tradeoff, the promise that we could have everything and avoid the bill.  Many bills are now coming due; long-delayed tradeoffs are being foisted.  And one of them, sooner or later, will be the simple, unalterable fact:  We cannot dominate the earth, and so we must accept some risk at home.

Indeed, we are not perfect. In fact, as foreign policy planners were ordering American soldiers to invade and occupy two foreign countries simultaneously, back at home their fellow Americans were exposed to the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Times Square bomber, the Ft. Hood shooter, and other failed and foiled terrorist plots and near misses. Clearly, these terrorists did not get the memo that we were supposed to be fighting them “over there.”

Unfortunately, U.S. officials remain hostage to the outdated notion that a specific territory matters—they remain possessed by a sort of safe haven syndrome. But perhaps even more crucial is that government officials also remain fixated on heading off every conceivable hazard through greater government action.

I must admit, however, that the belief that America must stop any and all terrorist attacks by controlling the world’s ungoverned spaces makes sense if one believes what the 9/11 Commission wrote on page 362 about warding off al Qaeda.

In this sense, 9/11 has taught us that terrorism against American interests ‘over there’ should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against America ‘over here.’ In this same sense, the American homeland is the planet. [Emphasis added]

A Scary Thought: Do We Really Need “If You See Something, Say Something?”

At the National Sheriffs’ Association Conference in Washington last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano noted that riders on the DC Metro system can hear her voice repeatedly promoting her department’s “If You See Something, Say Something” terrorism hotline campaign. “That’s a scary thought,” she suggested.

Even scarier to me is the campaign itself.

It was begun in New York City where it generated 8,999 calls in 2006 and more than 13,473 in 2007. Although the usual approach of the media is to report about such measures uncritically, one New York Times reporter at the time did have the temerity to ask how many of these tips had actually led to a terrorism arrest. The answer, it turned out, was zero.

That continues to be the case, it appears: none of the much-publicized terrorism arrests in New York since that time has been impelled by a “If You See Something, Say Something” tip.

This experience could be taken to suggest that the tipster campaign has been something of a failure. Or perhaps it suggests there isn’t all that much out there to be found. Undeterred by such dark possibilities, however, the campaign continues, and the number of calls in New York skyrocketed to 27,127 in 2008 before settling down a bit to a mere 16,191 in 2009.

For its part, the FBI celebrated the receipt of its 2 millionth tip from the public, up to a third of them concerning terrorism, in August 2008. There seems to be no public information on whether the terrorism tips proved more useful than those supplied to the New York City police. However, an examination of all known terrorism cases since 9/11 that have targeted the United States suggests that the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign has never been relevant.

It turns out that New York has received a trademark on its snappy slogan, something Napolitano’s DHS dutifully acknowledges on its relevant website when it refers to its public awareness campaign as: “If You See Something, Say Something&™.” (Nowhere on the website, by the way, does the Department bother to tally either the number of calls it receives or the number of terrorism arrests the hotline has led to.)

New York has been willing to grant permission for the slogan to be used by organizations like DHS, but sometimes it has refused permission because, according to a spokesman, “The intent of the slogan is to focus on terrorism activity, not crime, and we felt that use in other spheres would water down its effectiveness.” Since it appears that the slogan has been completely ineffective at dealing with its supposed focus—terrorism—any watering down would appear, not to put too fine a point on it, to be impossible.

Meanwhile, in New York alone $2 million to $3 million each year (much of it coming from grants from the federal government) continues to be paid out to promote and publicize the hotline.

But that’s hardly the full price of the program. As Mark Stewart and I have noted in our Terror, Security, and Money, processing the tips can be costly because, as the FBI’s special counsel puts it, “Any terrorism lead has to be followed up. That means, on a practical level, that things that 10 years ago might just have been ignored now have to be followed up.” Says the assistant section chief for the FBI’s National Threat Center portentously, “It’s the one that you don’t take seriously that becomes the 9/11.”

It might seem obvious that any value of the “If You See Something, Say Something™” campaign needs to be weighted against the rather significant attendant costs of sorting through the haystack of tips it generates. Of course, the campaign might fail a cost-benefit analysis because it is expensive and seems to have generated no benefit (except perhaps for bolstering support for homeland security spending by continually reminding an edgy public that terrorism might still be out there).

This grim possibility may be why, as far as I can see, no one has ever carried out such a study and that the prospect of doing one has probably never crossed the minds of sloganeer Napolitano or of the rapt sheriffs in her audience.

Now that’s a scary thought.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Newt Gingrich and the EMP Threat

The front page of yesterday’s New York Times features a story on Newt Gingrich’s “doomsday vision:” an attack over the United States’ airspace known as an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. Gingrich and a cadre of concerned national security analysts worry that terrorists or rogue states—Iran and North Korea—could detonate a nuclear device over the United States that theoretically could disrupt electrical circuits, from cars to power grids.

The Times does a commendable job of questioning Gingrich’s arguments and whether this is a legitimate national security concern. Despite the fact that a “National EMP Recognition Day” exists, the threat is in fact very, very low. But it may be unfortunate that such extravagant doomsday scenarios get placed on the front page of the Times.

I addressed the EMP threat in my 2010 book Atomic Obsession and I included a discussion of the views of Stephen Younger, the former head of nuclear weapons research at Los Alamos National Lab, as forcefully put forward in his 2007 book, Endangered Species:

Younger is appalled at the way “one fast‑talking scientist” managed in 2004 to convince some members of Congress that North Korea might be able to launch a nuclear device capable of emitting a high‑altitude electromagnetic pulse that could burn out computers and other equipment over a wide area. When he queried a man he considers to be “perhaps the most knowledgeable person in the world about such designs” (and who “was never asked to testify”), the response was: “I don’t think the United States could do that sort of thing today. To say that the North Koreans could do it, and without doing any testing, is simply ridiculous.” Nevertheless, concludes Younger acidly, “rumors are passed from one person to another, growing at every repetition, backed by flimsy or nonexistent intelligence and the reputations of those who are better at talking than doing.” [Emphasis in original.]

The 2012 presidential election should certainly contain a legitimate discussion of national security issues. But I don’t think it really needs to include a lot of breast-beating about the EMP “threat.”

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The Real Trouble With the Defense Authorization Bill

The Senate on Thursday passed the 2012 defense-authorization bill. It includes a controversial provision meant to put al-Qaeda suspects and their associates in military custody rather than prosecute them as criminals. The White House has rather weakly threatened a veto, complaining primarily that the bill undercuts their discretion in dealing with terrorists.

If the White House vetoes the bill, it will be for the wrong reasons. The trouble is not what the law mandates but what it affirms. It does not require the president to put any terrorists in military custody but rather to comply with a new bureaucratic process if he chooses not to do so. Even as we move toward the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the law affirms a presidential power to detain anyone, including American citizens, in the name of fighting a nebulous and seemingly permanent terrorist menace. That is bad for both civil liberties and for our ability to think clearly about terrorism.

Most debate about the bill concerns section 1032. It says that the armed forces “shall hold” anyone that is part of al-Qaeda or an associated force and participants in an attack on the United States or its coalition partners for the course of hostilities authorized by Congress in 2001—and dispose of those suspects under laws of wars. American citizens are excluded. Thanks to a compromise negotiated by Armed Service Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-MI) and Ranking Member John McCain (R-AZ), the section now allows the secretary of defense, after consulting with the secretary of state and director of national intelligence, to keep the suspect in civilian courts by informing Congress that doing so serves national security.

The administration objects to 1032 largely because it undercuts their discretion. However, as Levin and McCain note in a recent op-ed, the administration still “determines whether a detainee meets the criteria for military custody.” The president could presumably just decline to label a detainee as someone fitting the requirements of military detention in the first place and try him in civilian court without getting a waiver from the secretary of defense.

The provision’s main relevance is as a talking point. Republicans already fond of castigating the president for allowing alleged terrorists to have their day in court can pretend that he is ignoring this law when he does so.

The real trouble with the bill is the preceding section, 1031. It “affirms” that the authorization of military force passed prior to the invasion of Afghanistan allows the president, through the military, to detain without trial al-Qaeda members, Taliban fighters, associated forces engaged in hostilities against the United States and those that support those groups. Nothing excludes American citizens.

The section says that it does not expand presidential war powers, but that contradicts its other language and common sense. By explicitly endorsing constitutionally dubious powers that the president already claims, Congress makes those claims more likely to survive legal challenge.

The 2001 Authorization of Military Force allows the president to make war on “nations, organizations, or persons” that he determines to have been involved in or aided the September 11 attacks and those that harbored these groups. Effectively, that meant al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Our last two presidents have used that authority to claim the right to kill or indefinitely detain anyone, anywhere that they decide is associated with some arm of al-Qaeda. The courts have trimmed these powers in ways that remain uncertain, particularly as applied to U.S. citizens. In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court held that the U.S. military has the power to detain without trial Americans captured on foreign battlefields but that the detainee can challenge the detention in court. Contrary to Carl Levin’s assertions, the ruling did not say that people seized in the United States fit that category.

This defense bill’s expansive list of enemies strengthens the president’s claim that he can detain almost anyone without trial in the name of counterterrorism. Future White House lawyers will cite it to justify those powers. Courts may tell Americans that challenge their detention on constitutional grounds that Congress’s endorsement of the president’s claims to detention powers makes them sounder.

The bill may even strengthen the president’s case for using other war powers, like killing citizens with drone strikes. That interpretation is bolstered by the detainee language’s similarity to the reauthorization of force contained in the House’s defense bill. That legislation explicitly gives the president the power to make war on al-Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces. By using nearly identical language to describe who the president can detain under his war powers, the Senate bill may stealthily achieve the same end.

Liberalism means minimizing the exercise of war powers. To say, as backers of this legislation do, that the constitution allows our government to kill and detain people without trial is not an argument that we should do so often. Because those powers so offend liberalism, those that advocate them should have the burden of explaining why they are necessary, even if they are constitutional.

Instead, advocates of these extraordinary powers take it as nearly self-evident that military detention is somehow safer than criminal trials. But criminal proceedings, because they are adversarial, produce better information than military interrogations. That information makes the public better consumers of counterterrorism policies. Public debate does not always make better public policy, but it often helps.

You can see how by looking at the footnotes of books about terrorism, like the 9-11 report. Many of sources are records of criminal trials of terrorists. Had all those suspects been held without trial, their testimony and the government’s claims about them might have remained secret. What did become public would be less trustworthy because it would not have been vetted by an institutional adversary, as in court.

Take the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Underwear Bomber, and its connection to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the jihadist propagandist killed earlier this year in Yemen. Both before and after getting a Miranda warning, Abdulmutallab apparently told his FBI interrogators a great deal of information about his trip to Yemen to prepare the explosives he tried to detonate in plane over Detroit. Had he not plead guilty on the first day of trial, prosecutors were set to argue that Awlaki had aided the plot. The government would have had to substantiate its claim that Awlaki, an American citizen, had graduated from being a propagandist to plotting attacks and therefore become a combatant they could legally kill—something they still have not done. The trial would have shed light on how the White House decides which of its citizens it can kill in the name of counterterrorism. That information would at least inform debate.

Civil liberties are a sufficient reason to oppose handing the executive the power to detain more or less whomever it wants. But our system of government does not divide powers simply for fairness. Unilateral decisions are more likely to be foolish ones.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

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.)