What We’re Not Seeing: The Hidden Costs of Homeland Security

3 years ago ccwa 0

surveillance_cag_082.JPGProfessor John Mueller’s recent work has made an art of criticizing the U.S. counter-terrorism system.  Beginning in 2006 with a title on the topic—aptly called “Overblown“—he’s now moved on to research for his next book, “Chasing Ghosts: the FBI and Counter-Terrorism”.  I recently had the chance to go to a presentation of some of that research.  The work pivots around a statistical model for monitoring the resources used by the FBI and other homeland security agencies (the NSA and NYPD, mostly), and then expands from there, challenging whether the financial and human resources involved in what have become routine counter-terrorism exercises are being used wisely.  It’s a remarkably cold process—reducing deadly attacks to dollar signs and percentages—but in dealing with inevitably paranoid institutions we need some means to curb rote expansion.

Cost-indexing counter-terrorism isn’t a new concept. Slate explained its basic tenants in an article I read last June, using TSA as an example:

“If the Environmental Protection Agency wants to promulgate a new environmental rule, it needs to take that rule through the cost-benefit analysis process overseen by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs inside OMB. This is a contentious matter, and oftentimes environmentalists and advocates for stricter workplace or consumer product safety standards object to the OIRA process… We ought to be doing something similar for antiterrorism measures. At a minimum, we ought to be doing the analysis. It’s a good intellectual exercise to put agencies through. Various intelligence agencies should produce some kind of estimate of how many terrorist attacks they think the TSA is halting. The Transportation Department and other agencies should attempt to quantify the direct and indirect costs. And whether we keep the measures in place or not, we’d at least come up with an imputed Statistical Value of a Human Life for terrorism purposes and we could see how it compares to the statistical values used for highway safety or atmospheric ailments.”

This sort of analysis is a fresh look at a system that desperately needs oversight. Still, a raw fiscal approach to evaluating counter-terrorism tends to trivialize a few of the more pressing issues involved in homeland security—namely the psychological aspect, both on the part of victims and assailants. One of the well-recited proverbs in our International Relations classes is that you’re as likely to be killed by a vending machine as a terrorist, but that sort of pithy truth dismisses the two to some analogous world of chance, when in fact one is meticulously planned for and the other is an accident. Malicious intent drives a considerable wedge between terrorists and vending machines; in considering the worth of our counter-terrorist measures it’s important to provide consideration to the death toll that terror groups would like to inflict, not merely the number they do.

Would-be attackers are also posed many of the same questions in analyzing their relative abilities as the authorities, so the same fun facts that put some wry punctuation in Professor Mueller’s presentation—”we have three counter-terrorism agencies for every one terrorist ever caught in the U.S.” and “the FBI chases down approximately 5000 leads each and every day”—serve as a powerful deterrent to groups hoping to harm Americans. As we analyze the success and necessity of our counter-terrorism programs, terrorist cells are most surely weighing their own capabilities as well—estimates informed by their own perception of those programs.

On the other hand, the very essence of the word terrorism implies a concern with anything but cold, calculating rationality. Take the Woolwich attack in May of last year; a perfectly chilling illustration of just how impotent statistics can be in the terror forum. Two assailants chose the message they wanted to send, and decided that it could be done without blowing up a building or spraying a crowd with an assault rifle—one casualty would be enough.  And they were right. The bloody meat cleaver proved a perfect compliment to the assailant’s iPhone diatribe, and their attack arrested tickers on every major news station for days.

The psychology of fear also creates a huge political vacuum; a weak homeland security record is seen as a huge deficiency in candidates for public office—Bush’s wolves seem to be an enduring image in the mind of voters across the US. Despite the placid decade, the fact is, Americans across the country are extremely concerned by the threat of terrorism at home. From TSA to NSA to the FBI, federal agencies serve to provide the American public with a security blanket.  Real or imaginary doesn’t much matter.

Professor Mueller’s scale was simple—multiply the probability of an attack by the financial losses that might be suffered (life is assigned a dollar amount here), then by the reduction of risk certain security measures provide, and you should come up with how much that security measure is worth.  But in a true cost-benefit analysis there are a few more variables to consider; more than just tax dollars go into security.  One example, as Slate mentioned, is time.  We’ve made the decision that spending an extra half-hour in airport security is worth the benefit it provides us in security.

A much more pressing sacrifice, however, is personal freedom—the right of each citizen not to be monitored in his or her daily lives, and parts of Professor Mueller’s presentation made this one all the more unnerving. For one thing, he touched not only on how many leads the FBI follows up each day, but how it’s done as well.  In some cases a simple house call will do, knowing that they’ve earned the suspicion of their government is enough to scare many-a-citizen straight.  In others, though, more drastic measures are taken.  Occasionally, the FBI resorts to the “Al Capone Approach.”  Since they couldn’t pin anything bigger on the mobster, they hit him with tax fraud.  Some potential threats get this treatment—threats are booked on a petty charge, and even though the intention is mostly to scare the subject as opposed to keeping them imprisoned, it’s still a terrifying prospect.  With the growth of the surveillance state, everything gets a little touchier for those of us with a light filter and a heavy sense of humor, especially coupled with a twinge of disdain for authority.

Maybe the most troubling part of this variable in the cost-benefit equation is its potential to add to the paranoia; as personal freedom gives way to sweeping surveillance the number of potential threats grows.  Mueller quoted George Tenet, “you simply cannot sit where I did and read what passed across my desk on a daily basis and be anything other than scared to death about what it portended, you could drive yourself crazy believing all or even half of what’s in it.”

Agencies where success or failure is determined in the often-imperceptible distinction between the threats they receive and those that pan out see ever-more danger with each passing day. With that in mind, we can start to draw a rough sketch of the people whose lives are colored by the divide.  These men and women go to work each day with the knowledge that they’ve been entrusted with protecting American lives, and if leaving no leaf unturned is what it takes to fulfill that duty, then that’s what they’ll do.

Authorities say around 100 terrorists have been caught in U.S. since 9/11.  Sometimes they fail to add that most of them couldn’t follow the instructions to build a Lego set, much less a fertilizer bomb.  Nevertheless, with the rise of advanced surveillance technology, who can blame the 300 agencies charged with finding them for seeing ghosts? The inevitable attitude is, as one agent said in an interview, “I remain very concerned about what we’re not seeing.”

Professor Mueller’s research provides a valuable, albeit imperfect, model to check homeland security agencies.  Ultimately, the proper scale is unworkable anyway.  It’s not merely a balance between security and economic costs, or security and an invasion of personal freedom, but between security and the fear that accompanies it.  This much is clear though: we have to develop a mechanism for caging the monster in our minds, because in the age of algorithms and big data it’s so very easy to forget that it’s still the human variable that drives us to our most egregious ends.  And how do you quantify that?


by Paul Peters

(photo credit: Zhang Jun/Xinhua: Zuma, cironline.org)