About this Issue

Five years have passed since the deadly terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which precipitated the Global War on Terror internationally and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security domestically. While the Global War on Terror has received a vast amount of commentary, less has been said about the effectiveness of the government’s policies to guard against terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Is there, in fact, enough of a terrorist threat to justify the astronomical sums spent securing landmarks in third-tier cities? Has domestic anti-terrorism policy actually made us any safer? Was the DHS even a good idea? How is it spending our tax money?

All these questions and more are the fodder for the September edition of Cato Unbound, “9/11 Five Years After: Reassessing the Terrorist Threat and Homeland Security.” Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller will kick off the conversation with “Some Reflections on What, If Anything, ‘Are We Safer?’ Might Mean.” Mueller will get feedback and pushback from: Clark Ervin, head of Homeland Security Program at the Aspen Institute and the first Inspector General of the United States Department of Homeland Security; Veronique de Rugy, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and expert on DHS budgeting priorities; and Timothy Naftali, soon-to-be director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum and author of Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism.

Lead Essay

Some Reflections on What, if Anything, “Are We Safer?” Might Mean

With the fifth anniversary of 9/11, a central question repeatedly asked is whether that country has become safer from international terrorism or not. I have never quite understood precisely what this question means, but let me explore six possibilities.

1. Is the likelihood that an individual American will be killed by international terrorists higher or lower than before 9/11?

This is a tricky concept to deal with because the number of Americans killed within the United States by international terrorists in the five years since 9/11 is the same as the number killed in the five years before: zero. Although polls continue to show Americans notably concerned that they or members of their families might die at the hands of terrorists, astronomer Alan Harris has calculated that, at present rates and including the disaster of 9/11 in the consideration, the chances any individual resident of the globe will be killed by an international terrorist over the course of an 80-year lifetime is about 1 in 80,000, about the same likelihood of being killed over the same interval from the impact on the Earth of an especially ill-directed asteroid or comet. At present, Americans are vastly more likely to die from bee stings, lightning, or accident-causing deer than by terrorism within the country. That seems pretty safe.

2. Are Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda types more or less capable of inflicting damage on the United States?

International terrorists would have to increase their capabilities considerably to change such astoundingly low probabilities. Even if they were able to pull off “another 9/11″ every three months for the next five years, the chance an individual American would be killed in one of them would still be two one-hundredths of one percent. Although there is concern that they will become vastly more dangerous by obtaining and setting off nuclear weapons or something like that, they do not seem to have become more capable generally since 9/11. The number of Americans who have been killed worldwide by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda types has increased considerably since 9/11, but this is almost entirely because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and the “are we safer” question is focused on the dangers to Americans at home, not abroad. Outside these war arenas, the number of people worldwide (few of them American) who have been killed by such terrorists may have gone up a bit since 9/11, but in five years the number killed in explosions set off by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda types stands at 900 or so—notably smaller than the number who have drown in bathtubs (300-400 per year, or over 1,500) in the United States alone during the same period.

Moreover, whatever they may be doing overseas, they don’t seem to be here: a secret FBI report in 2005 reported that after more than three years of intense and well-funded hunting, the agency had been unable to identify a single true Al Qaeda sleeper cell anywhere in the country—rather impressive given the 2002 intelligence estimate that there were up to 5000 people loose in the country who were “connected” to Al Qaeda. [1] Some attribute this to luck, good protection, the distractions of the war in Iraq, patience in planning additional attacks, or the breaking up of the Afghan training camps, but, as I have argued elsewhere, the evidence could be taken to indicate either that they aren’t trying very hard or that they are far less dedicated, diabolical, and competent than the common image would suggest.

The recent alleged bombing plot in London doesn’t so far suggest much in the way of enhanced terrorist capacities (and, of course, those guys were over there, not over here). The author of the dramatic claim that the plotters were envisioning “mass murder on an unimaginable scale” said when pressed that he meant “on a scale never before witnessed in Britain,” rather deflating the import of the initial widely-quoted assertion. And security expert Bruce Schneier has noted that chemists have been debunking the likely effectiveness of the scheme and that the plot was hardly imminent: none of the conspirators had bought airline tickets while some didn’t even have passports.

3. Are there more people out there who hate the United States?

Polls around the world strongly suggest the answer to this is a decided “yes.” The post-9/11 events that seem to have inspired this change are the American attack upon (and, increasingly it seems, debacle in) Iraq and now the destruction inflicted on Lebanon by U.S.-supported Israel.

However, the United States was far from beloved in the most relevant area, the Middle East, before 9/11 either, and hatred for American Middle East policy is what principally drove the attacks. It was in the mid-1990s when America’s UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright was asked on television’s “60 Minutes” whether she thought the sanctions-induced deaths of perhaps half a million Iraqi children was “worth it.” Without taking issue with the death toll estimate, she replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.” [2] Although this remarkable acknowledgement amazingly provoked no comment at the time in the United States, it quickly became famous in the Arab world.

4. Do the haters see more or less value in striking the United States?

In his excellent book, The Far Enemy, Fawaz Gerges argues that mainstream Islamists–the vast majority within the Islamist political movement–have given up on the use of force except perhaps against Israel, and that the remaining jihadis who are still willing to apply violence constituted a tiny minority before 9/11. But he goes on to note that the vast majority even of this small group primarily focuses on various “infidel” Muslim regimes and consider those among them who carry out violence against the “far enemy”–mainly Europe and the United States–to be irresponsible and reckless adventurers who endanger the survival of the whole movement. From this perspective, suggests Gerges, the 9/11 attacks proved to be substantially counterproductive by massively heightening concerns about terrorism around the world. The key result among jihadis and religious nationalists was a vehement rejection of Al Qaeda’s strategy and methods, particularly after reactions to the 9/11 attacks and subsequent terrorism in Muslim countries brought suppression of the movement.

Thus a reasonable conclusion is that, while we are less safe in that more people around the world hate the United States (or least its foreign policy) than did so before 9/11 (or, actually, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq), we are more safe in that even fewer people than before 9/11 think striking the U.S. directly makes much sense.

5. Are we more or less vulnerable to attack?

Compared to what? (as Henny Youngman replied when asked, “How’s your wife?”) Being invulnerable? All societies all the time are “vulnerable” to tiny bands of suicidal fanatics in the sense that it is impossible to prevent every terrorist act. There is no way to make everything completely safe from that any more than every store can be protected against shoplifting or every street can be made permanently free of muggers. This fundamental condition has hardly altered since 9/11—and essentially it cannot substantially be altered. Nor is it new or dependent on modern technology. As a friend of mine has pointed out, 19 dedicated, suicidal, and lucky terrorists could probably have scuttled the Titanic, drowning all aboard.

After 9/11 Homeland Security officials set out at Congressional urging to tally up a list of potential targets in the United States. By 2004, they had enumerated 33,000, to the apparent dismay of Homeland Security czar Ridge. Dismay was premature: within a year, the list had been expanded to 80,000. Although the list has remained secret–we wouldn’t want to put ideas into the head of your average diabolical terrorist, after all, as they argue over whether target 52,789 is more or less attractive than target 21,347. However, there have been a number of leaks indicating that miniature golf courses have been included on this exquisite exercise in self-parody, as well as Weeki Wachee Springs, a roadside waterpark in Florida notable for its mermaids.

“Homeland security cannot be had on the cheap,” proclaims Senator Joseph Lieberman. The problem is that it cannot be had on the expensive either. It is possible to make any individual target—like the Washington Monument–more secure from terrorism. But, unless funds are infinite, society can’t defend against every possibility—or even against a large number of them. To be blunt (and obvious), it is simply not possible to protect every bus, every shop, every factory, every tunnel, every bridge, every road, every mall, every place of assembly, every mile of railroad track. Some relevant statistics: in the United States there are 87,000 food-processing plants, 500 urban transportation systems, 80,000 dams, 66,000 chemical plants, 590,000 highway bridges, 5,000 airports, 12,800 power plants, 2 million miles of pipelines, and 2 billion miles of cable, not to mention some 13,000 McDonald’s (at this writing). Meanwhile, the Post Office handles nearly 200 billion pieces of mail each year. Nor is it possible to secure every border or have perfect, or for that matter, semi-perfect, port security—a particular vulnerability, among billions, that has attracted the focused attention of many worriers, if not so far of any actual terrorists. The United States can import over a billion dollars’ worth of shoes in a single month, notes Schneier–is each shoe box to be inspected?

Moreover, if one tempting target becomes less vulnerable, your inventive terrorist could simply move on to others. Thus, if airplanes have become more difficult to hijack and fly into targets (not so much because of enhanced security measures but because, as demonstrated in the fourth plane on 9/11, passengers and crew will now fight), there are still plenty of trains and buses out there. If the Washington Monument seems to have become a difficult target after years of expensive renovation, the agile terrorist might be led to cast an eye about for other notable tall, pointy objects—the Seattle Space Needle, for example. A displacement effect might even increase casualties: the destruction of the Washington Monument might be more embarrassing than that of the Space Needle, but it would probably cost fewer lives.

To simplify things, it might seem to make more sense to come up with a list of things that aren’t prospective targets. A tree in the middle of a forest might seem a likely prospect for this list. But what about forest fires? Five skilled terrorists, each armed with a match, could set off five of those simultaneously. They would be aided in their efforts by the park service’s propensity prominently to publicize which forests at any given moment are the driest and most tinderbox-like. Maybe in our determined quest to inconvenience terrorists we’d need to classify that information, hoping that campfire builders as well as smoking backpackers and motorists (but not your wandering malevolent terrorist) would have enough sense to be able to tell whether they are venturing through forested areas that are dry or not.

Since international terrorists active in the United States—thus far at least—have eschewed trees to concentrate on buildings in major cities, many think it reasonable to suggest that protective efforts should disproportionately focus on major cities. Thoughtful and presumably well-paid planners had by 2003 come up with a terrorist hitlist of seven: New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, and Los Angeles. This exercise in metropolitan chauvinism, however, proved to be notably unpopular in places like, for example, Columbus, Ohio–not to mention Oklahoma City, kept off the list presumably because, although it suffered far more deaths from terrorism than all but two of the cities on the list, it had been the target merely of a domestic terrorist. Accordingly, the list was quickly expanded to 30 and, by 2005, to 73 (including Oklahoma City). It is not at all clear how one can even begin to “protect” large (or even not-so-large) cities against random acts of terror that can be carried out by a single individual with a bomb in a backpack.

Moreover, it is entirely possible that international terrorists might one day come to realize there is more payoff for them in hitting more ordinary and typical targets because that would scare more people. Of particular appeal to terrorists, perhaps, would be towns that tend to be synonymous with ordinary America, in part because they have peculiar or amusing names, like Peoria, Illinois, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Pocatello, Idaho, Azusa, California, or Xenia, Ohio. After all, if a bomb goes off in one of those, it can go off anywhere.

Actually, although the big-city premise holds thus far for the United States, terrorists overseas, even since 9/11, have often targeted tourist areas that are not in major cities, particularly hotels, in the case of Egypt, and a nightclub, as in the case of Bali.

Massive efforts to screen communications are also likely to prove to be wasteful exercises. Some people have characterized the process as trying to find a needle in a haystack by adding more hay. The effort principally leads to the accumulation of monumental amounts of data, and it creates an impossible number of false positives. Not only does this effort cost a large amount of money (no one yet seems to have tallied up how much), but it has not led to the detection of many–or maybe even of any–real terrorists in the United States. Moreover, notes security expert Schneier, gathering massive surveillance banks of such data not only constitutes an invasion of privacy, but the databases themselves become hugely attractive targets for criminals and identity thieves.

The process is also expensive and disruptive. In what can only be called an act of highest heroism, American Enterprise Institute analyst Veronique de Rugy has actually tried to figure out the budget of the Department of Homeland Security. She comes up with an extensive list of highly questionable expenditures. One that might be added stems from the way the Pentagon has extrapolated extravagantly from 9/11 to conclude grandly that “it is unsafe to have employees in urban office buildings,” and is in the process of moving tens of thousands of people in its more obscure agencies out of the area with little consideration about how they will manage to get to work on highways that are already congested.

It would seem to make more sense to substantially abandon the quixotic policy of seeking to make everything (or even a lot of stuff) safe, and then use the money saved to repair any terrorist damage and to compensate any victims.

6. Are we more or less likely to commit suicide if attacked?

In 2003, while Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge bravely declared that “America is a country that will not be bent by terror” or “broken by fear,” General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was ominously suggesting that if terrorists were able to engineer an event that managed to escalate 9/11′s damage by killing 10,000 Americans, they would successfully “do away with our way of life.”[3] The sudden deaths of that many Americans–although representing less than four thousandths of one percent of the population–would indeed be horrifying and tragic, the greatest one-day disaster the country has suffered since the Civil War. But the only way terrorist acts could conceivably “do away with our way of life” would be if, bent and broken, we did it to ourselves in reaction. The process would presumably involve repealing the Bill of Rights, boarding up churches, closing down newspapers and media outlets, burning books, abandoning English for (North) Korean, and refusing evermore to consume hamburgers.

After predicting with great assurance that there would be terrorist events in connection with the 2004 elections, alarmist Michael Ignatieff of Harvard insists with equal certainty in his book, The Lesser Evil, that “inexorably, terrorism, like war itself, is moving beyond the conventional to the apocalyptic.” Unlike Myers, he goes on patiently to explain how the United States has become more likely to kill itself in response to a terrorist attack. Although Americans did graciously allow their leaders one fatal mistake in September 2001, they simply “will not forgive another one.” If there are several large-scale attacks, he confidently predicts, the trust that binds the people to its leadership and to each other will crumble, and the “cowed populace” will demand that tyranny be imposed upon it, and quite possibly break itself into a collection of rampaging lynch mobs devoted to killing “former neighbors” and “onetime friends.” The solution, he thinks, is to crimp civil liberties now in a desperate effort to prevent the attacks he is so confident will necessarily impel us to commit societal, cultural, economic, and political self-immolation.

I find these dire scenarios implausible. The United States is unlikely to be toppled by dramatic acts of terrorist destruction, even extreme ones. As it happens, officials estimated for a while last year that Hurricane Katrina had inflicted 10,000 deaths–the tolerance level set by General Myers. Although this, of course, was not a terrorist act, there were no indications whatsoever that, while catastrophic for the hurricane victims themselves, the way of life of the rest of the nation would be notably done away with by such a disaster. It is also easy to imagine scenarios in which 10,000 would have been killed on September 11–if the planes had hit the World Trade Center later in the day when more people were at work for example–and indeed, early estimates at the time were much higher than 3,000. Any death is tragic, but it is hardly likely that a substantially higher loss on 9/11 would have necessarily have triggered societal suicide.

We already absorb a great deal of tragedy and unpleasantness and still manage to survive. We live with a considerable quantity of crime, and the United States regularly loses 40,000 lives each year in automobile accidents. Moreover, countries have endured massive, sudden catastrophes without collapsing. In 1990 and then again in 2003, Iran suffered earthquakes that nearly instantly killed some 35,000 in each case. The tsunami that hit Indonesia and elsewhere in 2004 killed several times that many. But the countries have clearly survived these disasters: they constitute major tragedies, of course, but they hardly proved to be “existential” ones.

Thus the country can readily absorb considerable damage if necessary, and it has outlasted far more potent threats in the past. To suggest otherwise is to express contempt for America’s capacity to deal with adversity.

However, although the alarmists may exaggerate, a proclivity that is by nature (and definition) central to their basic makeup, the subtext of their message should perhaps be taken seriously: ultimately, the enemy, in fact, is us. Thus far at least, terrorism is a rather rare and, appropriately considered, not generally a terribly destructive phenomenon. But there is a danger that hysteria over it could become at least somewhat self-fulfilling should extensive further terrorism be visited upon the Home of the Brave.

A key element in a policy toward terrorism, therefore, should be to control, to deal with, or at least productively to worry about the fear and overreaction that terrorism so routinely inspires and that generally constitutes its most damaging effect.


[1] Bill Gertz, “5,000 in U.S. Suspected of Ties to al Qaeda; Groups Nationwide Under Surveillance,” Washington Times 11 July 2002: A1.

[2] “Punishing Saddam: Sanctions Against Iraq Not Hurting Leaders of the Country, But the Children Are Suffering and Dying,” 60 Minutes, CBS, May 12, 1996.

[3] Jennifer C. Kerr, “Terror Threat Level Raised to Orange,” Associated Press, December 21, 2003.

Response Essays

I’d Rather Err on the Side of the Believers

Even those, like I , who strongly disagree with both his premises and his conclusions, must agree that John Mueller’s essay is provocative and worthy of serious discussion by homeland security experts and ordinary citizens alike. It represents a clear and cogent synopsis of one school of what I would argue are basically two schools of thought about the problem of homeland security.

The school to which Mueller belongs maintains that the threat of terrorism here at home is exaggerated, and, in our zeal to combat it, we have overreacted by doing more than is necessary to try to make ourselves more secure. I subscribe to the competing school of thought that maintains that, if anything, the threat of terrorism here at home is not taken seriously enough (Administration rhetoric to the contrary, notwithstanding) and, as a result, we are doing far less than we should be doing to combat it.

Only someone from the first school would have trouble understanding the meaning of the question, “Are we safer?” Anyone who believes that terrorism remains an existential threat and that our country is seriously under-prepared for another terrorist attack understands the question instinctively to mean, simply: (1) has the threat of terrorism here at home diminished since 9/11; and, if not, are we better able to deter, defend against, and recover from another terrorist attack if, God forbid, there should be one? With this commonsensical and, I would argue, obvious clarification of the question, the answer is not just no, but, manifestly no.

No less an authority on terrorists’ intentions and resolve than Osama bin Laden himself has repeatedly made clear since 9/11 than he and his followers remain not just interested in perpetrating another attack on our homeland, but absolutely determined to do so. To be sure, Al Qaeda’s ability to strike us again has been diminished somewhat by the Administration’s commendable efforts to kill or capture as many members and followers as possible, to deny them the safe sanctuary of Afghanistan (though, the resurgence of the Taliban there of late, the replacement of Afghanistan by Iraq as an emerging terrorist haven, and the return of Somalia to a fundamentalist base of operations are all big steps in the wrong direction), and to disrupt their funding and communications networks.

But, this is as much a bad news story as a good news story, for at least two reasons. First, if Al Qaeda has been weakened as a discrete, hierarchical, operational entity, localized terror cells inspired by Al Qaeda have, by all informed accounts, proliferated throughout the globe, including here at home. (If one actually reads the ABC News account of the secret 2005 FBI report that Mueller cites for the proposition that there really are no Al Qaeda cells in this country, it becomes clear that the piece really stands more for the far different proposition that the FBI cannot find any. I, for one, do not find it comforting that the nation’s chief counterterrorism agency questions its own competence.) Second, our invasion of Iraq and our unqualified support for Israel’s war in Lebanon against Hezbollah have had the admittedly unintended effect of creating legions of still more terrorists determined to strike American interests wherever they can.

And, as far as potential targets are considered, the recently foiled plot to blow up multiple jetliners bound for the United States highlights how vulnerable our aviation sector remains to another terror attack, five years after 9/11. (The notion that the plot was not all that serious, and the suggestion from some blogger-chemists that the liquids probably would not have detonated do not merit much refutation, it seems to me. Ramzi Yousef successfully tested liquid explosives in 1994, killing a man, as a precursor to the foiled 1995 “Operation Bojinka” plot that was eerily similar in conception to this plot.) If the good news is that the plot was foiled (by the British, by the way, not by us), the bad news is that we’ve spent more money and exerted greater efforts to protect the aviation sector than anything else in this country. Our land borders, seaports, mass transit systems, “critical” infrastructure like nuclear power and chemical plants, and “soft” targets like shopping malls and sports arenas are, to varying degrees, almost as vulnerable to terrorist penetration and attack today as they were five years ago.

That said, Mueller is right to stress that we cannot, and, therefore, should not, try to protect everything. Even the richest country in the history of the world does not have the resources to do so, and, even if our resources were unlimited, our imagination isn’t. And, as he points out, the number of targets is so large, the nature of intelligence is so inexact, and the odds are so stacked in the terrorists’ favor (homeland security defenders have to be perfect 100% of the time, while terrorists need to succeed only once), that any attempt to make ourselves absolutely invulnerable to terrorist attack is bound to fail.

But what conclusion should reasonable people draw from this? I submit that the conclusion should not be: because we can’t do everything, we should do nothing. Instead, we should do our very best to detect terrorist plots and plans and then to deter them by hardening to the maximum practicable degree those sectors and sites that are most at risk and that, if attacked, would have the greatest consequences in terms of death, injury, and economic damage.

If anything could be said to be even sillier than the notion that, since we can’t protect everything, we shouldn’t try very hard to protect anything, it is what might be called the “reductio ad statisticum” argument. It is undoubtedly true that Americans are far more likely to die from “bee stings, lightning, or accident-causing deer” than terrorism, but so what? At most, this should mean that individual Americans should go about their daily lives without being “terrorized” by the omnipresent threat of terrorism. Amen. But, it most emphatically should not be taken to mean that our government should stop worrying all that much about terrorism and start focusing its time, energy, and money on other things.

This statistical argument implicitly equates deaths from bee stings, lightning or close encounters with marauding deer with deaths from terrorism. But, a moment’s reflection should be more than sufficient to show why this is fallacious.

First of all, tragic as it may be, we instinctively feel less bad about someone’s dying from a bee sting than about someone’s dying from a terror attack. Why? Well, a bee sting is an act of nature, not an act of man. A bee, presumably anyway, does not intend to cause the death of whomever he stings. A bee does not, presumably, have an “agenda” when he stings someone. There is no intention to affect public policy, and no intention to terrorize or otherwise discomfort anyone other than the person stung. These distinctions account for why, though every single day, significantly more people die from car accidents or cancer than terrorism, any deaths any day from another terror attack here at home would surely engender bold face, round-the-clock headline news coverage, while a greater number of deaths on that day by car accidents, bee stings, or cancer would not. Furthermore, though we tend to take such deaths in stride, we still do everything we reasonably can to minimize deaths from car accidents (mandatory speed limits, seat belts, air bags, and kiddie car seats, for example), bee stings (sensible people don’t stick their heads or hands in bee hives!) and cancer (the FDA warning on cigarette packs, the ban on smoking in public places, the anti-smoking advertising campaign on TV, etc.). If we do everything we reasonably can to prevent deaths that, in the scheme of things, are far more natural and ordinary, shouldn’t we do everything we reasonably can do to prevent deaths by the unnatural and extraordinary means of terrorism?

Second, the statistical argument misses the fact that, though the chances of a terrorist attack are, indeed, relatively small, the consequences are larger than they would be if the same number of people were killed in some natural way or by means of “garden variety” murder. The economic toll of 9/11 amounted to billions of dollars. The psychic toll was incalculable. As Mueller points out, the impact on civil rights and civil liberties, which he rightly values highly, has likewise been huge. And, by showing that the world’s lone superpower can be brought low by 19 guys armed with box cutters, the success of the 9/11 plot can be said to have imperiled our national security by emboldening individual terrorists and nation states who previously regarded us as all but invulnerable.

Those who complain that we’re overdoing it on counterterrorism tend to be either libertarians or partisan cheerleaders for the Administration. But it seems to me that one can value civil rights and civil liberties (I do, and I emphatically agree with Mueller’s point that the NSA’s “call tracking” program that USA Today revealed a few months ago is not only violative of our civil rights and civil liberties, but also counterproductive by “piling still more hay on the intelligence haystack”) and still take reasonable steps to protect ourselves to the maximum practicable degree. And, it seems to me that one can be a Republican and a conservative and, therefore, otherwise agree with the Administration on at least some of the other issues of the day and applaud the steps that it has taken to combat terrorism, and still fault them for not doing even more to reduce the terror threat to as close to zero as possible. (After all, this description fits me.)

To sum it all up for me, the question of whether the threat of terrorism is exaggerated is a little like the question of whether there’s a God. No one can yet know the answer to either question for sure, but I’d rather err on the side of the believers. The downside of being wrong is so much smaller!

Spending too Much the Wrong Way on the Wrong Things

First, I would like to thank John Mueller for his provocative essay. In the current political context, it is refreshing to read challenging ideas on such a sensitive topic as homeland security and terrorism threats.

Since September 11th, Congress has appropriated nearly $271.5 billion to protect the American homeland from terrorism—roughly $545 per American household. Not surprisingly, outlays have jumped since 9/11—there has been a 246 percent increase from $16.9 billion in FY2001 to at least $58.2 billion in FY2007.

Despite this spectacular increase in spending, the common message on the Hill and from the Administration is that we are not spending enough on homeland security. This view, for instance, is championed here by Clark Kent Ervin, who wrote “the threat of terrorism here at home is not taken seriously and as a result, we are doing far less than we should be doing to combat it.”

I hold a contrary opinion, and agree with John Mueller that as a whole the risk of terrorism has largely been overblown. It is a fact that there are many threats—like driving off the road, falling, drowning or being shot by law enforcement—far more likely to kill an American than any terrorist. I also agree with a statement he made in a recent Reason magazine interview where he explained that “the true costs [of the 9/11 attacks] come mostly from overreaction, not from bombs or deaths themselves. [1] In other words, we are feeling less safe than we probably should be and as a consequence we are over-investing in homeland security.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Not only are we over-investing in homeland security, but most times we spend too much money in the wrong way and on the wrong things.

Homeland security is a strategic problem, and like any strategic problem it requires a strategic solution. In matters of strategy, efficient expenditures concentrate limited resources on the most cost-effective initiatives. Not every need is worth funding—or can be funded in a world of limited resources—and the greatest priorities and risks should be addressed first. Unfortunately, today, the logic behind some federal involvement in security seems to be that the mere existence of vulnerability in any given industry or a given area merits funding. That makes it seem that, because all transportation systems, infrastructures, and economic sector have inherent weaknesses, federal intervention must be required everywhere.

In fact, it is perfectly reasonable and even responsible to refuse to implement a specific anti-terrorism measure, not because it has no conceivable benefit, but because the costs are too high compared to the potential benefits. For instance, locking up every Arab-looking person would reduce the potential for terrorism perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists, but no reasonable person would suggest this approach because the costs (both pecuniary and moral) are too high.

U.S. airline security measures provide a good example of the federal government’s approach to balancing risk. The likelihood of an attack similar to those we suffered on 9/11 has been reduced to roughly zero with simple cockpit barricades, which the airline industry installed at relatively low cost. Yet since then we have spent $34 billion on a system for screening every bag belonging to every airline passenger. If you add to that cost the aggregate opportunity cost, likely in the billions, incurred by passengers for the extra hours at the airport, you end up with a huge bill for an agency which measures its success by having “intercepted seven million prohibited items at airport checkpoints, including just over 600 firearms.” In other words, 99.992 percent of intercepted items are tweezers, breath fresheners and lighters.

Our main problem with security is caused by the unwillingness of lawmakers, law enforcement agencies and security experts to tell the public that sometimes there are no easy answers and that just throwing money at a problem won’t achieve anything. Maybe more importantly, it is their unwillingness to recognize that sometimes we are, on the whole, better off doing nothing than implementing measures that are ineffective.

So what should we do? Or not do? We all agree—or at least should agree—that there is no way to protect everything from every possible mode of attack. In the United States, as with all stationary targets, the attacker has a natural advantage because he gets to choose where and when to strike. The German thrust into Western Europe in World War II is a natural analog: The Wehrmacht simply side-stepped the impressive Maginot Line defenses built by the French. Similarly, terrorists will attack wherever the defenses are weakest.

In this case, as John argues, the cost-effective thing to do might be: instead of trying to protect hundreds of targets, save the money, and then if something happens, use it to fix things. Then we could go after the people who actually did the crime. Unfortunately I doubt this policy could see the daylight in our current political context.

Intelligence gathering and counter-intelligence is definitely the next most cost-effective defense. The idea is to thwart the attackers before the attack is even launched or deploy personnel and equipment exactly where the attack is anticipated. I would argue that, at the federal level, any other form of security measure is a waste of money.

For instance, we know that one of the biggest failures that led to September 11th is the lack of information-sharing between the different levels of government. An important counter-terrorism goal should have been to set in place an efficient system so that such an oversight never happens again. Five years later, scant progress has been made in this area. And the lack of funding is not the issue. Since 9/11 the federal government has sent over $27 billion to state and local governments in the form of grants for preparedness and response which were swiftly invested in everything from hazmat suits to gym memberships.

Returning to the issue of airline security, we know that the main threat to planes today is explosives brought aboard by suicide bombers. We also know that few carry-on bags or passengers are checked for explosives. Yet even if we could check for explosives in carry-on luggage with perfect accuracy, it wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea because of the astonishing cost associated with such a scheme. Instead of spending massive amounts of money to keep bad objects off planes, a more effective measure would try to keep bad people off planes. Again, intelligence is the solution, not prohibiting toothpaste and nail polish in planes.

In the end, I agree with John Mueller that we are probably overestimating the risks we face and that as a consequence we are over-investing in homeland security measures. Yet, I would like to go even further. Bad security is often worse than no security at all. By trying, and failing, to make ourselves more secure, we make ourselves less secure. We make poor tradeoffs, and we are asked to give up a lot in terms of money and freedom in exchange for little or no real benefit. Surely the misplaced perception of security isn’t worth that.

The Terrorist Threat Today

Although I substantially agree with John Mueller’s skepticism and his warnings against alarmism, I would be even blunter in arguing that though the U.S. mainland is safer than it was on September 10, 2001, we are not that much smarter in how we handle terrorism. We have turned a struggle with a murderous band of extremists who used Afghanistan as a sanctuary into an expensive and counterproductive worldwide crusade for democracy. And it is due to the counterproductive nature of this crusade that we probably face a larger terrorist population today. I will try to unpack this assertion.

What is the Terrorist Threat?

The best estimates of the current terrorist threat seem to suggest that the threat is getting wider without being deeper. Although there appear to be more extremists who are willing to use violence against Western innocents, they belong to organizations that appear to be less capable of masterminding mass casualty events (i.e. deaths in the thousands) than Al Qaeda. A hard look at the structure and practices of the three London groups, the Toronto group, and the Madrid group more than suggests that these were little more than violent gangs with little actual experience in killing. They are not the Irish Republican Army or Baader Meinhof, let alone international secret armies. There is evidence of widespread training in Al Qaeda camps with manuals, etc. But in the field, so far as we can tell from the public record, these recruits are not forming the kind of militaristic groups that would be needed to mount a serious military threat to the U.S. mainland. Instead we are seeing internet chat rooms and local sports clubs displace dusty terror camps in Central Asia as the primary means of recruiting and training young terrorists in Western and allied cities.

Besides showing that these groups are less transnational than classic Al Qaeda, the evidence confirms that this broader Islamic threat is neither unified nor likely to become so. As Fareed Zakaria put it so well in a recent Newsweek column, violent Arab and Islamic extremism comes in various flavors: Sunni extremism (Arab and non-Arab), Shiite extremism (Persian and Arab), Baathist revanchism and Salafist. These movements have different objectives and rarely, if ever, coordinate their activities. They usually hate each other as much as they hate us.

Is This a War?

With the latest arrests of terrorists in urban centers in Europe, Australia, and North America, it is a fair question to ask whether the war analogy works anymore. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we went to war against a small, but highly dangerous, transnational organization and the regime, the Taliban, that gave it shelter. What was called a War on Terror was then primarily—and correctly—a war on Al Qaeda and its affiliates. But if the greatest threat now comes from self-recruited extremists in our midst, then this is an intelligence and police problem. We did not go to war against Soviet agents in the Cold War.

The two exceptions are the two war zones: Afghanistan and Iraq. The first is unfinished business in the war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The UN-backed government of Hamid Karzai has never really controlled much outside Kabul, but in recent months the Taliban seems to be re-gathering in its former bastion around Kandahar. Historians will likely note that in 2003-2004 the U.S. got distracted and gave the Taliban an opening.

The other war zone was the reason for the inattention in Afghanistan. The situation is now so bad in Iraq that the U.S. and its Iraqi allies are building a wall around Baghdad. This is the first time since 1961 that a great power has built a wall to protect its allies in a city. Khrushchev ordered the building of the Berlin Wall out of weakness and the same is true today.

Weakening and then destroying Al Qaeda was the most important strategic imperative after 9/11 and the Bush administration and its allies deserve some credit here, even though Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri remain at large. But a second goal was to deny terrorists any sanctuaries and, as I just noted, the score card for the Bush administration in 2006 is not good. Perhaps there is some good news to report as a result of U.S. paramilitary operations in Somalia and some of the other ungovernable areas in the world, but the public record is scanty. A third imperative was to discourage new recruits to violent extremism. Here, too, the Bush administration has been largely incompetent. Since mid-2005 some discordant voices in the National Security Council have argued that we should stop calling this a War on Terror because of the implication that we are at war with Islam. The recently released national counterterrorism strategy also suggests a greater appreciation of the political and psychological dimension of the struggle. But U.S. outrages at Abu Ghraib, Haditha and Guantanamo, all of which were used by Islamicists to brainwash young recruits, should have focused the official mind in Washington even more on the need to show that we Americans fight differently from terrorists and respect the culture of Islam. But that hasn’t happened yet.

What Are the Immediate Dangers?

How dangerous is this broader, more diffuse terrorist threat? Only good intelligence can provide a solid answer. Yet the search for WMD in Iraq and the public discussion of Iran and North Korea’s nuclear capabilities proves that our intelligence services are quite bad at estimating the existence of WMD. Indeed U.S. policymakers are so aware of this weakness that they tend to assume the existence of WMD because of the difficulty of proving a negative. Should outside experts also accept this worst case estimate? One of our dirty secrets is that we have a history of loose nukes here. For years the Department of Energy and its predecessors routinely “lost” plutonium. It is not that it was siphoned off but our accounting systems were so poor that no one really knew where it all was in the system. Now if we couldn’t manage our own nuclear stockpile, think of the likelihood that the post-Soviet world or the new nuclear states like India and Pakistan can. Perhaps China and Israel can.

The problem of loose nukes is the overriding reason why we need to take diffuse terrorist organizations extremely seriously. But taking them seriously is not the same as seeing these groups as the reincarnation of the U.S.S.R., with the potential of wiping us off the face of the earth. We are talking now about very bad events that could kill tens of thousands. But this is not a War of the Worlds with any potential for a civilization-ending event. A source of optimism is that these new terrorists appear to lack the organizational skill and discipline to acquire and deliver even one WMD. Indeed the record of terrorist attacks since the Tokyo gas attack in 1995 indicates that our WMD terrorism fears have been exaggerated. But with so much bad stuff floating around, we need to continue paying special attention to this problem and include terrorist groups in our general efforts at nonproliferation. Again this is not a matter of warfare but of good intelligence, police work, and diplomacy. The Bush administration could show improvement in all of those areas.

The Conversation

Terror Theology

I very much like the way Clark Kent Ervin characterizes as “believers” those who, like him, hold that terrorism presents an existential threat to the United States, that terrorists only have to succeed once, that the Big One is going to happen any day now, and that we are vulnerable, vulnerable, vulnerable. As the application of the word suggests, terrorism doomsaying seems now to have moved solidly from the merely alarmist to the truly theological (and far from the sensible, careful policy analysis advocated by Veronique de Rugy).

This was brought home to me in a personal way while watching ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulus” on September 10. At the show’s beginning, Stephanopoulus read a passage from an article I had published in the current Foreign Affairs in which I modestly proposed that “the evidence so far suggests that fears of the omnipotent terrorist reminiscent of those inspired by images of the twenty-foot tall Japanese after Pearl Harbor or the twenty-foot tall Communists at various points in the Cold War may have been overblown. The massive and expensive security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists.” He then asked one of his guests, Thomas Kean, co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, whether that was “heresy,” and Governor Kean replied, “Yeah, I think so because, you know, these people do exist.”

I was criticized, then, not for committing an error of fact or analysis, but for committing heresy: going against received orthodoxy. And my suggestion that the terrorist threat may have been exaggerated was deftly caricatured to suggest I thought it didn’t exist.

For those who find “existential” to be insufficiently theological, many who embrace the received orthodoxy are quick to apply such terms as “apocalyptic” and to predict “Armageddon” to be just over the horizon. Not far off are those, nicely scored by Timothy Natali in his contribution, who imagine the campaign to be a battle for civilization, a long war, a generational conflict, or (depending on how the Cold War is coded) World War III or World War IV. That’s pretty elevated thinking when the total number of people worldwide who have been killed by Muslim extremists outside war zones since 2001 has been smaller than the number of Americans who have drown in bathtubs over the same interval. Those deaths are tragic, outrageous, and deeply regrettable of course, but their numbers do not suggest that the enemy, however vicious, presents a threat of cosmic or biblical proportions.

And for the theologians, the existence of terrorists has, like the existence of God, become an unfalsifiable proposition. Ervin dismisses the fact that the FBI has been unable to find a single true terrorist cell in the United States after years of well-funded effort as conclusive evidence of the agency’s incompetence, even though policing agencies in other countries have somehow been able to roll up quite a few bad guys.

But perhaps theology has been in this from the beginning. Shortly after 9/11, President George W. Bush announced that his mission was now to “rid the world of evil,” a remarkable declaration from a man who had entered office advocating a “humble” foreign policy. The call seems to have stirred no questioning in the press at the time, except maybe for a comment in a New Orleans Times Picayune editorial humbly suggesting that “perhaps the president over promised.”

Theology is seen as well in routine incantations about how the devil is everywhere. The Department of Homeland Security officially proclaims on page 1 of its defining manifesto that “Today’s terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with virtually any weapon.” And a day after I had been outed as a heretic, ABC News concluded its fifth anniversary “Where Things Stand” assessment by having Charles Gibson intone, “Now, putting your child on a school bus or driving across a bridge or just going to the mall—each of these things is a small act of courage.” Now I know why I stay away from malls: too many heroes.

Misunderstanding the Threat

At the core of this debate is a disagreement over the operational consequences of misunderstanding the threat. Clark Ervin employs the analogy of the Cold War and of personal faith to argue that these consequences are not significant enough, comparatively speaking, to weigh against accepting an expansive view of the terrorist challenge.

I take a different lesson from the Cold War (and leave personal faith to a different blog). With the possible exception of in 1945-48 and 1978-1979, the United States systematically overestimated the actual threat posed by the Soviet Union. Largely making the same argument as Clark Ervin, many U.S. policymakers pushed for defense budgets and a level of domestic fear that in retrospect appears not only unnecessary, but may have also contributed to the prolongation of the Cold War. The argument went like this: the Soviets are bad, have WMD and want world domination; therefore we must assume that we face annihilation and anyone who argues otherwise is irresponsible or worse. It is no accident that two of the proponents of the current war in Iraq and of the imperial presidency, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were among the most vociferous defenders of the view in the 1980s that the Soviets were 12 feet tall and working to launch a first-strike on the U.S. Instead, the USSR was on the verge of collapse.

My point is that our system rarely offers up precise threat assessments. We either see a threat as all-encompassing or we tend to ignore it. What I read (and agreed with) in both Veronique de Rugy and John Mueller’s pieces was a plea for a more realistic assessment of the current threat and, accordingly, a smarter response. We all believe Al Qaeda is dangerous and that the terrorist threat extends beyond bin Laden’s group. Patriotic chest-thumping, however, is of little help when the problem is the recruitment of new operatives and suicide bombers. Can we somehow deter these recruitments? Are our military actions counterproductive in the political struggle for these people? By making bin Laden the focus of our public efforts are we not helping him stay visible and symbolic? We have already seen some of the costs of the overreaction. Leaving aside the hard question of whether the Iraq war in any way triggered the attacks in London last year, there can be no doubt that the U.S. government’s credibility with the American people has yet to recover from the WMD war propaganda before the invasion of Baghdad.

Knee-Jerk Security

While I am packing to come back to the US with my two toddlers after 10 days in France, I just found out that “passengers will be able to carry lotions and gels onto airliners again after a six-week ban, but only in tiny containers of 3 ounces or less and only if they’re in clear zip-top plastic bags.”

This is great news. It means that I won’t have to smuggle my doses of Benadryl to knock the girls out during the flight into Margot’s diaper. However, the fact that liquids were banned in the first place is a sign of what’s really wrong with our homeland security and the way we use our security dollars. For the last five years, most homeland security decisions have been a knee-jerk reaction to the news of the day. Of course this is also the path to inappropriate security spending since the surest way for a mode of transportation to get a boost in federal funding is to suffer a terrorist attack.

Think about it. On September 11th, nineteen terrorists hijacked four airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon. Within days of the event, Congress ordered a federal takeover of airport passenger screening and created a 45,000-employee bureaucracy. Protecting the country against September 11th-type hijackings became the priority, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) became a key player in the fight against terror. Billions later—and hours of harassing pilots, confiscating dangerous mustache scissors, and pawing grandmothers and children later—we’re finding out that we aren’t one step closer to getting protected again the next biggest risk: destruction of planes with explosives. And banning shampoo and bottled water is not going to change that.

Then there were the Madrid and London bombings. Until these attacks, few homeland security dollars were allocated directly to transit security (and, by the way, no federal security dollars should be going to transit security). But when coordinated bombings on the Madrid train system killed 191 people in March 2004, Congress immediately created a $150 million grant program for transit and rail security. And in the aftermath of the two attacks on the London subway system in July 2005, lawmakers asked for still more money for public transit systems. Senator Gregg (R-NH) offered an increase of $100 million. Senator Schumer (D-NY) talked of $200 million. Banking Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) called for a $1.2 billion increase, and Senator Clinton (D-NY) requested $1.3 billion. That, of course, is nothing compared to the $6 billion requested by William Millar, President of the American Public Transport Association.

Then, only a few weeks after the London bombing, the Gulf Coast was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Because they have the attention spans of two-year-olds, members of Congress immediately turned all their attention to firefighters and natural disaster preparedness. Since then Congress has been committed to spend much more security money on natural disasters.

And I predict that things are going to get worse. Each time anything happens anywhere in the world, Congress will make sure that a new security grant is created or that more money is directed to an already existing grant.

Sadly no one ever asks the only relevant question which is “What will happen to the probability of being successfully attacked if we do nothing?” Until we do, we will keep on wasting our security dollars.

Al Qaeda and the Cold War

It is noteworthy that neither John, nor Veronique, nor Tim has yet engaged my fundamental point, while it seems to me that I have engaged theirs. Of course, we can’t protect ourselves against every conceivable threat. We don’t have the resources or imagination to do that. Yes, a balance must be struck between security and liberty such that our liberties are encroached on as minimally as possible to yield the maximum possible increase in security. Certainly, politics is often played when it comes to security measures. Our policymakers should be more proactive than reactive. Rapacious contractors and their lobbyists can and do exploit our security vulnerabilities to win fat contracts and earn huge fees. And, definitely, the odds of being killed by terrorists are very low.

But, intelligence establishes that Al Qaeda and its acolytes remain determined to attack us again. Given the huge number of potential targets and the huge number of security gaps that yet remain, terrorists are more than capable of pulling off another devastating attack, and perhaps even a more devastating one (if weapons of mass destruction were acquired). And, though the odds of being killed by a terrorist are low, the consequences of another terror attack would be significantly greater than the consequences of the same number of people being killed in another fashion.

While what I did say has gone unanswered, what I didn’t has been refuted. I didn’t say anything about the Cold War in my initial post, Tim, but now that you mention it, let’s talk about it.

Reasonable minds can differ about why, exactly, we won the Cold War. I’m of the view that it is as likely as not that we won because we took the threat of communism seriously and the Soviets ultimately couldn’t keep pace with our defensive expenditures. No less an authority on the subject than Mikhail Gorbachev has said as much. To the extent that there are any similarities between the communists and the Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, this argues for more defenses and greater expenditures rather than fewer.

But, there’s a fundamental difference between the communists and the terrorists. Sure, the formers were fanatical, but they weren’t “nuts” about it. That is to say, there was a line beyond which the communists, being rational and temporally oriented, were unwilling to cross. The doctrine of mutual assured destruction kept the communists (and us) in our respective boxes. Today’s terrorists, on the other hand, are not just willing to die for their cause; they are eager to. This argues for taking the threat from them even more seriously than we took the threat from communists.

Also, Tim misconstrues what I said about the existence (or lack thereof) of God. It wasn’t a point about religious faith, really. It was what’s called an “analogy.” I was simply making the point that it’s less dangerous to take the terrorists seriously than it is to take them lightly, just as it’s less dangerous to believe in God and act accordingly in case there really is one. It’s really a point about risk and the prudent management of it. That, surely, is what security is all about.

Threats Overblown

I would like strongly to associate myself with Timothy Naftali’s comment, “Misunderstanding the Threat.”

My book, Overblown, due out in November, focuses particularly on perceptions of the terrorist threat, arguing that, while the threat exists and is “real,” it has been systematically and very substantially exaggerated. However, the book also takes a look back at other threats that proved, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been much inflated.

Not all threats that could potentially have been seized upon have evoked anxiety and overreaction. For example, the American public and its leaders have remained remarkably calm about the potential damage that could be inflicted by the planet’s intersection with large meteors or comets, and (perhaps more pertinently) they do not seem to be exercised all that much by much advertised dangers stemming from global warming or genetically modified food. But it does appear that every foreign policy threat in the last several decades that has come to be accepted as significant has then eventually been unwisely, even absurdly, exaggerated.

Unpleasant surprises very frequently, though not always, lead to two responses that are serially connected and often prove to be unwise. First, the surprise is treated not as an aberration, but rather as a harbinger indicating that things have suddenly become much more dangerous and threatening, will remain so, and will become worse, an exercise that might be called “massive extrapolation.” And second, there is a tendency to lash out at the threat without a great deal of thought about alternative policies including and especially ones that might advocate simply letting it be.

Like Naftali, it seems to me that the United States persistently and often vastly inflated both the capacity of international Communism to carry out its threatening revolutionary goals and its willingness to accept risk to do so. Moreover, the policies designed to deal with the threat turned out to be overly militaristic, were far too expensive, and, ultimately, were probably mostly unnecessary. Cold War anxieties about the capacity of the enemies within domestic Communists and their sympathizers also proved to be much exaggerated.[1]

Other threats that proved to be inflated during the Cold War period included the widespread, but happily unfulfilled, fears about strategic nuclear war, some of them, like the pronouncements of many today about terrorism, apocalyptic in nature. There were also unwise preoccupations about, and overreactions to, essentially minor acts of terrorism (mostly hostage-taking) against Americans in distant lands and to the antics of a shifting set of devils du jour—third-rate egomaniacal dictators in third world counties (Nasser, Sukarno, Castro, Khomeini, etc.)—who soon deservedly faded into history’s dustbin. There was also the unjustified in retrospect, even rather bizarre, anxieties stimulated by the challenge presented by an economically resurgent Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

After the Cold War, problems previously considered minor were elevated into a position of prominence when the big one, the challenge presented by international Communism, disappeared. There were, for example, the misguided anxieties about how international affairs had become so “complex” and about the spread of ethnic warfare. There was a tendency to become preoccupied with a newly fabricated category of “rogue states,” countries with unpleasant regimes which present little actual threat, even less than did the devils du jour of the Cold War era.[2]

It does not automatically and necessarily follow, of course, that because foreign policy threats have been inflated in the past, we are doing so now. However, in the past over-extrapolation and overreaction has often led to policies that were unwise, costly, unnecessary, and sometimes massively counterproductive. And an application of this experience to contemporary concerns about international terrorism suggests that, perhaps, we are at it yet again now, more than ever.

Despite contemporary alarmism about terrorism, today’s tiny bands of international terrorists hardly present a Hitlerian threat. Our present anxieties seem to be much inflated, and, accordingly, it may well be time to think again.

A postscript relating to Veronique de Rugy’s latest posting. A few weeks ago my son and daughter-in-law went to China where they picked up a baby they had adopted. Flying back they had to change planes in Paris and, on boarding the U.S.-bound plane there, the baby was frisked. So now I sleep well at night. Not only do I have a wonderful new granddaughter, but I know she is not a terrorist.


[1] Important in my thinking has been a book by the late Robert H. Johnson, Improbable Dangers: U.S. Conceptions of Threat in the Cold War and After, published by St. Martin’s in 1994. The book is now out of print, but by arrangement with the author and publisher I have been able to make it available on the web in PDF form at no charge. Information is at: http://psweb.sbs.ohio state.edu/faculty/jmueller/books.html.

[2] For my argument, posted five months before the Iraq War, that Saddam Hussein presented little threat see: http://www.reason.com/0301/fe.jm.should.shtml.

It Is How You Deal with the Threat that Matters

This blog has certainly gotten to be fun. Clark says that I misconstrued his God analogy in my first response. Actually what I did was not engage it because I thought it beside the point. But since Clark repeated it, I will engage it now. Essentially Clark’s argument is that it is better to be safe than sorry and he tries to draw the parallel to a person opting to believe in God because this is a decision with no downside and potentially limitless upside. Not believing in God, on the other hand, may have a huge downside.

John, Veronique and I, however, are not debating the existence of the terrorist threat (see why I didn’t want to touch the God analogy!). We are discussing how we assess it and how we ought to deal with it. Clark prefers to dwell in an existential discussion, while we are grappling with the practical consequences of something we know exists.

I don’t know Clark, so I won’t ascribe motives, but his argument is reminiscent (in dulcet tones, though) of the harmful polemics of the Cold War. “Don’t trust X because he won’t do enough to protect your child.” “X doesn’t believe the Soviets want world domination. That is naïve. Why should we as Americans entrust our security to that person?” Both political parties tried to outbid each other in the 1950s on national security terms and the results were the Bomber and Missile Gaps, periods when we overbuilt our national security state to face what turned out to be a much more manageable threat.

Next week I have a new book coming out on the 50s and 60s called Khrushchev’s Cold War (with Aleksandr Fursenko) that uses Presidium/Politburo and KGB records to reconstruct what our adversary was thinking and doing in that period and how our government generally misunderstood what was going on. The Soviets were bad and Khrushchev was belligerent, but unless you were a freedom fighter in Hungary or Poland, they were a paper tiger. They knew it and used propaganda to scare us and we fell for it. The U.S. Air Force argued that even if there was no evidence of a large Soviet missile force, because we know their intentions, we must assume they have the largest missile force a dictatorship could build. So, the Air Force believed the Soviets had 500 InterContinental Ballistic Missiles [ICBMs], when they had about 40.

In the Cold War we had an economy robust enough to allow us to absorb the strategic errors of our leaders and so far the same holds true today. The housing market sustained our economy while we needlessly drained billions into creating a terrorist sanctuary in what was once known as Iraq. Now that the air is coming out of the housing bubble, we may start feeling the pinch.

My point is that it is not good enough for governments to accept the existence of a threat. What matters is how they deal with it. The Bush administration made a series of questionable strategic decisions about how to use U.S. resources to fight a terrorist gang with international affiliates. I believe that once official documents are opened (and the politicians whose fates are linked to our perception of reality have moved on) we will discover that there have been intelligence successes. There were some under Clinton in 2000, by the way, but outside the U.S. But I think the record will also show that the Bush doctrine of trying to prevent terrorism by remaking the world on the cheap helped to fuel the transformation of the Al Qaeda problem into the wider challenge of multiple gangs owing allegiance to an elusive and now near mythic bin Laden. “Mission Accomplished,” indeed.

The Case for Doing Nothing

Ervin is right. I haven’t addressed his fundamental point yet. So I guess I should do it now. I agree with him and have no doubt that “Al Qaeda and its acolytes remain determined to attack us again.” Nevertheless, I suspect that their ability to pull off “another devastating attack” is largely overblown. John and others have made a very convincing case and I wish more security experts would listen to them. At the very least, I wish more people would invest some time to find out who our enemies are and what they are really capable of, rather than assuming the worst.

I also agree with Ervin that there are a huge number of security gaps that remain unaddressed. Yet we need to keep in mind that there will always be such gaps. No security measure is ever perfect. As a consequence, I have no doubts as to the likely prospect of a future attack here at home.

And Ervin and I would agree that whatever antiterrorism measures are put in place, they should concentrate our resources to protect against the most dramatic consequences and they should be cost effective.

Here is where we disagree: considering the low probability event of a terrorist attack, and considering the fact that we don’t know what form it will take or where it will happen, it is likely that the most cost effective measure is to do nothing and then spend money to clean up and compensate the victims after the fact. In other words, rather than protecting all targets or even few targets with a high probability of failing, we should spend money mitigating the consequences of the attack. Of course, at the same time, the federal government should try its best to catch terrorists, dismantle networks, and collect intelligence on future plots.

To be sure, this policy is unlikely. Politicians always want to be seen as doing something. So there is no way they’d go along. And the public will very likely have a hard time dealing with the theory behind the policy. Cost-benefit analysis is a hard exercise that exposes us economists as the cold-hearted beings we are.

In my mind there is only one case where we might deviate from the “do nothing” policy. I say “might” because I am not a security expert and I might actually be wrong about it. However, if I am not, it is consistent with our overall theory since it directs some resources to prevent against one type of attack, which, if successfully implemented, would have dramatic consequences. I am talking about a successful nuclear attack inside the U.S. I believe that even though the probability of a terrorist nuclear attack in the U.S. is extremely low, the consequence would be so devastating that it would be a good idea to do something about it.

But on this front I once again differ from Ervin. The most cost-effective thing to do to try to prevent terrorists from using a nuclear device in, let’s say lower Manhattan, is to make sure terrorists can’t put their hands on fissile material such as highly enriched uranium. No fissile material, no bomb. It’s as simple as that. Aside from that measure—which is hard to implement—I think there is little else to do. The measures we are heavily investing in today such as checking 100 percent of cargo coming into our ports, closing our borders, and other initiatives, make little sense in the face of the cost of each measure, and are unlikely to be effective at stopping terrorists. And if it’s not cost-effective we shouldn’t do it. Period.

To conclude, it seems clear to me to me that in the current debate between the public, the airlines, industry lobbyists, Capitol Hill, security experts, defense contractors, or the White House, each of the players has his own agenda which often has nothing to do with security. No one is really trying to figure out what the actual risk is, what the optimal level of risk we are willing to live with is, how much cost and inconvenience is acceptable, and then what security measures achieve these tradeoffs efficiently. Instead, we are told that we should prepare for the worst and hope for the best no matter what the cost. It is bad policy, bad economics, and bad security.