Sunday, January 10, 2010

What's Wrong with the Debate Over Protecting America Against Terrorism

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By Barry Rubin

Much of the public debate on airport security is poorly informed and misdirected.

Security assets are always limited and must be focused on where they would do the most good. Hence, profiling--only picking out a small portion of any overall group but starting with certain assumptions about what group is going to do the terrorism--makes sense.

Yet leaving aside any Politically Correct ideology, personal profiling is not a great option for U.S. airport security for three simple reasons. First, the volume of passengers and flights is so huge.

Second, while profiling works very well for Israel, its security personnel are highly educated and highly trained, among the most intelligent and skilled people in the entire population (the ones who deal directly with the passengers usually work at these jobs for a few years during or just after college). Are American TSA people really going to be able to deal with this very delicate and intellectually challenging work? Unless wages and thus costs are raised by a huge factor such a workforce transformation won't happen.

Third, imagine the law suits and political mess.

In addition, although this might seem shocking to people, there have only been two times in the last eight years when terrorists staging an attack have gotten onto U.S. airliners. That is not such a bad record even though, of course, the potential losses were tremendous. An Israeli security expert once said privately: “This is the only profession where a 99 percent success rate is a failure.”

Of course there is some profiling. For example, my travel agent is in Jerusalem. Invariably I would be pulled aside for secondary screening because one category so selected was those whose tickets had been purchased abroad. It got so that I just walked over to that place without being told, to the astonishment of the TSA people.

Yet these kinds of categories did little good and are easily circumvented by would-be terrorists. The same applies with the need to show identification, since all the September 11 terrorists, for example, had legitimate drivers' licenses. If you are going to blow up an airplane you are more likely to be prepared for such things than an average person who might actually just forget his wallet, right?

I was in a train station in Maryland once when I spotted a large suitcase obviously left by itself in the middle of the room. Since every few minutes there was an announcement about "unattended luggage" I thought the security people would be glad to have this pointed out but they weren't at all interested and didn't check it out at all. After about twenty minutes some passenger came back and carried it away.  Why was this scene not insane? Because the chance of anyone actually being a terrorist was so astronomically low that security people didn't have to take such things seriously--and they could get away with it. 

One simple point that everyone seems not to be grasping is that the essence of terrorism is innovation. The terrorists keep trying to find some new technique which will circumvent the existing safeguards. For example, the September 11 terrorists brought box-cutters onto the plane to hijack it. That was blocked. So they tried a shoe-bomber. That has now been blocked and it hasn’t been done since then. Then there was a liquid and gel type bomb. These items were banned. And now there has been a bomb in the underpants.

Each time, then, the security institutions spend hundreds of millions of dollars and add additional hours onto the procedures to block what was done, while the terrorists move on to a different approach. To a large extent, governments take such measures more to assure the public that the “problem” has been solved than to provide real safety.

Moreover, one should consider whether the damage done to Western economies by forcing these costly inconveniences might be as satisfactory to the terrorists as blowing up one or two airplanes.

If the security regarding getting on planes makes them run out of ideas, terrorists may switch, for example, to entering airports with weapons and starting to shoot everyone in sight. This was a technique used back in the 1980s and is not blocked by the current security regimen, except in Israel. One such attack already happened in Los Angeles against the El Al counter there, an attack U.S. authorities refuse even to classify as terrorism.

What might make sense is the training of a relatively small number of agents at each airport (including selected at-risk airports abroad) who survey passengers and make some choices for secondary screening. This wouldn't be a panacea but might improve the overall protection.

Another point worth knowing—though nothing will be done to fix it—is that the worst possible response to terrorism was the creation of a massive Homeland Security ministry. Fighting terrorism requires small, very flexible units which can adjust quickly to circumstances. What do Homeland Security bureaucrats do, after all? Why they write reports and hold meetings, creating additional levels of decision-making and places where information can go astray and decisions can be delayed.

Here’s what you need to fight terrorism: A reads a report from the field, gets up and walks a few feet, knocks on the door of B, and says: There’s a big problem shaping up. They discuss it, maybe call in a few people for a quick meeting, and then B gives an order to deal with the issue. Having thousands of pen-pushers makes things worse, not better.

Is it any surprise that this approach has turned into such a farce? Why then hasn’t terrorism done more damage to America? Simple, the number of attack attempts is limited due to the terrorists’ resources, the distances involved, and the time needed to train agents and mount an operation.

That’s why individual and locally generated operation—like that at Fort Hood or the shooting of an army recruiter in Arkansas or the attempted attack on Fort Dix or the two guys who targeted Fort Bragg is the bigger and more frequent threat. This is what’s growing, not bombs on airplanes.

For this reason, the identification of terrorism with revolutionary Islamists, individuals or groups, is so important. Debating profiling for airplane passengers is sort of a waste of time since--right or wrong--it just isn't going to happen in the United States or Europe either. But profiling by local law enforcement agencies in terms of who they are going to watch and investigate is an absolute necessity if terrorism in the United States is going to be contained.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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