December 9, 2004
Is the U.S. Terror Threat Overblown?
President Bush has played the Sept. 11 card with his choice of former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik to head the Department of Homeland
Security during his second term. Kerik's a man who had to personally attend the funerals of many of his own boys as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks, the very reason the department he is now tapped to lead exists.
He's a star of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's team (Kerik rose from being Giuliani's driver in 1993 to becoming commissioner of the country's largest police department in fewer than seven years) and shines with much of the reflected glory of the heroes of Sept. 11.
His most recent job had him working under Giuliani again in his private firm, and Giuliani is said to have been the voice that talked Bush into this appointment. But in his last government job, Kerik served only three of a planned six months in Baghdad, trying to train the new Iraqi police force.
Fred Kaplan at Slate [magazine] notes some controversies he was embroiled in there:
Members of Iraq's interim governing council expressed loud dismay that Kerik spent $1.2 billion to train 35,000 Iraqi police in Jordan. More annoying still was his decision to buy from Jordan 20,000 Kalashnikov rifles, 50,000 revolvers and 10 million rounds of ammunition, when he could have rounded up all those weapons far more cheaply -- if not for free -- from the disbanded Iraqi army.
And the Los Angeles Times notes:
The training programs Kerik launched increased the Iraqi police force from about 30,000 when he arrived to more than 80,000 in late 2003, but his successors cut the force to about 46,000 this year by weeding out corrupt and ill-trained officers. After Kerik left, other officials concluded that the short-term training was not working and revamped the program.
So, demonstrably incompetent at his last big job, inexperienced with running federal-level bureaucracies, what he has going for him, besides Giuliani's imprimatur and an attractive coating of dust from the collapsed World Trade Center, is that he's a former city cop, and as Phillip Carter, also over at Slate has noted, homeland security against terror is the kind of thing city cops should run:
Kerik knows that the most likely person to stop or encounter a terrorist attack is not an FBI agent or CIA analyst, but a cop walking the beat or a transit worker who sees something suspicious. If Kerik remains true to his background, he will direct the lion's share of resources and federal attention toward these local officials on the front lines of homeland security.
But there's a more interesting question about the Department of Homeland Security than who will get to run it: Why the threat it is designed to prevent hasn't seemed like much of a threat lately? That question is the topic of two different cover stories recently in two very different magazines: New York and Regulation.
The New York piece offers a handful-plus of "Reasons They Haven't Hit Us Again": Al Qaeda is patiently waiting to strike any day now; New York, which remains the best target for hitting lots of people at once in the most mediagenic way, is now too well-defended; foreign counterintelligence has helped us break up all the plots in utero; the enemy just can't find motivated suicide bombers here; and the ol' flypaper theory -- we've moved the war between us and Al Qaeda to Iraq.
The explanation given the most detailed narrative is, in New York's own words: "We have informants everywhere" and "homegrown terrorists are incompetent."
They report the story of a government informant in the thick of a plot by of a pair of angry Muslim youths from Staten Island and Bay Ridge to set off a bomb in the Herald Square subway station. The alleged junior Attas are in custody. (I'm not entirely convinced by the way New York reports the story that their terrorist activities weren't as much suborned by the informant as organically arising from the collared perps; prosecutors, of course, deny that they entrapped the pair.)
Might there not be dozens of stories like this, unreported for national security reasons? Possibly. But in the main, the record of the feds' legal fight against terror, as ably explained by James Bovard in a recent American Conservative, has been one of overzealous prosecutions and past victories, like the breakup of the fabled Detroit terrorist cell, dissolving upon closer inspection.
John Mueller's cover story in the fall issue of Regulation (a magazine I was managing editor of briefly in the early '90s) provides some insights into how the entire Homeland Security apparatus might be more about scaring ourselves and wasting our collective energy than providing a vital national service. Mueller points out that, given its rarity and comparative lack of real impact in America (yes, even after factoring in Sept. 11), perhaps Americans are overly fearful and aiming too many resources at trying to stave off a terror menace that might not even be out there.
As Bart Kosko noted in a Los Angeles Times op-ed back in September, in contradiction to the argument that diligent federal efforts have kept us safe since Sept. 11, "the comparative absence of terrorism could just as easily (and I believe more reasonably) support the very different conclusion that we have overestimated -- grossly overestimated -- the terrorist threat. We may be winning a war against terrorism simply because there are few terrorists out there posing a serious threat to the U.S." (See the New York article for more insights on the obvious difficulties of finding willing suicide terrorists.)
Mueller lays out the comparative risks of air terror in the Sept. 11 manner and driving, noting that we'd need a set of Sept. 11-level tragedies each month for the risks of flying to become the same as those of driving. He points out that even the superterror weapons we were frightened about with regard to Iraq -- chemical and biological ones -- have never proven to be very effective killers.
The obsession with trying to stave off more and more distant and difficult-to-uncover terror plots leads to schemes, like this one laid out in a Rand Corp. study, to keep a closer and more analytical eye on everything we all say, do and buy, in order to find the "dots" that might be connected to foil a potential terrorist plot. This mindset leads ineluctably to the sort of privacy-destroying regulations fingered by John Berlau in Reason Online that try to recruit our bankers and jewelers into becoming spies for the feds.
The opportunity costs of this fight, in resources, energy and know-how -- and in our civil rights -- are enormous. As Mueller points out, economist Roger Congleton has figured that delaying all airline passengers for only half an hour each adds up to total economic costs of $15 billion a year.
Imagine what else smart fellows like the authors of that Rand study, or all the people involved in the new and burgeoning industry, both private and public, of fighting domestic terror assaults might be able to do if they weren't expending their energy on what might be a smaller threat than we seem to think? (When I say "we," I mean those in the anti-terror industry -- in the real world, actual active fear of domestic terror seems far less prevalent now than was fear of nuclear devastation during the early '80s.)
Absolute security is impossible, of course, at any price. But cost-benefit analyses have been noticeably absent from the public and political discussion about how to handle domestic defense against terrorism. For that, perhaps, it would be better to tap for Homeland Security head someone who had a more nuanced sense of his own job's capabilities and significance, someone who did not have to attend the funerals of many of his own boys as a result of the one -- and so far only -- successful example of mass-murderous international terrorism on our shores.
Brian Doherty is a senior editor of Reason magazine and the author of "This Is Burning Man" (Little, Brown, 2004).