Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Homeland Security: Money down the drain?

The Los Angeles Times has published a very thought-provoking article about the massive expenditure on homeland security in the USA, asking whether we're getting value for our money. Here's an extract.

A decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, federal and state governments are spending about $75 billion a year on domestic security, setting up sophisticated radio networks, upgrading emergency medical response equipment, installing surveillance cameras and bombproof walls, and outfitting airport screeners to detect an ever-evolving list of mobile explosives.

But how effective has that 10-year spending spree been?

"The number of people worldwide who are killed by Muslim-type terrorists, Al Qaeda wannabes, is maybe a few hundred outside of war zones. It's basically the same number of people who die drowning in the bathtub each year," said John Mueller, an Ohio State University professor who has written extensively about the balance between threat and expenditures in fighting terrorism.

"So if your chance of being killed by a terrorist in the United States is 1 in 3.5 million, the question is, how much do you want to spend to get that down to 1 in 4.5 million?" he said.

. . .

The expensive and time-consuming screening now routine for passengers at airport boarding gates has detected plenty of knives, loaded guns and other contraband, but it has never identified a terrorist who was about to board a plane. Only 14 Americans have died in about three dozen instances of Islamic extremist terrorist plots targeted at the U.S. outside war zones since 2001 — most of them involving one or two home-grown plotters.

Homeland Security officials say there is no way to compute how many lives might have been lost had the nation's massive security apparatus not been put into place — had the would-be bombers not been arrested before they struck, or deterred from getting on a plane because it was too hard.

. . .

State and local emergency responders have undergone a dramatic transformation with the aid of $32 billion that has been dispensed in Homeland Security grants since 2002, much of it in the early years spent on Hollywood-style tactical gear, often with little connection between risk and outlay.

"After 9/11, it was literally like my mother running out the door with the charge card," said Al Berndt, assistant director of the Emergency Management Agency in Nebraska, which has received $163.7 million in federal anti-terrorism and emergency aid grants. "What we really needed to be doing is saying, 'Let's identify the threat, identify the capability and capacity you already have, and say, OK, what's the shortfall now, and how do we meet it?' "

The spending has been rife with dubious expenditures, including the $557,400 in rescue and communications gear that went to the 1,500 residents of North Pole, Alaska, and a $750,000 anti-terrorism fence — fashioned with 8-foot-high ram-proof wrought iron reinforced with concrete footers — built around a Veterans Affairs hospital in the pastoral hills outside Asheville, N.C.

West Virginia got $3,000 worth of lapel pins and billed the federal government for thousands of dollars in cellphone charges, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, which compiled a state-by-state accounting of Homeland Security spending. In New York, $3 million was spent on automated public health records to help identify bioterrorism threats, but investigators for the department's inspector general in 2008 found that employees who used the program weren't even aware of its potential bioterrorism applications.

In some cases, hundreds of millions were spent on ill-fated projects, such as when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano earlier this year pulled the plug on the Secure Border Initiative, a Boeing Co. contract that was to set up an ambitious network of surveillance cameras, radar and sensors as a 2,000-mile-long "virtual" barrier across the U.S.-Mexico border. Originally intended to be in place by 2009, the endeavor was plagued with cost overruns and missed deadlines and wound up costing $1 billion before it was canceled.

Large sums of Homeland Security money, critics complain, have been propelled by pork barrel politics into the backyards of the congressionally connected.

There's much more at the link. Recommended reading.

I'm personally very doubtful whether this extraordinary expenditure can be justified. I've worked in security and related fields for many years, including a stint as the Sector Officer for a large part of a major city's Central Business District, training for very real threats such as a meltdown or other accident at a nearby nuclear power station; terrorist attacks; and civil unrest. I therefore know something about security. I've seen nothing to persuade me that the US security apparatus is even remotely prepared for the kinds of attacks we're likely to face. I regard the Department of Homeland Security and most of its agencies as ridiculously incompetent, and trust them about as far as I can throw them . . . which isn't very far at all. They can't even secure our borders, for Heaven's sake - the most basic requirement for security against foreign terrorists!

For a start, if terrorists wanted to shock and stagger this nation as much as - or even more than - 9/11, they could do it with a Beslan-style or Columbine-style attack on an elementary school. There are thousands of such schools across this nation, all woefully inadequately prepared for and protected against such an attack. Terrorists wouldn't even have to risk importing the equipment they'd need for such an assault. They could obtain firearms from criminal contacts in this country, or even have them legally purchased by sympathizers, and could prepare explosives from commonly available components such as ammonium nitrate fertilizer, diesel fuel and a few other bits and pieces. All the security precautions designed to protect aircraft, other transport systems, etc. would be meaningless in the face of such an attack; and unless local security forces such as police and sheriffs departments learned of the planned onslaught through informers or other intelligence, they couldn't possibly provide enough proactive security to deter the terrorists (who could, in any event, simply move one or two towns away and pick a less alert target).

(In case anyone thinks I'm being reckless in discussing such an attack, for fear I may give wannabe terrorists ideas, I'm afraid it's way too late for that. Such attacks have been discussed many times in jihadist circles, most recently by a Maryland teenager. That cat's long been out of the bag.)

No. As long as the authorities are throwing money at the problem, rather than stopping to think through the risks involved and take concrete steps to thwart the most likely attacks, I believe we remain appallingly vulnerable to another 9/11. It won't necessarily involve aircraft or skyscrapers, but it's likely to be just as devastating, if not more so.



Unknown said...

Wow. somebody said it out loud.

Mark said...

The challenge is that there is very little that can really be done, without serious impairment of freedom. Vehicle barriers and set backs to prevent close approach are possible in rural and suburban areas, but in urban settings, short of blocking off streets, Vehicle born explosives such as you describe cannot be trivially stopped. The only hope is an attentive, informed, and SELF-RELIANT populace, which it seems is the exact opposite of what the DHS is trying to achieve.

David said...

Actually, you could drastically improve domestic security against terrorism quite easily, and virtually for free. Repeal the 1934 National Firearms Act and the 1968 Gun Control Act, pass national concealed carry reciprocity, and remove all location restrictions on concealed carry. When a would be terrorist runs the very REAL risk of getting smoked before he can touch off his bomb or shoot a bunch of schoolkids, he will think twice about it. They may not fear death, but they very much fear failure, so while the ggovernment cannot be everywhere, WE already are everywhere.

MikeinAppalachia said...

"Easy" targets include all of the major electrical transmission lines, pipelines, compressor stations, rail lines, etc. Just the electric grid for example-it's unpatrolled and many f the mojor lines are mostly isolated in rural locations. It would take only fairly small explosives set on 6-7 specific towers and the east coast would be down for a week or so. Done during a blizzard would be very costly. Same for natural gas pipelines, rail lines carrying coal to generation stations, etc.
The USA has to come up with a "tit-for-tat" response to discourage such acts.