Failed Times Square Plot Shows Folly of Security Theater

One thing the recent failed Times Square car bomb incident reveals is just how absurd the level of security theater in the United States is. That is, it’s true that we may succeed in making air travel extremely unpleasant, but the fact of the matter is that there are innumerable crowded locations spread throughout the United States that given a certain level of tactical sophistication (which it seems al Qaeda seems to lack at the moment) could be exploited by motivated individuals to cause massive destruction.

Anyway, consider that an introduction to a James Fallows post that makes a few points I was making to my family over the weekend. This, in particular is the key point for understanding why our government has taken airport security to such a ludicrous level.

The restrictions would never be lifted and the TsSA would have permanent life, because the political incentives here work only one way. A politician who supports more open-ended, more thorough, more intrusive, more expensive inspections can never be proven “wrong.” The absence of attacks shows that his measures have “worked”; and a new attack shows that inspections must go  further still. A politician who wants to limit the inspections can never be proven “right.” An absence of attacks means that nothing has gone wrong — yet. Any future attack would always and forever be that politician’s “fault.” Given that asymmetry of risks, what public figure will ever be able to talk about paring back the TSA?

It’s worth noting this dynamic has been exacerbated by opportunistic politicians (most recently conservatives) who are eager to paint their political opponents as ineffectual against terrorism. Consider the hysterical Republican response to the “Underpants Bomber” followed by President Obama’s institution of quasi-profiling measures and you’ll have your answer for why flying is such a pain in the ass.

Bad Examples for Racial Profiling

Amid the fallout of the Crotch Bomber, there’s been a renewed clamoring for profiling, and indeed, President Obama has instituted enhanced security measures for travelers from 14 countries. Spencer Ackerman makes the case for why this is likely to actually enhance radicalization and make intelligence gathering more difficult. Much of the argument against appears to have a veneer of theory to it, but I think David Frum accidentally highlights a good working example in his defense of a more tolerable form of profiling.

On his blog yesterday, Daniel Pipes reminded us of the procedure that saved an El Al jetliner from a terrorist bomb in 1986. A Palestinian terrorist had seduced an Irish-Catholic chambermaid at a London hotel. The woman, Anne-Marie Doreen Murphy, became pregnant. The terrorist promised to marry Murphy, if she would meet him in Israel for the wedding. He then planted a bomb in her luggage. Here’s the conversation that discovered the plot…

The point here isn’t the example itself, but rather where the example comes from. Yes, it’s true that Israeli security procedures have effectively ended that sort of terrorism, but are Palestinian-Israeli relations really an ideal here? Palestinian terrorism and resistance draws not only the tangible oppressions of continued settlement expansion, but also on resentment from second-class or third-class treatment. Granted the enmity between most Muslims and the United States doesn’t close to resemble the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but surely it’s reasonable to expect that similar policies would have similar effects.

Even if we assume that racial profiling would be effective (and there’s plenty of empirical evidence to show it isn’t), is a world where U.S. relations with Muslims more closely resembles those between Israelis and Palestinians a world we want?

Poor Service Is a Bigger Problem than Terrorism

This is a staggeringly poor use of resources:

The Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) now has a dedicated unit devoted to deterring a terrorist attack in the Metro system. The new anti-terrorism team will increase surveillance of the Metro system, conduct more frequent security sweeps of Metro facilities and tunnels, and provide greater visibility of uniformed officers.

Using a $9.56 million Transit Security Grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), MTPD formed the 20-member, anti-terror team in December. The team, whose mission is to deter terrorists from selecting Metro as a target, will use tactics such as increased surveillance and random, unpredictable patrols of Metro buses, trains, stations and facilities to keep the Metro system and its riders as secure as possible.

Is this a joke? We’re supposed to stop terrorists from targeting the Metro with a team of 20 people through “increased surveillance” and “random, unpredictable patrols”? Does Metro realize that virtually every single terrorist attack comes as a suicide attack? What on earth is a random patrol going to do to someone who is willing to kill themselves? What is increased surveillance going to accomplish? People need to understand that if someone wants to strap a bomb to themselves or bring a machine gun into a metro station or train, they’re going to be able to do it.

At a certain point, there’s just nothing you can do. For example, one way to make sure no terrorists get in a Metro station would be require a strip search. Even leaving aside the enormous inconvenience and invasion of privacy, you’d still have a bunch of people clustered somewhere in line, which as it happens, would be a fantastic target for a suicide bomber.

Don’t get me wrong, we should definitely do what we can to make transportation safer. Simple, low cost things like adding locks on the cockpit doors makes a lot of sense. Costly and irrational security theater that does little to make anyone safer while wasting time and money is one of the ways in which terrorists “win.”

Now, as it happens, this crack team of 20 Terror Hunters won’t do much to disrupt anyone’s commute, but consider for a moment the news yesterday that facing a $4 million shortage, Metro is looking to run fewer trains, less often despite the lack of commensurate demand, thus risking a Metro death spiral.

I realize this money comes from a Federal grant, but it’s indicative of the poor choices we’re making. Terrorism is not nearly as big a problem for Metro users as inadequate service.

Mission Creep

Professor Stephen Walt:

Let’s not forget how we got [to reforming prisons in Afghanistan]: about eight years ago a small group of anti-American criminals hijacked four airplanes and flew three of them into buildings in the United States. The ringleaders of the plot were in Afghanistan, and the Afghan government (at that time under Taliban control) refused to give them up. So the United States invaded to overthrow the Taliban and capture the al Qaeda leadership. Unfortunately, we failed to get the latter, and we bungled the subsequent reconstruction effort by going into Iraq, thereby enabling the Taliban to make a comeback. So now we’re escalating there once more, in a potentially open-ended effort to build a functioning and legitimate Afghan state. And now that means fixing their prison system too. How does one say “mission creep” in Pashto?

I was at dinner with some my folks the other night and making the point that whole endeavor in Afghanistan stands be self-defeating. That is, since terrorism’s raison d’etre is mostly combating U.S. Policy, it’s hard to see — at least in a very general sense — how doubling-down on more U.S. hard-power abroad is really going to ammeliorate things. That said, Afghanistan is a bit different: al Qaeda’s Afghanistan presence resulted from a friendly Taliban, not a U.S. presence in Afghanistan per se, but similarly, you have to look no further than Iraq to find an example of how increasing U.S. power in the area led to the creation of more terrorist groups to fight U.S. soldiers.

I think with narrowly definied, achievable objectives (what happened to eliminating safe havens?) the risk of creating a long term backlash isn’t very high (at least not as high as it would be with full-scale occupation a la Iraq). Likewise, the odds of fomenting resistance increase the longer you stay and the more you begin to resemble an occupying force. In this regard, mission creep is a real danger.

Just Talking Things Out, Man

This was what my last terrorist negotation was like.

Amazingly, this is exactly was what my last terrorist negotation was like.

Stephen Walt has an interesting post ennumariting the the “Top 10 Taboo Topics on Contemporary Foreign Policy Discourse.” Some of them really aren’t taboo per se — as Walt describes himself, they’re simply “conventional wisdom” that simply goes unchallenged. Nevertheless, this one probably falls in the former category.

#10: Thou Shalt Not Favor Negotiating with “Terrorists.” U.S. leaders often say that we will not negotiate with terrorists, and we refuse to have direct dealings with groups like Hamas (among others).  Accordingly, anyone who openly calls for talking directly with these groups is taking a professional risk.  Of course, the truth is that many countries—including the United States–have negotiated with terrorist organizations in the past, and a number of former terrorists (e.g., Yasser Arafat, Gerry Adams, Yitzhak Shamir, etc.) have been welcomed to the White House.  For that matter, the United States has even supported “terrorist” organizations when it was thought to be in our interest to do so.  Yet the whole issue about whether we ought to talk to such groups remains something of a taboo, which means that potentially fruitful initiatives don’t get the consideration they deserve.

This is obviously something to which people are warming. Indeed, much of the success of the “Surge” was predicated on literally paying allies of AQI to switch sides, and a similar tactic has been floated with respect to the Taliban. Even still, I think this is an issue where more open discussion could enhance the level of politically vialable policy options.

Like the concept of “negotiating with terrorists,” it seems people are beginning to move away from the “Terrorists Are All Violent Nihilists Like The Joker In The Dark Knight” theory of terrorist motivation. Still, a lot of people — especially on the right — believe that terrorism against the United States and our allies is predicated on some unhinged hatred of social freedoms. In fact, terrorism is largely animated by policy — Osama bin Laden has famously admitted as much. And because we do have agency over the policies we implement, it stands to reason that there are concrete security gains to be realized by negotiating with terrorists. What’s more, since terrorism is politically motivated, it further stands to reason that establishing precedent for nonviolent conflict resolution will lead to lower levels of terrorism.

Contrast this with the conventional wisdom on negotiation which presumes that by giving in to demands, we will incentivize terrorism as a means of resolving political conflict. But the fact is that terrorism is not like blackmail. If, for example — and note, I don’t suggest this course of action — the United States were to remove itself entirely from the Persian Gulf, stop interfering in Middle Eastern politics, and cease providing aid to Israel, I think Osama Bin Laden would encounter a difficult time recruiting terrorists to fight an enemy that caused no trouble.  The political forces driving terrorism are politically motivated; discontinue the policies in question, and you’ll probably end the terrorism those policies engender.

Anyway, as aforementioned, I don’t advocate simply acquiescing to the demands of every single terrorist. But we also shouldn’t rule the possibility out. Instead, each situation should have its costs benefits weighed individually. Clearly, it’s the opinion of policy makers in the United States that constant worldwide deployment of military forces during peacetimes provides a benefit that outweights the political strife associated with it. Likewise for many other policies. However, discourse on national security shouldn’t preclude the possibility that enhanced outcomes might be reached through negotation.

This Movie Is A Fantasy

So anyone who has HBO will know that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight has been playing quite a bit, so forgive me for the commentary on a movie released eons ago (at least in blog time). Anyway, I was watching it this morning in half-drunken a drunken torpor (thanks Adams Morgan!) and was thinking about how conservatives probably love this movie. And as it turns out, they do! After all, the plot involves the use of illegal surveillance activities and enhanced interrogation techniques in the name of stopping an ultra-violent, misanthropic nihilist.

Like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight earns its dread, draws us into a world enough like our own that it can’t be dismissed as fantasy. It reaches into your bones and gives them a good rattle, and you may still feel the vibrations long after the house lights come up. (The Dark Knight, much more than Batman Begins, allows itself to slip into a few wildly artificial moments, such as when Aaron Eckhart’s D.A. Harvey Dent badgers a witness into pulling a gun on him in open court, then dispatches him without mussing his hair.) The Spider-Man movies can barely be endured once; Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies demand repeat viewings.

Now, insofar as the point the movie makes, it does seem that in a world filled with nihilist mass murderers hell bent on sowing destruction for the sake of it, I don’t have an overwhelming problem with superhero use of illegal surveilance techniques. But of course it’s important to note that despite Pajamas Media’s assertions otherwise, The Dark Knight is really quite unlike the world which we inhabit. For starters, though terrorists are indeed mass murderers, they aren’t nihilists. Rather, they have political goals, and though it’s pretty clear there’s no reasoning with a man like Osama bin Laden, there are concrete reasons that animate terrorist activity. This shouldn’t be interpreted as an apologia for terrorists — violence of the sort employed by terrorists is without condition wrong, but the fact remains that until we actually have villians like the Joker, there will always be options for dealing with enemies that don’t necessitate infringing on civil liberties or basic conceptions of human rights.

Global Terrorist Whack-A-Mole

While I’ve been somewhat sympathetic to the Obama Administration’s desire to limit “safe havens” — particularly through the use of Predator drones — for terrorists abroad, I think this article in the New York Times today evinces some of the folly of this particular strategy.

WASHINGTON — American officials say they are seeing the first evidence that dozens of fighters with Al Qaeda, and a small handful of the terrorist group’s leaders, are moving to Somalia and Yemen from their principal haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In communications that are being watched carefully at the Pentagon, the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency, the terrorist groups in all three locations are now communicating more frequently, and apparently trying to coordinate their actions, the officials said.

Obviously, terrorists on the run are terrorists who are less likely to hatch a plot successfully against the United States, but as I was reading the article on the train this morning, I thought sarcastically to myself (it was hilarious), “well here come the drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia.” But then reading further in the article, I learned there’s some indication that’s exactly what the Administration intends to do.

But the emergence of new havens, from which Al Qaeda and its affiliates could plot new attacks, raises difficult questions for the United States on how to combat the growing threat, and creates the possibility that increased missile strikes are in the offing in Yemen and Somalia.

Now, in fairness, the report doesn’t credit an official with raising this specific possibility, but it would seem fairly random to include speculation with no basis in truth whatsoever. In any event, it’s hard to see this strategy bearing fruit in the long term. That is, the world as a truly enormous place, and a fair number of terrorists are going to be able to elude capture if they so desire and I’m not so sure whether it’s worth the cost to be playing global whack-a-mole. After all, the 9/11 attacks were planned in Germany and carried out in the United States, not incubated in “safe havens” and launched from abroad. Of course, there’s obviously value in disrupting organizational and infrastructural systems, but I’m not sure how clear the value is when you consider that this is precisely the reason terrorists operate in cells.

Anyway, it seems to me there’s a definite tipping point where the cost and time spent chasing terrorists around the globe fails to match the benefit. I’m not sure when exactly that is, but I’d guess actions that might further destabalize places like Somalia are a good place to start looking. Ultimately, the fight against terrorists will be won politically.