Wednesday, January 09, 2008

We See Nothing? ... We See Nothing?

A very good post from Jonah at HLS Watch today, arguing that all too often our counterterrorism strategy is based on this kind of thinking:

Jonah argues that:

we should beware the tendency to shape our strategy based on the theory that “it could happen.”
Agreed. Although almost anything can happen you simply can't be prepared for everything all at once. (I should point out that DHS Secretary Chertoff, in justifying justify risk-based decision making and funding, constantly makes this point, arguing that it's impossible to protect against all threats.)

Jonah continues:
So it bothered me when Paul J. Browne, an NYPD police spokesman told the New York Times this week, “One call one day may be the one that stops an attempt to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge.” He was justifying the ubiquitous ad campaign across the City’s subway system urging riders to “say something” if they “see something.”

While some crimes were inadvertently uncovered by the callers – ranging from selling false IDs to illegal fireworks peddling – none of the calls resulted from or discovered actual terrorism threats. NYC’s subway riders were applying their own “no-fly list” to other riders. 13,373 callers would have sent fellow riders to secondary, but would have found no terrorists. This is the trickle down effect of “it could happen.”
The real issue, as I see it, is ignorance. When we are ignorant of the context in which we find ourselves, we cannot make good decisions. If we don't know what to look for, we look for anything and everything. As a result, we are likely to focus on the wrong thing, like the dog pictured above.

Jonah is absolutely right that all of this is a net cost. We spend (read: waste) time, energy and resources looking for needles in haystacks. Jonah puts it this way:
But if our homeland is secured by an “anything’s possible” strategy, we’ll wind up doing at least one of three things:

– Going broke
– Tying up anti-terrorism assets with non-threats
– Eroding our sense of community and eventually our ability to be resilient if we are attacked again

None of these outcomes will happen quickly. However, the prospect does force a cost-benefit analysis of a new kind. Is it worth $10 billion to reduce the chance of a successful MANPAD launch against an airliner? Does a terrorism hotline make us safer if we don’t know what to look for?
Risk-based CBA is essential. We are very good at defending against the last attack. Six years after Richard Reid, we are still removing our shoes at the airport. But is this the best way to spend our time and money? Perhaps not.

Other risks rise to the surface, and we have to prepare for them. In a world of finite resources, we have to make choices. The tough part is understanding and communicating the idea that there are some risks we will just have to live with.

There is a tendency to believe that Americans will not accept significant risks. I do not ascribe to this view. While it's true that we've created a society which has greatly reduced our personal risk (due to injury, illness, etc.), we are capable of living with and accepting great risk. We've survived existential threats in the past. With effective leadership, we can face them again.

Note: In an update to his post, Jonah backtracks a bit from his criticism of the "see something, say something" program:
I will concede this: the terrorism hotline serves another potential benefit beyond empowering subway riders. The notion of an overly alert ridership has the potential to introduce enough uncertainty on the part of a perpetrator to second guess the viability of an operation.
I'm still a skeptic. Not because "see something" is inherently a faulty idea, but rather because the person doing the "seeing" lacks critical characteristics that will make their "seeing" effective.

Put another way, the issue is not the alertness of subway riders. The issue is their knowledge level. If we assume that the typical transit attack employs an IED, a terrorist is going to be able to slip past an ignorant public if he does just a little bit of homework.

By way of making the point, let's contrast a bus in Jerusalem and a bus in Brooklyn. In Israel, hard experience and public education campaigns have taught the public what to look for. They are knowledgeable about the observable operational and psychological markers of a bus bombing. As a result, they do a relatively good job of spotting potential bombers (and yet some still can get through). In Brooklyn, however, a largely ignorant public is liable to look for all the wrong things.

If we're going to invest in a "see something" program, we ought to invest in a public education program that is going to create a public that's knowledgeable enough to give a potential terrorist pause - resulting in the deterrent effect that Jonah describes.


cjt said...

I concur with you that in fact the public should be more informed, yet they must be applauded for their wllingness to come forward and report suspicious activity.

I strongly recommend that it is time that a new DHS initiative be created to serve the educational interests of the public when being asked to keep a vigilant eye out for perpetrators who seek our demise.

I feel strongly that while we endorse and implement such educational programs, we as a nation must be asing that our public officials entrusted to serve us make every effort to convey our global respect of others and tolerance of respective religious beliefs as long as no one attempts to impose and supercede our respective faith....

Christopher Tingus
Harwich, MA

John Bowen said...

Thanks for your comment, Christopher.

I agree that good citizens - even those without sufficient knowledge - should be thanked for stepping up and trying to help.

While a public education initiative could be DHS-sponsored, it doesn't have to be. Local and state homeland security agencies can do this on their own.

Something like a "see something" program wouldn't require educating all transit passengers. Even if only a small percentage (say, 10 percent, to pull a number out of the air) were trained to recognize suspicious activity, that could still produce a deterrent effect.

I agree that it should go without saying that respect for different beliefs should be emphasized. I've long argued that the critical issue is not "who is this person" but "what are they doing".