The Square Root of Terrorist Intent
I’ve already written about the DHS’s database of top terrorist targets and how dumb it is. Important sites are not on the list, and unimportant ones are. The reason is pork, of course; states get security money based on this list, so every state wants to make sure they have enough sites on it. And over the past five years, states with Republican congressmen got more money than states without.
Here’s another article on this general topic, centering around an obscure quantity: the square root of terrorist intent:
The Department of Homeland Security is the home of many mysteries. There is, of course, the color-coded system for gauging the threat of an attack. And there is the department database of national assets to protect against a terrorist threat, which includes Old MacDonald’s Petting Zoo in Woodville, Ala., and the Apple and Pork Festival in Clinton, Ill.
And now Jim O’Brien, the director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security in Clark County, Nev., has discovered another hard-to-fathom DHS notion: a mathematical value purporting to represent the square root of terrorist intent. The figure appears deep in the mind-numbingly complex risk-assessment formulas that the department used in 2006 to decide the likelihood that a place is or will become a terrorist target—an all-important estimate outside the Beltway, because greater slices of the federal anti-terrorism pie go to the locations with the highest scores. Overall, the department awarded $711 million in high-risk urban counterterrorism grants last year.
As O’Brien reviewed the risk-assessment formulas—a series of calculations that runs into the billions—he found himself unable to account for several factors, the terrorist-intent notion principal among them. “I have a Ph.D. I think I understand formulas,” he says. “Take the square root of terrorist intent? Now, give me a break.” The whole notion, O’Brien says, is a contradiction in terms: “How can you quantify what somebody is thinking?”
Other designations for variables in the formula are almost befuddling, O’Brien says, such as the “attractiveness factor,” which seeks to establish how terrorists might prefer one sort of target over another, and the “chatter factor,” which tries to gauge the intent of potential terror plotters based on communication intercepts.
“One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure,” he says. “So I don’t know how you measure attractiveness.” The chatter factor, meanwhile, leaves O’Brien entirely in the dark: “I’m not sure what that means.”
What I said last time still applies:
We’re never going to get security right if we continue to make it a parody of itself.