"Homeland Security Hasn't Made Us Safer"

This will be nothing new to readers of this blog, but it's nice to read other people saying it too.

Posted on January 11, 2011 at 7:47 AM • 58 Comments

Comments

caseyJanuary 11, 2011 8:02 AM

Not just homeland security, but many things have not made us safer. Consider anti-bacterial soaps, SUVs, traffic cameras.... None of these commerce driven measures has helped at all.

NylarthotepJanuary 11, 2011 8:40 AM

The comments section to that article is truly frightening. The majority of comments seem to support DHS and the government but fail to actually make any appraisal of the costs to benefits.

Anyone know of an article that goes into the details of the costs of DHS? Maybe a breakdown of what their activities are and what they put towards those activities monetarily?

Imperfect CitizenJanuary 11, 2011 8:53 AM

I agree overall with this article, but I'm not sure about this ending statement.
"...Americans need to learn how to make better use of the information they have and apply it with speed and efficiency"


The information we are getting with warrantless surveillance and the suspicious activity report business overwhelms the government agencies collecting it. Agencies rely on contractors like telco security folks/observation contractors to sort it out. So many contractors handling information without accountability means that the information you gather is easily tainted. Its not just the fear, prejudice of the watching label that colors the perceptions of observers. It can be ignorance, cultural mismatch, or deliberate fraud. If the Homeland, FBI, and NSA folks are relying on software for mass communications a dictionary function that can be manipulated/misunderstood example, focus on the word "kill" out of context when someone says "kills odors" etc. Unfortunately, nobody audits these cases. The information gathering on US citizens is a gravy train for contractors.

If you have contractors on task force teams whose primary interest is to keep government contracts going, without judicial review, you have fertile ground for fraud.

There is nobody watching the watchers or the data gatherers. No judicial review, no accountability means that even if the fraud is discovered, there are no consequences for the contractors or their companies for cheating the government or harming its citizens. When you hear people on an observation saying nothing will stick to them (the telcos and others can't be sued under the warrantless surveillance business) and they can add to or drop things as they wish, it makes you realize that its not just the use of information, but the structures of gathering and interpreting the data.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 11, 2011 8:57 AM

@ Bruce,

It may be just me but Ms Applebaum's prose feels like it may well have been lifted virtualy intact from various sources with only a few words changed.

However in part it is a simple presentation of facts which I have seen presented a number of times before and it might be this that has triggered the "feel a like" response...

anonJanuary 11, 2011 9:00 AM

Even if it is often about money and budget, that's not the only thing you could do to make your country / community a more secure place, a place you like to live and your neighbours like to live, too.

Snarki, child of LokiJanuary 11, 2011 9:04 AM

I also got the feeling of having read the article before. Perhaps because I actually had, so I'm not sure if Applebaum "lifted" anything.

Dialing down the Fear-Security-Industrial complex will likely be as difficult as doing the same for the Military-Industrial complex.

If only there were a terrorist threat that could only be countered by dismantling DHS....

MattJanuary 11, 2011 9:13 AM

I just had some dealings with homeland security that left me shaking my head.

I live in Canada and had a friend that lives in the US send me some old empty ammo cans for a project. Both US and Canadian customs didn't have an issue, and didn't even charge me duty. Homeland Security however ripped the package apart and inspected the cans, and then tapped the mangled box back together and sent them on their way. The customs form was clearly marked with the content of the box.
I expected Canadian customs to open it up and see, but I never expected Homeland Security to "inspect" the package as it was leaving the US. Struck me as a waste of resources.

PubliusJanuary 11, 2011 9:17 AM

Members of Congress are just demonstrating that they can bring in the federal money to their district. What is so wrong with that?

Lots is wrong with that, witness the DHS and the forever-wars, with all their contracts and jobs for constituents.

War buys votes. More federal money and jobs for everyone! What is so wrong with that?

Lots is wrong with that. What kind of business is this?

Trichinosis USAJanuary 11, 2011 9:58 AM

Even now, mere days after the shooting of Rep. Giffords, Rep. Peter King refuses to expand the focus of a hearing on domestic terrorist threats beyond Islamic extremists.

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/spy-talk/2011/01/tucson_should_make_rep_king_re.html

I'll say it again: The Department of Hopeless Insecurity needs to be completely dismantled and what resources are deemed actually useful should be reallocated to the other agencies. These agencies should also be made fully capable of watching each other for fraud, waste and abuse.

And the cluetard Peter King needs to lose his next election.

BF SkinnerJanuary 11, 2011 10:00 AM

While we're on the topic of DHS (and their junior partner TSA).

Have we ever considered the topic of the effectivness (or it's lack) of dog's as detectors?

I think we've (with maybe one or two exceptions - if that's you sing out) accepted that dogs are effective. But are their studies? They are accepted as probable cause for a search if they go on alert - but based on what? Studies, challanges.

A recent article in the Tribune (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-01-06/news/ct-met-canine-officers-20110105_1_drug-sniffing-dogs-alex-rothacker-drug-dog) states " that only 44 percent of those alerts by the dogs led to the discovery of drugs or paraphernalia.")

A failure rate of over 60%. It goes on to talk about the disproportiante ethnicity hassled by the false positives.

I'm thinking Clever Hans. The dogs are taking their cue to alert from their handler. If their handler has an inbred bias against a particular people the dog will reflect that. If it were two human LEOs we'd never accept "Charlie do you think you smell marijuana?" "Why yes Chuck i do."

If that is the case then the dogs on alert as PC needs to be re-considered/revoked.

NobodyspecialJanuary 11, 2011 10:23 AM

@BF Skinner
Dogs were briefly introduced on the transit system here to detect drug users.
However due to some administrative error - the transit police were issued with fierce alsatians rather than the usual beagles or bloodhounds, this was unfortunate since it seemed to intimidate many of their customers to have a snarling attack dog in their face.

The scheme was abandoned - apparently it was only a 'trial' - when a dog bit somebody who happened to be a lawyer. The city then couldn't find the paperwork showing the dogs had rabies shots or any training in detecting drugs.

Judging from the lack of new buses I think we are still paying for the settlement.

n3td3v - IT Security Consultants ConsortiumJanuary 11, 2011 10:36 AM

The whole U.S Department of Homeland Security was set up so an industry could make money.

I'm sure if anybody can be bothered to research it, George W. Bush will be in profit somewhere.

It's absolutely nothing to do with safety and security, but contracts and business deals.

Homeland Security didn't make us safer, but did it make some business tycoons richer?

Andrew

AlexJanuary 11, 2011 11:03 AM

I still wonder why when I visit the Manhattan federal courthouse, the US Capitol building and CENTCOM's HQ, I never have to take off my shoes or be groped. Nor are they picky about bringing in water or a thermos. The security officers are usually well-dressed, always polite, and always professional.

If the TSA procedures were based on solid logic, wouldn't these other locations be quick to adopt them?

Personally, I can't wait for the end of DHS/TSA. Sadly, I don't think any politician has the balls to do it. All the money we've wasted with it. And all of the agencies DHS has ruined. The Secret Service ain't what it used to be. I've seen it with my own eyes and conversation with several agents confirms it. FEMA's another agency which also went down the tubes once DHS took them over.

ShaneJanuary 11, 2011 12:01 PM

...neither has our dependence on oil, foreign or otherwise, and we can surely thank the 'market' for that.

Julien CouvreurJanuary 11, 2011 1:01 PM

Actually, it may be worse than that.
If we are not safer, but with great expenditures, that means we are actually less safe than we would have been otherwise.

It is difficult to know the alternative use for the resources consumed in the process, but would have likely been put to more productive purposes if those resources were not in the hand of DHS bureaucrats.

BarbieJanuary 11, 2011 2:29 PM

@BF Skinner
only 44 percent of those alerts by the dogs led to the discovery of drugs or paraphernalia.")
A failure rate of over 60%.

A 44% success rate means a 56% fail rate. 56

Math is hard. Let's go shopping!

karrdeJanuary 11, 2011 3:33 PM

BF Skinner:

when discussing the failure rate of the dogs, do we know what their level of training is?

Secondly, what is the failure rate of competing detection technology, or competing methods?

Remember, a single failure measure for a single detection method is meaningless, but the same measure for two competing detection methods is instructive.

BF SkinnerJanuary 11, 2011 4:21 PM

@Barbie "Math is hard!"
It sure is. Let's buy monolo's and then go to the beach! Life in plastic, it's fantastic!

@karrde "level of training"
@Nobodyspecial

Excellent point!

No we don't and the reason is that there are no standards (that I could discover in preliminary searchs) for either initial capability or on going training and profficiency.

PD departments also don't seem to keep records in general (I don't know where Trib got theirs) about k9 effectiveness. Nor are they required to.

It's another superstition. Super animals. Based on watching Lassie too much I think.
Bark Bark
What's that girl.
Billy's fallen down a well and is carrying a pound of cocaine in his shorts? Call Pa

Dirk PraetJanuary 11, 2011 4:34 PM

The article could have been a post on this blog 8-)

I wouldn't say hardly anyone so far has scrutinised DHS or TSA. Even government auditors have raised serious questions about their use of and spending on technology. Just read https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/20/AR2010122005599.html?sid=ST2010122005959 to which I earlier referred in another thread.

To me DHS and its offspring exhibit all the behaviour of immature children with way too big an allowance. There are a number of mitigating circumstances. 9/11 being a massive failure of intelligence, it can be argued that creating a brand new department probably was a smarter move than trying to align and optimise all existing agencies, which in all likelihood would have taken decades. The Bush administration had to show the US and the world that it was able to react swiftly, and that the "new threats" would be dealt with in a very visible and vigorous way. As for the theatrics, it is undeniable that they succeeded given the overwhelming support they are still receiving from broad layers within the American population.

As previously suggested somewhere else on this blog, another reason for the creation of DHS and TSA could be that they were set up as "fall guys" to divert the heat from existing and well-established departments, agencies and individuals to take the blame for the next big intelligence/security failure. I can understand that both are under enormous pressure to show results, but the shere size of their budgets probably makes up for much of that hardship.

Given the dynamics of such a context, it is quite inevitable that lots of folks, from congressmen to the likes of Halliburton and Blackwater, would jump on the bandwagon to get their piece of the cake. It also stands to reason that moneys allocated to the newcomers unavoidably had to be taken away from others.

The future will tell whether or not in due time they will get things right or continue down the same lane of spending billions on security theatre, running after the facts and erosion of civil liberties. As with every spoiled brat, the former is unlikely to happen without firm parental guidance, i.e. scrutiny, audit and oversight not only by parliament but also by the general public.

DB CooperJanuary 11, 2011 5:55 PM

Some commenters have written about the use of dogs as detectors. I too know of no empirical evidence as to their effectiveness.

There was a specific reference to Beagles, of these I have some first hand knowledge. Currently have 3 in the household and been fortunate enough through the years to live with many others.

I love the breed but they are not to be trusted. To say they possess a independent "what's in it for me?" attitude and can be very obstinate is to put it mildly. Not to mention the "selective deafness".

The ability of the nose is beyond question. Directing it to a consistent law enforcement function is a stretch no matter the trainer. I have doubts a 44% success rate could be achieved with them.

VE3OATJanuary 11, 2011 6:12 PM

"only 44 percent of those alerts by the dogs led to the discovery of drugs or paraphernalia"

But the remaining 56% isn't a "failure rate", it's the rate of false alarms.

The failure rate would have to be defined by the rate at which existing, smuggled drugs were not discovered by the dogs.

DavidJanuary 11, 2011 6:32 PM

[i]But the remaining 56% isn't a "failure rate", it's the rate of false alarms. [/i]

I don't agree that it's not a failure. Do you think that if 56% of stops by police involved fraudulent "probable cause", we'd consider that a failure? I sure would.

If you define "success" as "catching most criminals while trampling on the rights of as few citizens as possible", where "most" and "few" are large and small percentages respectively, you might reach a different conclusion.

nobodyspecialJanuary 11, 2011 6:39 PM

The failure rate is meaningless on it's own.
If say 1 in a million people were carrying a bomb then a 56% false positive rate is miraculous.

If you are searching for drugs among a certain section of society, in the right time and place then you could probably achieve the same detection rate by just stopping everyone - which is generally the purpose of drug detecting dogs in jurisdictions that have limits on random stop and search.

RSXJanuary 11, 2011 7:24 PM

"Homeland Security Hasn't Made Us Safer"

It's like I stepped into a time machine and went back to 2002 when this was originally pointed out. Definitely preaching to the choir on this subject, but good to discuss once in a while, regardless.

RSXJanuary 11, 2011 7:29 PM

..And actually, while we're on the topic. This has been a question on my mind for a few years now:

They used to slap subway-poster sized ads on bus stops, one of them in particular made me scratch my head. It was a picture of an elderly Hispanic gentlemen in a wheelchair, with a question in spanish about 'Terrorismo'. Does anyone have the slightest clue as to what that was all about? I saw it everywhere, at 10% of every corner on the street.
They dont do it anymore, their latest effort is along the lines of encouraging wal-mart shoppers to become suspicious of one another, and their ready.gov billboards still come up once in a while too - the ones with a black background and red/white text.

RobertTJanuary 11, 2011 8:28 PM

Get real guys!

Lets be a least honest.

I, for one, am happy to ride on ANY technology gravy train that happens to intersect my path. My only concern is how to safely jump on board, especially given that this has to be the highest speed train America will ever deploy...

Lets see:
Option1, slug it out in China, for 30% gross margin in commercial semiconductors (where I get to pay the development costs, up front)

Option2 : all development costs payed, you can even make a modest development profit, PLUS 70% gross margin on the final product, Govt guaranteed.

Hmmm difficult decision, until you consider that the HSD budget is for 10's of $BUSD. In other words it is at least 10 times the size of any available commercial product development. Of course the no-bid contracts are a nice added bonus, great work if you can get it.

Okian WarriorJanuary 11, 2011 8:31 PM

The ineffectiveness of using dogs for search purposes has nothing to do with the dogs.

Drug dogs are supposedly trained to give a "silent" signal to their handler indicating the presence of drugs. Something that a citizen wouldn't notice but the trained handler can recognize.

The citizen can't verify whether the dog gave the signal, so it's a classic authentication abuse scenario.

I don't even need to finish this post - everyone on the blog can deduce what's really going on, and why drug-dog-based searches have such low accuracy.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 11, 2011 10:08 PM

@ BF Skinner,

" that only 44 percent of those alerts by the dogs led to the discovery of drugs or paraphernalia."

Err be carefull, on the assumption that arises from that statment.

Let us assume the dogs have a 100% rate of dettecting "trace" amounts of drugs.

Then ask the question as to why no "large" physical evidence was found in close to 60% of cases ( Barbie remember that due to rounding and other issues 44% success does not of necessity give 57% fail).

The answer would be the difference between "trace evidence detection" and "large physical evidence detection".

It has been shown in the past that people with a particular nose candy habbit used rolled up 20USD notes, which would leave small quantaties of the nose candy on the note that ends up back in contact with other notes. Due to physical contact and the likes of body heat and moisture most notes in the walet will be contaminated and when used in ordinary commerce and thus end up in other wallets/purses where further cross contamination occurs.

One of my frequent complaints about forensic evidence is cross contamination and another is background environmental levels.

For something to be present is easy attributing cause to it's prescence is well neigh impossible in many cases.

ModeratorJanuary 11, 2011 11:18 PM

Mel was a sockpuppet of a banned user; I removed one reply to him for that reason only.

fbmJanuary 12, 2011 1:39 AM

Is Bruce moderating or is that someone else? What's with all the sockpuppets?

Anyway:
I think 9/11 could have been avoided. Was it not because of an underlying desire to go to war in the Middle East? Guess we'll never know.
Point is, terrorists simply react to DHS/TSA reacting and constantly change their "tactics" or approaches. I think the smartest thing for them to do would be to concentrate on collecting HUMINT from operatives (not spies working against the population, of course) working against the terrorists and remain steadfast in a set parameter of solid security measures.
Of course, using random access measures in between - keeping everyone on their toes. But they have to do it efficiently, especially in airports.

RanulfJanuary 12, 2011 3:33 AM

@John Hardin: a lone wacko is relevant to terrorism because the $ that are p*ssed away on "securing" remote villages are not available for creating a health system capable of handling them and an alert system for finding them and taking them in. Virginia Tech could've been prevented but wasn't. Tucson could've been prevented but wasn't. In both cases the data existed but the system failed miserably and many people died. As a Rightpondian I'm boggled by your priorities Over There. How about solving the actual problems right in front of your noses instead of fearing the low probabilities beyond the horizon?

QnJ1Y2UJanuary 12, 2011 4:22 AM

@John Hardin, others
Note that if a lone gunman is Muslim, then he's a terrorist. Otherwise, it's obvious that he's mentally disturbed[/sarcasm].

Shootings like Va Tech, Ft. Hood and Tucson show that it's very easy to cause significant damage with only a bit of preparation. Yet we don't see constant attacks like those.

Why? Probably because terrorists are very, very rare. But we'll waste huge sums of money pretending to protect against that very rare threat.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 12, 2011 6:11 AM

@ fbm,

Firstly,

"What's with all the sockpuppets?"

Ask yourself a question about the workload in tracking down sockpups and others wh the Moderator has said are not welcome with their behaviour...

Then ask yourself if this "preaching to the choir" serves another purpose than just being a "post filler"?

As has been said bees are atracted to pollen of thousands of flowers, the honey the leave at their hive atracts the attention of the bear ;)

Secondly and back on topic ;)

"Of course, using random access measures in between - keeping everyone on their toes. But they have to do it efficiently, especially in airports Post"

Is a seductive idea but... not just depending on your definitions of "random" and "efficient" in reality it cannot work...

Random searching comes from the ideas of random sampling in the likes of quality control, where you are looking for a short cut to pick up trends in things like toolwear in a delivery of components.

The underlying assumption in toolwear assumes that it is in normal production a sawtooth function as the alert operator stops the machine resets the tool to the oposit wear limit and starts cutting etc again. The unknown on the delivery is the period of the sawtooth wave error function. Thus if you take every hundredth item and that coincides with a toolware period of 99 items the batch would have to be 10000 items for you to get a single sample of toolware at the extream. However you would also have 100 items in the batch that could due to the measurment error of the machine operator be out of spec.

In theory a random sample would "dither" across the error wave form and have a greater possability of picking up an out of spec component.

The idea is to select 10% at random and test to do this you have to have a large enough batch size from which to draw your random sample.

This is problem number one in an efficient system the available batch size would be feedstock size multiplied by the number of machines, thus the minimum efficient batch size being two per searchpoint...

In effect every other item would go through a search and the other would not, due to various problems with "efficient que managment" it would very quickly not "be in effect" it would be every other item.

Now in a mechanistic process where the items do not order themselves this may not be an issue but for a terrorist watching they would quickly realise if it was "odds" or "evens" being searched and ensure that they where the oposit in the que.

But what happens when the decide to switch from evens to odds or vice verser one of two things has to happen, either the process stalls as you do to searches in succession or you mis a sample. Neither is benificial in an efficient que system.

Now you could increase the feed stock size but you will still get occasional stalls or misses.

Now you have to consider search time and resources. To be optimaly efficient the process needs to have it's own "feedstock" and it will be filled in a fairly predictable fashion.

The point is it quickly degenerates into a non random pattern and an intellegent adversary can spot this and game the system.

Wores for the passenger who has to join the search feedstock they now get dellayed by the searchtime multiplied by the search process feedstock size...

So lets flip it the other way and see if making the search process less efficient helps...

At first you would think so but think carefully about what random means. At some point it will worse case where it will pull out sufficient persons to overwhelm even an inefficient search process.

This gives rise again to measurable patterns in the process so it is nolonger random, the question is then can an observer deduce the pattern and game the system.

The solution generaly is to work with a variable search time and use "next in line" however even this can be gamed if you can make a realistic guess as to what the sample rate is. For instance stand behind a couple of people who have no carry on who are standing behind a couple of people with large carry ons.

But what about gaming from the other side. That is the person responsable for selecting the next in line tends to favour 'looks..." that is subconciously they select more men than women or more people who have an olive complection etc etc.

An astute observer will spot this and thus if they can the will not look like this but join the back of a group of people who do look like this etc.

Mathmaticaly modeling this can be difficult but it is a problem that is being researched by various people.

A simple model that works is to have a set of patterns that have the required ratio of selected to unselected and randomly select a new patern at random from the set. However even this can have problems ;)

The point being "efficient" searching with "random" sampling can be gamed by both sides (the person not wanting to be searched and those selecting those to be searched) the closer you get to efficient the less randomness you can get.

Something has to give and I suspect in a target driven process the actual search will become less efficient just to keep the numbers searched up to meet targets. Thus "just a glance in the bag ma'm" which might account for the 75% figure...

BF SkinnerJanuary 12, 2011 7:05 AM

@Dirk Praet "...failure of intelligence...creating a brand new department probably was a smarter move than trying to align and optimise..."

Except of course the agencies involved in the intel failures (CIA, NSA, FBI) weren't touched by the reorganization except for the insistence to move from Need-to-Know to Need-to-Share.

factoid TSA has over 56,221 employees - that's about a quarter of the Department

"moneys allocated to the newcomers unavoidably had to be taken away from others"
Nope. Legislation said it had to be budget neutral. Monies came out of the existing agencies or the departments they were a part of. I wonder if that really happened.

I know your use of Haliburton was as a generic place holder for government contractors but, being an oil and construction company, they have little in DHS though the contract to build "temporary detention and processing facilities" is worrying. We planning concentration camps?
But the role of contractors is large at DHS. There are more contract employees than DHS Government workers. This is how the last administration wanted it. They said so. Repeatedly. Let business manage the business of government it'll be more efficient. The fact that businesses are profit orientened and that gives pressure to 'grow' the contract seemed to escape (oh really?) our Executive.

@nobodyspecial "jurisdictions that have limits on random stop and search."
Don't ALL jurisdictions have limits on random stops and searches?

@Okian Warrior "classic authentication abuse scenario"
Good point. Who but the handler could say if the signal was given? It's not like the dog can be put on the stand.

@Clive "trace evidence detection"
The study was in 2009. Currency in the US showed that most (~95%) of the money (was found true for Canada (but they are so nice!) and Brazil currency as well) tested positive for traces of cocaine. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=cocaine-contaminates-majority-of-american-currency.

@fbm "What's with all the sockpuppets?"
Some folks are very persistent in the pursuit of folly.

Dirk PraetJanuary 12, 2011 8:53 AM

@ BF Skinner

Thanks for the clarification on DHS budget neutrality legislation. I wasn't aware of that. And I did indeed refer to Halliburton as a generic placeholder. As for the TLA's mentioned, exactly my point. I can't think of many better examples of organisations - perhaps the military - that are more resisting to change or interference by third parties. Surely, the then administration must have realised that too.

DeanJanuary 12, 2011 10:06 AM

QnJ1Y2U said:

Shootings like Va Tech, Ft. Hood and Tucson show that it's very easy to cause significant damage with only a bit of preparation. Yet we don't see constant attacks like those.

Why? Probably because terrorists are very, very rare. But we'll waste huge sums of money pretending to protect against that very rare threat.

************************
Exactly. I've said the same thing myself. Imagine the terror and angst you could cause with synchronized shooting sprees at several large shopping malls on Black Friday or some other busy shopping day. All it takes is half a dozen terrorists, two 9mm pistols each, and a pair of mags per pistol and you could kill or injure upwards of 100 people. And you'll have the entire nation collectively gnashing its teeth on 24/7 cable networks for a month. For maximum effect, repeat one week later.

The fact this hasn't happened tells me one (or both) of two things:
- There just aren't that many terrorists out there, or
- The terrorists are so focused on humongous movie plot scenarios that they forego the low-hanging fruit.

fbmJanuary 12, 2011 10:21 AM

@Clive

With "random" I meant random measures taken for deterrence. For example, instead of searching cars at a guard checkpoint every day for a week, take one day and don't search them - but check for 2 forms of ID. Random being the measure that's rotated, not the target of the action. If that makes sense. And it wouldn't be (always) based on intelligence. It's operating on the assumption that by changing tactics, someone may be caught up doing something they shouldn't be.

@QnJ1Y2U
@Dean

Agree.

David ThornleyJanuary 12, 2011 11:20 AM

@Ranulf: I don't know that the shootings could have been stopped in general. Certainly there were clues that the individuals might go on rampages, but I have no good idea how many people have the same sorts of indicators who don't go on shooting sprees. The publicly available indicators for the Tucson gunman seem to have been two minor drug charges and being kicked out of school for disruptive behavior, and there's got to be lots of people that fit that description.

Nor is it clear what we could have done. The Tucson gunman apparently got his gun legitimately, but there doesn't appear to be any great difficulty in getting a gun illegitimately in the US. We're not going to hold every potential wacko imprisoned indefinitely. Therefore, anybody who hasn't either committed a significant crime or become a demonstrated danger to others can walk around in public with a handgun.

Random checks won't catch somebody like that except by luck. I don't think any of the Tucson, Fort Hood, or Virginia Tech gunmen were going around armed until they felt like a shooting spree, so it would be necessary to catch them in preparation of transit.

BF SkinnerJanuary 12, 2011 11:46 AM

@ David Thornley "Random checks won't catch somebody like that except by luck"

They aren't intended to catch someone but to raise the cost of discovery in risk calculation of the villian.

David ThornleyJanuary 12, 2011 12:01 PM

@BF Skinner: Did any of the Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, or Tucson gunmen do any real risk calculation? They were all caught or killed, after all. Would any of them have been deterred by, say, a 1% chance of being stopped and possibly facing charges? My uninformed guess is that "No" is the correct answer to both questions.

You can't use the same deterrence techniques with people who hope to be repeat offenders and quasi-suicidal nutcases.

Dirk PraetJanuary 12, 2011 6:26 PM

@ QnJ1Y2U

"Probably because terrorists are very, very rare."

Yes and no. I guess every nation has its share of troubled minds that at some point go ballistic and turn into rampage artists. I'll leave it to sociologists to dig into the underlying causes. As my cousin always says: "A nut is a nut, but given a weapon he has all the potential of becoming a dangerous nut."

The mechanics behind organised terrorism by foreign entities are a bit different. Although there is a massive recruitment field of potential terrorists, carrying out a high-profile attack that speaks to the imagination requires resources, intelligence, creativity, preparation, soft skills, technical and ideological training. In this, the successful terrorist is no different than a skilled TLA field operative. Adequately preparing such folks takes a lot of time. In the case of the average misguided idiot, it can be argued to be an exercise in futility. On foreign soil, he's too likely to get himself arrested over something as dumb as driving through a red light before even getting to his target. Valuable, fully-trained operatives may not be deployed for anything less than key operations, especially if these are suicide missions. Captain Underpants and Mr. Goody Two Shoes are perfect examples of plots that got foiled because of incompetent execution (and very situation-aware bystanders).

So I would say that there may be many potential terrorists out there, but indeed very few capable of wreaking serious havoc on targets with a big marketing value and that will not be sacrificed for low-hanging fruit only.

Anon.January 12, 2011 6:27 PM


Anyone watch Mythbusters on Discovery? They tried to beat the dogs. Unsuccessfully, as I recall.

BF SkinnerJanuary 12, 2011 7:57 PM

@Anon "Mythbusters"
Yeah I saw that episode. And since this issue of dog reliability has been brought up I've been thinking they need to revisit. I'm rewatching it.

They always used some thing the dog had been trained for. I don't believe now that they controlled for either false positives, clever hans or the handler.

Julien CouvreurJanuary 12, 2011 8:10 PM

@BF Skinner and Anon "Mythbusters"

One thing they didn't try was using decoys (by sacrificing a small portion of the drugs to mark smell on a bunch of innocent people). Even if the dogs are very reliable, they won't be very effective if they bark at every single passenger.

BF SkinnerJanuary 12, 2011 8:17 PM

@David Thornley 'Deterrence doesn't work on nutters'

Thank you. I was starting to develop the idea but then thought that blog posting comments aren't ideally suited for multi-observational responses. I am striving for concision.

What is the value of a given nutters mental state?
When we think of a crazy we think what? Someone in a straight jacket with the DTs? Someone in a rubber room screaming until they are horse.

But there's a lot of careful controlled behavior that's not that frenzied thrashing around. Ted Bundy was very methodical and careful not to expose himself during his 35 known murders.

Loughner turned to leave. He wasn't on a suicide mission. And even suicide attackers have to make a risk calculation to carry out their mission. To suceed. NOT 'and die trying'. Die trying is a waste. Die suceeding--in taking the invader with them.

clone station #5January 12, 2011 9:42 PM

Bring on the cloned army of UAV police drones, slap some corporate advertising on them to sustain funding and you have a winner! Let's look for the positive in the news stories, please?

BRING ON THE DRONES!
BRING ON THE DRONES!
BRING ON THE DRONES!

fbmJanuary 13, 2011 1:33 AM

@BF Skinner
"They aren't intended to catch someone but to raise the cost of discovery in risk calculation of the villian."

Exactly what I was getting at. Thanks for putting into words what I couldn't.
This is how force protection measures are calculated. Making it difficult for the villain to guess what you'll do to prevent him from succeeding. If those methods are constantly changing, the cost of discovery gets exponentially higher because neither can guess what the other will do.
Unfortunately, this cost analysis applies to measures implemented in trying to guess what villains will do; something the TSA and DHS are not very good at. Which is why they're wasting all that energy, time, and money. Hence, we have security theater at its best.

hwKeitelJanuary 13, 2011 7:30 AM

About the dogs:
It matters what you want to achieve with the dog.
First there is a question about the 44%. but, even if they have much more false positives than false negatives, for me that's okay. because, Police should only use the dog if they have suspicion. the dog is a tool for the police to search in a specific place and not the whole car / house. and: the police has to find some drugs anyway. if it's a false positive by the dog, no problem.

hwKeitelJanuary 13, 2011 7:38 AM

Reading the 'Understanding History Won't Help Us Make Peace, by Aluf Benn' article.

Did he understand that 'learning from the past' (and avoiding to make a mistake again) and 'who was here first' are different things? Or, am I not understanding his article?

I fact the 'who was here first'-question is like redoing the failures again and again.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 13, 2011 9:28 AM

@ Dirk Praet,

"So I would say that there may be many potential terrorists out there, but indeed very few capable of wreaking serious havoc on targets with a big marketing value and that will not be sacrificed for low-hanging fruit only."

I would say that there are rather more proto-terrorists out there than you suspect.

The reason they are not showing up is that they have gone to be "terrorists" eleswhere.

Look at it this way as a proto-terrorist what would you rather be doing killing inocent civilians in your own country. Or fighting the troops of what you see as an invading army in a country you have sympathy for?

I suspect that many think there as being no honor in killing inocent civilians.

Further the first option only offers suicied (a no no in most religions) or life imprisonment as a failure.

Whilst the second option gives the oportunity of legitimate "fighting" as an irregular soldier with a reasonabble chance of surviving each engagment with the perceived enemy (even if they are soldiers from the country of your birth).

Thus I would look at all those iregular ununiformed non native "soldiers" fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq against the coalition soldiers as proto-terrorists that have actually commited to the path of action against their own or allied nations.

If this viewpoint is correct the question then arises "what happens to the level of domestic terrorism when the wars cease?"

The answer could well be that some of these proto-terrorists gone irregular soldiers will switch over to being battle trained domestic terrorists skilled in the making and deploying of IED's etc. And with every intention of running an extended domestic campaign.

The UK spent over thirty years having to deal with "mainland" campaigns from the IRA and even now there are still splinters and offshoots of the IRA in existance carrying out terrorist activities...

I'm not sure the US is in any way prepared for campaign harded and well trained terrorists running free on US mainland soil.

I'm very certain the likes of the FBI are not in the slightest prepared and the TSA would be compleatly usless. Thus what other parts of the DHS are up to the task NSA? CIA?...

Which ever way you look at it the answer is not particularly appealing to those living in the US.

And the only way to combat this sort of domestic terrorism is by good intel and well trained first responders, not with multi-million dollar scanners located in airport transit ways.

I'm sure I'm going to upset a few people in the US when I say "get your heads out of the sand while you still can".

David ThornleyJanuary 13, 2011 10:24 AM

@BF Skinner: In the Tucson case, we're talking Arizona, and there it's positively stupid to make plans on the assumption that nobody in any given crowd has a handgun. So Giffords is anti-gun; that doesn't mean all of her supporters agree with her on that issue, or that the only people who'd be at a public event would be her supporters. What amount of government surveillance would even match that risk?

As far as Bundy goes, he did his best to not get caught, but I have expended no effort on not getting caught as a serial killer while maintaining a much smaller chance of being arrested as one: I haven't killed anybody. Clearly, Bundy was willing (in a sense) to accept greater danger of being caught in order to commit his crimes. It may well be that he would have attempted his crimes no matter what the risk of being caught, even if he did reduce that risk.

When we're dealing with mass murderers, we're probably not dealing with fully rational people, who will assign a certain positive value to killing large numbers of people, a certain negative value to being killed or arrested, and calmly calculate the expected value of shooting into a crowd. Even if we were, we're probably not able to judge the values assigned, and therefore we can't judge deterrent effect.

Dirk PraetJanuary 13, 2011 7:44 PM

@ Clive

I get your point. What you're suggesting is that once conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are over, the battle trained surplus of foreign combattants will move on to terrorism on US/European soil pretty much like French foreign legionnaires going merc after their tour(s) of duty. Actually, we've already seen this with veterans of the Afghan war against the Russians surfacing at all kinds of later stages like Bosnia, Chechnia, Iraq and the like. ObL himself is probably the best example of such.

Undoubtedly, such folks are a formidable recruitment reserve. I am however not convinced that even after coalition troops have pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, they will turn "en masse" on the US and/or Europe. I see several reasons for this.

First of all, AQ and its affiliates prime goal is to drive the crusaders out of the muslim world and overthrow regimes considered puppets of the west in the same parts of the world. Today, they simply do not have the means to take the full battle to the Occident at the risk of completely annihilating themselves. In my analysis, it is more likely that foot soldiers and lower officers will be redeployed to new conflict zones (Saoudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunesia ...), whereas the brass will disperse all over the globe to form new affiliates and sleeper cells. There, they will try to enlist and train new domestic combattants recruited from the gullible and the disenfranchised.

Secondly, and as you have pointed out yourself, it would be wrong to consider all AQ combattants and sympathisers a bunch of brainwashed madmen only craving for our blood. Many of them probably genuinely believe they are serving a holy cause killing non-believers and other servants of Satan on muslim ground, but would be much harder to convince to go and kill innocent civilians in a country where they have strictly no business.

Thirdly, and as I tried to point out in my previous mail, a paramilitary operative trained and hardened in asymetric warfare still does not make a succesful terrorist on foreign soil. The same as a brilliant football player by default does not make a great coach later on in his career. Both require additional training, soft skills, organisation etc.

For all said reasons, I am not convinced that AQ either has the mindset, the means or sufficient operatives willing and able to execute high-profile operations on the west on a regular basis. Despite all the rhetoric of on-line jihadists, "24"-style movie plots and the fear mongering of our own authorities, I doubt we have much reason to make AQ bigger than they are today: a loosely knit organisation of militant religious extremists that every once and a while will try to strike when and where we least expect them.

CalandaleJanuary 14, 2011 10:30 AM

One point on security theater, as shown in this article, is that we don't know the effect that it has on the vigilance of those who actually ARE effective (passenger, stewardess, what have you).

Whether there are cheaper ways of obtaining that level of civic awareness is another question - but clearly that wasn't present before 9/11, and people slip back into convenient habits.

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