The Efficacy of Post-9/11 Counterterrorism

This is an interesting article. The authors argue that the whole war-on-terror nonsense is useless—that’s not new—but that the security establishment knows it doesn’t work and abandoned many of the draconian security measures years ago, long before Obama became president. All that’s left of the war on terror is political, as lawmakers fund unwanted projects in an effort to be tough on crime.

I wish it were true, but I don’t buy it. The war on terror is an enormous cash cow, and law enforcement is spending the money as fast as it can get it. It’s also a great stalking horse for increases in police powers, and I see no signs of agencies like the FBI or the TSA not grabbing all the power they can.

The second half of the article is better. The authors argue that openness, not secrecy, improves security:

The worst mistakes and abuses of the War on Terror were possible, in no small part, because national security is still practiced more as a craft than a science. Lacking rigorous evaluations of its practices, the national security establishment was particularly vulnerable to the panic, grandiosity, and overreach that colored policymaking in the wake of 9/11.

To avoid making those sorts of mistakes again, it is essential that we reimagine national security as an object of scientific inquiry. Over the last four centuries, virtually every other aspect of statecraft—from the economy to social policy to even domestic law enforcement—has been opened up to engagement with and evaluation by civil society. The practice of national security is long overdue for a similar transformation.

Maintaining the nation’s security of course will continue to require some degree of secrecy. But there is little reason to think that appropriate secrecy is inconsistent with a fact-based culture of robust and multiplicative inquiry. Indeed, to whatever partial extent that culture already exists within the national security establishment, it has led the move away from many of the counterproductive security measures established after 9/11.

Yet, in the ten years that Congress has been debating issues like coercive interrogation, ethnic profiling, and military tribunals, the House and Senate Intelligence committees, which have all the proper security clearances to evaluate such questions, have never established any formal process to consistently evaluate and improve the effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism measures.

Establishing proper oversight and evaluation of the efficacy of our security practices will not come easily, for the security craft guards its claims to privileged knowledge jealously. But as long as the practice of security remains hidden behind a veil of classified documents and accepted wisdoms handed down from generation to generation of security agents, our national security apparatus will never become fully modern.

Here’s the report the article was based on.

Posted on September 2, 2011 at 1:34 PM18 Comments


Daniel September 2, 2011 2:35 PM

I think identity, not openness, improves security. The fundamental issue is one of scale. There are simply too many people on the planet and we are still growing fast. You cannot have a society without order and order means the ability to control and manage and that means the ability to identify with precision. That will be something like RealID or something akin to Facebook/ Google+ as “GlobalID” which in going to forced upon humanity, most likely by DNA fingerprinting at birth. The openness that is so often lauded is really anarchy in disguise.

BTW, I don’t think that politicians are using the security cash cow to be tough on crime. The primary bugaboo in the US is not crime, it’s immigration. It’s the foreigners taking our jobs that’s the new excuse.

I see globalism as the real underlying impetus and 9/11, terrorism, immigration as just fear opportunities to condition people to embrace that direction. As much as it pains me to say it, I think in the long run the “letter soup” agencies are correct. I simply cannot imagine a future that is not dystopian so long as humanity continues to breed at such a rapid rate.

vasiliy pupkin September 2, 2011 3:19 PM

I guess more control should be on internal policies and procedures of any alphabetical soup law enforcement Agencies. That is DOJ main task.
Those policies and procedures if affect human/civil rights of citizens cannot be secret and should be checked against Constitutional provisions.
Secret applies to particular actions of enforcement agents within scope of those procedures.
Then, there is something for Congress to oversight, i.e. action were within or outside the scope or in violation of I guess.

Brandioch Conner September 2, 2011 3:45 PM

“I think identity, not openness, improves security.”

I don’t agree. Even having a 100% accurate ID system wouldn’t help anything until AFTER a crime was committed. Then it might be easier to identify the person who committed the crime. Or not.

And if we’re talking about terrorism, then it is useless because terrorists are so rare.

“You cannot have a society without order and order means the ability to control and manage and that means the ability to identify with precision.”

Not really. There will always be a percentage of the population that will not conform to the normal behaviour of the society that they live in. Being able to identify them just means that the “normal” behaviour will be continually redefined to a smaller and smaller segment while the “abnormal” behaviours will increase.

“BTW, I don’t think that politicians are using the security cash cow to be tough on crime. The primary bugaboo in the US is not crime, it’s immigration. It’s the foreigners taking our jobs that’s the new excuse.”

Possibly. But that doesn’t matter. Whatever the excuse is, it is just an excuse. The reason is to move money to their friends / family / constituents to increase their wealth and get re-elected.

Getting $x million for a local town project to “fight terrorism” means that they’re “doing their job”.

And once that project has been funded, scope creep sets in and it gets used for whatever it can be applied to. Whether crime or immigration or checking the history of the cute waitress at the bar.

Instead of spending $millions on airport body scanners, why not fund a few hundred scholarships for medical school?

George September 2, 2011 3:48 PM

Of course, the TSA will continue to accrue layer after layer of costly, intrusive, and ineffective measures added in reaction to each failure or “incident.” Since removing any of it would expose whoever made that decision to the risk of blame for “weakening security” when the inevitable next attack or “incident” occurs, nobody will make that decision. And Congress won’t touch it either, for exactly the same reason. So it’s just allowed to metastasize without oversight or accountability, sucking up increasing amounts of money, time, and civil liberties.

And the TSA is merely the visible tip of an iceberg of unknown dimension. How much is being wasted by unaccountable “Homeland Security” bureaucrats firmly ensconced behind perpetually-locked doors?

Matt September 2, 2011 4:22 PM

Identity does not improve security; it makes it easier for trustworthy people to interact (which is why identity is valuable) and it makes it easier for the state to oppress people (which is why identity is dangerous). Anonymity and pseudonymity are critical for any free society. You can wave the “there’s too many people” bugaboo but the order of magnitude of people on Earth hasn’t changed in a century. Dealing with seven billion people is not substantially different from dealing with three billion people.

Identity will always be circumventable by people who work hard enough at it. Spoofed IDs, hacked databases, bribery, etc. If you really want to improve security, remove the motivation from those who want to violate it: stop bombing innocent civilians, stop invading countries for no good reason, stop propping up dictators to benefit corporate financial interests.

dob September 3, 2011 10:59 AM

Good point, Matt, but there’s no reason that the state is the only actor with the ability to oppress. Colluding corporate actors dominating an industry can oppress people with comparably dire results.

mcb September 3, 2011 11:52 AM

Welcome to the “Global War On Terror, Cyber Crime, Illegal Immigration, Recreational Drugs, and Ballistic Missile Defense Military Defense Contractor Law Enforcement Complex.”

We’ve always been at war with Eastasia…

Daniel September 3, 2011 1:33 PM

Simply because you sit in you chair and label other people’s arguments ‘bugaboo’ doesn’t make it so. You can sit on your moral high horse and state that Zuckerman and Schmidt are “evil” too. But your vapid moralism aside, the /fact/ is that the population continues to grow rapidly, people are clumping together like never before, and the historical reality is that every increase in social grouping has lead to increased effort to organize and identify, dating all the way back to the first censuses. Arriving at a dystopian future is not a radical step but part of a long-term evolutionary process.

If you believe that it is possible to avoid a dystopian future I invite you to lay out a /concrete/ path by which it that be achieved. Something other than hugs and rainbows and teddy bears. Because I admit that I have tried and that my imagination fails me. It’s true that we aren’t at 1984 yet but the reality is that we are a lot closer to 1984 then we are to 1940. And wish-fulfillment doesn’t change that fact.

@mcb. Any excuse will serve a tyrant. The flaw in most of the responses is that they think the tyrant will go away once everyone realizes how “bad” or “ineffective” he is. Rubbish. The ape mind is a servile one and if his demands for a master are not met he will invent one.

John David Galt September 3, 2011 10:20 PM

@Daniel: You cannot have a society without order and order means the ability to control and manage and that means the ability to identify with precision. That will be something like RealID or something akin to Facebook/ Google+ as “GlobalID” which in going to forced upon humanity, most likely by DNA fingerprinting at birth. The openness that is so often lauded is really anarchy in disguise.

More than one kind of anarchy is possible. A society where the police have no trouble identifying (and presumably finding) anyone they see may be somewhat safer from serious crime — if those cops actually put the effort into solving those crimes instead of doing things like drug enforcement, where they stand to enrich themselves for no risk — but it also makes it much easier for the police to persecute, with impunity, anyone who disagrees with them, and in the near future, that danger is by far the greater one.

The police are already effectively unbeatable in a fight. If they ever become impossible to hide from too, we might as well shred what’s left of the Constitution and haul down the flag.

Clive Robinson September 4, 2011 8:49 AM

Irespective of if you regard the post 9/11 activity by the DHS and others as a “cash cow” we do need to remember that the human cost is not just those that died on that day.

What has become clear to many in the medical proffession is that the dust that blanketed large parts of the area surounding the Twin Towers as they colapsed have had a very negitive effect on peoples healt.

Well the US Gov recently released a document on what they are proposing for “first responders” who have succumbed to various illnesses,

mcb September 4, 2011 12:26 PM

@ Clive Robinson

World Trade Center Health Program: Potential Effects of Implementation Options GAO-11-735R, seems to be mostly about how best to spend 1.6 BILLION USD on illnesses reported by WTC responders.

“These include asthma, persistent coughing, and other respiratory conditions and mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

Much as I appreciate the efforts of the responders at the WTC I have to wonder how many were experiencing these symptoms before 9/11 and how many more might be expected to suffer from such maladies in the course of their public service careers.

Clive Robinson September 4, 2011 5:42 PM

@ mcb,

“I have to wonder how many were experiencing these symptoms before 9/11 and how many more might be expected to suffer from such maladies in the course of their public service careers.”

Of those that have so far died of cancer many had some form of cancer prior to 9/11. However some the pathologists clearly blaim 9/11 contact. Importantly the numbers alive with cancer are several times that of other similar populations, which strongly sugests a causal link.

But It’s not just the first responders, or ground zero workers. The medical profession dealing with patients who were in the WTC and downwind areas, at the time and sortly there afterwards have noticed a considerable rise in physical respiratory illnesses including terminal cancers compared to other populations. In many cases the symptoms are atypical of those expected by ordinary smoke and dust inhalation or ingestion [1][2][3].

Whilst some of the symptoms could be put down to be phsycosomatic others can’t, also there is enough of the dust that has been tested to show just what forms of nasties it has in it and lets say it’s not something you would want to be within spitting let alone breathing distance of [4][5].

Also you need to remember that depression and PTSD recovery is at best significantly hampered by chronic ill health. There is a well known corelation between chronic illnesses such as deficient thirod, diabetes, and respiratory illness with both depression and PTSD. So much so, that in some parts of the world you won’t get psychiatric help until these chronic conditions have been first brought under control.

Further respiratory illness has well known links to cognative impairment, malaise, and muscle wasting as it’s difficult to excercise when you cann’t get sufficient breath to walk up a single flight of stairs.

Are we going to see “WTC Syndrome” like we have “Gulf War Syndrome” I don’t know all I know is people already talk of “ground zero illness”. Sadly there is sufficient medical evidence built up to sugest we should have been looking into it some eight or even nine years ago. And worse there was sufficient test results on the environmental effects to indicate that the political push to “be open for business” was decidedly premature and very unwise.

Depending on who you believe some quater to one milllion further people including children and students could have been effected just from contact with the 9/11 dust in homes and work places, with symptoms coming forwards over the next 40 or so years. Some will suffer significant consequences such as reduced life expectancy from upto12 years less lung functionality, cancers and organ failure.






Thomas September 4, 2011 7:59 PM

“I think identity, not openness, improves security. ”

Identity does little to improve the security of those holding views unpopular with those in power.

Identity leads to accountability, but without examining whom you are accountable to you cannot say whether that’s a good thing or not.

I think accountability is generally a good thing when the powerful are accountable to the weak, e.g. Govt being accountable to the people.

If the weak are accountable to the strong it’s just one more form of tyranny.

Jay September 4, 2011 8:32 PM

@Daniel: just to chime in with the many others, identity and security are completely orthogonal problems.

I don’t care if my airline has seated me between Zombie Osama and Lee Harvey Oswald, just as long as neither of them have brought weapons on board. (Customs and Immigration might care, but that’s not a security problem…)

Oh, and speaking of computer security – your boss just sent you an .exe attachment to run… Identity is just a poor stand-in for Intent.

kme September 5, 2011 2:19 AM

A model for evidence-based assessment of national security policy might come from the successful use of the JASON group to inform Defence policy.

The JASONs all have security clearances, and their reports are usually classified.

Peter E Retep September 6, 2011 10:18 PM

After the fall of the Soviet Empire,
it seems new organizing principles were offered:
1 – to be against Change, hence to empower anti-change enforcement,
including viewing all change as human caused,
was the Green Party corporate state Centrist candidate;
2 – to be against terrorism, hence to empower anti-Terror enforcement
was the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld candidate, allowing change,
but watching its human {violent} agents with suspicion,
and their actions with hostility;
3- if you don’t like either of these social organizing principles, offer a better one.

mcb September 7, 2011 1:47 PM

@ Clive Robinson

Thank you for encouraging me to look into this issue more deeply. There seems to be a pretty strong dose-repsonse relationship between the level of dust exposure and the onset of “World Trade Center cough” as well as reduced FEV. More details here:







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