Isaac Asimov on Security Theater

A great find:

In his 1956 short story, “Let’s Get Together,” Isaac Asimov describes security measures proposed to counter a terrorist threat:

“Consider further that this news will leak out as more and more people become involved in our countermeasures and more and more people begin to guess what we’re doing. Then what? The panic might do us more harm than any one TC bomb.”

The Presidential Assistant said irritably, “In Heaven’s name, man, what do you suggest we do, then?”

“Nothing,” said Lynn. “Call their bluff. Live as we have lived and gamble that They won’t dare break the stalemate for the sake of a one-bomb head start.”

“Impossible!” said Jeffreys. “Completely impossible. The welfare of all of Us is very largely in my hands, and doing nothing is the one thing I cannot do. I agree with you, perhaps, that X-ray machines at sports arenas are a kind of skin-deep measure that won’t be effective, but it has to be done so that people, in the aftermath, do not come to the bitter conclusion that we tossed our country away for the sake of a subtle line of reasoning that encouraged donothingism.”

This Jeffreys guy sounds as if he works for the TSA.

Posted on October 3, 2011 at 1:20 PM33 Comments


phred14 October 3, 2011 2:02 PM

I read the story long ago. Without truly spoiling the story for any who want to read it, at some point the protagonist realizes that the positive action we have taken has itself become the new point of maximum vulnerability.

This particular point doesn’t say much about DHS or terrorism, but I believe it does say something about our electronic/internet security. The harder we try to create some sort of “trustworthy” electronic/internet entity, the more valuable a target we will have created. Ultimately most of these things fall to human-engineering attacks before technical attacks. The low “trust value” of these things today has at least some limiting effect on the damage that a breach can do.

We’d all like some sort of trustworthy token, but the lack of such a thing, and making do with tokens we all know are almost trustworthy may actually be better.

Captain Obvious October 3, 2011 2:33 PM

Security theater has been a great way to drum up funds for many agencies.

Maybe it will help NASA now that the #2 priority is saving mankind from attacking asteroids.

anonymous October 3, 2011 2:34 PM

“NFL security changes slow entry at gate”

If entry at gate is slow, shouldn’t it be changed?

Man, I loves me some ambiguity…

LinkTheValiant October 3, 2011 2:49 PM

It is remarkable to note that Asimov’s Jeffreys is fully aware of the ineffectiveness of the theatre. No matter their claims, our real-world theatre leaders MUST be aware of the laughable holes in modern “security” setups.

Then again, “never attribute to malice that which may be adequately explained by stupidity.”

One further point of interest is that the theatre in Asimov’s story is acknowledged to be destined to fail at some point. If only such honesty existed in the real world. But then we would have flying pigs and checks in the mail.

al nonymous October 3, 2011 3:17 PM

“But then we would have flying pigs”

secureaucrat # 1: We need a way to prevent terrorists from flying those pigs into buildings.

secureaucrat # 2: But sir, Muslims won’t touch pigs. It’s against their religion.

secureaucrat # 1: And that’s why they’ll fly pigs into buildings. They know we’ll never suspect them of doing it.

secureaucrat # 2: When pigs fly.

secureaucrat # 1: Exactly.

Lynn October 3, 2011 3:19 PM

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all,” comes to mind. I think it was from Peter Drucker.

@Captain Obvious: Think of it as NASA trying to protect the innocent asteroids from a menacing Earth. Enough of a reason to start a foundation in California, I think.

jon October 3, 2011 4:46 PM

Sometimes I wonder how we can be rescued from all the people trying to solve the world’s problems.

Gweihir October 3, 2011 6:05 PM

@Daniel: THAT is a great bombing target!

Incidentally, I have heard the original thing the other way round too: “If we do this, we are attacked and it is ineffective, we would be in more hot water, than if we do not do it at all.” Of course that was with something that actually made sense but was not perfect.

Clive Robinson October 3, 2011 6:08 PM

@ LinkTheValient,

“But then we would have flying pigs…”

Err in Batersea (London UK) a weak or. so ago we did indead have a flying pig.

It was to celebrate a significant anniversary of a famous Rock Album.

Sufficie it to say that this time it remained well teathered unlike the original many years ago that broke free and became “a hazard to air navigation” around London. It actually flew across our house and my parents did not believe me. It was not untill the “Six o’clock News” where it was reported that they actually believed me…

Thomas October 3, 2011 6:15 PM

IIRC, in the story the enemy predicted one of the reactions and made it part of their plan.

Dirk Praet October 3, 2011 7:17 PM

It just goes to show the absolutely visionary qualities of the works of Asimov, Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury and the like. Or perhaps they just understood the human condition just as well as certain poets, but kinda reflected on it in a different way.

@ al nonymous: +1

@ Clive: too bad all of that happened before “Not the nine o’clock news”.

Gabriel October 3, 2011 8:47 PM

@Daniel: that was one Charlie foxtrot. How much you want to bet that violence outside the gates will increase, as angry and irate fans get into fist fights or even use the dreadful and deadly taser (worse than a guided missile). You know, at least tsa has 9-11, a failed shoe bomber, and underwear bomber as precedent. NFL? A less than lethal weapon for subduing malfeasants?

Gabriel October 3, 2011 8:51 PM

Oh yeah, regarding NFL groping, how much do you want to bet that 99.99% of what they confiscate are snacks and drinks being smuggled in opposed to weapons. (they won’t even let a pregnant woman bring in a small snack for a grad schOol graduation at an the Georgia Dome). And most of the weapons they do find will probably be nail files and pocket knives.

Captain Obvious October 3, 2011 9:13 PM


Haven’t you seen The Sum of All Fears?

More thought went into that terror plot than all the ‘real’ threats since 9/11 combined.

Gabriel October 3, 2011 11:15 PM

@Captain Obvious: Seen? nope, read. Coming home on an airline, however, it was on their satellite TV. They twisted the entire plot in the movie, where it was no longer the same.

According to the plot in the book:
1. Israel played fast and loose with nukes, putting them in the air during the Yom Kippur war, and not retrieving a broken arrow.
2. Arab terrorists (before they were so cliche) get “lucky” and find the nuke, and hire a disenfranchised East German or Soviet nuclear physicist to help them turn it into a higher yield (1oo KT) weapon. Of course, them dirty terrorists are treacherous and kill the physicist before he could inform them that their deuterium (to inject into the plutonium core) needs to be purged of hydrogen, causing the weapon to fizzle and barely have the yield to destroy a football stadium. (No NFL groper would have ever prevented that.)

  1. The Arab terrorists teamed up with German Red Army Faction style guerrillas to get more bang from the buck, starting a war between the US and then Soviet Union. The terrorists blow up a stadium and the surrounding city, the guerrillas start a firefight at the Berlin wall, posing as Soviet and East German soldiers and commandeering a few tanks.

Even though the plot greatly differs in the movie, a lot of planning did go into this attack in the novel. As a typical Clancy novel, it mixes tons of plausible facts along with a perfect storm of events that just isn’t likely to come together in such a way. How else can you write an interesting work of fiction? Of course, some lessons can be learned from this novel, that happen in real life. Such as not selling military uniforms to someone who tells you he needs them for a movie. And not just trusting some officer you’ve never seen before in a uniform who wants your tank. And not playing fast and loose with weapons of mass destruction in the air. (At least most of the US broken arrows are in places where, well, if you can get to them, you can probably already make your own. I don’t know about any other nuclear powers and their oops).

And finally, while these events are highly implausible, one thing Clancy gets right is that you need good intelligence. In the novel, bad intelligence along with these terrorist acts of brinkmanship and forgery nearly lead to WWIII. The bits of good intelligence helps our hero avert this war. TSA style “security” would never have helped with such a plot.

Anonymous 1 October 4, 2011 12:10 AM


Think of it as NASA trying to protect the innocent asteroids from a menacing Earth. Enough of a reason to start a foundation in California, I think.

When we start mining asteroids I fully expect there to be such a group (though not affiliated with NASA) trying to do exactly that.

Paeniteo October 4, 2011 3:50 AM

@LinkThaValiant: “No matter their claims, our real-world theatre leaders MUST be aware of the laughable holes in modern “security” setups.”

Sure they are. But you seem to be confused about their goals
Their goals are getting re-elected, more funding, a raise, not getting fired — security (be it theater or not) is just a means to that end.

For security measures in particular, society’s incentive system is flawed, as Asimov illustrates.

You have two choices: Do something and do nothing.
Also, there are two outcomes: Something happens and nothing happens.

Makes four situations:
A) Nothing done and nothing happens: Everything’s fine.
B) Nothing done and something happens: You get fired.
C) Something done and nothing happens: Everything’s fine.
D) Something done and something happens: Nobody can blame you.

Since the costs of “doing something” are externalities to you and you don’t get a reward for “doing nothing”, there is only one sensible decision, even if the odds for “something happens” are very small.

I think, Bruce called this Cover-Your-Ass security – CYA for short.

IMHO this explains the reasoning behind security measures far better than assuming them to be theater to reassure the public (though public opinion even strengthens the above situations, giving C an advantage over A).

Now, what can be done to fix the system?
Give a reward for A, reduce punishment for B, punish C.
Won’t happen, since initiating those measures would be subject (recursively, if you will) to an analysis analogous to the above.

uk visa October 4, 2011 7:08 AM

Bruce’s comment along with Captain Obvious’s sentiment:

“Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it… and our friends will make money providing equipment and services for something – we can’t raise taxes without having to pay for something.”

Gabriel October 4, 2011 7:47 AM

@kasmarek: no, nail file. Looks a bit like a flimsy and unsharpened knife. Not an effective weapon, hence you could file it under the same stupidity as confiscating nail clippers.

Filed nails would be more like a shiv, an improvised knife used by prisoners. If you really wanted to start trouble at a stadium, you would just as easily smuggle a real knife.

Daniel October 4, 2011 11:43 AM


It’s more fundamental than that. If one doesn’t breath, he dies. If one doesn’t drink, he dies. If one doesn’t eat, he dies. If one doesn’t physically move his muscles waste and he dies. At the most primitive level, doing nothing simply isn’t an option.

While making decisions about security are at a higher level of mental functioning, I think this primitive bias towards action colors and infects the decision making process you outlined. Patience may be a virtue but it cuts against much of the evolutionary lessons that have made humanity so biologically successful.

So we need to reevaluate option a) in your list. I’d argue that the typical response is not do nothing=everything fine but rather the response of the 10 year old which is do nothing=”I’m bored!” So for many people option a) and option b) are off the table at a preliminary level.

And since you are going to be doing something anyway, why not do something that enriches your friends and/or annoys your enemies. That’s called win-win 😀

Mike Brown October 6, 2011 8:17 AM

As a huge Asimov fan since the early sixties, it’s great to see a reminder of his foresight and brilliance.

McCoy Pauley October 9, 2011 1:08 PM

Obviously, we can stop the asteroids by launching enough flying pigs at them. This shouldn’t be a problem, considering the number of investment bankers available.

Wow October 9, 2011 3:40 PM

“Nothing,” said Lynn. “Call their bluff. Live as we have lived and gamble that They won’t dare break the stalemate for the sake of a one-bomb head start.”

Sure, that makes sense. It’s not like “they” would repeat an attempt to do harm to an avowed enemy.

The best thing “we” could do is seek to find out what upset “them” so much that they attacked us in the first place.

Perhaps if “we” give “them” the Sudetenland “they’ll” be satisfied and leave “us” alone.

yeah, that might work!

Padraig October 15, 2011 3:45 AM

In the marketing sphere, I had a CEO who would excoriate anyone who presented a proposal which didn’t include an analysis of the possible consequences for a “Do Nothing” scenario.

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