'An Enormous Waste of Money'

A security expert argues that America is spending its money ineffectively in the fight against terrorism

March 17 – The coordinated train bombings last Thursday in Spain marked the country’s deadliest terror attack ever, killing at least 200 and injuring at least 1,500. Indications—still unconfirmed—that Islamic fundamentalists with ties to Al Qaeda may have been behind the blasts have prompted emergency meetings among European leaders and raised fears of another attack on the United States. But are Washington’s precautions enough? And has its allocation of resources focused too much on air safety and not enough on other forms of public transportation?

NEWSWEEK’s Jennifer Barrett discussed some of these issues with security expert Bruce Schneier, whose most recent book, “Beyond Fear” (Copernicus Books), offers a comprehensive look at the challenges of keeping a nation secure from terrorism. Schneier—who believes Americans should keep the threat of terror in perspective by reminding themselves that such attacks are extremely rare—also evaluates the effectiveness of proposed measures ranging from a national ID card system to federalized airport security. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How much better prepared is the United States today in preventing a large-scale terror attack than it was before September 11?
Bruce Schneier:
Psychologically, we expect it, so we are more psychologically prepared. But securitywise, we are probably much less secure than we were.

Why do you say that?
We have built a geopolitical situation where more people dislike America, more people hate us, and in that respect we have made the world a more dangerous place. Though we have also done a lot of good things to increase our security. We have arrested and neutralized terrorist cells. We have disrupted terrorist funding. Our investigations—both internal in the U.S. and abroad—are much better. We are better able at preventing plots and uncovering them. Nine-11 was a very unfortunate intelligence accident. A lot of those sorts of things tend not to work because they get foiled. We were very unlucky. We are probably better prepared in that we kind of expect these things—local governments, when something like this happens, are going to be more ready because they have thought about it. In terms of the aftermath, we are more prepared. [But] in terms of whether we’ve made the world safer in the past two years, most of the things we’ve done have been irrelevant and some have been harmful.

Can you give some examples?
We’re still living in a world where politics trumps security. The things that tend not to work are the broad surveillance measures. We are spending $10 billion on a program to fingerprint foreigners, for example.

You don’t support that program?
As a consumer, I need to ask, is that $10 billion being well spent?

What do you think?
I think it is an enormous waste of money. The amount of security I’m getting is not nearly worth that cost. I’d much rather take that money and see it spent elsewhere.

How would you like to see it spent?
On people—human intelligence. What is a fee for an FBI agent? Can I hire a thousand FBI agents for the same amount of money? That sounds like a way better security investment. It’s the philosophy. “Will this make us safer?” is the wrong question to ask. The right question to ask is: is it worth it? Many things that will make us safer aren’t worth it. We also have to look at the underlying policies that bring about the situation. You can imagine living in a community where the landlord keeps hornets’ nests, and he keeps whacking the nests. And then he keeps telling you, you need to buy protective clothing. He’s right, but I wish he’d stop whacking the nest. In a sense that’s what we are doing. Far better for our security would be to deal with the underlying geopolitical situations that cause the problem. That may be politically untenable, but as a security professional, that is the best way to spend your money.

What have we done right?
Good security centers around people, so things we’ve done that empower people have generally been good. To the extent that we have trained more agents in Islamic languages, that has been a good thing. To the extent that we have gone around the world and disrupted terrorist funding networks, that’s been a good thing. But to the extent that we have ignored the Saudi Arabian terrorist ties, that is a bad thing.

You said broad surveillance measures tend not to work. So would it be feasible—or even practical—for the U.S. to try to install the sorts of security measures in subway and train stations that are in place at airports?
If you think of the number of situations where people gather en masse—whether they are public transportation or stadiums or theaters or shopping malls or monuments—you come up with a list of hundreds of thousands of potential targets. And installing preventive screening at all of them fundamentally makes no sense because the attacker will be smart enough to go where you didn’t screen. So if you install all of these security measures in subways, and next time the terrorists bomb shopping malls, the money will have been wasted. This is the fallacy of defending against yesterday’s attack. Unless you go after the attackers, and the fundamental causes, all you will do is force the attackers to modify their tactics. And that is largely a waste of money.

So all this money spent on increased security…
Well, think about Spain. They probably spent a lot of money securing their aircraft in the wake of 9/11. Do those people now think that money was well spent? They probably don’t.

Well, you could argue that the money was well spent precisely because we haven’t had another successful terror attack involving an airliner since 9/11. Also, the increasing security measures helped people feel more comfortable flying again after the attacks.
That is an important point to make. There are reasons you do security things other than security. I’m a security professional, so I tend to discount those nonsecurity issues, but peace of mind is very important. I call it security theater. It doesn’t actually do any good, but it makes people feel better. It’s an important psychological thing… It made people feel better, it helped our economy. The right question is not whether this does any good but whether the trade-off is worth it.

Do you think the money we’ve spent—and the way we’ve spent it—on homeland security measures is worth it?
I think it’s an enormous waste of money. Politicians tend to prefer security countermeasures that are very visible, to make it look like they’re doing something. So they will tend to pick things that are visible even if they are less effective. Training FBI agents in Arabic is a really good idea, but no one is going to see it. Fingerprinting foreigners at the border is a very visible thing that, even if it is less effective, is going to look like we’re doing something.

Do you think the Madrid bombings, assuming they were carried out by Al Qaeda, were effective as a political tool given the surprise upset victory three days later of the Socialist Party, which wants to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq?
I thought the exact opposite. Al Qaeda wants escalation. When they attacked the United States, they wanted us to attack back with force because that would enrage more Arabs, which enrages more of us, and makes the conflagration worse. I’m amazed that people are saying that the victory for the antiwar people in Spain was a victory for Al Qaeda. I’m proud of Spain. They could have reacted like the U.S. and said they would use even more force. They reacted with restraint.

Well, it depends on what you think their goal was with these attacks. If they wanted to isolate the United States, and persuade Spain to leave Iraq, then you could argue that they succeeded.
The U.S. in Iraq plays into the terrorists’ hands. It gives them more people to kill. It proves we’re an occupying nation. What Al Qaeda wants is to cause a holy war. They wanted us to invade Iraq. By denying liberties for thousands of Americans, by moving our nation toward a police state and rattling sabers throughout the world, we proved them right. We legitimized them by claiming we were at war with them. They don’t deserve the designation of enemy combatants. They are criminals and should be treated as such.

What changes would you like to see in the way the U.S. approaches security?
What I push for is more balanced approaches toward security. It is just one of the goals of our country. If we took every single person in this country and locked each of them in a box, we would be more secure, but it wouldn’t be a better society. I would much rather live in a country that people run to than run from.

Categories: Text, Written Interviews

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.