Recently there have been a bunch of news articles about how lousy counterterrorism security is in the United States, how billions of dollars have been wasted on security since 9/11, and how much of what was purchased doesn’t work as advertised.
The first is from the May 8 New York Times (available at the website for pay, but there are copies here and here):
After spending more than $4.5 billion on screening devices to monitor the nation’s ports, borders, airports, mail and air, the federal government is moving to replace or alter much of the antiterrorism equipment, concluding that it is ineffective, unreliable or too expensive to operate.
Many of the monitoring tools — intended to detect guns, explosives, and nuclear and biological weapons — were bought during the blitz in security spending after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In its effort to create a virtual shield around America, the Department of Homeland Security now plans to spend billions of dollars more. Although some changes are being made because of technology that has emerged in the last couple of years, many of them are planned because devices currently in use have done little to improve the nation’s security, according to a review of agency documents and interviews with federal officials and outside experts.
From another part of the article:
Among the problems:
- Radiation monitors at ports and borders that cannot differentiate between radiation emitted by a nuclear bomb and naturally occurring radiation from everyday material like cat litter or ceramic tile.
- Air-monitoring equipment in major cities that is only marginally effective because not enough detectors were deployed and were sometimes not properly calibrated or installed. They also do not produce results for up to 36 hours — long after a biological attack would potentially infect thousands of people.
- Passenger-screening equipment at airports that auditors have found is no more likely than before federal screeners took over to detect whether someone is trying to carry a weapon or a bomb aboard a plane.
- Postal Service machines that test only a small percentage of mail and look for anthrax but no other biological agents.
The Washington Post had a series of articles. The first lists some more problems:
- The contract to hire airport passenger screeners grew to $741 million from $104 million in less than a year. The screeners are failing to detect weapons at roughly the same rate as shortly after the attacks.
- The contract for airport bomb-detection machines ballooned to at least $1.2 billion from $508 million over 18 months. The machines have been hampered by high false-alarm rates.
- A contract for a computer network called US-VISIT to screen foreign visitors could cost taxpayers $10 billion. It relies on outdated technology that puts the project at risk.
- Radiation-detection machines worth a total of a half-billion dollars deployed to screen trucks and cargo containers at ports and borders have trouble distinguishing between highly enriched uranium and common household products. The problem has prompted costly plans to replace the machines.
The second is about border security.
And more recently, a New York Times article on how lousy port security is.
There are a lot of morals here: the problems of believing companies that have something to sell you, the difficulty of making technological security solutions work, the problems with making major security changes quickly, the mismanagement that comes from any large bureaucracy like the DHS, and the wastefulness of defending potential terrorist targets instead of broadly trying to deal with terrorism.
Posted on June 3, 2005 at 8:17 AM •