“So much inconvenience for so little benefit at such a staggering cost”

tsa-sarcastic-logoCharles C. Mann meets security expert Bruce Schneier to assess the state of the Transportation Security Administration’s security theater at U.S. airports:

Since 9/11, the U.S. has spent more than $1.1 trillion on homeland security.

To a large number of security analysts, this expenditure makes no sense. The vast cost is not worth the infinitesimal benefit. Not only has the actual threat from terror been exaggerated, they say, but the great bulk of the post-9/11 measures to contain it are little more than what Schneier mocks as “security theater”: actions that accomplish nothing but are designed to make the government look like it is on the job. In fact, the continuing expenditure on security may actually have made the United States less safe. [.  .  .]

To walk through an airport with Bruce Schneier is to see how much change a trillion dollars can wreak. So much inconvenience for so little benefit at such a staggering cost. And directed against a threat that, by any objective standard, is quite modest. Since 9/11, Islamic terrorists have killed just 17 people on American soil, all but four of them victims of an army major turned fanatic who shot fellow soldiers in a rampage at Fort Hood. (The other four were killed by lone-wolf assassins.) During that same period, 200 times as many Americans drowned in their bathtubs. Still more were killed by driving their cars into deer. . . .

Read the entire article. It is a sad reflection of the increasing non-responsiveness of government that this utter nonsense continues to be foisted upon U.S. citizens.

Bruce Schneier on security theater

National Security Wisdom from the Joker

Security TheaterCato’s Julian Sanchez brilliantly sums up the logic behind the national security policy that leads our government to impose this kind of absurd abuse on its citizens:

Batman’s archnemesis the Joker–played memorably by Heath Ledger in 2008‚Ä≤s blockbuster The Dark Knight–might seem like an improbable font of political wisdom, but it’s lately occurred to me that one of his more memorable lines from the film is surprisingly relevant to our national security policy:

“You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan.’ Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan.'”

There are, one hopes, limits. The latest in a string of videos from airport security to provoke online outrage shows a six-year-old girl being subjected to an invasive Transportation Security Administration pat down–including an agent feeling around in the waistband of the girl’s pants. I’m somewhat reassured that people don’t appear to be greatly mollified by TSA’s response:

“A video taken of one of our officers patting down a six year-old has attracted quite a bit of attention. Some folks are asking if the proper procedures were followed. Yes. TSA has reviewed the incident and the security officer in the video followed the current standard operating procedures.”

While I suppose it would be disturbing if individual agents were just improvising groping protocol on the fly (so to speak), the response suggests that TSA thinks our concerns should be assuaged once we’ve been reassured that everything is being done by the book–even if the book is horrifying. But in a sense, that’s the underlying idea behind all security theater: Show people that there’s a Plan, that procedures are in place, whether or not there’s any good evidence that the Plan actually makes us safer.

And this is not all about civil liberties, either. As David Henderson points out, citizens who throw up their hands in disgust with the TSA’s security theater and elect to drive rather than take a short-haul flight risk a fatality rate that is 80 times higher per mile than travelers on a commercial airliner face.

In short, the TSA is killing people.

As with the overcriminalization of American life, the TSA is an ominous reflection of a federal government and major political parties that are increasingly remote and unresponsive to citizens.

Is it too late to change? That would be a good question for someone to ask President Obama, who was famously elected on the slogan of “change we can believe in.”


How WikiLeaks is like the office holiday party

wikileaksInasmuch as I believe the hoopla over the WikiLeaks disclosures is mostly overblown, I’m not going to post much on it. Except to point out again that the FT’s Gideon Rachman really has the right perspective toward it all:

It’s amusing for the rest of us to read US diplomats’ frank and sometimes unflattering verdicts on foreign leaders, and it’s obviously embarrassing for the Americans.

It’s a bit like somebody getting drunk at a party and making bitchy comments in too loud a voice. Nobody is incredibly shocked that such things happen. But it’s still awkward to be overheard by the person you are talking about.

Defending WikiLeaks

wikileaksAlthough my view of the latest WikiLeaks disclosures is much the same as FT’s Gideon Rachman (I mean, really, who would have thought that Silvio Berlusconi is feckless and vain?), my sense is that Will Wilkinson’s initial analysis correctly identifies the importance of these disclosures:

To get at the value of WikiLeaks, I think it’s important to distinguish between the government-the temporary, elected authors of national policy-and the state-the permanent bureaucratic and military apparatus superficially but not fully controlled by the reigning government. The careerists scattered about the world in America’s intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices largely operate behind a veil of secrecy executing policy which is itself largely secret. American citizens mostly have no idea what they are doing, or whether what they are doing is working out well. The actually-existing structure and strategy of the American empire remains a near-total mystery to those who foot the bill and whose children fight its wars. And that is the way the elite of America’s unelected permanent state, perhaps the most powerful class of people on Earth, like it. [.  .  .]

If secrecy is necessary for national security and effective diplomacy, it is also inevitable that the prerogative of secrecy will be used to hide the misdeeds of the permanent state and its privileged agents. I suspect that there is no scheme of government oversight that will not eventually come under the indirect control of the generals, spies, and foreign-service officers it is meant to oversee.

Organisations such as WikiLeaks, which are philosophically opposed to state secrecy and which operate as much as is possible outside the global nation-state system, may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy. Some folks ask, "Who elected Julian Assange?" The answer is nobody did, which is, ironically, why WikiLeaks is able to improve the quality of our democracy.

Of course, those jealously protective of the privileges of unaccountable state power will tell us that people will die if we can read their email, but so what? Different people, maybe more people, will die if we can’t.

Reminds me of the debate that occurred as a result of similar disclosures over a generation ago.

The Real Threat of Security Theater

snltsaWriting in the NY Times over the holiday weekend, Roger Cohen lucidly identifies the true threat of the elaborate security theater that the Transportation Security Administration has foisted upon us in our nation’s airports:

I don’t doubt the patriotism of the Americans involved in keeping the country safe, nor do I discount the threat, but I am sure of this: The unfettered growth of the Department of Homeland Security and the T.S.A. represent a greater long-term threat to the prosperity, character and wellbeing of the United States than a few madmen in the valleys of Waziristan or the voids of Yemen.

America is a nation of openness, boldness and risk-taking. Close this nation, cow it, constrict it and you unravel its magic. [.  .  .]

.  .  . During the Bosnian war, besieged Sarajevans had a word – “inat” – for the contempt-cum-spite they showed barbarous gunners on the hills by dressing and carrying on as normal. Inat is what Americans should show the jihadist cave-dwellers.

So I give thanks this week for the Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

I give thanks for Benjamin Franklin’s words after the 1787 Constitutional Convention describing the results of its deliberations: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

To keep it, push back against enhanced patting, Chertoff’s naked-screening and the sinister drumbeat of fear.


Security theater run amok

AirportScan Security theater –  that is, the largely worthless waste of time that the federal government imposes on us in the security lines at our nation’s airports – has been a frequent topic on this blog. Arguably, no other current governmental action represents better just how out of control our government has become from the true desires of its citizens.

Given what appears initially to be some unsophisticated attempts at terrorist attacks on Thursday, we will likely in the coming days be regaled with the additional measures that the TSA will propose to impose on us as a result of this latest security threat.

Meanwhile, as this Jeffrey Goldberg/The Atlantic article notes, the federal government will continue to ignore the much more serious violations of civil liberties and basic human decency that already take place daily in our airports.

When will this madness end?

In this recent TEDxPSU talk, security expert Bruce Schneier provides an overview on how we should reconceptualize security so as to address the true security threats in an effective and reasonable manner. More constructive thought goes into this 18-minute lecture than what went into constructing the entire federal government elaborate security theater apparatus.

And you thought the TSA was bad?

intelligence agenciesThe silliness of the federal governmentís security theater policy has long been a common topic on this blog. But if you thought that the governmentís security theater jobs program is bad, check out this first installment of the Dana Priest-William Arkin/Washington Post series on the explosion in the hiring of government contractors and employees doing top-secret work for the governmentís intelligence agencies and programs:

After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.  .   .   . Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year ñ a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.  .  .  . Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.

The first Post installment goes to detail the utter failure of the matrix of government intelligence resources to generate the quantity or quality of intelligence that would justify the billions of dollars being spent on them, while telling the all-too-familiar tale of Congress failing to require any meaningful accountability from the intelligence agencies.

All of which prompts one to wonder. We already know what happens when Wall Street crashes.

But with the explosive growth in the intelligence and security theater bureaucracies, as well as the growth in government that is just beginning in regard to Obamacare and the 2,000-plus page Dodd-Frank financial regulation reform legislation — and not to overlook the bloated bureaucracy that already exists to enforce the federal governmentís absurdly-complex tax laws ñ what happens when out-of-control government growth crashes?

The Most Dangerous Man in America

From First Run Features (H/T Rhetorics and Heretics).

Gladwell on Operation Mincemeat and the vagaries of espionage

operation mincemeat Donít miss this clever Malcolm Gladwell/New Yorker review of ìBritish journalist Ben Macintyreís brilliant and almost absurdly entertaining Operation Mincemeat, the espionage caper that threw the Nazis off of the Allied invasion of Sicily:

On April 30, 1943, a fisherman came across a badly decomposed corpse floating in the water off the coast of Huelva, in southwestern Spain. The body was of an adult male dressed in a trenchcoat, a uniform, and boots, with a black attachÈ case chained to his waist. His wallet identified him as Major William Martin, of the Royal Marines. [.  .  .]

It did not take long for word of the downed officer to make its way to German intelligence agents in the region. Spain was a neutral country, but much of its military was pro-German, and the Nazis found an officer in the Spanish general staff who was willing to help. A thin metal rod was inserted into the envelope; the documents were then wound around it and slid out through a gap, without disturbing the envelopeís seals. What the officer discovered was astounding.

Major Martin was a courier, carrying a personal letter from Lieutenant General Archibald Nye, the vice-chief of the Imperial General Staff, in London, to General Harold Alexander, the senior British officer under Eisenhower in Tunisia. Nyeís letter spelled out what Allied intentions were in southern Europe. American and British forces planned to cross the Mediterranean from their positions in North Africa, and launch an attack on German-held Greece and Sardinia. Hitler transferred a Panzer division from France to the Peloponnese, in Greece, and the German military command sent an urgent message to the head of its forces in the region: ìThe measures to be taken in Sardinia and the Peloponnese have priority over any others.î

The Germans did not realizeóuntil it was too lateóthat ìWilliam Martinî was a fiction. The man they took to be a high-level courier was a mentally ill vagrant who had eaten rat poison; his body had been liberated from a London morgue and dressed up in officerís clothing. The letter was a fake, and the frantic messages between London and Madrid a carefully choreographed act. When a hundred and sixty thousand Allied troops invaded Sicily on July 10, 1943, it became clear that the Germans had fallen victim to one of the most remarkable deceptions in modern military history.

Gladwell goes on to summarize the tale of how the Nazis fell for the caper, but then ponders whether espionage is really worth the trouble:

In the case of Operation Mincemeat, Germanyís spies told their superiors that something false was actually true (even though, secretly, some of those spies might have known better), and Germany acted on it. In the case of Cicero, Germanyís spies told their superiors that something was true that may indeed have been true, though maybe wasnít, or maybe was true for a while and not true for a while, depending on whether you believe the word of someone two decades after the war was overóand in this case Germany didnít really act on it at all. Looking at that track record, you have to wonder if Germany would have been better off not having any spies at all.

And the money quote:

Translation: the proper function of spies is to remind those who rely on spies that the kinds of thing found out by spies can’t be trusted.

Read the entire review.