Swans Commentary » swans.com August 29, 2005  



"Terrorism" And "Security"


by Michael Doliner





(Swans - August 29, 2005)   It is a truth universally acknowledged: we must counter "terrorism," the scourge of the age, with "security," our savior and protector. "Security" -- that is, inspectors peaking into everything, expensive high tech machines sniffing for hidden deadly devices, police presence everywhere, huge military expenditures, a gulag or two fitted out with well-used torture chambers, and routine abrogation of civil rights, -- will, it is universally felt, protect us. But is this a realistic expectation? Leaving aside for the moment the obvious horrible effect "security" has on our lives and that it introduces into them the very misery we supposedly fought the cold war to avoid, does it even make any sense?

"Security" does sometimes work. The best public "security" is probably that of El Al, the Israeli national airline. No El Al plane has been hijacked since 1968. How do they do it? Isaac Yeffet, the former Global Security Director for El Al gave a number of talks and interviews in 2002 and 2003 when the United States was in the process of shaping its "security" response to 9/11. "Yeffet is fighting an uphill battle to convince anybody who will listen, especially members of Congress, that the billions of dollars being spent on information technologies to secure airports and borders is merely window dressing. Today, we have 55,000 security people at 424 airports around the country, but 22,000 of them are working without background checks. At JFK International Airport, 50 security screeners were found to have criminal backgrounds. This is our security?" (1) he asked. In another interview Yeffet gave his prescription for good security: "We need to hire qualified people and not unqualified and untrained people, undedicated people that are running the security in our country these days. We need to hire people that, at minimum, they graduated from high school; that they speak English, that they are US citizens, and we can train them a week in a classroom and another ten days on-the-job." (2) In yet another interview Yeffet indicated some of the difficulties with "security" operations, especially the American operation. 'But Yeffet says TSA [Transportation Security Administration] figures revealed that in 2002, US screeners failed to identify 70% of knives and 60% of false explosives put on the X-Ray belt by testers. "Routine is the enemy of good security," says Yeffet. "The day you think nothing will happen, something will." (3)

Yeffet clearly thinks that more important than technology is a staff of screeners that are alert and well trained. He emphasizes how important alert people are with two stories of inadvertent terrorists whom others used to carry on explosives. One of them was German, the other Irish, and neither knew he (or she) was being used. Their passports were legitimate, their manner open, but their stories were suspicious. Only clever human beings could have detected them.

It is tempting to think, with Yeffet, that with a better job will come real security. We need to hire better people. But can the United States duplicate El Al's system? El Al flies only 40 flights a day or roughly 1200/month and its security costs are $90 million/year. (4) According to the US Department of Transportation, American carriers flew 802,602 flights during May 2004. (5) Of course there were many other flights by non-American carriers into and out of the United States during that time. Since almost every airline in the world flies into the United States let us just say this added another 200,000 flights. Since the quality of the security system, according to Yeffet, primarily depends upon screeners checking and interrogating passengers, not much efficiency of scale can be expected. In short, an American system comparable to that of El Al would probably cost one thousand times as much, or $90 billion, compared to its present cost of about $6 billion. Admittedly this $90 billion figure is a rough guess, but it is hard to imagine it is totally off the mark. Also, El Al's system is so time consuming that it would be totally impossible to employ it and still maintain the current level of American air traffic.

But even if we wanted to create this monster, where would we get the qualified dedicated people? El Al places up to five undercover agents on each flight. We would need a new military service of former army officers to supply such a security force. The screeners' job is so huge that those in charge will be forced to cut costs by expanding the duties of these qualified dedicated people to the breaking point. The routine would be murderous. No one with a brain would be able to withstand it without falling into dull semi-consciousness. But, as Yeffet said, "routine is the enemy of good security." Given the magnitude of the job, the pressure to keep costs down, the difficulty of finding good people, how can routine possibly be avoided?

And suppose we could manage to put a jumbo sized El Al-like system into place. Would we then have "security?" Yeffet says that 'in both countries, undercover teams try to devise ways to slip through the security net" in order to test the system. These teams ape the terrorists who will look for a way to thwart any security system. Terrorists probe for weak points. Obviously, although El Al has been secure since 1968, Israel itself has not. Is a barn with two doors more secure if one of them is locked but the other left open? Unable to board El Al planes, "terrorist" suicide bombers have still found a way to repeatedly blow themselves up in Israel with horrible loss of life. To keep the terrorists out, Israel decided to build a "Security fence" which will cost an estimated $1 billion when finished. This is roughly 1.7% of the Israeli budget. Of course, there will be extensive additional costs to patrol and guard the fence. The fence will bristle with electronic gadgets, but as Yeffet points out, people provide real security, for other people learn to circumvent gadgets. The fence is over 700 km long and Israel must patrol it constantly. Recently, James P. Pinkerton, a Newsday columnist, proposed such walls on both the northern and southern borders of the United States. (6) He didn't guess at the cost.

Will this fence guarantee security for Israel? Clearly not. Guarding the fence will become a big job. If someone throws a rock that sets off one of the alarms, guards will have to respond in numbers. A large force will have to be at the ready all along the length of the fence. And if the Palestinians find one weak spot, the whole fence will be for naught. The fence will simply add a new expense to a defense budget that is already roughly 20% of the national budget and over 10% of GNP. But there are already "terrorists" inside, and anyway, if Israel has any contact with the world, there will be other ways to sneak in.

Brutal repression of the Palestinians in the name of "security" has inflamed the entire Middle East. Israel has fought three major wars with its neighbors, the last in 1973, and won them all. As a result, relations with neighboring states have been growing steadily worse, especially now with the failure of the "peace process." (When did peace first become a process, and why?) To protect itself (security) Israel has developed nuclear weapons, at least 200 of them, at an unknown cost. It has assassinated Palestinians, destroyed their cities, appropriated their land, and now built the fence. In spite of all this terrorists still blow up Israelis. "Security" is worse than ever.

But let us leave Israel. The real question here is the possibility of "security" in the face of "terrorism." When one avenue for terrorism is blocked, the terrorists look for, and find, another. The Transportation Security Administration, charged with protecting air traffic, is obviously overworked and cannot find enough qualified people. But it is only a small part of what would be needed for a real security system. People have mentioned the danger of a bomb hidden in a shipping container. About seven million shipping containers arrive in U.S. seaports each year. (7) The Customs Service physically inspects two percent of imported and one percent of exported cargo. (8) Obviously, we need to do better than that if we are to insure that not a single container carrying a bomb slips in. For that bomb could be nuclear and the consequences horrible.

"The Customs Service has announced two initiatives to improve container security, the Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism and the Container Security Initiative. Both of these initiatives focus on the goal of checking the security of cargo before its reaches the United States. The Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism establishes partnerships with importers, carriers, brokers, warehouse operators, and manufactures to improve security along the entire supply chain. The Customs Service, along with its partners, will look at where goods originate, the physical security and integrity of the foreign suppliers, the background of the personnel involved with the transaction, as well as the means by which goods are transported to the U.S." (9)

Do we think this will solve the problem? A moment's consideration will show us that it can't. We will have to depend upon inspectors in other countries. We can vet these inspectors all we wish, but they will always be open to bribery and blackmail. And what is to prevent a new recruit to the terrorist cause without suspicious background (a "clean skin") from applying for one of these jobs? We live in a capitalist system based upon the idea that monetary rewards guide choices best. How well paid will these guardians in poor countries be? Surely someone, somewhere can be paid more to let something slip by. "If a terrorist can influence the behavior of key personnel," the Harvard research team noted, "or insert himself into the system of cargo handlers anywhere along the chain as a loader, driver, shipper, warehouse guard, inspector, or one who prepares manifests, that key person ... becomes the weakest link." (10)

This process cannot go very far without choking off trade. Most of these containers must be delivered quickly to achieve their economic purpose. If they are delayed, shippers' cost of doing business will rise. Smuggling to avoid delays will inevitably begin to occur, and will occur more and more frequently as time passes without an incident, making the restrictions seem more and more superfluous. Those companies that can avoid the inspections will have a competitive advantage, forcing others to follow them. Even loyal patriots will be forced to avoid inspections. This is the free enterprise system, the American way.

But of course containers are only one of a multitude of vulnerabilities. What about water supplies? Could a well-placed bomb compromise California's complicated water system? Are bombs really necessary? Couldn't someone derail a train by loosening one section of track with a pry bar? What about nuclear power plants? What about our over 3000 universities? Seal off the borders? Timothy McVeigh's crime illustrates the possibility of homegrown terrorists wrecking havoc. McVeigh learned his trade in the military itself. How are we going to protect ourselves against the disgruntled? Are we going to clamp down on the entire population, watch everybody's every move? Who will watch the watchers?

What about the watchers, our vast intelligence gathering agencies? There is an Irish folk tale of a man who captures a leprechaun and forces him to reveal the location of his pot of gold under a tree. The man ties his handkerchief around the tree and makes the leprechaun promise not to touch it while he goes back to get a shovel. Of course, when he returns every tree has an identical handkerchief tied around it. The "Patriot Act," aside from being outrageously intrusive, is meant to streamline intelligence gathering. But, as we have seen from the examination of what happened before 9/11, our "intelligence" agencies already harvest so much chaff with the wheat of real intelligence that they cannot tell one from the other. Only after something does happen can they cook up a half-baked story from bits of intelligence mixed with lies and "chatter" while the real story, perhaps intentionally, gets swept out the door. The Patriot Act will only make this worse.

The impossibility of maintaining vigilance over a long period of time while nothing happens is another fundamental flaw in all such systems. No matter how energetic the new bank guard is, he will be sleepy and slow after an uneventful year on the job. The effect of routine is an impossible to calculate, but nevertheless inevitable human factor. Its existence frustrates all planners. The terrorists need only sit back and wait while the guards stay alert for trouble while overseeing cheerful daily life. Sooner or later routine will stupefy them and the terrorists can exploit their inattention. It is only because terrorists are repeatedly successful that El Al screeners can maintain their vigilance.

But enough of all this. It is not even necessary to consider the most recent "terrorist" attack in London. The pathetic charade of millions of policemen inspecting random backpacks and briefcases all for naught should reveal to anyone with an ounce of brains that to respond to "terrorism" with increased "security" is a chump's choice. The Department of Homeland Security now has a budget of $40.7 billion, and nobody really knows for sure if it has done anything. They have arrested many, but convicted none. They have tortured innocent people, and they have compromised the Constitution, all without any demonstrable increase in safety.

The twitch from "terrorism" to "security" is a reflex, natural but brainless, like those in dead bodies. "Security" is a mad response to "terrorism" and so damaging to everything we value that we should reject it out of hand in spite of its reflexive appeal. It is also incredibly expensive in a time of rapidly diminishing resources. Those who advocate more security as opposed to real attempts at peace are either complete idiots (a remote possibility), swept away by the pernicious emotion of "patriotism" (a likely possibility), or have a purpose other than national security (my vote). "Security" does provide an excuse for repression and gives windfall profits to the corporations who provide the gadgets and personnel. It also serves to rationalize unjust wars. Since "security," paradoxically, wastes the substance of the country, destroys the freedom of the citizens, poisons the culture, instigates war, and supplies profits to connected private interests, isn't it possible that those who advocate increased "security" intend these ends rather than the safety that "security" obviously never can supply? Our only hope is to recognize that "terrorism," when it is not actually a false flag operation, is "blowback," a response to our own foreign policy. "Those to whom evil is done do evil in return." Those who are treated unjustly become worse, and respond with injustice, in some cases, terrorism. The use of force to subjugate other countries will corrupt us, encourage "terrorism" and, in the end, fail. We have reached a point where people would rather die than live like slaves. All we can do is end our empire. Treat every terrorist act as criminal, and prosecute the perpetrators. "Security" can protect an airline or a ball field, but not a country. As of now we need an army to protect ourselves against armies of other nations, but not foreign bases to control foreign populations. We need a police force to repress crime, but not a secret police force for "security." Any rational response to terrorism that is actually meant to stop it cannot be in the form of "security." "Security" will destroy the country in order to save it. This should be obvious to anyone who wants to look.

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1.  Former El Al security chief Isaac Yeffet on border, airport security, Q&A by Dan Verton, Computerworld.  (back)

2.  SAFEGUARDING AIRPORTS, PBS NewsHour, July 5, 2005.  (back)

3.  El Al's Security Vs. the U.S. Approach, Business Week, August 25, 2003.  (back)

4.  Unfriendly skies are no match for El Al, by Vivienne Walt, USA Today, 10/01/2001.  (back)

5.  Domestic Airline Traffic Up 6.3 Percent in May 2004 From May 2003, U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.  (back)

6.  We could use a security wall like Israel's, by James P. Pinkerton, Newsday, July 14, 2005.  (back)

7.  HAWAII AND SHIPPING CONTAINER SECURITY, Senator Daniel Kahikina (Dem-Hawaii), July 31, 2003.  (back)

8.  Hearing on Port Security: Shipping Containers, The [House] Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation  (back)

9.  ibid.  (back)

10.  Shipping Container Security and the Weakest-Link Scenario, By James Hessman, Navy League of the United States, October 2003  (back)


Internal Resources

Patterns which Connect on Swans

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About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Published August 29, 2005