Stephen M. Walt

Getting comfortable with imperfect security

After reading several post-mortems on the abortive attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 the other day, there’s little doubt that the security procedures failed badly. Here’s the kicker, courtesy of the New York Times: The family of the suspect arrested in the Dec. 25 incident, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, said on Monday that they had ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
575082_091228_airportsecurityresized2.jpg

After reading several post-mortems on the abortive attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 the other day, there’s little doubt that the security procedures failed badly. Here’s the kicker, courtesy of the New York Times:

The family of the suspect arrested in the Dec. 25 incident, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, said on Monday that they had been trying to locate him for weeks, had sought help from Nigerian and American officials and would cooperate with an investigation. His father, a prominent Nigerian banker and former government official, phoned the American Embassy in Abuja in October with a warning that his son had developed radical views, had disappeared and might have traveled to Yemen. But embassy officials did not revoke the young man’s visa to enter the United States, which was good until June 2010.

Instead, officials said on Sunday, they marked the file of the son, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for a full investigation should he ever reapply for a visa. And when they passed the information on to Washington, Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name was added to 550,000 others with some alleged terrorist connections — but not to the no-fly list. That meant no flags were raised when he used cash to buy a ticket to the United States and boarded a plane, checking no bags.

Other commentators have already pointed out some of the reasons for the failure (among other things, our “watch lists” are bloated with lots of people who got placed on them on dubious grounds), but the predictable outrage at this obvious failure needs to be tempered with a bit of, well, realism.

The cruel reality is that no combination of security measures and counter-terrorist action can drive the risk of terrorist attacks-including attacks on airliners-down to zero. All of these protective measures involve considerable expense and divert resources away from other initiatives that could also save lives or make people safer. We should of course take reasonable precautions — like secure locks on cockpit doors so that planes cannot be commandeered and transformed into weapons as they were on 9/11 — and continue to work on refining security procedures. Varying routines and holding officials accountable (now there’s a novel concept!) makes sense too.

But we also need to recognize that we can never achieve perfect security, and that means terrorist attacks will sometimes succeed. (Airline travel is a lot safer than it was fifty years ago, but airplanes sometimes crash for other reasons and we can’t make that impossible either). There are enough angry people out there; destructive technology is too plentiful, and all security procedures are fallible, especially in the face of adversaries who can calculate and plan and look for chinks in the armor. This danger — which is often overstated but will not disappear completely — is simply part of the price of doing business in the contemporary world.  And we are kidding ourselves if we think otherwise.

Moreover, at some point the cost of additional security precautions simply isn’t worth it in terms of the additional safety gained, especially if it means neglecting other steps that could improve human well-being. Our aim should be to prevent the worst sorts of attacks — and especially those involving weapons of mass destruction — while admitting to ourselves that perfect security is impossible. The good news — and it really is good — is that the probability that any of us will be harmed in a terrorist incident is far lower than the odds we will die in a car accident or a bathroom mishap.

Nonetheless, as economist Kip Viscusi argues in a recent article, the public appears to place a greater premium on preventing deaths by terrorism than some other possible dangers (such as natural disasters). So let’s by all means learn from this latest incident and try to do better.  But I hope that grandstanding politicians quickly move on to something else, and that we don’t impose another costly and time-consuming layer of security procedures in a fruitless attempt to achieve complete invulnerability.

THOMAS LOHNES/AFP/Getty Images

 

After reading several post-mortems on the abortive attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 the other day, there’s little doubt that the security procedures failed badly. Here’s the kicker, courtesy of the New York Times:

The family of the suspect arrested in the Dec. 25 incident, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, said on Monday that they had been trying to locate him for weeks, had sought help from Nigerian and American officials and would cooperate with an investigation. His father, a prominent Nigerian banker and former government official, phoned the American Embassy in Abuja in October with a warning that his son had developed radical views, had disappeared and might have traveled to Yemen. But embassy officials did not revoke the young man’s visa to enter the United States, which was good until June 2010.

Instead, officials said on Sunday, they marked the file of the son, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for a full investigation should he ever reapply for a visa. And when they passed the information on to Washington, Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name was added to 550,000 others with some alleged terrorist connections — but not to the no-fly list. That meant no flags were raised when he used cash to buy a ticket to the United States and boarded a plane, checking no bags.

Other commentators have already pointed out some of the reasons for the failure (among other things, our “watch lists” are bloated with lots of people who got placed on them on dubious grounds), but the predictable outrage at this obvious failure needs to be tempered with a bit of, well, realism.

The cruel reality is that no combination of security measures and counter-terrorist action can drive the risk of terrorist attacks-including attacks on airliners-down to zero. All of these protective measures involve considerable expense and divert resources away from other initiatives that could also save lives or make people safer. We should of course take reasonable precautions — like secure locks on cockpit doors so that planes cannot be commandeered and transformed into weapons as they were on 9/11 — and continue to work on refining security procedures. Varying routines and holding officials accountable (now there’s a novel concept!) makes sense too.

But we also need to recognize that we can never achieve perfect security, and that means terrorist attacks will sometimes succeed. (Airline travel is a lot safer than it was fifty years ago, but airplanes sometimes crash for other reasons and we can’t make that impossible either). There are enough angry people out there; destructive technology is too plentiful, and all security procedures are fallible, especially in the face of adversaries who can calculate and plan and look for chinks in the armor. This danger — which is often overstated but will not disappear completely — is simply part of the price of doing business in the contemporary world.  And we are kidding ourselves if we think otherwise.

Moreover, at some point the cost of additional security precautions simply isn’t worth it in terms of the additional safety gained, especially if it means neglecting other steps that could improve human well-being. Our aim should be to prevent the worst sorts of attacks — and especially those involving weapons of mass destruction — while admitting to ourselves that perfect security is impossible. The good news — and it really is good — is that the probability that any of us will be harmed in a terrorist incident is far lower than the odds we will die in a car accident or a bathroom mishap.

Nonetheless, as economist Kip Viscusi argues in a recent article, the public appears to place a greater premium on preventing deaths by terrorism than some other possible dangers (such as natural disasters). So let’s by all means learn from this latest incident and try to do better.  But I hope that grandstanding politicians quickly move on to something else, and that we don’t impose another costly and time-consuming layer of security procedures in a fruitless attempt to achieve complete invulnerability.

THOMAS LOHNES/AFP/Getty Images

 

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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