Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Depoliticizing Terrorism - Restoring Common Sense to Counterterrorism Practices

I hope you all enjoy my latest academic piece.  Executive summary:  Tell the truth about terrorism without hyping the threat, abandon the strategy of banning dangerous objects from boarding aircraft in favor of common sense profiling while protecting Constitutional rights and American principles.
Oh, and as an aside, I have had it up to here with Blogger’s archaic formatting interface!  I had to practically retype this whole thing just to get it to standardize itself.  What a completely worthless WYSIWYG system.  Time to start to learn HTML code.

Background and Introduction

On September 11, 2001 19 young Arab males with Islamic-sounding names, 15 of which were from Saudi Arabia, boarded four aircraft in three U.S. cities and changed our world forever.  The terrorist attacks drew the United States into a military conflict in Afghanistan (the results of which still lie in the balance), spurred another war in Iraq under specious circumstances, and unarguably changed the way we Americans travel forever.  By any method of accounting, the terrorists accomplished each and every one of their goals.  They inflicted not just tremendous physical damage upon property and human life, but also on our national psyche, and tragically, our way of life.
The obvious metrics of human loss and property loss is irrevocably on the terrorist side of the ledger, but the American national psyche and our way of life was voluntarily surrendered by opportunistic politicians in the days following by allowing our Federal Government to vastly expand its powers in the name of this War on Terrorism.  Common sense was sacrificed on the altar of political correctness to the false gods of ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity.’  These two words are in apostrophes because they are political buzzwords… and herein lies the problem.  This nation has allowed one of the few Constitutionally-mandated duties of the Federal Government … the defense of the nation … to fall prey to the ravenous, elitist beasts in elected office and their patrons swelling the halls of the massive new bureaucracies.
At least in their sober moments, virtually everyone acknowledges that this political game of “gotcha” using terrorism is insidious and not in the interests of the public; but we all do it.  Washington Post columnist David Ignatius in a 2004 article wrote on the threats to the financial center in New York.  That this game was played out by some cabinet members in the Bush administration and John Kerry’s campaign with this real threat information was simply shameful (Ignatius 2004).
The questions are:  How do we divorce politics from Counterterrorism?  How can we dispense of political correctness without abandoning Constitutional principles?  And if we are able to exercise common sense in counterterrorism, how can we prevent ourselves from political instinct and opportunism the moment something inevitably does go wrong?  In the words of Counterterrorism expert Michael Sheehan, how can we defeat the terrorists “without terrorizing ourselves” (Sheehan 2008)?
For brevity’s sake this essay will explore two problems with the system that is currently in place.  These two issues are the untruthful way terror threats are discussed, and the backwards, asinine way the Federal bureaucracy has implemented security measures governing commercial airline transportation.  This essay will further explore the feasibility of adopting certain airline security practices of a very successful model:  the nation of Israel.

Hyping and Downplaying the Terrorism Threat

As alluded to earlier, the threats upon the New York financial district in 2004 coincided with the 2004 Republican National Convention, not by happenstance taking place in New York, during an extremely bitter presidential campaign between incumbent George W. Bush, and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.  Bush’s campaign chose to hold the event in New York in part to highlight Bush’s record on national defense issues.  Holding the event there intentionally put terrorism in the forefront of the national debate with the hole in the ground in lower Manhattan still a prominent scar on the landscape.
The decision by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to make public the threat infuriated the members of the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force which included members of the FBI and the New York Police Department charged with following up on the threat information.  It also infuriated British and Pakistani intelligence services to leak such information on open investigations to the public (Sheehan 2008, 218).  Whether or not it was intentional, it cannot be denied that Bush received a significant bump in public support due to the revelation of this threat.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the American left routinely wants to pretend there is no terrorist threat from Islamic radicals.  Time and again, the left refuses to identify the perpetrators and planners of every terrorist plot that takes place.  If they do mention terrorism, they tend to couch it in its own, vague, ‘equal-opportunity’, politically correct form of terrorism, raising awareness of right-wing radicals, willing to commit violence in the name of an anti-government, anti-abortion, or racist agenda (Lake 2009).
On both sides of the political spectrum, terrorism is used as a political club.  Without regard to the merits of their arguments, the fact of the matter remains that the disclosure of on-going investigatory information as well as blatant denial of the fact of radical Islamic terrorism is detrimental to a sound, apolitical counterterrorism policy that will effectively provide for the national defense.
The truth is that terrorism is not an existential threat to this country.  In this author’s opinion, the costs of the actual attacks of 9/11, aside from the obvious human toll, pale in comparison to the self-inflicted knee-jerk reactionary effects in security policies and procedures enacted in the aftermath of those attacks.  The way the United States has changed how we travel in the air has deeply impacted our economic productivity more than we can imagine.
For example, in 2009 the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported a total of 703 million air travelers in the US (U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics 2011).  Of those 703, the U.S. Travel Association estimates 432 million of these trips were for business purposes (U.S. Travel Association 2010).  The U.S. Census reports that the median household income in 2009 was $49,777 (U.S. Census Bureau 2010).  If an average business person works a 40-hour week for an average of 50 weeks in a year (two weeks for vacation), this would put the mean hourly wage at $24.89.  All domestic carriers recommend one now check-in two hours prior to one’s departure time.  This is an increase in one hour from prior to the new security measures following the 9/11 attacks.  Using these rough figures, one can extrapolate that the additional hour of time to account for enhanced security procedures costs the U.S. economy a minimum of $10.75 billion in lost productivity from this country’s business travelers.  This is obviously only a minimum, but it attempts to put a dollar figure to the impact these security measures have imposed upon this country.

The Broken Airline Security System

In 2010, after the public outcry over border-line sexual molestation being done in the name of security, Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) John Pistole said to the Senate Homeland Security committee “’It is clear we have to be one step ahead of the terrorists’’’ (Jacoby 2010).  Boston Globe correspondent, Jeff Jacoby took issue with this statement and detailed how demonstratively false this declaration was.  He recalled how travelers were stripped of their “knives and sharp objects” in response to the 9/11 attacks, how vacationers now had to bare their smelly feet to screeners and fellow travelers in response to Richard Reid’s shoe-bombing attempt, how we learned the 3-1-1 rule and could no longer take home snow-globes from Munich in response to the liquid-bomb plot in 2006, how our young children now have to be fondled by TSA agents (hired with minimal background checks) or subjected to a virtually nude body scan with machines that smack of powerful lobby dollars and unsound health concerns in response to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to bring down a flight with a bomb sewn into his underwear, and how we are no longer able to transport toner cartridges on aircraft immediately after a plot to blow up cargo planes with said toner cartridge bombs was uncovered (Jacoby 2010).  If anything is clear, the TSA has always been one step behind the terrorists.
If one follows this practice to its logical conclusion, eventually fit and muscular people, as well as those with any kind of unarmed combat skills will eventually be banned altogether from air travel due to the risk of their physically taking over the flight controls.  The current standard is an asinine practice that is an unnecessary drain upon the American taxpayer, and an affront to the traveling public.  The banning of dangerous objects aboard aircraft does not, cannot, and will not stop terrorists from succeeding in their schemes.  Reactive screening measures that take into account the last known method will not successfully avert an attack as Reid, Abdulmutallab, and the toner-cartridge plotters proved.  These methods may temporarily deter an attack, however, they should not be a substitution for a common sense approach.
What is the reason for this patently absurd system?  The 800-pound gorilla in the room that nobody wishes to acknowledge is of course, the fact that virtually every terror incident aboard aircraft in the past thirty years has involved terrorists operating in the name of a radical version of Islam (or radical pan-Arab nationalists in Palestinians and Libyans).  The reason why the TSA practices these ineffective and inefficient measures is entirely political in nature.  The political bureaucrats in the Department of Homeland Security, as well as President Obama, and as well as nearly every member of Congress do not wish to offend organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other Muslim special interest lobbies.
There is no Constitutional prohibition on employing common-sense approaches to deter criminal activity.  In fact, Supreme Court rulings have allowed common sense to be allowable in executing searches in lieu of official warrants.  In the 1968 decision in Terry v Ohio, even the very liberal Chief Justice Earl Warren in the majority opinion penned, “the officer need not be absolutely certain that the individual is armed; the issue is whether a reasonably prudent man, in the circumstances, would be warranted in the belief that his safety or that of others was in danger” (Warren 1968).  This ruling which has been withheld through present day established the fact that “reasonably prudent” individuals, acting in the name of the government, have the authority to perform searches of individuals for reasons of probability or suspicion.  It is not a far stretch of the laws of probability to claim that 19-35 year old Muslim males with passports from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and others, as well as visa stamps from unfriendly nations are, demographically, more likely to conduct an act of terrorism than 80 year-old Ethel from Canton, traveling to see her grandson get married in San Diego.
In order for the TSA to be effective, politics must be removed from the equation.  Apologists for the current system will argue the ‘equal protection’ clause supports the arbitrary application of search and seizure as is practiced today, yet this author contends that the equal protection clause applies only to unequal applications of the law for persons in the same circumstances.  Its original intent was to protect blacks from state-sanctioned systematic racism within the criminal legal system, not with making sane security practices.
Perhaps an even simpler way of framing this issue is a simple score-card.  At last check the travelling citizen leads 2-0 over formalized security practices in stopping terrorist attacks (Reid and Abdulmutallab, and not counting United 93).  If it were not for the heroics of several citizen passengers, who were probably treated with the same level of contemptible suspicion as their would-be suicide bomber fellow travelers, there would have been two more successful terrorist attacks.  Additionally, this author is unaware of any documented case of the TSA uncovering a terrorist plot through these invasive screening practices.  The traveling public needs to be treated like the heroes they are, vice the terrorists they most likely are not.
In 2005, counterterrorism policy author Leonard Cole was asked to join a delegation to visit Israeli counterparts to discuss counterterrorism policies and practices and observe the Israeli methods.  In a moment of delicious irony, Dr. Pete Estacio, a Department of Homeland Security expert who had earlier toed the politically correct line that Americans “largely accept” the current security practices at U.S. airports, was pulled aside for secondary screening due to the visa stamps from “countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe” (Cole 2007, 114).  As the inspector hustled off to find her supervisor after questioning him regarding his unusual computer, “he seemed bemused.  ‘This is silly,’ he whispered as we waited for the inspectors to return” (Cole 2007, 116).  What Dr. Estacio fails to notice is the vast majority of travelers now subjected to the current practices think their treatment is beyond “silly.”
“Other Israelis wondered why passengers at American airports were checked randomly, while passengers who fit the profile of most terrorists go unchecked.
The American visitors listened with respect, though they were largely unfazed by such questions.  Major John Hunt of the New Jersey State Police, who was deputy director of the New Jersey office of emergency management, was asked about profiling by a reporter.  He responded that Americans had come to believe that singling out a person based on race or ethnicity violated his constitutional rights.  But he acknowledged that the inability to profile ‘makes our job more challenging’” (Cole 2007, 114).

Challenges and Considerations

There are of course several issues that must be dealt with.  As military planners comment, plans are only good until first contact with the enemy.  Many say that Israel’s airline security model should be transposed upon the U.S. problem set.  However, there are some endemic and stark differences that must be mitigated.  Whereas Israel is very small, with a small number of airports, and a far lesser amount of travelers (not to mention the issue of travelers simply transiting through the U.S.) than America, the U.S. has the highest amount of air travelers in the world.  Additionally, Israel is a small country with a very powerful federal government whose security practices are uniform throughout the country, whereas the U.S. has many varying practices state by state (Cole 2007, 199).
The first issue is in the political and historical realities.  Israel approaches the problem of terrorism that is in keeping with its unique position in the world.  Israel is a nation whose founding was in response to a genocidal, racial threat:  the extermination of the Jewish people.  Israel is a nation whose very existence is threatened by racial hatred and has a necessarily very different outlook on the issue of terrorism.  Unlike the U.S. Israel does face an existential threat in terrorism.  While Americans look at the potential criminal on an individual basis, and have individual rights and liberties as the foundational precept of their society, Israel, by necessity has grouped individuals together as part of a counter-terrorism “risk-management” process.  Groups deemed to be potentially more dangerous than others are subjected to more discriminatory arrest/detention processes and security measures than Israeli citizenry (Ajzenstadt, Mimi and Ariel, Barak 2008).  Clearly this model is not in accordance with the American reality and, though academically compelling and instructive, could not be used on U.S. citizens (though the same could not be said about border security and immigration procedures).
                A second challenge that possibly makes the Israeli model non-compatible within the American air-travel enterprise is the sheer volume.  As previously stated, the U.S. had over 700 million air travelers domestically in 2009.  In contrast, Israel had 10.5 million (Blumenkrantz 2011).  It can be argued that this disparity would indicate Israeli security practices to be impossible to adopt in America.  A counterpoint to this is that the Israeli model is a far more efficient method of screening.  Filtering passports, travel patterns, personal interviews, and individual common sense (read gut instincts) make it a far more efficient and likely effective method than screening every item carried onto and transported within every commercial aircraft.  The only difficulty to overcome is the needed education and experience of the security personnel that would have to be provided by the government, airline industry, or private firms.  This, however, would be able to be overcome by a gradual implementation process, wherein the new security practices (common sense screening of individuals) would be phased-in in accordance with the availability of appropriately trained security personnel.
A third issue that must be addressed is one of funding.  Today’s fiscal realities necessitate that spending would be an issue.  Adopting a common sense program would have to pass a funding smell test, though this author is convinced the more difficult obstacle would be the political one that profiling raises.  On the surface, using common sense profiling triggering targeted searches could actually lead to saving money in lowering the number of searches and screenings conducted.  Targeting individual demographics could significantly decrease the number of screeners needed to conduct such a program.
The last challenge would be that of political will and confronting the security lobby in Congress.  Former DHS secretary Michael Chertoff was hired to lobby Congress for one of the makers of the infamous back-scatter x-ray machines being purchased for airports by the TSA (Schouten 2010).  Scanner manufacturers Rapiscan and L-3 Technologies have spent over $4.5 million combined in their lobbying efforts on Congress (Schouten 2010).  Obviously, this significant lobby would fight a significant change in security practices.


In light of the challenges of the two issues presented, this author proposes the following recommendations that would go to great lengths in depoliticizing the counterterrorism policy and practices business:
1.  Adopt a common sense view on terrorism.
2.  Adopt a modified Israeli model of transportation security.
3.  Focus on the training of screeners.
4.  Rethink the Transportation Security Administration

Adopt a Common Sense View on Terrorism

A common sense view of terrorism means to simply tell the truth about it.  Terrorism is a problem most experts say cannot be eliminated, but it can be managed (Ajzenstadt, Mimi and Ariel, Barak 2008, 358).  There is no easy way to do this, as politicians will always employ hyperbole in scoring cheap political points against opponents, but there are two ways to start.  The first is to have our citizens more engaged with their representatives.  A better, more open dialogue between the politicians and their bosses will greatly enhance the mutual education in affairs such as these.  The more educated and engaged the people, the more apt they will be to cry foul in response to an ad hominum attack based upon hype vice merit.  Of course this is dependent upon the representatives to invite such dialogue, as well as the populace to pay attention.
A second way to increase the truth level in terrorism policy is to encourage the counterterrorism and intelligence professionals to be honest and open in their opinions.  Far too often the arm-chair generals who have traded their stars in for television consulting deals are the only ones offering frank opinions.  This only encourages sensationalism and panders solely to the targeted political demographic.  Allowing professional senior intelligence analysts the opportunity to sagely, and safely, dispense opinion founded upon solid facts (without disclosing them) would allow for a more realistic view to be spread throughout the citizenry.
Furthermore, common sense politicians with backgrounds in these affairs can also be helpful in dealing with this sensationalism and ignorance.  If and when a tragedy does occur, these cooler heads should be called upon to deliver un-emotional commentary that would serve the country’s greater interest.  Sheehan has some sage advice borrowed from the Israeli and British models on how to react to these attacks:  “Clean up the attack area quickly, mourn [the] dead appropriately and without excessive fanfare, care for the injured, and get back to normal life” (Sheehan 2008, 3).  Opportunist politicians must deny themselves the opportunity to use attacks as fodder for cheap political points.  To let the national focus dwell on attacks only encourages other attacks, and concedes to the terrorists’ own demands for attention and societal changes.
The then-delegate to the UN from Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, expands on the subject of truth-telling regarding terrorism in his compilation on defeating terrorism.  He claims the terrorists win when the people (and by extension, opportunistic politicians) question the capabilities of the government to protect its citizens and maintain law and order.  Addressing the proper response to terror incidents, he says “the necessary response is twofold:  the conscious refusal to be intimidated and the willingness to fight back” (Netanyahu 1986, 201).
“The root cause of terrorism lies not in grievances but in a disposition toward unbridled violence.  This can be traced to a world view which asserts that certain ideological and religious goals justify, indeed demand, the shedding of all moral inhibitions” (Netanyahu 1986, 204).
“As if military strikes aimed at the terrorists and terrorist attacks on civilians belong on the same moral plane.  They do not.  Safeguarding that distinction is central to prosecuting and winning the war against terrorism.  For the terrorist’s ultimate victory is to control our thinking and to assign the term “terrorists” to those of his victims who fight back” (Netanyahu 1986, 204).

Adopt a Modified Israeli Model of Transportation Security

The second recommendation is to adopt a modified version of the Israeli model of transportation security.  Rather than reproducing their significant, expansive physical security measures (stand-off distances, excessively multiple-security checkpoints outside the terminals, that would be too cost ineffective for the current threat), concentrating on keeping terrorists off aircraft through a combination of demographic, behavioral, and pattern profiling followed by targeted interviews would be a welcome change to the current regimen.  Trying to stop dangerous object from boarding aircraft is counter-intuitive, inefficient, and the way it is being implemented by today’s TSA is arguably violating traveler’s Fourth Amendment rights to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.
As profiling is an integral part of this strategy, the necessary profile criteria would have to be framed.  This would depend on the work, collaboration, and cooperation of intelligence and counterterrorism analysts, security experts, constitutional lawyers, airline industry executives, chambers of commerce, and travelers associations.  This step would of course be very controversial, delicate, and necessarily confidential.  A delicate balance would have to be struck that would protect screeners from inevitable recriminations from racial-group advocates, and that would protect particular racial groups from baseless systematic profiling.  Criteria that would have to be evaluated include country of origin, race, age, gender, travel habits as exhibited on passport, indications of deception and document fraud, and general behavior.  If criteria such as this were used, it is likely the 9/11 hijackers would have been stopped, and further likely that Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab would have been stopped prior to their attempts.

Focus on Training the Security Screeners

                If this country were to adopt a modified Israeli model, there would be a great need for competent, experienced security trainers.  They would likely be drawn from police forces, military human-intelligence personnel, and private-sector investigatory services.  This would of course cause a significant initial expense to develop and provide the adequate training programs, yet it would not necessarily be a permanent expense once the desired quota of trained screeners was met.
There would also need to be tort reform that would protect the security screeners in the same method that U.S. servicemen and other government employees are protected from litigation in the event something were to fail.  Since there is no absolute guarantee of failure, the system must be built so as to shield individuals from personal liability lawsuits pursuant to their screening duties.

Rethink the Transportation Security Administration

The last recommendation is, if not a complete abolition, the TSA must be reformed and rethought.  In late 2010, and in direct violation of the legislation authorizing the formation of the TSA, the Federal Labor Relations Authority granted the TSA the right to vote on labor organization (Davidson 2010).  The influx of the politics inherent in organized labor in the government sector is unwelcome to begin with, but to go against the wishes of the founding congressional legislation, which inevitably leads to the elimination of individual accountability and responsibility among those charged with the security of the airline industry, is dangerous and fool-hardy.  This author will not present a personal opinion; however, there is a serious need for a national discussion as to the fundamentals of our security apparatus.  There are many proponents for a complete privatization of the security business putting the responsibility in the hands of the airports themselves (under the auspices of federal authorities and standards), or once again, to the airlines.  There are also many who believe the TSA simply needs a serious reformation, vice abolishment.


“[The West believes] in the capacity of politics to mitigate, and resolve, all conflict.  We automatically tend to endow an adversary with the same assumptions.  These could not be more misplaced than in the case of terrorists, who use political language to destroy the concept of politics altogether.  And even when we catch a glimpse of this truth, we fail to grasp its essence.  For the West is in awe of fanaticism.  It is confused before a putative willingness to die for a cause, believing that such readiness must be based on a cause that is at least partially just” (Netanyahu 1986, 224).
Politicizing counterterrorism is demonstratively foolish.  In the name of ‘equal opportunity’ and to score cheap political points, the U.S. has not only further endangered its citizens, the foundational purpose of governments to begin with, but it has also fundamentally changed the way we live – forever terrorized by terrorists and our own overreaching federal government.  Netanyahu closes his book with recommendations of his own.  He calls on political leaders to have the courage to tell the truth about terrorism, and he calls upon the citizens to adopt a “civic valor” akin to “soldiers in a common battle” (Netanyahu 1986, 225, 226).  This kind of advice was timely when written in 1986.  It is even timelier today.


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