Is Homeland Security a Quixotic Quest?

By Matthew Harwood

Today prominent security theorist and blogger Bruce Schneier highlights an interesting paper in which Ohio State University's John Mueller argues that America's effort to thwart domestic terror attacks is a futile "waste of resources" that could be better spent elsewhere.

Mueller starts with five premises: terrorists have an infinite number of targets; the chance any one target will get hit is essentially zero; investing in protection for one target leads to other targets left unprotected; targets damaged by a terrorist attack can usually be rebuilt; and lastly, the only way to make any target immune to attack is to close it down.

The premises, Mueller argues, lead to four policy implications. First, policymakers must consider what's a more efficient use of resources: investing in security for a particular target or simply rebuilding the target and compensating the victims if terrorists do attack it. Cost-benefit analysis, he argues, will normally tend toward the latter policy option.

Second, Mueller calls on the Department of Homeland Security to cease compiling terrorist target lists, which he says has risen to the level of parody and have bloated pork-barrel spending within Congress. Because terrorists could concievably attack anything anywhere, "those seeking funds can easily imagine themselves on the list in a determined pursuit of shares of the largesse." Mueller says this is typified by the constant struggle between rural and metropolitan interests in Congress over homeland security funding.

Third, policymakers must consider the negative consequences of so much spending on protection measures, such as increased fear and anxiety and erosion of civil liberties. Mueller cites a study that found Israelis who feared terrorism had a higher level of an enzyme thought to cause heart disease than those who didn't.

Finally, he argues policymakers must take into account where the money and effort invested in protection measures might have otherwise gone. "Any analysis that leaves out such considerations is profoundly faulty, even immoral."

One economic study, according to Mueller, estimates that homeland security expenditures since 9-11 equate to one life saved for every $64 to $600 million spent. The recognized regulatory safety goal is one life saved for every $1 to $10 million spent. Mueller argues that wasted money could have been spent on more effective risk mitigation programs, such as investing in smoke alarms.

The only time the federal government should invest in protective measures is when it can protect an entire class of potential targets and when "the destruction of something in that target set would have quite large physical, economic, psychological, and/or political consequences," he argues in his paper.

Potential target classes include nuclear plants and material; chemical plants and material; key infrastructure nodes, such as the electrical grid; major ports; symbolic targets, such as the White House or the Statute of Liberty; and finally, commercial passenger airliners. He says most of these target classes pass a cost-benefit analysis because finding and protecting their vulnerabilities from terrorists also protects them against more likely natural hazards.

Overall, Muellers calls the pursuit to make the country invulnerable to terrorist attack "quixotic."

"Although there may be some areas in which the effort makes sense, most of it, on reasonably close examination, seems to have been a spectacular waste," he said. "At the very least, it is surely time to subject these expenditures to systematic analysis."



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