Shifting Focus on Homeland Security

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Okay, let’s say you throw a party and about a hundred people show up.  Later on you find a loaded gun sitting on the dining room table in the middle of your party.  Obviously this is not safe.  What do you do?  Do you go around and question everybody about their intentions regarding the gun?  Are they likely to shoot somebody?  Do you bar your door to prevent anybody else from entering until you’ve had time to question them?

Of course you wouldn’t do any of these. They make no sense.  But these are precisely the course of actions pursued by our government when it comes to homeland security.  Homeland security is about safeguarding the United States from domestic catastrophic destruction.  Catastrophic destruction comes in two forms: natural and manmade.

Fortunately, natural disasters exhibit a predictability that accommodates foresight to take mitigating actions to lessen their impact.  Thus we don’t build in flood plains, but do strengthen structures in seismic zones, and move inland when hurricanes approach.

Unfortunately, manmade disasters are essentially random and don’t afford similar foresight.  The 3,000 people killed on 9/11 had no warning to take evasive action. The prospect of similar devastation without warning shattered the nation’s sense of safety and drove an unprecedented effort to seek out all who might do us harm.

Accordingly, the National Security Agency was enlisted to conduct surveillance of domestic communications, and the newly minted Department of Homeland Security was tasked with tightening control of our borders.  Such efforts, though, were doomed to futility because of the sheer numbers involved: about 205 billion e-mails are sent each day, and about 100 million people visit the United States each year; it was like searching for a needle in a haystack.

After ten years the NSA admitted its domestic surveillance program uncovered no plots, and DHS estimates about 350,000 visitors remain illegally each year.  In addition to volume, the other problem with this approach is trying to discern intention without action.  In America, you can’t be convicted for your thoughts, and criminal conspiracy is hard to prove.  But as we all know from watching television, there are three elements to any crime: means, motive, and opportunity.

The means for committing manmade catastrophe are relatively few compared to screening e-mails and people for motive.  The two primary means of inflicting manmade catastrophe are by employing a weapon of mass destruction or subverting critical infrastructure.  9/11 subverted the transportation infrastructure turning passenger jets into guided missiles.  It is not possible, though, to keep these means beyond the reach of hostile agents; in 1995, members of a quasi-religious cult in Japan concocted liquid sarin and released it in the Tokyo subway killing 12 people, though experts believe thousands more could have died.

So, returning to our analogy, what do you do if you can’t remove the gun from the room?  The answer is you remove the bullets; you eliminate the opportunity for doing harm.  Despite its employment in Japan, WMD is not easy or cheap, and for the most part is kept sequestered under tight lock and key.  On the other hand, critical infrastructure such as transportation is purposely designed to be publicly accessible.  The unique challenge of facilitating access while keeping it safe entails a two-prong approach.  First, there is the need for increased physical security such as the DHS Transportation Security Administration that was put in place following 9/11; it would be equivalent to having a bouncer at your party.  Second, there is a need for increased cybersecurity.  Much of our infrastructure is vulnerable to cyber attack.

Cybersecurity is not simple, but it is manageable.  The primary advantage of switching the homeland security focus from motive to opportunity is that you transform a social problem into a technical one; you are no longer trying to discern evil, only denying it a chance to act.  By comparison, social change is hard, technical change is easy.  While this may not be reason to party, it is certainly reason to hope.

Read in print issue 2016-09

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