Is the country more secure because of President’s Bush’s policies? Although no one knows the answer to this question, trying to answer it, as I do here, is valuable if only because security is important to us.
My answer is "No." The Iraq War has recruited more jihadists who are set against the U.S. If its cost of $10,000 for each household in the U.S. had been spent by those households, greater security could have been achieved at home. The President’s anti-civil rights laws and his approval of torture have made each of us less secure.
But those ideas are only the beginning of the story. A recent Bloomberg article reports: "There is one bright spot for the president: Half of all Americans still believe his policies on terrorism and national security have made the country more secure over the past six years, compared to 26 percent who say they’ve made the country less secure."
Is the country more secure now than six years ago because of the policies of the president? Since I side with the 26 percent who say it is not, I think millions of people have misjudged the issue. Why? This is another unanswerable question worth exploring.
I will not adopt the response that Americans are sheep, dumb, stupid, irrational, apathetic, uneducated, miseducated, etc. Even if Americans possess normal intelligence and rationality, most people who answer poll questions are rationally ignorant. They are not educated on various questions because it does not pay them to educate themselves on these issues. In that situation, we might expect half the people to say "Yes" and half the people to say "No." Since only 26 percent say "No," there are some factors encouraging people to believe that the country is safer. What might these factors be? Why might people exhibit a favorable bias toward President Bush’s security policies? Public education with a statist bias is one such reason. What else?
The big threat
For one thing, the government says the country is safer, the media report what the government says, and people read and believe the media reports. It doesn’t pay them to dig deeper. Majority public opinion coincides with press reports such as the mid-2005 Washington Post story that the "U.S. Sees Drop in Terrorist Threats." The source of the information is the government officials who keep lists of threats. It is a fact that the threat numbers have declined. The decline does not mean that the U.S. is more secure. Threats also declined prior to 9/11. What the public misses is often auxiliary facts and the interpretation of the facts. And this goes back to a public education that does not educate in how to think.
Furthermore, what matters regarding safety are the potential big threats. The press reports look backwards, not forwards. Maybe the President’s oft-repeated message that the U.S. has gone five years without a major terrorist incident persuades the public that the U.S. is now more secure. We always have a tendency to extrapolate the present into the future, and President Bush’s statements have reinforced that tendency. It is true that the other shoe has not yet dropped. Should this convince the public that it won’t ever drop?
In early 2006, bin Laden warned the U.S. "The operations are under way, and you will see them inside your own home as soon as they are finished, God willing." He was speaking of a large terror event. The terrorist leaders of al-Qaeda are interested in high-profile and high-payoff destruction that they believe will have major psychological impact. They promise an event worse than 9/11. They can afford to wait and plan.
Most Americans ignore bin Laden’s messages, thinking him some kind of nut or fanatic. Perhaps Americans are discouraged from listening carefully to the enemy’s messages. Perhaps they find it emotionally unsatisfying or intellectually annoying to have to come to grips with anti-American views such as his. It is easier to avoid paying attention. Even those who hear his messages can rationally downplay his threats. We know that his political agenda includes rallying his forces and we know that a good many particular threats have proven empty. On the other hand, bin Laden needs to deliver upon his threats to maintain his credibility. Lacking the powers of a state, bin Laden’s credibility is a major source of his ability to recruit and sway minds. For this reason and others, we should not ignore bin Laden’s threats and messages. We should not infer that a few days of good weather mean that no more thunderstorms will occur.
U.S. officials give us assurances of security during election years and advertise threats the rest of the time. In the last election, Republicans strongly emphasized that they had done a top-notch job on security. This worked. The Republicans consistently maintained an edge over Democrats on this issue. But they had every reason to exaggerate their claims so as to be re-elected. Now that the election has passed, they will return to advertising terror threats. This helps them retain and augment their power.
Do many millions of Americans believe what their government officials say? Do they believe even now, even after decades of growing cynicism about the veracity of government officials? I’m afraid so. This is not only a matter of miseducation. The typical memory fades after about 5 years. Advertisers know this. It explains why they must keep having new ad campaigns for established products. Memories of ads (and other matters) are like capital goods that depreciate over time. Politicians rely upon this. They rely upon fading memories, usually memories of distant and confused political events that were not all that central to our lives in the first place. And the politicians rely upon their own current rhetoric to shape our thoughts. They supply fresh interpretations that block out failing memories.
Politicians also count on our general trust, our vague attitude that we fit into the society around us of which the state seems to be a permanent part. A person needs a good deal of thought and experience to shift the attitude of general trust into one of general distrust. The dots have to be connected, and one must reject the status quo. One must make what seem to be anti-social judgments since the politicians constantly claim that they are acting in the public interest. One must replace the rejected system with some other ideas. All of this is quite costly to the individual.
We should not automatically grant trust. We rationally place more trust in the words of those who have something to lose by not being truthful. This criterion excludes politicians. Politicians are more dishonest than ever before because they have arranged the political voting system so as to make their seats more secure than ever. They have little to lose by bending the truth, and it is easy for them to do it. All they need is a statistic to rely upon. They then can mis-interpret reality and get away with it.
Are we safer? It’s government officials that are telling us we’re safer. Why trust them? They also told us that Iraq was a terror haven and that we had a right to attack it. Were they truthful? Did they reduce terror there or did they enhance terror? The Baker-Hamilton report says that al-Qaeda has now become a self-sustaining movement within Iraq, a movement now able to recruit and fund itself from Iraqis. Was this the case before the U.S. attacked? Not at all.
Didn’t our leaders also tell us 90 years ago that we’d fight a "war to end all wars?" Didn’t they tell us then that we’d make the world safe for democracy? Didn’t they promise 60 years ago that the United Nations would be the vehicle for world peace? And 40 years ago, didn’t they promise to eradicate poverty?
Didn’t President Bush promise to cut pork-barrel spending, reduce the Federal debt, balance the budget, and lock away the Social Security surplus? Hasn’t he done the opposite?
Didn’t President Bush promise 6 years ago not to engage the military in nation-building, saying "I’m worried about an opponent who uses nation building and the military in the same sentence. See, our view of the military is for our military to be properly prepared to fight and win war and, therefore, prevent war from happening in the first place." Isn’t the U.S. now enmeshed in nation-building in Iraq, and hasn’t nation-building become the centerpiece of President Bush’s policies?
Do laws enhance security?
Perhaps public opinion is responding to all the headline-grabbing anti-terrorist legislation. In the minds of some, Congress has waved a magic wand: It has drafted laws, and the laws have made us safe. Example: The Congress passed laws concerning containers shipped from overseas that might be used to sneak in destructive materials and weapons. The laws were The Port and Maritime Security Act of 2001 and The Maritime Transportation Antiterrorism Act of 2002.
Passing laws is one thing. Implementing them is another. In 2005, the GAO investigated and found, according to press report, that "Two federal programs designed to identify and inspect potentially dangerous cargo before it arrives in Seattle and other U.S. ports are riddled with so many flaws they are unlikely to pose a serious challenge to terrorists intent on shipping people or weapons to this country, congressional investigators conclude." The two programs are the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism and the Container Security Initiative.
Our laws demand more and more latitude to spy and search. We endure endless searching at our airports. We make ourselves secure by not carrying on hair spray and shaving cream. No airliner has blown up or been commandeered for some time. Ergo we are all safer, right? Our leaders have given us security, right? If they say we are more secure, then we are more secure. Right? Many Americans think so. Security is like punching a pillow. One end goes down, the other end goes up. What if terrorists target something other than airplanes? The number of juicy targets on the ground is infinite. Terrorists in Delhi, Madrid, London, Moscow, and elsewhere did not attack or use airplanes. Are we really safer?
The U.S. might be more or less secure. Neither I nor anyone else can prove the case, one way or another. But if we think about how government operates and do a modicum of reading about government capabilities and efficiency, we will not be so comfortably confident that we are more secure. The days of thinking about the super-efficient FBI and CIA are behind us. Hollywood propaganda about the wonderful work of our national police in controlling crime is behind us. Black and white film strips of punch cards sorting fingerprints and J. Edgar Hoover reassuring the American public are strictly for old movie buffs. If these films ever had any truth in them, which is doubtful, it has evaporated. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh has said of the FBI: "I think we have today something close to a failed agency." A 2004—2005 presidential commission, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, heavily criticized the CIA and other intelligence arms of the government.
If the U.S. is more secure, it’s the private sector that’s making it more secure. Supplying internet security is a growth industry. Private protection and law enforcement is an industry that is now two to three times the size of public law enforcement. The domestic industry might be even larger if the Iraq War had not pulled resources into Iraq, where an estimated 20,000 private contractors are hired by the U.S. If the U.S. is less secure, it’s the federal government and the president’s policies that have made it less secure. If it’s more secure, it’s because many organizations are privately taking measures to protect their property.
Terrorists can cause damage and mayhem by attacking computer systems. The Congress recognized that government agencies are prone to computer deficiencies and vulnerabilities when it passed the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002. This Act requires each agency to put in place information security and to have Inspector Generals that test the systems independently.
Both before and after the Act’s passage, the press has carried numerous reports of security problems with government computers. I provide a small sample. A report on the IRS dated September 21, 2006, states that the IRS lost $54.2 million when the Sasser Worm spread through its systems in 2004. The loss could have been avoided by installing available security patches. The report says that the IRS is still vulnerable: "Ineffective IRS patch management practices continue to put the IRS network at risk. The IRS continues to be exposed to network intrusions that could result in enormous financial impact…"
The Federal Election Commission not only flunked its financial audit ("The testing of internal control identified both reportable conditions and material weaknesses"), but also failed to have adequate information security.
The Department of the Interior has a history of problems. A 2003 audit lists a dozen internal control weaknesses said to be "longstanding weaknesses."
Despite numerous signals and clues, the FBI failed to detect the multi-year espionage activities of Robert Hanssen, which included information gathered from computer sources. The 2003 Inspector General’s report wrote: "Our review of the Hanssen case revealed that there was essentially no deterrence to espionage at the FBI during the 1979 to 2001 time period and that the FBI’s personnel and information security programs presented few obstacles to Hanssen’s espionage."
How safe is the air traffic control system? A report issued on the FAA three months ago is encouraging to terrorists, but not to Americans: "GAO identified significant security weaknesses that threaten the integrity, confidentiality, and availability of FAA’s systems — including weaknesses in controls that are designed to prevent, limit, and detect access to these systems. The agency has not adequately managed its networks, software updates, user accounts and passwords, and user privileges, nor has it consistently logged security relevant events. Other information security controls — including physical security, background investigations, segregation of duties, and system changes — also exhibited weaknesses, increasing the risk that unauthorized users could breach FAA’s air traffic control systems, potentially disrupting aviation operations."
Department of Homeland Security
On December 11, 2006, the Investor’s Business Daily criticized the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for being vulnerable to internet attack. Two DHS agencies, the Customs and Border Protection bureau and the Secret Service "failed to install software that can patch security holes." Internet security is important because of the potential for hacking into computer systems that control "air traffic…water treatment plants, pipelines, dam gates and ventilation systems, "and an imaginative terrorist can think up even more ways to wreak havoc via computer disruptions. Official sources confirm al-Qaeda’s interest in recruiting people with skills that can be used in these ways. By contrast, the DHS has been embarrassed by incompetent hiring.
The IBD article added: "DHS is one of the most wasteful agencies in Washington. Spending is out of control. Audits have cited lavish trips, fancy office furnishings and bloated contracts. Yet last year the department spent 7% less on cybersecurity research than the year before."
Rich Lowry, in a scathing article on DHS titled "Bloated and Incompetent," used such words as stupid, senseless, blundering, dysfunctional, and corrupt to describe the DHS. The DHS for him is "the blundering bureaucratic monstrosity that is one of Congress’ sorriest creations." Lowry even spoke favorably of P. J. O’Rourke’s libertarian sentiment (!), citing O’Rourke’s saying: "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys."
Lowry did not recommend doing anything, while the IBD meekly concluded that the DHS must do a better job and get its priorities right.
Does the thought of getting rid of a monstrosity like the DHS never cross the minds of today’s conservatives (and liberals)? Are they true believers who cannot think of dismantling any bureaucracy? Why is this? Why are stupid bureaucracies immune to death in the minds of state-lovers? Why must they be preserved, no matter how destructive they are?
If the thought of killing off a bureaucracy occurs to these popular media figures, do they suppress it? What are they afraid of? Are they afraid that one such radical thought might lead to another, and they might end up supporting small government and private initiative? Are they afraid that one hole in the dike will lead to more and yet more and bring the whole edifice down? Are they afraid someone will disapprove of their radical thoughts? Do they fear disapprobation? Do they fear loss of their livelihoods if they do not conform to the status quo? Do they fear unpopularity or being thought too radical? Are they afraid of being too different?
The DHS is an inefficient, ineffective, and intrusive monstrosity. It should be abolished. Every dollar it spends could be better spent by private individuals attending to their own security.
Reducing terrorism risk
Supposed terrorist cells have been broken up. Terrorist plots have been foiled. Suspected terrorists have been locked up in Guantanamo and other secret prisons. The U.S. has thrown away the keys. Torture is used to extract valuable information. People secretly rejoice. They think: "The government is doing a nasty job, but it’s doing it. We are all safer."
Are we safer? The government likes to boast of its successes, as with the Lackawanna Six. It can arrest someone and threaten to label him as an "unlawful enemy combatant," foreclosing trial rights and raising the prospect of indefinite detention (imprisonment). This induces plea bargains to lesser charges, so that President Bush can triumphantly speak of hunting down killers. The Lackawanna Six included a number of Yemeni-Americans who traveled to Afghanistan and passed some time at a training camp for beginning jihadists. From various accounts, they are described as foolish, bozos, knuckleheads, and idiots, but not traitors, killers, or even men planning to kill anyone. The government never proved that they intended to commit a crime. They ended up doing long sentences for the "crime" of material support for the possible violation of a long list of statutes. In layman’s language, material support is almost anything that can be construed as being an accomplice to a crime that might be committed.
Should we feel safer because the government is putting away men of this ilk in this manner? Hardly. There are legions of much more violent men out there, and the U.S. is materially supporting the growth in their numbers, albeit indirectly, just as it once directly supported bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Culturing the virus
Terrorism, like catching a cold, is the kind of risk that to some extent is within our control. If we tempt the virus to attack our bodies by standing in drafts, standing in front of people sneezing, and sticking our fingers in our mouths, we are more likely to catch a cold. The U.S. has been asking for trouble for a long time. It has been using its political, economic, and military muscle in many countries, like Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. It has tempted the virus to attack, and the virus has at long last attacked. Now that the virus is circulating in the bloodstream and reproducing, it will not easily be stopped.
U.S. interference in the affairs of other nations was never right or just in the first place, which is reason enough to halt it now. But U.S. interference has also been inept, as all government programs are. John H. Kelly, the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon (1986—1988) chronicles some of the sad history of American involvement in Lebanon. He criticizes the 1982 U.S. military involvement in Lebanon as reactive, lacking a clear policy or mission, and fed by "emotionalism and hope rather than clear purpose." He notes that the situation in 1982 was perilous for strangers who were entering into a land with "armed Lebanese factions already embroiled in lethal contests and active warfare for the previous seven years." The U.S. attempted to portray itself as neutral, an attitude Kelly calls a delusion, but the Lebanese factions believed with good reason that the U.S. already had chosen its favorites to back including Israel, the Lebanese Christian militia, and the Lebanese President. The Lebanese intervention pulled the U.S. directly into the terrorist vortex.
Through its actions in Iraq and elsewhere, the foreign-interventionist U.S. is now culturing whole swarms of new and more potent viruses anxious to attack the U.S. The risks of an attack on the continental U.S. are growing, and the next attack may be pneumonia. Meanwhile to ward off these viruses, the domestic-security U.S. is going through the motions of washing its hands and keeping warm, but the water is cold and the coats are porous. The main results are destruction of rights and greater authoritarian rule in America, not greater security.
Are we more secure today than six years ago as a result of the president’s policies? The U.S. is very good at arousing new generations of terrorists overseas, even as it is very bad at protecting Americans domestically.
Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.