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Barack Obama's presidency

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How Government Worsens Terror Risk

By Ivan Eland
January 5, 2010

Editor’s Note: As a result of the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing over Detroit, the traveling public can expect to be subjected to new indignities, including standing inside an expensive contraption that lets a stranger see the shape of their bodies and the size of their private parts.

The larger problem appears to be that politicians are deathly afraid of being called “soft on terror” or blamed for the fact that there will never be 100 percent safety against a determined terrorist sneaking explosives aboard an airliner, as the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland notes in this guest essay:

The botched attempt by a Nigerian, apparently trained in Yemen by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to conduct a suicide bombing on a plane as it neared Detroit has highlighted the U.S. government’s overzealous, ineffective and even counterproductive efforts to overcome terrorism.   

Although Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano’s stance that “the system” worked buckled under withering ridicule, she was right — but only if the non-governmental aspects of that system are included. The government’s performance and after-incident measures are ridiculous and even ill-advised.

Even if the government had done nothing in the realm of anti-terrorism after 9/11, the skies would have been much safer. The reason is that aircrews and passengers changed their response to attempted aircraft hijackings.

Prior to 9/11, pilots, flight attendants and the flying public were of the mindset to cooperate with any hijackers. The image in their minds was of being flown to Cuba and eventually being released once the hijackers had publicized their cause.

After 9/11, a vision of being slaughtered en masse and used to massacre even more non-passengers has been seared into the minds of the traveling public.

As seen in the Richard Reid shoe-bomber incident and the most recent suicide-bombing attempt, surly aircrews and passengers are alert, will not remain passive in the face of imminent death, and are ready to beat to a pulp any would-be hijackers before they can carry out their nefarious deed.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the government does ridiculous things “for show” in an attempt to demonstrate to voters that something — anything — is being done about terrorism.

For example, since 9/11, the color-coded warning system has toggled between yellow and orange without much relationship to happenings in the real world. The most recent incident illustrates the political nature of the system.

Before the suicide-bombing attempt, the threat level at airports was already orange. After the near bombing, one would have thought that the level would have been increased to red. Of course, this would panic the public and cause the entire nation to stay indoors and out of the shopping malls during an attempted economic recovery.

(Similarly, the threat level is unlikely ever to be reduced to blue or green, because if an attack then occurs, the government will get criticized that it was asleep at the switch. So the threat level remains at orange — which to the traveler has no meaning other than receiving annoying Orwellian announcements of that fact at airports.)

And what about the new requirements that during the last hour of any incoming international flight, you can’t go to the bathroom or have a pillow, blanket, or computer in your lap? This is an attempt to prevent any suicide bomber from blowing up the plane over a crowded destination city.

Yet aircraft regularly travel 500-600 miles or more in an hour, so much of the land covered during the last hour is mostly empty countryside. And, of course, the bomber could just elect to blow up the plane before the last hour of the flight.

Moreover, as noted before, the problem is not usually what happens on board the aircraft; it is that the government, despite all of its onerous security measures at airport screening checkpoints, allowed the bomber — both in the shoe-bomber case and most recent incident — to get explosives through the checkpoint.

In addition, the Transportation Security Administration has deployed posses of employees to roam through airports looking for suspicious behavior — for example, nervous behavior. With thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of passengers transiting through an airport each day — many of whom are simply nervous about flying — this ridiculous measure tries to find a terrorist needle in a haystack.

The government also seems proud of the fact that security measures are non-uniform at airports around the country in an attempt to keep the terrorists on their toes. Yet such variation has high costs because the vast majority of travelers are innocent business and pleasure travelers who can never know what to expect either.

Even the basics of the government security system don’t seem to work very well. The Nigerian alleged bomber had a valid U.S. visa and did not ring alarm bells in the system even though he bought a one-way ticket, had no checked baggage, and was on the terrorism watch list. He was placed on the watch list only after his own father reported his radical tendencies to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria.

Instead of focusing on new technological gizmos at airport checkpoints to woo the voters, the U.S. government should redirect the vastly expensive 16-agency U.S. intelligence community to better identify possible bombers.

Even more important, the U.S. government should quit creating a demand for its own security services by reducing military action in Muslim countries — the main cause of Islamist terrorism that the government doesn’t want you to know about.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said that it had perpetrated the attack in retaliation for the U.S. government’s not-so-covert assistance to a Yemeni government battling these local militants. Despite its name, the group has primarily local interests and is now launching attacks on the U.S. homeland only because of such U.S. meddling in Yemen.

Because this group has now tried to attack U.S. soil, however, one government official said that a broader and more visible U.S. role in Yemen was being considered.

This, in turn, as with other non-Muslim (read U.S.) military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, will increase anti-U.S. retaliatory terrorism — the problem the U.S. government gets buckets of money to perpetually fight.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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