Monday, September 12, 2005

9/11 Changed Everything

The day after four years after is as good a time as any to reevaluate that phrase. How many times have we heard it? How many times has an administration mouthpiece, or pseudo-mouthpiece or camp-follower trotted it out to justify some outrage? How many times has a lazy copywriter regurgitated it?

Try Googling "9/11 changed everything." 25 pages in, the results are still on topic. The phrase has embedded itself on the national consciousness like "I am not a crook" or "Ask not what your country can do for you . . ." or "A day that will live in infamy." (Probably not a fluke that this time the phrase defining a generation was not the President's coinage.)

And yet, as has been said many times elsewhere, the white-hot lessons of 9/11 were insufficient to overcome cronyism, incompetence, off-target priorities and bureaucratic infighting in the Departments of Homeland Security. The Katrina aftermath showed how little we learned from the 9/11 aftermath.

My brother, The Other Pho (dude needs a better nickname. Pho2? Pho-5? K-Pho?) flagged and BFD linked to a post by noted security blogger Bruce Schneier. His thesis: our homeland security money is misdirected at preventing "movie-plot threats" and should be redirected toward intelligence at disaster preparedness.

I wouldn't go as far as he appears to about spending outside those two areas. Ramping up port security would make it harder to move large quantities of materiel into the country and hardening chemical and nuclear plants would make two major disaster scenarios less likely. I would also add that despite the everything that 9/11 changed, this administration remains determined to operate on the cheap. But his prescription is at least a shift toward the right direction.


k-pho said...

OK, k-pho it is. About the Schneier thing, I don't think he's saying that intelligence and emergency response are the only places you spend money, I think he's saying that they are better places to spend money than nearly every initiative brought out by the current administration, esp. the untold gobs spent in Iraq.

His meta-point is that security decisions always involve tradeoffs. Sometimes (OK, LOTS of times) they are security vs. liberty tradeoffs (cameras in subways) Sometimes they are security vs. economics (such as inspecting shipping containers) or any number of other things. And there are ALWAYS budgetary tradeoffs: any money spent could have been spent on something else.

To buy into a policy because "It COULD prevent a terrorist attack" is counterproductive or worse. You need to evaluate it against what you are trading off against.

I'm tempted to agree with you, and I suspect he might also, on container security. It protects against any threat that requires bringing material (or people) into the country.

Nuclear Plants I also like, but there are close to 100 reactors in the country, according to this:
This Map

Chemical plants sound good, but how many are there? 10,000? 100,000? I doubt we can get to all of them without diverting some serious resources that could be spent more effectively. We'd have to prioritize, which is pretty much Schneier's point.

Disclaimer: He has written a whole (well-received) book on this, Beyond Fear, which I, um, haven't read, but I know I should. I hereby vow to get to it this month. Dammit.

k-pho said...

Followup to myself: Oh, and I see in looking at the map more carefully that some of the nuclear plants listed are shut down. Of course, it would take lots more research to find which of them are still dangerous if blown up.

Also, about port security, I was just thinking about this today: How much harder would it be right now (and in this context, right now means for the next year at least) implement any meaningful port security, as 2 of the busiest ports in the nation were wiped by Katrina (Gulfport and Katrina), overburdening those still functioning and creating LOTS of economic pressure to get stuff through as soon as possible.

Pho said...

OK, at the risk of turning this blog into "Pho talks to his brother," a couple of points.

I would hope that Schneier believes in spending outside intelligence and preparedness, but when he says "Our nation needs to spend its homeland security dollars on two things: intelligence-gathering and emergency response," it doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room.

Second, the point about nukes and chemical plants is that, unlike, say, subway bombings, these are big-ticket disasters. Recall that Bhopal killed between 5000 and 15,000 people depending on whose figures you believe.

The Chemical plant issue is also interesting in that a bunch of new plant-hardening standard were proposed that would have put most of the burden on the chemical industry, prompting them to launch a lobbying blitz against the standards. The Bush Admin quickly caved. Who knows what the actual cost-benefit analysis of the proposals would show, but the only analysis done weighed the cost of pissing off a major industry and the benefit of staying in office.