Sec. Chertoff spoke last Thursday at an open forum at George Mason University; the full transcript is available here. Most of the discussion focused on Hurricane Katrina and the challenges of preparedness, with immigration and border security as a second key focus. In the middle of the event was this interesting exchange with moderator Frank Sesno:
Frank Sesno: Where do you consider the most serious threat to our security coming from, external or internal?
Secretary Chertoff: I’d say in terms of the scale of the consequence, it’s external. If we’re worried about a weapon of mass destruction, the thing I would be most concerned about is somebody in some remote location somewhere in the world building a laboratory and fabricating a weapon of mass destruction.
In terms of likelihood, however, I think obviously there’s a much greater likelihood that some lone individual will inspire himself to go and blow himself up in a shopping center. But the consequences, although bad, would be obviously less earth-shattering than a weapon of mass destruction.
So I think the probability is much more internal; I think the consequence is much more external.
I think this is a correct interpretation of reality, and it creates a difficult dilemma for Sec. Chertoff and others in the federal government who are making decisions about where to put resources. Combating the WMD threats requires a very specialized set of counterproliferation efforts, detection investments, R&D, and targeted response capabilities. Combating the broader set of threats requires a more broad-based and target-centric investment portfolio, across a wide variety of public and private infrastructures. Certain investments are valuable for both types of threats – domestic and foreign intelligence, border security, etc. – but there is inevitably a tradeoff between protecting against WMD threats vs. more conventional threats.
I think that these decisions need to be made more explicit in the public debate; otherwise, there’s a risk that if there’s an attack in one of the two threat categories, it will lead to public criticism that the federal government was overly focused on the other threat category, in a way that could unwisely shift future investments. For example, if there is a terrorist attack at a shopping mall in the United States using conventional explosions, we’re likely to hear public outcry along the lines of “why have we been spending billions on biological and nuclear threats and ignoring this vulnerability?” The answer is that difficult decisions have been made about where to prioritize resources, but that’s likely to fall flat politically in the aftermath of an attack. Hence the need for a more open debate today about risks and where we should be prioritizing our resources.