Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 3, 2006

Consequence, likelihood, and prioritizing resources

Filed under: Risk Assessment — by Christian Beckner on May 3, 2006

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.

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2 Comments »

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 3, 2006 @ 5:22 pm

DHS should be totally focused on WMD threats and response. Others can do natural disasters and in fact unless the States can show that they cannot operate and have spent already $25M in cancelled checks for big states (the top ten) and $15M for intermediate states (the next 30) and $5M for the 10 smallest states, the feds should let natural disasters be a state responsiblity and the private insurance industry. The feds can reinsure the States or private insurers or both, but should never be direct insurers. An example exists in the Urban Property Protection Act of 1968 (never repealed) where the feds reinsured for riots and civil disorder in the central cities. If a state is natural disaster prone, then let it bear the costs with its citizens. Also the USACOE would stop making things worse if they lost their exemption from liability under 33 U.S.C.! More and more evidence accrues for USACOE responsiblity for deficient work in southern Louisiana and the Democratic power structure was complicit. Let the river roll on and forget trying to modify mother nature.

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Comment by J.

May 4, 2006 @ 9:53 am

I have to disagree completely with William – if you look at the history of FEMA, it was originally developed to solely plan for and execute the response to a massive Soviet nuclear strike. With all the natural disasters occurring in the 1980s and 1990s and the high cost of rebuilding, Congress forced FEMA to refocus its attention to natural disaster response and not to “WMD” response. This isn’t going to change, not by replacing FEMA or by any more rhetoric about what terrorist WMD incidents might do.

The fact is that we will absolutely see more hurricanes, floods, fires that wipe out population centers, and Congress will tell DHS/FEMA to respond to that threat. Period. While some planning is necessary for terrorist WMD incidents, let’s be clear on what DHS/FEMA’s main responsibilities and missions will be – on natural disasters and possibly on man-made accidents. You know the golden rule – Congress has the gold, so they make the rules.

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