The Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute has published a provocative and insightful new paper this month entitled “The Homeland Security Dilemma: The Imagination of Failure and the Escalating Costs of Perfecting Security” by Canadian professor Frank P. Harvey. Harvey summarized the key points of the article in a commentary in the Chronicle-Post (Nova Scotia) newspaper this week.
In the report, Harvey defines the idea of a “homeland security dilemma” as a new version of the Cold War era “security dilemma” (emphasis added):
The homeland security dilemma represents the post-9/11 equivalent for domestic politics in the war on terrorism. The paperâ€™s central argument can be summed up by the following counterintuitive thesis: the more security you have, the more security you will need. Not because enhancing security makes terrorism more likely (although the incentive for terrorists to attack may increase as extremists feel duty-bound to demonstrate their ongoing relevance), but because enormous investments in security inevitably raise public expectations and amplify public outrage after subsequent failures.
He goes on to offer five reasons why this “homeland security dilemma” would naturally emerge:
Five factors explain why increasing investments (spending), political commitments (policy) and public sacrifice in the name of homeland security produce diminishing returns over time, each of which encompasses an important component of the current dilemma: (a) rising public expectations and standards for measuring government performance, (b) the power of failure (failures trump successes), (c) public imagination and exaggerated perceptions of terrorist threats, (d) political-military imagination and official overestimations of terrorist risks, and (e) declining public support for sacrificing civil liberties.
He later discusses the ways in which officials have “answered the call by imagining thousands of different threats,” and have the tendency to offer laundry lists of vulnerable assets, fearing the political consequences of an attack. But he, argues:
The real problem today, then, is not the â€˜failure of imaginationâ€™, it is the â€˜imagination of failureâ€™ that continues to entrench into American domestic politics the main elements of the homeland security dilemma. Paradoxically, routinzing, bureaucratising and institutionalising imagination undermines the publicâ€™s sense of security while simultaneously pushing the government to spend more.
He concludes the report by admitting that he has no real recommendations about how to solve this homeland security dilemma, and dismisses the idea that it can be easily resolved either by giving better information to the public about the actual risks of terrorism or by more effective risk communication.
Overall, the report rings true to me in a number of ways. The general public’s expectations for security are very high as a result of the organizational changes, increased spending, and confident rhetoric over the past four years – and these expectations magnify every watchdog report or bureaucratic misstep on homeland security into a front-page story. It perhaps explains the attitude of many members of Congress, of both parties, whose calls for “100%” security in the cargo system or on the borders are driven more by the insecure “imagination of failure” than by rational analysis.
That said, I think Harvey misses the fact that homeland security funding in the United States has been relatively flat now for the last two budget cycles – a reality that contradicts his core thesis, and suggests that American policymakers might in fact be acting rationally. On the other hand, DHS’s promises and commitments have continued to grow at double-digit rates even as the budget has flatlined, which creates a gap between rhetoric and reality – a risky game to play. There are still a number of areas of homeland security (i.e. chemical plant security) where much more needs to be done, based on careful, fact-based threat analysis and irrespective of the psychological influences of the homeland security dilemma. It would be a mistake to take away from this report that the US homeland security budget should be flat-lined or cut.
The most important takeaway from this paper is that policymakers need to be aware of the possibility of the “homeland security dilemma,” and strive constantly to base their assessments on sober assessments of threats and vulnerabilities, rather than a falsely-drawn “imagination of failure.”
Overall, a solid report, which is definitely worth reading and debating.