A story in Monday’s New York Times once again highlighted the growing problem facing the United States in its efforts to combat terrorism: We’re swimming in sensors and drowning in data. Terrorism and its extremist adherents have no better ally in their efforts to harm us than our innate tendency to mistake problems of being for problems of knowing, and in doing so to tie ourselves in knots.
As inconceivable as the motivations and actions of terrorists may seem to us, their behavior does not pose an unimaginable much less unknowable threat. Although we may not know when, where, or how they intend to strike, we can be pretty sure they will.
Our inability to wrap our heads around the “why” of terrorism leads us to oversimplifications and misapprehensions about the nature of the terrorist threat on one hand and a tendency to over-reach in our efforts to know who they are and what they are up to on the other. This leads us to frame the problem of terrorism primarily as an effort to identify and interdict unknown enemies.
Our preoccupation with finding out whom we should target leads us to collect more information than we need, and, consequently, far more than we can intelligently manage. As such, it becomes not only increasingly difficult, but also increasingly impractical to assemble a coherent picture of the threats facing us.
With the possible combinations so numerous, we see few options besides throwing everything we have at the problem of sifting and sorting the data every way we can. But that’s the problem: We cannot sort or sift fast enough. Picking up the pace does no good. No matter how fast we work, we still make little or no progress.
Thankfully, looking for answers does not always require us to look for evidence. Sometimes all the evidence we need is already available, and all we really need to ask ourselves is “what does it all mean.”
Fortunately, this situation often arises when the stakes are high, making it a familiar setting for any experienced homeland security professional. Thos with experience know that gathering more information will not change the nature of a high-stakes problem nor will it make the solution any clearer. Indeed, just the opposite may be the case.
The popular Ron Howard movie Apollo 13 recounts the successful effort to save the crew of the crippled spacecraft after an unexpected explosion compromised the life support system aborting the original mission. In the movie (but apparently not in real-life), as the stakes became clear, flight director Gene Kranz played by actor Ed Harris, tells the engineers assembled to work out a strategy for saving the ship and its crew. “Failure is not an option.”
These words echo the sentiments expressed by President Obama during his scathing critiques of what he characterized as the intelligence failures that allowed the Nigerian Farouk Umar Abdulmutallab, who is accused of attempting to destroy Northwest Airlines flight 253, to board the Detroit-bound aircraft in Amsterdam despite apparent foreknowledge of his links to extremists. As the President noted, intelligence agencies had the information, but they did not know what it meant and did not act on what they did know before Abdulmutallab boarded the flight.
In a scene from Apollo 13, a group of engineers assembles in a meeting room and a box of assorted items representing the materials available to the astronauts aboard the crippled spacecraft is emptied before them. Their charge was to figure out how to combine these resources in a new way to achieve the goal of keeping the crew alive and returning them to earth safely.
This sort of situation as it applies to terrorism has confronted the west before. Other countries confront this reality today. Few can afford to act as the United States has in imposing new regulations and technical security requirements on its people and its trading partners. Instead, they adapted their behavior to the reality of the threat confronting them.
When IRA bombers threatened riders on London’s Underground, the operators of the system relocated vendors to improve sight lines and removed rubbish bins to make it harder to conceal an incendiary or explosive device. Passengers too became an integral part of the security arrangements.
Whether we can afford to invest in better technology or not, we should ask ourselves whether what we have to invest will prove worth the cost when we look back at the value obtained. If NW 253 teaches us anything, it is that the investments we have already made in airport security and intelligence gathering and analysis have not made the target that much harder.
Looking at the security landscape before us, we might discover that we are far better off than we realize. The same things that prevented the terrorists aboard United Airlines flight 93 from succeeding on 9/11 saved lives again on Christmas Day. When everything is said and done, relying on the resourcefulness and courage of average Americans is not such a bad thing to do when failure is not an option.