Sunday, July 7. 2013
The United States has built huge internet surveillance infrastructures, but failed to implement its own 9/11 law about maritime cargo security.
The risks of an attack at a US port or the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction (or their components) in shipping containers are big. Compared to the importance of scanning more cargo containers, the benefits of scanning emails appear quite small. What is needed is a serious debate about the right priorities for counter-terrorism and cost/benefit analysis of current policies.
While US and other Western governments claim that internet surveillance has prevented several terrorist attacks, it could also be argued that internet surveillance catches only some of the stupid terrorists, who can only pull off relatively minor attacks. (But not all of them, e.g. not the Boston bombers.)
Smart terrorists like Osama bin Laden, who have the brains and resources to kill tens of thousands of people, do not communicate over the internet. (Or they use very serious encryption, which the NSA computers won’t break in time.) They might plan sophisticated operations for American, French, Dutch or German harbors.
The 9/11 Commission concluded in its report in 2004: “While commercial aviation remains a possible target, terrorists may turn their attention to other modes. Opportunities to do harm are as great, or greater, in maritime or surface transportation. Initiatives to secure shipping containers have just begun.”
In 2007 Congress passed the “Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act” and mandated that by July 2012 no cargo container would be allowed to enter the United States unless it had been checked by radiation detection and nonintrusive imaging technology.
The Department of Homeland Security missed that deadline and gave itself a two-year extension, which the law allowed. The Nuclear Threat Initiative wrote in February 2012: “Roughly 5 percent of cargo containers undergo the demanded physical scanning today either at the foreign port of departure or upon arrival in the United States, according Kevin McAleenan, acting assistant commissioner for field operations at DHS Customs and Border Protection.”
Representative Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi said in the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security on February 7, 2012:
Mr. Thompson also wrote op-ed Cargo, the Terrorists’ Trojan Horse, together with Jerrold L. Nadler and Edward J. Markey, the Democratic representatives from New York and Massachusetts, published on June 26, 2012 in the NYT:
The U.S. Government Accountability Office released the report “Combating Nuclear Smuggling: Megaports Initiative Faces Funding and Sustainability Challenges” on November 28, 2012 (All emphasis in bold in this article was added):
Are the Obama administration and other Western governments setting the right priorities in counter-terrorism? Or are they neglecting expensive port security in the hope that cheaper NSA surveillance of internet traffic will uncover terrorist plots? I think such a rationale would be wrong. The political costs of massive internet surveillance are significant, while the benefits are doubtful. Companies should pay for the costs of port security.
If I am correct in assuming that only stupid terrorists with limited capabilities are likely to be caught by communication surveillance, then we need to debate whether the cost of privacy invasions is worth the benefit of preventing relatively minor terrorist attacks. I have not fully made up my mind on this.
Neither data privacy nor security should be seen as absolute values. Accepting any terrorism as a risk of life in “The New Normal” seems to be blasphemy for many US politicians and pundits, although they have accepted domestic gun violence (like the Connecticut elementary school shooting) for decades. These crimes as well as spontaneous “do it yourself”-terrorism like the Woolwich stabbing cannot be prevented by internet surveillance anyway. If we want our governments to protect rather than invade our privacy, then we should not watch/read media that regularly freaks out at every terrorism report, because that sends the wrong message to our politicians about our priorities.
What do you think? More focus needed on low-probability high impact risks (like dirty bombs smuggled in shipping cargo) rather than high-probability low impact risks? I appreciate feedback!
Endnote: Today is the 8th anniversary of the London bombings. On July 7, 2005, a series of bomb attacks on London's transport network has killed more than 52 people and injured 770 others.
Shortly afterwards, the “We Are Not Afraid” website went up, but seems to be down now. “It is a worldwide action for people not willing to be cowed by terrorism and fear mongering. The historical response to these types of attacks has been a show of deadly force; we believe that there is a better way. We refuse to respond to aggression and hatred in kind. Instead, we who are not afraid will continue to live our lives the best way we know how. We will work, we will play, we will laugh, we will live. We will not waste one moment, nor sacrifice one bit of our freedom, because of fear."
Joerg Wolf works for the Atlantische Initiative as editor-in-chief of the open think tank atlantic-community.org. He founded the Atlantic Review in 2005 and blogs here and on Facebook in his free time on transatlantic issues ranging from security to economics and pop culture. Joerg is a Berliner, a Fulbrighter, and an Atlanticist. Follow him on Twitter.
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