The Appearance of Security Is Expensive

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A story in Sunday's New York Times explains that when it comes to homeland security, the appearance of doing something costs billions of dollars. But even money poorly spent–on weapon detection equipment that doesn't work, for example–is money well spent:

Even if the monitoring is less than ideal, officials say, it is still a deterrent.

"The nation is more secure in the deployment and use of these technologies versus having no technologies in place at all," said Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

Every piece of equipment provides some level of additional security, said Christopher Y. Milowic, a customs official whose office oversees screening at ports and borders. "It is not the ultimate capacity," he said. "But it reduces risk."

Yet Homeland Security's inspector general says "the likelihood of detecting a hidden weapon or bomb has not significantly changed since the government took over airport screening operations in 2002." Baggage screening equipment is so inacccurate, cumbersome, and inefficient that checked luggage often goes on planes unscreened. Radiation detectors at ports, intended to detect "dirty bombs," yield so many false positives that they are nearly worthless.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, explains that throwing money at the problem is a largely symbolic endeavor. "After 9/11, we had to show how committed we were by spending hugely greater amounts of money than ever before, as rapidly as possible," he says. "That brought us what we might expect, which is some expensive mistakes."

[Thanks to Terrence Dugan for the link.]

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  1. Radiation detectors at ports, intended to detect “dirty bombs,” yield so many false positives that they are nearly worthless.

    In this particular case, I for one am much more worried about false negatives than false positives.

  2. One problem with so many false negatives is humans will suffer from the boy who cries wolf syndrome and ignore a real threat.

    Another problem is that a great deal of resources – money and time – is spent chasing these false threats instead of chasing real threats. We only have so much time/money/humans to spend on security, so we should focus our resources wisely and get value for investments. Wasting it on false hopes and driving the costs of everything higher does not make us more secure.

  3. It almost seems as if it would be more worthwhile to use a disinformation campaign to create the widespread impression of increased security. This would make any potental terrorists more nervous, and nervous people tend to make mistakes.

    Anyway, what is El Al doing right that we’re not?

  4. I’m thrilled to know our government’s idea of security is turning cops into David Blaine-style illusionists, or “trickless magicians.”

    the next thing we’ll see are interrogaters trained as ventriloquists.

    Thanks Patriot Act.

  5. “After 9/11, we had to show how committed we were by spending hugely greater amounts of money than ever before, as rapidly as possible,” he says.

    Isn’t this just gallingly representative of general attitudes in government? Support = cash. Cutting cash = cutting support! Think of the children! Don’t put grandma in the snowbank!

  6. It is and has been since even before 9/11, purely public relations … inconvenience providing the illusion of security.

    The billions of dollars aside, real security is very much a “be careful what you ask for” thing.

  7. In the early 80s, my family lived in a rapidly deteriorating neighborhood, and my Navy father was often out to sea, so my mother bought an early version of a Mace keychain to fend off attackers. Since the keychain made her feel safe, she started altering her behavior accordingly–say, by walking our dog during the cooler night hours rather than during the day.

    Come to find out a few years later that the keychain she bought was almost entirely useless–if you wanted to fend off an attacker, you’d be better off spraying hairspray than the stuff in that keychain. Mom was literally weak-kneed when she thought of how dangerously she’d acted when she had the keychain.

    Luckily, my mother was never attacked, but her false sense of security put her in far greater danger than she was when she knew she had to be on guard. I’m sure our current anti-nail clipper anti-Zippo Homeland Security policy is doing the same thing. And for those who say, “Yes, but we haven’t been attacked since 9-11, so we know what we’re doing works!” I’ll say that my mother was never mugged or raped, but that doesn’t mean it was safe for a lone woman and a cowardly dog to walk through our old neighborhood at night.

  8. Well, come on, now, this is the new Cold War Bogeyman. We’ve got to strike just the right balance between “Ah, the government is making me feel safe” and “AHHH! I’m scared! Yes, please, spend more of my tax dollars on the Welfare-Warfare state!”

    Even if they DID make us safer, they’d never admit it.

  9. Man, doesn’t this just lay bare the truth about government. Spending money is an end in itself. Actual results don’t matter.

    I could actually buy the idea of putting up a false front, so to speak, about having greater security measures than is strictly true, but that becomes irrelevant when the failures of Homeland Security are widely published.

  10. The only way I’ll feel safe again is if we returned to the 1950s and put Nike missle sites around every major city. 😉

    Live free, fight or fall.

  11. The only way I’ll feel safe again is if we returned to the 1950s and put Nike missle sites around every major city. 😉

    Seattle doesn’t have much in the way of Nike missle sites surrounding the city, but we sure have a lot of Nike outlet stores! It should be pointed out that I do feel safer in knowing I can find a pair of shoes if I survive Armageddon!

  12. Um, never seen a Nike missile. Does it come with the swoosh icon?

  13. Come on Evan, you never seen the popular Nike Air to Air missle? Apparently, it has good traction on impact while providing excellent support on the ground and comes in all your favorite colors.

  14. It would seem that the only intelligent way to spend DHS money would be on hunting terrorist or on response for after they hit. I think anything in between is going to be throwing shit against the wall and then once in a while when it does stick the shit throwers will pat themselves on the back. While they are patting themselves on the back they will waste more of our money on items that don’t work and that we don’t need…

  15. I think the Nike-Hercules sites (ground to air) were dismembered in the 60s or 70s, bombers not being much of a threat any longer.

    The best security move so far has been feeling up women at airports. Women saw through it, however, unlike every other security measure, perhaps drawing on dating experiences.

  16. If we are already spending billions on worthless security systems in order to give the illusion of increased security, why not take it one step further. Why not just pretend to spend billions on worthless secutity systems in order to give the illuision of increased secutity? We could have radiation detectors that are made of cardboard boxes, paper mache X-Ray machines, maybe even develop a super secret “terrorist detector” complete with strobe lights and lasers. Then 10 years from now when the terrorist threat is totally played out, the government announces they never really used all that money and we all get a rebate check in the mail.

  17. Dave,

    Another good way to spend DHS moneys is to force all of us innocent taxpayers to carry around National ID cards with RFID tags embedded in them. Because, um, if only we had had National ID cards, then 9/11 could have been avoided. Them trrrrrists would have never been able to do what they did if they were forced to get national ID cards.

    Trying to plug up the holes in our security is like trying to catch smoke with one hand. I wish it weren’t true, but it is. There are things that are simply impossible to protect against. But, it’s good to know that one of the simplest problems to address, relatively speaking, is still wide open (port security).

  18. Scott,

    The gubmint…giving money back? Right about the time it’s legal to do a line of blow off the Capitol steps.

    The welfare-warfare state is nothing if not a funnel by which to transfer taxpayer dollars into the pockets of private-sector defense contractors. Right now, they’re paying my friend (good money, too!) to sit around and stare at the wall all day while the insanely slow beaurocracy crawls along with his security clearance process. At the risk of sounding a bit too cynical and hyperbolic, the “War on Terror” is really the new Cold War. It’s the new bogeyman to justify the trillions of dollars we pour into the military/security budgets. Believe me, we’re not gonna get any “refund checks”.

  19. >>But some passengers have reported that these measures are discriminatory and sometimes unpleasant, with Palestinians and their friends subjected to much stricter procedures, including body searches.

    El Al uses rigorous computerised passenger profiling systems, which apparently looks for anomalies in a traveller’s itinerary, finances and personal profile.

  20. John – I agree.

    While those methods may work fine for Israel, they certainly wouldn’t fly here.

    There is no way that security can be fully guaranteed, so the gubmint decides to throw money at something to make us “feel” good. Ridiculous. Focus on physical, though less-intrusive, security measures. Presence is everything.

    Out here.

  21. What do you want? The government could hardly admit that the one effective security response to 9/11 was implemented during the attack, required no taxpayer funding, and contravenes Federal policy.

    If you’re a passenger on an airliner and someone tries to hijack it, stop him.

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