The Security-Industrial Complex

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Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute is no one's idea of a civil libertarian, and it's no surprise that her latest piece for The Wall Street Journal slams "cyber-libertarians," the ACLU, and the opponents of data mining and abusive interrogations. But before she gets there, she makes some points that should leave libertarian readers nodding their heads:

Trying to amass WMD capacity makes a terror cell much more vulnerable to detection, a risk that so far may have helped tip the balance in favor of more conventional weapons. Better screening of people and cargo passing through official ports of entry and better information from our overseas partners after 9/11 have made coming into the U.S. with malevolent intent and a big weapon significantly more challenging.

The domestic plots uncovered so far do not suggest that at present we face anything like an omnipresent, omnipotent enemy; wanting to bring down the Sears Tower and being able to do so are very different matters. "None of those plots should scare you," a former government counterterrorism expert who spent years overseeing terrorism investigations told me–off the record….Yet the security-industrial complex continues to trumpet the notion that we are everywhere under growing threat–enabled by politicians unable or unwilling to understand risk analysis but quick to denounce even a rational decision by the federal government to ignore low-priority vulnerabilities. Grandstanding legislators, for example, preposterously demanded that every cargo container entering a U.S. port be screened for nuclear material following the Dubai ports controversy; similar calls for universal luggage screening have followed the abortive London airline bombing plot.

From now on, every new claim of a supposedly vulnerable target should be accompanied by evidence that some terrorist somewhere has even a fantasy wish to strike it and a remotely credible ability to do so.

For more on the government's inability to prioritize after 9/11, see Veronique de Rugy's Reason story on "the sorry state–and stunning waste–of homeland security spending."

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