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Two questions should always be asked over and over again before security measures are implemented: At what point do security measures impede security? And at one point is a free people no longer free?

It has been quiet recently here in the homeland. Terrorist bombs and other attacks continue unabated in the Middle East and sporadically in Europe, but it has been quite a while by modern standards since any terrorist attack here in the United States. This being so, it is tempting to think we are finally starting to do things right; that is a temptation we should resist. We have certainly improved our technical skills at dealing with the worldwide terrorist threat: international cooperation is far better than a few decades ago, and even cooperation between and among U.S. agencies, for so long better known for their rivalries than their competencies, has markedly improved; and technological advancements from drones to computer surveillance have made reachable otherwise inaccessible individuals and data. But while all these improvements are laudable, they do not address—or even acknowledge—the fundamental flaws that ensure our vulnerability to terrorist attacks. Below is a short listing of the intrinsic weaknesses in our counter-terrorism strategy.

1. We Are Our Government’s Second-Highest Priority

Most US government officials would vehemently disagree with this assertion. They would argue that protecting American citizens is the government’s highest priority and that they all work long, difficult hours ensuring our security. Their view, while mistaken, is sincere, and there are arguments that seem to support their view that our government has no greater concern than our safety. For example, dating back at least to the Reagan administration, we have been willing to ignore our own laws in order to safeguard our citizens. Indeed, the Iran-Contra debacle clearly proved not only our willingness to violate our laws to protect citizens, but even our willingness to aid and abet our enemies, providing them lethal weapons in exchange for assistance in freeing American hostages in Lebanon. While we have not been as craven as some other countries in our willingness to bend rules and morality in order to save one of our citizens, our fixation on protecting our citizenry has the unintended consequence of placing it further in danger. Our enemies know that we have a fetish for protecting life that is more sacred to us than law or honor. One is reminded of C.S. Lewis’s harsh observation in Miracles that a “mere life-addict is no more respectable than a cocaine addict.” Our enemies also know that our media will expend more footage on one American held captive or slain in a terrorist attack than they will on dozens dying from a natural disaster or in our inner cities.

Our government’s highest priority? To ensure that, if something does happen to an American citizen, government officials are not blamed for it. Many will assume that this is essentially the same thing as ensuring our safety and it is true that the two priorities often overlap. But it remains a serious vulnerability that when government has to choose between ensuring security and ensuring that it is not blamed for a breach in security, the government instinctively chooses the latter.

The damage this fear of culpability causes is enormous and varied. First, it predisposes government to divulge sensitive information prematurely, recklessly risking sources and methods, in order to prove to the public that it cares for our welfare. Second, it compels the government to be excessive in issuing threat warnings. Like those hearing the proverbial boy crying wolf, many of us increasingly ignore threat warnings because of their proliferation and general vagueness. Third, and conversely, these same warnings cause others to be needlessly worried and inculcate a siege mentality that in the longer term can harm an open society. Fourth, the fear of culpability impedes important work. That is, even before 9/11 but far more now since Benghazi, there is a continuing effort to narrow and circumscribe what our diplomats and other U.S. representatives can do when stationed overseas. Security officials now dominate overseas operations, and personnel are increasingly strait-jacketed in how they can perform their functions because Washington fears the consequences if anyone should be harmed.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, this reflexive avoidance of responsibility can actually increase the threat. There are myriad examples of how our government’s desire to avoid any blame has hampered and harmed our national interests and further endangered what the government hopes to protect, but I will offer two small examples from my own experience that occurred sufficiently long ago that describing them will not cause any problems. Both occurred while I was stationed in Bahrain in 2000 and 2001, just as we were experiencing an increasing amount of vague intel suggesting that some sort of large terrorist attack was being planned. A presidential election was going to take place in November 2000, and the White House became overly worried that a large-scale attack anywhere would hamper the administration’s chances of retaining the presidency. Because of this fear, there was a ludicrous, indeed comical, proliferation of threat warnings issued to protect the government from blame. As the election neared, panic set in and the State Department sent out a poorly vetted directive to all Middle East posts, ordering personnel to not send their children to school one day. It is important to point out that there was absolutely no intelligence that schools were being targeted and no one in Washington solicited the opinion of the embassies involved. I cannot say what the reaction was in other embassies, but in Bahrain most parents were outraged that Washington was drawing attention to a non-existent problem—the targeting of schools—that might actually inspire terrorists to consider attacking them. There was also no concern in Washington for how local governments might react to a unilateral decision to keep all students from the official American community away from school, while all other children continued to attend. Fortunately, in crafting their cable to posts, Washington used the phrase “should keep their students” out of school. We chose to interpret the term “should” as suggestive rather than directive and we sent our children to school. The ambassador bravely endured criticism from Washington for having done so, even as many in Washington privately acknowledged that the “no school” directive had been unjustified, except on political grounds.

The second example involves that same school in Bahrain, but this time it was the Department of Defense, rather than the Department of State, that overreacted and increased the risk to the students. Just after the election, in late 2000 and early 2001, as intelligence reports of an impending attack somewhere continued to proliferate, the fear of a school attack–again with no reliable intel–took hold of those who were responsible for school security. Since the school in Bahrain is a DoDDS-sponsored school, it fell under DOD jurisdiction. With little prior consultation with either the embassy or the host government, heavily armed U.S. Navy security guards were deployed to “protect” the school from a nonexistent terrorist threat. The sight of these guards strutting down the hallways of the school with their M-16s was disturbing to many of the students and parents, but the thought of being blamed for an attack, even though the fear was based on myth, was all that mattered to those making the decisions about security. Both the embassy and the school parent association argued against deploying the guards, insisting that the risk of an accidental firing was far greater than the risk of a terrorist attack, but the Navy refused to listen. It was not until a few weeks later, when the inevitable happened—a Navy guard unintentionally left his loaded rifle unattended in the school cafeteria while he went to get a drink of water—that the Navy backed down and removed the guards from the school corridors.

2. The Cult of Security: A New Cartesian Principle: “I am protected,
therefore I am (important).”

While many bemoan the increasingly burdensome nature of our security measures, there are those who quietly savor them. This is certainly true of the security apparatchiks themselves who now almost exert veto power over their supervisors when it comes to any security-related matter, but also of many of those supervisors as well. There has developed a peculiar notion among our higher officials that their intrinsic value is somehow related to how much security they warrant. I have known several ambassadors and high-ranking military, for example, who insist on having bodyguards, as well as lead and chase cars, not out of any true concern for their security, but simply to magnify their importance to all those who come in contact with them. It is farcical, and makes obvious that something has gone seriously awry in our security posture, when any American Cabinet-level official has far greater security requirements than most heads of state. A little self-reflection by these officials might cause them embarrassment, but instead they preen and strut, basking in their illusory importance.

3. Easier to Ratchet Security Measures Up Than Down

Whenever a terrorist attack occurs or credible terrorist-related information is obtained, there is a natural reflex to react to it by augmenting security measures. While this is a completely understandable reaction, few ever recognize that once those enhanced measures are implemented, it is far harder to return to normal. There always remains the lingering fear that once the enhanced measures are withdrawn, a terrorist incident will occur and they will then be held accountable. Over time, this aversion to being held accountable leads to a needless proliferation of security measures.

4. The Male Imperative: When Something Happens: Do Something, Do
Anything

Almost every husband has at one time or another encountered the situation where his wife will complain about a problem, and his immediate response is to try fix it rather than commiserate about it. While laudable in a household situation, this male reaction can become quite absurd in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Consider our reaction after 9/11: Although no enemy aircraft were involved in the attacks, American and NATO fighter jets patrolled the sky over New York City for months afterwards; schools in distant states had lockdowns and local police sent patrol cars for reassurance; our president declared that the 9/11 attacks demonstrated the need to accelerate our missile defense systems and, in an even more incomprehensible reaction, led us to war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks.

Similar security non-sequiturs are implemented in various ways at our embassies and military bases around the world whenever we feel threatened in some way. My personal favorite was that after the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen, all 5th fleet ships docked in Bahrain—a fundamentally different place in terms of security and host government cooperation–were sent out to sea. At the same time, all the families of our Navy personnel were left “stranded” on land, directed to stay inside their homes as much as possible. The irony could not have been greater: the protectors fleeing to the sea, while their defenseless families huddled alone in their homes.

The best example from American history, however, remains the decision to intern more than 110,000 people of Japanese heritage during World War II. Admitting that there had been no actual acts of sabotage committed by any Japanese-Americans, General De Witt employed all the logic and penetrating insight we have come to expect from security experts: “the very fact that no sabotage has taken place is a disturbing and confirming indication that such actions will be taken.”

5. Personal Courage and Bureaucratic Courage are not Synonymous

If someone pointed a gun at me, I would wilt. I unabashedly acknowledge that there are severe limitations to my sense of personal courage. So, I am always proud of and grateful for those among us, particularly our law enforcement and military personnel, who risk their lives to ensure our safety. It was, therefore, a shock to realize that individuals who can fly dozens of sorties over enemy territory or fearlessly charge into a building through a hail of bullets, sometimes wilt like flowers when confronted with making security decisions that they might be held accountable for. While there are valid reasons for caution–genuine concern for the safety of personnel, especially–the sad truth is that security decisions are increasingly made simply on the basis of what is least likely to cause a threat to one’s career rather than what is a realistic threat to one’s personnel. Always opting for the safest option, even if it may harm morale or impede getting work done, insulates supervisors from ever being held accountable. The expectation of facing an ARB (Accountability Review Board) is far more frightening to some leaders than charging a heavily-fortified enemy position. Taking prudent risk, especially after the Benghazi witch hunt, is for many no longer a viable option.

6. Security Concerns Are Extraordinarily Politicized

This problem probably warrants an article all its own. Some disturbing recent examples of this are the 2012 de-listing of MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq) as a foreign terrorist organization (apparently, if they only slaughter Iranian civilians, it is not terrorism); the 2017 inclusion of Iran on the list of six Islamic countries whose citizens can be barred from entry into the United States (despite Iranian citizens never having participated in any terrorist attacks on American soil); and the absence of Saudi Arabia from this same list (although most terrorist attacks that do take place in the United States have been inspired by the Wahhabi cult’s ideology). And all these examples pale beside the double standard at work in differentiating between political violence, including assassinations, perpetrated by allies, such as Israel, and that committed by enemies who employ the same means.

An Inflationary Trend

Just as grade inflation impairs our educational system and price inflation can damage our economy, security inflation endangers us. It puts at risk our civil liberties and it takes from us our comfort and sense of well-being. It also, perhaps counter-intuitively, renders us more jaded, more careless, and certainly more disdainful of security measures that are already in place. Two questions should always be asked over and over again before security measures are implemented: At what point do security measures impede security? And at one point is a free people no longer free?

We must never allow security personnel to have the final say in making policy. It is crucially important to rein in security advisors and not let them dictate how and where and why we live. Risk avoidance is a dangerous path to wander down unthinkingly. Imagine if we had safety personnel who could dictate and control our lives to the same degree. One simple example: every year about 30,000 Americans lose their lives in traffic accidents. This is horrible, and yet it could easily be fixed: just lower the maximum speed limit to 15 miles per hour. We would save tens of thousands of lives. The absurdity of this analogy is lost on security experts who want no losses to terrorism and other political crimes. This insistence on no losses and this excessive risk aversion impedes and curtails crucial engagement around the world.

The continuing national disgrace of GTMO, the NSA surveillance operations, the misnamed PATRIOT Act, and various other matters should be cautionary tales for all of us. Perhaps Cicero was right when he said that “in times of war, the law falls silent.” But the way it is, is not the way it should be. It is precisely in times of war, in times of fear and in times of danger that we must be even more diligent to ensure that law and liberty are safeguarded. Sadly, the US does not have as good a record as it ought. From the Alien and Sedition Laws under Adams to the suspending of habeas corpus under Lincoln to the Espionage Act under Wilson to the present-day fears about terrorism, the inclination to sacrifice law, liberty, and common sense for security is an ongoing challenge.

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The featured image is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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