10 Years of “Homeland Security”

Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard Commander and one of the country’s leading thinkers on resilience and counterterrorism, has a scathing Foreign Affairs piece out this week about the state of our so-called Homeland Security. Putting aside the tedious debates over cargo screening and liquids in your carry-on, the fundamental flaw in our defenses is the failure to treat regular Americans like grown-ups and enlist them intelligently in this never-ending and complex fight. Ten years after 9/11, American officials continue to overestimate their own ability to prevent terrorism and underestimate the competence of the public. It is a scheme designed to fail, with certainty.

Flynn’s piece is behind a paywall, and it’s worth the price of admission. A few snippets to get you started:

For much of its history, the United States drew on the strength of its citizens in times of crisis, with volunteers joining fire brigades and civilians enlisting or being drafted to fight the nation’s wars. But during the Cold War, keeping the threat of a nuclear holocaust at bay required career military and intelligence professionals operating within a large, complex, and highly secretive national security establishment....By the time the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, two generations of Americans had grown accustomed to sitting on the
sidelines and the national security community had become used to operating in a world of its own.

To an extraordinary extent, this same self-contained Cold War–era national security apparatus is what Washington is using today to confront the far different challenge presented by terrorism….This is the wrong approach to protecting the homeland. Even with the help of their state and local counterparts, these federal agencies cannot detect and intercept every act of terrorism….A sidewalk T-shirt vendor, not a police patrol officer, sounded the alarm about Faisal Shahzad’s SUV in his May 2010 car-bombing attempt on New York’s Times Square. Courageous passengers and flight-crew members, not a federal air marshal, helped disrupt the suicide-bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab aboard Northwest Airlines Flight
253 on Christmas Day 2009

To improve the nation’s capacity to manage dangers, federal agencies must avoid alienating the very people they are responsible for protecting. Regrettably,Washington’s growing homeland security bureaucracy has largely overlooked the need to garner support from the public. New security measures are advanced without spelling out the vulnerability that they are designed to address. When the TSA introduced full-body x-ray scanners and enhanced pat-downs at U.S. airports last fall, it prioritized public compliance over public acceptance.

ResilienceAmanda Ripley