May 4, 2011

May 4, 2011 | Commentary on Homeland Security

Silly Security Measures Fail Common-Sense Test

I'm not talking about the USA Patriot Act. Many investigative tools authorized by that act have proved highly effective in ferreting out terrorists and thwarting their evil designs. Since 9/11, numerous terrorist plots aimed at the U.S. have been foiled — and Patriot Act provisions are a major reason for those security successes.

Creating the Department of Homeland Security has paid off, too. For example, Faisal Shahzad, who tried to car bomb Times Square,was nabbed thanks to quick action by Homeland Security. Over all, the department has developed a pretty solid — albeit not perfect — track record.

Ineffective rules

But most homeland security initiatives imposed by Congress fail the common sense test. Consider the congressional demand that inbound cargo be screened for radiation and that 100% of all U.S.-bound shipping containers undergo physical scanning. Experts told Congress it was a pipe dream; it couldn't be done cost-effectively. Today, after years of R&D and millions of dollars, the Department of Homeland Security admits the mandate makes no sense.

The cargo initiative was doubly dumb because it addressed a patently unlikely threat — a Tom Clancy-style effort to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the U.S. No self-respecting terrorist would put a nuke in a cargo container. Containers get lost, misdirected, stolen and crushed every day. Yet, the mandate remains on the books, and security officials are still wasting money trying to figure out how to comply with it.

Another dumb idea: Requiring biometric identifiers (fingerprints, etc.) from everyone who leaves the U.S. by land or sea. We're talking millions of people, which makes the notion ruinously expensive and wildly impractical. Again, homeland security has spent millions — fruitlessly — trying to devise a system that works.

The insurmountable problem is information overload. By the time computers sift through all the biometric data and identify a "person of interest," that person is long gone and could be anywhere. The kicker: It turns out that just recording routine "biographical" information on visitors works almost as well.

Visa mandates

Another "impossible dream" mandate from Congress: a requirement that everyone applying for a visa be interviewed. Granted, 99.9% of the applicants pose zero risk of terrorism. Every last one of them must still be put through their paces, says Washington. Along these same lines, Congress also hamstrung the administration's ability to expand the Visa Waiver Program, which allows for 90 days of visa-free travel between participating countries. The program is actually a major boon to security. To be eligible for the program, nations must meet stringent standards to combat terrorist travel. Furthermore, the countries we are keeping out — like Poland and Chile — pose almost no security risk.

The list goes on. Congress is nothing if not inventive when it comes to devising programs that cost money, divert scarce homeland security resources from more important missions, annoy our allies, and undermine our economy by making trade and tourism more difficult.

True, these measures have little to do with bin Laden. Since the Afghanistan invasion, he and his immediate followers have been mostly on the run, rather than trying to pull off the next 9/11. But if bin Laden were alive and masterminding a new attack, these wasteful and ineffective "security" measures would present no obstacle to his plans.

Still, bin Laden's consignment to the briny deep offers a good occasion to stop the nonsense measures. Who can claim the government is soft on terrorism if it opts to end a program allegedly intended to stop the no longer threatening Saudi?

The government recently scrapped its laughably ineffective color-coded warning system. There is more to be done. When it comes to dumb security programs, Congress created a target-rich environment.

James Jay Carafano is director of the Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Related Issues: Homeland Security

First appeared in USA Today