Monday, March 29, 2010

On the reactionary incoherence of our terrorism policy

1. Two suicide bombers detonated themselves on the Moscow metro this morning, killing at least 37 people and injuring dozens more.

2. "In response to the Moscow bombings, the NYPD is increasing police coverage of the New York City subway system," according to department spokeman Lieutenant John Grimpel.

3. The bombings cited in (1) took place in the Lubyanka and Park Kultury stations, each approximately 4,600 miles from Manhattan. Early reports suggest that these acts of terrorism were perpetrated by separatists from the Russian Caucasus, probably Chechen.

4. New York city does not have a Chechnya policy.

29 comments:

  1. No, but everyone has a CYA policy these days, and marketing departments, and risk managers, and if it's in the news and a big deal, you have to act like you are responding "just in case."

    Too cynical, or skeptical, on my part? Hey, I blog comment, you decide.

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  2. I see it as the sort of public messaging that's rampant in our military and police actions these days: do something so you can tell people you're doing something, rather than trying to present a reasoned and reasonable narrative about why "doing something" in this instance is pointless and perhaps even counterproductive.

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  3. I would say this is a facet of current American society, and in my opinion, it is due to the increasing bureaucratization (is that a word?) of everything, whether public life or the private sector.

    Pretty soon America will consist of one working tax-payer and millions and millions of managers.

    - Madhu

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  4. I would say this is a facet of current American society, and in my opinion, it is due to the increasing bureaucratization (is that a word?) of everything, whether public life or the private sector.

    Pretty soon America will consist of one working tax-payer and millions and millions of managers.


    I have to admit you've lost me here. I don't see how the one bears on the other (even if we accept your premise).

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  5. "do something so you can tell people you're doing something"

    Well, I'm exaggerating for effect, but the above is what bureaucrats - poor ones, anyway - do. They are very concerned with appearances, with their own metrics, with their own internal departmental policies which may or may not relate to the work actually being done.

    Also, the feedback loop is diffuse and broken in such a system - when everyone is a manager for this that or the other, no one is really in charge, except to protect his or her own little area. Too busy to flesh this out now, but will try later. I thought this was a fairly standard observation in the business literature?

    - Madhu

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  6. I thought this was a fairly standard observation in the business literature?

    I don't know anything about the business literature, so this may be true.

    If I'm honest, I'm not sure exactly what my point is with this post. No one in the decision chain is going to say "don't put extra protection on our public transit system; it's silly to expect that we'd be targeted just because Moscow was," simply because the guy who made that decision would not only face some sort of condemnation and professional repercussions, but also because the profound moral/human impact would probably be too much to bear in the event that he was wrong.

    Now having said that, I guess it's the responsibility of public servants to make resource decisions based on calculations of risk, and a police officer in a subway tube is a guy that's not patrolling or contributing to public safety in some other way (or, more likely, he's a guy that's getting overtime that he otherwise wouldn't be).

    What I'm getting around to in a really roundabout way is this: do NYC subway trains NEED more protection or not? Because if they don't, then the Moscow event doesn't change that fact.

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  7. Yeah, I have the most superficial familiarity with the business world, so I'm full of it.

    This post at zen's kind of gets at it, I think:

    http://zenpundit.com/?p=3376 (institutional cultures and all that. Also, I am very biased because I've spent my entire working life in large bureaucratic places, and so, have a chip on my shoulder.)

    - Madhu

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  8. I actually thought Madhu nailed it with her first post. In highly bureaucratic organizations, all of the emphasis is on process rather than results. If something goes wrong, nobody cares about whether your actions made objective sense. They only care whether you adhered to some handbook, regulation, or "best practice" - regardless of whether that would have made any sense. If what you did made logical sense (like saying there is no connection between Moscow and NYC subways) and something unfortunate happens - well, good luck speaking reason to bureaucracy.

    I suspect that Madhu's impression was influenced by doctors who feel compelled do run unnecessary tests on patients because they fear lawsuits if the unexpected occurs - kind of like NYPD probably took these steps to avoid criticism if something bad happens.

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  9. I think Madhu's post conformed to Occam's Razor quite well - CYA. A bomb goes off in another city's subway. If a bomb goes off in your city's subway and you didn't do anything to protect it, then you'll be blamed for ignoring what was "obvious." QED.

    I'll make things more complex and relate some anecdotes, because, well, it's fun to. A while back, a colleague and I named something "the Andersen effect" or something like it (this was before Andersen Consulting became Accenture). The rationale was that managers pick Accenture to do their consulting, not because it's the rational choice given the project and the price per se, but because if something goes wrong, the manager can say, "It's not my fault - after all, I picked Andersen/Accenture." I've also seen more and better-developed work on this in literature on the legal practice - "good" firms pick up business because corporate counsel don't want to be accused of screwing something up because they low-balled and picked a firm incapable of performing the requisite task. Instead: "I picked Firm A, and everyone knows they're the best." Last anecdote: I was on a project where I/we were the vendor, and the client manager told us to bump *up* our fees, because she didn't want to back to *her* bosses and say she had hired so cheaply, but rather, had engaged a firm of a certain price (and by extension, a certain caliber). All cases of risk-aversion, otherwise known as Madhu put it so concisely, CYA.

    ADTS

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  10. I absolutely don't dispute the CYA aspect of it. I thought that was too obvious to even elaborate on, really, though ADTS's anecdotes are illustrative here.

    But shouldn't we encourage the asking of the question, at least, of why exactly this takes place? Why the NYPD, without a credible threat, is more concerned about subway-related terrorism today than it was yesterday? Or -- without getting into blamesmanship -- why the NYPD wasn't devoting these resources to subway policing already, if it had determined that it was necessary?

    As I've sort of elaborated on, beyond CYA, I think this is about messaging for the public: "look, there was a train bombing, and we're serious about your safety, so we're going to make sure there aren't any train bombings in NYC, even though we didn't think they were all that likely yesterday and they're probably no more likely today." Not that much different from all of the idiotic airline security procedures that we now engage in: aesthetic trvialities that respond only to the last dead guy's best ideas about societal vulnerability.

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  11. Gulliver - what is so hard to understand? Messaging IS about CYA.

    - Madhu

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  12. Gulliver:

    You're right: Beyond the CYA element, there's also an element of security theater.

    ADTS

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  13. Gulliver - what is so hard to understand? Messaging IS about CYA.

    But this is what I'm trying to get around to: is that all it is? Is "public confidence" or something like it a meaningful commodity here, beyond getting yourself re-elected or not fired or whatever? One could, I suppose, make the long and rhetorically fraught argument that people deserve from their government not only security but the FEELING of security, that this feeling is what allows life and commerce to proceed unimpinged, etc etc and so on.

    [As an aside, there's also the possibility that we haven't really considered here, which is that everyone's acting in good faith and not just ass-covering and executing their primary responsibility/ies to keep the American people safe, and are just too genuinely stupid to know that sending cops to the train stations isn't really the most meaningful or effective way to do that. This really could be the answer.]

    But even granting that, where do we draw the line between "security theater" that's acceptable and the kind that's not? Presumably the sort we're talking about here is fine because it's (relatively) inexpensive and doesn't risk lives. But what about the war in Afghanistan, which in many ways is just a slightly more sophisticated version of airline security or cops in train stations?

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  14. Gulliver:

    I'll focus on paragraph three, sentence one. I think it's a matter of threat level. As threat level increases, "acceptable" security theater diminishes.

    ADTS

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  15. "Is 'public confidence' or something like it a meaningful commodity here, beyond getting yourself re-elected or not fired or whatever?"

    A certain degree of public confidence has value (think of the drop in public confidence during the beltway sniper shootings), but beyond a certain point dives quickly into diminishing returns. But in this instance, we are not dealing with public confidence. This action does nothing to shore up public confidence. I don't think anyone in the nYc subway was overly worried about the Moscow bombings and then, upon hearing about some superficial "additional" measures adopted by NYPD, thought "whew, what a relief."

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  16. "NY does not have a Chechnya policy". No, but it's still part of the USA afaik? which has an Afghanistan policy + a Yemen policy + a Somalia policy - plus sporadic "homegrowns" of assorted origin, at least putatively emulation-prone? When I first read that post I laughed, but upon reflection the NYPD's just-in-case exercise in ass-covering may have some justification.

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  17. Parvati Roma:

    You might want to read "Securing the City" by Christopher Dickey. It's an easy read and, depending on what you wish to know, arguably illuminating.

    ADTS

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  18. Fred Kaplan:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2249309/?from=rss

    ADTS

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  19. ADTS -- I think Kaplan is off the mark.

    Here's the title of the piece:

    Why suicide bombers haven't struck American subways: Sheer luck is a big part of it.

    He then spends the next few paragraphs talking about things that have nothing at all to do with luck, but rather with the motivations for suicide bombing. Factors which, as Robert Pape noted in his own op-ed yesterday, generally do not obtain in the U.S.

    But, says Pape, The 9/11 attacks were, of course, big exceptions. Yet as a result of those attacks, it is now much harder for groups of terrorists to board airplanes at all, much less to do so while carrying weapons of any sort.

    Really? Is it? Or is it just harder for guys who have been documented as past terrorists, or who have somehow been tangibly linked to terrorist groups, to board planes? Or really, is it only theoretically harder for these people to board planes, but really not that much more difficult in practice? (Despite his father's warnings, Abdulmutallab had no problems prior to his attempts to light himself on fire.)

    Then Kaplan cites Richard Clarke:

    Clarke has a few theories on why there haven't been any suicide bombings here lately. "After 9/11," he said, "all the security sweeps and the detentions left al-Qaida with the perception that it was very difficult to operate in the U.S.—more difficult than it actually was. Meanwhile, they found it was a lot easier to go after Americans in Iraq. They stopped going after the foreign enemy in the 'far abroad.' We came to them, so they went after us over there."

    That sounds a lot like something else I've heard...

    Al-Qaida's going to fight us wherever we are. See, that's their strategy. Their strategy is to drive us out of the Middle East. And the fundamental question is, will we fight them? I've made the decision to do so. I believe that the best way to protect us in this war on terror is to fight them.

    But all of that is contradicted by Pape's research, which suggests that the primary reason suicide bombers in particular are "fighting us there" is because, uh, we're fighting them "there."

    In the end, Kaplan equivocates. This is easy to do, because you can ALWAYS say, about ANY type of terrorist attack or really any type of inherently unpreventable (in a free society, at least) act of violence, "the only reason it doesn't happen more is because of luck." There are things we can do to mitigate risk, and there are things we can do to make it LOOK like we're mitigating risk, and there are things we can say to make it sound like there's no rhyme or reason to all of this, and that terrorism is an indecipherable enigma that it's impossible for us to understand... but the reality is that people are exposed to more terrorism, generally, when their governments behave in a certain way, and so long as we're not prepared to dramatically alter the entire general thrust of our foreign policy (which is to say interventionism, or more kindly, internationalism, and which, by the way, I am, for my part, not prepared to do), then we have to be prepared to accept a certain amount of risk of terrorism.

    And if you want to make people getting on a subway train go through the same pre-boarding procedures as those getting on airplanes, then be my guest, I guess. But it doesn't seem like a very good idea, and it's certainly not any better an idea now that some Chechens (presumably) have blown themselves and three dozen other people up in Moscow.

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  20. Sorry, one of my early paragraphs should have begun with "but, says Kaplan." I instead wrote "Pape."

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  21. Gulliver:

    My thoughts on your thoughts. (I tried responding in whole, but it didn't work, in part because I don't know how to use italics on blogspot, and they didn't transfer when I pasted into a Word document.)

    The first is that apropos the conversation on Abu M and his Quantitative Manifesto followed by Revenge of the Nerds, Robert Pape might be an excellent security studies scholar. That doesn't mean he knows how to low crawl or clear a jammed M-16. Similarly, he may know a lot about suicide bombing at a certain level, but not at the level of airport logistics.

    I do think there's a Luttwakian logic where you're forced to distribute your force in some way such that you will always have a weak point, and no matter how weak the air traffic system is, the subway system is, and probably always will be, weaker.

    That said, Securing the City makes the case that Al Queda is a fairly amateurish operation, and the logistics of manufacturing and transporting explosives to a subway might be beyond them.

    As an aside, Richard Clarke's assessment appeared based solely on his own projections rather than hard data. As another aside, rereading Pape's APSR piece (2003), he made some questionable coding calls - is Russia a democracy today?

    I did have trouble where you were going with the paragraph "Al Qaida's going to," but understood your final paragraph to read that a country should have a tolerance for risk commensurate with its foreign policy.

    Thoughts? Misunderstandings? Etc.?

    ADTS

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  22. ADTS -- do italics by using an open carrot (<), the letters "em", a closed carrot (>), then your text, then an open carrot, a slash (/), then the letters "em" again, then a closed carrot.

    So, like this, except without the spaces:

    < e m > [TEXT] < / e m >

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  23. I did have trouble where you were going with the paragraph "Al Qaida's going to," but understood your final paragraph to read that a country should have a tolerance for risk commensurate with its foreign policy.

    This para was quoted text from the link in the sentence above it. It's President Bush saying, essentially, "we've got to fight them over there so we don't fight them at home."

    But yeah, you pretty much got the meaning.

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  24. Gulliver:

    Cool.

    I'll work on my HTML formatting. :)

    ADTS

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  25. Gulliver:

    You made Abu M's Twitter feed. Congrats.

    ADTS

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  26. You made Abu M's Twitter feed. Congrats.

    Yeah, he's a friend, and I sent him a badgering email after seeing that he'd tweeted about Kaplan's article (which I thought, pretty obviously, was bad).

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  27. I'm quite likely posting to a dead thread, but

    http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/03/31/were_the_moscow_attacks_a_security_lapse

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  28. Thanks for that link, ADTS. Keating and I are definitely on the same page on this one, he just did a better job of elaborating how and why.

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  29. Yes, those who publish quantitative work (and in the APSR!) need to adhere to a manifesto:

    http://drezner.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/04/01/all_counterinsurgencies_should_be_local

    ADTS

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