Thursday, June 13, 2024
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Rethink security

By Leyland CeccoStaff Contributor

Fresh off a botched attack by Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was allegedly acting at the behest of al-Qaida, the apparent best response by aviation authorities and governments is to deny people from getting out of their seats an hour before the flight lands and installing body scanners in airports.
The Gazette previously published a denunciation of these scanners, so we can skip over the privacy issue. These Orwellian machines are touted in the name of enhanced national and international security. But are they really a necessary addition to the swath of security measures in place? Come to think of it, how worried should we be about terrorism?
Undoubtedly, Abdulmutallab’s botched Christmas day attack highlights the fact that terrorists (especially Al-Qaida) are still trying to attack airplanes.
The U.S. had all the information they needed on him prior to his flight. Information from Yemen had sounded alarms within the bureaucracies of the CIA and NSA. The problem arose from miscommunication between the agencies and the aviation authorities. As Obama noted, the “dots weren’t connected.”
If the bits and pieces of information had been aligned, would the attack have been prevented? Probably. Would have he been stopped with a body scanner? Maybe not.
Here’s why: without crucial communications, body scanners can be ineffective.
Prior to 9-11, the threat of terrorism was not a new phenomenon. There were hundreds of lives lost to hijackers and bombers targeting airplanes. Security measures were in place. But the attacks still happened.
Subsequent reports written afterwards point again to miscommunication. While there were many documents warning of an al-Qaida attack prior to Sept. 11, poor intra-agency discourse rendered the information useless. To counter this fault, stricter security standards were in place. But if enhanced security measures prevented attempted attacks, we wouldn’t be discussing Abdulmutallab’s underwear fiasco. Miscommunication and inefficient handling of sensitive information are the problem, and the answer isn’t a body scanner.
So maybe we need to focus on better handling of information. But isn’t al-Qaida a huge threat? Isn’t that what Fox News so eloquently tells us? Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh seem to think so. It’s what Obama is accused of being so soft on.
If you want to play the statistics game, the best place to look is statistics-smith Nate Silver. Silver gained mass recognition for his number crunching during the 2008 presidential election, where he successfully predicted the results (except for two states.) He had also predicted Obama’s primary victory when he realized the polling done by many major groups was just plain shitty.
So Silver, on his website, www.fivethirtyeight.com, tackles the ‘Odds of Airborne Terror’. He notes that for every 16,553,385 departures, there is one terrorist incident. Over the last 10 years, the odds of boarding one of those flights were one in 10,408,947. Not bad. For reference, he calculates the odds of being struck by lightning as one in 500,000. Pretty good.
If numbers aren’t really your thing, there’s another way to look at it.
Is al-Qaida getting stronger, or weaker? Slate.com’s Timothy Noah confronts this question. After the 9-11 attacks, the U.S. essentially decimated al-Qaida’s infrastructure. More than two-thirds of its leadership was killed or captured. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the ‘architect’ behind the September attacks is in jail and will soon be tried in civil court.
Citing Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Lawrence Wright, Noah claims 80 per cent of al Qaida’s Afghanistan membership was killed, and al-Qaida’s numbers are probably around 200 to 300.
“At the very least, U.S. forces set back the al-Qaida hierarchy by several years. At most, the United States may have destroyed permanently al-Qaida’s ability to operate as a centrally run enterprise, reducing its chairman, Osama Bin Laden, and its CEO, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to symbolic figureheads rather than hands-on leaders,” says Noah. This also looks pretty good.
According to Noah’s thoroughly researched evaluation of the situation, the threat of terrorism isn’t as bad as it used to be. So why are we letting more and more security measures be implement to counter a dwindling risk?
It seems as though the move to implement body scanners isn’t so much a product of risk calculation and analysis of the threat, but a move to suggest that airborne terrorism is a bigger danger than it might actually be.
Governments need to get back to the drawing board, but first rethink their communication skills and ability to handle sensitive information before they head into the future like it’s 1984.

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