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Complacency May Be the Real Enemy

A July Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on airport baggage screening notes that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) bought explosives detection equipment before completing tests needed to establish benchmarks for detection standards. They did so because testing was proving difficult. That meant the equipment would later have to be upgraded to meet the criteria that could not be set until the testing was completed. GAO noted that the overlapping of test and procurement phases “elevated the risk of poor outcomes,” such as having to replace expensive explosives detection equipment shortly after it gets deployed if it can’t be upgraded to meet new standards.

TSA has agreed not to do that in the future. It’s not hard to imagine, however, that the agency will be criticized for not moving faster to the procurement phase the next time the GAO drops by or Congress holds a hearing.

This tiny chapter in the story of how the U.S. government has handled security since 9-11 exemplifies much of what plagues our policies. As RAND’s Brian Jackson put it in his chapter of The Long Shadow of 9/11: America’s Response to Terrorism, “The insistence on immediate action, compounded by the demand for very high levels of detection and prevention, meant that expectations could not be satisfied by any realistic homeland security policies.”

I would suggest, though Jackson questions it, that the urgency made sense in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. Ten years on, however, we still seem to waste resources by pushing agencies to act fast, then criticizing them for less-than-satisfying results.

We need to learn to be more deliberative going forward. We also need to get better at understanding the nature of the risk—neither dismissing it because it’s low probability, as some do, nor exaggerating it because it’s high consequence, as others do. And most important, perhaps, we need to accept that while we must manage the risk, we can never fully eliminate it. Thus, we have to take seriously the idea that a future attack will occur and plan now how we would respond and recover. We’re doing some of these things already.

Inside this issue, Security Management examines how far we’ve come and some of what we’ve learned. It is encouraging that no repeat of 9-11 has occurred. But even as we were preparing this issue for print, there was the arrest of Naser Jason Abdo in Killeen, Texas, who allegedly possessed guns, bomb materials, and plans to create another Fort Hood massacre. Fortunately, an astute retired police officer working at the store where Abdo allegedly bought guns and gunpowder found his behavior suspicious and reported it to the authorities. The incident shows part of the reason we have made it 10 years without another major attack. But it also reminds us of the persistence of the threat and how that track record can change in an instant if we become complacent.