The True Costs of Terrorism and National Security

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The following article was written by Robert A. Levine and David K. Levine.

According to an American "intelligence official" commenting on the failure of the intelligence community to anticipate the Christmas day potential terrorist disaster: "Every piece of data, of course, looks different when you know the answer." This sounds like an after-the-fact rationalization, or perhaps even whining. It also represents a fundamental truth that is mostly ignored.

In her seminal 1962 book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, Roberta Wohlstetter made exactly the same point with regard to the far greater-than-9/11 historical catastrophe of Pearl Harbor.

... It is much easier after the event to sort the relevant from the irrelevant signals. After the event, of course, the signal is always crystal clear; we can see what disaster it was signaling, since the disaster has occurred. But before the event it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings. It comes to the observer embedded in an atmosphere of "noise," i.e., in the company of all sorts of information that is useless and irrelevant for predicting the particular disaster... In short, we failed to anticipate Pearl Harbor not for want of the relevant materials, but for a plethora of irrelevant ones.

In 1941 the signal embedded in the noise was the movement of an entire Japanese fleet. Sixty years later, in 2001, the American intelligence community failed in gathering information from diverse spots on two continents of fewer than 20 suicide bombers and planners. On Christmas day in 2009, the intelligence and homeland security agencies missed the movements of a single man across four continents.

It is true that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a suspicious character. His traveling between Yemen, Britain, and the United States, his e-mails, and above all the alarms sounded by his father should have signaled something and it did. The intelligence and anti-terrorism communities had known about these clues. The terror suspect had been placed on a huge list of hundreds-of thousands similar individuals, but not, or not yet, on smaller lists ranging down to the four-digit "no-fly" index.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should have been placed on one of these smaller lists. One reason for the intelligence failure was in part a lack of communication among the responsible agencies; dialogue and information-sharing should have been stronger and it should be remedied. But when it is that will, in a way, compound the problem. Then all of the agencies -- and perhaps a new "coordinating" agency supplementing the one we thought we had created after 9/11 -- will face all of the data on all the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabs and all of the millions of gray "dots" to be "connected." A few of which will turn a vivid red only after an event.

The intelligence community is not searching for a needle in a haystack; it is searching for a needle in a pile of needles. This is not to suggest that we should not be trying or that we cannot improve.

The insufficient communication between the Army and the Navy in the context of Pearl Harbor led to the establishment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a year later; 9/11 brought about major revisions in the intelligence community and the creation of homeland security department (for better or worse); Christmas day 2009 is likely to lead to more data sharing (also for better or worse), and perhaps better sorting and evaluation of the hundreds of thousands of risks.

Since 9/11, the country's intelligence, justice, and security communities have in fact thwarted terrorist attacks, which is apparent from various arrests, confessions obtained, trials, and even convictions - and probably many more that have never been achieved at such level. Yet some individuals have clearly slipped through the cracks, and it can be expected that more will in the future. The real issue at hand is probability: what actions can be taken to decrease the likelihood of terrorist successes, to what extent, and at what cost?

What cost indeed? The financial and manpower costs of building means of detection and evaluation are not trivial; the costs of implementing new systems, new training, and new people, are even more expensive. More important is the hidden non-financial cost that will be imposed on America and Americans. This ranges from the mundane - time lost waiting in lines - to the hard to quantify loss of freedom and liberty.

On the more mundane side, some simple back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate the magnitudes. According to one estimate there are roughly two billion passengers per year who travel by air. The median hourly wage in the United States is roughly $20. So an extra hour delay at the airport means the loss of roughly $40 billion - that's about the same as the entire annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security. If we figure during the week after Christmas passengers lost an average of an extra 4 hours each - that's about $4 billion right there.

During the cold war, we spent trillions not billion. But these trillions were spent on military systems designed to prevent the loss of tens of millions of lives in a nuclear exchange. The cost to civil liberties included the McCarthy era - but the Cold War was won under the post-Watergate rules that protected our civil liberties up until 9/11.

By contrast, the attacks of 9/11 took about 3,000 lives; had the Christmas Day bombing succeeded, it would have added 300. When the far right talks about the GWOT as our World War II - please keep in mind that U.S. battle deaths alone in World War II were 291,557. Even the worst potential threat of terrorists, a nuclear explosion in downtown Manhattan has been estimated, by the Center for Defense Information, as killing on the order of 100,000 Americans. This is a terrible number but it is hundreds of times smaller than we faced in the Cold War.

Depending on how you count Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the costs of the reactions to 9/11 have probably been less than those of the Cold War. But the costs of the war on terror to the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights have been greater. Perhaps this is of concern only to a small group of civil libertarians, yet the costs to convenience and privacy - even such a trivial cost as that of full body scanners - seem to have preoccupied the media and the public in the weeks since the Christmas event.

Perhaps the costs are justified by the fears and real risks. Certainly, we must continue vigilance, and a vigorous campaign -- defensive and offensive -- against terrorists and terrorism. To do otherwise would increase the likelihood of truly frightening attacks.

But both in the search for terrorists and the campaign against terrorism as a whole, what is needed is a sense of balance -- a reasoned approach to risks and what can be done to minimize them, rather than the run-in-circles-scream-and-shout and the pointless finger-pointing from all sides that has been too frequent, too ineffective, and much too costly since 9/11.