Saturday, May 21, 2011

RAND: the decline of a giant...

Last month RAND dented the huge amount of confidence that many reaearchers around the world place in them. How? By publishing this: - an appalling, slanted, ill-informed, superficial examination of aviation security since 9/11.

More detail? Certainly...
In the opening section the author observes, somewhat emotively, that the possibility exists of potential theft of personal belongings screened by X-ray in US airports. This red herring can be – and is, in a great many airports in the developed world - easily mitigated by the presence of judiciously placed CCTV cameras, and by effective supervision of carefully-vetted staff. Indeed, the vetting (i.e. background checking, including criminal record and counter-terrorist checking) of security staff is a cornerstone of aviation security in a great many countries, both developed and developing, around the world.

The next (melo-) dramatic criticism from the author concerns possible personal privacy effects from the potential for storage of images from ‘WBI’ (aka Advanced Imaging Technology or ‘bodyscanners’). This straw man is also easily dispatched by the relevant authorities simply making a policy decision to not store such imagery, and then implementing the policy and publicising it to the travelling public (as has already occurred in other developed countries).

On page 3, the author briefly describes the failure to identify and stop Abdulmutallab, the ‘Underpants Bomber’ but then instantly – and incongruously - maintains that immigration and related processes make a “strong contribution” to security. On what basis is this assertion made? Clearly not from Abdulmutallab’s case! Where is the evidence that any terrorists (or other threat persons) have been prevented from flying by these types of measures?

On page 4, the author hypes up the drama quotient when referring to the “high level of suspicion” with which US passengers are currently treated. He does, for reasons unknown, fail to provide context in that around the world visitors to secure high-profile buildings, such as a parliament (or the US Capitol) are routinely subjected to near-identical processes. (Not to mention: military bases, FBI headquarters, the Empire State building, etc., etc. – the list is long. Indeed most “potential terrorist targets”, other than open public spaces, require security screening in order to gain access.).

On cargo security, he then opines that the US’ aim is to ‘inspect a significant fraction’ of air cargo - as if this would somehow be a worthy achievement. Strangely ignoring the fact that many other developed countries have (for many years) operated 100% secured [but note, not 100% screened] cargo systems, and that internationally the US is widely regarded as the poor relation in its ineffective protection of air-flown cargo.

In setting up his - by now overtly political - argument, he further goes on to give the example of the lack of screening of US airport security staff, (to use as support for a subsequent proposal for weakening passenger screening). Again, he conveniently ignores the reality that - similar to the above cargo issue - in its abject failure to screen airport security staff, the US is very much seen within the developed world as a substandard exception. One fundamental principle of protective security is ‘sterilising’ an area (of threat items) around that which is being protected, and then keeping it sterile. The US’ inability to do this - despite suffering the world’s greatest aviation terror act - is mystifying to the international security community.

[And given the incidence of violent crime and the – correlating, but possibly not causal - high levels of firearms ownership and abuse, it is curious that screening of airport staff has not been implemented regardless of the existence of terrorism.]

In subsequent paragraphs, the author goes on to claim (with no supporting evidence presented) that already ‘we know enough about many passengers’ such that they can be trusted to a greater degree than hitherto has occurred. This line of reasoning completely ignores the threats posed by dupes, later radicalisation or coercion (see below).

The bald (and bold) assertion that “there is very little reason to be concerned about suicide bombers being present on flights originating in the United States” demands the retort: “Do you mean in the same way that there was little reason to be concerned about suicidal hijackers on 10 September 2001?”.

That the author then feels able to go on and emphasise that there have been no attempted suicide attacks in the US since 9/11, suggests a reading by him of the book Black Swan would be apposite [and no, not the one made into a Natalie Portman ballet movie, but Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007), The Black Swan].

The later sentence: “the complete absence of such attacks originating on US soil … is clear testimony to the low risk among the domestic population” is, as many high school students could tell you, a huge unsubstantiated assumption, and not a valid argument.

Then he makes the suggestion that air travellers within the US could have a lower level of security applied to them than those arriving from abroad. Those with even passing acquaintance with the porous nature of both southern and northern borders of the Continental US may – justifiably - feel that this fantasy is hard to swallow without substantial supporting evidence. It would also be true to say that basing one’s protection of airports and airlines – or indeed anything else - on a much larger perceived ‘secure’ zone containing 300 million-plus people outside the airport perimeter is not a recognised security strategy.

Next, given that 9/11 is fundamental to this paper’s theme, the author’s apparent inability to recollect that all 4 ill-fated flights were domestic US services seems downright perverse.

A suggestion is then made that domestic flights could in future be protected largely by baggage X-rays and walkthrough metal detectors - completely overlooking the fact that neither of these technologies would have detected Abdulmutallab’s ‘underpants’ bomb (or any similar devices). No mention is made of glass-fibre, ceramic or plastic bladed weapons, fake plastic guns (still a huge potential problem at 30,000 feet), pepper sprays, and - rather more significantly - the vast majority of military, commercial and homemade explosives, that airport metal detectors have absolutely no ability to detect or otherwise mitigate.

Also, the author seems not to appreciate that homemade explosives – recipes for which, we know from excitable articles in the mainstream media, can be found on the internet – are at least as easy to make in the US as elsewhere.

The Abdulmutallab case is raised yet again, and the claim made that he “should have been” subject to greater security measures. Readers of an analytical bent may feel that the more salient point is that he was not, and that consequently the benefits of multiple layers of security appear not only wise, but essential.

The paper then proceeds to outline how many persons in the US have government security clearance, as precursor for a line of argument that these types of passengers are already inherently secure and need little checking by airport security. The contextual information on what proportion of the total number of flyers in the US these people represent is notable by its absence. Also ‘missing in action’ are any mention of the rates of criminality, suicidal tendencies, or other aspects of personal behaviour within that ‘more secure’ constituency that could endanger a passenger aircraft or an airport. (Comparative stats on criminality in other ‘secure communities’, such as law-enforcement officers, prison officers, etc. might add some – or indeed any – weight to this particular hypothesis.)

Following the bullet-pointed paragraphs outlining potential frequent-flyer/secure traveller schemes, nothing whatsoever is said by the author about how the threats of dupes , subsequent radicalisation or coercion amongst the membership of these schemes might be mitigated.

Anne-Marie Murphy, the unknowing almost-bomber of an El Al flight from London’s Heathrow in April 1986 is the foremost example a dupe. Major Hassan’s rampage at Fort Hood is but one tragic example of subsequent radicalisation, and, Tiger Kidnapping of, e.g. bank employees is a global phenomenon, whereby a bank executive and family members are kidnapped, often at night, and the executive then, directly or indirectly, assists in the robbery of their own bank in order to save the lives of their families. More pertinently, the commonly accepted explanation for a Customs Officer loading an IED on to a Sri Lankan airliner in 1986, resulting in its destruction, is that (1) his family had been threatened, and (2) he did not know what was in the package.

Further missing from the paper – bearing in mind that the author’s chosen title contains the word ‘security’, with no reference to terrorism - is any mention of non-terrorist threats. Whilst terrorist acts against aviation have – perhaps superficially - preoccupied the popular press since 9/11, these other threat-types have not disappeared. For affected passengers, the particular characteristics of an individual’s motivation in putting them at mortal risk would, one suspects, be of little interest.

You will have gathered by now that I am enormously disappointed in this article. Had it been submitted as a school or college essay, then return to author with much red pen and a concomitant low marking would be the inevitable result. All in all, it appears to be a piece more likely to be found in online fora, or in a lesser quality newspaper, than in any way connected with RAND. The mere possibility of this being published by RAND within their 9/11 tenth-anniversary publication is, to me, simply shocking. (And would, I believe, constitute a serious reputational risk for RAND.)

The author patently knows little of aviation security, other than what may be gleaned from the mainstream media, (or from less-reputable, highly politicised blogs) and appears to know even less about research, how to competently construct an argument or the value of evidence in supporting same.

The clearly political slant of the piece, reflecting as it does recent debate in the mainstream media in the US, is beyond my ken. However, what is abundantly clear is that “the business of America is business” and anything, including the security and well-being of the citizenry, can be, in the eyes of certain US media commentators, subsidiary to commerce and the pursuit of profit.

Following this, I shall look anew at the (great many) RAND articles that I had previously enjoyed over many years and had perceived as well constructed, ethically sound, politically impartial and scrupulously researched reporting.

1 comment:

  1. yes you were disappointed! LOL

    But justified. Looks like RAND corp need a kick in the pants