National Security

The Three Most Dangerous Things About Threat Lists

What the pundits and analysts don't tell you.

The New Year is always a time for making lists, and presidential inaugurations crank the Beltway list-making machine into overdrive. We've got prediction lists, challenge lists, and even foreign-policy-problems-the-president-could-solve-right-now lists. The thing is, the most serious foreign policy challenges are often unlisted surprises.

In 1995, President Clinton issued a Presidential Decision Directive that demanded intelligence priorities be placed into tiers. They were, and Afghanistan was near the bottom. In 2000, a self-appointed bipartisan Commission on America's National Interests tried a similar drill. They ended up assigning counterterrorism and democracy promotion outside the Western hemisphere as second- and third-tier interests. In 2011, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told West Point cadets, "When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more -- we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged."

Why do these lists have such an abysmal track record? Because they tend to focus on hot spots and bad guys -- the places and adversaries that make headlines rather than the underlying forces that ignite and inflame conflict. Instead of lists of challenges, the Obama administration should think much more about drivers of challenges, understanding better the forces that are likely to amplify and multiply security threats now and over the longer-term. Think of these drivers as "threat multipliers." They don't make the threats. They make the threats more dangerous, numerous, and intractable. In my view, three threat multipliers are critical and deserve much more systematic thought in Obama's second term: institutional mismatch, climate change, and technology.

Institutional Mismatch

Within states and across them, institutions are slow to adapt to new global political realities. This matters. Effective governance is the key to both global economic development and security, tamping down instability, and responding quickly so that small crises stay small and big problems get the attention they need.

Governments and international organizations are changing. The problem is they aren't changing fast enough. At the state level, we are in the midst of three races. In the Middle East, the race is whether new democracies can be institutionalized fast enough to stave off instability. It doesn't look promising. History suggests that building and sustaining democracies takes time. Since 1950, only 22 countries in the world have been continuously democratic. In China, the adaptation race is whether the communist regime can deal with massive social disruption triggered by the country's breakneck economic development. For all the talk of China's rise, a weak China could be vastly more dangerous, stoking nationalist flames and adopting a more aggressive foreign posture to divert attention from domestic woes. In the United States, the race is to transform a creaky 1940s national security architecture to deal with a skyrocketing number of actors and crosscutting issues. So far the U.S. government has responded to this rising complexity by adding complexity, creating scores of coordinators, czars, and special envoys right alongside the existing bureaucracy. When policy coordination is so important, creating more offices to coordinate is not a winning design.

Multinational institutions are also showing their age. The European Union may be coming unstuck. NATO is struggling to find relevance. The U.N. Security Council and IMF are mired in governance schemes that are out of whack with current power realities. The G-20 is a new player but its aspirations exceed its capabilities. Improving and modernizing these organizational arrangements is vital because the United States cannot lead alone and because international security problems increasingly require collective action. When institutional arrangements don't reflect power realities, cooperation becomes more difficult. Coalitions become more fleeting, ad hoc, and time consuming. And problems are left to fester, often growing more difficult with time.

Climate Change

Climate change is a second threat multiplier that affects both traditionally stable places and exacerbates instability in some of the world's most volatile regions. The direct effects of global warming are well-known: more extreme weather events like hurricanes, prolonged drought, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and melting of the Arctic, which is already generating conflict over newly accessible shipping routes and natural resources.

The indirect effects of climate change are less discussed but equally severe. Climate change threatens to inflame social stresses and undermine governance in already fragile states, creating "ungoverned spaces" that are the breeding grounds for international terror, crime, and unrest. Consider this: Climate change is expected to produce up to a 30 percent drop in agricultural yields in Central and South Asia; severe water stress which will affect two billion people, including many in South Asian and African nations already on high alert for state failure; increases in disease outbreaks as water-deprived populations rely on unsafe sources of drinking water; and an estimated displacement of 200 million people living in low-lying coastal areas, particularly in Asia. Importantly, climate change also diminishes response capacity because its effects are regional, making neighbors less able to aid one another.

Technology

The third threat multiplier is technology. The one sure thing about technology is that nobody can predict just how it will be used or by whom. Facebook began as a Harvard student social site and ended up toppling regimes in the Arab spring. Drones used to be the surveillance and killing tools of advanced industrialized states. Now they are being used by rebel groups and built by teenagers. Will drones prolong civil conflict by enabling both sides to see who's around the corner and pick their battles more carefully? Or will they strengthen international peacekeeping by providing a low-risk substitute for "boots on the ground?" Nobody really knows.

What is known, however, is that we live in the early days of a profound new technological era that has three key attributes: lower costs of collective action, which gives civil society far more power against the state; diffuse, often unrecognized vulnerabilities as more systems -- from banks to dams to weapons -- become networked; and technical capabilities that have developed far faster than laws, policies, and international frameworks to manage their use.

In Washington, it is often said that the urgent crowds out the important. Unless the Obama administration does more serious thinking about how to handle these three threat multipliers, the White House's urgent list will only grow bigger.

STEEN ULRIK JOHANNESSEN/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Transportation SNAFU Administration

Talking points for your holiday TSA rant.

Good news, travelers! The Transportation Safety Administration has announced that some snow globes (the ones small enough to fit into those little plastic baggies) are now allowed in your carry-ons.

The joy of holiday travel is here. Between now and New Year's, roughly 40 million passengers will pass through TSA checkpoints in 450 airports across America. According to one senior TSA official, passenger "throughput" in security lines is four times slower now than it was before 9/11. But you knew that already.

We may roll our eyes as screeners bomb-swipe stuffed lambies and pat down grandma, but terrorism experts have long considered the holiday season a high-threat period. And for good reason. The record shows that terrorists like blowing up airplanes, and they like it even more during Christmas, when passenger lines are long and vulnerable, planes are packed, security folks are harried, and the news cycle is slow. Even fizzled bombs have been considered "successes" by terrorist groups. When the Christmas Day bomber failed to detonate his undies in 2009, he still succeeded in getting tremendous publicity and triggering billions in additional U.S. aviation security measures -- responses which apparently delighted his terrorist sponsors back in Yemen.

Years after 9/11, aviation security is still serious business. It has also become rife with misperception, waste, and absurdity. So I set out to answer four questions this week: What are the best innovations in U.S. aviation security since 9/11? What works poorly? What's just plain weird and scary? And what should you know before leaving home this holiday season?

The good news

The most innovative improvement I found is LAX's ARMOR program, which uses a sophisticated computer algorithm to schedule randomized times and locations for canine searches throughout the terminal and police checks of incoming airport ground transportation. I'm normally highly skeptical of "random" anything in aviation security, since it's impossible to tell the difference between clever, unannounced checks designed to keep would-be terrorists off guard and sloppy implementation of standard security protocols by TSA folks armed with approximately two weeks of training and a GED. (The two weeks part is true, the GED is not. In some cases, TSA screeners can actually be hired without a high school diploma).

But ARMOR is smart. It's designed to eliminate predictable security patterns that terrorists can exploit. Random checks also give the impression that police are everywhere -- because they are, just not all at the same time. And LAX police have found that because officers are not walking the same beat and doing the same things every day, they are more alert. Since ARMOR began in 2007, arrests for all sorts of criminal activity at the airport have gone up, an increase that appears to stem from better policing, not more criminality. The technology is already being used in maritime, rail, and other transportation sectors.

Bomb-sniffing dogs are also a plus. They're accurate, fast, mobile, less invasive than pat downs or other security measures, and often kind of cute. Bomb-sniffers include beagles, labrador retrievers, and other familiar breeds that don't scare the kids but do scare (and smell) terrorists hiding explosives. The TSA has 64 canine teams deployed for passenger screening, with plans for more as well as research to better understand the factors that can improve dog bomb detection (like fatigue and the optimal duration of a search shift).

The TSA is finally starting to get serious about risk-based management, or what TSA Administrator John Pistole calls "reducing the size of the haystack." Until recently, the agency's strategy consisted of catching every box cutter and bomb at every gate at every airport in America. Now, the TSA's trusted traveler program, TSA PreCheck, allows travelers to volunteer personal information and pay a fee in exchange for expedited screening. This is long overdue, good for business, and even better for security, enabling screeners to focus on the people who should be screened. Erroll Southers, who served as chief of intelligence for LAX police and was nominated to be President Obama's TSA administrator, put it this way: "Any time we know more about the passenger, we win. We've got to keep looking for the bomber, not the bomb." So far, the program operates in 35 airports and 4.6 million passengers have used it.

The bad

Just about everything else. Privately, many experts say the 3:1:1 rule, which requires you to use those annoying little bottles and baggies, isn't very effective because terrorists can find many other ways to smuggle explosives. Same thing with shoes. Nobody walks shoeless in an Israeli airport, and Israelis know a thing or two about terrorism. One leading Israeli aviation security expert told me that he found the U.S. shoe removal requirements "silly, ineffective, annoying and even humiliating." These rules stick because removing them is bad politics, making people feel less safe even if they aren't.

The worst of the worst is full body scanners. Remember the outcries that the TSA would become a Hustler magazine photo booth, sacrificing privacy for security? Turns out the security gain wasn't much. John Halinski, the TSA's assistant administrator for global strategies, said last May that none of the full body scanners (there are two major types, one that uses X-rays and one that uses millimeter waves) has nabbed a single suspected terrorist. The Government Accountability Office has questioned whether full body scanners would have caught the 2009 underwear bomber. Many experts believe these machines would almost certainly be unable to detect "cavity bombs" hidden where the X-rays don't penetrate and the sun does not shine. X-ray scanners elevate passenger cancer risks, which is why they are already banned in Europe. They are expensive, about $200,000 each just for the hardware. And did I mention X-ray scanners take so long, they are now being removed from major airports like LaGuardia to speed up security? Ninety-one of these clunkers currently sit in a Texas warehouse.

The ugly

Helpfully, the TSA has revealed the top 20 airports where employees steal from passengers. #1: Miami. iPads and laptops are the most popular items.

Then there are your fellow travelers, who pack ridiculously dangerous and stupid things far more often than you'd think. In the first week of December alone, TSA screeners discovered 41 firearms (36 of them loaded), 40 stun guns, 4 grenades, 2 eight-inch knives (one hidden inside a cane), and a rocket launcher. And that's just the stuff they found. Terrorist attacks on airplanes are, thankfully, low-probability events. Scary carry-on items are not.

Travel tips

  • Cooperate. Be prepared for delays. Remember that every time you're the focus of a screener, somebody else doesn't get enough scrutiny. You know you're not a bad guy. TSA doesn't.
  • If you have the choice (and you often do), select a regular metal detector over a full body scanner, especially for kids. It takes less time and is medically safer.
  • If you get pulled aside for a pat down, you don't have to stand there with 1,000 people watching. TSA doesn't advertise this, but you have the right to get a pat down in a private room, by someone of the same gender, with a companion of your choice present.
  • Have your act together. Get shoes off, belts undone, liquids and computers out, change and papers removed from pockets before you hit the front of the line. And if you're one of those guys that are always in front of me, think about wearing pants that stay up without a giant metal-studded belt. I think I speak for many when I say that view is one Christmas present we'd rather not have.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images