How did the effort to foil American terror plots change after 9/11? How are terrorists deterred from their goals?
John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart join us this week to talk about why our government needs to think realistically about combating terrorism.
Show Notes and Further Reading
Mueller and Stewart’s new book on how our post-9/11 government ends up chasing incredible terrorist threats, Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism (2015).
Mueller mentions a 2010 comedy movie about British jihadists, Four Lions.
Mueller also mentions a book of student papers that he edits that follows post-9/11 terror cases in America, Terrorism Since 9/11: The American Cases (2015).
Garrett Graff’s The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War (2012) is a good overview of how the FBI currently responds to terror threats.
Trevor Burrus: The following episode discusses issues surrounding terrorism in the United States and abroad. It was recorded before the San Bernardino shootings.
Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today are co-authors of a new book Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism. John Mueller is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and he’s a member of the Political Science Department and Senior Research Scientist with the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at Ohio State University. Mark G. Stewart is Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Welcome to Free Thoughts gentlemen.
John Mueller: Thank you. Nice to be here.
Mark Stewart: Thanks for having us.
Trevor Burrus: Your book kind of begins – I mean as most terrorism discussions begin with 9/11. What was the mindset immediately post-9/11? What was the mindset of the defense security establishment about terrorism?
John Mueller: Well, it was just hysterical. Basically they were finding ghosts I believe you call them, but a terrorist under every rock. In 2002, they were telling journalists there are between 2000 and 4000 Al-Qaeda operatives at loose in the United States and the number we now know is very close to zero. They’re – everybody seems to have been an intelligence, ready and worrying about an immediate second wave, which never happened of course.
Trevor Burrus: Were you ever able to figure out how they got this 2000 or 4000 number?
John Mueller: No, but let’s – that’s sort of the hysterical aspect. They’re apparently finding them all over the place or they’re thinking they’re finding. They hear them talking to each other and there are a few cases where they might have done that. But what’s bizarre is people haven’t gone back and said to these people – you should ask the intelligence committee. Where did you come up with 2000 to 4000? I mean it’s just not like off by a factor of four or something. It’s off by a huge amount.
Aaron Ross Powell: Is there a sense that they were intentionally inflating that number or just so paranoid in the months and years immediately following that they just weren’t I guess thinking rationally if the number is off by that amount?
John Mueller: I think the latter institutionalized paranoia and you get reports. People are saying that everybody believed that, everybody in the intelligence, which is bizarre. You think there are a few people saying, well, maybe there won’t be a second wave. Maybe they’re [Indiscernible].
I mean George Bush opens his book saying that – right after 9/11, the director of the FBI comes in and says, “We know there are 331 Al-Qaeda operatives working in the United States,” and Bush is writing his book ten years later and he doesn’t say, “Whatever happened to those 331?” The thing is no one goes back to these people and saying, “How come you’re so wrong?”
Trevor Burrus: Is the security establishment as such that you could have this kind of swirling misinformation where no one knows where they actually come from? Everyone seems to believe that it’s 2000 to 4000 Al-Qaeda operatives because their friend in the next cubicle told them that and their friend in the next cubicle told them that and that’s just basically the source of the belief is sort of a self-sustaining delusion that they all work off of and they can’t gainsay?
John Mueller: Yeah, that’s a major problem in intelligence basically. You’re tied into a small number of people who can look at the classified intelligence. The classified intelligence is overwhelming. So that’s all you read. That’s all they read and you get into this mindset.
Nonetheless, it’s absurd that no one was saying maybe there won’t be a second wave. Maybe we’ve overestimated them. That would just be a hypothesis. Who knows? You can’t be sure but you think somebody would say that.
A year after 9/11, I did an article and there was in the National Interest and picked up in the Washington Post suggesting that maybe 9/11 was an outlier. That it was not a harbinger but basically an aberration.
I didn’t say it was. I just said we have to consider the possibility that it might be an aberration and they published it in the National Interest and it was labeled a 9/11 provocation that someone could—is very provocative that you could even bring up the possibility that this was an aberration. So that was very much the mentality and it continued on.
Aaron Ross Powell: Why would it be an – if it is an aberration, it seems odd that it would be given how common terrorist attacks are all over the world.
John Mueller: Yeah. Well, there hasn’t been that much in the whole world outside of war zones. It seems to me – there are maybe 200 to 400 people killed each year by Muslim extremist terrorists outside of war zones each year and that includes London and Bali and Mumbai and so forth. So it’s not that there’s a whole lot of it going on and there’s the countries like Canada or Australia obviously that found virtually none.
Mark Stewart: Yeah, and this seems that this observation is never really made publicly. I think the politicians don’t really like to think about that. They just want to think about what might happen next rather than actually what is happening and what does the data actually show. What’s the evidence?
Aaron Ross Powell: But we often get the sense – I mean we hear stories in the newspaper that it seems like the US government is always stopping another attack. We’re constantly hearing stories about the FBI arrested this particular guy who was planning something or were told there was a threat and then the assumption is – and therefore government stopped it. So if you take the front page of the major newspapers at face value, it does feel like there’s a fair number of threats on a fairly regular basis and we’ve either just been lucky or really good.
John Mueller: There are extensive sections of the book dealing with the terrorists who have plotted – supposedly been arrested or have actually consummated violence in the United States. The more you look into these cases, the more pathetic and trivial they become. Many of them – over half of them have had an FBI informant who has been egging the would-be terrorist on. It doesn’t mean of course the terrorist wouldn’t have figured out on his own completely but that seems to be very common phenomena.
There’s a British movie called Four Lions which I strongly recommend which basically seems to get much closer to what the average terrorist is like, basically four bumbling or five bumbling actually terrorists in Britain by – directed by Chris Morris.
So anyway, it’s – when these things do get a foot forward, they do tend to be exaggerated. The police wants to indicate that what they might have done and what they had intentions of doing and they often had grandiose schemes like toppling the Sears Towers and things like that or less commonly talked about is the fact that they didn’t have a remote capacity to do it and most of them didn’t know where Chicago was.
Trevor Burrus: What is the – you open up your book discussing the threat matrix and the sort of briefing system of the establishment. How did that system and how does that system work?
John Mueller: Yeah. It came out – I talked to a former CIA guy Glenn Carle about it and he said it emerged initially because after 9/11, George W. Bush said give me your 10 most wanted list for terrorists and they didn’t have anything like that and so literally overnight, they invented the threat matrix. What it is is any squib of information, any tip in other words that might lead to terrorism has to be examined and it gets put into this massive matrix.
The number of tips in the FBI and other government agencies have followed up since 9/11 is well over 10 million and the number we know – certainly the number of those who’ve proved fruitful are incredibly small and then when they do prove fruitful, frequently the people you actually end up with are rather pathetic losers who are unlikely to do much of anything. Though they did have the right – they did have the terrorist mentality in them.
What seems to happen – there’s a very good book on this by Garrett Graff called the FBI – he called it The Threat Matrix about the FBI. He goes into a chapter and verse about these tips coming in and you basically are surrounded by them all the time and your whole life is on these tips and many of them are horrible and the nuclear weapons in the Bronx and things like that.
The fact that hardly any of them pan out to be anything is less considered. There’s also a book by Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who came in somewhat later after 9/11 and to the republic administration and said that – you read this stuff and it will literally scare you to death every single day and he quotes that – that’s a fairly direct quote from George Tenet who is head of the CIA and Goldsmith says that’s the view of everybody whoever read the threat matrix. So you’re living with this stuff and you’re scaring yourself to death and no one says this is an awful lot of crap and maybe there isn’t anything out there.
Trevor Burrus: My favorite one is the – one entry in this I’m quoting from the book. One entry in the threat matrix is crisply cited as, “A threat from the Philippines to attack the United States unless blackmail money was paid.” It turns out that this entry was based on an email that said, “Dear America, I will attack you if you don’t pay me $9999999999! Wa-ha-ha-ha!”
John Mueller: Right.
Trevor Burrus: Is that representative of the kind of threats or is that …
John Mueller: Yes. No, I think that’s pretty representative because – people have written about this and they say every squib of information goes in. Previously what’d happen is somebody would say that this kid in the Philippines, he has got his finger on the nine key which it basically was. The FBI had it but they – from the get-go, every single tip has to be followed up. I talked to one top FBI official just a year – just a few months ago and I mentioned this. Do you still do that, follow every tip?
He said unfortunately yes. He said that twice, unfortunately. So even people within the FBI seem to think that maybe we could do our – use our resources better by only examining some things, by basically triaging the tips, which is what they did in the past. But everything gets followed up and many of them are bizarre. Very, very common as people sending in tips because they are trying to get even with somebody. My ex is a terrorist. He’s also a communist and he’s also a pervert and so – but you have to follow it up.
Trevor Burrus: Do you have a favorite – of the Threat Matrix, I mean that was definitely my favorite but in terms of that dichotomy between the stories that were told. Aaron mentioned these stories that come out and say – we recently captured a terrorist wanting to topple the Sears Tower which – I mean I’m just picturing that in my mind as bizarre by itself but – or the transatlantic flight or the bomb in Times Square. Do you have a favorite one in terms of the biggest difference between the story that was told and then the actuality of the story? You too Mark if you have a different favorite one.
John Mueller: Yeah. Mine would probably be the Sears Tower one. The guy – I mean it’s a really interesting case when you get into it. What’s really fascinating – I did a case book which is available on the web called Terrorism Since 9/11: The American Cases. So it’s about 60 cases in there and they’re all worked out in fairly elaborate case studies.
It has been really interesting to write the book because each of these cases is different. Each are – many of them are just bizarre beyond belief. The case of the Sears Tower case, what happened was this guy goes into a Yemeni grocer and says, “I would really like to be connected to Al-Qaeda. Can you help me out?”
Trevor Burrus: He just happened to see one on the screen.
John Mueller: Well, Yemenis, they must know all about Al-Qaeda, right?
Trevor Burrus: Yeah.
John Mueller: And so the Yemeni grocer helps him out and he also tips off the FBI because he’s actually an FBI agent or informant.
Aaron Ross Powell: He just happened to find a Yemeni grocer who was an FBI agent.
John Mueller: Yes, right. That’s right or he was tied in. Or he was sort of on the pipeline for the FBI. So the FBI – he’s an informant on him and this guy has this little group of about seven or eight people. He’s mostly a failed businessman in Miami but he used to be from Chicago and he’s trying to create his own religion and so forth and he also thinks that he might be able to get some money out of Al-Qaeda.
So the operative comes in, says, “Hey, you want somebody from Al-Qaeda?” The Yemeni grocer goes, “Here I am. I’m from Al-Qaeda.” Even – some of these informants are really clever and this guy for example – right at that time, Osama bin Laden sent out a message saying this – or very soon there’s going to be a big attack in the United States because we’ve got people working on it. So the informant tells this guy he’s talking about you. You’re already world-famous.
The guy basically, his argument is to make – turn it around further that he was actually trying to con – he needed money desperately and the guy was constantly dangling tens of thousands of dollars potential from – Al-Qaeda of course has got deep pockets and so forth. Not as deep as the FBI but nonetheless.
His idea was basically we will just – just string this guy along. That’s what he says. We’re going to string this guy along and get the money. We don’t do anything of course and as he gets pushed further and further, he gets more and more valuable and he comes up with this idea of whatever you want to do is go to Chicago which at least he knew where that was, Chicago. We will blow up the Sears Tower and then it will topple over and fall into Lake Michigan, creating a tsunami, which will then wash back on …
Trevor Burrus: I’m sorry. I feel like I’m laughing too hard at this, but continue.
John Mueller: All this is totally true and that it will wash back on Chicago downtown and there’s a jail there and that will destroy the jail and from that, we will free prisoners and with it, we can create a new, emerged nation. Someone asked him, “Where did you come up with that?” He said some movie or something.
So the informant says, “Wow, that’s really interesting. But maybe we should start with something a little bit easier.” So then they have this idea where they’re going to bomb the FBI headquarters in Miami and the plot ends up basically in an incredibly bizarre way. Somebody should make a movie of this. In order to humor this guy, he’s trying to create a new religion, the FBI informant says, well, they would bring in an expert on creating religions from Chicago at the request of the guy who’s doing it. So he comes in.
Trevor Burrus: That’s a strange expertise.
John Mueller: That’s right. He’s from the south side of Chicago where lots of religions have been created over there. It’s a hot spot. So he comes in and he brings his wife who he calls Queen Zebediah and so you see, he walks in. He’s basically a livewire because he immediately spots the – unlike these guys, spots the informant as an informant. So that guy is from the FBI and they start getting answers. Yeah, that’s right. It falls apart and starts to break up. So this long period of time in which they’re trying to get this plot worked out, by the police, is about to go down the tubes.
Then the informant gets – I mean not the informant but the Queen Zebediah husband guy gets into a gun fight with one of the guys and shoots him. So he gets arrested. No one gets killed. He gets arrested and then he tells the police these guys are about to do terrorism, which is total nonsense. So then the police swing into action. They arrest the group and they went to trial three times and failed twice and then finally the guys got in prison.
Trevor Burrus: Do you have a favorite one Mark?
Mark Stewart: It’s awesome I find it because when you read about media, it sounds like you can really help them. So the first thing I thought was, well, this must be a really tall building. So then I went to Google Maps just to see where it was and it would actually have to topple over and then slide downhill for more than a mile. It would actually get the lake …
Trevor Burrus: It’s kind of astounding but we’re laughing here. We are also recording this a few days after the horrible attacks in Paris. So we – when people say we’re being too flippant about this …
John Mueller: Sometimes they get lucky. 9/11 was getting lucky big time and – but no one else has. I mean there have been very few successful attacks and the worst one in the United States has been the shooting at Fort Hood. It killed about 13 people. So the damage is obviously unacceptable but it was quite low and the other cases where there has been – one guy tried to ram a – tried to kill people by driving through the University of North Carolina campus and running over people and he missed everybody somehow. Then he telephoned saying, “I did that,” and they arrested him.
Most of you look at the – what’s strange about the case is, is they’re serious in the sense that these guys are not phonies. They really believe this stuff. What’s comical is their incapacity to do much about it. But it – if you look at them all and say – if all these guys had succeeded in what they’re doing, I mean what they’re perfectly capable of doing, which would not include taking down the Sears Tower, but if they were capable of doing something, how much damage would be done? It’s likely pretty small because they’re just not very competent.
But sometimes you get lucky and 9/11 was they got lucky and is – and the Paris thing. The Paris thing is also if the information is not very fully out yet, but it looks like a guy who had set up several other terrorist attacks in Europe, all of which became – were abysmally failures. So finally he got it right tragically and put together this plot, if the current news reporting is correct on that.
Aaron Ross Powell: This incompetency seems odd given – so maybe toppling Sears Tower is really hard but getting a gun and shooting up a lot of people seems to be – I mean just based on the last few years, something that Americans are pretty good at.
John Mueller: Yes.
Aaron Ross Powell: So why – I mean is even that beyond the capacity of these people? If so, why are they so bad at it?
John Mueller: Well, obviously some of these school shootings and so forth have killed far more people and they’re just by kids, than all the terrorist plots. Many of them have visions about getting guns and shooting people. Some of them have actually had experience with guns. Many of them have not. Most of them have angled – they’re really more toward explosives because they think that’s more – I don’t know why. Because it’s much more difficult to do and they also get tied in with the FBI informants. So there’s one guy in Baltimore for example who emailed or posted on Facebook that he was looking on a new jihad and he wanted to have the – he needed help.
So he gets three messages. The first is from somebody telling him to stuff it. The second is somebody trying to convince him not to do it and the third is from an FBI informant who says, “I just happen to have this car bomb in my garage. Maybe we can work together and we can make beautiful terrorist music together,” so they get connected and of course the guy eventually does try to use the car bomb. But does not – but obviously it’s a dud and he gets arrested.
So in that case, you got this guy – it’s funny in a way but it’s also dangerous in the sense this guy really did push the button which he thought would blow up in this case a military recruiting station. So they’re serious in that sense, most of them. But their capacities are limiting and they – he said he never in a million years would have been able to put together a bomb on his own
Aaron Ross Powell: Have the number of threats or plots or stated intention to blow things up gone up as social media use has climbed? So you mentioned this guy just put it out on Facebook asking for help and one of the things that Facebook and Twitter and other social media sites do is make it much easier to broadcast threats, make it much easier to have conversations with other people all over the place. So young men, especially angry young men, often have these rich fantasy lives about their own capacity and these elaborate plans that they’re going to put together and whatever else. So has social media – has it grown with that? What portion of the threats that say the FBI is monitoring are people spouting off on Twitter?
John Mueller: Twitter didn’t even exist – not very long ago. And there have been three or four different studies of this, academic studies, and basically you can include the social media stuff as to the benefit of the police overall. The communication – like this guy in Baltimore. They’re able to pick up people, find people and use the evidence. It must be about third of the cases involve some sort of social media. It doesn’t have to be Facebook. It would be just having a website and frequently they were able to put together and they spout their views, which is perfectly legal obviously to spout your view, but then the implication is maybe they would actually do something and then the FBI follows up.
Mark Stewart: It also has has been a big help to the police services. In Australia, quite regularly the Australian police will pick up Australian nationals who are at the airport, who are about to catch a flight to join ISIS because they told all their friends that they’re going. You know, because I think it’s a good thing. So they’re happy to tell their friends and obviously the police can actually tap into that information as well.
John Mueller: You have to talk to the friends. They just catch up and the electrons are going through the area. This is open. This is not spying. We can look into Facebook. It’s not a restricted thing particularly.
Trevor Burrus: Again the bumbling.
John Mueller: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: So I’ve talked to people who have said – so I’ve talked to some people who have worked in the government of the more conservative bent and they have said to me when I’ve criticized our terrorism policy. They’ve said, “You don’t know what it’s like to see the threats that are facing this country and until you do, you can’t really …”
So that’s one version and then on the same page, some people say, “Well, why do presidents post-election, they often change their rhetoric from being maybe somewhat less attacking on terrorists …”
Aaron Ross Powell: More civil libertarian.
Trevor Burrus: More civil libertarian. But then when they get into office, they stop that and someone says, “Well, it’s because they see.” Then they get the secret folder, so they see what’s really going on and so that’s another explanation for this and then another one is …
John Mueller: You wouldn’t be thinking about Obama, would you?
Trevor Burrus: Well, he’s acting like it. Then another one is sort of the Dick Cheney explanation that we haven’t had a terrorist attack because the intelligence establishment has thwarted tons and tons of this. Now we’ve addressed a bunch of this. Now, one of those three seems to be a more common opinion amongst – I don’t know if it’s scholars, if it’s more common on scholars but amongst the defense establishment for the explanation for terrorist attacks. Yours is just the simplest one. It’s not that common. It’s hard to do and they’re kind of idiots.
John Mueller: That’s probably pretty good …
Mark Stewart: It’s actually easy to do and that was touched on before. I mean if people really wanted to do harm, they can do so with guns, with cars. What happens is – and it’s very – then a bus stop or train stop or something. So the fact that isn’t happening sort of suggests to us that maybe there are not many people out there who really wish us harm because if they want to do it, they can do it pretty easily.
Trevor Burrus: How did people react to that thesis though? I mean – in the defense establishment I know that scholars – how do the scholars line up on this?
John Mueller: Your first issue about them seeing all these threats, that’s exactly what the Threat Matrix says. You just see all the threats and the question is – no one is saying this is a lot in the garbage or even Tenet says even half of them are wrong. It’s scary. Well, come on. They’re not anywhere near half that have led to anything and that a quantitative issue basically doesn’t even come up overall. They just get – they get this institutionalized paranoia. So they’re talking about all this stuff. It’s like that.
What we tried to do is actually sort that out. What you have is first of all the disclosed plots. It’s ones we know about because they’ve been arrested and there are court cases and/or like the guy at Fort Hood. He shoots somebody. Then you would get basically the idea that there are these plots that are not out there, that are out there but they have been stopped.
If there are any – but they didn’t get arrested and the question is if there’s a real plot. Why weren’t they arrested? I’ve talked to two people. One is Glenn Carle and also working a lot with the CIA is Marc Sageman. They just basically see there aren’t any of those out there. If I can use the phrase of – Glenn Carle says that – who used to be in charge of the threat assessment at the CIA when he was employed there, says it’s bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. So that’s either three words or two depending on how you look at it.
I asked, “Can I use that?” and he said, “Yes, yes, yes.” So then what happens is they do find a lot of little teeny plots that are just beginning and they also close them out frequently by arresting on something else. There’s enough to arrest them on terrorism charges essentially but there’s a – the check bouncing and immigration violations and so they do send these people out of the country if they’re immigration violations. They’re given short prison cells. Prison sentences would be good for forging driver’s licenses or something like that. So there’s a group like that but those plots are even more embryonic than the ones that have come to trial because if they weren’t embryonic, they would have gone to trial because they would arrest them on terrorism charges.
So the questions they’re dealing with are very extremely embryonic plots and then there’s the plot – then there’s the issue about deterrence. There are people who don’t do anything but they would like to because they’ve got a great security apparatus. Well, as Mark just said, it’s very easy to do if you wanted to shoot somebody and stab somebody, throw a brick through a window. It’s very easy to do. There are some things which are very hard to do which is like commandeering an airplane.
So in that sense, terrorists have not tried very hard to commandeer airplanes like 9/11 for good reason. It’s very hard to do so. There are a lot of security barriers, ones that are created because of the act and also because ones they put them – like TSA. So this means basically, OK, one thing they can’t do is commandeer an airliner. Now the argument about deterrence is that if people agree that they can’t do an airliner thing, then why don’t they do something else. The Paris thing showed an infinite number of targets. I mean some of the people were just walking on the streets. They would drive by. They shot at a – a couple of restaurants and then on people on the street. I mean you can’t protect everything remotely.
So the question is they may be deterred from doing certain things like hijacking airliners but they certainly could do other kinds of terrorism. So the implication of this whole line of reasoning about deterrence is that a terrorist says, “I want to be a terrorist. What do I want to do? I think I want to blow up an airliner.”
Then they think about, well, that’s really hard to do. OK. I won’t be a terrorist. If that’s what your whole idea of a dedicated terrorist is, namely he can’t get his super prize and therefore he’s not going to become a terrorist. What kind of a terrorist is that? I mean it doesn’t show exactly a whole lot of dedication. So the deterrence argument makes sense in the sense that certain things are off limits. Many of them would like to shoot up military bases because their main motivation is anti – is basically from hostility to American foreign policy and that’s really hard to do because military bases are not exactly easy targets.
Trevor Burrus: That would be the last place you want to shoot at.
John Mueller: Yeah, though they still …
Trevor Burrus: Obviously they do it.
John Mueller: Yeah. So essentially, the deterrence thing, they may be deterred from attacking certain targets. But if they are deterred from all terrorism, which is very easy to do, because they can’t get certain targets, it’s hard to see how they’re really dedicated terrorists.
Trevor Burrus: But that seems really bizarre because someone who really does want to blow up a plane and then thinks they can’t, they’re a little confused by your deterrence thing. They would be – wouldn’t they then go into the shooting …
John Mueller: Yeah, that’s right.
Trevor Burrus: That’s what they would do. Yeah, OK.
John Mueller: Yeah. So they were deterred from certain targets but they shouldn’t – that shouldn’t deter them from doing terrorism.
Trevor Burrus: So we should see a lot more shootings almost and we don’t. So that’s interesting, yes. Now what about – of course everyone here is thinking here – listening. Small probability, high cost. Standard, nuclear weapons. This has been a problem. It’s talked about consistently. People thought this would be – one Harvard professor you quoted said the – pretty much thought it was a certainty. Does this happen? So there are bumbling idiots and all this. OK. But this is the – one guy is all it takes for a nuke to be part – in Central Park and it’s just game over at that point.
John Mueller: Well, I’m not sure it would be game over. But I did another book called Atomic Obsession which is somewhat summarized in the Chasing Ghosts book. The difficult – these guys have difficulty putting together bombs and so – I mean just for example the marathon bomb set at – in Boston. Two bombs went off and killed three people in a crowded area. So they finally actually got a bomb to go off but it wasn’t exactly terribly lethal.
So the more I looked into it, the more – the difficulties of creating nuclear weapons or stealing them or something are so horrendous that they may have had – many terrorists don’t even have much interest in that and basically if you’re going to be successful, like in Paris, we should do things which are really pretty simple.
Trevor Burrus: But isn’t there a bunch of sort of rogue Russian nukes out there that are unaccounted for? It’s the common idea?
John Mueller: No.
Trevor Burrus: No.
John Mueller: It’s like the suitcase bombs. Now even if they are out there, they demand constant maintenance and so if they are not being used, they’re just deteriorating essentially. But there seems to be very little evidence there are any out there.
Trevor Burrus: What about suitcase bombs?
John Mueller: Suitcase bombs.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, we talked about that beforehand. But what about those? Do those exist?
John Mueller: That’s the same thing. They don’t seem to even exist as far as I can see.
Trevor Burrus: I think I had read one time the Russians made one in the 60s that we had like 180 pounds and was a pretty small yield itself and yeah.
John Mueller: There may be some around but they’re not loose essentially and that seems – it basically is not – the whole hysteria that came out after 9/11 about the main nuclear weapons. They’re really good with box cutters, therefore they must be able to make nuclear weapons. It doesn’t exactly follow.
Aaron Ross Powell: We’ve talked about the FBI being involved in counterterrorism, the CIA and NSA. But it seems like basically everyone who works for the federal government now is in some way involved in counterterrorism or at least claiming they should get more money for counterterrorism. So, outside of those three, what other agencies are involved and how is this all working?
Mark Stewart: If you’re spending something like $115 billion per year, there are a lot of agencies involved, a lot of snouts in the trough essentially.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, that’s the other way of asking the question is where is all the money going.
John Mueller: Excellent question.
Mark Stewart: First of all, the definition of homeland security is so broad these days. So everyone wants to say that they’re in that nexus. So it covers things like immigration, customs and border protection. The coast guard has a substantial homeland security sort of role as well. So it’s pretty hard to find a government department that actually doesn’t have some aspect in terms of homeland security in their role.
That’s part of the issue is that there’s a lot of money being spent in agencies that really don’t have much expertise or much really capability in that area as well. I mean if you take the – the FBI has a budget of something like $3 billion for counterterrorism. That’s about three percent of the total federal spend essentially.
They’re a fairly competent agency. They’re the lead agency for counterterrorism in the United States. They’re responsible for most of the convictions and everything else. So we wonder. Where does the other 97 percent go and what are they really achieving?
John Mueller: You tell them about the local police too.
Mark Stewart: Yeah, I mean local police budgets on homeland security is no more than about one or two percent of the total police spend. So even an agency like the New York Police Department which is always in the media about how they’re – the main role against counterterrorism and everything else. They only spend about two percent of taxpayer’s money on counterterrorism and probably another two percent comes from the federal government in terms of protecting the UN and grants.
Trevor Burrus: Does that indicate how much of a problem they think it is?
Mark Stewart: Exactly. So actually when – most police departments are funded by local taxpayers and it sort of shows that local taxpayers are more concerned about crime and traffic and much more mundane issues than actually terrorism.
John Mueller: But if the federal government says we will give you this money to chase terrorists, they’re perfectly willing to accept that.
Trevor Burrus: Well, do we have a …
Trevor Burrus: In Eisenhower’s speech, he warned about the military industrial complex and he was at the height of the Cold War and the actual sort of traditional nation state model. Do we have like a terrorism industrial complex? I mean mixed in with the military since 9/11?
John Mueller: Yeah, they’re called the terrorism industry and they’re trying to get the money. But the Eisenhower thing is really interesting in many respects because Eisenhower really believed correctly that – as it turned out that the Soviet Union was not likely to strike the United States. It basically didn’t want another war with or without nuclear weapons and – but he – and he was appalled at how much money is being spent on defense. What he didn’t say was the threat isn’t really that big. We don’t have to spend that much money which would be totally true as far as I’m concerned and I think as far as he is concerned.
Trevor Burrus: It’s a general …
John Mueller: There’s a whole bunch of evidence about him talking to friends and so forth. They’re not going to strike. He has seen these guys in Geneva. Come on. They’re not going to start a nuclear – they may do subversion and stuff like that, class warfare. They’re not going to start World War Three. Come on. And he really believed that and he thought they probably didn’t need this huge defense establishment. But instead of saying that publicly, what he did say was that the – that it’s all basically done through the influence wanted or unwanted of the military industrial complex.
So what he did was he attacked the messenger, the people profiting from it but not their premise. They say, yeah, but the Russians are going to attack any minute now and if the Russians are going to attack any minute now, then you say we got to spend a lot of money on that. So if you accept the premise, you’re dead. Basically the money is going to go.
The same thing is happening with terrorism now because what we try to do is say the threat is really very limited, not zero, but limited. And so when Cheney says these measures will save thousands, hundreds of thousands of lives, and ACLU says, “Well, yeah, but they’ve invaded our privacy,” people say, “Well, wait a minute.” Invading the privacy versus hundreds of thousands of lives, you don’t have much of an argument and the people attacking the NSA for example, another intelligence thing, they basically are keeping legalistic arguments in the Fourth Amendment and so forth. Is that reasonable seizure? This is search and seizure.
Well, if the search and seizure saves thousands of lives, most people will say that proves that it was reasonable. It’s not an abstract thing. You have to attack that argument. You can’t just let Cheney say 100,000 people have been killed. Lives have been saved and they basically rarely do it and so they – it becomes an argument basically about something – you have to go after – like Eisenhower, attacking the military industrial complex but not its premise.
Aaron Ross Powell: So the military industrial complex in the Cold War and afterwards, we – that was – we can see the incentives. We can see how these companies were making money. Like you inflate this threat and then oh, that means we need to build a lot of planes and a lot of tanks and a lot of missiles and all sorts of other equipment. But for terrorism, who is profiting off of this? What are they selling? What are they trying to convince us to buy more of?
John Mueller: Well, anything that the market will bear. If the TSA or the Department of Homeland Security says we need a whole lot of X-ray machines, everybody has got X-ray machines to sell. It’s in Washington in an augenblick and when they get there, they say, you know, you don’t really need these X-ray machines because the terrorism threat isn’t so bad. They don’t have much of an incentive to say that. So it’s the vendors who are creating it and the – if I were selling X-ray machines, I would be there. I mean that’s my job and it – one of the X-ray machines, I have X-ray machines that are really terrific X-ray machines and whom I did tell them that we don’t – that’s their problem. They think there’s a need. So we will supply the need. It’s capitalism working perfectly.
Trevor Burrus: Well, I mean with the government. So it’s something that’s enforced by the …
Mark Stewart: Particularly if it’s government money and it’s free.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah.
Mark Stewart: So my local police departments, when they’re offered free money from the federal government, they say, “Oh, we want another vehicle. That could be quite handy. You never know,” and then they say, “Well, actually, we might need a boat and something else.” So it’s like a shopping list.
Trevor Burrus: That’s one of my areas that I wrote on our policy handbook about the militarization of local police which came to light in Ferguson but was always directly tied. I mean first it was the drug war and then it was terrorism.
John Mueller: Well, their job is to suck as much money out of the federal government as they can. Same with mayors of course. That’s – and Mayor Bloomberg frequently when he comes up at the case – twice in fact. He came out with cases which are – the culprits were so trivial that even the FBI wasn’t interested in …
Trevor Burrus: Was it one of those Times Square bombers?
John Mueller: No, no. That one actually – that one is a guy named Pimentel. Another guy which I call a pair of lone wolves because that’s what they called them. I don’t know if you can have a pair of lone wolves. That’s what they called them who are going to bomb some synagogues and stuff. In both cases, these guys – one guy in the synagogue gives one guy – was certifiably crazy and the other guy was basically a loser big time and the FBI said these guys are what they’re going after. Pimentel the other guy was going to do pipe bombs somewhere. But anyway, they arrest these guys and they do have enough evidence eventually to convict them and at least on our New York state laws and then they sort of hype the threat. They give a big press conference and they show how a bomb – that Pimentel was – might actually work and so forth.
Then at the same time, they said we really need a lot of money down here in New York. They’re experts at wheedling money out of the United States, government and obviously because of 9/11 of course. They have a good deal to work with.
Trevor Burrus: Now for – I wanted to ask about two more things because for our listeners who are convinced of the threat inflation, we talked about nuclear weapons. Now dirty bombs, what about the problem of dirty bombs?
John Mueller: Well, we keep waiting for that to happen. I mean there’s a big difference between nuclear bombs and dirty bombs. Nuclear bombs will kill people. Dirty bombs won’t.
Trevor Burrus: That is a big difference.
John Mueller: He knows that. It’s right there on the surface. What they can do is cause an inconvenience and they can increase nuclear radiation on a certain area. In some cases, the calculations are that if you stay in that same area where the dirty bomb has gone off for 40 years non-stop, your chances of getting cancer might go up by one percentage point. If that’s your idea of a good time, OK.
So they’re basically not very – in fact people who look at it will frequently say they’re not weapons of mass destruction because they don’t destroy anybody in terms of property or people. They’re weapons of mass disruption that if you have an area which has elevated radiation risk, then – and we have extremely conservative standards about that. You might have to evacuate it and that would be really costly and the cleanup would take forever because the cleanup has to go down to super, super clean standards.
Trevor Burrus: I had heard that if you put a dirty bomb in Central Park, most people – I mean – depending on how it was made but it’s easy to die from making them too if you’re trying to get that much concentrated material but because I’m from Denver, I have a higher level of radiation because I’m from Denver. So it would be – most people would get about the level of radiation that I got from living in Denver and it’s another really fascinating thing in your book. You discussed Jose Padilla arrested in 2002. This is quoting – well, apparently mused at one point about creating a dirty bomb, a device that would disperse radiation or even possibly an atomic one. His idea about isotope separation was to put uranium into a pail and then to make himself into a human centrifuge by swinging the pail around in great arcs. This seems unbelievable …
John Mueller: It’s fairly typical mentality of these guys.
Trevor Burrus: Now what about biological weapons? This seems to be – we have anthrax and small – this would devastate the world.
John Mueller: These have been known for centuries essentially and there have been very little use of it. The problem is they’re very hard to control and they’re often very unstable. Anthrax spores do last a long time but most of them don’t. They can – the effect can be massively reduced by having just some wind in the area. So – the military hates them because they’re so hard to control and they also contaminate the area they’re in.
The case with Aum Shinrikyo for example was a really good case. This is a millennial cult in Japan that decided they wanted to blow up the world or something, Armageddon, whatever, and so they first tried to get nuclear weapons. They leased a uranium mine in Australia for example and they couldn’t get first base on that. So then they went to biological weapons and they actually worked on some and even set them off a couple of times. The weapons were lit off and not only did they not do any damage but no one even noticed, which has got to be really deflating …
In fact the head of Aum Shinrikyo said all this stuff of biological weapons is disinformation coming out of the CIA. They want us to work on biological weapons because they’re so difficult and then they moved eventually to chemical weapons and had great difficulties with that and finally set off a few very crudely in the subway in an enclosed area in Japan, killed a few people and were arrested and finally closed down.
So the difficulties are very high. If you want to be a terrorist, some people – some terrorists have said keep it simple. Use things you know how you’re doing and that’s why if there’s a scary thing about the – particularly about the Mumbai or about the Kenya attack and particularly – with Paris, it’s that relatively simple, easy to manage – there’s not a lot of training or leadership or anything else.
It would be pretty spontaneous and it can be improvised as you go along and doesn’t take advanced technology. You just have to have a gun or it can be a knife or something else and know how to use it. It doesn’t take a lot of training. You’re not trying to shoot careful targets or anything. You’re just trying to kill people who are walking along the street. It’s not rocket science.
Aaron Ross Powell: So given that, given that terrorism is – I mean we’ve been talking about the threat is overblown but there still is a threat. There are clearly people out there who would like to kill Westerners if they could. What would an alternative, much more effective and efficient way to fight this threat look like?
Mark Stewart: That’s a good question. I suppose the first thing to think about is actually what are the risks of terrorism and then how – how does that compare to other hazards that we’re exposed to? Then that gives us a basis for – actually, do we need to invest in this area or maybe should we invest into a tornado shelter or [Indiscernible] or some other way that can save lives. So the risk of being killed by a terrorist in the United States in the last 30, 40 years including 9/11 is about 1 in 4 million. In Australia, it’s about 1 in 7 million.
John Mueller: Per year.
Mark Stewart: Per year. If you look at the United States post-9/11, the risk of being killed is 1 in 110 million. They’re very real numbers. If you’re looking at aviation security, the risk of being a passenger that gets killed and the flight is either hijacked or blown up is about 1 in 90 million. In other words, you have to fly every day for 68,000 years before you would be involved in any sort of terrorist incident in a plane or airport. And yet we never hear these effects discussed openly at all. John and I go to a lot of security conferences and quite often the bottom line is risk management, security risk management.
John Mueller: Risk-based.
Mark Stewart: And we are the only speakers who start the talk by saying these are the numbers. This is the basis for our discussion. Now maybe you’re happy with these numbers. Maybe you think they’re too high. If you think they’re too high, why do you think they’re too high? And then what can be done about it? Or maybe think that there might be something that we can tolerate. I mean you don’t accept the risk.
No one likes to accept any risk but there’s a large amount of research and consensus in terms of low probability, high consequence events with nuclear power, medical technologies, environmental pollution where difficult choices have to be made about where do you invest the resources and funds to maximize the life-saving potential of any regulation. We just don’t see that debate happening at all.
John Mueller: That’s really absurd. It should be because basically, if you want to put seatbelts on the backseat of the car, you have to explain how many lives it’s going to save and know what’s the cost and that’s not being done with terrorism.
Aaron Ross Powell: So we have that debate in other areas like with cars and perfectly willing to admit like – so you can say like, well, if I wanted to cut down auto accidents, we can force everyone to drive five miles an hour and people are like, well, it’s not worth that in order to prevent these things.
But it does seem like there’s something different about a terrorist threat versus a car accident or the threat of hurricanes if you live in certain parts of the country or other kinds of risky activities you can engage in and that’s that there’s an agency behind it. Like terrorism is scarier because it’s another person who wants to do us harm and it’s not the kind of individual, personalized harm of like, oh, my ex-spouse may get mad and attack me, but there are people out there who want to hurt a lot of us indiscriminately and that’s – I legitimately – potentially terrifying in a way that the threat of earthquakes or car accidents is not. Is there something to that and does that difference in the nature of the threat – should that factor into the way we approach preventing it?
Trevor Burrus: What I wanted to actually add to that too because we have people who shoot people obviously too much in America in bad situations. But they don’t have in their mind hating America or hating us for our freedoms or this sort of like things that people say that terrorists want or wanting to destroy America. They’re people who kill people but that’s not their goal. They’re just psychotic. So we don’t worry about that but then if you do the same thing, but you have something in your mind that’s different, it’s somehow worse. So, it kind of dovetails off of Aaron’s question.
Mark Stewart: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I mean, yes, terrorism – expresses so many emotions and risk aversion particularly. But so does nuclear energy and so there has been a large debate over the last 40 years in the US. There’s a debate in Australia at the moment and elsewhere about where do you put a nuclear power station. What are the risks of something going wrong? How do you safeguard it? Who pays? Who benefits? Local jobs versus the risks and there are public meetings and that’s very controversial and people get angry and they take different sides.
But it’s all done in open, transparent manner. No one is trying to hide anything and so you really have a mature debate about it. You might not agree with the outcome. So terrorism should be treated in a similar aspect. Sure, there are things that make it unique but there are aspects that are very similar to other highly-motivated public policy decisions out there and I suppose – I mean the book is really trying to say this is a framework that has been used for other emotive issues and if you apply the same framework for terrorism, this is sort of where it tries to lead us and particularly when it comes to risk aversion. I can be risk averse. I can decide I don’t want to climb a mountain because I just don’t think it’s – or go skiing. Well, I can’t ski but anyway.
John Mueller: Back in Australia.
Mark Stewart: So – but governments, they need to be – they don’t need to be quite as pessimistic when they’re spending public money. So if there’s a way that you’re going to save X number of lives by investing in – tornado shelters, say, rather than – I mean saving a couple of lives, maybe for some new counterterrorism policy, then they should pick the tornado shelters that may be concerned about how that looks in terms of their politics and their electoral chances but that’s not what they were meant to do.
John Mueller: Yeah, let me just add to that. There’s a study that’s commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security about how much of a life or terrorism is worth.
Trevor Burrus: Which other agencies do all the time.
John Mueller: How much is life worth? It’s not infinite – say one life is not an infinite good. I mean because you can save lots of lives with the same amount of money …
But anyway, they conclude roughly which is fairly standard about the – the human life is worth about $5 million or $6 million or $7 million and they suggest that to add to that, because a terrorism proposes exactly what you’ve been talking about, special anxieties and so forth, that it would be doubled. So it’s like $14 million per life or $15 million.
So you can do that and we do that. We also – the – it’s a little bit tricky because some terrorist attacks like 9/11 or like the French case really create a huge amount of anxiety but the shootings at Fort Hood, the big worst attack in the United States since 9/11, it’s hard to see that people got very anxious. There’s definite cause obviously. Some people were killed and property damage but it didn’t cause people to not go to Texas because they’re afraid of being shot or anything and it didn’t create a lot of anxiety. So what we usually prefer to do is look at certain kinds of attacks that seem to have – some of them have – basically look at them individually. It seems to have a fair amount of this emotional impact and others don’t and to deal with it in those terms.
So you can include it. What you can’t do is simply say life is infinitely valuable and you have – I mean physicians prescribing things. There’s a small chance they give you this and it will kill you. They tell you that and so that kind of calculation is there, should be there and is very important.
The fact that no one talks about acceptable risk is bizarre. The only time we found really a public discussion of acceptable risk is by John Pistole of the – he’s head of the Transportation Security Administration and they were calculating that there’s – they were trying to put in these scanners that had X-rays in them and the X-rays could give you cancer. So they had it checked out and said, “Can it give you cancer?” and he said no, it’s perfectly – not perfectly safe. He said acceptably safe because we’ve looked at it very carefully and had experts at MIT and so forth look at it and they say the risk is perfectly OK.
So Mark basically looked – it’s pretty straightforward to figure out what the risk is because – what the dose is and there are standard things that are also extremely conservative but they’re out there and they’re accepted by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency and the government agencies. So what’s the chance of getting cancer from a single scan? It comes out to be 1 in 60 million. Well then as Mark pointed out, what’s the chance of being killed by a terrorist? It’s 1 in 90 million. And if 1 in 60 million is acceptable risk, why isn’t 1 in 90 million?
Trevor Burrus: The idea is it’s 1 in 90 million when you have scanners in airports. It’s lower if you didn’t have scanners in airports. Having scanners in airports raises your – the chance that makes it less likely to be killed by terrorists.
John Mueller: Yeah, except that they come from before – mostly before scanners even existed. So it’s not clear that they’ve added that much to the risk – reduce the risk that much.
Trevor Burrus: So we have again a sensitive situation now with Paris and we also have a situation with – which has captured the world’s imagination probably more than almost any terrorist attacks since 9/11 or at least in the Western world. We also have a sensitive situation with what France is going to do and we also have a Syrian refugee issue that’s all getting wrapped up in this. What do you fear about what will happen post-Paris and then also how we’re going to deal with the refugee problem in light of this horrible event?
John Mueller: The concern is basically overreaction. I mean the overreaction in 9/11 including not only the huge amount of increase of security spending without examination as Mark noted but also the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which have ended up with the deaths of far more Americans who died in 9/11. Not to mention obviously the higher death tolls for Afghanis and for Iraqis.
So the French are making all kinds of screaming, hollering things and almost – including increasing surveillance and being able to arrest people just because they don’t look right and so forth. So there’s a danger of that basically, that overreaction, which costs a lot of money and also has lots of civil liberties implications and if it involves getting – throwing things out of wars in the Middle East, they can be extremely costly. I mean the war in Iraq has caused several trillion dollars and it’s still going on.
So I worry that that might happen and the experience suggests probably that it won’t be as bad as that. But the most important – actually what we find is that the most effective counterterrorism measure is to not overreact. That doesn’t mean don’t react at all. Terrorism is a problem. You want to deal with it.
So the terrorists do exist. They do kill people and so it’s a public hazard that should be dealt with by people in charge of public safety. It should be done in a responsible manner the way other hazards have been examined and it simply hasn’t been known.
Trevor Burrus: Thank you for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.