Homeland Defenses Against Terrorism May Be Excessive and Counterproductive in Some Cases

Osama bin Laden has re-emerged to issue his first video message in three years. Al Qaeda released another video to mark the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in which bin Laden's voice is heard introducing the video testimony of one the 9/11 hijackers. There is general consensus that terrorism remains a real and immediate threat but that overreaction could pose as much of a danger as complacency.

Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution argues that it is time to consider the proposition that our homeland defenses against terrorism may be adequate, and even in some cases excessive and counterproductive. Gaps in homeland security still remain, but the United States needs to focus on the long term and avoid sudden policy reversals in response to dramatic events abroad, he argues.

"While there have been no terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11, it is far from clear whether the government's efforts have made the difference," says Shapiro. "Policy discussions of homeland security issues are driven not by rigorous analysis but by fear, perceptions of past mistakes, pork-barrel politics and insistence on an invulnerability that cannot possibly be achieved. It's time for a new, more analytic, threat-based approach, grounded in concepts of sufficiency, prioritization and measured effectiveness."

This approach, Shapiro argues, should be focused on enhancing four major efforts:

Cooperation with foreign partners to further degrade al Qaeda

Continued "overprotection" of civil aviation, including air cargo inspection and defense against surface-to-air missiles

Public education to create more resilience in the event of an attack

Outreach to Muslim communities in the United States, whose unfriendliness to terrorist groups has made the United States less vulnerable than other countries to terror attacks

But implementing a threat-based homeland security strategy will be politically difficult, Shapiro says.

"Although U.S. policymakers often say that homeland invulnerability is impossible, they are rarely able to accept the political consequences of that fact," he says.

"Vulnerability means accepting that we cannot always be protected and that terrorist attacks can occur. It means that we have to make hard choices about how much to spend and what to leave vulnerable. It means that we may need to accept greater risk to preserve the friends we need and to avoid alienating those who might do even greater harm in the future. None of these are messages that the public may want to hear, but they are the realities of the age in which we live."

A full version of this proposal, as well as supporting background material, is available at www.opportunity08.org.

About the experts and the project

Jeremy Shapiro is director of research at the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings. His expertise includes military operations, national security and transatlantic diplomacy. Shapiro is also an adjunct professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University.

Opportunity '08 aims to help 2008 presidential candidates and the public to focus on critical issues facing the nation, presenting policy ideas on a wide array of domestic and foreign policy questions. The project is committed to providing both independent policy solutions and background material on issues of concern to voters.