2010: Topics for homeland security discussion

Published 31 December 2009

The only thing we can say for sure about 2010 is terrorists, criminals, and mother nature will surprise us at some point during 2010; still, based on what we do know, we offer a short list of topics we predict will dominate the homeland security discussion in the coming year – from whole-body scanners to 100 percent air cargo screening to social Web sites to communication interoperability to the consequences of climate change (or is there a climate change?)

The Nigerian underwear bomber who was stopped by passengers from carrying out his deadly mission stands as a metaphor for the fundamental problem homeland security planners face: there are thousands of dedicated terrorists, and hundreds of competent terrorist operational leaders, who work day and night on finding new ways to defeat our best defenses.

Former secretary of defense Donald Rumslfeld used to say that “There are two kinds of things we don’t know: things we know we don’t know, and things we don’t know we don’t know.” Security experts know just how many things about terrorists, and the terrorists’ nefarious plots, they don’t know. How many things these experts don’t even know they don’t know?

Still, working with what we know, we see these trends and developments occupying center stage in the discussion of homeland security issues in 2010:

Whole-body scanners

Worries about privacy are always justified, but giving in to puritanical impulses may cost lives. Whole-body scanners have one advantage: they reveal everything. These scanners also have one disadvantage: they reveal everything. The explosives the Nigerian underwear bomber caried on his body would have easily been picked up by a whole-body scanner. Yet, last June, the U.S. Congress passed a bill making it unlawful to use whole-body scanners as the primary security scanning methods at airports. The EU, too, is squeamish about using such scanners

The bill passed in June said that TSA could use these scanners as a secondary screening method for those passengers for whom a second, more thorough scanning was deemed necessary because of their suspicious behavior, intelligence information, and more. Supporters of the bill, chief among them Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), point to the apparent failure in information sharing among U.S. intelligence agencies as the main reason which allowed the Nigerian terrorist to keep his 2-year entry visa to the United States and board the plane.

The point, however, is this: Even if we improve – dramatically improve – information sharing among the U.S. intelligence agencies, and among the intelligence agencies of many concerned countries around the world, it is only reasonable to assume that at some point a terrorist would be able escape the notice of even the most diligent intelligence service, pass even the most thorough background check, and make it to the airport, explosives strapped to his body, without any suspicion and without being on any watch-list. Such a terrorist would not be sent for secondary,