The Right Fight: Put Security Dollars Where It Counts

Homeland security money has to go to the targets where the greatest damage is likely

Our homeland-security strategy should be altered to reflect the true dimensions of the different types of threat. Furthermore, we should assign the responsibility for addressing a particular threat to the entity most able to reduce it, and most likely to benefit from its reduction. Espionage, intelligence, and border protection benefit all of the states, so the federal government should invest in them. But the benefits of protecting subways and buses are enjoyed by the residents of a particular state, so these investments should be made at the state level. (That is not to deny the possibility that the entire economy might suffer if the subway in Washington, D.C., were hit by a terrorist strike, but rather that the principal economic impact of such an unfortunate event would be felt locally.) Moreover, most transit systems are regulated and supervised by state and local authorities, and it is local law-enforcement officers who understand their unique design characteristics. They are therefore more qualified than federal agents to protect them.

It's noteworthy that state and local authorities dedicate little of the billions of dollars in federal grants they receive to mass-transit security. If they really think protecting mass transit should be a higher priority, they can begin by allocating more funding to that goal. In any case, throwing money at transit security is unlikely to help much. The London subway system is considered one of the best-protected in the world, required as it was to endure the threat of bombings by Irish Republican Army terrorists. Yet it was attacked twice in recent weeks, and the second attempted bombing--foiled only by a malfunction of the bombs' detonators--took place while the subway system was in maximum-alert mode.

It isn't surprising, then, that many analysts think options for preventing such attacks are limited. The difficulty of safeguarding subway stations follows from the fact that they are designed to be very open and give people quick access. You simply cannot install airport-style security screening in them without rendering them unable to perform their intended function.

So what is the solution? The attacker always has the advantage of choosing where to attack, and terrorists will look for weaknesses in our defenses just as Hitler's army sidestepped the Maginot Line. Consequently, intelligence gathering and counterintelligence are often the most cost-effective defense. The federal government should accordingly devote a large portion of its homeland-security funds toward preempting attacks before they are set in motion. The second-best solution is to mitigate the damage caused by an attack. Without knowing where or how an attack will occur, authorities can lower expected damage by developing plans to manage the attack's aftermath. In the case of a subway bombing, for instance, such plans might include developing effective means of evacuation, placing emergency equipment within easy reach, and training personnel to respond to emergencies.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, has also made a helpful proposal: He would toughen penalties--and allow the death penalty--for attacks on mass-transit systems. While it is true that suicide bombers have little fear of execution, it is not necessarily the case that everyone who might attack a subway intends to die in the process. Such people can be deterred at little cost.

The surest way to obstruct the development of a successful defense against terrorist attack is to let our policy be guided by a series of knee-jerk reactions. Unfortunately, that is precisely what Congress is engaging in today. Until money is allocated on the basis of sound cost-benefit analysis, we will become poorer, but no safer.

Veronique de Rugy is a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

(c) 2005 National Review, Inc.