I thought I would recycle another comment posting into a blog entry. This post over at Reason’s Hit&Run about porkbarrelling in Homeland Defense spending prompted me to think about how often poor foresight leads to crises which then set off rounds of panicked and ill considered decision making which wastes time and resources and provides opportunities for corruption.
Decisions made in a crisis atmosphere almost always lead to extravagant waste and misdirection. This happens in both government and the private sector. This is why it is important to think about potential problems and prepare for them long before the crisis hits.
There was a lot of talk in the terrorism expert community prior to 9/11 that Islamists had switched from low or zero casualty mediaphillic type attacks to maximum casualty attacks, yet few if any decision makers paid any attention. Biowarfare experts have warned since the ’60s that the mail system could be used for bio attacks. Only after the attacks actually occurred did we see a chaotic rush to try to defend against them.
We seem to have a cultural concept that anyone who warns against some future threat is actually always just trying accomplish some other unrelated and usually sinister goal. Even if the warnings are taken seriously and action taken to prevent actual harm, many will take the lack of actual harm as evidence that there was never a real threat in the first place. In 1995 a plot to bomb the tunnels connecting Manhattan to the mainland was uncovered. Had the attack been carried out, it would have killed as many or more people than 9/11 and severely crippled New York for years. Yet most people today don’t even know about the plot, and even at the time it barely stayed in the news for more than a week. Virtually all the decision makers ignored the significance of this prevented attack until 9/11 woke them up.
I think I see the same pattern of behavior in the panic over the NSA operations. There was considerable discussion about the need to change the laws and regulations prior to 9/11 within the small community of people who kept track of such things, but they couldn’t get anyone’s attention prior to the crisis. Now we have an ad hoc system of uncertain formal legality rushed into place by executive fiat.
I don’t see any evidence that the vast majority of the critics of the NSA have spent anytime whatsoever thinking real hard about how to identify threats in the contemporary global packet-switched communication system. They seem to be stuck in default rejection mode where they will stay until the next crisis sets off another round of rushed decision making.