Read more from Slate's Sept. 11 anniversary coverage.
Indeed, at times DHS has ignored specific calls by other government agencies to conduct risk assessments. In 2010, the department began deploying full-body scanners at airports, a technology that will cost $1.2 billion per year. The Government Accountability Office specifically declared conducting a cost-benefit analysis of this new technology to be "important." As far as we can see, no such study was conducted. Or there was GAO's request that DHS conduct a full cost-benefit analysis of the extremely costly process of scanning 100 percent of U.S.-bound containers. To do such an analysis would require the dedicated work of a few skilled analysts for a few months or possibly a year. Yet, DHS replied that, although it agreed that such a study would help to "frame the discussion and better inform Congress," to actually carry it out "would place significant burdens on agency resources."
Clearly, DHS focuses all or almost all of its analyses on the contemplation of the consequences of a terrorist attack while substantially ignoring the equally important likelihood component of risk assessment as well as the key issue of risk reduction. Moreover, we have been able to find no reference whatever to the likelihood of a terrorist attack beyond rather vague references such as "high," "imminent," "dynamic," "persistent," and "emerging." In general, risk assessment seems to be simply a process of identifying a potential source of harm and then trying to do something about it without evaluating whether the new measures reduce risk sufficiently to justify their costs.
This conclusion was strongly supported by a 2010 report of the National Academy of Science. Requested by Congress to assess the activities of the Department of Homeland Security, a committee worked for nearly two years on the project and came up with some striking conclusions. Except for the analysis of natural disasters, the committee "did not find any DHS risk analysis capabilities and methods that are yet adequate for supporting DHS decision making," and observed that "little effective attention was paid to the features of the risk problem that are fundamental." Therefore, it concluded, "only low confidence should be placed in most of the risk analyses conducted by DHS." It also found an "absence of documentation" with the result that it sometimes had to infer details about DHS risk modeling. Indeed, in some cases it was unable to determine what problem was being addressed. It also found "a pattern" of "trusting numbers that are highly uncertain." And, concluded the committee rather glumly, "it is not yet clear that DHS is on a trajectory for development of methods and capability that is sufficient to ensure reliable risk analyses": although it found that "there are people at DHS who are aware of these current limitations," it "did not hear of efforts to remedy them."
Overall, it seems, security concerns that happen to rise to the top of the agenda are serviced without much in the way of full evaluation—security trumps economics, as one insider puts it—and such key issues as acceptable risk are rarely discussed while extravagant worst-case scenario thinking dominates, and frequently savagely distorts, the discussion.
It is clearly time to examine massive homeland security expenditures in a careful and systematic way, applying the kind of analytic risk management approaches emphasizing cost-benefit analysis and determinations of acceptable and unacceptable risks that are routinely required of other governmental agencies and that have been standard coin for policy decision-making for decades throughout the world when determining regulations even in such highly charged and politicized decisions as those regarding where to situate nuclear power plants, how to dispose of toxic waste, and how to control pollution—decisions that engage the interests and passions of multiple groups.
Political and emotional conditions do supply an understandable excuse for expending money, but not a valid one, and they do not relieve officials of the responsibility of seeking to expend public funds wisely. It is particularly important to do so with homeland security expenditures. They deal not with bridges to nowhere or with crop subsidies, but with public safety—or domestic tranquillity—the central, fundamental reason for the existence of government in the first place. It is imperative that decisions be made sensibly and responsibly in this area. To be irrational with your own money may be to be foolhardy, to give in to guilty pleasure, or to wallow in caprice. But to be irrational with other people's money, particularly where public safety is the issue, is to be irresponsible, to betray an essential trust. In the end, it becomes a dereliction of duty that cannot be justified by political pressure, bureaucratic constraints, or emotional drives.
Tomorrow: Why the government always overestimates the risk of terrorism.