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Counterterrorism (by Government) is Impossible

March 26, 2004

At last the topic of 9-11 has shifted onto productive ground. Thanks to the efforts of former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, some thought is being put into the government failures behind the attacks. "Your government failed you," he says. Precisely, and in many more ways than he or anyone else at these hearings is willing to say.

Here is the problem. The core failure goes way beyond anything the current government managers—however inept, distracted, or corrupt—can correct. If you tell your dog to make you dinner, for example, you can observe later that the dog failed to do so, and have great regrets about this. But what you learn from this experience and how you proceed are the crucial questions. Does the dog need better tools, more scoldings, and a professional trainer? Better to observe that the dog is not the right one for the job. In the same way, the government is not the right one for the job of providing security for the American people.

The lesson of 9-11 is this: the government cannot protect us. No changes in policy as recommended by a commission or by current or ex-government officials are going to change that.

The conclusion of the commission investigating the policies leading up to 9-11 will be the same as from every government commission: a recommendation that the government should have done more and should do more in the future. Both Clarke and his critics presume that the war on terrorism is something that the government can fight, and the debate is over whether the government had done enough prior to 9-11 to sort through intelligence findings, name al Qaeda as the key problem, and anticipate the attacks.

Bush's critics are thrilled to hear Clarke restate what has long been known: the Bush administration was obsessed with Iraq to the exclusion of the radical Islamic threat.

There can be no question about this administration's Iraq fixation. The Bush regime had it in for Iraq for a whole range of reasons, from personal vendettas to oil to regional political issues and probably a few others we are not privy to. It certainly cries out for explanation why this poor country, ruled by a man the US had long backed, suffering under sanctions for a decade after an unjustified war, should be invaded and occupied even though it represented no threat to the US.

Clarke believes Iraq was a distraction, and he is surely right. He also believes that more should have been done sooner to counter genuine terrorist threats, that the attacks on Afghanistan should have taken place earlier, that Bin Laden should have been taken out earlier, that the military and the spooks should have taken more liberties in zapping the bad guys before the bad guys zapped us.

The solution implied in this approach is something no American should favor. It implies not less warmongering but merely a different form of imperialism, focused on one country instead of another, this set of intelligence data instead of that, while not even addressing the question of why the US might be the subject of attacks at all. It is even possible that more Clarkeian-style counterterrorism would have inspired more attacks sooner, but we'll never know since there are no controlled experiments in the relationship between politics and the real world.

How do corporations deal with the problem of information overload? They rely on market signaling and the decentralized planning of millions of private individuals to provide guidance.

And despite all the partisan wrangling about the Clarke message and the hearings in general, the upshot is a message that perfectly accords with something that every bureaucrat and politician wants to hear: that government needs a freer hand, that it did not do enough, that it needs more resources, that it should not be hamstrung in any way. What are government commissions for, except to announce such findings and create a cover for Congress and the White House (whoever happens to occupy it) to demand ever more money and power?

The real question to ask is whether it could have been any other way. Say the US has killed Bin Laden. Cheney is of course correct that this would not have prevented 9-11. Even if it had, there would have been other attacks of a different sort. Or say the US had entirely destroyed Al Qaeda (whatever that would mean): Albright is correct that the ideology behind Al Qaeda's existence is still everywhere to be found because it represents not a peculiar conspiracy by a few, but a response to US policy in general.

The government can spend many years and billions of dollars preventing attacks that have already occurred by doing things it might have wished it had done years or decades ago. But note that there has been no discussion at all of the actual policies that everyone knows inspired the attacks and made them easier to carry out.

Just to mention a few: the stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia, the sanctions against Iraq, the continuing intervention in the ever-lasting Israel-Palestine conflict, the propping up of secular dictatorships all over the Arab world, the raising up and funding of Islamic radicals to counter Soviet influence in Afghanistan, and the regulatory prohibitions in the US against permitting airlines to manage their own security issues. The US government cannot pursue all these policies and then react in shock when it turns out that some people exploit them with violent intent.

Many observers of these policies predicted that something along these lines would take place. You don't need to be a "counterterrorism" bureaucrat to see it. The response to the events of 9-11 around the world was very telling. While the world felt awful for America, most everyone (except Americans) believed that something like this was inevitable. As for who was responsible, the enemies of the US have become countless. The government's response was to make ever more enemies, which is what the recent US policy in Iraq has done.

In other words, the only real way to prevent terrorism is to do less in the way of government policy and more in the way of private provision and trade, which would be far easier to do if the warfare state would stop fomenting trouble all around the world.

How can the market provide security? This gets us into another huge area, and nothing I could write in a column would fully convince anyone of such a radical thesis, so let me merely refer you to the book, The Myth of National Defense, edited by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, which shows that security is not a unique good that must be provided by the state (even if you don't own it, there is no good excuse not to read it).

Let me mention just one issue that has impressed many people who are following the hearings: that of information overload. There are so many bits of intelligence data that are flying in and out of government offices, how can policy makers possibly assess the relative seriousness of various threats much less prepare coherent responses to them?

Contrary to what the government implies, this is not a problem unique to the public sector. A typical multinational corporation faces an information problem just as serious: data flying from every country concerning a million different topics and conditions, every one of which could have a profound effect on profitability the very day it is received.

How do corporations deal with the problem of information overload? They rely on market signaling and the decentralized planning of millions of private individuals to provide guidance, and they depend heavily on the minute-by-minute feedback mechanism as provided by prices. The government has no such institutions at its disposal, neither to convey information, nor assess its accuracy, nor provide ongoing feedback on how it responds to conditions.

The lesson we should take from 9-11 is that the government cannot protect us. It is utterly inept, and no changes in policy as recommended by a commission or present or ex-government officials are going to change that.

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [rockwell@mises.org] is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of LewRockwell.com. He is the author of Speaking of Liberty. Comment on this article on the blog.


Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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