Are we stuck with CYA homeland security?

Wired has a thought-provoking piece this morning from security expert Bruce Schneier - headlined "Why smart cops do dumb things". It makes the case that the bulk of post-9/11 homeland security excesses stem from a most natural of human instincts: the need to cover one's ass.

The headline is misleading in that the essay is not about police officers specifically, but rather public safety officials, politicians and regulators of all stripes. But on the broader score the column is dead-on accurate: We've scared ourselves half to death and thus practically demand that those entrusted with keeping us safe go to absurd extremes to keep from being scapegoated should something go wrong. ... And something will go wrong. That part of the equation is not irrational.

The only quibble I have with Schneier's assessment is his conclusion that "there might not be a solution." Call me a crazy optimist (you'd be the first), but I've got to believe there's a way out of this knot.

First, an excerpt from Schneier's essay:

This is Cover Your Ass security, and unfortunately it's very common.

Airplane security seems to forever be looking backward. Pre-9/11, it was bombs, guns and knives. Then it was small blades and box cutters. Richard Reid tried to blow up a plane, and suddenly we all have to take off our shoes. And after last summer's liquid plot, we're stuck with a series of nonsensical bans on liquids and gels.

Once you think about this in terms of CYA, it starts to make sense. The Transportation Security Administration wants to be sure that if there's another airplane terrorist attack, it's not held responsible for letting it slip through. One year ago, no one could blame the TSA for not detecting liquids. But since everything seems obvious in hindsight, it's basic job preservation to defend against what the terrorists tried last time.

We saw this kind of CYA security when Boston and New York randomly checked bags on the subways after the London bombing, and when buildings started sprouting concrete barriers after the Oklahoma City bombing. We also see it in ineffective attempts to detect nuclear bombs; authorities employ CYA security against the media-driven threat so they can say "we tried."

At the same time, we're ignoring threat possibilities that don't make the news as much - against chemical plants, for example. But if there were ever an attack, that would change quickly.

And someone in some public-safety capacity would take the fall for not having prevented whatever means of attack was used. Schneier's conclusion:

Sadly, though, there might not be a solution. All the money is in fearmongering, re-election strategies and pork-barrel politics. And, like so many things, security follows the money.

OK, he may be right. But, let's presume for a moment that he's not. Let's presume something can be done. In the immortal words, of Bluto Blutarsky: "Over? ... Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!"

So what might be done to better balance reality with the CYA instincts that we all possess to one degree or another?

Sure, those of us with soapboxes - Schneier, yours truly, and the zillion other journalists and bloggers out there - can rise up and speak clearly on the matter.

Let's break out the big guns: I'll wager that Bill O'Reilly and Jon Stewart would actually see eye-to-eye on this matter, as would the vast majority of their respective audiences. What if they each devoted a half-hour to topic, arm-in-arm? Stewart could still be funny and O'Reilly could do whatever it is he does. Great television and a public service.

You could help. Let your police and politicians know that you're sick and tired of all the butt-covering. You've had enough of policy by worst case scenario. You don't want pork-barrel homeland security even if that pork is landing in your leafy suburb, the one no terrorist could find with Google Maps.

Congress and the president could show some leadership; OK, maybe Congress. This should be a winning political issue, not a risk. Who's going to be the first presidential candidate to adopt this plank: "No more cowardly homeland security! Let's try common sense." I won't even ask for royalties when I see it on a bumper sticker.

Those are just the obvious things, I know. Let's be creative. What else?

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