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Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism (Book Review)

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

Author: John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2016

Reviewed by: Jack Anderson

Practically any educated European from 1480 to 1680 understood that civilization was besieged by a vast and malevolent hidden society of witches literally hell bent on destroying it. “The reality,” says sociologist Rodney Stark, “of these malefactors was beyond question.” Thousands had confessed to their crimes once apprehended. Faced with such a terrifying and indisputable threat, the only “reasonable and decent” thing to do, says Stark, was “stamp it out”–which he notes is tragically just what reasonable and decent people did. Historian Hugh-Trevor Roper observed that the “most ferocious of witch-burning princes, we often find, are also the most cultured patrons of contemporary learning.” Tens of thousands of “witches” were hunted, tried, and killed during this period.

Early in Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism, John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart compare the contemporary struggle against terrorism to medieval witch hunts. While often painted as genocide or gynocide, the extermination of witches was not an act of prejudice or ignorance, but rather the terrible application of reason and capability to a false premise. Mueller and Stewart are not arguing that terrorists don’t exist, rather that we exaggerate their capabilities, and in doing so justify actions and expenses that are out of proportion to the actual threat.

Because it sets out to challenge many of the central premises of American counterterrorism, Chasing Ghosts is provocative. The book lays out a gadfly’s litany of counter claims: Terrorism is globally about as deadly as bathtubs are in America, terrorists targeting America are few and mostly incompetent losers, Americans fear terrorism wildly out of proportion to its probability, American security agencies imagine a vast array of possible threats beyond reality, and, damningly, America does not subject its counterterrorism measures to even the most basic cost/benefit requirements. Outside war zones, in other words, terrorism is a limited threat that America spends too much time and money policing. As a result of all this, argue Mueller and Stewart, the methods America uses to police terrorism are largely unjustifiable.

Government spending on counterterrorism, Mueller and Stewart remind us, has increased more than a trillion dollars since 9/11. In Chasing Ghosts, Mueller and Stewart set out to complete the work they began with their 2011 book Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits and Costs of Homeland Security. In their previous book, they dismissed the question “are we safer” for such spending–which they argue is self evidently true–and focused on the question of whether the gains in security are worth the cost. In other words, since terrorism is already a rare event we should be able to more carefully assess the cost/benefit relationship of our counterterrorism spending and methods. Terror, Security and Money focused on infrastructure protection efforts, while Chasing Ghosts is focused on policing and intelligence. But it would be a mistake to regard this book as a pure sequel, because it also signals a shift in tone and approach for Mueller and Stewart that is worth noting. The authors have become more urgent, but there is a superior, sarcastic, and occasionally condescending tone to Chasing Ghosts that reveals frustration. For a book that, as a polemic, invites a certain kind of scrutiny, this tone–and even the methodology behind it–may be a shortcoming.

Security agencies, contends Chasing Ghosts, are surprisingly bad at making risk-based decisions about terrorism. This is not a general inability to deal with risk. A 2012 review of airport scanner safety concluded that the cancer risk per scan was 1 in 60 million, but that such a risk was within radiological safety guidelines and acceptable. Notably, the risk that a single passenger will be killed in a terrorist attack on the plane are boarding is significantly lower, 1 in 90 million. Put plainly, you’re more likely to get cancer from an airport scanner than be a victim of what the scanner is trying to prevent. Mueller and Stewart would have security agencies view terrorism risk with the same sobriety they are able to apply to cancer risk.

But Mueller and Stewart go somewhat further, reminding the reader that according to the START Global Terrorism Database, all Islamic extremism, globally, claims some 200-300 lives per year, roughly equivalent to bathtub drownings in the U.S. Bathtub drownings do not take up such a significant portion of the U.S. discretionary budget, and Mueller and Stewart consider this imbalance to be a deeply irrational use of public money, betraying public trust by chasing inconceivable and unlikely contingencies.

The second major section of Chasing Ghosts applies cost/benefit analysis to counterterrorism efforts at the FBI, DHS, NSA and by local and airport police. Mueller and Stewart conclude that in most cases, with a few notable exceptions, counterterrorism spending cannot be justified in the face of the probability and consequence of terrorist risks. This may be a problematic claim, as security agencies are, explicitly, in the contingencies business, and have to prepare for outliers along with likely events. But Chasing Ghosts argues that in dealing with these outliers, security agencies have imagined more threat than exists.

In the wake of 9/11, the general view of the intelligence and security community was that the attack was a harbinger, not an outlier, and that potentially thousands of trained al-Qaeda operatives were positioned and plotting within the U.S. The threat, claims Chasing Ghosts, has proven to be much more limited–and that the number of actual operatives “has held at zero or nearly so,” meaning the ghostly sleeper cells either never existed, or “afterward obligingly vanished.” Where terrorists are often characterized as “innovative” or “relentless” adversaries, Mueller and Stewart contend, in examining these cases, that a better characterization Islamist terrorists would be “incompetent, muddled, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational, foolish, and gullible.” Meanwhile, the FBI currently maintains over 15,000 official informants–more than ten times the number maintained in the 1970s to ferret out internal communist plots. Mueller and Stewart find this to be unjustifiable.

Chasing Ghosts argues that the way security agencies have come to think about threats has led to institutionalized biases, and allowed unexamined or unsound premises to dominate the practice of counterterrorism. Central to this argument is criticism of the FBI “threat matrix” used by the FBI to itemize threats requiring follow up. Citing Philip Mudd (former analyst and executive at both CIA and FBI), Mueller and Stewart conclude that the “threat matrix” expanded to include vast numbers of trivial and uncertain pieces of information, driven by a bias–referred to as “9/11 commission syndrome”–toward including trivial information rather than risk being the point of failure in connecting the dots. The result of the threat matrix thinking, is both inability to separate signal from noise, and “institutional paranoia.” This paranoia has led security agencies to overestimate terrorist capabilities, neglect the already low probabilities of terrorism, and even define down what constitutes a weapon of mass destruction (Mueller points out that potato cannons fit the official definition of WMD).

Chasing Ghosts does not blame official anxieties alone for the mismatch between perception and reality, and lays significant blame on a persistent public fear of terrorism. Despite the infinitesimal chances of being the victim of a terrorist attack in the U.S., and for all the increases in counterterrorism spending, they note that Americans do not report feeling safer, and demand more counterterrorism effort from their government. Mueller and Stewart ignore a simpler point to draw from this, namely that terrorism seems to work. It is this simple fact about terrorism that has generated serious theoretical discussion, and animates much counterterrorism theorizing and practice. Mueller and Stewart, however, miss an opportunity to assess competing definitions of terrorism, and claims about its social and psychological effect.

It is difficult to critique a book of such an expansive scope. Chasing Ghosts offers a withering salvo on a wide range of topics. But there are significant points worth questioning in the book. In hammering current practices, its data is in places incomplete, insufficiently explained, or insufficient to support its claims. These are a few examples:

  • Mueller and Stewart do not explain their theory of terrorism–and it seems might not even have one. By itself, this might not be a problem, as their focus is on numbers, but, for example, they dismiss the idea that returning foreign fighters pose a threat to the west, noting that “the leader” of ISIS called for all muslims to emigrate to join ISIS, but did not tell them to return home and wreak havoc. This may be true, and perhaps it is valuable to take Baghdadi at his word, but it is certainly not so simple, nor do they explain their claim.
  • They are casual about caveats. Annex A looms large throughout the first part of the book, and requires some consulting as you go. Notionally it is a list of “the” cases that “have come to light” of Islamic extremism since 9/11 where the U.S. was targeted. The printed book contains 62, but the online version, updated yearly, contains more. Mueller and Stewart use this data set to support the notion that most Islamic terrorists are not very good at their jobs. But Mueller and Stewart do not explain why they chose to focus on Islamic extremism alone, which may be a problem considering that domestic extremists have killed more Americans than have jihadists since 9/11. Nor do they explain how these cases “have come to light”. Elsewhere, in conducting cost/benefit analysis, Mueller and Stewart use the START global terrorism database for their analysis, but they do not explain why they use Annex A to assess terrorist capabilities.
  • Their cost/benefit analysis is almost certainly incomplete. Chasing Ghosts assesses and dismisses the NSA’s counterterrorism efforts in less than 30 pages. Likewise, their method for sorting out counterterrorism related costs in the DHS budget from “other” costs is weak–especially considering that costs for things like emergency response planning are directly related to calculation of risk (response being a crucial component of risk management). These sections are rushed, and do not explain the limits of their analysis well enough, resulting in blanket claims that look based on cherry picked data.
  • The book is occasionally tough reading. Many of the subsections in the book are scarcely a paragraph long, making portions of the book more like consulting a list than reading a fully drawn argument or case, moving the reader from topics as diverse as prison radicalization to cyberterrorism in the span of a few pages.

But perhaps the most persistent shortcoming of the book is its smugness. And this is a shame. Mueller and Stewart are raising important challenges–none more important than the simple fact that security expenditures since 9/11 have not been required to demonstrate even the most basic cost effectiveness. Perhaps 1 in 22 million is not an acceptable rate for attacks on airliners, and perhaps 300 deaths from terrorism per year is 300 too many, but Chasing Ghosts is powerful in its argument that this is where the discussion should, but does not currently, start. This crucial point is often obscured by the gleefully superior tone. Security analysts “divined or fantasized” threats, while counterterrorism officials and agencies have a “personal” and “institutional” interest in delusion. These are strong claims, but they are not central to the argument of the book, or effectively backed up with anything more than claims from journalists that this is so and a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Throughout Chasing Ghosts, Mueller and Stewart speculate about motivations without apparently sufficient detail to justify their musing. For this reason, it is unclear who Chasing Ghosts is trying to convince.

Chasing Ghosts provides a stark reminder that powerful intellects and globally dominant capabilities do not insulate America against imprudence. Security professionals clearly need to develop both an ability to assess both the cost effectiveness of security measures, and–more urgently–the central premises that support their efforts. This is sober work, and Chasing Ghosts is a useful guide. But the book fails some of the basic demands of constructive polemic–it does not do justice to the arguments it opposes, and in failing this, fails to do justice to its own.

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