Let me begin by saying that the reports about large numbers of Somalis being brought into the US illegally are genuinely alarming. Despite that, my interview on Fox Business Channel last night represented a recognizable (though highly entertaining!) descent into insanity. Watch for yourself:
I thought it was worth making a few points about this interview, because it touches on some broader, and genuinely important, issues. First of all, there should be no question that I correctly pointed out the hyperbolic premise of the segment. The host set up the segment as follows: security briefs say that “as many as hundreds” of al Shabaab members are slipping across the Mexican border into the US. The administration, due to its obsession over Arizona’s immigration law, is turning “a blind eye to the greatest threat of all.” There is no way that one can conclude, based upon the information that the host was drawing from, that hundreds of Shabaab members are entering the country illegally.
There are three relevant data points, all of which were reported in an article posted on Fox News in late May. The first is a DHS warning to Texas authorities to “be on the lookout for a suspected member of the Somalia-based Al Shabaab terrorist group who might be attempting to travel to the US through Mexico.” The second is a court case in Texas that involved “a human smuggling ring that brought East Africans, including Somalis with ties to terror groups, from Brazil and across the Mexican border and into Texas.” The third is a court case in Virginia that involved a man “who admitted to having ties to Al Shabaab” who was part of “an international ring that illegally brought more than 200 Somalis across the Mexican border.” I find all of this to be of deep concern, but whether this is a serious problem was not the issue I was objecting to in the segment: to me, the first question to confront was the claim that “as many as hundreds” of Shabaab members are entering the US. One cannot accept the claim of hundreds of Shabaab members entering from the relevant data points, period.
This leads to a second issue, that of the proposed remedy. The segment began by implying that the government needs to raise the terror alert level. The host also suggested: “This is the moment when the administration needs to send thousands of troops to the southern border…. Why aren’t they doing that now?” But are these really appropriate responses? I should state that I’m confident, given the massive domestic terror investigation focused on al Shabaab recruiting networks in the US, that quite a bit of law enforcement resources are being devoted to this specific problem at present. So should we raise the terror alert as well? I have no reason to believe that it’s necessary — nor, frankly, do the host and the other guest. What specifically would we gain, other than the rather nebulous sense of “doing something”? Should we send thousands of troops to our southern border? Maybe having troops at the border is a good idea, and maybe it isn’t; our porous borders are certainly a real problem. But the solution becomes so much clearer when the facts are manipulated a bit, as they were in this segment: the claim that “hundreds of Shabaab members are entering the country right now!” conveys a greater sense of urgency than “two rings devoted to smuggling hundreds Somalis into the US got broken up, and some of those Somalis were probably part of Shabaab!” Again, the second statement still provides reason for concern, but the first makes it seem obvious to all but the most dense that we need to send thousands of troops to the border right now.
This brings me to a third point, that we function in a world of constrained resources. This is probably the only important point I was trying to make that got cut off during the segment; otherwise, I played the “straight man” in this wonderful little comedy bit. But as I managed to say before being cut off for a rant that ran the gamut from the bailout to the Ground Zero mosque, security decisions are not as simple as: Should we take this seriously, yes or no? Rather, all decisions are made in the context of limited budgets, constrained resources, and numerous potential threats. That makes it important to respond vigilantly, but not to overreact. Overreaction to any given threat can make us less safe by causing the misallocation of resources as well as such unmeasured costs as “crisis fatigue.” This rather lengthy academic paper concludes, among other things, that raising the terror alert “generally costs state and local emergency responders millions of dollars in overtime salaries, causes widespread travel delays and takes a hit on the public’s psyche.” Mobilizing thousands of troops to the border to catch the influx of “hundreds” of Shabaab members also has an obvious economic cost.
Nor does the argument that I failed to “connect the dots” answer this objection. To begin with, contrary to the host’s assertion, I was not denying that there was a problem: I was attempting to move away from the hyperbole that opened the segment. Moreover, we are faced with a universe of “dots”: the question is not whether we should work to “connect the dots” (of course we should), but how we should allocate scarce resources to maximize security. If our operating assumption is that hundreds of Shabaab members are currently entering the US, sorry to say, but we’re more likely to misallocate resources by overestimating the threat.
This leads me to a fourth and final point. I do believe that the illegal entry data points I outlined above are genuine problems. Often it is difficult to get others in the security field to take claims about border security seriously precisely because so many hyperbolic and unsubstantiated claims are made about the border. The claim of hundreds of Shabaab members entering the US that led off this segment is the precise kind of thing that can cause policymakers and security experts to ignore or otherwise give short shrift to border security, thinking that the issue is the province of crackpots and fabulists. So while I’m sure the other two individuals in the segment thought they were doing their part to bring attention to a neglected issue, it’s my judgment that they accomplished the precise opposite: they in fact made it easier for people to ignore the issue with a good conscience.
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