Radical Defense

How vulnerable are we to extremists? Counterterrorism expert Brian Jenkins on LAX, the port, and what we should—and shouldn’t—worry about

It’s a good thing Brian Jenkins is on our side. For nearly three decades, first on countless index cards and now in 15,000 computer files, he has amassed an arsenal of information about the violence known as terrorism, intended to create fear. Jenkins knows more about terrorism than most terrorists. He is a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution that provides information and analysis to the government and to corporations. Don’t let his easy laugh fool you, or his soft-spoken manner, or his artistry with oils on canvas. Jenkins, who is 68 but looks 55, is a former army paratrooper and Green Beret captain whose every knuckle has been broken and whose jaw whiskers have all the warm fuzziness of steel wool. A Fulbright fellow, he also is a decorated combat veteran who served in the Dominican Republic and three-and-a-half years in Vietnam.

Los Angeles is more spread out than, say, New York, and apart from Dodger Stadium and the Coliseum, it has fewer places where people gather in large numbers. Is L.A. safer from terrorism than other cities? What makes the difference?
Terrorists see New York as the world’s financial center, where infidels worship money. They see Washington as the nerve center of American military aggression. I suppose jihadist terrorists might see Hollywood as an icon of sin, but who knows what that may mean in terms of targeting? We can also imagine that terrorist strategic planners might see the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles as a logistics choke point, a lucrative target to bring down America’s economy. But today’s battered Al Qaeda is in a do-it-yourself mode. Self-radicalized would-be warriors are being exhorted to do whatever they can wherever they are. That means low-level but potentially lethal attacks on easy targets—nightclubs, restaurants, churches, synagogues, trains, subways, buses, any assembly of people.

How safe is LAX, and how can we make it safer?
Security at LAX is good. But it’s not simply what a single airport does, because whether you board a plane at Los Angeles International Airport, or JFK, or in Elephant’s Breath, Ohio, you are now inside the system. You can board a plane at a small airport and transfer to a wide-body jet somewhere else. So we are obliged every time we make a change in security to implement that change at more than 400 commercial airports. That is costly. In the wake of the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab episode—the guy who had a bomb concealed in his underpants—even though the bomb didn’t work, there was a great deal of alarm, and in response we decided to deploy full-body scanners. That’s considerably more than 1,000 scanners. Hundreds of millions of dollars. One guy, one small device in his underpants, and we’ve just spent hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s not a good trade.

Why haven’t all the scanners been deployed yet?
It’s not like you can go down to Ace Hardware and say, “Can we have a thousand body scanners, please?” But there’s a bigger problem. Adding technology adds one more procedure. When we introduce the body scanners, somebody has to operate them. And somebody else has to resolve the security alarms they create. At the same time, our airports are getting busier. Travel has flattened out a bit because of the recession, but overall the long-term trajectory is going up. More passengers, more flights, more procedures—but not more screeners. We’re giving a finite number of screeners too many tasks to do on too many people, and they are going to start doing them poorly. We are going to break the system.

So what do we do at LAX and elsewhere?
We need a fundamental review. We should start over and say, “This is the threat we face. How can we set this up in a way in which we can manage the risk?” One possibility is that we do something other than search every single person for prohibited objects in the same way. Bombs are getting to the point that they can be concealed in places where we won’t find them without the most intrusive physical inspection. We’re going to end up wearing Saran wrap and doing body cavity searches. We should create a more discerning system that allows us to better focus our security efforts.

Right now we are doing that only in a very limited way. For every flight there’s something called a PNR. It’s your passenger record. It’s created when you make your reservation, when you check in, and so on. Your PNR says this is so-and-so, and he’s flying to so-and-so, and he used this credit card, and he has a rental car. This is a rich source of information that we use to assist security. For example, the American Association of Retired Persons group tour to Orlando is probably not a high-risk population. But, say, someone comes up to the counter at the last minute and asks, “How much is it to go to 39,000 feet?” With this guy we take a closer look. He becomes a selectee and gets extra scrutiny.

Isn’t that profiling?
It’s not profiling, or selecting people because of their race or ethnicity, which would be wrong and poor security. It’s selecting people because of what is known about them and because of their behavior. We also pick some selectees at random. Three reasons: One, it’s good security, because you cannot game random selection. Two, it creates uncertainty, and you always want to make your adversary a little uncertain. Three, it’s the civil liberties issue. That is something I fought for on the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. If you don’t know whether someone is a selectee because of his PNR or because of random selection, then you’d better treat every selectee properly.

Now we need to take that idea a step further and think about going to a three-tiered system. We should add a category called “registered travelers.” They would volunteer information about themselves, just like people who work on the ramps at the airport. They would agree to a background check and supply some form of biometric confirmation. It might be a thumbprint or hand geometry. These registered travelers—probably most of them would be frequent fliers—might go through a level of security that was, say, equivalent to pre-9/11. Normal travelers would go through current procedures. That would allow greater effort to be focused on fewer selectees.

Isn’t that taking a risk?
But now we’re taking the risk of poor performance. And, you know, I’m not entirely certain that a body scanner would have detected Abdulmutallab’s bomb.

Maybe it’s not even likely?
I don’t want to get into technical details, but it’s not certain. Now back to your LAX question. One thing you don’t want is huge backups at check-in and at security points. If you go to LAX in the early morning, at Terminal 1, where the commuter flights take off, there will be 200 to 300 people out on the sidewalk. On the other side of the airport at Terminal 7, where the transcontinental flights operate, there will be 200 to 300 people right inside the glass. Terrorists don’t attack just airliners; they also attack airports. We don’t want to create a lucrative target for terrorists by having several hundred people all jammed together.

Move them in. Get them to the other side of security fast. What’s an approach to doing that? “Well,” you say, “we can’t rebuild the airport right now.” So maybe we should think about off-site secure check-in. We can create satellite terminals—one downtown and others wherever—three or four satellites. You bring your luggage there, and it gets checked. Then it goes into a sealed container and straight out to the airport and onto the plane. Passengers could also go through security procedures there and then into a sterile area. The only way out is onto a bus that takes them straight to the terminal and unloads them into the secure area. We can do a better job of security in smaller locations, and we reduce the vulnerability at LAX. And the car traffic.

The Port of Los Angeles covers 7,500 acres. On a normal day it would take 18,000 containers, each 20 feet long, to hold the freight that comes in. How safe is that?
The port is a huge target, but it’s not easy to attack. The biggest fear is that terrorists will somehow introduce a weapon of mass destruction—a nuclear bomb. Conceivably they could try to smuggle in a chemical or a radioactive device, although I think the ease with which terrorists might build a nuclear weapon has been greatly exaggerated.

Despite all the instructions on the Internet?
Instructions on the Internet don’t get you a nuclear device. The principles are well understood, but the materials, expertise, and precision that are required pose tremendous obstacles. Someone can publish on the Internet how to build a diesel engine, but I’m not sure you and I could build a diesel engine in our garage. It’s not that easy.

Couldn’t terrorists buy a nuclear weapon on the black market?
We are constantly working on that with intelligence efforts, detection technology, and stings—but most of all by locking up weapons and fissile material. We also buy billions of dollars’ worth of reactor fuel from Russia blended down from weapons-grade material. Short of a catastrophic event, however, I worry that if we find a weapon, then the presumption will be that if there’s one, there could be two—and we will shut down the port while we try to open every freight container. That’s a lot of containers. Or we’ll become so alarmed that we impose new procedures that slow down the port operation. That would have an insidious effect on our economy. You slow down transportation for 24 hours, and you’re starting to close assembly lines. So it’s not simply the nightmare scenario of blowing up the port; rather it is that security itself begins to drag down our economy.

What could we do differently at the port to keep this from happening?
We have improved our inspection capabilities. In addition, we have implemented the equivalent of a registered traveler program for containers. If a container is loaded and sealed by a cooperating high-tech firm sending components out of China or elsewhere, and if the shipping manifests are sent in advance, that gives us a higher degree of comfort—and security procedures can be accelerated. What we are most worried about are containers that come in with mixed shipments. Those get more scrutiny. The big test will be if there is, heaven forbid, an event—or even if a container is found with a mass-destruction weapon inside that doesn’t work. Will we overreact—“Shut down all the ports!”—and destroy ourselves with our own response? Security is necessary, but security itself can destroy us.

What can be done about that?
It has a lot to do with public attitudes and communication. Our adversaries have been very, very successful at creating fear, and when something happens, society has a tendency to overreact. Part of it also has to do with hyperactive electronic media, where everything is breathtaking end-of-the-world news. I’d like to see some of the media do a better job with this. They always say they will, but saying it is like being a vegetarian between meals. When red meat is on the table, they will go for it. I also would like to see less partisanship and finger-pointing for political gain: “Your fault!” “No, it’s your fault!” Part of our fear has been driven by a message of fear coming out of Washington. Orange alerts, red alerts: “We have credible evidence that a terrorist attack is imminent, but keep shopping!” That has contributed to our anxiety. It’s better now, but there is still a lot of needless threatmongering.

In terms of the average citizen, we have come to expect a risk-free society. That’s unrealistic. Given the role of the United States in the world, we are blamed for the world’s problems, we are blamed for not solving the world’s problems, and we are blamed when we try to solve the world’s problems. We are a target. My friends say, “Brian, we’re going on vacation abroad. You’re supposed to know about this stuff. What should we do to have a safe vacation?” I tell them, “Drive very carefully on the way to the airport.” We accept risks every day. The average American has a 1 in 8,700 chance of dying in an automobile accident. He or she has a 1 in 22,000 chance of being a victim of ordinary homicide. What are the odds of becoming a victim of a terrorist attack? Take a decade, include the deaths in 9/11, and the odds are still less than 1 in a million.

A RAND study noted last year that L.A. has the smallest big-city police department in the country per capita. How good is the LAPD at counterterrorism?
It has been very effective. There are only three or four departments across the country that have the capacity and savvy to deal with the issues that we are facing. NYPD, a huge department at ground zero, is one—for obvious reasons. The LAPD and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department are others, not only in dealing with the terrorist threat, but also in managing the response should a major incident occur. There’s a reason. Because of our unstable geology, our wildfires, and our mud slides, we are pretty good at dealing with disasters.

You mentioned civil liberties. We want to crack down on terrorism, but sometimes we do it abusively. How productive is that?
There’s a dark streak in America, a continuing current that has a xenophobic, racist component, and I think we are seeing a bit of it emerge in the current Islamophobia. It’s not warranted. Look at the controversy over the proposed New York mosque. On that issue, frankly, I’m more conservative than most conservatives. Where one builds a mosque is simply not the government’s business. We also have some damn fools who wanted to burn the Koran—and look at the media attention. We’re going to pay for that. We’re going to pick up two or three would-be terrorists a year from now who will trace their radicalization back to what we are seeing now.

Our strength derives from our fundamental American values: courage, self-reliance, tolerance, a sense of community, pulling together in danger. These values are not luxuries that we toss overboard when we get into stormy seas. They are part of our arsenal. If we throw them away, we throw away our most powerful weapons. Our young men and women go into the military and risk their lives—sometimes give their lives—to protect our values. Squander those values, and we weaken ourselves. We destroy what we stand for, and the other side wins.

Photograph by Gregg Segal