Flynn’s Folly

I am on my supply chain security rant again, but it’s not my fault. Someone recommended I read a new book that is touted as “riveting, chilling and gripping” by a segment of the media. America the Vulnerable: How Our Government is Failing to Protect Us from Terrorism was written by Stephen Flynn, a retired U.S. Coast Guard Commander and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a liberal Washington think tank.

Flynn’s thesis is that the current administration is not spending enough on security at home and is “delusional” in thinking the real fight against terrorism is overseas. Flynn’s solution is to spend billions building Fortress America, protecting the homeland by inspecting every person and inbound shipment, and protecting every chemical plant and sensitive manufacturing facility.

Any reader of this column knows I fall into Flynn’s delusional category. Homeland defense is a binary task. To be successful, it must include prudent defensive and offensive measures. Flynn’s solution is fatally flawed for two reasons: 1. he uses fuzzy math to estimate the size of the challenge and 2. it is impossible to do what he says.

First let’s look at Flynn’s math, specifically the scope of the homeland security challenge, in his view. Flynn says 400 million people, 122 million cars, 11 million trucks, and eight million containers come into the United States each year. He leaves out an estimated 50 million air shipments and 10 million bulk shipments. That’s approximately 600 million inbound shipments each and every year—and that number is growing.

Now let’s look at the practical implications of what I call HSEM or Homeland Security Event Management. We have to clear every person, search and examine every physical inbound shipment, and secure the non-U.S. facilities from whence these shipments originate, according to Flynn.

Flynn’s focus is primarily on containerized cargo. Suppose we secure all that. Then, I wonder, are inbound bulk shipments magically immune to security risks? What would stop terrorists from placing something ticking in a tanker of refined petroleum product or molten sulphur? My overarching point here is that nailing down one homeland security risk only drives the determined to find alternative means.

Flynn unintentionally makes this point in his book, citing a 2003 study that shows how vulnerable we are to an anthrax attack from a tall building in a large city. Just two pounds of anthrax can cause 120,000 deaths. So if only 32 of Flynn’s 400 million inbound people smuggle one ounce of anthrax, pool their resources in a big city and take an elevator, game over. Lots of time and effort spent looking in some places, but not in all places, to no avail. Too bad I’ve run out of room before I can show you the rest of Flynn’s bad math and what his proposals will cost.

Taking the fight to the terrorist is a messy, dirty, and politically risky venture but it is not delusional. It is the most important element in the binary approach to homeland defense.

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