Thursday, July 07, 2005

London Attacks

Today's London Tube bombings are sobering. First, we think of friends and family and unknown innocent strangers in London. For me, though, the chill is not so much because of the casualties today (it appears killed and wounded will be about the same as a typical week of London traffic accidents), but the demonstration of the vulnerability and the potential of casualties if it was a WMD attack.*

Strategically, I can think of two key questions:

1) How will the British and European public (and left) react to the attack. Will they see it as the Spanish did in response to the Madrid train bombing -- not a validation of the global threat of terror but an incident linked to a misguided Iraq policy? The answer is important in determining how effectively the attack may mobilize further transatlantic cooperation on the issue. Many Americans are unaware how much cooperation already exists between the US and EU states on terrorism and homeland security and yet the top level political rift has prevented much more.

Certainly their remains huge differences on the question of seeking regime change and reform in those states where terrorists live (although I don't think Iraq met that threshold prior to OIF). But more broadly, cooperation on intelligence, communication systems, procedures, finances and political action are critical to stop these cross-border networks. In addition, the Europeans (France, Germany and UK all) bring tremendous experience, skill, and capabilities to the fight. Compromising this cooperation with unnecessary vitriol toward "old Europe" was one of the key errors of the Bush team. A silver lining of London may be the opportunity to seize new opportunities shoulder to shoulder. New leadership in Berlin and Paris will also help.

2) What will be the Homeland Security response to the security of mass transit?

I for one hope that we do NOT see metal detectors and security lines at subway stations or any other public place that doesn't represent a particularly critical vulnerability. Such measures just divert terrorism, they don't stop terrorism. It is impossible to secure every possible terrorist target in a city like London. The aforementioned risk of WMD attack is the only consideration, but a metal detector is not the best tool for that and again, there are too many public gathering spaces and systems to cage them all in.

It is also important to consider that every time we compromise our lifestyle and turn our free democracy into a police state in yet another way, it is a small victory for the terrorists. Terrorism is best stopped through intelligence and police work, not metal detectors. Unfortunately, politicians tend to want very linear responses to terrorist threats. Just as we did over aviation security after 9/11, so will we likely overreact to mass transit security as a result of London.

What might be appropriate measures to consider to better secure our mass transit systems?
- more surveillance with pattern matching to suspicious behavior and facial recognition of suspected terrorists.
- unobtrusive WMD detection systems focused on radiological, biological, chemical agents
- consequences management capabilities and training to minimize damage from attacks
- education and training of mass transit workers and passengers regarding suspicious behavior and possible threats
- survey of mass transit systems to identify points or areas of particular vulnerability to high impact attacks, including combination attacks (e.g. hijack aircraft+crash into building).

Finally, it is my hope that PM Tony Blair exercises a strong and compelling response to the attacks and thereby repair the Iraq-policy damage to his standing in the UK and Europe. Blair remains one of my favorite politicians, possessing that rare combination of optimism, inspiration, and likeability. That delivery combined with his moderate progressive political instincts are exactly what Europe and America need right now.

*WMD includes nuclear, chemical, biological, radiological weapons plus conventional attacks devised in such a way as to cause mass casualties and destruction. The WTC attack qualifies as a WMD attack under this definition.


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