Calculating risk: terror warnings

Terror alerts may cause unease and panic, yet they serve as a vital insurance policy on many levels.

 Though many threats do not unfold, Government terror alerts are based on assessing large scale risk in order to prevent a major catastrophe. [EPA]

I was heartened this past week by the healthy reactions of many to the US State Department’s most recent European travel alert. Lacking the (marginally) more specific information necessary to declare a full-fledged “travel warning,” the department nonetheless alerted US citizens on October 3 “to the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe.” Of course, given past history, the potential for terrorist attacks has hung like an incubus over Europe for years now, and there was nothing in this alert to suggest the current threat to be materially different.

“Terrorists,” the missive went on, “may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests.” That would pretty well cover all contingencies; hard to argue with that.

Lacking any information about what the terrorists might intend to attack in the future, the alert went on to recount familiar categories of targets struck in the past.

And finally, lacking any usefully practical guidance about what people should do to protect themselves, the department deftly placed the onus on the potential victim: Travelers, it said, “…should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures…” – whatever those might be.

In truth, there was really nothing exceptional about this latest bit of bureaucratic boilerplate. I have seen its equivalent countless times over the years, and have even done my part in the past to help create it. And yet, for some reason, this particular governmental “alert” seemed to strike a chord and to generate a reaction.

Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post Op-ed columnist, appeared to speak for many in decrying the uselessness of this exercise. “In truth,” she said, “the only people who can profit from such a warning are the officials who issue it.” Well, of course. And that would explain why we see so many of them.

Many years ago, as I began to emerge from the depths of the US federal bureaucracy and became exposed to the dangers of dealing with Congress and with senior policymakers, a grizzled old warrior would pull me aside from time to time to provide useful advice, much of which has stayed with me ever since. “Always remember:” he said on one such occasion, “Fear drives the system.”

He was talking about bureaucratic fear: The fear that if something goes seriously wrong, and if one’s agency – or, worse yet, oneself – can be blamed, rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, they most likely will be.

Individuals and organizations which have imprudently failed to “fireproof” themselves, in the bureaucratic vernacular, suddenly find themselves vulnerable in such circumstances. Rivals can pounce; careers can be wrecked; bureaucratic responsibilities and power can be shifted; and budgets can be slashed. 

As these rules of bureaucratic life translate in the world of national security, it means that if threats are not foreseen, if dots are not connected, if warnings are not issued and, God forbid, something bad happens, there will be hell to pay. And while the costs of a false warning will be negligible, a failure to warn could be catastrophic.
Given this reality, it is no wonder that government bureaucracies behave as they do. I cannot recount the number of times when I have been forced to share information on a potential threat which I knew – knew as well as mortal man can know anything in this vale of tears – to be invalid. And I knew as well that for the recipient of the information, my warning would be less than useless.

Of course, these realities have a corrosive and vitiating effect over time. As Anne Applebaum says, “such warnings put the US government in the position of the boy who cried wolf. The more often general warnings are issued, the less likely we are to heed them.”

I do not mean by all this to disparage the US government, or indeed governments in general. It should be noted that shortly following the latest US announcement concerning the threat in Europe, other governments have issued similar warnings. And given the latest news from Pakistan’s tribal areas concerning the training of German militants, and the obvious consternation of several Western governments over the intelligence leaks leading to these revelations, it appears that some significant activity may be afoot.

Again, there are good reasons why governments behave as they do, and the more earnestly responsible governments are, the more likely they are to exhibit this sort of risk aversion. The point is for individuals and companies to become more adept at understanding the dynamics behind such government announcements, and to make reasonable decisions as to when – and when not – to ignore them.

Lurking beneath these considerations is a fundamental difference between the ways governments and individuals assess risks. For governments, if anything untoward happens to anyone for whom they are responsible, anywhere and at any time, there are liable to be severely negative repercussions for them. For a given individual, however, the risk calculus is quite different. While it is always good policy to take common-sense precautions against any number of risks – with the risk of terrorism for most people being far down the list – chances generally are that calamity, when it comes, will befall someone else.

Even if one knew for a certainty that some terrorist action were destined to occur in Europe during a given period, absent any other information, the chances of a given individual’s being in the wrong place at the wrong time are infinitesimally small. The chances of being randomly struck by a motorcar are far greater.

This fundamental imbalance in risk calculus is why, unless warnings are quite concrete and specific, it is so often foolish for individuals to take their risk-related cues from governments. Governments will inevitably judge risks as they appear from their perspective and in light of their own calculus, and not as a given individual would rationally judge them.

This week provided considerable evidence that this fundamental imbalance is becoming more obvious to more people. That is a good thing, let us hope this sort of rational healthy-mindedness survives the next major terrorist attack, wherever it occurs. If it does, the change in public perceptions will do more than any government policy to rob terrorists of what they seek:  The ability to terrorize.  


Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was the director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Centre from 2004 to 2006.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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