Wednesday, June 29, 2005

It’s Not Only Security vs. Liberty, But Also Security vs. Security


The government spends millions of dollars in attempts to develop protections against terrorism in the name of national security. These measures often raise privacy and civil liberties concerns, and so the typical debate about a trade-off ensues. But in the larger scheme of things, terrorism is probably not the biggest national security risk we face. Historically, the numbers killed or injured by terrorism have been small; it is the possibility of a terrorist with nuclear or biological weapons that presents a very serious threat. I doubt that data mining and other government initiatives that are so threatening to civil liberties are really well-suited to addressing these threats. I have argued more in depth about why I believe the government is severely overreacting to terrorism as a security issue in a post on PrawfsBlawg.

The most devastating national security issue is, in my opinion, the possibility of a pandemic. But there is little attention to this issue. Sadly, it’s because all of the folks crying out to protect our security are so myopically focused on terrorism that they’re neglecting to think rationally about where the most likely risks are. It seems that countless world health experts are predicting an impending pandemic. We’re woefully unprepared, this Reuters article says:

Half a million Americans could die and more than 2 million could end up in the hospital with serious complications if an even moderately severe strain of a pandemic flu hits, a report predicted on Friday.

But the United States only has 965,256 staffed hospital beds, said the report from the Trust for America's Health.

The non-profit group's state-by-state analysis adds to a growing clamor of voices contending that the United States is not prepared for a large outbreak of disease, whether natural or brought on by war or terrorism. . . .

In an average year, influenza kills an estimated 36,000 Americans and puts 200,000 into the hospital.

A more serious strain strikes every few years and a so-called pandemic strain emerges once every 27 years, on average. The more virulent strains sweep around the world within months.

Pandemics hit in 1918 -- killing up to 40 million people globally -- 1957 and 1968. Health experts all say the world is overdue for another and fear the avian flu in Asia may be it.

The World Health Organization says an H5N1 avian flu pandemic could kill up to 7.4
million people globally, because people lack immunity to it. . . .

"The U.S. has not adequately planned for the disruption a flu
pandemic could cause to the economy, daily life, food and supply distributions,
or homeland security," the Trust's report reads.

"The U.S. lags in pandemic preparations compared to Great Britain and Canada based on an examination of leadership, vaccine development, vaccine and antiviral planning, health care system surge capacity planning, coordination between public and private sectors, and emergency communications planning." . . . .

When I read stories like this, I think of all the money wasted by TSA on developing airline passenger screening systems based on crunching through personal data or the Department of Defense’s expensive data mining research programs such as Total Information Awareness. Wasting money on programs where security benefits are highly questionable and where the civil liberties costs are significant is even more harmful because this is money not being spent on other measures that have more definite benefits.

So instead of talking about the usual trade-offs between security and civil liberties, perhaps we should begin talking about the trade-offs when we expend so many resources addressing one security issue while neglecting other security issues. Pandemics are national security issues too, but sadly “national security” appears to be co-opted as a synonym for “terrorism prevention.”


With all due respect, we spend billions of dollars on health issues. We have HHS, NIH, CDC, the Surgeon General .... They have been there for decades.

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