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Highlighted comment: Can we assess every threat?

An excerpt of a comment in response to my question Friday about the U.S. intelligence effort against al-Qaeda:

"While one can appreciate the vast amount of information you have gathered, it's not understood the need to deliver this much specificity to those who may wish to do us real harm, it seems not to be giving the US or global audience who reads this story the benefit of actual context for why this intel buildup is so necessary. Saying there are "thousands, or hundreds" of al-Qaeda members is meaningless if even just one of them were to succeed."
—painter9, July 24, 2010

The bottom line from this point of view is that it doesn't matter how many or how few al-Qaeda members there are "if even just one of them were to succeed." Can we draw this idea out a bit more? Does this mean the size of the threat actually does not matter? Does it mean the kind of threat doesn't either?

In other words, should using planes as bombs—probably not going to happen again—or using smuggled nuclear material—difficult, but definitely the worst end of the scale—or one suicide bomber somewhere in the U.S. all be treated the same? Are these scenarios equal and are we planning against all of them? Our series basically says we are.

I guess my answer is, first, let's see a better, more honest threat assessment from the government than the ones we have seen up until now. An assessment with specifics about the biggest areas of concern, not simply every area as a concern. Then let's go from there. This country has never—and probably will never—be able or even want to protect against every threat possible. We'd have to live in a police state to do that.

So how do we begin to get a more realistic handle on the problem? Are there some suggestions about what needs to be in a risk assessment like this? Please be as precise as possible.

By Dana Priest  |  July 26, 2010; 12:22 PM ET
 | Tags: Dana Priest, Top Secret America, al-Qaeda, national security, threat assessment  
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Yes, actually I think we can get reasonably close which has not been the case in the past ten years. However, it will take overcoming abuses from within as you've exposed with which I deal here:

Posted by: garydchance | July 27, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

The optimal amount of terrorism is not zero. It's some number greater than zero. How far above zero is a political question. The Christmas Day and Faisal Shahzad attempts made clear that the country is not ready for that conversation.

There are direct costs, such as those laid out in your series (though your series makes a causal leap between 9-11 and IC expansion that's not entirely supported by the facts you presented).

There are also indirect costs, most notably the government intrusion or perceived government intrusion on what have traditionally been considered private spaces. Loss of government transparency is another indirect cost. Loss of transparency arguably results in some loss of oversight, though it's worth pointing out that all of these agencies have IGs, and Congress approved every penny spent.

Posted by: editor14 | July 27, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

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