Pondering the Costs of Terror Protection
Should commercial airplanes be equipped to deflect shoulder-launched rockets? What would be the financial fallout of a radioactive attack on Southern California ports? Which bridges deserve the most money to bolster protections against Al Qaeda assaults?
Questions like those are being pondered at a federally funded think tank at USC, the first of its kind in the country. Formally named the Homeland Security Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events, it is better known as CREATE, an acronym at odds with its mission to evaluate potential destruction.
CREATE was the first of six university-based research units, titled Centers of Excellence, established around the nation since 2004 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. And it is expected this summer to be the first test case of whether taxpayers should keep paying for such research.
The other centers investigate issues more specifically related to terrorism, such as psychological tolls and protecting food supplies. The USC center was given $12 million over three years to help evaluate the most likely threats -- and to determine the most efficient ways to deter and prepare for them.
The research involves engineering, economics, political science, computer science and psychology, and it traffics in non-classified data so students can participate.
The center operates on the notion that funds to fight terror aren’t limitless. “We can spend ourselves into bankruptcy by making things more and more secure, or we can do it in a smart way,” said CREATE’s director, USC professor Detlof von Winterfeldt. And the smart way, he said, is to examine the risk and determine “where you get the largest risk reduction for the money.”
A German-born mathematical psychologist who is an expert in risk analysis and nuclear energy, Von Winterfeldt concedes that sober academic inquiry does not always affect the real world, where politicians control the purse.
For example, a remote Alaskan fishing village with 2,400 residents last year received $202,000 in Homeland Security funds for 80 surveillance cameras, provoking jokes about Osama bin Laden hiding in the snow. With the series of grants announced in May, Homeland Security contended it had used more objective methodology to choose sites at most risk -- only to provoke protests from New York and Washington that they lost out to other cities’ political muscle.
“There is always politics. My argument is always that decision-making goes on with or without CREATE and analysis. But sometimes it helps to put a perspective in from that corner,” said Von Winterfeldt, who co-founded the center with engineering professor Randolph Hall. Hall is now USC’s vice provost for research advancement.
CREATE is helping the state government rank the most important and defensible big targets in California, such as sports arenas and dams, in anticipation of another batch of federal anti-terrorism grants known as Buffer Zone Protection. Last year, the state received about $13 million from that program.
Chris Bertelli, a spokesman for the governor’s Office of Homeland Security, said CREATE will have a “very significant” role in awarding those funds in California.
Now, CREATE is being evaluated itself. Federal reviewers recently visited USC to help decide whether taxpayers’ investment in the think tank should be renewed for three years.
The answer will affect four administrative staffers and about 34 professors, mainly at USC, but also at several partner campuses including New York University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. CREATE generally pays those professors the equivalent of a summer salary. Also involved are 70 other researchers and graduate students on stipends and fellowships in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
Jack Riley, associate director of Rand Corp.’s homeland security division, said the USC unit’s influence goes beyond its basic research. As the first such center, it is helping to build up terrorism studies much as colleges developed Soviet studies early in the Cold War.
“The credibility they’ve gained has helped other centers off to faster starts,” said Riley, who serves on CREATE’s unpaid scientific advisory board.
Homeland Security officials declined to comment on the renewal chances. But they offer some praise for CREATE’s work.
In what both sides described as a collaborative process, Washington sometimes suggests topics for CREATE to tackle. USC professors say they try to respond to such requests but have not been forced into any particular topics or pro-Bush administration conclusions. However, one East Coast academic who is knowledgeable about Homeland Security centers but asked not to be identified said he expects CREATE’s renewal will come with pressure to pursue more topics that Washington wants.
In one of its most high-profile projects, CREATE studied whether U.S. commercial planes should be retrofitted to confuse and jam heat-seeking missiles fired from the ground. (Israel’s El Al airlines reportedly has installed the costly countermeasures on its aircraft, but DHS and Congress still are weighing the matter.)
Before he and postdoctoral researcher Terrence M. O’Sullivan began the research, Von Winterfeldt said he doubted antimissile defenses would be worthwhile. But he became less opposed as he studied the devastation one rocket could inflict on the travel industry and national economy.
The study, released last fall, does not give a firm answer but offers policymakers a sliding scale of options that require more investigation. It says the countermeasures might be cost-effective if the probability of such an attack is 50% over the next 10 years, if the effect on the economy is more than $100 billion and if all the new equipment costs about $15 billion.
Mel Bernstein, an official in DHS’ science and research programs, said the issue involves “large complicated subjects with a lot of implications.” But he called CREATE “a major contributor” to the ongoing debate’s economic portion.
CREATE’s scholars have written more than 130 articles and reports and six books, including “The Economic Impacts of Terrorist Attacks,” a compilation edited by USC professors Harry W. Richardson, Peter Gordon and James E. Moore II. A recent conference at USC on similar topics attracted about 150 people, including representatives of foreign consulates.
In the book, the professors acknowledged that “we are to some degree providing potential information to knowledgeable terrorists.” But they say the risk is minimal because much of the information already circulates in the public domain.
While stressing that CREATE scholars do not use classified information, Von Winterfeldt said they sometimes find or produce sensitive material that is then kept from wide distribution.
Some experts say that the think tank’s most important legacy will be its development of software and decision-making tools. The Risk Analyst Workbench (known as RAW) is being designed as a one-stop Internet site with cost-benefit programs and links to terrorism research.
The analytical sliding scales may strike outsiders as bloodless and inhuman even as the center works to save lives. Von Winterfeldt, who has heard such complaints, responds: “It’s cold at some level and mathematical at another level, but I think it’s very reasonable.”
On his office wall in USC’s Ronald Tutor Hall hangs something that is not so quantifiable. It is a painting that several visitors have interpreted as a moody tribute to the World Trade Center, the destruction of which has come to shape Von Winterfeldt’s career.
But his wife painted it years before the Sept. 11 attacks as an abstract of long rectangular shapes without any reference to what became ground zero.
“It is odd,” Von Winterfeldt said, offering no analysis.
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