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National Security Analyzed with Schneier Models

Bruce Schneier writes about security and describes models of Protection, Detection and Reaction in his book "Secrets and Lies." How is our national security system measuring up to those models? By analyzing the terrorist action on September 11, 2001 we can see what works and what does not in our national security systems.


After reading and listening to pilots respond to the terrorist attack that used the transportation system to attack other national systems I have some questions. Why were proven protections ignored, (locked cockpit, air marshals, etc.) and useless measures like banning curb side check in enacted?

My guess it was probably a "Terrorism Response Plan" that high priced blowhard terrorism consultants created and sold to the FAA. But way cheaper than air marshals and secure doors. That mixed with "private sector" airport security with profit rather than security as its goal and you have no real protection.

Many other national systems are built to catastrophically fail and have no security. Some protection can be built but it will be difficult to defend systems that are centralized and catastrophic by nature, such as nuclear power plants. It is better to replace and redesign such systems.


The attack was detected at least three weeks before it occurred. One of the suspected terrorists was apprehended August 17, in Minnesota, while trying to pay cash for large jet simulator time. Almost a month before the attack. Yet the FBI apparently did not check out other air simulator companies for similar patterns. Several of the suspects were known terrorists, or had problems with their documents and paid cash for air simulator time at other pilot training companies and should also been detected. This could have disrupted the terrorist attack or caused it to fail completely. But apparently the Immigration Service got the guy in jail for being an illegal alien and only the air simulator company cared that he was training for a terrorist attack.

The FAA should have known many planes were hijacked and when. How the third and fourth plane were allowed to proceed is not a question being asked. It looks like a terrible system failure. Late detection also happened and was partially successful. Passengers on one of the hijacked planes found out what was going on and reacted much quicker. Using a wonderfully distributed flexible communication system (cell phones) the passengers figured out exactly what was happening and fought the hijackers. The plane crashed instead of being used as a weapon.

Detection of attacks is probable, recognizing the threat and stopping the turf wars by institutions is much more difficult but is a question of training and priority, not budget or expanded powers. Both early and late detection occurred. Our institutions failed to act in a timely manner when the attack was detected. The passengers of one plane did act because of good communications and prevented greater damage.


Lack of knowledge of what happens when a steel tower catches fire killed hundreds of fire and police workers. Lack of knowledge of how and why to get out of a steel tower, next to one fire killed hundreds of office workers. The loss of life was much higher, maybe by a third or more than it could have been if everyone had evacuated that could. For a city of skyscrapers like New York it was only a matter of time before a building lights up and falls down.

Panic shutdowns of financial systems, air transport, sports, shopping centers across the country and major media communications systems propaganda spamming for almost a week appeared harmful to the economy and useless. President Bush hiding in Nebraska for several days and Vice President Cheney still disappeared is useless. Our national leaders look like cowards, panic ruled. Contrast that behavior to New York Mayor Guliani who had a World Trade Center tower fall on his disaster command post, picked his way out of the rubble and continued to work.

Air defense was enacted, but was too late, and not effective. According to the 911 Commission the hijackers turned off the transponders that ID the commercial aircraft making them invisible except by radar, not good enough to find them easily. So why is it so easy to turn off a transponder in a commercial aircraft in the air?

Longer term reactions look like a mixed bag. Enhancing powers of the police forces that bring back Nixon's enemies list, Watergate, 1950's Commie witch hunts with a vengeance and directed at our own citizens will not help. Adding another cabinet level secret police organization will not make cooperation better between agencies. It is just another player in the turf wars and allows another place where power can be abused. Forty Billion dollars voted by Congress without question for what? Crazy plans for starwars missiles. Duh. This does nothing to enhance security. Starving or bombing Afghanistan is just as stupid.

FBI and investigating agencies are actually tracing what happened. This is the only action that is useful and it is using resources already in place. The next steps of criminal justice for the people who assisted in the September attack will happen, also with the powers and resources already in place.

Some protections that do work for the air transportation system may be enacted, like armed marshals, transponders that stay on in flight and locked cockpits. Other reactions like better training and procedures to handle tower fires and emergencies will also help; better immigration procedures and rules may also prevent some terrorists from entering the country.


The nation lacks leadership that understands what security is. Or worse, the national leadership is using 9-11 to advance faulty policy that benefits the interest group that paid for the leadership. The fear and panic shown by the national leaders Bush and Cheney is disgusting. Our government leadership is a deeply distributed system that can lose one, ten, twenty people from the top and should not be affected. Personal safety should not be the top concern for the leadership, they are sworn to defend the Constitution, not their skins. Informed plane passengers showed better leadership and understanding than most of our institutions.

Air marshals, secure doors on planes and better threat detection by the non-cooperating intelligence, immigration and law groups does not cost forty billion dollars. It does not involve stripping citizens of rights. We already have all the money and powers needed without PATRIOT ACTs.

The air transport system, tall buildings and the national stock market are not the only vulnerable systems that can fail catastrophically. Distribution of centralized systems and design that does not fail with horrible effects will take many years to accomplish, but is very possible. Unfortunately, our present leaders are doing the opposite of what is needed, advocating more nuclear power and other centralized systems, removing freedoms and creating police state structures.