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We Report... You Deride

Monday, July 12, 2004  
Letting Both Sets of Terrorists Win

Is it better to be paranoid or naive? It's amusing and disgusting to watch a bunch of people who have absolutely no idea what they're talking about blather about the possiibility that the 2004 elections might be delayed or cancelled-- and what (if anything) the Democrats need to do to make sure we don't end up living in a right-wing police state.

I appreciate the logic of what Billmon is saying about this Newsweek story, although I think he underestimates the degree of concern. But Kevin Drum's haughty nonsense on the subject irriattes the hell out of me.

Is it unlikely that there will be a terrorist attack close enough to the election--if not on election day--to prompt calls to delay or cancel the election? Well, duh. Of course it's unlikely-- welcome to the world of Risk Management and Contingency Planning, folks.

It is the first commandment of the profession: 99.9% of your work will be wasted. Doing the job means spend the overwhelming majority of your life-- and a staggering amount of someone else's money and staff time--devising contingency plans for scenarios that will not happen.

Here's the most professionally satisfying possibility: If you're really good at your job--and your client is really unlucky--exactly one of your 5, 50 or 500 disaster scenarios (depending on what you're trying to protect)-- each with a probability of occurrence somewhere between "one in one thousand" and "one in one million"-- will happen to some degree, and your effort will reduce or eliminate the negative consequences. You walk away feeling good about saving the client some pain and bad because they had to suffer at all.

The "best" scenario-- though no one involved ever thinks of it that way-- is that nothing happens. The client doesn't suffer at all-- but they do wonder why you bullied them into spending between $250,000 (the development cost of a high-level plan for one critical business function--implementation not included) and $250 million (the price some companies paid for Year 2000 compliance) on something that "didn't happen."

The worst-case scenario is that something you didn't plan for-- or discarded as being too unlikely-- happens. Even if you begged the client to consider the risk and they told you flat-out to shut up, you still stay up nights thinking that you cost them a lot of money and you didn't prevent them from getting hosed.

The bottom line is that disasters are always unexpected. If you could be fairly sure--or even have a justifiable suspicion that something could happen-- there is no excuse for not taking precautions to the degree that you can be injured. If you buy a vacation home on the Eastern seaboard or the Gulf Coast and your financial stability could be wiped out if it were destroyed, you shouldn't even think about the purchase. You don't have kids without life insurance, you don't drink and drive. If you want to live a safe, happy life, you consider two propositions before you make any decision:

1. What is the likelihood that a negative event can happen?
2. What do you stand to lose if it does and you're not ready?

There are a lot of unknowns in both questions, but you'd have to be blind not to see a substantial level of risk. To answer question one, we have to ask two questions. First, What's the possibility of someone pulling off a strike with a huge body count sometime in late October or November?

Unless you have an extraordinary amount of confidence in the performance of the FBI, CIA, NSC, Justice Department and Homeland Security, it would seem that there's at least a decent chance of that happening. Tom Ridge and John Ashcroft,still can't manage to keep people with contraband off airlines, and that's the one scenario that's in the back of everyone's mind. The chance of someone releasing poison gas or nerve agents in a crowded place-- or blowing up one of the thousands of strategic targets that still aren't properly protected--or doing something that these nitwits haven't considered-- would seem to be higher.

The whackos, by the way, don't have to be al-Qaeda. In fact, the odds of a wild-eyed ultra-right group staging an attack in order to try to rally people around W. is probably higher. My views on this are somewhat biased-- I'm convinced the culprits for the anthrax business were right-wingers (pertinent questions being "What do terrorists gain from attacking members of the minority?" and "Isn't it odd that Pay Leahy and Tom Daschle-- two guys atop Rush Limbaugh's Hate List--were targeted, instead of the most virulent anti-arab members?").

But even if you think that's completely insane, who out there seriously believes that the Aryan Nation is getting less surveillance than the Sierra Club-- and isn't in a better position to stage something and get away with it?

Having asked that question, let's move onto question 1-B: What is the probability that W's regime would attempt to use an attack for political purposes?" If you assess the probability of that at less than 100%, you need to ask the Easter Bunny or the Great Pumpkin to review the events of the last four years.

What's the cost of not having an exceptionally detailed plan to deal with an attack--meaning that W. announced (after Karl Rove does some polling) that we have to call off the elections until Dick Cheney thinks it's safe? Oh, just control of the government.

Is any of this going to happen? Probably not-- most contingency plans don't. Is it going to hurt anyone to get a group together to hammer out a detailed plan to address everything that might happen and how to respond? Would it kill what's left of that whimpering, shapeless mass of ectoplasmic suckfaces known as the Democratic Party to insist that this get thought out publicly-- with everyone being clear on the elements of the decision tree?

For example, what's the time window when we call it off or delay it?

How much disruption needs to be caused to trigger a response? If one guy shoots up a precinct in Utah, we keep going, right? What if they blow up the Niagara Mohawk substation in Buffalo-- or Lower Colorado in Texas or one of the other major transmission points on the grid--and we have another huge blackout?

Suppose the attack doesn't actually have a direct impact on voting-- a mega-worm that brings down major computer networks 72 hours before Election Day?

Suppose there's a nerve gas attack in Houston in late October-- and we've cleaned up the chaos by election day, but we don't know who's to blame?

You want to just wing any of those? You don't do that-- you assume that it just can't happen-- and you wind up open for... Well, say there's an attack on Election Day, in Manhattan, and that it's got 9/11-style consequences. You've got a bunch of people dead, fifteen million people unable to get to the polls-- many of whom live in Connecticut and New Jersey (and a large number who commute from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island). Let's say the perverted wits who chose to attack on "911" do this one at "High Noon", so the rest of the country has 7-10 hours to stew and rage.

You ready to hear W. announce that the elections in six key blue states have to be postponed for a week or two-- but the rest of the county can keep voting and counting because "it's important to show the terrorists that they can't win." That's why you want a contingency plan for dealing with a terrorist attack during election season.

11:28 PM

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