Wishing for a Government that can Google

January 4, 2010

by Chidem Kurdas

What do you want your government to do in the 2010s? The wish lists tend to be ambitious.  Here is one from Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf: “Somehow, we must manage to sustain a dynamic global economy, promote development, deliver environmental sustainability and ensure peaceful and co-operative international relations.”

He adds, “This will take sustained statecraft of the highest order.” No kidding. Last month the superpower that is supposed to lead efforts to achieve those broad, complex and elusive objectives demonstrated its inability to—run a search engine.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be bomber on the Northwest plane to Detroit on December 24th, was on the terrorist watch list. That database was not consulted before he boarded the plane, even though red flags abounded, like his traveling without baggage.

It should take airport security seconds to search for a name. Billions of people use Google or Yahoo to find what they’re looking for on the Worldwide Web, often in less than a second. After all these years and untold amounts of taxpayer money, you’d think there would be an efficient internal search engine to find names quickly in the main security database compiled by the US, and that it would be accessible by security personnel anywhere and routinely checked.

That sounds like something a big and lavishly financed federal bureaucracy can actually achieve. Quick database searches would be no imposition on travelers—-unlike the restroom ban airline passengers are now required to endure during part of their flight.

But it is not surprising that a hyper-active government, pursuing mandates to make the world better in every possible way, fails in its core job of stopping bombers. Overreaching results not in “statecraft of the highest order” but incompetence of the highest order.

If our wishes for the government were tempered with a realistic view of what it can do and limited to its proper functions, maybe those functions would be better performed. Let’s just hope for a security apparatus that puts the right names in a database and regularly searches the database. And allows you to go to the restroom.

16 Responses to “Wishing for a Government that can Google”

  1. Pete Canning Says:

    I can’t say I wish for a government that can Google. Even in their incompetence, they are scary enough.

  2. chidemkurdas Says:

    Pete, you’re making a good point. I thought about it as I wrote the post. Thing is, though, you’re paying the taxes for this expensive security system and then they won’t even search for the name of the fellow boarding a plane with no baggage. Instead, they order you not to go to the restroom. They should so something useful, wouldn’t you say?

  3. chidemkurdas Says:

    Thinking about this, the striking thing is the disconnect between hugely ambitious, abstract aims – as in the quote from Martin Wolf – and the incompetence in dealing with relatively simple, concrete issues, like using a database.

  4. Zach C Says:

    I heard on NPR today that everyone flying the route between Amsterdam and Detroit is now subjected to a thorough full-body pat-down.

    I suggest that airport security officers on both sides of the Atlantic should have their wages lowered to compensate for the obvious, significant raise in the ‘non-pecuniary’ benefits of their position.

    Although the dollar value of unnecessary groping may be hard to quantify, this would strike me as statecraft of the highest order.

  5. chidemkurdas Says:

    Great suggestion, Zach. Unfortunately, there may be a union that will demand more money, not less, no matter what.

  6. chidemkurdas Says:

    Re pat-downs on Detroit flights, maybe it’ll be helpful to put up signs that say:
    Please Close Barn Door BEFORE Horse escapes.

  7. Mario Rizzo Says:

    I’d like to see the international political consequences of giving a woman in a burqa a full-body scan.

  8. chidemkurdas Says:

    It does get complicated, doesn’t it? Presumably women would scan women. That would make the lines even longer.

  9. chidemkurdas Says:

    However, I have to admit to being troubled by the issue Pete raised. There was a saying about the old Habsburg empire, that its tyranny was mitigated by inefficiency. There may be an argument for inefficient government. But as a flier, I prefer some modicum of efficiency in keeping bombers off planes.


  10. I had this conversation at a formal dinner last night and the women much preferred the scan to a body search. The scan is only visible in a remote room. Have women security agents monitor the scan for women.

    All thinks considered, I prefer competence in security. The incompetence all round was outrageous, and I credit Obama for (belatedly) saying as much. The danger is an over-reaction to what is still a statistically small threat (compared, say, to travelling by auto).

  11. chidemkurdas Says:

    Jerry, I’m of two minds about the scans. It makes sense that women would prefer a scan to a body search, given the indignity of the latter. Nevertheless, a scan is pretty intrusive. It is like being forced to have a medical test.

    Also, I’m not sure about its long-term effects. They say radiation is nothing to worry about, but you might have to be scanned repeatedly when you travel. How much radiation would you be exposed to? Has anyone looked at that?

  12. chidemkurdas Says:

    Judging from online comments, many people are outraged by the additional restrictions on planes, not only the bathroom ban but also not being allowed to have your own stuff on your lap during part of international flights. Not clear whether this means you can’t read your magazine or book–airline rules seem to vary.

  13. Bogdan Enache Says:

    Leaving aside the more philosophical questions, I think there’s one big simple problem with American security arrangements whether in embassies, airports etc. There’s too much show of force, which I think doesn’t have a deterrent effect, but quite the opposite and it it’s not matched by increased efficiency. I always compare British and American security arrangements in various settings, two countries with similar foreign policies, involvements, threats etc. When you go to an American embassy, it is surrounded by a makeshift wall to presumably stop kamikaze cars from blowing it; it is patroled by a dozen heavily armed American and local security forces which like to show off that they are there and they are armed, like the guards of some ancient castle, even if this happens to be in a crowded street of an old fin de siecle neighbourhood with a school, a theatre and a lot of busy people who can’t have a sidewalk to walk on; the security check-in outside is military style, with summary indications like a lieutenant gives to a platoon and so on; inside, there’s a very solemn atmosphere in the lobby, with big American and American Marines or Navy flags and several two meter guys in military uniform and with a very visible gun, a big stick, pepper spray and everything you want scrutinizing you and giving directions. When you go in a British embassy, however, it doesn’t usually look like a fortress from outside, there are fewer armed men, the people in the security checking actually wear civilian clothes and you don’t see any machine gun; they actually talk and say hello and don’t sound like giving orders; in the lobby there’s a picture of Queen Elisabeth on a piano, a coat of arms or maybe a flag, a smaller flag however. This might sound trivial, but there are actually studies showing that the Brittish equivalent of the Secret Service, for instance, which is very discrete compared to the small army that accompanies a US president in a foreign visit for instance, has been much more effective in protecting its objectives, even though it faced terrorism (from the IRA and other sources) long before the notion became familiar to many US citizens.

  14. chidemkurdas Says:

    I suppose the American approach is to put on a public show. As the (English) Bard says, “All the world’s a stage”


  15. Chidem,

    I can add some information. It happens I attended a talk on intelligence by a Brit associated with an organization that does not officially exist.

    He was asked about the recent incident and said it was a complete failure of front-line security. But he also said that scans would NOT have prevented it becuase the suspect had no metal.

    He suugested that authorities over-react to these incidents. Nonetheless, he repeated his judgment that this was a shocking failure.

  16. chidemkurdas Says:

    That over-reaction seems to take the form of doing anything & everything that comes to mind, rather than figuring out what’s likely to be most effective at reasonable cost and intrusiveness.


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