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Taking a Closer Look at Counterterrorism Measures

By Colleen Kearney Rich on January 19, 2012

Cynthia Lum

As deputy director of Mason’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy (CEBCP), Cynthia Lum’s career has revolved around using research findings to inform decisions about crime policy and best practices. In her new book, Evidence-Based Counterterrorism Policy (Springer, 2011), edited with Leslie W. Kennedy of Rutgers University, Lum and colleagues write about using some of the same strategies to analyze counterterrorism programs both in the United States and abroad.

Since the book deals with counterterrorism, I’m sure there were issues with security and confidentiality that you had to deal with. Did this present a problem for you?

Yes, in fact, in chapter 10 of the book, readers will see that entire sections are redacted per the Transportation Security Administration’s request. This did present a problem, given that researchers and the academe value the importance of high quality, transparent, publishable research. These goals are not always shared by those at TSA, who may believe that our research and writing poses a threat to national security. Information that you or I might not see as posing a serious threat to national security, someone in TSA’s Secured Sensitive Information Office might.

In the last chapter, Leslie Kennedy [former dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University] and I speak directly about the need to address secrecy and researcher access in homeland security and counterterrorism research. Building an infrastructure to support research requires better relationships and trust between scholars and policy makers in this arena. And research is an important part of national security—we need to know whether our interventions actually work, as well as their collateral consequences.

In looking at the articles for the book, where there any findings by your colleagues that surprised you?
The main theme of this book is less surprising and more alarming: despite billions of dollars being spent on homeland security, we still know very little about whether interventions are effective or about their collateral consequences. Compared this to, for example, policing interventions, of which we now know quite a bit. But like policing, such changes in building the evidence base for counterterrorism interventions do not happen overnight. First, research and evaluation have to be valued by the consumers of the information—specifically those implementing homeland security. Even if it is generally valued, which I think it is, there are many suspicions, concerns, and worries–some legitimate and some not legitimate—about what the motives of researchers and the consequences of the knowledge they generate.

I am sure that in the past, police agencies were concerned that researchers might expose their ineffectiveness, or reveal a tactic that they wanted to keep hidden from public view. But over time, fruitful experiences between researchers and the law enforcement community have shown good quality research can have wide-reaching benefits for police and the citizens they protect. Often, police department call research centers like the CEBCP to help them evaluate programs or crime problems, which shows us how far research has come in policing.

Similar suspicions and worries currently hamper counterterrorism research and evaluation. However, this and other books represent an attempt to try to build the research and partnership infrastructure needed to develop more trust, and therefore more research, in this area. The need for more research is clear; we know so very little about both the effectiveness and collateral effects of homeland security.

You have a chapter of your own in the text. Tell us a little about what you were analyzing for the Department of Homeland Security.

My colleagues (David Weisburd, Charlotte Gill, Devon Johnson, Linda Merola, Julie Hibdon, Jaspreet Chahal, and Heather Vovak) and I are working together on a $1 million project in the CEBCP assessing the evidence base and the evaluation potential of TSA’s Comprehensive Security Strategy at Airports, also known as the “Playbook.” The Playbook consists of a number of security strategies, many which are very common situational crime prevention and other forms of law enforcement deterrence measures. This chapter reports Phase I of IV of this project, which is an assessment of the Playbook against what we know about crime prevention. We have currently completed Phase II (surveys of all medium to large airports in the United States on the realities of implementation of the Playbook) and are now conducting site visits of airports to get a better sense of how they implement security.

If you could summarize what you looked at comprehensively, how would you say we are doing in the “war on terror”?

This is a very difficult question. As a scientist, I would reply that I am uncertain how we are doing in the war on terror because very little has been evaluated with regard to our efforts at home and abroad. In a Campbell Collaboration Systematic Review on Terrorism, Les Kennedy, Alison Sherley, and I examined more than 20,000 pieces of literature, only to find seven studies that were evaluations of counterterrorism measures.

From that review, we can only say with good certainty that metal detectors in airports did in the 1980s and 1990s reduce the hijacking incidents. But one can imagine the many different types of homeland security and counterterrorism measures that have not been evaluated. These can range from political, diplomatic, and international tactics to situational crime prevention at airports or prevention strategies against bioterrorism. These cost billions of dollars, and many of us are willing to spend money or to put up with measures because, frankly, we are afraid of being victimized.

But living in a complex, liberal democracy demands a more thoughtful analysis and approach in order to maintain that delicate balance of security and a high quality of life. This means, like policing interventions, we have to know whether actions done upon us to ensure our safety actually are effective and that they don’t degrade our basic values. Such a balance is difficult to maintain without the wheels of science, research, and public inquiry constantly turning. Sometimes when confronting the frustrations of doing research in this arena, I feel like someone stole my tires.

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