Stone Pigs

undeniable underlying truths

Don’t Apply Rules to Security

Posted By on January 3, 2010

Rules are replacing thinking in our society.  Rules provide intellectual cover for those folks who don’t want to be held responsible for their own decisions, instead being able to say, "Hey, I was just following the rules.  You can’t blame me for that!"  Rules support mental laziness.  This is a pretty well documented pet peave of mine.

While this way of life might be harmless in certain sectors, and even beneficial in some (such as for prisoners inside prisons), it’s downright dangerous in others.  National security is one of those areas.

National security is like a game of chess, but is played by people with guns and bombs and all manner of scary stuff.  The players in this game are serious in their objectives and will use every weapon in their arsenal to achieve them.  And as with chess, the player who simply follows a prescribed set of rules, especially if those rules are known to all the players, will never emerge victorious from battle with a savvy opponent.

Politicians, lawyers, and bureaucrats love rules.  Bureaucrats love to follow rules and make rules for others to follow.  Politicians gain favor with voters oftentimes by proposing new rules and bureaucracies to make more rules.  Lawyers love to use rules against their adversaries and in favor of their clients.  By their nature, politicians, lawyers, and bureaucrats aren’t particularly good chess players … and they’re even worse at national security.

National security is best handled by spies, quarterbacks, and other shadowy characters operating in a fluid environment, making decisions as they go.  Good quarterbacks do follow a complex decision tree on each play to hopefully arrive at the best option in the moment and the ones that do that consistently will meet with some degree of success.  But great quarterbacks, are able to move beyond that and just make up "stuff" on the run that almost always seems to go right.

Those are the kinds of folks I want running national security.

Rules in the security game are only effective to a point — like a good quarterback, but not a great one.  Security rules are effective at catching stupid terrorists, for example, but to catch, or stop, highly determined and intelligent terrorists and other enemies, you need the dynamic improvisational skills of a Brett Favre, or jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

This point has been made brilliantly and often by my favorite security expert, Bruce Schneier.  He’s a highly regarded security expert who has been writing for years on the subject.  His blog is located at  He has described the overt efforts at national security, especially with respect to the mostly impotent TSA screening efforts at airports, as little more than "security theater."  His take on the TSA, as you would expect of a bureaucracy, is that they are rule makers and followers and as such do not provide the type of high quality national security we need against determined, resourceful, and intelligent enemies.  I’m not even sure they would be good at catching stupid terrorists, but I suppose they might get lucky once in a while (though their latest bit of luck seems to be only that the "knickerbomber" they MISSED was himself too incompetent to carry out his mission with much success).

As a society, we must be careful to avoid putting too much emphasis on the rule-following bureaucratic solutions to national security such as airport screenings, mass behavior modifications (through ridiculously onerous rules on airplanes), and other liberty-sapping outright privacy invasions being proposed by the TSA and the US Department of Homeland Security (so nicely led by Janet Incompetano).  Instead, we should be directing as much money and resources as we can toward our quarterbacks, spies, and investigators who are better suited to face our enemies.  We must avoid the temptations to allow politicians and lawyers to lead us astray with good sound bites and feel-good policies and rules, all the while they really serve only to weaken our society.


Further reading:

Me and the Christmas Underwear Bomber, Bruce Schneier
The Joke’s on Us, Mark Steyn, National Review Online.


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