The BP oil spill has released more than four million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico to date, threatening the southern US coast. As congressional hearings begin, the disaster should cause the US to reassess what it means by 'national security.'
A funny thing happened on the US President Barack Obama's trip to the Gulf Coast disaster zone earlier this month. When he arrived, before discussing his administration’s response to the spill, which the visit was designed to highlight, he had to first address another issue. The night before, someone had left an SUV packed with poorly improvised explosive components in Time Square - the iconic heart of New York City’s midtown tourist district.
“We're going to do what's necessary to protect the American people, to determine who is behind this potentially deadly act,” Obama told reporters who had accompanied him to Venice, Louisiana to view clean-up efforts.
The incompetent way the would-be bomber had assembled his device - along with other rookie mistakes like leaving his house key in the vehicle - led many to conclude in the first few hours that the failed attack was probably the work of a 'lone-wolf,' a self-radicalized internet wannabe who had probably based their design on details gleaned from news reports of similar devices used in attacks in Britain.
US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who had been booked on a political talk show the following morning to discuss the oil spill called the bungled attack “a one-off.”
It was hard to believe that anyone so inept had been part of a conspiracy hatched by professionals.
But last weekend US Attorney General Eric Holder said the Pakistani Taliban - the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group which had made an early, and widely doubted, claim of responsibility - had been “behind” the botched Times Square attack.
The tangled skein of accused bomber Faisal Shahzad’s connections to extremist groups in Pakistan - or at least however much of their knowledge about them US intelligence agencies are comfortable revealing in open court - may become clearer as the prosecution proceeds.
The possible role of the TTP has already caused an apparent disconnect between Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who has been talking tough about Pakistan’s need to do more, and US military officials who have to deal every day with Pakistani counterparts who have suffered heavy casualties in their operations against the insurgent group.
“Most people don’t understand the scope of the Pakistani effort against the TTP,” US Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal told reporters Monday. “It’s been large and it’s been costly. They’ve lost a lot of soldiers in a significant campaign that’s actually been waged very, very well.”
More importantly, the fact remains that even if it had worked as its builder intended, the Time Square device would have created a fireball that might have killed pedestrians but would not have damaged buildings.
In other words, the death toll would not likely have surpassed the 11 who died when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig caught fire and blew up on 20 April.
But the consequences of that fireball are likely to be orders of magnitude more serious - though it is callous to say so - than a dozen deaths.
As the Senate and the House stage hearings into the disaster this week, there is no end in sight to the spill, which currently pouring an estimated 210,000 gallons every day into the ocean. The only tested, reliable means of stopping the deluge is drilling a relief well, which will take months.
But as the inevitable round of politically fueled finger-pointing begins, it is worth bearing in mind, as one thoughtful observer, Atlantic magazine blogger Lisa Margonelli put it, “While we may want a simple explanation […] that allows us to go back to business as usual with a few modifications, what we're going to get is a long, detailed, thoroughly modern flow chart about the limits of technology, humans, geology, and regulation.”
In other words, when it comes to offshore drilling at the geographical and technological limits of human ingenuity and engineering, it gets very complicated to manage risk.
The fact is, the risk of something going wrong with the Deepwater Horizon was probably irreducible - though Margonelli, despite her distaste for a simple narrative makes a good case for indicting BP’s corporate culture at least.
The same is true of the risk of some disaffected young man leaving a poorly assembled bomb in Times Square - the risk of such terrorist attacks cannot be eliminated completely and even trying too hard to do so can easily backfire.
The key to a risk management approach to counterterrorism is to make an objective assessment of what the most dangerous threats are - a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon, for instance - and seek to reduce or eliminate them; while learning to live with the remainder.
Part of the reason the solutions BP is trying are not working - and part of the reason why the EPA is allowing them to pump thousands of gallons of dispersants into the water although the effect on the marine eco-system is unknown - is precisely that Deepwater Horizon was operating at the edge of the envelope: deeper and further offshore.
When Americans consider the implications of the oil spill, they should think hard about what national security will mean in an era when energy needs are driving policies that court disaster in the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Persian Gulf.
By. Shaun Waterman