‘Alternative facts’ are making us less safe – correction

I know that I need to stop carping about the proliferation of ‘alternative facts’, otherwise known as lies.  I am obsessing about pointing them out all with the full knowledge that there are far too many and they are coming in too fast and furious to keep up.  I suppose I want to provide an alternative to these alternative facts (=lies) in the hope that my 30+ years of experience in intelligence counts for something.  I hope I can do so when it comes to stories about terrorism and national security.

Nevertheless, the latest lie that came across my news feed and that must be challenged was a statement that Air Canada had been threatened ‘dozens of times’ by terrorists.  The author of this whopper is none other than the US Secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly.  I have no idea who briefs this man and in fairness he did include US airlines in his threat statement, but this claim is outrageous.

First a bit of context.  In 15 years at CSIS I can recall one single threat against Air Canada.  One. In 15 years.  And that one never got past the “gee, what if we…” stage.  Now, I don’t know what time frame the Secretary is referring to, but it sure as hell wasn’t from 2001-2015.  I fully realise that a lot may have happened since my retirement now that I no longer have access to classified information, but I highly doubt that ‘dozens’ of plots have been planned over the past 24 months.  Never say never, but I am pretty confident that the Secretary’s words are bogus: i.e. he lied.

Now, why would the top US security official mislead the Canadian and US publics? I have given up trying to understand the Trump Administration’s inability to tell the truth on just about anything, and I won’t speculate here.  What is important though is the impact of these kinds of untruths on our public and,by extension, how we do national security.

The airline industry took a huge hit after 9/11 and that was completely understandable.  Planes were used as weapons, something that had been suggested but never actually done before, and people were afraid.  In all honesty, those of us working in the intelligence sphere at the time did not know if these attacks were the beginning of a trend or a one-off.  It turns out they were much more the latter than the former.

In response to the horrendous events of September 2001 air travel is very different.  We now go through stringent security checks (shoes off, no liquids, etc.) and air marshals are a constant, if unseen, presence on aircraft.  Flying is certainly more a chore than a pleasure these days, but at least it is safer.

No, plots against airline companies have not disappeared and a few were even successful (the bombing of a Russian airliner leaving Sharm El Sheikh in November 2015 is perhaps the most recent example).  But the fact is they are rare, even if terrorists talk about it a lot (this is another matter that I will talk about in a future blog).  And this is what makes Mr. Kelly’s fictitious remarks so egregious.  They have at least three implications for national security, none of which are good:

a) some will react to this claim by avoiding flying and drive more instead.  This is exactly what happened after 9/11 and studies have shown that a lot more deaths ensued from car accidents than would have had people flown to their destinations instead.

b) the airline industry may feel that it has to respond to this exaggerated threat by increasing already overbearing security.  And you thought those snaking lines at the X-ray machine were long now.  Just wait.

c) Mr. Kelly’s alternative facts contribute to a general sense of paranoia and dread about terrorism.  We know that public concern over violent extremism is already vastly disproportionate to the actual threat.  These careless comments are not helpful.

So yet again the Trump Administration inexplicably raises panic in response to terrorism, which is real but which also must kept in context, and as a result it makes us less safe.  Sounds like a trend to me.

Correction: A friend reminded me of the August 2006 aviation plot out of the UK that  targeted Canadian and US aircraft. It was remiss of me to not include that (I forgot).  This omission does not take away from the general premise of this post however.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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