Crisis sharpens scrutiny of security spending

LONDON Wed Feb 25, 2009 5:51am EST

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LONDON (Reuters) - The global downturn will push countries to provide smarter, more cost-effective homeland security, potentially curbing procurement of expensive gadgetry and quickening a trend to more international cooperation.

Counter-terrorism will remain an important priority for all governments, not least because security is a vital pillar of economic confidence and multibillion dollar business sectors such as tourism and transport are often targets of armed groups.

But budget pressures will force policymakers increasingly to identify waste and question big-ticket purchases of technology, a trend underpinned by worries in the West that intrusive monitoring poses a risk to civil liberties, analysts say.

"People often think there's a need for pervasive Orwellian surveillance, but in fact networks built on trust can provide the effective intelligence required," said Henry Crumpton, a former senior official of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

"We must ask ourselves in all seriousness how long we can continue to drain our economies in a futile attempt to secure everyone and everything at all times," said Raphael Perl, Head of the Action Against Terrorism Unit at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

"Even if it were possible, which it is not, the societal danger from erosion of human rights and civil liberties from extreme security measures is real, is increasing, and has been greatly underestimated in terms of sinister implications."

Since the Sept 11 attacks governments around the word have spent heavily on airport screening, import inspections, data mining systems and electronic monitoring of everything from emails, Internet chat rooms to city streets and offices.

Hundreds of billions more have been spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where a U.S.-led alliance has sought to quell insurgencies and root out al Qaeda cells.

But London's International Institute for Strategic Studies thinktank said in its 2009 Military Balance global defense review that "defense spending seems bound to come under close scrutiny" by governments around the world hit by recession.

TRUSTED INTELLIGENCE NETWORKS

The wars' ongoing costs will be a hefty component of the U.S. budget rolled out on Thursday by President Barack Obama, who has pledged to review major defense programs.

A budget-driven rethinking of security policy by Washington and its allies could be a blessing in disguise, some observers argue, prompting a return to reliance on traditional tools such as international cooperation and on-the-beat policing.

David Kilcullen, a military adviser to Western governments, said: "A bit more fiscal discipline is probably not a bad idea."

"I think there's been a lot of waste."

Satish Nambiar, a former deputy chief of the Indian Army Staff, said the beat constable tradition had been in decline in India "and that's a very major drawback. There's no one better to tell you what's going on than the guy on the ground."

Crumpton told Reuters that U.S. officials had a cultural preference for "expensive high-tech, defensive systems" which satisfied powerful political and commercial vested interests.

"But if you look at the most effective counter-terror campaigns that we have waged, it's really understanding and engaging the people."

Billions of dollars were spent countering roadside bombs in Iraq, he said. Eventually progress came from a different source -- "developing trusted intelligence networks with the tribes."

A study by U.S. economists published in March 2008 argued most current counter-terrorism spending was ineffective and money would be better spent boosting international police cooperation and increasing aid to developing countries.

The report said global spending on internal security had risen by about $70 billion a year since the September 11 attacks.

The Danish political scientist who commissioned the report, Bjorn Lomborg, told Reuters this week the global downturn, combined with the arrival of a new U.S. administration with fresh thinking, meant a review of strategy was on the cards.

Change would come only slowly, due to the long lead times of security procurement budgets, he said, but there was now an openness among policymakers to new ideas.

"People realize now that money is tight," he said.

Another possible reform is more international sharing of the job of gathering data on armed groups, an idea floated by a former chief of Chinese military intelligence at a conference of the EastWest Institute security thinktank last week.

HEARTS AND MINDS

Major General Huang Baifu told the Brussels conference a push to maximize intelligence sharing among participant states had helped produce a safe 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing.

"I would like to emphasize cooperation and coordination among intelligence agencies in fighting terrorism. We should share information fully," said Huang, now vice chairman of the China Institute for International Strategic Studies.

The OSCE's Perl wants traditional counter-terror spending focused mainly on guarding against catastrophic attacks involving weapons of mass destruction.

For the rest, he says, a key priority should be a return to traditional diplomacy, especially funding exchange visits by law enforcement officers that enable them to build durable relationships with their counterparts overseas.

"The saying that it's necessary to win hearts and minds has become a cliche only because it's been done poorly in the past," he said. "If we wish to mitigate terrorism, we must seek to understand it."

(Editing by Janet McBride)

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