Security Theater Hurts The Troops

Thanks in large part to the hapless, ineffective, counterproductive, and embarrassing work of the Transportation Security Agency, Americans have grown accustomed to "security theater." The National Threat Advisory scheme at Homeland Security is equally nebulous, if not outright bewildering. Blue alerts? Yellow alerts? Orange alerts? Is there a difference, and which is the bad one? When does one duct tape his or her windows and parcel the cyanide tablets?

There is nothing theatrical, however, about installation security of the Armed Forces. Military police of every branch maintain a defensive posture based on Force Protection Conditions (or FPCON) determined by intelligence agencies. Conditions range from Normal, where dossiers reveal no active domestic terrorist threat, to Delta, when the nation is under terrorist attack. Force Protection Conditions make a difference, and its effects are immediately obvious. At Normal, many bases are open to the general public. At Delta, a government ID card is required for entry, at which point vehicles are searched and registered by military police, parking is restricted, and armed sentries are posted at building doorways.

Hours after the attack on Fort Hood, President Obama asked Americans not to rush to judgment about Nidal Hasan's motivation, and as recently as Saturday urged Congress to hold off on hearings until federal and military officials could complete their investigations. "The stakes," he said, "are far too high" for political theater. And right he is. 

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But so long as these probes are ongoing, so long as motivations are called a mystery, and intelligence agencies are unable to determine the strength of Hasan's ties to militant Islam (and what those ties mean from an operational standpoint), one might think that base security has shifted to a worst-case scenario footing.

And one would be wrong.

US Northern Command has ordered the Force Protection Condition to remain at Alpha, a vague and meaningless "you never know, but don't worry too much" kind of warning. Indeed, the FPCON needle has been stuck on Alpha for quite some time now, in spite of Fort Hood, the thwarted attacks at Ft. Dix, and other would-be terrorist events of recent years. 

As serious questions remain about Hasan, and even the nation's top federal investigators don't have the answers, the Pentagon, it seems, has "rushed to judgment," and has judged everything to be just fine.

Thankfully, even under FPCON Alpha, installation commanders have the authority (indeed, the duty) to heighten local security. Strong military police units are diligent about the implementation of RAMs, or random anti-terrorism measures. This can involve something as simple as rearranging the barricades at a post's main gate, deterring vehicle-borne explosive devices. It might also mean additional patrols and perimeter watches. It can include armed guards at key facilities and highly trafficked areas. (Such as, for example, pre-deployment processing centers.) And most effectively, measures can and generally do involve vehicle searches.

Except at FPCON Charlie or Delta, or by the commander's order, not every vehicle entering a base is searched. Randomness here, too, applies. It can be every tenth car through the gate, or every fifth car, or every red car. And these are not the flashlight-in-the-window glances of a traffic-stop at dusk. Military police examine every square inch of a vehicle, from the crannies of an engine block to the contents of a glove compartment. These searches invariably net contraband of every variety, from narcotics to weapons. These searches might have caught, for example, a civilian purchased, unregistered FN Five-Seven pistol, a .357 Magnum, and several high-capacity magazines of ammunition.

Would such measures have prevented the Fort Hood massacre? Possibly not. But a ten percent improvement in security might well have made the difference. And although the civilian policemen and women who downed Hasan responded in minutes, and heroically, would an armed guard at the door have had a faster response?

Furthermore, had force protection been sharper, more projecting, more menacing, would Hasan have had the nerve to drive onto post with weapons and ammunition in the first place? Or would the fear of prison as opposed to paradise fortified that final straw before he snapped?

Investigators must ask: were random anti-terrorism measures in place on November 5th? The likely answer is no. Since 9/11, when the threat felt real, the Department of Defense has largely outsourced base security to civilian personnel. This is in part because of an overstretched military police force deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The result is a miniature government-run security bureaucracy, where seniority trumps training and ability, and a minimum of effort is required to keep the federal paycheck and benefits coming in. While there are meritorious exceptions, a casual drive onto any military facility will reveal the difference between a twice-retired DoD security guard and a battle-hardened MP.

And by any measure, there is something perverse about civilians guarding a military base.

A better solution to the military police shortage is augmentation by fellow soldiers, and holding them to the same high standards of MPs. In a combat zone, extra duty is a way of life. Whether a soldier's job is to refuel helicopters or man a Humvee gun turret, between missions, latrines still need to be cleaned, and camps maintained. Security is one of those extra duties, and cooks and cops alike are locked-and-loaded in guard towers and at entry control points.

Until the military establishment and law enforcement have all the answers, and until a Fort Hood equivalent of the 9/11 Report can be written, the worst must be assumed. If this means extra duty for military personnel stationed stateside, it is an obligation they've been trained for by war. Supplementing military police and the DoD with additional soldiers will help revitalize a force protection apparatus long grown complacent. It will allow for expanded and reinforced anti-terrorism measures, and remind hostile parties that "fort" is short for "fortress."

Armed MPs of every branch guard every nuclear weapon and flight line in the military. This is because such armaments are a lethal, valuable and irreplaceable part of the American fighting force. But the same can be said for each and every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine.

Some have called for repealing President Clinton's 1993 ban on weapons on post, and suggest that a random soldier going through pre-deployment processing might have been armed and taken down Hasan. (Currently, all weapons on military installations must be registered, signed for, and stored in armories.) Even without the ban, it's impossible to imagine that soldiers going through medical screenings would have been authorized to carry civilian weapons. (Soldiers train how they fight in combat, which means M-4 rifles and, generally, M-9 Berettas. No soldier on Fort Hood would have had a Tec-9 on his person in uniform.) Just the opposite, a repeal on Clinton's ban would make stopping future Nidal Hasans difficult. For the most part, except for on-duty MPs, soldiers are armed only for qualification purposes and field training. It is a safety issue and an accountability issue; weapons stand out. Force protection is everyone's job, and the events of November 5th are a painful reminder. A doctor with a pistol, ammo, and a scowl is reason enough to sound the alarm.

D.B. Grady is the author of Red Planet Noir, available next week. He can be found on the web at