WHERE THE RISK'S AT. The inimitable Dana Milbank throws up a terrific headline -- "Flash: DHS Disputes Al-Qaeda's 5-Star Rating of Two U.S. Cities" -- on his way to discussing how much different cities are at risk of terrorist attack:

The new DHS plan is advertised as a "risk-based" model, but it came up with almost the opposite conclusions to a Rand Corp. study last year that calculated terrorism risk to 47 cities. Seven of the 10 highest-risk cities in the Rand study will lose funding under the DHS plan; six of the 10 lowest-risk cities in the Rand study will see increases in funds, including such hot spots as Milwaukee and Tampa.

Calculating risk is a complicated business, but, fortunately, America has a lot of very smart people studying the problem. Rand, in particular, argues that treating assets equally without considering the threat environment is likely to give a false picture of risk. The Department of Homeland Security, in an effort to beat back some of the criticism it's receiving, issued a statement yesterday asserting that it had, in fact, adequately taken New York's iconic stuctures into consideration:

The Empire State Building was reviewed as a tall office building and the Brooklyn Bridge was reviewed as a bridge in the analysis for New York City. They were not including as ´┐Żnational monuments´┐Ż as this would have unfairly counted both structures twice.

This is precisely the problem with the Department of Homeland Security risk assessment instrument. Not all tall office buildings are equal, and if you fail to consider the symbolic or strategic value of assets -- as well as the threat environment in which certain symbolic or strategic assets are demonstrably at higher risk of attack by the actual enemies we're girding ourselves against -- and consider all assets equally, you're going to come up with a risk analysis model that over-selects for sending homeland preparedness funds to lower-risk communities that appear to have many vulnerable assets. The Brooklyn Bridge is not just any bridge, just as the three bridges around the port of Los Angeles, through which 40 percent of foreign goods come into the U.S., are not any old bridges. Those California bridges may look like plenty of other ugly highway overpasses, and it may cost just as much to fortify them as some random stretches of concrete in Wyoming, but they are much, much, much more important, and consequently deserve special consideration.

Not all assets are created equal, and that's the main reason I'm not nearly as worried about terrorists attacking the skywalks of Des Moines as I am about the bridges around the Port of Los Angeles, which James Verini described in this magazine in 2005 as "the single most attractive target for economic terrorism in the country" and which remained, "more than three years after 9-11, after hundreds of millions of dollars spent on risk assessments and plans...essentially, an open bull's-eye."

--Garance Franke-Ruta

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