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The Terrorists are Coming: Former Homeland Security Secretary Writes Bad Report on L.A. Stadium Project

There are many good reasons not to build a football stadium. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge thinks terrorism is one such reason. He is wrong.
March 3, 2015, 6:25pm
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Stadiums are dangerous places. Not for the people inside of them, but for the planes flying overhead. People can assemble rocket-propelled grenade launchers in the handicap bathroom. They wait until all the fans file into the stadium before removing their high caliber sniper rifle from the leg of their tailgate grill, using it to gun down the F-18s during the National Anthem flyover.

OK, so these scenarios haven't happened, yet. But according to former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and terrorism expert Tom Ridge, who authored a brief "preliminary, high-level review" of the proposed Inglewood NFL Stadium, it's only a matter of time.

Read More: The Case for Cities Buying Sports Teams, Not Sports Stadiums

Funded by AEG, the report begins with Ridge pointing out that the prospective stadium site is as little as 2.5 miles from LAX runways. I have no idea at what altitude planes tend to be during an approach at this distance because Ridge never gets into that. You're just supposed to know this is simply too close.

"As a major American hub for transportation and commerce," Ridge writes, "it is clear that LAX is attractive to terrorists and other mal-intended actors seeking a target with significant symbolic and economic value." And thus begins Ridge's terrorist threat report about Los Angeles International Airport, which is now in its 86th year of operation.

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To illustrate this grave and present danger, Ridge mentions four cases, all with dubious connections to, well, anything. Three of them (the millennium bombing plot, El Al counter shooting, and shooting of TSA Officer Gerardo Hernandez) were either attempted or successful attacks within the airport terminal itself, having nothing to do with planes or their flight paths. The fourth, the Jam'iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh plot, was a half-baked scheme by a bunch of ex-convicts that didn't involve LAX at all.

Still, Ridge spends the next six pages describing the movements and practices of Al-Qaeda bomb-makers either currently or formerly operating in the Middle East while reminding the reader of the almost's and not-quite's of half-recent American terrorist plots—the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber—before sensing his purpose fading into darkness and shouting "NINE ELEVEN" over and over as loudly as possible.

Ridge is light on the specifics—this is, after all, a preliminary report—but this as close as he gets to identifying actual risks involving, well, whatever:

  • Potential fire from high caliber rifles and snipers
  • Rocket propelled grenades (RPGs)
  • man-portable air defense systems (MANPADs)
  • Drones steered into the engines of passenger planes
  • hand-held laser pointers shined into pilots' eyes

In the most blatant example of Making Shit Up, Ridge includes this random paragraph about the missing Malaysia Airlines plane:

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"Finally, the yet unresolved disappearance of a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 aircraft on March 8, 2014 with 227 passengers onboard (MH370) has raised questions about possible air crew involvement and is a stark reminder that insider aviation threats must be seriously considered."

A Google search for the phrase "insider aviation threats" yielded six results, all linking back to this report. So this is a thing he made up.

Still, these flimsy non sequiturs and basic LAX traffic statistics don't stop Ridge from concluding that "the peril of placing a National Football League stadium in the direct flight path of LAX — layering risk — outweigh any benefits over the decades-long lifespan of the facility."

What Ridge never discusses is precisely how a stadium existing below a runway's flight path constitutes a layering of risks, or any risk at all for that matter, beyond the fact that anything which exists can be blown up. Perhaps this is because it doesn't. In 2013, NBC's Bay Area affiliate ran a report on a similar concern for the 49ers new stadium in Santa Clara, just off the San Jose airport's runways. Even the local news station couldn't muster up a fake terrorist threat, instead focusing on air traffic control (the upshot: it will be busy, but not dangerous). Not to mention, the Meadowlands sports complex and Shea Stadium/Citi Field have sat since the 1960s directly in airport flight paths with nary a .50 caliber anti-tank rifle in sight.

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This term, "layering risk," a catch-all term in risk management literature, is a perfect example of how the terrorism threat industry—and it is an industry—works: state a few unrelated facts and combine them with a logical fallacy or untrue statement.

Here, we have two basic facts: stadiums and airports are potential targets for terrorist attacks since, I don't know, I guess some people might want to blow them up more than they would like to blow up other places or something. Ridge then "layers" this to make an irrelevant fact—that planes will fly over the stadium—to seem important and bad.

Harvard security expert Bruce Schneier agrees with this assessment, telling me the report "borders on paranoia." In an email response, Schneier wrote, "One of the problems with our current discourse about terrorism and terrorist policies is that the people entrusted with counterterrorism—those whose job it is to surveil, study, or defend against terrorism—become so consumed with their role that they literally start seeing terrorists everywhere. So it comes as no surprise that if you ask Tom Ridge, former head of the DHS, about potential terrorism risks at a new LA football stadium, of course finds them."

This is precisely what Glenn Greenwald detailed in his 2012 article for Salon, elaborating on a broader "terrorist expert" industry across Washington: "There's a very similar and at least equally important (though far less discussed) constituency deeply vested in the perpetuation of this fear…'terrorism experts,' who have built their careers on fear-mongering over Islamic Terrorism and can stay relevant only if that threat does." Think of the "eggberts" marched onto FOX News sets to provide quick sound bites about Islamic Extremists.

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While Ridge's fear-mongering is comical, it's unfortunately not a joke. As professors John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart estimated in The Terrorism Delusion: America's Overwrought Response to September 11, in the years after 9/11, "expenditures in the United States on domestic homeland security alone—that is, excluding overseas expenditures such as those on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—have expanded by more than $1 trillion." Further, the spectre of terrorism has justified the militarization of domestic police, which is almost always used for, well, domestic policing. These threats may be largely imaginary, but the costs are real.

We can only guess how much Tom Ridge was paid to write this report, but I'm pretty sure it's more than you or I make in a whole year. He has many thousands of incentives to see, as Schneier put it, terrorists everywhere, which brings to mind the George Costanza line: "It's not a lie if you believe it."

A stadium in an airport flight path poses no more risk than a housing development, shopping mall, or any other kind of construction. Maybe this is the point. If nothing is safe, the more we need these terrorist experts, the more money they make on 15-page half-assed analyses, and the more lucrative the fear machine becomes. "On the plus side, now we all have a convincing argument against development," Schneier deadpans. "'You can't possibly build that shopping mall near my home, because terrorism.'"

Layering Risk at LAX, Dec2014 by ViceSports