The Flexibility Solution

How Private Enterprise can Improve Infrastructure Security

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America has not done enough to protect the networks of roads, train lines, pipelines, power wires, ports, and fiber-optic networks that constitute the nation’s critical infrastructure. This infrastructure, indeed, faces threats from all directions, from nuisances to existential risks. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina showed the vulnerability of our systems. A snow storm can clog highways for weeks. A tornado can shut down power for millions. A malicious virus could cripple the Internet. Another airplane hijacking could paralyze long distance travel. A nuclear terrorist attack could destroy much in a major city and send the entire economy into a tailspin. While we can always mitigate—and in the case of terrorist attacks, prevent— these events, neither the government nor private enterprise can provide total safety. We can, however, make one perfectly safe prediction: The United States will continue to face threats to our critical infrastructure. The nation must protect itself.

Over the last decade, government has taken an ever-growing role in providing this protection. Of course, government has a role to play in defending the country from threats both natural and man-made. But we will hurt our own security by allowing government’s role to grow too large. In this paper, we outline a new approach for protecting the nation, one that allows for the best use of both government and private efforts. We provide examples of how we might apply that framework to the Internet, to our air travel system, and to the nation’s power grid. Good security against most threats requires flexibility, and private enterprise, on balance, provides greater flexibility than does government.

Government has an important role to play in securing critical infrastructure. Only government can protect against many serious attacks and only government can make the laws that bring attackers to justice. But government, in the end, lacks the flexibility that is key to confronting many new threats as they emerge. In more cases than not, private security will work better than anything government can muster.