Friday, December 14, 2007

The NSB wasn't at fault over '101gate'

Although security at Taipei 101 may have been put to shame by Austrian base jumper Felix Baumgartner's successful — albeit uninvited — spectacular* on Tuesday, people and the media have made too much of the event. After all, no one was hurt, Toyota received more publicity than it could ever have hoped for when it placed its circular ads on the tower, and everybody has had a good laugh. Except, perhaps, the National Security Bureau (NSB), which has been accused of failing to catch the man before he could flee the country on a flight to Hong Kong. "If the NSB can't put its fingers on an individual who commits such an ostentatious act, how can it ever unmask the much more secretive spies Beijing has dispatched to Taiwan?" they ask.

At face value, the argument would seem to be a sensible one, were it not for the fact that it bespeaks a total lack of understanding of how security intelligence actually works.

First of all, about two hours after he jumped off Taipei 101, Baumgartner was boarding an aircraft for Hong Kong. As the stunt was unannounced, the authorities had no a priori knowledge and could not possibly have mobilized their forces in time to intercept him at the airport. Like any other government institution, the NSB is not meant to react quickly to events; in other words, before it can commit to a course of action, a long and slow process of decision-making involving a number of people of different ranks has to be completed. (This may seem counterintuitive, but all the red tape is there to prevent rash decisions and provide the necessary paper trail should something go wrong during an operation.)

Following upon that is the fact that — again like any other government institution — the NSB has a finite budget and limited resources, which means that to maximize performance it must prioritize. The belief that intelligence services "see and know everything" is nothing but a myth perpetuated by US genre movies. In reality, they can be surprisingly blind when it comes to "threats" that emanate from outside their pre-selected areas of focus. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, sadly, were a deadly demonstration of that.

Now, given the regional context, it shouldn't be too difficult to imagine what the NSB's priorities would be: Chinese espionage and, perhaps, various proliferation-related issues involving North Korea and Iran. As such, a great proportion of its resources, both human and electronic, would be aimed at serving those needs.

What the NSB probably isn't looking at, however, are Austrians, who pose no threat whatsoever to the security of Taiwan — even less so the type that seeks nothing other than to wow the public and get an adrenaline rush in the process.

In light of this — a "target" of no priority and a slow chain of command inherent to government institutions — it is perfectly understandable for Baumgartner to have managed to slip through the fingers of the authorities once he had committed his stunt.

The NSB and police authorities can be faulted for a number of things, but on this one, they certainly don't deserve the criticism they have received and the nation would be in much greater danger if they did, indeed, target the Baumgartners of this world, however irresponsible their deeds might be.

* Baumgartner managed to smuggle a parachute past Taipei 101 security and jumped off the building.


The Real Taiwan said...

That is a great post. It wasn't that hard for him to give them the slip in my mind, as it was a pro job and noone was hurt.

He got past security which was embarrassing, but he also made an awesome video of it and had it on youtube less than 12 hours after teh stunt, thereby giving it even more publicity.

MikeinTaipei said...

Thanks for the comments. The wonders of our technological age, indeed. The very same day, friends in Canada were sending ME links to said posting on Youtube.

Let's see if people of his kind try similar stunts during the Beijing Olympics!