National Security Needs Private Sector Innovation

Last February, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum wrote a disturbing piece about the prospect of massive, high body count bioterrorism attacks. 

The scientists she interviewed told Applebaum that within just a few years, a handful of scientists with as little as $2 million could construct an artificial pathogen capable of killing more than a billion people. Applebaum was  pessimistic, noting that even mammoth increases in research funding for our federal research agencies won’t likely yield a suitable defense to such an attack by the time most scientists believe it will pose a serious threat.  

Think back for a moment to Sept. 11. Remember how awed and dumbstruck we were by the idea of a jetliner being used as a weapon? We certainly had little defense against it. Certainly someone is out there now scheming against us, contriving methods and mechanisms our civil servants and soldiers in the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security and various public health agencies haven’t even begun to consider.  

We need to put America’s best weapon on the job of defending America from those who would do us harm, and America’s best weapon has always been the innovation, ingenuity, and genius  produced by free market capitalism. We need to figure out a way to tap the collected wisdom that comes from market competition and apply it to our national defense.   

Our Defense Department attempted something along these lines a while back with its “terrorism futures” program, a sort of stock market where investors would trade shares in major world events, including terrorist attacks. The program would have allowed our intelligence agencies to cull data from the collected average of buying and selling of public knowledge.  Unfortunately, the concept of someone making money, or effectively wagering on the loss of life, was a tough public relations sell, and the Pentagon scrapped the program.  

Unfortunately, despite the big defense contracts doled out to a select few firms who dominate the military industrial complex, there’s little incentive for the private sector to think about national security. Any resources a firm might devote to such an endeavor would put the firm at a disadvantage, as competing firms would be putting those same resources toward generating profit-- not to mention that any significant breakthrough in an area with national security implications risks getting co-opted by the federal government.  

We saw this during the anthrax attacks in 2001. The Bayer Corporation, which manufactures the antibiotic Cipro, was coerced by the U.S. government into artificially lowering its prices in response to the attacks. With that as precedent, what U.S. company would risk devoting millions of dollars to researching a vaccine to a synthetic viral attack if the vaccine will in all likelihood be nationalized by the government should an attack actually ever take place?  

So how can we encourage the private sector to turn a small part of its innovative engine toward national security?  

One way would be to offer an annual prize for the single idea, innovation, invention, method, or any other concept, project, or research that furthers the safety and defense of the country -- a sort of “National Security Prize.”   

Such a prize would need to be substantial, perhaps somewhere between a half billion and a billion dollars. In Applebaum’s scenario, for example, for the prize to be worthwhile it would need to be large enough to encourage a pharmaceutical company to research and develop a response to a synthetic viral attack, knowing there’d likely be no profit in the endeavor.  

The prize would also need to have very loose guidelines and parameters for the simple reason that we just don’t know what’s out there. A college computer whiz who exposes holes in our cyber infrastructure, for example, could be every bit as valuable to preventing a debilitating attack as an engineering firm that figures out a way to shield our subway systems from a chemical weapons attack, or a biotech firm that figures out a way to “fingerprint” virus strains back to the labs where they’re created.   

The prize might go to someone who finds new ways to protect us from attacks, to prevent future attacks, to ascertain culpability for attacks that have already happened (thus deterring future attacks), or to someone who dreams up new possible ways to attack us that hadn’t been considered before. It could go to someone for reasons we’re not even aware of right now. 

The point is to inspire just a few of the many great American minds who think about new ways of doing things to start thinking about new ways to defend the country.  

In any case, any firm applying for the prize would do so with the understanding that win or lose, upon applying, the contents of their application would become the property of the U.S. government, to be used for national defense (though you’d want to allow firms who lose one year to continue developing their own project to compete in future years). But the mere establishment of such a substantial prize would likely inspire many firms to dedicate entire research wings toward winning it. 

The prestige and goodwill would undoubtedly reap further rewards in positive publicity for the winner, which should inspire yet more firms to consider competing for the prize.  

There are of course potential pitfalls with this idea. I’d hate to see ideas that unduly restrict personal liberty in the name of national security be furthered as a result of the prize -- methods of enhancing surveillance methods, for example, or of mining databases. And instead of the government, I’d rather see forces from the private sector fund such a prize. But I could certainly live with it coming from the government, so long as it’s diverted from money already spent on research and defense. National defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government as prescribed by the Constitution. 

Frankly, if I had to spend a billion dollars of taxpayer money on national defense, I can think of no better way to spend it than in a manner that taps into America’s greatest resource -- the creativity, ingenuity, and innovative talent of American capitalism.  

CORRECTION:  Radley Balko's May 20 column incorrectly implied that the 1992 incident at Ruby Ridge occurred under the watch of Attorney General Janet Reno. William Barr was the Attorney General at the time. Reno oversaw the ensuing investigation.

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