Archives: April, 2009

Does Transparency Inspire Terrorism?

The debate over the Obama administration’s release of the torture memos took an important turn during the past week, as reflected in discussions on the Sunday morning shows.

The economy was the lead story on Fox News Sunday, but in the second segment Chris Wallace led his questioning of Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) as follows:

The Pentagon now says that it’s going to release hundreds of photos of alleged abuse of detainees by U.S. personnel - this, after, of course, the release of the interrogation memos. Senator Bond, how serious is the threat of a backlash in the Middle East and the recruitment of more terrorists, possibly endangering U.S. soldiers in that part of the world?

Revelation! The idea that abusive practices on the part of the United States would draw people to the side of its enemies.

In the media, most of the debate up to now has centered on the tactical question of whether torture works, and to some degree the moral dimension. (Here’s David Rittgers on the former and Chris Preble on the latter.)

There’s an ineluctable conclusion from understanding that torture drives recruitment which endangers our soldiers: It is strategic error to engage in abusive practices. Abuse on the part of the United States adds heads to the hydra.

But wait. Wallace’s question may imply that it is release of the photos - not commission of the underlying offenses - that risks causing a backlash. This cannot be.

Given the governments they’ve long experienced, people in the Muslim and Arab worlds will generally assume the worst from what they know - and assume that even more than what they know is being hidden. Transparency about U.S. abuses cuts against that narrative and confuses the story that the United States is an abuser akin to the governments Arabs and Muslims have known.

Abusive practices create backlash against the United States. Transparency about abuses after the fact will dispel backlash and muddy the terrorist narrative about the United States and its role in the Middle East.

As the question turns to prosecution of wrongdoing by U.S. officials, such as lawyers who warped the law beyond recognition to justify torture, transparent application of the rule of law in this area would further disrupt a terrorist narrative about the United States.

Solving Our Problem in Pakistan

Pakistan has nuclear weapons, an active jihadist movement, a weak civilian government, a history of backing the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a military focused on fighting another American ally, India.  Pakistan probably is harder than Iraq to “fix.”

Unfortunately, the gulf between the U.S. and Pakistani governments is vast.  Starting with the respective assessments of the greatest regional threat, Gen. David Petraeus has given Islamabad some unwanted advice.  Reports AP News:

The United States is urging Pakistan’s military to focus more on the Taliban and extremists advancing inside their borders instead of the nation’s longtime enemy — India.

The top U.S. commander in the region told Congress Friday that extremists already inside Pakistan pose the greatest threat to that nation.

Gen. David Petraeus (pet-TRAY’-uhs) was asking a House Appropriations subcommittee for funding to help the Pakistani military root out and stop insurgents, saying he wants Pakistani leaders to realize they need to learn how to fight internal extremists.

Petraeus called India a “conventional threat” that should no longer be Pakistan’s top military focus.

Gen. Petraeus is obviously right, from America’s standpoint.  But try explaining that to Pakistan, which has fought and lost three wars with India.  Indeed, Pakistan was dismembered in one of those conflicts, leading to the creation of Bangladesh.

Enlisting Pakistan more fully in combating the Taliban and al Qaeda will require recognizing, not dismissing, Islamabad’s other security concerns.  Squaring the circle won’t be easy.  But doing so will require more creative diplomacy and less preemptive demands, more regional cooperation and less military escalation.

Regrets over Bush Administration Torture?

Chris Preble has nicely detailed the reasons we should not torture.  The practice offers no guarantee of good information, harms America’s international reputation, and sacrifices the values that set this nation apart.

Now comes a report that Judge Jay S. Bybee, the head of the Bush adminsitration Office of Legal Counsel who signed off on the infamous torture memos, regrets his role in the matter.  According to the Washington Post:

“I’ve heard him express regret at the contents of the memo,” said a fellow legal scholar and longtime friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity while offering remarks that might appear as “piling on.” “I’ve heard him express regret that the memo was misused. I’ve heard him express regret at the lack of context — of the enormous pressure and the enormous time pressure that he was under. And anyone would have regrets simply because of the notoriety.”

That notoriety worsened this week as the documents — detailing the acceptable application of waterboarding, “walling,” sleep deprivation and other procedures the Bush administration called “enhanced interrogation methods” — prompted calls from human rights advocates and other critics for criminal investigations of the government lawyers who generated them.

This regret could reflect convenient timing — after all, the torture stories have not exactly enhanced Bybee’s reputation.  But it might also demonstrate a sobering realization as to how his opinions were used or misused.  As a believer in human redemption, I’m going to play the optimist and go with the latter for now.

All-Star Lineup in New York

Cato is planning a seminar in New York on April 30 with an all-star lineup of speakers: Nat Hentoff, our new senior fellow and perhaps the leading First Amendment advocate of the past generation. Top climate scientist Pat Michaels. Peter Schiff, the financial guru who spent 2006 and 2007 failing to persuade people that the U.S. housing and financial markets were on the verge of collapse. And Freeman Dyson, one of the world’s top scientists and the subject of a recent New York Times Magazine profile for his “heretical” views on global warming. Check out the program:

  • 11:05–11:35 a.m. Nat Hentoff —Keynote Address: An Endangered Native Species: The First Amendment
  • 11:35–11:55 a.m. Pat MichaelsClimate of Extremes: Global Warming Science They Don’t Want You to Know
  • 11:55 a.m.–12:15 p.m. Peter SchiffEconomic Crisis: A Government Failure
  • 12:30–2:00 p.m. Freeman Dyson —Luncheon Address: Climate Disaster, Safe Nukes, and Other Myths

Register for the event here ($100 per person).

Topics:

State Tax Increases on the Rise

The headline from Stateline.org’s top story today reads, “State budget gaps top $200 billion; fee, tax hikes in the works.” But as Chris Edwards noted back in February, these so-called “budget gaps” are mainly fiction.  Put simply, previous revenue forecasts overstated the amount of money that would be coming into state coffers.  Now that revenues are drying up because of the slow economy, state politicians can’t spend the amount of money they intended.

For individuals and businesses, the economic downturn and resulting financial crimp means less spending and more prudence.  For politicians and those living at the expense of taxpayers, it means raising taxes to keep the spending spigots turned on.  As the table below shows, total state spending has increased at an excessive pace this decade:

200904_blog_dehaven

Too often journalists report on the present plight of pro-tax and spend policymakers without considering decisions made in the past.  Readers should bear the above table in mind the next time they come across such amnesic reporting .

School Choice Movement in South Carolina

I was in South Carolina yesterday testifying before a state committee in support of a great piece of education tax credit legislation. The turnout and energy down there was impressive.

The fight for educational freedom has dragged on for years in SC, but the movement seems to have grown in strength considerably over that period. Parents are now more organized, homeschoolers and private school groups are more integrated and active, and the votes are a lot closer.

More than 200 supporters showed up to support the bill and testify, and their stories were compelling and sometimes heart-rending. Our public education system just doesn’t work for everyone.

And when I say “doesn’t work,” I mean that a child with severe learning disabilities ends up unable to function in society or a child from a troubled background ends up in jail or dead. There are schools that are serving these kids successfully, and want desperately to help more. A tax credit system would allow them to expand and diversify to help all children reach their potential.

For others, the system doesn’t work in ways less catastrophic, but it still isn’t what’s best for them. That’s why all families should be able to choose the best educational environment for their unique child. Educated children are not widgets manufactured in a factory.

The fight for school choice brings out similar issues in every state, so I’ll be blogging more on the hearing later on today…

Limiting the TSA’s Use of “Strip Search Machines”

I wrote here in February about the push and pull over “strip search machines,” also known as “whole-body imaging” and “millimeter wave scanning.”

The question is joined: How do you maintain privacy with a technology that’s fundamentally intrusive? Maybe by using it less. This week, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced a bill to limit the use of whole-body imaging.

H.R. 2027, the Aircraft Passenger Whole-Body Imaging Limitations Act of 2009, would place several limits:

  • Whole-body imaging could not be the sole or primary method of screening a passenger, and it could only be used as a follow-up to other methods like metal detection.
  • Passengers would have the right to opt for a pat-down search instead of whole-body imaging.
  • Passengers subject to whole-body imaging would have to be provided information about the technology and the images it generates, on privacy policies, and the right to have the pat-down search instead.
  • Images of passengers generated by whole-body imaging technology could not be stored, transferred, shared, or copied in any form after the passenger has passed through the security system.

Most of these protections are already TSA policy, but agency policies are relatively easy to change compared to federal law. Without limitations like this, these machines are on the natural, mission-creepy path to becoming mandatory.

Rules, of course, were made to be broken, and it’s only a matter of time — federal law or not — before TSA agents without proper supervision find a way to capture images contrary to policy. (Agent in secure area guides Hollywood starlet to strip search machine, sends SMS message to image reviewer, who takes camera-phone snap. TMZ devotes a week to the story, and the ensuing investigation reveals that this has been happening at airports throughout the country to hundreds of women travelers.)

So this bill is a step forward, but from a very backwards position. Ultimately, as I wrote before, the solution is to return responsibility for security to the airlines and airports, who are most interested in and capable of balancing all the factors that go into safe travel, including passengers’ privacy, comfort, and peace of mind.