Archives: July, 2011

Al Qaeda’s Mythical Unity

The mythical al Qaeda is a hierarchical organization. After losing its haven in Afghanistan, it cleverly decentralized authority and shifted its headquarters to Pakistan. But central management still dispatches operatives globally and manages affiliates according to a strategy.

The real al Qaeda is a fragmented and unmanageable movement. In the 1990s, it achieved limited success in getting other jihadists to join in attacking the West. It was not managerial innovation but the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and other governments’ pressures that destroyed  the limited hierarchy al Qaeda Central had achieved. Its scattered remnant in Pakistan controls little locally and less abroad. The leaders have cachet but lack the material incentives that real managers distribute to exercise authority. Al Qaeda became bunches of guys with diminished capability.*

The myth is destructive to counterterrorism. Because tightly-run organizations are better at mass violence than disparate movements, the myth creates needless fear that encourages overly ambitious and expensive policies, like the war in Afghanistan. The myth increases the number of enemies we face, taking focus from real ones. Most jihadist militants hate Americans but don’t try to kill us. They fight locally. Attacking them risks making them into what we fear they are and stoking nationalistic resentment that increases their popularity.

My anecdotal sense is that events since 9/11 have increasingly brought commentators around to truth. Even so, the media, for simplicity’s sake, tends towards the myth. And the Obama administration, despite improving upon its predecessors’ absurdly broad definition of our terrorist enemies, still overstates al Qaeda Central’s unity and control of affiliates. More importantly, U.S. policies still pay insufficient attention to the distinction among various al Qaeda entities.

Here are three recent examples of this rhetorical error and its consequences:

(1) Since bin Laden’s death, U.S. officials, analysts, and pundits have claimed that the cache of emails found in his compound contradict recent intelligence reports downplaying his control. The emails, we are told, show that he was still running the show and that al Qaeda Central remained potent.

Last week, however, McClatchy quoted more anonymous officials suggesting that to al Qaeda types in Pakistan and beyond, bin Laden was like a “cranky old uncle” that you respectfully listen to and ignore. The Washington Post reported that the emails show al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan complaining about depleted funds, declining popularity, and CIA drones decimating their ranks.

The White House seems conflicted about which view of al Qaeda to take. It commendably wants to belittle al Qaeda, robbing it of mystique by portraying bin Laden as pathetic and weak. On the other hand, it needs the threat of a powerful al Qaeda to justify the war in Afghanistan and other controversial policies.

(2) Media reports often give the impression that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are the core of the militant group (Ansar al-Sharia) revolting in Yemen’s south. The implication is al Qaeda could soon control territory for the first time. Too little attention is given to the uncertain role AQAP plays among Yemen’s militants and its limited ties to al Qaeda Central. Bin Laden apparently asked AQAP’s leader to attack Americans rather than gathering territory locally, suggesting that its commitment to attacking us may be limited.

The point is not that we should ignore al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. But uncertainty about their role in Yemen and intent cautions against undifferentiated assaults on their leaders, let alone those of Ansar al-Sharia.

(3) Since our recent drone strike in Somalia on leaders of the al-Shabab insurgent group, the administration has claimed that Shabab’s leaders are plotting terrorism against American or western targets. The only evidence given for this assertion is vague claims of Shabab’s ties to Yemeni militants and its claim of responsibility for a 2010 terrorist bombing in Uganda. But that bombing came because Ugandan troops are in the African Union force fighting al-Shabab. While reprehensible, the attack does not show a desire to terrorize Americans.

At the risk of sounding quaint, Congress should make the administration substantiate its claims that Shabab is targeting Americans before we bomb them further. We have enough insurgents to fight these days outside Somalia.

*These positions are roughly those taken by Bruce Hoffman and Marc Sageman, respectively. My aim is not to perfectly state their views, however, but to describe general views in terrorism commentary.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

NCLB Is a Failure. It’s Nothing Personal.

Education writer RiShawn Biddle has offered a spirited response to my blog post yesterday about the failure of the No Child Left Behind act. In it, he asserts that NCLB has advanced school choice, and links to an earlier essay that ostensibly presented his case. Summarizing it, Biddle writes that:

The impact of No Child on advancing choice… starts with the law’s Adequate Yearly Progress requirements. Thanks to the data culled, the low quality of education in traditional district schools was exposed for all to see, providing parents and school choice activists with the information they needed  to push for the advancement of choice.

No thanks. The poor performance of U.S. schooling has been evident to a great many people for a very long time. The bestseller Why Johnny Can’t Read was first published in 1955. Over the past 40 years, the NAEP’s Long Term Trends (LTT) tests have revealed stagnation in math and reading and decline in science toward the end of high school. In contrast to the consistent and nationally representative results of the NAEP LTTs, the NCLB is tied to state-administered tests that are so often corrupted by tinkering with their content and cut scores that they are largely worthless for measuring achievement at a single point in time let alone for measuring trends.

Biddle also claims that NCLB

exposed the long-running gamesmanship by states looking to define proficiency downward (a fact that Cato has used to its own advantage in arguing against expanding federal education policy); this, in turn, has rallied more reformers to move toward advancing school choice.

In reality, NCLB exacerbated the gamesmanship of state-level tests by giving state officials incentives to show the appearance of progress rather than actual progress. Moreover, it was not NCLB that exposed this fraud that was partially of its own making. For that we can thank… the NAEP. It was by comparing unreliable state test scores to far more reliable NAEP scores that it was discovered just how badly public schools in many states have been lying to families about their children’s performance. Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has noted this fact, saying in 2009 that:

When states lower [their own academic] standards, they are lying to children and they are lying to parents. Those standards don’t prepare our students for the world of college or the world of work. When we match NAEP scores and state tests, we see the difference. Some states, like Massachusetts compare very well. Unfortunately, the disparities between most state tests and NAEP results are staggeringly large.

[Ironically, Duncan seems to have benefited from the absence of such a comparison while he was head of Chicago Public Schools, riding into his current position on the wings of a supposed “Chicago Miracle” that appears, based on NAEP scores, to have been a mirage induced by fanciful state tests.]

Biddle then goes on to praise NCLB’s “focus on graduation rates,” which he claims “forced states to present realistic numbers.” While it is true that many states had been reporting meaningless graduation statistics prior to NCLB, it is not at all clear that the law has improved matters. On the contrary, Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman concluded from his exhaustive statistical study of the subject that NCLB appears to have fostered further cheating with graduation rates—what he calls “strategic behavior” by states and districts to present inflated graduation rate figures in order to avoid NCLB penalties. So, once again, it appears that NCLB is obfuscating rather than illuminating educational performance in America.

Finally, a note about Biddle’s characterization of my and my colleagues’ work at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom. Apparently discomfited by my criticism of NCLB, Biddle dubs us dogmatic ideological purists, unthinking and blindered, and claims that we praise or attack policies based on our “worldview,” etc. etc. While I can understand becoming exercised as a result of a policy debate, I cannot understand why someone who wants to be taken seriously would stoop to such obviously fatuous ad hominem attacks. My last paper was a regression study of the link between the performance of charter school networks and the grant funding they receive. It has multiple technical appendices, several of them added in response to peer reviews. Anyone who doubts its findings is welcome to repeat it and see if they obtain different results. The paper I wrote before that was a regression study of the regulatory burdens imposed by voucher and tax credit programs. It, too, can be repeated by other researchers if they wish to verify its findings. The term for this kind of testable, repeatable work is science, not “dogma” or “ideology” or “world view.” My colleagues are likewise engaged in empirical research and we derive our policy recommendations from that research. So our conclusions are indeed very narrowly constrained, but not by ideology. They are constrained by what works, and what does not work, in the real world.

Oregon Health Insurance Experiment: No Vindication of ObamaCare

The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment is the first experiment since the dawn of time that randomly assigns some households to receive health insurance (Medicaid) for purposes of comparing their medical consumption, health outcomes, and financial security to similar households that do not receive Medicaid coverage.  Some of the nation’s top health economists have released the first batch of results from the OHIE.

At National Review (Online), I summarize the OHIE’s first-year results and offer the following analysis:

Supporters of President Obama’s health-care law may tout these benefits, but the OHIE does not provide the vindication they seek. First, despite being eligible for Medicaid, 13 percent of the control group had private health insurance — suggesting that on some dimension, Medicaid’s eligibility rules are already too broad.

Second, the OHIE extended coverage to the most vulnerable population of uninsured Americans, yet the improvements in health and financial security are so far apparently modest. At higher income levels, where individuals have greater baseline access to health insurance and medical care, the benefits of expanding coverage are likely to be smaller and the costs (to the extent that crowd-out is higher at higher income levels) will be greater.

Third, supporters must show not only that expanding coverage improves health but also that it does so at a lower cost to taxpayers than alternative policies. Health economists generally agree that discrete programs promoting highly effective treatments (for hypertension, diabetes, etc.) could produce health gains as large as expanding health insurance would, but at far less expense. Reducing taxes could plausibly reduce financial strain to a similar degree by expanding job creation.

Finally, the OHIE illuminates an unflattering feature of the push for Obamacare. For a century, the Left has advocated universal health insurance despite not knowing what benefits it might bring. In 2010, Congress and President Obama vastly expanded Medicaid without waiting for the results of the one study that might tell them what taxpayers would get in return for their half a trillion dollars. As the law’s supporters seek to cajole doctors into practicing evidence-based medicine, it is no small irony that they themselves dove head-first into evidence-free policymaking.

To the Church of Universal Coverage, the benefits of universal coverage, whatever those might be, are an article of faith.

Does Asia Need a Larger U.S. Handout?

Yesterday, AEI scholars Dan Blumenthal and Michael Mazza authored an interesting op-ed in the Wall Street Journal with a perplexing title: “Asia Needs a Larger U.S. Defense Budget.” There are a couple of more sensible arguments you could make: For instance, that Asian countries need larger defense budgets, or that U.S. interests in Asia require larger military expenditures that Asian countries can’t or won’t make themselves . Blumenthal and Mazza gesture at both of those arguments but don’t really make either one. As such, the piece is an emblem of what’s wrong with the Asia policy discussion–to the extent it exists–in Washington today.

In the opening paragraph, the authors state that “it is…difficult to assess how much cuts [to military spending] will cost tomorrow,” but in the next sentence defy that claim by promising that “in Asia, the price will be unacceptably high.” Either it is difficult to assess how much cuts will cost tomorrow, or we know that the price of cuts in Asia will be unacceptably high, but not both. The authors also are apparently unaware of the facts when they argue that U.S. military spending has been “slashed.”  It hasn’t even been cut. (For its part, the Asia studies department at AEI was last seen disseminating wildly inflated estimates  of Chinese military spending and then refusing to answer queries about how they came up with the figures.)

Blumenthal and Mazza then swerve widely to avoid explaining China’s military buildup, writing that

The international trade that has fueled the region’s economic boom is dependent upon the immeasurable strategic tasks undertaken by the U.S. military–from keeping safe maritime shipping to reassuring friends and allies while deterring China and North Korea.

The reason that China is building up its military forces and narrowly targeting them at securing their sea lines of communication (and perhaps a bit further out) is that they quite rationally do not want to rely on the eternal beneficence of the United States to do it for them, particularly when prominent Asia scholars mention in the same breath deterring and containing China as a primary goal of the U.S. in Asia.

There are other contradictions. For instance, Blumenthal and Mazza assert flatly that

If America skimps on its military, China will become the regional hegemon.

That’s one possibility, but aren’t there others? One paragraph later, the authors allow that sure there are: the alternative is that

Asian countries might find ways to resist Chinese pressure themselves.

So then maybe it’s not foreordained that China will run amok in East Asia absent Washington as its balancer-of-first-resort. But that brings us back around to the weirdness of the title of the piece: saying that Asia needs a larger U.S. defense budget is like saying that Greece needs more German stabilization money. (While we’re here, AEI calling for more military spending is like rock legend Bruce Dickinson calling for more cowbell.)

These kinds of arguments ought to at least try to show why the best way to achieve German (or American) interests is to dole out more largesse to third parties. That may or may not be true, but it would be good to at least see an argument to that effect, rather than all the hand waving and then backing down from the strongest claims in the article.

I’m Willing to Go Along with President Obama’s ‘Balanced Approach’ to Deficit Reduction, but Only if We Use Honest Math

The President has issued an ultimatum that more tax revenue must be part of budget negotiations. Indeed, he endlessly repeats his desire for a “balanced approach,” implying that as much as 50 percent of the deficit reduction in any agreement should come from higher revenues.

Because I am a thoughtful, middle-of-the-road, pragmatic guy, I’m willing to accept the President’s ultimatum. I do have one tiny request, however, and that is for any such deal to be based on honest math.

What I mean by this is that I don’t want politicians to approve a budget that results in more spending, but then claim that they “cut spending” because the budget didn’t grow even faster. I want a spending cut to mean less spending (gee, what a novel idea).

And when they talk about new revenue, I want to see how much revenue the IRS is collecting this year, and measure revenue increases against that number. After all, the crowd in Washington should be happy to get more money, even if it is the result of benign factors such as more jobs being created, companies earning higher profits, and people getting more pay.

I assume these are reasonable requests. After all, this is how businesses and households operate their budgets, and I’m sure the political insiders wouldn’t want to use dishonest numbers to mislead voters (perish the thought!).

So what would a balanced approach look like, assuming we want to use honest math? The answer isn’t that complicated. I started with the latest estimates from the Congressional Budget Office for spending and revenues for this fiscal year (FY2011). I then assume, in the interest of a “balanced approach,” that spending should be cut by 5 percent each year and that revenues should climb by 5 percent each year.

The results, as illustrated by the graph, are remarkable. If we use a 50-50 deal of higher revenue and lower spending, we balance the budget in just five years. The President is right!

Taxpayers will be happy to know the “balanced approach” gets rid of red ink and also leaves enough room to make the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent. Heck, there would be enough left-over revenue to enact additional tax cuts. After all, since we’re looking for balance, there’s no need to let revenues grow by 7 percent or 8 percent each year.

So, Mr. President, do we have a deal? Should we use your “balanced approach” and eliminate today’s big deficit by cutting spending and raising revenue by equal amounts? You were serious about your request, right? Hello, is anybody there?

As you already realize, I don’t think the President actually means what he says about a “balanced approach.” Or, to be more specific, I think he’s happy to do a 50-50 deal, but only if “spending cuts” and “revenue increases” are defined in ways that enable the growth of government.

Inside the beltway, this is known as “baseline budgeting” or “current services budgeting.” But whatever it’s called, it is a dishonest way of presenting information to the American people, as explained in this video.

I Guess the ‘You Are All Criminals Act’ Didn’t Have the Same Ring

If you thought it was the height of cynicism when legislators dubbed a massive expansion of government surveillance power the “USA Patriot Act” (recently extended—really!—under the heading of small business legislation), feast your eyes upon the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011, on which the House Judiciary Committee is slated to hold a hearing next Tuesday. What kind of monster would dare be on the record opposing that bill?

As you may have already guessed, the handful of provisions in the bill that really deal specifically with child porn are a fig leaf for its true purpose: A sweeping data retention requirement meant to turn Internet Service Providers and online companies into surrogate snoops for the government’s convenience. Any provider of an “electronic communication” or “remote computing” service—meaning broadband providers like Comcast, but also companies like Google—would have to retain records of the “temporarily assigned network address” (such as an IP address) associated with each account for 18 months. Some of the other provisions in the act seem perfectly reasonable (though I don’t know enough to say whether they’re necessary), but as a hearing earlier this year made crystal clear, it’s the data retention requirement that the government really cares about.

Thanks to an unwise Supreme Court decision dating from the 70s, information about your private activites loses its Fourth Amendment protection when its held by a “third party” corporation, like a phone company or Internet provider. As many legal scholars have noted, however, this allows constitutional privacy safeguards to be circumvented via a clever two-step process. Step one: The government forces private businesses (ideally the kind a citizen in the modern world can’t easily avoid dealing with) to collect and store certain kinds of information about everyone—anyone might turn out to be a criminal, after all. No Fourth Amendment issue there, because it’s not the government gathering it! Step two: The government gets a subpoena or court order to obtain that information, quite possibly without your knowledge. No Fourth Amendment problem here either, according to the Supreme Court, because now they’re just getting a corporation’s business records, not your private records. It makes no difference that they’re only keeping those records because the government said they had to.

Current law already allows law enforcement to require retention of data about specific suspects—including e-mails and other information as well as IP addresses—to ensure that evidence isn’t erased while they build up enough evidence for a court order. But why spearfish when you can lower a dragnet? Blanket data requirements ensure easy access to a year-and-a-half snapshot of the online activities of millions of Americans—every one a potential criminal.

At the previous hearing—when they were at least honest enough to put “data retention” in the title—Internet providers made it clear they weren’t thrilled about the expense of being forced to keep those records, especially since many have sought to reassure skittish consumers by pledging to limit the amount of identifiable information they store. And despite their hunger for data, law enforcement representatives weren’t able to provide much: They offered some anecdotes about how Internet metadata had proven useful in serious investigations, but no real statistics that might establish the need for such a sweeping mandate. They might take a cue from countries that have already enacted data retention laws, which are belatedly starting to question their necessity: Europe’s data protection authority recently condemned a similar initiative (though limited to just six months of mandatory retention) as a privacy-destroying failure.

Since the bill exempts wireless connections from its requirements, of course, any criminal sophisticated enough to drag a laptop to a WiFi cafe will still be able to ensure a measure of anonymity. But retention mandates will doubtless prove useful for subpoena-wielding companies hoping to unmask less savvy file sharers or anonymous online critics.

All things considered, this might start to look like a pretty bad idea: Burdensome on technology companies, harmful to the privacy of the great majority of innocent Internet users, and unlikely to be much use against the most sophisticated cybercriminals. But haven’t you read the name of the bill? Why do you want to protect child pornographers? Sadly, there’s every reason to think this kind of cynical misdirection will successfully intimidate opponents into silence.

Your Year in Wiretaps, by the Numbers

Last week—on the Thursday before a major holiday weekend—the annual Wiretap Report was finally released by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, fully two months behind schedule (the first time in over a decade it’s been so late). While we often focus on the growth of the surveillance state in the context of national security and the War on Terror—such as foreign intelligence wiretaps, which aren’t counted in this report—it’s clear that surveillance is on the rise for ordinary law enforcement purposes as well. State and federal investigators obtained 3,194 wiretap orders in 2010, an increase of 34 percent over the previous year, and a whopping 168 percent increase over 2000. Only one wiretap application was denied—which you can choose to take as evidence that law enforcement is extremely scrupulous in seeking applications, or that judges tend to rubber stamp them, according to your preferred level of paranoia. Just half the states reported any wiretaps, and nearly 68 percent of the total 1,987 state wiretaps were attributable to just three states: California, New York and New Jersey.

The average wiretap order swept up the communications of 118 people (since, of course, each individual target converses with many people, including many innocent people). If there were no overlap between wiretap orders, that would imply 376,892 people affected. Since it’s common for multiple orders to be sought as part of a single investigation, however, many of the same people are presumably being counted as having been caught under more than one wiretap order.  Even on the wildly charitable assumption that only a third of those were unique individuals, though, that  would still be well over 125,000 people spied upon, many innocent of any wrongdoing.  

Though such criminal intercepts are supposed to be “minimized” in realtime, to prevent the recording of innocent conversations, only 26 percent of intercepted communications contained incriminating material—which is to say, nearly three-quarters were innocent communications unrelated to criminal activity. (It’s possible some of these were partial intercepts discontinued once investigators realized the communication wasn’t pertinent—the report doesn’t make that clear.) 

It’s worth bearing in mind here that the nature of wiretaps, as opposed to conventional physical searches, is that they always involve invading the privacy of somebody other than the target named in the warrant—indeed, as the numbers show, very many people. You have to wonder what we’d think if traditional physical search warrants permitted police to rifle through the belongings of dozens of innocent people for each genuine criminal.

Still, this invasive technique is still reserved for investigating the most serious violent crimes, right? Alas, no: For 84 percent of wiretap applications (2,675 wiretaps), the most serious offense under investigation involved illegal drugs. Further proof, if proof were needed, that privacy suffers enormous collateral damage in our failed drug war. Drugs have long been the reason for the vast majority of wiretaps, but that trend, too, is on the upswing: Drug cases accounted for “just” 75 percent of intercept orders in 2000.

Can the boom in surveillance orders be explained by the proliferation of new digital communications technologies? Nope again: 97 percent of wiretaps were for (mostly cellular) telephones, not electronic communications like e-mail or instant messaging. That might seem surprising, but because copies of Internet communications typically ended up stored on a server somewhere (think Gmail), our outdated laws permit those to be obtained subject to a much lower standard than is required for realtime wiretaps—in many circumstances, mere “relevance” to an investigation rather than the traditional “probable cause.” Because there are no reporting requirements for those orders, we literally have no idea of the true scope and scale of such electronic spying. 

Finally, since the FBI continues to demand that telecoms be subject to invasive technological mandates, complaining that their lines are at risk of “going dark” because of encryption technology, it’s worth noting that wiretaps encountered encryption only six times, all in state-level investigations. In all of those cases, police were nevertheless able to obtain the unencrypted communication.