Tag: department of homeland security

Is the U.S. Government Behaving Strategically With Regard to Al Qaeda?

To its credit, the Department of Homeland Security distributes important documents via email. (Subscribe on their home page by scrolling down to find the “Subscribe to E-mail Updates:” box in the right column, then select your preferences.)

Yesterday DHS sent me a copy of the written testimony by Michael E. Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, for a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing titled: “Eight Years After 9/11: Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland.”

As I read Leiter’s (relatively brief) testimony, I wondered how well it squares with the strategic counsel offered by Audrey Kurth Cronin, Professor of Strategy at the U.S. National War College, Senior Research Associate in the Changing Character of War Programme at Oxford University, and a participant in Cato’s January counterterrorism strategy conference.

In her Institute for International Strategic Studies paper, “Ending Terrorism: Lessons for Defeating Al-Qaeda,” she offered several counterterrorism strategy pointers:

The first prong of a successful strategy to counter al-Qaeda’s terrorism is to clarify to audiences around the globe exactly what al-Qaeda is and what it is not. This is not just of academic interest. It is partly because there is so much vague use of the name ‘al-Qaeda’ that it seems superhuman and ubiquitious… . When politicians and experts employ the term ‘al-Qaeda’ loosely, they help its propagandists to construct and perpetuate their desired image and to mobilise support.

Violent internal cleavages and bickering are endemic to the al-Qaeda movement, and have been from the outset, and the second prong in a successful strategy against al-Qaeda is consciously to exploit them.


The third element in a successful strategy against al-Qaeda is to disaggregate the many elements of the movement and develop more sophisticated, targeted counter-terrorism policies tailored to its constituent parts. The aim must be to enlarge the movement’s internal inconsistencies and differences … .

At our counterterrorism conference, terrorism expert Marc Sageman similarly said, “We often unify our enemies needlessly… . Let’s not unify our enemy and give it strength that way.”  (If you don’t watch all of panel III, you can start at minute 66.)

Read Michael E. Leiter’s testimony for yourself and see how well it reflects the counsel of these experts.

The REAL ID Deadline Is Fake

Some state governments have claimed that a pending compliance deadline for REAL ID requires them to tighten up their driver’s licensing procedures consistent with the 2005 national ID law. (But see this.)

In fact, REAL ID is dead and the deadline is fake. More than a dozen states have statutorily barred themselves from complying, and in a rule published Monday the Department of Homeland Security extended the deadline again. This is the same thing it did last May and could easily do indefinitely.

The republic survives, and will survive quite nicely without this or any national ID law.

Tom Ridge on the Bush Administration’s War on Terror

Former congressman, governor, and secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge is a long-time GOP loyalist.  But he apparently doesn’t have good things to say about the Bush administration on its vaunted war on terrorism.

A new report on his upcoming book warns:

Tom Ridge, the first head of the 9/11-inspired Department of Homeland Security, wasn’t keen on writing a tell-all. But in The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege…and How We Can Be Safe Again, out September 1, Ridge says he wants to shake “public complacency” over security.

And to do that, well, he needs to tell all. Especially about the infighting he saw that frustrated his attempts to build a smooth-running department. Among the headlines promoted by publisher Thomas Dunne Books: Ridge was never invited to sit in on National Security Council meetings; was “blindsided” by the FBI in morning Oval Office meetings because the agency withheld critical information from him; found his urgings to block Michael Brown from being named head of the emergency agency blamed for the Hurricane Katrina disaster ignored; and was pushed to raise the security alert on the eve of President Bush’s re-election, something he saw as politically motivated and worth resigning over.

This confirms widespread suspicion that the Bush administration’s terrorism initiatives were highly political.  It also undercuts the claim that we should trust government to protect us by sacrificing our liberties and giving trustworthy public servants greater discretion.

Assessing the Claim that CDT Opposes a National ID

It was good of Ari Schwartz to respond last week to my recent post querying whether the Center for Democracy and Technology outright opposes a national ID or simply “does not support” one.

Ari says CDT does oppose a national ID, and I believe that he honestly believes that. But it’s worth taking a look at whether the group’s actions are consistent with opposition to a national ID. I believe CDT’s actions – most recently its support of the PASS ID Act – support the creation of a national ID.

(The title of his post and some of his commentary suggest I have engaged in rhetorical excess and mischaracterized his views. Please do judge for yourself whether I’m being shrill or unfair, which is not my intention.)

First I want to address an unusual claim of Ari’s – that we already have a national ID system. If that is true, his support for PASS ID is more sensible because it is an opportunity to inject federal privacy protections into the existing system (putting aside whether it is a federal responsibility to manage a state system or systems).

Do We Already Have a National ID?

I have heard a few people suggest that we have a national ID in the form of the Social Security Number. I believe the SSN is a national identifier, but it fails the test of a national identification card or system because it is not used for identification. As we know well from the scourge of identity fraud, there is no definitive way to tie an SSN to a person. The SSN is not used for identification (at least not reliably and not alone), which is the third part of my national ID definition. (Senator Schumer might like the SSN to form the basis of a national ID system, of course.)

But Ari says something different. He does not claim any definition of “national ID” or “national ID system.” Instead, he appeals to the authority of a 2003 report from a National Academy of Sciences group entitled “Who Goes There?: Authentication Through the Lens of Privacy.” That report indeed says, “State-issued driver’s licenses are a de facto nationwide identity system” – on the second-to-last substantive page of its second-to-last substantive chapter

But this is a highly selective use of quotation. The year before, that same group issued a report called “IDs – Not That Easy: Questions About Nationwide Identity Systems.” From the beginning and throughout, that report discussed the many issues around proposals to create a “nationwide” identity system. If the NAS panel had already concluded that we have a national ID system, it would not have issued an entire report critiquing that prospect. It would have discussed the existing one as such. Ari’s one quote doesn’t do much to support the notion that we already have a national ID.

What’s more, CDT’s own public comments on the proposed REAL ID Act regulations in May 2007 said that its data-intensive “one person – one license/ID card – one record” policy would ”create a national identification system.”

If a national ID system already existed, the new policy wouldn’t create one. This is another authority at odds with the idea that we have a national ID system already.

Support of PASS ID might be forgiven if we had a national ID system and if PASS ID would improve it. But the claim we already have one is weak.

“Political Reality” and Its Manufacture

But the heart of Ari’s claim is that supporting PASS ID reflects good judgment in light of political reality.

Despite the fact that there are no federal politicians, no governors and no appointed officials from any party publicly supporting repeal of REAL ID today, CDT still says that repeal is an acceptable option. However, PASS ID would get to the same outcome, or better, in practice and has the added benefit of actually being a political possibility… . I realize that Harper has invested a lot of time fighting for the word “repeal,” but at some point we have to look at the political reality.

A “Dear Colleague” letter inviting support for a bill to repeal REAL ID circulated on the Hill last week. How many legislators will hesitate to sign on to the bill because they have heard that the PASS ID Act, and not repeal of REAL ID, is CDT’s preferred way forward?

The phrase “political reality” is more often used by advocates to craft the political reality they prefer than to describe anything truly real. Like the observer effect in experimental research, statements about “political reality” change political reality.  Convince enough people that a thing is “political reality” and the sought-after political reality becomes, simply, reality.

I wrote here before about how the National Governors Association, sensing profit, has worked diligently to make REAL ID a “political reality.” And it has certainly made some headway (though not enough). In the last Congress, the only legislation aimed at resolving the REAL ID impasse were bills to repeal REAL ID. Since then, the political reality is that Barack Obama was elected president and an administration far less friendly to a national ID took office. Democrats – who are on average less friendly to a national ID – made gains in both the House and Senate.

But how are political realities crafted? It has often been described as trying to get people on a bus. To pass a bill, you change it to get more people on the bus than get off.

The REAL ID bus was missing some important riders. It had security hawks, the Department of Homeland Security, anti-immigrant groups, DMV bureaucrats, public safety advocates, and the Bush Administration. But it didn’t have: state legislators and governors, privacy and civil liberties groups, and certain religious communities, among others.

PASS ID is for the most part an effort to bring on state legislators and governors. The NGA is hoping to broker the sale of state power to the federal government, locking in its own institutional role as a supplicant in Washington, D.C. for state political leaders.

But look who else was hanging around the bus station looking for rides! – CDT, the nominal civil liberties group. Alone it jumped on the bus, communicating to others less familiar with the issues that PASS ID represented a good way forward.

Happily, few have taken this signal. The authors of PASS ID were unable to escape the name “REAL ID,” which is a far more powerful beacon flashing national ID and all the ills that entails than CDT’s signal to the contrary.

This is not the first time that CDT’s penchant for compromise has assisted the national ID effort, though.

Compromising Toward National ID

The current push for a national ID has a short history that I summarized three years ago in a righteously titled post on the TechLiberationFront blog: “The Markle Foundation: Font of Evil II.”

Briefly, in December 2003, a group called the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age recommended “both near-term measures and a longer-term research agenda to increase the reliability of identification while protecting privacy.” (Never mind that false identification was not a modus operandi of the 9/11 attacks.)

The 9/11 Commission, citing Markle, found that “[t]he federal government should set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as drivers licenses.” In December 2004, Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, including national standards for drivers’ licenses and identification cards, the national ID system recommended by the Markle Task Force. And in May 2005, Congress passed a strengthened national ID system in the REAL ID Act.

An earlier post, “The Markle Foundation: Font of Evil,” has more – and the text of a PoliTech debate between myself and Stewart Baker. Security hawk Baker was a participant in the Markle Foundation group, as was national ID advocate Amitai Etzioni. So was the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Jim Dempsey.

I had many reservations about the Markle Foundation Task Force and its work product, and in an April 2005 meeting of the DHS Privacy Committee, I asked Dempsey about what qualified people to serve on that task force, whether people were invited, and what might exclude them. A month before REAL ID passed, he said:

I think the Markle Task Force at least sought balance. And people came to the table committed to dialogue. And those who came with a particular point of view, I think, were all committed to listening. And I think people’s minds were changed… . What we were committed to in the Markle Task Force was changing our minds and trying to find a common ground and to try to understand each other. And we spent the time at it. And that, I think, is reflected in the product of the task force.

There isn’t a nicer, more genuine person working in public policy than Jim Dempsey. He is the consummate honest broker, and this statement of his intentions for the Markle Foundation I believe to be characteristically truthful and earnest.

But consider the possibility that others participating on the Markle Foundation Task Force did not share Jim’s predilection for honest dialogue and compromise. It is even possible that they mouthed these ideals while working intently to advance their goals, including creation of a national ID.

Stewart Baker, who I personally like, is canny and wily, and he wants to win. I see no evidence that Amitai Etzioni changed his mind about having a national ID when he authored the recommendation in the Markle report that ultimately produced REAL ID.

Other Markle participants I have talked to were unaware of what the report said about identity-based security, national identity standards, or a national ID. They don’t even know (or didn’t at the time) that lending your name to a report also lends it your credibility. Whatever privacy or civil liberties advocates were involved with the Markle Task Force got rolled – big-time – by the pro-national-ID team.

CDT is a sophisticated Washington, D.C. operation. It is supposed to understand these dynamics. I can’t give it the pass that outsiders to Washington might get. By committing to compromise rather than any principle, and by lending its name to the Markle Foundation Task Force report, CDT gave credibility to a bad idea – the creation of a national ID.

CDT helped produce the REAL ID Act, which has taken years of struggle to beat back. And now they are at it again with “pragmatic” support for PASS ID.

CDT has been consistently compromising on national ID issues while proponents of a national ID have been doggedly and persistently pursuing their interests. This is not the behavior of a civil liberties organization. It’s why I asked in the post that precipitated this debate whether there is anything that would cause CDT to push back from the table and say No.

Despite words to the contrary, I don’t see evidence that CDT opposes having a national ID. It certainly works around the edges to improve privacy in the context of having a national ID – reducing the wetness of the water, as it were – but at key junctures, CDT’s actions have tended to support having a U.S. national ID. I remain open to seeing contrary evidence.

Would PASS ID Really Save States Money?

The proposed PASS ID Act is a national ID just like REAL ID, and it threatens privacy just as much. Some argue that a national ID under PASS ID should be palatable, though, because it reduces costs to states.

But savings to states under PASS ID are not at all clear. Let’s take a look at the costs of creating a U.S. national ID.

The REAL ID Act, passed in May 2005, required states to begin implementing a national ID system within three years. In regulations it proposed in March 2007, the Department of Homeland Security extended that draconian deadline. States would have five years, starting in May 2008, to move all driver’s license and ID card holders into REAL ID-compliant cards.

The Department of Homeland Security estimated the costs for this project at $17.2 billion dollars (net present value, 7% discount). Costs to individuals came it at nearly $6 billion – mostly in wasted time. Americans would spend more than 250 million hours filling out forms, finding birth certificates and Social Security cards, and waiting in line at the DMV.

The bulk of the costs fell on state governments, though: nearly $11 billion dollars. The top three expenditures were $5.25 billion for customer service at DMVs, $4 billion for card production, and $1.1 billion for data systems and IT. Getting hundreds of millions of people through DMVs and issuing them new cards in such a short time was the bulk of the cost.

To drive down the cost estimate, DHS pushed the implementation schedule way back. In its final rule of January 2008, it allowed states a deadline extension to December 31, 2009 just for the asking, and a second extension to May 2011 for meeting certain milestones. Then states would have until the end of 2017 to replace all cards with the national ID card. That’s just under ten years.

Then the DHS decided to assume that only 75% of people would actually get the national ID. (Never mind that whatever benefits from having a national ID drop to near zero if it is not actually “national.”)

The result was a total cost estimate of about $6.85 billion (net present value, 7% discount). Individual citizens would still spend $5.2 billion worth of their time (in undiscounted dollars) on paperwork and waiting at the DMV. But states would spend just $1.5 billion on data and interconnectivity systems; $970 million on customer service; and $953 million on card production and issuance—a total of about $2.4 billion. (All undiscounted—DHS didn’t publish estimates for the final rule the same way it published their estimates for the proposed rule.)

Maybe these cost estimates were still too high. Maybe they weren’t believable. Or maybe Americans’ love of privacy and hatred of a national ID explains it. But the lower cost estimate did not slow the “REAL ID Rebellion.” Given the costs, the complexity, the privacy consequences, and the dubious benefits, states rejected REAL ID.

Enter PASS ID, which supposedly alleviates the costs to states of REAL ID. But would it?

At a Senate hearing last week, not one, but two representatives of the National Governors Association testified in favor of PASS ID, citing their internal estimate that implementing PASS ID would cost states just $2 billion.

But there is reason to doubt that figure. PASS ID is a lot more like REAL ID – the original REAL ID – in the way that most affects costs: the implementation schedule.

Under PASS ID, the DHS would have to come up with regulations in just nine months. States would then have just one year to begin complying. All drivers’ licenses would have to be replaced in the five years after that. That’s a total of six years to review the documents of every driver and ID holder, and issue them new cards.

How did the NGA come up with $2 billion? Maybe they took the extended, watered-down, 75%-over-ten-years estimate and subtracted some for reduced IT costs. (The NGA is free to publish its methodology, of course.)

But the costs of implementing PASS ID to states are more likely to be closer to $11 billion than the $2 billion figure that the NGA puts forward. In just six years, PASS ID would send some 245 million people into DMV offices around the country demanding new cards. States will have to hire and train new employees to handle the workload. They will have to acquire new computer systems, documents scanners, data storage facilities, and so on.

There is another source for cost estimates that draws the $2 billion figure into question: the National Governors Association itself. In September 2006, it issued a report with the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators finding that the costs to re-enroll drivers and ID holders over a 5-year period would cost states $8.45 billion (not discounted).

Just as with REAL ID, re-enrollment under PASS ID would undo the cost-savings and convenience that states have gained by allowing online re-issuance for good drivers and long-time residents. As the NGA said:

Efficiencies from alternative renewal processes such as Internet and mail will be lost during the re-enrollment period, and states will face increased costs from the need to hire more employees and expand business hours to meet the five year re-enrollment deadline.

Angry citizens will ask their representatives why they are being investigated like criminals just so they can exercise their right to drive.

PASS ID does reduce some of the information technology costs of REAL ID, such as requirements to use systems that still do not exist, and requirements to pay for driver background checks through the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements system and the Social Security Online Verification system.

But PASS ID still requires states to “[e]stablish an effective procedure to confirm that a person [applying] for a driver’s license or identification card is terminating or has terminated any driver’s license or identification card” issued under PASS ID by any other state. How do you do that? By sharing driver information. The language requiring states to provide all other states electronic access to their databases is gone, but the need to share that information is still there.

A last hope for states is that the federal government will come up with money to handle all this. But the federal government is in even tougher financial straights than many states. The federal deficit for this fiscal year is projected to reach $1.84 trillion.

Experienced state leaders recognize that the promise of federal money may not be fulfilled. The weakly funded PASS ID mandate will likely become a fully unfunded mandate.

So, does PASS ID really save states money? I wouldn’t put any money on it … .

Review of the Big REAL ID Hearing

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing yesterday on the REAL ID Act and the REAL ID revival bill, known as PASS ID. I attended and want to share with you some highlights.

Good News!

Little good came from the hearing, as it was primarily focused on how to get the states and people to accept a national ID. But there is some good news.

First, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared REAL ID dead (much as I did in my testimony two-plus years ago). “DOA” is how she referred to it.

She also said that no state will be in compliance with REAL ID by the current December 31, 2009 deadline. This is important because a lot of people think that states doing anything about the security of drivers’ licenses and ID cards are complying with REAL ID.

Another highlight was the commentary of Senator Roland Burris (D-IL). He is a beleaguered outsider to the Senate and evidently wasn’t coached on the talking points around REAL ID and PASS ID. So he flat out asked why we shouldn’t just have “a national ID.”

Senator Susan Collins’ (R-ME) nervous smile was particularly noticeable when Burris asked why the emperor had no clothes. No one was supposed to talk about national IDs at this hearing! But that’s what PASS ID is.

REAL ID and PASS ID are two versions of the same national ID system, and nobody is denying it. That’s good news because the effort to rebrand REAL ID through PASS ID has failed.

A Fake Crisis

Some other issue-framing is worth pointing out. Chairman Lieberman and Secretary Napolitano took pains to point out the importance of acting on PASS ID soon, claiming that the TSA would have to seriously inconvenience travelers with secondary searches at the end of the year if nothing was done.

But this is the same “crisis” that the DHS navigated a little over a year ago. States across the country were refusing to implement REAL ID. The DHS Secretary rattled his saber about inconveniencing travelers. And the DHS Secretary ended up giving all states a deadline extension. Secretary Napolitano will do the same thing if PASS ID fails - saber-rattling included. There is no crisis.

Vermont Governor Jim Douglas Supports a National ID

As I noted above, PASS ID is a national ID, just like REAL ID.

By testifying in support of PASS ID, Vermont governor Jim Douglas (R) put himself on record as supporting a U.S. national ID. He can pretend it’s not a national ID, of course, and he did his best to paper over the issue when Senator Burris asked about it. But Governor Douglas supports a national ID.

There was a time when Republicans stood for resisting federal incursions on state power. In the 104th Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee had a subcommittee that focused on federalism and the preservation of state power (the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Federalism, and Property Rights). But the National Governors Association, with Douglas at the helm, is now in the process of negotiating the sale of state power over driver licensing and identification policy to the federal government.

Rampant Security Ignorance

The reason why he supports this national ID law, Governor Douglas said, is that he, like every governor, “is a security governor.”

With so many Senators and panelists conjuring security and the 9/11 Commission report, it would be a delight if someone actually examined the security benefits of a national ID. The information is there for them. Again, my testimony to the committee two years ago supplied at least some. Then, I said, “Implementation of REAL ID would impose more costs on our society than it would provide in security or other benefits,” and I articulated how and why a national ID fails to secure.

But Senator Lieberman said he “assumes” REAL ID provides national security benefits. Assumes? He and his staff apparently haven’t familiarized themselves with the level of national security that a national ID would create, taking into account the counterattacks and complications of such a system.

Five years after the vaunted 9/11 Commission report - and the three-quarters of a page it devoted to identity security - Senator Lieberman, the chairman of a committee dealing with domestic security, has yet to look into the merits.

In case Senator Lieberman needs some help …

I’m So Sick of the 9/11 Commission Report!

Speaking of the 9/11 Commission, it has been five years since that report came out, and people continue to parrot the line that REAL ID was a “key 9/11 Commission recommendation.”

The 9/11 Commission dedicated three-quarters of a page to the question of identity security, out of 400+ substantive pages. Its entire treatment of the subject is on page 390.

The 9/11 Commission did not articulate how a national ID system would defeat future terror attacks. It did not even articulate how a national ID would have defeated the 9/11 attacks had it been in place. A minor shift in behavior by the 9/11 attackers, such as using their passports to board planes, would have defeated REAL ID and PASS ID, were we somehow allowed “do-overs.”

We are not allowed “do-overs,” and the problem we face is not 9/11, but securing against current and future threats - including people who might shift their behavior in light of security measures we take.

These shifts in behavior might include taking a few extra steps to get the documentation they need, for access to the country or targets. These shifts in behavior might include attacking targets that do not require documentation. Identity-based security is a Maginot Line.

The 9/11 Commission report was written at a time when little research on identity-based security had been done. It was written by fallible humans who knew little about identity-based security, and who got it wrong. The report is not a religious text.

The report did say something important, though: “For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons”! (page 384) It’s a terrific turn of phrase because it shuts down the logic centers in the brain - eek, terrorists! - and ends the discussion.

The “travel documents” the report was talking about, though, were passports and visas, not drivers’ licenses and birth certificates - the things foreign terrorists use to get into the country. If we’re going to turn the driver’s license into an internal passport - and TSA checkpoints are the beginning of such a policy - then perhaps these are travel documents. Just, please, Secretary Napolitano, train your TSA agents to not say, “Your papers, please.”

Even as to international travel documents, though, the 9/11 Commission got it wrong. Weapons are the only things as important as weapons. And the 9/11 terrorists didn’t actually use weapons any more substantial than box cutters. They “weaponized” a non-weapon. (Security is complicated, you see.)

Denying terrorists travel documents, drivers’ licenses, and IDs simply presents them some inconveniences - such as using people with no record of terrorism. Seventeen of nineteen 9/11 attackers were unknown to U.S. officials as threats, so it’s obviously not that much of an inconvenience.

Evading identity-based security is so easy. People do it all the time. And it won’t stop under anyone’s version of a national ID. But the 9/11 Commission said … !

Something New to Worry About

Much of the national ID battle happens at the federal level with these national ID laws, of course, but it’s important to realize that federal officials, state officials, companies, and non-profit groups are working to knit together a cradle-to-grave national ID system no matter what happens with REAL ID and PASS ID.

Here’s one worth highlighting: Thirteen states apparently are already scanning, or have scanned, their birth certificates into databases for use in the national ID system. The effort is being led by the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems in Silver Spring, Maryland. This group will undoubtedly have access to your private health information should federal e-health records be implemented, so you might want to familiarize yourself with them.

Is your state one of them? How many copies of your birth certificate can be found in how many places around the country? You might want to ask your state legislators about that. The future of this effort is to collect biometrics at birth, of course. This is a privacy problem.

But maybe all the privacy concerns have been taken care of. The proponents of REAL/PASS ID found themselves a fig leaf on that score.

Token Cover on Privacy Issues

Ari Schwartz from the Center for Democracy and Technology testified in favor of PASS ID. (Senator Akaka noted in his opening statement that CDT endorses PASS ID.)

He characterized opponents of REAL/PASS ID as wanting to “do nothing.” It’s a classic ploy - but cheaper than we’re used to seeing from Ari and CDT - to mischaracterize opponents as wanting to “do nothing.” As Ari knows well, I have advocated endlessly for a diverse and competitive identification and credentialing system that would provide all the security ID systems can, without government surveillance.

But Ari testified imaginatively about how PASS ID makes a national ID okay. He has concerns with it, of course, yadda yadda yadda - the privacy fig leaf obliged to wear a fig leaf himself.

And this is the unexpected bad news from the hearing. The Center for Democracy and Technology supports having a national ID in the United States.

Many would find this inexplicable, but it’s not. Though the people who work at CDT personally want very much to do the right thing, there are no principles to the organization beside compromise and having a seat at the table (neither of which are actually principles, of course).

CDT plays a wonderful convening role on many issues, and the name of the organization implies that it reconciles technology programs with fundamental societal values. But here it has given political cover to the push for a national ID in the United States. One can’t help wondering if there is anything that would cause CDT to push back from the table and say No.

Quadrennial Claptrap

Since the mid-1990s, the Defense Department has been legally required to review its strategy and force structure every four years, producing what’s called the Quadrennial Defense Review.

The result has been a series of vacuous documents that commingle vague, unsubstantiated claims about great historical shifts underway (think Tom Friedman but without the empirical rigor) with threat inflation. There is no evidence that these documents have produced much beyond wasted time and effort.

Naturally, the Department of Homeland Security decided to produce a quadrennial homeland security review, which is underway. Last week, ForeignPolicy.com reported that the State Department will get in on the act with a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.  Apparently grand strategy documents have great allure to policy-makers. So it’s worth reflecting on why the QDR has failed.

I say it’s because strategy is overrated. The idea is that government is a scientific enterprise where smart people get together, figure out the wisest course, and then marshal their bureaucracies to the new objectives. The trouble with this view is that government is political; it is about competing bureaucratic interests or ideologies trying to impose their preferences on each other.  Strategy documents have no inherent power over these forces.

In practice, because the military services participate in the QDR’s production, it is an output of the politics it is supposed to guide, a logroll that justifies existing realities. The services all employ manpower to defend their prerogatives. Consultants get hired. A great fuss occurs. Compromise language carries the day, and the thing winds up vapidly endorsing the existing force structure and programs.

A better way to go would for the Office of the Secretary of Defense to use strategy documents to give its views official heft; one more way to impose their preferences on the rest of the Pentagon. That argues for civilian authorship, not service inclusion. Of course, this method is only as good as OSD’s ideas.

The next QDR is due this year. The document will likely endorse the Secretary Gates’ desire to make the military better suited to counterinsurgency, which is OK, and overstate our ability to succeed in these wars, which is not.

The owner of the document is the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Michelle Flournoy, who previously founded the Center for New American Security, which has, in its brief life, exhibited great enthusiasm for counterinsurgency campaigns or US military-led nation-building.

Flournoy and a co-author just published a kind of preview of the QDR in Proceedings, the Naval Institute’s magazine. The article not encouraging. It cites the disastrous vehicle of Cold War threat inflation, NSC-68, as an example to emulate. Unsurprisingly it buys into the trendy idea that future US wars will be hybrid wars, mixing conventional and unconventional tactics as Hezbollah did in 2006 in Lebanon. It takes the conventional position that the United States has to police global commons (space, cyberspace, airspace and sea lanes), to protect the “international system.” This apparently means that free trade requires US military hegemony, a common claim with a hazy causal logic. The article makes the curious argument that because the commons are a public good, other nations have “powerful incentives” to help the United States police them. I am all for burden sharing, but this misunderstands the meaning of public goods, which are notoriously underprovided. Powerful incentives encourage free-riding, not mutual aide.

Worst of all, the article buys into the idea that the United States needs to fix failed states, which is a recipe for empire.

The good news is that there is time to fix all this. Maybe the Pentagon will embrace restraint. You never know.