Tag: homeland security

The Selectivity of American “Countering Violent Extremism” Policies

This week, the Obama administration and Congress continued their public duel over whether the U.S. government is doing enough to “counter violent extremism” (CVE). The White House press release on the “Leader’s Summit to Counter ISIL and Violent Extremism” lauded the administration’s efforts to prevent the radicalization of Muslim-American youth at the hands of ISIS. A 66-page report released by the House Homeland Security Committee (HSC) condemned the administration’s actions as inadequate on multiple levels. Both documents avoided a re-airing of unpleasant truths about why ISIS has managed to grow regionally and even find a tiny number of would-be fellow travelers here.

The first unpleasant truth is that by invading Iraq in 2003, the United States helped to give new life to Salafist-oriented groups like al Qaeda. Indeed, there was no AQ element in Iraq until after the U.S. invasion. The same was true in Libya until the ill-fated U.S.-sponsored toppling of the Qaddafi regime in 2011. Neither the administration’s press release nor the HSC report acknowledged those facts.

Mindless American interventionism has been one of the greatest recruiting tools for Salafist groups like ISIS.

Indeed, every Western hostage killed by ISIS was wearing an orange-colored prison jump suit-like garment, just like the ones worn by Iraqi prisoners tortured by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib prison or those held still at Guantanamo. Neither President Obama nor the authors of the HSC report can bring themselves to admit that our own actions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia have helped to fuel the very terrorist violence and domestic recruiting efforts both decried this week.

The second unpleasant truth dodged by the White House and the HSC is that all the mass surveillance programs initiated in the post-9/11 era have failed to detect a string of real plots or actual attacks in advance. Yet the HSC report calls for a doubling-down on federal support for state-level intelligence “fusion centers,” none of which have uncovered actual terrorist plots while targeting civil liberties groups that question their utility and the constitutionality of their operational methods. 

A third unpleasant truth avoided by the HSC and the Obama administration is that CVE is not an “equal opportunity” program aimed at all kinds of violent extremists. The federal CVE focus is squarely on Arab- and Muslim-Americans, even though right-wing American political extremists have killed almost twice as many U.S. persons in the post-9/11 era as have American Salafist-oriented terrorists.

The taxpayer-funded CVE program is little more than a rhetorically dressed up race-and-religion-profiling counterterrorism campaign. That it is failing should surprise none of us.

The Sequestration Immigration Scare

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released several hundred unauthorized immigrants from detention in Texas, Florida, Arizona, and Louisiana in preparation for budget cuts as part of the sequestration. The administration has noted that cuts would effectively reduce Border Patrol by about 5,000 agents—down to about 2007 levels of staffing if all of the cuts occur on the Southwest border. 

This reduction in Border Patrol will not unleash a tidal wave of unauthorized immigrants like many claim. Since 1989 the Border Patrol’s appropriations have increased by 750 percent and there are six times more staff today than in 1989. 

Apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants on the border are also near 40 year lows because fewer unauthorized immigrants are trying to enter illegally due to the poor economy. Decreasing the size of the Border Patrol will not do much to increase unauthorized immigration because many would-be immigrants are repelled by high unemployment rates.  

Unauthorized immigration has slowed dramatically because of a lack of economic opportunity in the United States, not because border patrol is larger or more effective. Cuts to Border Patrol, even those that would return its size to the 2007 levels, will not much affect unauthorized immigration.

American unemployment rates and demand for immigrant workers drive unauthorized immigration.  Look at this graph relating border apprehensions and the national unemployment rate:

Apprehensions and Unemployment Rate

The higher the rate of unemployment, the fewer unauthorized immigrants try to enter, and the fewer apprehensions are made.   

Perhaps if you had looked at this graph, you might have thought that the size of the Border Patrol could deter unauthorized immigration:

Apprehensions and Border Patrol Staff on Southwest Border

But if Border Patrol deterred unauthorized immigration, it would probably also deter other illegal activity—like cross border drug seizures. Consider this graph:

Border Patrol Staff and Marijuana Seizures 

Drug seizures have increased along with the size of the Border Patrol. Americans still demand marijuana so increased security results in more marijuana seizures (and more marijuana entering the black market). In contrast, unauthorized immigration is down because there is less American economic demand for their labor. Decreasing the size of the Border Patrol down to 2007 levels will not result in a flood of unauthorized immigration because not as many people want to come here as they did during the housing boom.

DHS Fusion Centers: Small Part of Homeland Security Waste

Fusion centers are “pools of ineptitude, waste and civil liberties intrusions.” That’s the Washington Post’s summary of a report, two years in the making, released Tuesday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigation.

With all due respect to the Senate investigators, who did thorough and commendable work here, it does not take two years and 140 pages to reach their conclusion. Along with the ACLU, Cato scholars have made similar arguments for years.

Fusion centers grew from the revelation in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks that federal security agencies, states governments, and local law enforcement were failing to share information about terrorists. Although the attacks resulted as much from the difficulty of distinguishing pertinent information from the rest as from impediments in information-sharing, it was reasonable to address the second problem. But whether that required physical spaces devoted to information sharing—let alone the 70-plus of them we now have spread across the country—is another story.

The wisdom of that spasm of bureaucratic creation turned largely on the truth of the official insistence in the panicky aftermath of the attacks that the United States was rife with thousands of hidden al Qaeda operatives and that mass casualty attacks would occur with the regularity of extreme hurricanes. Predictably, there weren’t enough terrorists to go around. And it doesn’t take Max Weber to see that their dearth wouldn’t cause the searchers to slacken their efforts. Fusion centers became a classic solution in search of a problem.

One way to justify fusion centers was to expand their enemy to “all hazards.” A second was to exaggerate the terrorist menace, for example by insisting that its quiescence indicated that it was not weak or absent, but well-hidden and patient (note: the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, especially when you are searching a lot; it’s just not proof of absence). Of course, advocates overstated the fusion centers’ contribution to terrorism arrests. And even without arrests, they could conflate activity with success, by pointing to, for example, leads pursued and cases opened as if they were security itself. That last technique continues today in the pushback  to the Senate report.

Keep in mind that fusion centers, which cost federal taxpayers at most a few hundred million a year, are symptoms of a larger problem. The entire national security apparatus has grown by leaps and bounds since 2001 thanks to a threat that has, thankfully, proved vastly weaker than most thought.

What 9/11 Should Teach Us

As a fan of comedian Dennis Miller, I was astonished to discover that he became a supporter of U.S. government policies in fighting terrorism after the September 11th attacks. Perhaps I am in the minority on this issue, but the 9/11 attacks were what helped to erode my faith in government.

Few people bring this up, but in 2004, a CIA Inspector General report found a number of weaknesses in the Intelligence Community’s pre-9/11 counterterrorism practices, many of which “contributed to performance lapses related to the handling of materials concerning individuals who were to become the 9/11 hijackers.” Two al Qaeda terrorists who later became 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, had attended a meeting of suspected terrorists in Malaysia in early 2000. The Inspector General probe uncovered that the CIA had learned that one of the operatives had a U.S. visa, and the other had flown from Bangkok to Los Angeles.

Yet, the Agency failed to forward that relevant information by “entering the names of suspected al-Qa’ida terrorists on the ‘watchlist’ of the Department of State and providing information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in proper channels.” Some 50 to 60 individuals—including Headquarters personnel, overseas officers, managers, and junior employees—had read the cables containing the travel information on al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar.

The report said in a stark assessment, “The consequences of the failures to share information and perform proper operational follow-through on these terrorists were potentially significant.” Indeed. Had the names been passed to the FBI and the State Department through proper channels, the operatives could have been watchlisted and surveilled. In theory, those steps could have yielded information on financing, flight training, and other details vital to unraveling the 9/11 plot.

Corroborating these findings was a Joint Inquiry Report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. It found “persistent problems” with the “lack of collaboration between Intelligence Community agencies.” About the FBI in particular, the report went so far as to say as late as December 2002 that “…the Bureau–-as a law enforcement organization–-is fundamentally incapable, in its present form, of providing Americans with the security they require against foreign terrorist and intelligence threats.” Now that is a ringing endorsement of our government’s ability to protect us.

We often hear that the failure of 9/11 was government-wide. But few observers delve into why it failed, especially on 9/11 anniversaries, when, one would think, such explanations would be most helpful. A number of structural factors impede effective collaboration. For instance, many intelligence agencies operate under different legal authorities. Many of them have distinct customers and cultures, and jealously guard their turf, budgets, sources, and methods. Individuals within various agencies also share information by relying on trust and personal relationships.

Yet, dispersed knowledge made it so that there was no single person or “silver bullet” that could have enabled intelligence agencies to prevent the 9/11 attacks. As the CIA Inspector General report made clear, neither the U.S. government nor the Intelligence Community had a comprehensive strategic plan to guide counterterrorism efforts. Amid the pre-9/11 flurry of warnings, intelligence cables, and briefing materials on al Qaeda’s plot to hijack airliners and ram them into our buildings, a significant failure, concluded the 9/11 Commission, was one of imagination.

After 9/11, many Americans were quick to cede yet more power to government. While much has changed in eleven years, with agencies less reluctant to share critical data, a February 2011 Government Accountability Office report noted that the government “does not yet have a fully-functioning Information Sharing Environment,” that is, “an approach that facilitates the sharing of terrorism and homeland security information”:

GAO found that the government had begun to implement some initiatives that improved sharing but did not yet have a comprehensive approach that was guided by an overall plan and measures to help gauge progress and achieve desired results.

Over the decade, while our government focused narrowly on the problem of terrorism, it also embraced ambitious, wasteful, and counterproductive programs and policies that drained us economically and spread our resources thin. After 9/11, excluding the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, American taxpayers have shelled out over $1 trillion dollars for their sprawling counterterrorism-industrial-complex, replete with its thousands of federal, state, and local government organizations and the private companies that work with them.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that our government expanded after an attack that called into question its primary constitutional function: protecting our country. What is more remarkable is that the public continues to accept humiliating pat-downs and invasive full-body scans for airline travel, costly grant programs rolled out by the Department of Homeland Security, and reckless politicians who advocate endless wars against predominately-Muslim states that play directly into al Qaeda’s hands.

Now, many Americans ask: Are we safer? Certainly, but marginal increases in safety have come at an exceptionally high cost, have far exceeded the point of diminished returns, and have encouraged a terrorized public to exalt a government that failed them.

“…the American homeland is the planet”

For years, my colleagues and I have been arguing that disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda does not require the occupation of Afghanistan or anywhere else. Wars are incredibly wasteful and counterproductive to the goal of stopping terrorism. Would-be terrorists, moreover, have reduced their dependence on “base camps” and “physical havens” because they can plan, organize, and train from virtually anywhere in the world.

Mike M. from Paradigm Cure ably sums up the broader problem from which our post-9/11 mindset stems:

That is the notion that it is the responsibility of the US government to keep Americans safe from all terrorist attacks, at all times; the insistence that one attack amounts to failure, that the standard for homeland security is perfection.


We await an American political leader who will tell us the Whole Truth:  That in the emerging connected and networked world, we cannot be made totally safe.  That despite their level efforts, life—and strategy—are full of choices, and tradeoffs.  In so many ways, American public life these last few decades has been all about the avoidance of truth, and choice, and tradeoff, the promise that we could have everything and avoid the bill.  Many bills are now coming due; long-delayed tradeoffs are being foisted.  And one of them, sooner or later, will be the simple, unalterable fact:  We cannot dominate the earth, and so we must accept some risk at home.

Indeed, we are not perfect. In fact, as foreign policy planners were ordering American soldiers to invade and occupy two foreign countries simultaneously, back at home their fellow Americans were exposed to the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Times Square bomber, the Ft. Hood shooter, and other failed and foiled terrorist plots and near misses. Clearly, these terrorists did not get the memo that we were supposed to be fighting them “over there.”

Unfortunately, U.S. officials remain hostage to the outdated notion that a specific territory matters—they remain possessed by a sort of safe haven syndrome. But perhaps even more crucial is that government officials also remain fixated on heading off every conceivable hazard through greater government action.

I must admit, however, that the belief that America must stop any and all terrorist attacks by controlling the world’s ungoverned spaces makes sense if one believes what the 9/11 Commission wrote on page 362 about warding off al Qaeda.

In this sense, 9/11 has taught us that terrorism against American interests ‘over there’ should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against America ‘over here.’ In this same sense, the American homeland is the planet. [Emphasis added]

A Scary Thought: Do We Really Need “If You See Something, Say Something?”

At the National Sheriffs’ Association Conference in Washington last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano noted that riders on the DC Metro system can hear her voice repeatedly promoting her department’s “If You See Something, Say Something” terrorism hotline campaign. “That’s a scary thought,” she suggested.

Even scarier to me is the campaign itself.

It was begun in New York City where it generated 8,999 calls in 2006 and more than 13,473 in 2007. Although the usual approach of the media is to report about such measures uncritically, one New York Times reporter at the time did have the temerity to ask how many of these tips had actually led to a terrorism arrest. The answer, it turned out, was zero.

That continues to be the case, it appears: none of the much-publicized terrorism arrests in New York since that time has been impelled by a “If You See Something, Say Something” tip.

This experience could be taken to suggest that the tipster campaign has been something of a failure. Or perhaps it suggests there isn’t all that much out there to be found. Undeterred by such dark possibilities, however, the campaign continues, and the number of calls in New York skyrocketed to 27,127 in 2008 before settling down a bit to a mere 16,191 in 2009.

For its part, the FBI celebrated the receipt of its 2 millionth tip from the public, up to a third of them concerning terrorism, in August 2008. There seems to be no public information on whether the terrorism tips proved more useful than those supplied to the New York City police. However, an examination of all known terrorism cases since 9/11 that have targeted the United States suggests that the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign has never been relevant.

It turns out that New York has received a trademark on its snappy slogan, something Napolitano’s DHS dutifully acknowledges on its relevant website when it refers to its public awareness campaign as: “If You See Something, Say Something&™.” (Nowhere on the website, by the way, does the Department bother to tally either the number of calls it receives or the number of terrorism arrests the hotline has led to.)

New York has been willing to grant permission for the slogan to be used by organizations like DHS, but sometimes it has refused permission because, according to a spokesman, “The intent of the slogan is to focus on terrorism activity, not crime, and we felt that use in other spheres would water down its effectiveness.” Since it appears that the slogan has been completely ineffective at dealing with its supposed focus—terrorism—any watering down would appear, not to put too fine a point on it, to be impossible.

Meanwhile, in New York alone $2 million to $3 million each year (much of it coming from grants from the federal government) continues to be paid out to promote and publicize the hotline.

But that’s hardly the full price of the program. As Mark Stewart and I have noted in our Terror, Security, and Money, processing the tips can be costly because, as the FBI’s special counsel puts it, “Any terrorism lead has to be followed up. That means, on a practical level, that things that 10 years ago might just have been ignored now have to be followed up.” Says the assistant section chief for the FBI’s National Threat Center portentously, “It’s the one that you don’t take seriously that becomes the 9/11.”

It might seem obvious that any value of the “If You See Something, Say Something™” campaign needs to be weighted against the rather significant attendant costs of sorting through the haystack of tips it generates. Of course, the campaign might fail a cost-benefit analysis because it is expensive and seems to have generated no benefit (except perhaps for bolstering support for homeland security spending by continually reminding an edgy public that terrorism might still be out there).

This grim possibility may be why, as far as I can see, no one has ever carried out such a study and that the prospect of doing one has probably never crossed the minds of sloganeer Napolitano or of the rapt sheriffs in her audience.

Now that’s a scary thought.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Newt Gingrich and the EMP Threat

The front page of yesterday’s New York Times features a story on Newt Gingrich’s “doomsday vision:” an attack over the United States’ airspace known as an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. Gingrich and a cadre of concerned national security analysts worry that terrorists or rogue states—Iran and North Korea—could detonate a nuclear device over the United States that theoretically could disrupt electrical circuits, from cars to power grids.

The Times does a commendable job of questioning Gingrich’s arguments and whether this is a legitimate national security concern. Despite the fact that a “National EMP Recognition Day” exists, the threat is in fact very, very low. But it may be unfortunate that such extravagant doomsday scenarios get placed on the front page of the Times.

I addressed the EMP threat in my 2010 book Atomic Obsession and I included a discussion of the views of Stephen Younger, the former head of nuclear weapons research at Los Alamos National Lab, as forcefully put forward in his 2007 book, Endangered Species:

Younger is appalled at the way “one fast‑talking scientist” managed in 2004 to convince some members of Congress that North Korea might be able to launch a nuclear device capable of emitting a high‑altitude electromagnetic pulse that could burn out computers and other equipment over a wide area. When he queried a man he considers to be “perhaps the most knowledgeable person in the world about such designs” (and who “was never asked to testify”), the response was: “I don’t think the United States could do that sort of thing today. To say that the North Koreans could do it, and without doing any testing, is simply ridiculous.” Nevertheless, concludes Younger acidly, “rumors are passed from one person to another, growing at every repetition, backed by flimsy or nonexistent intelligence and the reputations of those who are better at talking than doing.” [Emphasis in original.]

The 2012 presidential election should certainly contain a legitimate discussion of national security issues. But I don’t think it really needs to include a lot of breast-beating about the EMP “threat.”

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.