Tag: national security

NSA Snooping: a Majority of Americans Believe What?

Yesterday, the Washington Post and the Pew Research Center released a joint poll that purportedly showed that “a large majority of Americans” believe the federal government should focus on “investigating possible terrorist threats even if personal privacy is compromised.”

But a careful look at the poll shows citizens are far less sanguine about surrendering their privacy rights, as the facts continue to be revealed.

Pollsters faced a difficult challenge—to accurately capture public opinion during a complex and evolving story. Recall, on Wednesday of last week, the story was about the NSA tracking Verizon phone records. So the pollsters drew up a perfectly reasonable and balanced question:

As you may know, it has been reported that the National Security Agency has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of MILLIONS of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism. Would you consider this access to telephone call records an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?

Fifty-six percent found this “acceptable.” Thus, the “majority of Americans” lead in the Washington Post.

However, on Thursday, the Washington Post revealed explosive details about the massive data-collection program PRISM—and the public was alerted that the NSA was not just collecting phone records, but email, Facebook, and other online records. So the pollsters quickly drew up a new question, asked starting Friday, from June 7-9:

Do you think the U.S. government should be able to monitor everyone’s email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks?

Fifty-two percent—a majority—said “no.” So Americans feel differently about the story based on the facts on Wednesday, when the story was about tracking “telephone calls,” and facts on Thursday, when the story was about monitoring all “email and other online activity.”

The Washington Post could have fairly gone with a story that a majority of Americans do not agree that the federal government should monitor everyone’s email and online communication, even if it might prevent future terrorist attacks.

Unfortunately, that’s not the story that the Washington Post went with. Subsequent media coverage of the Post-Pew poll has neglected this nuance and cemented this misinterpretation of what “majority of Americans” believe.

A more reasonable interpretation of the Post-Pew poll is that citizens’ views seem to be changing as more details are revealed about the massive extent of the NSA snooping program. Indeed, most citizens have not been following this story as closely with only 48 percent report following thing “very closely” or “fairly closely.”

I’ll be watching eagerly to see what the next polls find out about that ever elusive “majority of Americans.”

Benghazi? Let’s Talk ObamaCare!

Things must be going poorly for President Obama if he wants to change the subject to ObamaCare.

Today, most of Washington is questioning whether the U.S. government was derelict in its handling of the September 11, 2012 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which heavily armed assailants injured 10 Americans and murdered four, including the U.S. ambassador. However, over at the White House, President Obama is launching a PR defensive of ObamaCare, at which he will basically ask mothers to nag their kids to waste their money on ObamaCare’s over-priced health insurance

The contrast brought to mind this passage from University of Chicago law professor M. Todd Henderson’s article in the latest issue of Cato’s Regulation magazine:

When the president sought to make birth control a mandatory part of all insurance plans, this was a political decision regarding health care. This is not to disparage political decisions in general, but merely to point out this feature of them, that they bind those who disagree…

A relatively simple, low cost, and widely accepted practice like birth control became a firestorm when individual choice and local variation were overridden on the grounds of improving social welfare. The airwaves and print media were filled with analysis, name-calling, and hyperbole. Kitchen tables, like my own, were filled with debate about how we should vote about the financing of other peoples’ use of birth control… Just imagine what the debates will look like when the stakes become—as they inevitably will—whether expensive cancer therapies, surgeries, or other procedures will be paid for, or whether more controversial matters like abortion, gender reassignment, and the like will be paid for…

When … matters are decided by experts or politicians, mistakes can be made and made in ways that necessarily are coercive. This coercion does not admit easy exit, as one can exit an insurance policy, especially if done at the federal level. The central lesson is that centralized power over complex matters risks making larger mistakes than decentralized power, admits less innovation, provides for less tailored satisfaction of preferences, and generates greater political conflict. Ironically, those risks may undermine the important work that government must do to improve the world we live in.

Every minute the government spends trying (and failing) to improve people’s health is a minute it cannot spend making them safer.

Read the rest of Henderson’s article, “Voice and Exit in Health Care Policy.”

The Government’s Surveillance-Security Fantasies

If two data points are enough to draw a trend line, the trend I’ve spotted is government seeking to use data mining where it doesn’t work.

A comment in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently argued that universities should start mining data about student behavior in order to thwart incipient on-campus violence.

Existing technology … offers universities an opportunity to gaze into their own crystal balls in an effort to prevent large-scale acts of violence on campus. To that end, universities must be prepared to use data mining to identify and mitigate the potential for tragedy.

No, it doesn’t. And no, they shouldn’t.

Jeff Jonas and I wrote in our 2006 Cato Policy Analysis, “Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining,” that data mining doesn’t have the capacity to predict rare events like terrorism or school shootings. The precursors of such events are not consistent the way, say, credit card fraud is.

Data mining for campus violence would produce many false leads while missing real events. The costs in dollars and privacy would not be rewarded by gains in security and safety.

The same is true of foreign uprisings. They have gross commonality—people rising up against their governments—but there will be no pattern in data from past events in, say, Egypt, that would predict how events will unfold in, say, China.

But an AP story on Military.com reports that various U.S. security and law enforcement agencies want to mine publicly available social media for evidence of forthcoming terror attacks and uprisings. The story is called “US Seeks to Mine Social Media to Predict Future.”

Gathering together social media content has privacy costs, even if each bit of data was released publicly online. And it certainly has dollar costs that could be quite substantial. But the benefits would be slim indeed.

I’m with the critics who worry about overreliance on technology rather than trained and experienced human analysts. Is it too much to think that the U.S. might have to respond to events carefully and thoughtfully as they unfold? People with cultural, historical, and linguistic knowledge seem far better suited to predicting and responding to events in their regions of focus than any algorithm.

There’s a dream, I suppose, that data mining can eliminate risk or make the future knowable. It can’t, and—the future is knowable in one sense—it won’t.

Debt Deal Signed, Fights over Military Spending Next

The legislation signed by President Obama yesterday, as a solution to the debt ceiling debate, includes the possibility of cuts to military spending. But as Chris Preble points out, the legislation guarantees no defense cuts. Republicans will try to dump all the required cuts on non-defense areas. And the White House has already distanced itself from the prospect of any real defense budget cuts, as did Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Both support only the first round of cuts, which will at best halt Pentagon growth at roughly inflation.

On The Skeptics blog, I take a more detailed look at deal’s likely impact on military spending. I also examine its political effect, arguing that it will cause at least four political fights.

The first concerns war funding. As Russell Rumbaugh notes, hawks will be tempted to shift the Pentagon’s bill into the war appropriations (overseas contingency operations, officially), which the bill does not cap. That problem is not new, but the bill worsens it. We’ll see if the White House and Congressional Democrats fight to stop it.

Second, for the two years while the security cap is in place, the bill pits security agencies and their congressional advocates in zero sum combat. For obvious electoral reasons, no one will go after veterans. Defense hawks and top military officers will push to make DHS and State eat the minor cuts required. House Republicans negotiated to expand the security category for this reason. DHS, State and the subcommittees that pass their appropriations will fight back. Republicans and thus the House will tend to the first camp; Democrats and the Senate to the second. So the fight will occur in the appropriation committees, conference, and probably White House-Hill discussions. The paucity of cuts limits the carnage, of course.

Third, if the legislation remains in place after two years and a single cap covers all discretionary spending, the fight will shift and become more partisan. To get under the cap, Republicans will push domestic spending cuts. Democrats will prefer defense cuts. The 2012 elections will determine the institutional contours of this fight.

The fourth fight will center on the Joint Committee, with the most interesting conflict among Republicans. Democrats will likely advocate taxes and more defense spending cuts. Even if they can get a deal including taxes with Republican committee members, the House is unlikely to pass it. Democrats’ most attractive option may then be sequestration. Anti-tax Republicans will accept that outcome but clash with neoconservative Republicans happy to raise taxes to pay for military expenditures.

Those that see this plan as a disaster for defense ought to explain why hawks, like Rep. Buck McKeon (Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee), Rep. Bill Young (a leading House defense appropriator), and Senator John McCain, support it. They evidently prefer this deal to any available alternative and are gambling that they can protect military spending from the knife.

My guess is that defense spending will be level in 2012, growing roughly with inflation, but get hit by sequestration, meaning real defense cuts in 2013. After that, who knows? The political dynamics will then be quite different.

An original version of this post appeared on the National Interest.

Finns Begin a Quixotic Quest for Prevention

In the aftermath of the Oslo terror attack, Finnish police—yes, Finnish—plan to increase their surveillance of the Internet:

Deputy police commissioner Robin Lardot said his forces will play closer attention to fragmented pieces of information—known as ‘weak signals’—in case they connect to a credible terrorist threat.

That is not the way forward. As I explored in a series of posts and a podcast after the Fort Hood shooting here in the United States, random violence (terrorist or otherwise) is not predictable and not “findable” in advance—not if a free society is to remain free, anyway. That’s bad news, but it’s important to understand.

In the days since the attack, many commentators have poured a lot of energy into interpretation of Oslo and U.S. media treatment of it while the assumption of an al Qaeda link melted before evidence that it was a nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic “cultural conservative.” Such commentary and interpretation is riveting to people who are looking to vindicate or decimate one ideology or another, but it doesn’t matter much in terms of security against future terrorism.

As former FBI agent (and current ACLU policy counsel) Mike German advises, any ideology can become a target of the government if the national security bureaucracy comes to use political opinion or activism as a proxy or precursor for crime and terrorism. Rather than blending crime control with mind control, the only thing to do is to watch ever-searchingly for genuine criminal planning and violence, and remember the Oslo dead as Lt. General Cone did Fort Hood’s: “The … community shares your sorrow as we move forward together in a spirit of resiliency.”

Beware the Depends Bomber?

My Washington Examiner column this week is on TSA, the federal agency that’s its own reductio ad absurdum.

In the latest TSA atrocity, the agency forced a wheelchair-bound, 95-year-old leukemia patient to remove her adult diaper, for fear she might be wired to explode. “It’s something I couldn’t imagine happening on American soil,” her distraught daughter told the press: “Here is my mother, 95 years old, 105 pounds, barely able to stand, and then this.”

My God, what is she on about? Proper procedure was followed!

As I point out in the column:

in a classic case of “mission creep,” TSA is taking its show on the road and the rails.

Remember when, pushing his bullet-train boondoggle in the 2011 State of the Union, President Obama cracked that it would let you travel “without the pat-down”? Not funny—also, not true.

Earlier this year, Amtrak passengers in Savannah, Ga., stepped off into a TSA checkpoint. Though the travelers had already disembarked the train, agents made women lift their shirts to check for bra explosives. Two weeks ago, armed TSA and Homeland Security agents hit a bus depot in Des Moines, Iowa, to question passengers and demand their papers.

These raids are the work of TSA’s “Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response” (VIPR or “Viper”) teams—an acronym at once senseless and menacing, much like the agency itself.

All this is happening at a time when al Qaeda looks more harried, pathetic, and weaker than ever. But hey, you can never be too careful, right?

Feel Safer?

Record Number of Americans Targeted by National Security Letters

The latest report to Congress on the Justice Department’s use of foreign intelligence surveillance powers has just been released, and it shows a truly stunning increase in the number of Americans whose sensitive phone, Internet, and banking records were obtained by the FBI — without judicial oversight — pursuant to National Security Letters. In 2009, a total of 14,788 NSL requests were issued targeting U.S. persons — a number that excludes requests for “basic subscriber information” as opposed to phone or e-mail logs — and 6,114 different Americans were affected by those demands for information. In 2010, the number of NSL requests targeting Americans rose to 24,287.

What’s really shocking, however, is the number of people affected. A whopping 14,212 American citizens and permanent residents had records of their financial, telephone, and online activity seized last year.  The previous record, set in 2005, was 9,475. Were you one of those 14,212? If so, what did the FBI get? Thanks to the gag orders that come with NSLs, you will almost certainly never get to find out. But even if the Bureau decides there’s no reason to continue investigating you, whatever data they obtained — lists of phone numbers, credit card purchases, financial transactions, e-mail correspondents, or IP addresses visited — are likely to remain in a massive government database indefinitely

This pattern suggests that the Bureau is doing broader but shallower investigation — sweeping more people into the information vacuum, but issuing fewer requests per person, presumably because the results of the initial request provide few grounds for further scrutiny.  Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of those people are not terrorists — and, indeed, are probably guilty of nothing more than a second- or third-degree connection to the subject of an investigation. Remember, as expiring Patriot Act provisions come up for reauthorization at the end of this month: These tools are fundamentally not about spying on terrorists. The government has always had ample power to do that. They’re about authority to spy on the innocent.