Tag: national security

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.

The Folly of Succeeding in Libya

Tonight, to sell the illusion of America’s “limited military action” in Libya’s civil war, President Barack Obama insisted that America had a moral imperative to intervene militarily, implying he will do so wherever foreign leaders commit atrocities against their people. This latest mission in the name of “humanitarian imperialism” is extremely dangerous. In fact, if all goes well in Libya, it might be just as bad as if we fail.

Consider, for instance, if I walked through a wall of fire and came out the other side unharmed. Although I came out safe and sound, my decision to walk through the wall of fire was still misinformed. My good outcome was simply one among a host of potentially terrible outcomes. After all, if I were to walk through that wall of fire again and again, given the danger and level of risk, I would end up with many more bad outcomes than good outcomes.

In this respect, and in terms of our external security commitment to Libya, what matters is not necessarily a good outcome, but making a good decision in the face of various options. Thus, even a narrow and limited military engagement does not mean an absence of risk; one need only reference our “narrow and limited” military engagement in Vietnam to understand the danger of foreign gambles. If indeed our military can be ordered by the president to any corner of the globe, for the advance of human rights and in the absence of vital American interests, then the repercussions of our latest intervention could reverberate well beyond Libya.

President Obama Must Outline an Exit Strategy in Libya

There is ample recent evidence that the president has some difficulty with entrances and exits.  The linked video is a humorous example; the building conundrum in Libya is not.

President Obama’s decision to launch a series of military strikes against Libya raises a host of questions, many more than can be answered in his much-belated address to the American people tonight. At a minimum, the President must clarify the purpose and scope of the mission. He has declared that the sole object is to protect civilians from harm. Others in his administration, however, suggest that military operations will continue until Muammar Qaddafi leaves office.

In fact, the two goals might be contradictory, as the need to protect civilians from violence could well extend long after Qaddafi’s regime is toppled. If the rebels seize power and then turn their guns on former regime supporters, the U.S. military may find itself in the middle of a bloody civil war, as it did in Iraq. President Obama must provide assurances to the American people that he has not committed American blood, treasure, and prestige to a mission that does nothing to preserve U.S. national security, and might ultimately harm it.

Even if the President can clarify the mission, articulate an exit strategy, and give ironclad assurances that the U.S. military is not involved in yet another open-ended nation-building mission, the President’s speech this evening cannot explain away his blatant abuse of executive power. In 2007, Senator Obama declared “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” And yet no one has claimed that Qaddafi’s threats against the Libyan rebels posed a threat to the United States. Nor can anyone show that Qaddafi’s ouster would advance U.S. security. If the rebels prove more tolerant of al Qaeda or other violent extremists, the net effect of this intervention might be to increase the threat of attack against the United States.

Obama’s instincts in 2007 were correct. His ascendancy to the presidency appears to have prompted a change of heart, but no one should be encouraged by this Oval Office conversion. That his predecessors have similarly abused their power is no excuse. The United States is governed by laws, not by men. To allow a single person to wage war without the expressed consent of the people, as stipulated by the Constitution, merely compounds the serious harm done to our institutions of government over the past several decades.

They Were for the War before They Were Against It

Doyle McManus at the Los Angeles Times highlights the zigging and zagging of some leading Republican presidential contenders when it comes to war with Libya.

Particularly noteworthy is Newt Gingrich. “Two weeks ago,” McManus writes: 

the former House speaker and possible presidential candidate denounced Obama for not intervening forcefully against Kadafi.

“This is a moment to get rid of [Kadafi],” he urged. “Do it. Get it over with.”

Then Obama intervened in Libya. Was Gingrich pleased?

“It is impossible to make sense of the standard for intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity,” Gingrich said Sunday. “Iran and North Korea are vastly bigger threats…. There are a lot of bad dictators doing bad things.”

That sounded like a flip-flop, so I asked Gingrich what he meant. He responded with an e-mail: “The only rational purpose for an intervention is to replace Kadafi. That is what the president called for on March 3, and after that statement anything less is a defeat for the United States.”

Actually, Gingrich was wrong both before and after Obama (inexplicably) chose to follow his advice. The only rational purpose for the use of the U.S. military is to advance U.S. national security. The Libya operation has never been justified on those grounds – it is a humanitarian mission to protect civilians – and it might actually make a minor and manageable problem far worse.

Qaddafi is a clown and thug; and no one will shed a tear if and when he leaves Libya – feet first or otherwise. But declaring Qaddafi’s ouster to be a suddenly vital U.S. interest, when a few mere months ago he was our supposed great ally in the fight against al Qaeda, epitomizes absurdity. If nothing else, Gingrich and other boosters of military action in Libya should have pondered – before we risked the lives of our troops, and committed the country to a potentially open-ended mission – whether some of the vaunted rebels might, in fact, be even worse than Qaddafi.

But I guess that never occurred to them.

How Many 215 Orders?

There was an interesting exchange during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing yesterday concerning the use of the Patriot Act’s §215 orders for business records and other tangible things. FBI Director Robert Mueller hinted that the orders may have been used to track purchases of hydrogen peroxide purchases in the investigation of aspiring bomber Najibullah Zazi, while Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.) asserted that there is “a huge gap today between how you all are interpreting the PATRIOT Act and what the American people think the PATRIOT Act is all about and it’s going to need to be resolved.”

Let’s leave our curiosity about that by the wayside for the moment, though. I’m curious about one simple empirical claim Mueller made in his testimony: That the provision has been used over 380 times since 2001. I assume he’d know, but that seems inconsistent with what’s been publicly reported to date. It’s worth noting that there are actually minor discrepancies between the numbers provided in Congressional Research Service reports, audits from the Office of the Inspector General, and the Justice Department’s annual reports to Congress. But there are plenty of legitimate reasons these numbers might vary depending on how you count, and the total variance is a difference of about 17 orders total over the years.

We know from those Inspector General reports that the majority of those 215 orders issued were “combination” orders issued in tandem with another type of surveillance order called a “pen register” so that investigators could get subscriber information about the people whose communications patterns they were tracking. When Congress amended the Patriot Act in 2006, it built that authority right into the pen register statute, making it unnecessary to seek those “combination” orders. Prior to the amendment, the government got 173 of those “combination” orders. “Pure” 215 orders, which are now the only type needed, have been used much more sparingly. None were issued at all until 2004, and from 2004 through 2009 (depending on whose tally you want to use) there were between 75 and 92 orders issued (for an average of 12–15 annually since 2004). Throw in the combination orders and the upper-bound number through the end of 2009 is 265 orders.

Unless I’ve miscounted or missed something significant—you can get the reports at the links above and check my math—that leaves 115 orders unaccounted for, assuming Mueller’s number is accurate. There are two possibilities, then: Either the government got ten times as many orders in 2010 as the historical average (the figures should be out sometime in April) or there are a whole lot of these missing from the public reporting. Possibly these have something to do with the “sensitive collection program” in which these orders play a key role, alluded to in a Justice Department official’s testimony at a hearing during the 2009 reauthorization debate. Either alternative seems like it would merit additional scrutiny. I sent an e-mail seeking clarification this morning to some of the experts at the Congressional Research Service responsible for keeping legislators informed on these issues, but haven’t yet heard back.

I’m not belaboring this because it’s inherently hugely significant whether the government has used this authority 265 times or 380. Ideally, in the coming months we’ll see a substantial narrowing of National Security Letter authority, which would predictably lead to a large increase in the number of 215 orders issued. And that would be entirely proper, since it would mean more information being sought pursuant to a judicial order rather than FBI fiat. What I do think is significant, however, is that this reminds us how little we know—and how little the vast majority of legislators know—about the use of these powers. In contrast with criminal investigative tools, these powers are entirely covert: People whose records are swept up by the government almost never learn about it, and the recipients of the orders are subject to an effectively permanent gag on speaking about them. Rulings of the secret FISA Court interpreting the scope of these authorities are never made public. Our assurance that they have been or will continue to be used properly rests entirely on the minimal required reporting to Congress and the findings of internal audits. And yet it’s hard to pin down the facts on even this most elementary factual question about 215 orders: How many times have they been used?

Despite this, we have legislators confident enough that these expanded powers are both so necessary and so well controlled that they’re advocating making them permanent. I wish I were as confident.