Tag: national security

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.

Robert Kagan for the Defense

The calls for cutting the federal budget continue to build in Congress as the new GOP members try to make good on their promise to rein in the deficit.  And, right on time, the latest issue of the Weekly Standard features an article by Robert Kagan critiquing the chorus of calls for cuts to military spending. 

I think Kagan’s critique is reasonably fair, certainly more so than others of the recent past.  But his basic premise, that national security spending is unrelated to the national debt, simply is not true.  At the The Skeptics, I address this:

It is of course true that entitlements and mandatory spending pose the greatest threat to the nation’s fiscal health, but $700+ billion [in defense spending] isn’t chump change. The question of what we should spend on the military ought to take into account the trade-offs, an argument that Dwight Eisenhower advanced in his farewell address just over 50 years ago, and that Charles Zakaib and I highlighted last week. (See also James Ledbetter’s discussion on this point.)

Actually, it is a question of fairness, but not the one that [Kagan] proposed. Because security is a core function of government (I think one of the only core functions of government), it would be a mistake to treat military spending as synonymous with spending on, say, farm subsidies. But Kagan’s writings presume that other countries’ governments do not – and should not – see their responsibilities in the same way. Kagan contends that American taxpayers should be responsible for the security of people living in Europe or East Asia or the Middle East. Or anywhere in the world, really… It simply isn’t fair to ask Americans to pay for something that other people should pay for themselves. For reference, the average American—every man, woman and child—spends two and a half times more on national security than the French or the British, five times more than citizens living in other NATO countries, and seven and a half times as much as the average Japanese.

Justin Logan is in the process of authoring a lengthier response for publication, but in the mean time click here to read the full post at The National Interest.

The Sun Never Sets on the PATRIOT Act

A year ago, the protracted wrangling in Congress over the re-authorization of several expiring provisions of the PATRIOT ACT made plenty of headlines. Most observers expected the sunsetting powers to be extended, but civil libertarians hoped serious and sorely needed reforms might be part of the package. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees held multiple hearings on the topic, and an array of competing reform and reauthorization bills (PDF) were proposed, adding extra safeguards (of varying stringency) to the greatly expanded surveillance powers Congress had approved in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

But Congress had a full plate, and so it punted—approving a straight one-year reauthorization without any modifications at the last minute. (You’d be forgiven for not noticing: The extension passed under the heading of the “Medicare Physician Payment Reform Act.”) As I
noted in December, however, the Justice Department has promised Congress that it will voluntarily adopt some of the measures that had been floated in those reform bills—which would be a fine thing in itself, but I worried that the move seemed calculated to reduce the impetus for binding legislation.

Well, I’ve just noticed—quite serendipitously, as there doesn’t appear to have been a whisper in the press—that the new House Intelligence Committee Chair, Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), has introduced yet another one-year extension, which would push the sunset of the expiring provisions back to the end of February 2012. Given the very limited number of days Congress has in session before the current deadline, and the fact that the bill’s Republican sponsor is only seeking another year, I think it’s safe to read this as signaling an agreement across the aisle to put the issue off yet again. (I’ve asked Rogers’s office for a comment and will update this post if I hear back.)

In the absence of a major scandal, though, it’s hard to see why we should expect the incentives facing legislators to be vastly different a year from now. Heck, we’ve had a pretty big scandal involving the misuse of National Security Letter powers, but even right on the heels of the Inspector General’s report documenting those abuses, the mildest reforms proffered last year died on the vine. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I suspect this is how reining in the growth of the surveillance state becomes an item perpetually on next year’s agenda.

Deficit Reduction Commission Says Military Spending Can and Must be Cut

President Obama’s Fiscal Commission’s report is out and they have wisely kept military spending on the table. Having not seen the accompanying list of specific cuts, it seems that rather than micromanage DoD’s decisions with respect to which weapons systems to cut or keep, the commissioners have laid down a different marker: find the cuts that make sense, but understand that the business-as-usual of the past decade is over.

The report fixes on a number of spending cuts and reforms that Benjamin Friedman and I call for in the Cato Policy Analysis “Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint” including cuts to the civilian workforce (see recommendation 1.10.4). They also hold fast to the proposition that all spending must be on the table, and reject out of hand the notion that military spending must be held sacrosanct. This is bad news for the “defending defense” crowd.

I am not going to comment on the Commission’s other proposals with respect to taxes, social security, health care, etc.  As for specific military spending cuts, this report is less detailed than the preliminary report issued a few weeks ago by Co-chairs Bowles and Simpson. It is appropriate, however, to task the Department of Defense with identifying additional savings (as they do in recommendation 1.11). Responsible cuts can be made if the Pentagon and the White House adopt a strategy of restraint, one that husbands American resources, focuses on a few core missions vital to U.S. national security, and requires other countries to take primary responsibility for their defense.