Tag: national security

In Search of a Syria Strategy: Event (April 30th)

On April 30th, Cato will host an event exploring the future of the Syrian conflict, with particular emphasis on the role of the United States. Fighting in Syria recently entered its fifth year, and there is no clear end in sight. The conflict has resulted in an estimated 191,000 deaths and has produced more than 9.5 million refugees.

The civil war is chaotic. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of rebel groups currently operating in Syria, many of whom have devoted more time to fighting each other than the regime. Foreign funding and weapons flow freely to all sides. The rise of ISIS and its spread to Iraq, along with the increasing prominence of other extremist groups like al Nusra has further complicated the situation. This map, recently released by the Department of Defense, illustrates some of the complexity:

DoD Map of Syria and Iraq


American involvement in Syria was minimal prior to September 2014, when the Obama administration initiated airstrikes to ‘degrade and destroy’ ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This campaign is ongoing, and the United States is also funding and training Syrian rebels to fight against ISIS. 

You Could Have Read It Here First

If you’ve been reading Cato at Liberty and www.cato.org, then you already know, as the lead story in the Washington Post reported this morning, that both the constitutionality and the necessity of the NSA’s massive surveillance are in doubt:

From the moment the government’s massive database of citizens’ call records was exposed this year, U.S. officials have clung to two main lines of defense: The secret surveillance program was constitutional and critical to keeping the nation safe.

But six months into the controversy triggered by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the viability of those claims is no longer clear.

In a three-day span, those rationales were upended by a federal judge who declared that the program was probably unconstitutional and the release of a report by a White House panel utterly unconvinced that stockpiling such data had played any meaningful role in preventing terrorist attacks.

More Terrorism Isn’t Necessarily More Danger

Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mike Rogers (R-Mich) made news Sunday when they both insisted on CNN that the terrorist threat to Americans has grown in the last couple of years. Feinstein’s evidence: “The statistics indicate that, the fatalities are way up.” Rogers agrees and argues that al Qaeda has been “metastasizing” into more groups that engage in smaller attacks.

It’s true that global terror attacks and fatalities increased in 2011 and 2012, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. And, several new jihadist groups have emerged of late. But, as Marian Tupy showed here Monday, the fact remains that terrorism has for decades been becoming less deadly.

We should also be skeptical that the recent increase in terrorism means more danger for Americans. The cause of terrorism’s recent increase is civil wars and political unrest in Africa, the Middle-East and South Asia, where the vast majority of recent terrorist attacks have occurred.

Meanwhile, terrorists killed fifteen, seventeen, and ten private U.S. citizens (that is, non-military) in 2010, 2011, 2012, respectively. That means the danger to Americans either did not grow or that they mostly avoided it.

The real problem then is not al Qaeda, but the fractured political order in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria and the like. Feinstein is conflating those problems to frighten us. As John Mueller notes:

When terrorism becomes really extensive, we generally no longer call it terrorism, but war. But people are mainly concerned about random terror, not sustained warfare.

Rogers’ claim that the al Qaeda threat is “metastasizing” into smaller, deadlier cells resembles old arguments that al Qaeda was a hierarchical organization that cleverly decentralized when the gig was up in Afghanistan. But as I explained at greater length here, even in its 1990s heyday, al Qaeda was a fragmented and unmanageable movement.

Its scattered remnant in Pakistan controls little locally and less abroad. Its “affiliates” are either bunches of guys with little capability or Islamist insurgents trading on the name’s cachet to organize their corner of a rebellion. Most of those insurgents target local enemies, not Americans. Those tragic struggles do not necessarily threaten U.S. security.

The fact that the jihadists that do target Americans are now focused on small-scale attacks is a consequence of their limited ability to pull off complex plots. And even the simpler sorts have mostly failed. Given the devastation our leaders tell us to expect from al Qaeda, what Rogers calls metastasis seems like good news.

Are We Safer?

The leaders of the congressional intelligence committees say that the United States is not safer today than in recent years.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview aired Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union that terrorism is up worldwide and the United States needs to be vigilant to combat the growing threats.

CNN’s Candy Crowley kicked off her sit-down interview, asking, “Are we safer now than we were a year ago, two years ago?”

“I don’t think so,” Feinstein replied. “I think terror is up worldwide, the statistics indicate that. The fatalities are way up. The numbers are way up.” Rogers concurred. “I absolutely agree that we’re not safer today … the pressure on our intelligence services to get it right to prevent an attack are enormous. And it’s getting more difficult.”

The recent uptick in terrorism reminds us of the need to remain vigilant. But it is also important to keep in mind long term trends. Below are two graphs generated by Cato’s new website, www.humanprogress.org, using Harvard University Professor Steven Pinker’s data. According to Pinker, there has been a sustained downward trend in deaths from terrorism.


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.