Tag: national security

Obama’s National Security Strategy: Long on Rhetoric, Short on Change

The key theme that the Obama administration wants us to take away from the National Security Strategy (PDF) is “burden sharing.” The United States, the document explains, can no longer afford to be the world’s sole policeman. We need capable and willing partners to preserve global peace and prosperity.

These are valid concerns. Unfortunately, the Obama administration lacks a vision for addressing them.

Real change can only come from a fundamental reorientation of our current approach. We need a new grand strategy predicated on restraint both at home and abroad. Instead, for all the talk of new directions, the Obama administration has given us more of the same.

In geopolitics, as in life, actions speak louder than words. So long as the United States spends nearly as much on its military as the rest of the world combined, and so long as it deploys its military in ways that discourage other countries from defending themselves, Americans will continue to shoulder the burdens of policing the planet.

In a cover letter accompanying the NSS, President Obama explains “The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone.” But they most certainly will, so long as the United States maintains a massive military oriented more towards defending others than to defending Americans.

There are common security challenges, to be sure, and many other nations in Europe and East Asia should share an interest in addressing them. They lack the capacity to do so, however, because they have diverted resources away from defense and into social welfare programs. The capabilities gap between the United States and the rest of the world will only grow wider as other countries continue to reduce force structure, cut military procurement, and short-change defense-related R&D, while the U.S. military budget climbs higher and higher.

But other countries also lack the will to play a larger global role. US policies for the past few decades have impeded such activity, and it is naive in the extreme to think that the latest round of exhortations will make a difference.

John Brennan on Countering Terrorism

Earlier today, I attended a lecture at CSIS by John Brennan, a leading counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to President Obama. His speech highlighted some of the key elements of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy, in advance of tomorrow’s release of the National Security Strategy (NSS).

I hope that many people will take the opportunity to read (.pdf) or listen to/watch Brennan’s speech, as opposed to merely reading what other people said that he said. Echoing key themes that Brennan put forward last year, also at CSIS, today’s talk reflected a level of sophistication that is required when addressing the difficult but eminently manageable problem of terrorism.

Brennan was most eloquent in talking about the nature of the struggle. He declared, with emphasis, that the United States is indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, but not at war with the tactic of terrorism, nor with Islam, a misconception that is widely held both here in the United States and within the Muslim world. He stressed the positive role that Muslim clerics and other leaders within the Muslim community have played in criticizing the misuse of religion to advance a hateful ideology, and he lamented that such condemnations of bin Laden and others have not received enough exposure in the Western media. This inadequate coverage of the debate raging within the Muslim community contributes to the mistaken impression that this is chiefly a religious conflict. It isn’t; or, more accurately, it need not be, unless we make it so.

I also welcomed Brennan’s unabashed defense of a counterterrorism strategy that placed American values at the forefront. These values include a respect for the rule of law, transparency, individual liberty, tolerance, and diversity. And he candidly stated what any responsible policymaker must: no nation can possibly prevent every single attack. In those tragic instances where a determined person slips through the cracks, the goal must be to recover quickly, and to demonstrate a level of resilience that undermines the appeal of terrorism as a tactic in the future.

I had an opportunity to ask Brennan a question about the role of communication in the administration’s counterterrorism strategy. He assured me that there was such a communications strategy, that elements of the strategy would come through in the NSS, and that such elements have informed how the administration has addressed the problem of terrorism from the outset.

This was comforting to hear, and it is consistent with what I’ve observed over the past 16 months. Members of the Obama administration, from the president on down, seem to understand that how you talk about terrorism is as important as how you disrupt terrorist plots, kill or capture terrorist leaders, and otherwise enhance the nation’s physical security. On numerous occasions, the president has stressed that the United States cannot be brought down by a band of murderous thugs. Brennan reiterated that point today. This should be obvious, and yet such comments stand in stark contrast to the apolocalytpic warnings from a few years ago of an evil Islamic caliphate sweeping across the globe.

Talking about terrorism might seem an esoteric point. It isn’t. Indeed, it is a key theme in our just released book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It. Because the object of terrorism is to terrorize, to elicit from a targeted state or people a response, and to (in the terrorists’s wildest dreams) cause the state to waste blood and treasure, or come loose from its ideological moorings, a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy should aim at building a psychologically resilient society. Such a society should possess an accurate understanding of the nature of the threat, a clear sense of what policies or measures are useful in mitigating that threat, and an awareness of how overreaction does the terrorists’s work for them. The true measure of a resilient society, one that isn’t in thrall to the specter of terrorism, is the degree to which it can conduct an adult conversation about the topic.

We aren’t there yet, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and by what I heard today.

Every Time I Say “Terrorism,” the Patriot Act Gets More Awesome

Can I send Time magazine the bill for the new crack in my desk and the splinters in my forehead? Because their latest excretion on the case of Colleen “Jihad Jane” LaRose and its relation to Patriot Act surveillance powers is absolutely maddening:

The Justice Department won’t say whether provisions of the Patriot Act were used to investigate and charge Colleen LaRose. But the FBI and U.S. prosecutors who charged the 46-year-old woman from Pennsburg, Pa., on Tuesday with conspiring with terrorists and pledging to commit murder in the name of jihad could well have used the Patriot Act’s fast access to her cell-phone records, hotel bills and rental-car contracts as they tracked her movements and contacts last year. But even if the law’s provisions weren’t directly used against her, the arrest of the woman who allegedly used the moniker “Jihad Jane” is a boost for the Patriot Act, Administration officials and Capitol Hill Democrats say. That’s because revelations of her alleged plot may give credibility to calls for even greater investigative powers for the FBI and law enforcement, including Republican proposals to expand certain surveillance techniques that are currently limited to targeting foreigners.

Sadly, this is practically a genre resorted to by lazy writers whenever a domestic terror investigation is making headlines. It consists of indulging in a lot of fuzzy speculation about how the Patriot Act might have been crucial—for all we know!—to a successful  investigation, even when every shred of available public evidence suggests otherwise.  My favorite exemplar of this genre comes from a Fox News piece penned by journalist-impersonator Cristina Corbin after the capture of some Brooklyn bomb plotters last spring, with the bold headline: “Patriot Act Likely Helped Thwart NYC Terror Plot, Security Experts Say.” The actual article contains nothing to justify the headline: It quotes some lawyers saying vague positive things about the Patriot Act, then tries to explain how the law expanded surveillance powers, but mostly botches the basic facts.  From what we know thanks to the work of real reporters,  the initial tip and the key evidence in that case came from a human infiltrator who steered the plotters to locations that had been physically bugged, not new Patriot tools.

Of course, it may well be that National Security Letters or other Patriot powers were invoked at some point in this investigation—the question is whether there’s any good reason to suspect they made an important difference. And that seems highly dubious. LaRose’s indictment cites the content of private communications, which probably would have been obtained using a boring old probable cause warrant—and the standard for that is far higher than for a traditional pen/trap order, which would have enabled them to be getting much faster access to more comprehensive cell records. Maybe earlier on, then, when they were compiling the evidence for those tools?  But as several reports on the investigation have noted, “Jihad Jane” was being tracked online by a groups of anti-jihadi amateurs some three years ago. As a member of one group writes sarcastically on the site Jawa Report, the “super sekrit” surveillance tool they used to keep abreast of LaRose’s increasingly disturbing activities was… Google. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the FBI could’ve handled this one with pre-Patriot authority, and a fortiori with Patriot authority restrained by some common-sense civil liberties safeguards.

What’s a little more unusual is to see this segue into the kind of argument we usually see in the wake of an intelligence failure, where the case is then seen as self-evidently justifying still more intrusive surveillance powers, in this case the expansion of the “lone wolf” authority currently applicable only to foreigners, allowing extraordinarily broad and secretive FISA surveillance to be conducted against people with no actual ties to a terror group or other “foreign power.” Yet as Time itself notes:

In fact, Justice Department terrorism experts are privately unimpressed by LaRose. Hers was not a particularly threatening plot, they say, and she was not using any of the more challenging counter-surveillance measures that more experienced jihadis, let alone foreign intelligence agents, use.

Which, of course, is a big part of the reason we have a separate system for dealing with agents of foreign powers: They are typically trained in counterintelligence tradecraft with access to resources and networks far beyond those of ordinary nuts. What possible support can LaRose’s case provide for the proposition that these industrial-strength tools should now be turned on American citizens?  They caught her—and without much trouble, by the looks of it. Sure, this domestic nut may have invoked to Islamist ideology rather than the commands of Sam the Dog or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories… but so what? She’s still one more moderately dangerous unhinged American in a country that has its fair share, and has been dealing with them pretty well under the auspices of Title III for a good while now.

Sacrificing Liberties in the Name of Security

The new Justice Department Inspector General report finds that the FBI broke the law in seeking phone records.  Reports Jacob Sullum of Reason magazine:

In a report (PDF) issued today, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine shows that the FBI routinely broke the law for several years by demanding telephone records through informal methods that were not authorized by statute. The abuses, which involved thousands of records, are especially striking because it is not very hard for the FBI to obtain this information legally. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) allows the bureau to demand records from phone companies through a “national security letter” (NSL) signed by the director or an official he designates. Under FBI policy, any special agent in charge can sign an NSL, which simply states that the records sought are “relevant to an authorized investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”

In 2003 FBI officials began dodging this minimal requirement by asking telecommunications carriers to suppy records without the legally required NSL “due to exigent circumstances” and promising to provide an NSL after the fact. These so-called exigent letters, which were often used when no emergency actually existed, were an extralegal contrivance that violated ECPA, bureau policy, and guidelines issued by the attorney general. The retroactive NSLs promised by the exigent letters often failed to appear because there was no authorized investigation to which they could be linked. To fix that problem, FBI officials resorted to another illegal procedure, issuing “blanket” NSLs tied to no particular investigation.

Even these pseudolegalities look downright upright next to the FBI’s other informal methods of obtaining records, which included requests by email, phone, post-it note, and in-person oral communication as well as “sneak peeks,” which were about as legitimate as they sound. The failure to follow the established NSL process is legally significant because ECPA prohibits telecom companies from disclosing customer records to the government except in specified circumstances. One of them is not when an FBI agent shows up at your office and says, “Mind if I take a look at that?”

The targets of the FBI’s illegal record grabs are unknown, with one major exception. “Some of the most troubling improper requests for telephone records,” the inspector general’s report notes, “occurred in media leak cases, where the FBI sought and acquired reporters’ telephone toll billing records and calling activity information without following federal regulation or obtaining the required Attorney General approval.” In 2008 FBI Director Robert Mueller apologized for the bureau’s improper snooping on foreign correspondents for The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Obviously, federal agencies require investigative authority to combat terrorism and other crimes.  But those investigations need to be conducted in accordance with the law and Constitution.  We must never forget that it is a free society which we are defending.

Helping the Haitians

The tragedy unfolding in Haiti has elicited an outpouring of sympathy, and it is hardly surprising that governments and NGOs from all over the globe are mobilizing resources to aid in recovery. Help is flowing to the shattered island: teams trained in rescue operations, emergency medical services, security personnel, and financial aid. This type of assistance will likely continue for some time.

The U.S. military is also involved. Several Navy and Coast Guard vessels shipped out almost immediately. A few thousand Marines are helping to restore order, and more might soon be on the way. Such a ground presence makes sense, provided that the mission is carefully defined, and the long-term expectations are tempered by a dose of humility. The United States has, after all, intervened repeatedly in Haiti, and it remains the poorest country in the hemisphere. One might even conclude that our interventions have contributed to Haiti’s chronic problems, a consideration which should give pause to those calling for the United States to commit to a long-term project to fix the country.

One can make an argument against sending military assets to deal with such crises. A nation’s military is designed and built for one purpose – to defend the nation – and when it is deployed for missions that do not serve that narrow purpose there is a risk that the institutions will be rendered less capable of responding to genuine threats. I question the wisdom of humanitarian intervention on those grounds in my book, The Power Problem, stipulating, among other things, that the U.S. military should be sent abroad only when vital U.S. interests are at stake.

All that said, President Obama’s decision to swiftly deploy U.S. personnel to Haiti is appropriate on at least two grounds. First, sending troops into harm’s way – and usually into the middle of a civil conflict, as we did in the Balkans and in Iraq – is very different from mobilizing our formidable military assets to ameliorate suffering after a natural disaster. The latter types of interventions are less likely to engender the ire of the people on the losing end (and there always are losers). Humanitarian missions are also less likely to arouse the suspicion of neighbors who might question the intervener’s intentions. Indeed, there was a measurable outpouring of support and goodwill toward the United States after the Bush administration deployed U.S. military personnel in and around Indonesia following the horrific tsunami of late 2004. Genuine humanitarian missions, “armed philanthropy” as MIT’s Barry Posen calls it, are likely to be far less costly than armed regime change/nation-building missions that must contend with insurgents intent on taking their country back from the foreign occupier.

Another important consideration is a country’s interests in its respective region. Humanitarian crises, even those whose effects are confined within a particular country’s borders, often pose a national security threat to neighboring states. What has happened in Haiti over the past 48 hours might meet that criteria, but the White House’s immediate motivations seem purely altruistic. My frustration is that the U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War of actively discouraging other countries from defending themselves ensures that they will have little to offer when a similar natural disaster occurs in their own backyard, which means that the U.S. military is expected to act – even when our own interests are not at stake.

But that is a discussion for another time. The scale of the tragedy in nearby Haiti cries out for swift action, and I am pleased to see that many organizations – both public and private – have stepped forward to help. I wish these efforts well.

Terrorism and Security Systems

Terrorism presents a complex set of security problems. That’s easy to see in the welter of discussion about the recent attempted bombing on a plane flying from Amsterdam into Detroit. The media and blogs are poring over the many different security systems implicated by this story. Unfortunately, many are reviewing them all at once, which is very confusing.

Each security system aimed to protect against terror attacks and other threats involves difficult and complex balancing among many different interests and values. Each system deserves separate consideration, along with analysis of how they interact with one another.

A helpful way to unpack security is by thinking in terms of “layers.” Calling it security “layering” is a way of describing the many different practices and technologies that limit threats to the things we prize. (It’s another lens on security, compatible with the risk management framework I laid out shortly after the Fort Hood shooting.)

Let’s think about some of the security layers deployed to protect people on airplanes against someone like the individual who sought to bomb this flight into Detroit. There are many different security layers. Examining how they worked or failed positions us to tune our security systems better for the future.

It would make sense to start with the security measure that ultimately ceased the attack—human intervention—and move out layer-by-layer from there. But we should actually start by pondering what course events might have followed if the attack hadn’t been thwarted when it was.

The design of airplanes is a security layer that this event did not implicate. Few people are aware that planes are designed to survive damage—even significant damage—and still remain aloft. The seat assignment of this would-be bomber comes into play here, of course. Did he seek out a seat along the wing intending to damage fuel tanks, or was it just a chance assignment? We don’t know yet.

Depending on how events might have unfolded in the event of an actual blast, various other layers may have come into play: pilot training, other design elements of the plane like redundant controls, availability of first aid equipment, flight crew training, and so on.

The good news—worth stating again because much commentary overlooks it—is that this plot failed.

The security layer we credit most for its failure is the direct intervention of other passengers. People who discuss only government programs or policies overlook an important, forceful, and highly adaptive security layer: empowered individuals. We should not prefer to rely on this kind of human intervention, of course—it kicks in far too late for comfort. But it is there, and in this case it worked.

Next, there is weapons detection. The consensus is strong that this layer failed, but this layer did some work, which also shouldn’t be overlooked.

To get it past anticipated security checks, the “bomb” had to be modified in a way that ultimately reduced it to a far less dangerous incendiary device. It wasn’t human intervention alone, but the combination of the weapons detection layer and the human layer that foiled the plot.

Nonetheless, given the consensus that weapons detection failed outright, it is likely that millimeter wave scanning (aka “strip-search machines”) will see broader adoption in air security, trumping privacy concerns that had dealt it some setbacks.

Another layer—more clearly a failure—was the watch list/no-fly list system (or systems). Watch-lists are porous when they’re at their best: They can only catch people already known to be threats, and then only those who are accurately identified at the airport.

Secretary Napolitano originally said that there wasn’t specific derogatory information to justify placing this person on a no-fly list, but unfolding reporting suggests that this was not the case. I agree that watch-listing failed, but I struggle to imagine how it could actually succeed. What general rule, administered on the scale required, could properly deny boarding to genuine attackers without unacceptably denying travel to thousands and thousands of non-attackers every year? Making sense of watch-listing is difficult, and it’s no surprise to me that this security layer failed.

A sibling layer is visa management. Unlike the last-minute decision whether or not to allow a person onto a plane, visa applications can be examined with some leisure, using not only lists of derogatory information but also information gathered from applicants and other sources.

Foreign nationals have no right to enter the United States, and the decision to exclude people seems well placed at this layer compared to last-minute use of watch-lists or no-fly lists.  By comparison to authorities in the UK, who evidently excluded him, it appears to have been error to allow the Detroit bomb plotter to have kept his U.S. visa. This is yet another security issue deserving investigation.

Other security layers, of course, include whatever intelligence  might have been picked up in Yemen and whatever actions might have been taken in light of it.

Are there more layers of security to examine? Undoubtedly there are.

One of interest to me might be called the “strategic layer”—steps to deny terrorists the strategic gains they seek. It is unclear what goal, if any, the Detroit bomb plotter had, but  U.S. National War College professor of strategy Audrey Kurth Cronin identifies a number of “strategies of leverage” terrorism seeks to exploit.

Terrorists are weak actors, unable to muster conventional forces that threaten a state directly. So they try to use the power of the states they attack to achieve their aims. Provocation is an example—getting a state to overreact and undercut its own legitimacy. Polarization is another: Most often in domestic contexts, terror attacks can drive wedges among different ethnic, religious, or cultural groups, destabilizing the state and society.

Mobilization is the strategy of leverage most likely at play here—seeking to recruit and rally the masses to a cause. There’s no argument that this alienated loner is an articulate strategist, of course, but his attack could signal the importance of terrorism to a worldwide audience, making terrorism more attractive to opponents of U.S. power.

Even a failed attack could send such a signal if U.S. government authorities allow it. I wrote in an earlier post how their reactions will dictate the “success” or “failure” of this attack as terrorism.

As to the strategic layer, I believe that, amid programmatic and policy failures, President Obama is due credit for his handling of communications. It was very pleasing to see a Washington Post story Monday headlined: “Obama Addresses Airline Security in Low-Key Fashion.” He is obligated to respond to domestic demands for communication, of course, but declining to exalt terrorism and this incident should not earn him demerits. It should earn him applause.

The alternative—hustling the president of the United States in front of cameras to make incautious statements—would send an unfortunate signal to the world: Any young man, from anywhere across the globe, can poke the president of the United States in the eye, even if his attack on a U.S. target fails. Such a message would invite more terrorist acts.

Attacks not mounted aren’t measured, of course, but attacks would likely increase if it appeared that attacking the U.S. and its interests could visibly fluster the U.S. president. The discipline shown by the White House during this event is an important contribution to our security from the next attack. Politicians beneath President Obama’s grade should take a lesson and control their reactions as well.

Next, I hope to see communications that subtly and appropriately portray the underwear bomb plotter as the loser that he is. I have declined to use his name, because this wretch should go namelessly to oblivion. And I am pleased to see that U.S. authorities have released an image of his underwear, half-suspecting that this was done to help make his legacy the indignity of being beaten by Americans and having his underwear displayed to the world. 

I am also pleased to see him called the “underwear bomber” in some news reports. I would call him the “underwear bomb plotter” because he only managed to light a fire. This is not to trivialize the attack, but to diminish the standing of the person who committed it. People around the world who might consider terrorism are watching how we react to this event, and I want no one to believe that following in the footsteps of the underwear bomb plotter is a good idea.

Let’s also observe that the plane he would have brought down bore innocent women and children. Among them likely were many good Muslim people. Had he succeeded, he would have added to the count of orphaned children in the world. This is not someone to emulate, and official communications should be sounding these themes if they aren’t already.

Given how difficult it is to physically foreclose all vectors of attack while maintaining our society as open and free, strategic communications like this—to deny terrorists the rhetorical gains they seek from us—are very important. Portraying this person as a wrongheaded failure is part of the strategic layer in our security, far preferable to treating him as a diabolical anti-hero.

This incomplete discussion is intended only to illustrate the many different security layers at issue in the underwear bomb plot. Thoughtful readers will undoubtedly find gaps and misstatements in this discussion based on more precise facts and better technical or programmatic knowledge than I have.

Thankfully, we have an opportunity to learn about our security from this failed attack. Had it succeeded, it appears that our society remains ill-equipped to maintain an even keel. The intensity of commentary and analysis on this event shows that a successful terrorist would likely knock us off our game. The impulse to do something—anything—would overwhelm us, and we would likely overreact by retaliating imprecisely, by pouring our energy into security measures that don’t actually work, and so on. Such missteps are congenial to terrorism, and we should try to avoid them.