Tag: Security

Iraq Violence Not an Excuse for US Troops to Stay

A wave of violence spread across Iraq today with 70 dead and some 300 injured. Iraqi security forces are blaming al Qaida affiliates, but no group has officially claimed responsibility. The New York Times puts the events in context:

Coming a little less than two weeks after the Iraqi government said it would negotiate with the United States about keeping some of its 48,000 troops here after the end of the year, the violence raised significant questions about the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces.

This is indeed a tragic loss of life, but this level of violence actually has become less common and usually occurs when the Iraqi government is making important decisions on the future of the country and U.S. troop presence. Each time a bomb is detonated in Iraq, commentators argue that it proves we cannot leave Iraq yet; the job is not done.

If the job isn’t done, it should be. And soon. There will certainly be violence in Iraq for the foreseeable future, but a U.S. troop presence is not going to prevent these horrific incidents and often serves as a pretext for them. The continued violence shouldn’t obscure one unalterable fact: the Iraqis must solve their internal security problems. That, in turn, will likely require them to also solve their political problems, something that they have so far refused to do.

As Ted Galen Carpenter and Doug Bandow have explained those calling for an extended U.S. presence in Iraq base their arguments on faulty logic that is devoid of serious considerations about strategic U.S. interests in the region. The most committed of the stay longer/forever crowd hopes our presence in Iraq will resemble that of U.S. troops in South Korea or Germany. But this isn’t only a false analogy; it is based on false premises about vital U.S. interests: namely, that the U.S. government, and U.S. taxpayers, should be responsible for the security of other countries.

Those who worry about us leaving too soon/ever shouldn’t fret too much, however. Regardless of what happens in the negotiations over an extension of the U.S. troop presence, the United States will still maintain a staff of 17,000 employees (including contractors) based out of the world’s largest embassy.

Through it all, President Obama has been relatively silent. He has claimed that we are “winding down” the nation’s wars, but the prospect of tens of thousands of Americans remaining in Iraq hardly constitutes an end-game there. And no one knows what sort of long-term presence the president has in mind for Afghanistan.

President Obama won the presidency due in part to his opposition to the Iraq war at a time when most other politicians were either supportive or silent. This stand allowed him to build credibility with the American people, despite his relative lack of foreign policy experience. While other so-called experts were calling for war, he was concerned that the Iraq war was likely to undermine American and regional security, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and claim many tens of thousands of lives. Tragically, he was correct.

The combat mission may have ended, but Americans are still dying in Iraq. It is time for the President and his administration to keep the promise of ending U.S. military involvement there, and hasten the day when Iraqis are fully responsible for their own affairs.

Cross-posted from the National Interest.

Behavior Detection as Interrogation

With the Department of Homeland Security constantly spinning out new projects and programs (plus re-branded old ones) to investigate you, me, and the kitchen sink, it’s sometimes hard to keep up. But I was intrigued with a report that behvaior detection officers are getting another look from the Transportation Security Administration. Behavior detection is the unproven, and so far highly unsuccessful (Rittgers, Harper), program premised on the idea that telltale cues can reliably and cost-effectively indicate intent to do harm at airports.

But there’s a new behavior detection program already underway. Or is it interrogation?

Due to a bottleneck at the magnetometers in one concourse of the San Francisco airport (no strip-search machines!), I recently had the chance to briefly interview a Transportation Security Administration agent about a new security technique he was implementing. As each passenger reached him, he would begin to examine the traveler’s documentation and simultaneously ask the person’s last name. He confirmed to me that the purpose was to detect people who did not immediately, easily, and accurately respond. In thousands of interactions, he would quickly and naturally learn to detect obfuscation on the part of anyone carrying an ID that does not have the last name they usually use.

As a way of helping to confirm identity, it’s a straightforward and sensible technique. Almost everyone knows his or her last name, and quickly and easily repeats it. The average TSA agent with some level of experience will fluently detect people who do not quickly and easily repeat the name on the identity card they carry. The examination is done quickly. This epistemetric check (of a “something-you-know” identifier—see my book, Identity Crisis) occurs during the brief time that the documents are already getting visual examination.

Some people will not repeat their name consistent with custom, of course. The hard of hearing, speakers of foreign languages, people who are very nervous, people who have speech or other communication impediments, and another group of sufferers—recently married women—may exhibit “suspicious” failure to recite their recently changed surnames. Some of these anomalies TSA agents will quickly and easily dismiss as non-suspicious. Others they won’t, and in marginal cases they might use non-suspicious indicia like ethnicity or rudeness to adjudge someone “suspicious.”

The question whether these false positives are a problem depends on the sanction that attaches to suspicion. If a stutterer gets a gauntlet at the airport each time he or she fails to rattle off a name, the cost of the technique grows compared to the value of catching … not the small number of people who travel on false identification—the extremely small number of people who travel on false identification so as to menace air transportation.

We used this and closely related techniques, such as asking a person’s address or the DMV office where a license was issued, at the bar where I worked in college. It did pretty well to ferret out people carrying their older friends’ IDs. Part of the reason it worked well is because our expert doormen could quickly escalate to further inquiry, dismissing their own suspicions or denying entry to the bar very quickly. The cost of getting it wrong was to deny a person entry to the bar and sometimes possession of a license. These are relatively small costs to college students, unlike the many hours in time-costs to a traveler wrongly held up at the airport. According to my interview, suspicion generated this way at the airport requires a call to a supervisor, but I did not learn if secondary search is standard procedure, or if cases are handled some other way.

TSA agents are not doormen at bars, of course, and the subjects they are examining are not college kids out to get their drink on. These are government agents examining citizens, residents, and visitors to the United States as they travel for business and pleasure, often at high cost in dollars and time. The stakes are higher, and when the government uses a security technique like this, a layer of constitutional considerations joins the practical issues and security analysis.

I see three major legal issues with this new technique: Fourth Amendment search and seizure, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and Due Process. When questioning joins an ID check at the airport, it’s a deepening of a search that is already constitutionally suspect. The Fifth Amendment issues are interesting because travelers are being asked to confess through their demeanor whether they are lying or telling the truth. It would seem to cross a Fifth Amendment line and the rule against forced self-incrimination. The Due Process issues are serious and fairly straightforward. When a TSA screener makes his or her judgment that a person is not responding consistent with custom and is therefore “suspicious,” these judgement calls allow the screeners to import their prejudices. Record-keeping about suspicion generated using this technique should determine whether administration of this epistemetric check violates constitutional due process in its application.

In its constant effort to ferret out terrorist attacks on air transportation, the TSA is mustering all its imagination. Its programs raise scores of risk management issues, they create constitutional problems, and they are a challenge to our tradition of constitutionally limited government. The threat that a person will use false identification to access a plane, defeating an otherwise working watch-list sytem, to execute some attack is utterly small. At what cost in dollars and American values do we attack that tiny threat?

The founding problem is the impetuous placement of federal government agents in the role of securing domestic passenger aviation. There are areas where government is integral to securing airports, airlines, and all the rest of the country—foreign intelligence and developing leads about criminal plots, for example—but the day-to-day responsibility for securing infrastructure like airports and airplanes should be the responsibility of its owners.

If the TSA were to go away, air security measures might be similar in many respects, but they would be conducted by organizations who must keep travelers happy and safe for their living. The TSA hasn’t anything like private airports’ and airlines’ incentives to balance security with convenience, privacy, cost-savings, and all other dimensions of a satisfactory travel experience. Asking people their names at airport security checkpoints is an interesting technique, and not an ineffective one, but it should probably be scrapped because it provides so little security at a relatively great cost.

The NYT’s Weak Defense of Homeland Security Grants

Last week, the House passed a homeland security appropriations bill slashing funding for grants to states and localities. The New York Times has now noticed and unleashed an indignant editorial:

House Republicans talk tough on terrorism. So we can find no explanation — other than irresponsibility — for their vote to slash financing for eight antiterrorist programs. Unless the Senate repairs the damage, New York City and other high-risk localities will find it far harder to protect mass transit, ports and other potential targets.

The programs received $2.5 billion last year in separate allocations. The House has cut that back to a single block grant of $752 million, an extraordinary two-thirds reduction. The results for high-risk areas would be so damaging — with port and mass transit security financing likely cut by more than half — that the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King of New York, voted against the bill as “an invitation to an attack.”

Only a few months ago, Times editorials accused King of trying to “hype” and “stoke” fear of homegrown Muslim terrorism. It’s sort of touching to see them get behind his fearmongering when the beneficiaries are local firefighters, police, and other local interests.

But the editorial has trouble worse than hypocrisy. For starters, it’s light on facts. Its accounting seems to omit over $320 million in funds for local firefighters that a floor amendment put in the bill. It also fails to mention that the bill eliminates a formula that ensures that homeland security funds are distributed to every state. Because it means that counterterrorism spending is highest per-capita in rural areas where the threat from terrorism is lowest, homeland security watchers have long attacked that minimum funding provision. So while this bill would indeed cut homeland security funds going to New York, it would also mean that New York gets more of the remaining funds.

More importantly, the Times evidently did not try too hard to find an explanation for the cuts once they settled on irresponsibility, given that Republican appropriators readily offered one: the funds are wasteful. Rather than explain why they think the money is well spent (my definition of responsibility), the editorial conflates spending on security with security itself. It says the cuts will be “damaging,” but it cites only damage to the budgets of recipient agencies, not their purpose.

In fact, the threat of terrorism is so low in the United States and the efficacy of the funds in mitigating it so uncertain that the right amount of homeland security spending in most parts of the United States is none. That is especially true now that we are roughly a decade removed from the September 11 attacks, which spawned a massive increase in homeland security grant-making. That splurge was meant to bolster our ability to defend against what has proved a massively inflated threat of catastrophic terrorism; it was not meant to be a permanent subsidy to state and local governments.

New York City is uniquely threatened, but that does not mean that federal taxpayers should foot the bill. The federal government should collect intelligence on terrorists and hunt them down. Local and state officials should use that information to determine the right amount of local security spending. They have to ask whether normal policing funds, school spending, or slightly lower taxes are worth sacrificing for a new camera or chemical clean-up suit. Federal grants, because they are buried in a massive budget and partially deficit-funded, dilute our ability to perceive those tradeoffs. They also heighten fear of terrorism by encouraging state and local interests to overstate their peril to win the grants, as the editorial demonstrates.

It ends by instructing the Senate to “stand up for security over politics” and restore funding to past levels. But these decisions should be made politically. We give power over security policy to politicians — rather than leaving it exclusively to unelected bureaucrats — because these decisions are important. That is a product of design, not an accident. The notion that security is too important for politics is backwards.

Luckily, the attempt to divorce security policy from electoral politics is a pretense. The Times is engaging in politics by asking for funds. They aim to politically punish those that oppose their preferred policies. If the Senate restores most of the grant funds, as it likely will, it will do so for sound political reasons.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Government Control of Language and Other Protocols

It might be tempting to laugh at France’s ban on words like “Facebook” and Twitter” in the media. France’s Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel recently ruled that specific references to these sites (in stories not about them) would violate a 1992 law banning “secret” advertising. The council was created in 1989 to ensure fairness in French audiovisual communications, such as in allocation of television time to political candidates, and to protect children from some types of programming.

Sure, laugh at the French. But not for too long. The United States has similarly busy-bodied regulators, who, for example, have primly regulated such advertising themselves. American regulators carefully oversee non-secret advertising, too. Our government nannies equal the French in usurping parents’ decisions about children’s access to media. And the Federal Communications Commission endlessly plays footsie with speech regulation.

In the United States, banning words seems too blatant an affront to our First Amendment, but the United States has a fairly lively “English only” movement. Somehow, regulating an entire communications protocol doesn’t have the same censorious stink.

So it is that our Federal Communications Commission asserts a right to regulate the delivery of Internet service. The protocols on which the Internet runs are communications protocols, remember. Withdraw private control of them and you’ve got a more thoroughgoing and insidious form of speech control: it may look like speech rights remain with the people, but government controls the medium over which the speech travels.

The government has sought to control protocols in the past and will continue to do so in the future. The “crypto wars,” in which government tried to control secure communications protocols, merely presage struggles of the future. Perhaps the next battle will be over BitCoin, an online currency that is resistant to surveillance and confiscation. In BitCoin, communications and value transfer are melded together. To protect us from the scourge of illegal drugs and the recently manufactured crime of “money laundering,” governments will almost certainly seek to bar us from trading with one another and transferring our wealth securely and privately.

So laugh at France. But don’t laugh too hard. Leave the smugness to them.

“If He Approve, He Shall Sign It…”

The Patriot Act extension passed by Congress this week did not become the law of the land. It is void and without effect.

So may argue some future defendant whose conviction rests on evidence gotten under Patriot Act powers during the extended period Congress sought to establish in the bill it passed this week.

President Obama is at a meeting in Europe, so he had the bill signed by auto-pen. Representative Tom Graves (R-GA) has written a letter inquiring of the president whether he was presented the bill and truly intended to sign it.

Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution says:

Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it…

Is presentment and signing a quaint formality? Something to put aside in light of modern technology and time-constraints? Or is it an important step in the law-making process, to be executed quite literally without deviation from past practice?

The answer lies mostly in consideration of what a signature is, and what it does. I looked into signatures, among many other identifiers and security techniques in my book, Identity Crisis.

Wikipedia has a definition of “signature” that’s good enough: “A signature is a handwritten (and sometimes stylized) depiction of someone’s name, nickname, or even a simple ‘X’ that a person writes on documents as a proof of identity and intent.” Key words: identity and intent.

In the world of identification and security, a signature is classed as a “behavioral biometric identifier.” That is, it’s a product of a given person’s bodily action that is distinctive enough to create strong evidence of the person’s presence.

A signature does many things, and inferences spill out from the presence of a mark on paper that is sufficiently similar to other marks made by a particular person. Because it’s left on the paper, a signature indicates that the person was in the presence of the document. This means in most cases that he or she could review it and had the opportunity, barring some exigency, to affirm its accuracy and completeness. By long-standing custom, absent duress or fraud, the signature indicates the giving of one’s assent or the placing of authority behind the content of the document. A signature supplies evidence—imperfect, to be sure—that a given person approved a given document.

Does a signature by auto-pen create the same inferences? Almost none of them. To know that President Obama indeed meant to affirm the bill, one would have to investigate how he was apprised of the bill’s content. Were there security measures in place to ensure that the communication about the document and the giving of assent were not altered or forged in transit from Washington, D.C. to Europe? One would need assurance that the controller of the auto-pen applied its mark to the exact document that the president was apprised of, and that no substitute document was inserted. All these problems are solved by bringing the person with authority into the same room with the document to manually apply the signature.

I haven’t a whiff of doubt that President Obama intended to sign the bill. The authority of the president and the gravity of bill-signing are such that I’m confident security measures were in place to control the security issues noted above.

But the question in a court case dealing with the presentment and signing requirement is not what happened with this particular bill. It is what should happen in all cases to help exclude the risks of fraud and duress in law-making—with much longer bills, for example, or some future circumstance when the president’s whereabouts or capacity might be unknown.

The authority of the president and the gravity of bill-signing actually cuts the other direction: The president should be in the same room as the actual document, applying his genuine signature to the artifact of a United States public law’s creation. It’s that important a function of the presidency.

Until biometrics and encryption are good enough that we can sign our mortgages remotely, it’s not too much to ask, having the president to sign legislation in person. If a criminal or two go free in the future because of the inadequacy of the process here, it will be worth it for the small security against fraudulent passage of legislation in a future full of uncertainties.

The Pentagon Propaganda Machine Rears Its Head

Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings—yes, that Michael Hastings—has written another investigative article on U.S. operations in Afghanistan, centered again on a general in the theatre.  The revelations are perhaps more shocking than those that resulted in General Stanley McChrystal’s dismissal last summer.

His newest bombshell alleges that the U.S Army illegally engaged in “psychological operations” with the aim of manipulating various high-level U.S. government officials into believing that the war was progressing in order to gain their continued support.  The list of targets includes members of Congress, diplomats, think tank analysts, and even Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff.  Over at The Skeptics, I attempt to put this in context:

While American soldiers and Afghan civilians continue to kill and be killed in Afghanistan, the Pentagon seeks to provide the illusion of progress, systematically misrepresenting realities on the ground to bide more time, gain more troops, and acquire more funding. It’s bad enough that the American media uncritically relays statements from U.S. officials portraying “success” on the ground. Now the Pentagon is using its massive propaganda budget to blur the line between informing the public and spinning it to death. In fact, several years ago the Associated Press found that the Pentagon had spent $4.7 billion on public relations in 2009 alone, and employs 27,000 people for recruitment, advertising and public relations, nearly as many as the 30,000-person State Department. Essentially the Pentagon is trying to influence public policy and lobby civilian officials to shift policies toward their own ends while dispersing the costs onto the American taxpayer.

Luckily, it appears that Americans have come to learn that despite the media’s frequent adulation of their uniformed military, the Pentagon operates just like every other bureaucracy in the federal government. According to a poll released earlier this month by Gallup, 72 percent of Americans want Congress to speed up troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. Much like the McChrystal flap from last summer, there is a very fine line between military officials offering their honest opinion and threatening civilian control of the war.

Click here for the full post.

A Patriot Update

A few developments from a business meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee held this morning. As I noted last month the new House Intelligence Chair, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) has already introduced another one-year straight renewal without modification. Since then, Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) has introduced a bill that would renew the expiring Patriot Act surveillance provisions through 2013, but with some very basic additional safeguards and oversight requirements—many of which the Justice Department has already agreed to implement voluntarily—including most crucially added constraints and a new sunset for expanded National Security Letter powers, which have already been held at least partly unconstitutional in their current form by federal courts, and which the government’s own watchdogs have already found to be subject to widespread abuse.

Enter Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who played a key role in killing the same mild reforms last year. She’s already introduced legislation of her own, which would provide for an extension through the end of 2013, without any modifications, of not only the provisions set to expire this year, but also the highly troubling FISA Amendments Act, which in effect legalized the Bush administration’s illicit programmatic wiretapping with an added sliver of judicial oversight. Even this was not quite enough for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who announced he would introduce a bill making the expiring provisions permanent—effectively removing an important impetus to continuing oversight.

Feinstein, interestingly, purported to be theoretically supportive of Leahy’s reformist impulses, but argued that the “time crunch” created by the end-of-February sunset deadline makes this the wrong time to consider reforms. (In order to hurry things up, a Hill contact tells me, Feinstein’s bill will be fast-tracked to the floor under Senate Rule 14, circumventing the committee process.) This really makes very little sense. Leahy’s bill is essentially the same proposal reported out favorably by a bipartisan Judiciary Committee majority; the point of doing a one-year reauthorization in 2010 was supposedly to allow Congress to consider reform alternatives in the interim. Moreover, the Justice Department has already effectively agreed to accept the reforms that bill contains. If there’s nevertheless a need for further deliberation, Congress can do exactly what it did last time around and extend the sunset by a few weeks or months to allow for additional debate.

The time constraints here are wholly of Congress’ own making. And while the Leahy bill doesn’t go far enough by any means, there is just no good excuse to delay at least the beginning of needed reforms any further.