Tag: terrorism

Rand Paul and Jim Webb on Congress’s Abdication of Foreign Policy Power

John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA director displayed Congress’s disinterest in checking the president’s runaway security powers. Two months ago, when I wrote an article with the unwieldy title, “Will Obama’s Brennan Pick Shed Some Much Needed Light on Drones?” I wouldn’t have guessed that the answer would be yes; it will bestir Congress to finally force the administration to say clearly that it does not reserve the right to kill Americans at home with drone strikes, insofar as they are not engaged in combat. That statement came only thanks to whomever leaked the Justice Department’s summary memo on the topic, Brennan and Attorney General Eric Holder’s impolitic reluctance to articulate limits on the president’s power to kill Americans by calling them terrorists, and, of course, Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) resulting filibuster. The Senate predictably left Brennan’s other sins against civil liberties mostly unexamined. 

Paul’s hard-won “toehold of constitutionality” isn’t much to cheer about, even if we add to the spoils the administration’s vague agreement to be more open about its legal rationale for placing people on kill lists. This minimal defense of civil liberties and congressional privilege is what got Republican senators like Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz, Jr. of Texas, who seem to support unfettered executive discretion to kill in the name of counterterrorism outside the United States, to support the filibuster. 

Even that was too much restraint for the neoconservative right. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) read on the Senate floor a Wall Street Journal editorial calling Paul’s effort a stunt meant to “fire up impressionable libertarian kids” and assuring us that those targeted by drones here or abroad will be “enemy combatants.” McCain and the Journal spectacularly miss Paul’s point: the issue is whether the president should make that designation, chucking due process rights, without being checked by another branch of government. 

As McCain amigo Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) noted, the Republican caucus’ flirtation with civil libertarianism seems a situational consequence of partisanship. The same goes for Democrats. Were it President McCain doing what Obama is, far more than two Democratic senators (Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Pat Leahy of Vermont) would have voted against Brennan. During his filibuster, Paul asked what happened to the Senator Obama of 2007, who opposed torture and war by executive fiat. Paul suggests that those views were products of Obama’s then circumstance: not being president. Even that may be too generous. As I wrote in a recent book review concerning Obama’s counterterrorism record, “even when he took office, there was ample evidence that his dovish positions would not outlast their political convenience.” 

We can hope, I suppose, that Paul’s stance will increase Congress’s willingness to assert its constitutional war powers. Although he did not, as far as I know, propose specific restrictions on the use of military force outside of the United States, Paul did complain that the 2001 Authorization of Military Force against the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks and those that harbored them has become a permanent warrant for almost limitless executive war powers, a kind of escape hatch from the Constitution opened by presidential utterance of the word “terrorist.”

Homeland Security Grants: Subsidizing Dystopia with Your Tax Dollars

My Washington Examiner column this week focuses on an important new study from the office of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK): “Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in U.S. Cities.”  If you’ve read any of the ample media coverage the report’s received, you may have heard that DHS grants have gone toward 13 sno-cone machines for terror-warriors in Michigan, a latrine on wheels for Fort Worth, Texas, a $100,000 underwater robot for Columbus, Ohio, and a Halloween “zombie apocalypse” demonstration at a swank resort outside San Diego.

But, as I argue in the Examiner,

the media focus on “waste, fraud, and abuse” misses a graver problem with DHS’s decade-long spending spree. Sno-cone machines and “zombie apocalypse” parties aren’t the worst things DHS is underwriting. We ought to worry more about the proliferation of surveillance cameras, mobile biometric scanners, armored personnel carriers and police drones.

The useless projects DHS funds are far less troubling than the ones that can be used to harm Americans’ privacy and liberty—and Coburn’s report is replete with examples of the latter.

Just today the Daily noted another troubling DHS project: “Government officials are quietly installing sophisticated audio surveillance systems on public buses across the country to eavesdrop on passengers…. Linked to video cameras already in wide use, the microphones will offer a formidable new tool for security and law enforcement. With the new systems, experts say, transit officials can effectively send an invisible police officer to transcribe the individual conversations of every passenger riding on a public bus.” The Daily notes, unsurprisingly, “In San Francisco, the Department of Homeland Security is funding the entire cost with a grant.”

It’s a mistake to look at DHS grants simply through the prism of government waste—as if what’s going on here is of a piece with $500 toilet seats and bridges to nowhere.  The costs of this unthinking slide toward a militarized, high-tech Idiocracy can’t be measured in budgetary terms alone.

More highlights from Coburn’s report after the jump:

Coburn also notes the use of DHS funds for police purchases of “Long Range Acoustic Device” crowd-control weapons:

originally developed for use by the military as a nonlethal way to repel adversaries, including Iraqi insurgents or pirates, by making a loud and intense sound that is capable of damaging hearing. Law enforcement agencies have purchased LRAD machines for purposes that include crowd control and issuing message and alerts across vast distances, though its use in terror-related preparedness is questionable.

In 2009, the Pittsburgh police department used its LRAD machine to disperse a crowd that was protesting the G-20 summit….
In 2009, the San Diego County Sheriff stationed its LRAD device at the town-hall meetings of Rep. Darryl Issa (R-CA), Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), which drew conservative and liberal protestors. The San Diego sheriff’s stated that the LRADs were in place so they “could use the LRAD in place of pepper spray” if there were problem at the event, which there was not.

… Mobile Fingerprinting Devices:

The Fairfax County Police Department in Virginia,
part of the National Capital Region around
Washington, D.C., spent nearly $12 million to upgrade
its automated fingerprinting system called NOVARIS
and purchased mobile devices for use by officers in the
field. Digital fingerprinting had been in place for
Fairfax police since the early 1980’s, but the county
applied for, and won, UASI funds to purchase a new
state-of-the-art system, that would also help it
coordinate with neighboring counties. “Since it was
due for an upgrade, we took the opportunity to use the
UASI grant funds to refresh the system,” explained Alan Hanson with the department.
Hanson explained that the equipment “is used most often in a voluntary capacity” in situations where people are stopped but do not have identification.

…Armored Personnel Carriers:

police departments are arming themselves with military assets often reserved for war zones. One California resident observed as much when officials in Carlsbad—a city with one of the state’s lowest crime rates—expressed interest in using DHS funds to buy a BearCat: “What we’re really talking about here is a tank, and if we’re at the point where every small community needs a tank for protection, we’re in a lot more trouble as a state than I thought.”….

Fargo, a town which “has averaged fewer than 2 homicides per year since 2005” bought a “new $256,643 armored truck, complete with a rotating [gun] turret” using homeland security funds. Fargo Police Lieutenant Ross Renner acknowledges that Fargo “[does not] have every-day threats here when it comes to terrorism.”

…and “Drones: Patrolling the Skies Like Never Before”:

In Texas, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department successfully acquired a $300,000 Vanguard’s ShadowHawk drone fully paid with UASI dollars. Vanguard, located near Montgomery County, approached the sheriff’s department about procuring one of its unmanned systems, according to Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel. In fact, Vanguard helped the Sheriff’s department write “a winning grant proposal that allowed the entire cost of acquisition, training, insurance, and maintenance for a period two years to be absorbed in an Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grant.”

Do read the whole thing.

Why the United States Might Never Leave Afghanistan

In autumn 2001, America’s initial purpose in Afghanistan—which made perfect sense—was to destroy or incapacitate al Qaeda and punish the Taliban government that hosted it. This was accomplished 11 years ago. Today, the purpose of the U.S. mission is ill-defined, but clearly involves nation building. What the coalition desperately needs is an achievable, realistic endgame, not an indefinite timeline that commits thousands of U.S. troops to Afghanistan until or beyond 2024.

A common argument is that America and its allies must create an effective Afghan state that can rule the country and prevent the return of the Taliban and, by extension, al Qaeda. Aside from the fact that al Qaeda can exist anywhere, from Hamburg to Los Angeles, it’s not at all clear that the coalition can either eradicate the Taliban or come close to creating an effective Afghan state.

As a Department of Defense Report declared earlier this year, “The Taliban-led insurgency remains adaptive and determined with a significant regenerative capacity, and retains the capability to emplace substantial numbers of [improvised explosive devices] and conduct isolated high-profile attacks that disproportionately field a sense of insecurity.”

Arguments that the coalition must eradicate the Taliban lose sight of what the term “insurgency” actually means. Guerillas typically fight when the opportunity is ripe. They can melt easily into a population, making it difficult for conventional troops to distinguish friend from foe. Combined with the Afghan insurgency’s ability to retreat to sanctuaries in Pakistan, coalition gains can be quickly undone by such systemic factors that make insurgents resilient. Additionally, reporters Dexter Filkins and Kelly Vlahos provide excellent analyses that draw out the ethnic divisions and political factionalism posed by Afghan warlords, many of whom are regrouping and could potentially touch off a civil war in the years ahead.

As for the common contention that America must stay until Afghans can police and govern themselves, the current state of Afghan institutions ensure that it would take a decade or more before coalition forces could withdraw, with little promise of success.

detailed report released last year by the Commission on Wartime Contracting found that the U.S. government contracted for dozens of clinics, barracks, hospitals, and other facilities that exceed Afghan funding capabilities. For instance, the $82 million Afghan Defense University will cost $40 million a year to operate, which is well beyond the Afghan government’s financial capacity to sustain, according to DoD officials. Long-term operations, maintenance, and sustainment costs for the Afghan National Security Forces could continue through 2025. Similar findings were uncovered by auditors at the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

The expectation is that the United States will maintain a presence of some 10,000 personnel in Afghanistan after 2014, while the World Bank estimates that Afghanistan will need $3.9 billion a year through 2024 for economic development. Ironically, when foreign policy planners in Washington make clear that they never intend to abandon Afghanistan, it’s their ambition to create a centralized state that will perpetuate that country’s dependency on foreigners.

DHS Fusion Centers: Small Part of Homeland Security Waste

Fusion centers are “pools of ineptitude, waste and civil liberties intrusions.” That’s the Washington Post’s summary of a report, two years in the making, released Tuesday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigation.

With all due respect to the Senate investigators, who did thorough and commendable work here, it does not take two years and 140 pages to reach their conclusion. Along with the ACLU, Cato scholars have made similar arguments for years.

Fusion centers grew from the revelation in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks that federal security agencies, states governments, and local law enforcement were failing to share information about terrorists. Although the attacks resulted as much from the difficulty of distinguishing pertinent information from the rest as from impediments in information-sharing, it was reasonable to address the second problem. But whether that required physical spaces devoted to information sharing—let alone the 70-plus of them we now have spread across the country—is another story.

The wisdom of that spasm of bureaucratic creation turned largely on the truth of the official insistence in the panicky aftermath of the attacks that the United States was rife with thousands of hidden al Qaeda operatives and that mass casualty attacks would occur with the regularity of extreme hurricanes. Predictably, there weren’t enough terrorists to go around. And it doesn’t take Max Weber to see that their dearth wouldn’t cause the searchers to slacken their efforts. Fusion centers became a classic solution in search of a problem.

One way to justify fusion centers was to expand their enemy to “all hazards.” A second was to exaggerate the terrorist menace, for example by insisting that its quiescence indicated that it was not weak or absent, but well-hidden and patient (note: the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, especially when you are searching a lot; it’s just not proof of absence). Of course, advocates overstated the fusion centers’ contribution to terrorism arrests. And even without arrests, they could conflate activity with success, by pointing to, for example, leads pursued and cases opened as if they were security itself. That last technique continues today in the pushback  to the Senate report.

Keep in mind that fusion centers, which cost federal taxpayers at most a few hundred million a year, are symptoms of a larger problem. The entire national security apparatus has grown by leaps and bounds since 2001 thanks to a threat that has, thankfully, proved vastly weaker than most thought.

Foreign Policy Won’t Win the Election

Mitt Romney’s speech at the Clinton Global Initiative is not going to help him win the election. If he continues wasting time trying to move the needle on foreign policy, he is likely to lose.

The neoconservatives are giving Gov. Romney bad advice. They have repeatedly trashed him on background in the media for not paying enough attention to foreign policy, claiming that focusing on it more would help him win. The facts are not on their side.

If Romney wanted to win the election based on a foreign policy bump, he would have two tasks before him: to make foreign policy a salient issue, and to make voters prefer him on that issue. On the first task, in every poll asking for voters’ top priority, foreign policy/war/terrorism comes in under five percent. However much GOP foreign policy people don’t like it, this election will turn on the economy.

Second, voters prefer Obama to Romney by 15 percent on foreign policy generally, and by 11 percent specifically on foreign policy in the Middle East. Even after the Obama administration’s poor handling of the violence in Egypt and Libya, voters preferred Obama’s response over the Romney camp’s demagoguery by a margin of 45 to 26.

Focusing on foreign policy will not win Romney the election. And if he loses, as in 2008, the Republicans will have the neoconservatives to blame. Whether they would choose to accept the lesson of 2008 and 2012 is another question altogether.

The Deadly Violence, Protests in Libya, Egypt

Virulent identity politics are swirling across post-revolutionary North Africa, as seen on full display in Libya and Egypt. Some reports now point to a pro-al Qaeda group or other extremist elements as responsible for the attack in Libya, planned in advance and unrelated to the anti-Islam video. The protestors in Libya may have been acting separately. There are still many unknown details.

But the idea that a derogatory and clownish internet video justifies mob violence or murder can only be described as barbaric.

The U.S. government should make crystal clear to its Libyan and Egyptian counterparts that if they wish to have any relationship, let alone a functional relationship, with the United States in the future, we expect the perpetrators of these acts to be brought to justice swiftly and for sufficient measures to be undertaken to ensure they cannot be repeated. Apologies are not enough.

For its part, the United States needs to figure out what went wrong in terms of operational security, and how the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed and the Cairo embassy overrun. The past 10 years have blurred the line between warfighters and diplomats, but this experience is a reminder that the two are still distinct.

Finally, although their rights to free speech are sacrosanct and must be defended by all means possible, the filmmakers ought to consider the dangerous game that they are playing. The filmmaker’s statement to the Wall Street Journal that he raised $5 million from 100 Jewish donors to make the film threatens to fuel hatred, and a consultant to the film’s admission that “we went into this knowing this was probably going to happen” are both cold comfort to the deceased’s families and reminders that possession of a right is not an argument for the prudence of every possible exercise of that right.

The United States is a free society in which free speech is respected, but not every American enjoys every exercise of that right. The work of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe infuriated and offended millions of Americans, but the right to free speech was protected and survived. One hopes that this standard can be reached by the citizens and governments of Libya and Egypt soon.

What 9/11 Should Teach Us

As a fan of comedian Dennis Miller, I was astonished to discover that he became a supporter of U.S. government policies in fighting terrorism after the September 11th attacks. Perhaps I am in the minority on this issue, but the 9/11 attacks were what helped to erode my faith in government.

Few people bring this up, but in 2004, a CIA Inspector General report found a number of weaknesses in the Intelligence Community’s pre-9/11 counterterrorism practices, many of which “contributed to performance lapses related to the handling of materials concerning individuals who were to become the 9/11 hijackers.” Two al Qaeda terrorists who later became 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, had attended a meeting of suspected terrorists in Malaysia in early 2000. The Inspector General probe uncovered that the CIA had learned that one of the operatives had a U.S. visa, and the other had flown from Bangkok to Los Angeles.

Yet, the Agency failed to forward that relevant information by “entering the names of suspected al-Qa’ida terrorists on the ‘watchlist’ of the Department of State and providing information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in proper channels.” Some 50 to 60 individuals—including Headquarters personnel, overseas officers, managers, and junior employees—had read the cables containing the travel information on al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar.

The report said in a stark assessment, “The consequences of the failures to share information and perform proper operational follow-through on these terrorists were potentially significant.” Indeed. Had the names been passed to the FBI and the State Department through proper channels, the operatives could have been watchlisted and surveilled. In theory, those steps could have yielded information on financing, flight training, and other details vital to unraveling the 9/11 plot.

Corroborating these findings was a Joint Inquiry Report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. It found “persistent problems” with the “lack of collaboration between Intelligence Community agencies.” About the FBI in particular, the report went so far as to say as late as December 2002 that “…the Bureau–-as a law enforcement organization–-is fundamentally incapable, in its present form, of providing Americans with the security they require against foreign terrorist and intelligence threats.” Now that is a ringing endorsement of our government’s ability to protect us.

We often hear that the failure of 9/11 was government-wide. But few observers delve into why it failed, especially on 9/11 anniversaries, when, one would think, such explanations would be most helpful. A number of structural factors impede effective collaboration. For instance, many intelligence agencies operate under different legal authorities. Many of them have distinct customers and cultures, and jealously guard their turf, budgets, sources, and methods. Individuals within various agencies also share information by relying on trust and personal relationships.

Yet, dispersed knowledge made it so that there was no single person or “silver bullet” that could have enabled intelligence agencies to prevent the 9/11 attacks. As the CIA Inspector General report made clear, neither the U.S. government nor the Intelligence Community had a comprehensive strategic plan to guide counterterrorism efforts. Amid the pre-9/11 flurry of warnings, intelligence cables, and briefing materials on al Qaeda’s plot to hijack airliners and ram them into our buildings, a significant failure, concluded the 9/11 Commission, was one of imagination.

After 9/11, many Americans were quick to cede yet more power to government. While much has changed in eleven years, with agencies less reluctant to share critical data, a February 2011 Government Accountability Office report noted that the government “does not yet have a fully-functioning Information Sharing Environment,” that is, “an approach that facilitates the sharing of terrorism and homeland security information”:

GAO found that the government had begun to implement some initiatives that improved sharing but did not yet have a comprehensive approach that was guided by an overall plan and measures to help gauge progress and achieve desired results.

Over the decade, while our government focused narrowly on the problem of terrorism, it also embraced ambitious, wasteful, and counterproductive programs and policies that drained us economically and spread our resources thin. After 9/11, excluding the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, American taxpayers have shelled out over $1 trillion dollars for their sprawling counterterrorism-industrial-complex, replete with its thousands of federal, state, and local government organizations and the private companies that work with them.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that our government expanded after an attack that called into question its primary constitutional function: protecting our country. What is more remarkable is that the public continues to accept humiliating pat-downs and invasive full-body scans for airline travel, costly grant programs rolled out by the Department of Homeland Security, and reckless politicians who advocate endless wars against predominately-Muslim states that play directly into al Qaeda’s hands.

Now, many Americans ask: Are we safer? Certainly, but marginal increases in safety have come at an exceptionally high cost, have far exceeded the point of diminished returns, and have encouraged a terrorized public to exalt a government that failed them.