Tag: terrorism

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.

Eleven Years after 9/11, Terror Effects Persist

A couple of years ago, Cato published a book, Terrorizing Ourselves, that critically examined American counterterrorism efforts.

Since that time, the United States was able to put Osama bin Laden to rest. But even this dramatic and yearned-for development, already the stuff of fable, hasn’t been able to temper the level of self-terrorization in the American public.

I’ve been sorting through poll data about terrorism from 9/11 to the present day. Although there are some temporary bumps and wiggles in reaction to events during the course of those 11 years, there has been very little, if any, decline in the degree to which Americans express anxiety about terrorism.

That is, for the most part there has been little change since late 2001 in the numbers who say they are worried that they will become a victim of terrorism, consider another major attack in the near future to be likely, are willing to trade civil liberties for security, have confidence in the government’s ability to prevent or to protect them from further terrorism, or think the United States is winning in the war on terrorism.

I have written a fuller account here in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. And there are some more extensive ruminations on what I call the “terrorism delusion” in the current International Security. That article deals with the exaggerations of the threat presented by terrorism and with the distortions of perspective these exaggerations have inspired—distortions that have in turn inspired a determined and expensive quest to ferret out, and even to create, the nearly nonexistent. It also supplies a quantitative assessment of the costs of the terrorism delusion.

Several of the poll trends I use for my conclusions are posted here.

As the Inquirer piece points out, the lack of change is quite remarkable given that no Islamist terrorist has been able to detonate even the simplest of bombs in the United States, there has been no sizable attack in the country, bin Laden is dead, alarmist hype coming out of Washington has declined (though Harvard continues to give it the old college try), and an American’s chance of being killed by a terrorist is about one in 3.5 million per year.

I conclude in the Inquirer piece that it seems to suggest that the public is

likely to continue uncritically to support extravagant counterterrorism expenditures including incessant security checks, civil liberties intrusions, expanded police powers, harassment at airports, and militarized forays overseas if they can convincingly be associated with the quest to stamp out terrorism.

Both pieces use a quote from anthropologist Scott Atran: “Perhaps never in the history of human conflict have so few people with so few actual means and capabilities frightened so many.” Much of that fright, it appears, has proven to be perpetual.

The GOP’s Big Government Baggage

Brian Myrick / AP file

The Republican National Convention is just days away, so it’s relevant to point out that the longer big-government interventionists are associated with the GOP, the more terms like “limited government” and “free markets” will lose all meaning. One Republican who epitomizes the damage of this guilt by association is former Vice President Dick Cheney. He won’t be at the convention, but his message surely will be.Below are two arguments put forward by Cheney, the first about Iraq in 2002, the second about Iran in 2007:

Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop ten percent of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.

And on Iran:

There is no reason in the world why Iran needs to continue to pursue nuclear weapons. But if you look down the road a few years and speculate about the possibility of a nuclear armed Iran, astride the world’s supply of oil, able to affect adversely the global economy, prepared to use terrorist organizations and/or their nuclear weapons to threaten their neighbors and others around the world, that’s a very serious prospect. And it’s important that not happen.

What is so remarkable about this vision proffered by Cheney is how it fails to elucidate precisely how either country threatens America’s interests or economic well-being. If one were to challenge the validity of Cheney’s claims, questions would include:

  • What is the likelihood of such a hypothetical disruption?
  • What is the harm if America’s access to markets is closed, and for how long?
  • How would the perpetrators of the closure be affected?
  • How has America dealt with such disruptions in the past?
  • Would there be available alternatives?
  • And, most importantly, would the risks to America’s interests and economic well-being be worse if it took preventive action?

Cheney evokes the imagery of America spreading stability and peace, while his world view relies on aggressive militarism that destroys both. What is particularly appalling is his implication that the United States must protect “the world’s energy supplies” and “the world’s supply of oil.” Chris Preble has drawn on a rich body of literature that shows why such claims do not withstand scrutiny.

Remarkably, Cheney represents a Republican constituency supportive of free markets, and yet his world view contradicts basic free trade and free market principles. He believes that free markets thrive only when peace and stability are provided by the U.S. government—and there’s the rub.

Rather than a world of economic exchange free of the state and its interventions, government must enforce global order for free trade to occur. Cheney’s vision of free markets impels American expansion.

At its heart—and far from free market—the former vice president’s world view fulfills a radical interpretation of U.S. foreign policy. Cheney gives new life to the works of revisionist historians like William Appleman Williams, by propagating the pernicious notion that U.S. intervention abroad is required to control the flow of raw materials and protect America’s wealth and power.

NYPD Program Spied on Muslims for Six Years, Generated No Leads

It turns out that a New York Police Department program that assembled large databases on the ordinary activities of  innocent Muslims, infiltrated student groups, and monitored sermons wasn’t just controversial—it was useless. As the Associated Press reports, the head of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division recently confirmed in a deposition that the Department’s “Demographics Unit”—a delightful euphemism for a team dedicated to spying predicated wholly on ethnicity, language, and religion—turned up no useful leads and gave rise to no terrorism investigations in its six years of operation.

At the risk of being a broken record, this is a reminder of how misleading it can be to discuss these topics under the rubric of “balancing liberty and security.” If government surveillance performs as advertised and yields a substantial security benefit, there’s a debate to be had over how much government intrusion we’re prepared to countenance as the price of that security. But that security benefit has to be proven, not assumed. If it can’t be demonstrated—and a fortiori, if all available evidence demonstrates there is no benefit—then it just should not be a serious question in a decent society whether it’s acceptable for police to keep tabs on all Urdu-speakers of Pakistani origin on the premise (endorsed by this official) that “most” of them are people “of concern” to the government. Just to put that “most” in context: There are some 15 million Pakistani Urdu-speakers worldwide, and about 50,000 legal residents of Pakistani descent in the New York metro area. Treating them all, by default, as potential terrorists who need to be watched would be offensive and ugly even if the policy occasionally yielded a useful piece of information. But to squander scarce law enforcement resources targeting a minority population without any useful results over six years?  How can that be anything but obscene?