Tag: terrorism

Newt Gingrich and the EMP Threat

The front page of yesterday’s New York Times features a story on Newt Gingrich’s “doomsday vision:” an attack over the United States’ airspace known as an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. Gingrich and a cadre of concerned national security analysts worry that terrorists or rogue states—Iran and North Korea—could detonate a nuclear device over the United States that theoretically could disrupt electrical circuits, from cars to power grids.

The Times does a commendable job of questioning Gingrich’s arguments and whether this is a legitimate national security concern. Despite the fact that a “National EMP Recognition Day” exists, the threat is in fact very, very low. But it may be unfortunate that such extravagant doomsday scenarios get placed on the front page of the Times.

I addressed the EMP threat in my 2010 book Atomic Obsession and I included a discussion of the views of Stephen Younger, the former head of nuclear weapons research at Los Alamos National Lab, as forcefully put forward in his 2007 book, Endangered Species:

Younger is appalled at the way “one fast‑talking scientist” managed in 2004 to convince some members of Congress that North Korea might be able to launch a nuclear device capable of emitting a high‑altitude electromagnetic pulse that could burn out computers and other equipment over a wide area. When he queried a man he considers to be “perhaps the most knowledgeable person in the world about such designs” (and who “was never asked to testify”), the response was: “I don’t think the United States could do that sort of thing today. To say that the North Koreans could do it, and without doing any testing, is simply ridiculous.” Nevertheless, concludes Younger acidly, “rumors are passed from one person to another, growing at every repetition, backed by flimsy or nonexistent intelligence and the reputations of those who are better at talking than doing.” [Emphasis in original.]

The 2012 presidential election should certainly contain a legitimate discussion of national security issues. But I don’t think it really needs to include a lot of breast-beating about the EMP “threat.”

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Border Security, the War on Drugs, and the 2012 GOP Presidential Race

The issue of border security has made its way into the 2012 GOP presidential race and candidates are jockeying to separate themselves from the pack. The topic garnered some attention at the Republican national security debate on November 22. An Associated Press story today examines the candidate’s platforms on the topic and as the title implies, rightly concludes securing the border is impossible. I am quoted in the article and make exactly that point:

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have promised to complete a nearly 1,950-mile fence. Michele Bachmann wants a double fence. Ron Paul pledges to secure the nation’s southern border by any means necessary, and Rick Perry says he can secure it without a fence — and do so within a year of taking office as president.

But a border that is sealed off to all illegal immigrants and drugs flowing north is a promise none of them could keep.

“Securing the border is a wonderful slogan, but that’s pretty much all it is,” said Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. “Even to come close would require measures that would make legal commerce with Mexico impossible. That’s an enormous price for what would still be a very leaky system.”

The bottom line is the border is simply too big to control. Attempting to fully police the border must pass a simple cost-benefit analysis, and it is not clear that our current policy passes that test. And yet, the candidates all agree securing the border is necessary to combat terrorism, illegal immigration, and drug violence stemming from Mexico.

The candidates have little reason to reexamine that assumption. Not only is it politically advantageous to call for securing the border, but it is a convenient one-size-fits-all solution to those three broader policy issues. They have calculated that this is what voters want to hear.

But it is an illusory solution. Laws protecting the border must exist and be enforced, but it is not clear that this alone, even if done more effectively or efficiently, will prevent terrorists or illegal immigrants from entering the United States. And the “securing the border” panacea certainly will not end the flow of drugs into the United States.

Curiously, while the GOP candidates all express worries about terrorism and illegal immigration, the subject of the war on drugs has hardly been discussed.  Although drug violence in Mexico is the only major security problem the Untied States faces on any of its borders, the issue has not produced serious consideration thus far.  Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) has been the only candidate to offer a thoughtful, consistent approach the issue, calling for an end to the failed policy.

The candidates should be pressured to answer why Washington continues to spend billions of dollars to wage the war on drugs each year with little to show for it. The power of the drug cartels has reached the point that the Mexican government no longer controls some areas of the country. And there are worrying signs that the violence is beginning to bleed across the border into the United States.

Our prohibitionist efforts have failed and a new policy is needed. Only by removing the lucrative black-market drug trade and thus effectively defunding the Mexican drug cartels can we begin to end the violence and illegal activity that plagues Mexico and the southern U.S. border region.

That is the substantive discussion that should be taking place in the GOP debates, rather than the posturing and repeated faux policy prescriptions to secure the border.

The Security Theater Cycle

“What we obtain too cheap,” Thomas Paine famously wrote, “we esteem too lightly”—and it turns out that the converse holds true as well. It’s a well known and robustly confirmed finding of social psychology that people tend to ascribe greater value to things they had to pay a high cost to obtain. So, for instance, people who must endure some form of embarrassing or uncomfortable hazing process or initiation rite to join a group will report valuing their participation in that group much more highly than those admitted without any such requirement—which is one reason such rituals are all but ubiquitous in human societies as a way of creating commitment. Studies suggest that people are more likely to read automobile reviews after purchasing a new car than before—suggesting that people are sometimes less concerned with spending money in the most judicious fashion than with convincing themselves, after the fact, that they have done so. More morbidly, relatives of soldiers killed in action sometimes become much more fervent supporters of the war that cost them a loved one—because the thought that such a grave loss served no good purpose is too much to stomach.

I suspect that this phenomenon may help explain the dispiriting state of affairs described by an airline industry insider in an important Wired piece on airport security. The short version: we’ve spent some $56 billion on “enhancing” airport security over the past decade, with almost no actual security enhancement to show for it. We’re spending huge amounts of money and effort on burdensome passenger screening that doesn’t seem very effective, while neglecting other, far more vulnerable attack surfaces. It is, when you think about it, a somewhat strange priority given the abundance of highly vulnerable domestic targets. Reinforced cockpit doors and changed passenger behavior pretty much made a repeat of a 9/11-style suicide hijacking of a domestic flight infeasible—at negligible economic and privacy cost—long before we started installing Total Recall style naked-scanners, which makes explosives the real remaining risk. Yet the notable bombing attempts by passengers we’ve seen since 9/11 have (a) originated outside the United States, and (b) been foiled by alert passengers after the aspiring bomber slipped through the originating country’s formal screening process.

This shouldn’t be terribly surprising: when a terror group has already managed to get an operative into the United States, a domestic flight (that can’t be turned into a missile) would be one of the stupider, riskier targets to select, given the enormous array of much softer target options that would be available at that point, even assuming pre-9/11 airport security protocols. As far as I’m aware, the last time a passenger successfully detonated a bomb on a U.S. domestic flight was in 1962. This presents something of a puzzle: Why have we focused so disproportionately on this specific attack vector, at such disproportionate cost, when the terrorists themselves have not? Why haven’t we reallocated scarce resources to security measures (such as better screening of airline employees) that would provide greater security benefit at the margins? One possibility is that, having accustomed ourselves to submitting to the hassle and indignity of ever more aggressive passenger screening, we become more disposed to believe that these measures are necessary.

It’s become commonplace to refer to many aspects of airport screening—the removal of shoes, the transparent plastic baggies for your small allotment of shampoo—as “security theater.” Security guru Bruce Schneier coined the term to refer to security measures whose ritualistic purpose is to make passengers feel safer, even though they do almost nothing to actually increase safety. But on reflection, this seems wrong. It probably holds true in the immediate aftermath of a high-profile attack or disaster. Once the initial heightened fear subsides, however, these visible and elaborate security measures probably do more to increase our perception of risk than to assuage our fears. It is, after all, something of a cliche that hyperprotective parents tend to end up raising children who see the world as a more dangerous place. Overreacting to childhood illnesses is one reliable way of producing adult hypochondriacs down the road.

Security theater, then, isn’t only—or even primarily—about making us feel safer. It’s about making us feel we wouldn’t be safe without it. The more we submit to intrusive monitoring, the more convinced we become that the intrusions are an absolute necessity. To think otherwise is to face the demeaning possibility that we have been stripped, probed, and made to jump through hoops all this time for no good reason at all. The longer we pay the costs—in time, privacy, and dignity no less than tax dollars—the more convinced we become that we must be buying something worth the price. Hence, the Security Theater Cycle: the longer the ritual persists, the more normal it comes to seem, the more it serves as psychological proof of its own necessity.

The Real Trouble With the Defense Authorization Bill

The Senate on Thursday passed the 2012 defense-authorization bill. It includes a controversial provision meant to put al-Qaeda suspects and their associates in military custody rather than prosecute them as criminals. The White House has rather weakly threatened a veto, complaining primarily that the bill undercuts their discretion in dealing with terrorists.

If the White House vetoes the bill, it will be for the wrong reasons. The trouble is not what the law mandates but what it affirms. It does not require the president to put any terrorists in military custody but rather to comply with a new bureaucratic process if he chooses not to do so. Even as we move toward the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the law affirms a presidential power to detain anyone, including American citizens, in the name of fighting a nebulous and seemingly permanent terrorist menace. That is bad for both civil liberties and for our ability to think clearly about terrorism.

Most debate about the bill concerns section 1032. It says that the armed forces “shall hold” anyone that is part of al-Qaeda or an associated force and participants in an attack on the United States or its coalition partners for the course of hostilities authorized by Congress in 2001—and dispose of those suspects under laws of wars. American citizens are excluded. Thanks to a compromise negotiated by Armed Service Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-MI) and Ranking Member John McCain (R-AZ), the section now allows the secretary of defense, after consulting with the secretary of state and director of national intelligence, to keep the suspect in civilian courts by informing Congress that doing so serves national security.

The administration objects to 1032 largely because it undercuts their discretion. However, as Levin and McCain note in a recent op-ed, the administration still “determines whether a detainee meets the criteria for military custody.” The president could presumably just decline to label a detainee as someone fitting the requirements of military detention in the first place and try him in civilian court without getting a waiver from the secretary of defense.

The provision’s main relevance is as a talking point. Republicans already fond of castigating the president for allowing alleged terrorists to have their day in court can pretend that he is ignoring this law when he does so.

The real trouble with the bill is the preceding section, 1031. It “affirms” that the authorization of military force passed prior to the invasion of Afghanistan allows the president, through the military, to detain without trial al-Qaeda members, Taliban fighters, associated forces engaged in hostilities against the United States and those that support those groups. Nothing excludes American citizens.

The section says that it does not expand presidential war powers, but that contradicts its other language and common sense. By explicitly endorsing constitutionally dubious powers that the president already claims, Congress makes those claims more likely to survive legal challenge.

The 2001 Authorization of Military Force allows the president to make war on “nations, organizations, or persons” that he determines to have been involved in or aided the September 11 attacks and those that harbored these groups. Effectively, that meant al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Our last two presidents have used that authority to claim the right to kill or indefinitely detain anyone, anywhere that they decide is associated with some arm of al-Qaeda. The courts have trimmed these powers in ways that remain uncertain, particularly as applied to U.S. citizens. In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court held that the U.S. military has the power to detain without trial Americans captured on foreign battlefields but that the detainee can challenge the detention in court. Contrary to Carl Levin’s assertions, the ruling did not say that people seized in the United States fit that category.

This defense bill’s expansive list of enemies strengthens the president’s claim that he can detain almost anyone without trial in the name of counterterrorism. Future White House lawyers will cite it to justify those powers. Courts may tell Americans that challenge their detention on constitutional grounds that Congress’s endorsement of the president’s claims to detention powers makes them sounder.

The bill may even strengthen the president’s case for using other war powers, like killing citizens with drone strikes. That interpretation is bolstered by the detainee language’s similarity to the reauthorization of force contained in the House’s defense bill. That legislation explicitly gives the president the power to make war on al-Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces. By using nearly identical language to describe who the president can detain under his war powers, the Senate bill may stealthily achieve the same end.

Liberalism means minimizing the exercise of war powers. To say, as backers of this legislation do, that the constitution allows our government to kill and detain people without trial is not an argument that we should do so often. Because those powers so offend liberalism, those that advocate them should have the burden of explaining why they are necessary, even if they are constitutional.

Instead, advocates of these extraordinary powers take it as nearly self-evident that military detention is somehow safer than criminal trials. But criminal proceedings, because they are adversarial, produce better information than military interrogations. That information makes the public better consumers of counterterrorism policies. Public debate does not always make better public policy, but it often helps.

You can see how by looking at the footnotes of books about terrorism, like the 9-11 report. Many of sources are records of criminal trials of terrorists. Had all those suspects been held without trial, their testimony and the government’s claims about them might have remained secret. What did become public would be less trustworthy because it would not have been vetted by an institutional adversary, as in court.

Take the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Underwear Bomber, and its connection to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the jihadist propagandist killed earlier this year in Yemen. Both before and after getting a Miranda warning, Abdulmutallab apparently told his FBI interrogators a great deal of information about his trip to Yemen to prepare the explosives he tried to detonate in plane over Detroit. Had he not plead guilty on the first day of trial, prosecutors were set to argue that Awlaki had aided the plot. The government would have had to substantiate its claim that Awlaki, an American citizen, had graduated from being a propagandist to plotting attacks and therefore become a combatant they could legally kill—something they still have not done. The trial would have shed light on how the White House decides which of its citizens it can kill in the name of counterterrorism. That information would at least inform debate.

Civil liberties are a sufficient reason to oppose handing the executive the power to detain more or less whomever it wants. But our system of government does not divide powers simply for fairness. Unilateral decisions are more likely to be foolish ones.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Digging Our Grave in Af-Pak

Last week’s killing of two dozen Pakistani soldiers by a NATO airstrike shows why the war in Afghanistan will continue to weaken, not stabilize, neighboring Pakistan, contrary to what U.S. officials and analysts claim. Perhaps the gravest outcome from this latest “tragic, unintended incident” will be the widening gulf between Pakistan’s senior military leadership and its junior officer corps, a chasm that opened under President-General Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008) and threatens to open far wider.

Pakistan’s alliance with the United States has always been a liability. After 9/11, Musharraf forced the reassignment or resignation of officers regarded as pro-Taliban or Islamist, because his decision to support U.S. counterterrorism efforts undermined his support among key military officials. In 2003, he narrowly escaped two attempts on his life—within 11 days of each other—that involved the collaboration of junior officers. The attacks came two months after al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released an audiotape urging Pakistanis to overthrow the military general.

B. Raman, the former head of the counterterrorism division for India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), writes that while many in India might rejoice at this intra-military split and the further deterioration of U.S.-Pakistan relations, “This need not necessarily be a beneficial development for India. It is in our interest that the US retains the ability to influence the behaviour of the Pakistani military leadership.”

That is exactly what Washington risks losing the longer it prosecutes this ill-conceived quagmire in Afghanistan. “Imagine how we would feel if it had been 24 American soldiers killed by Pakistani forces at this moment,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) on Fox News Sunday. Fanning public anger in Pakistan is Jamaatud Dawa, Hizb ut-Tehrir, and other organizations that stand to gain whenever anti-U.S. anger spikes. But is it any wonder why Pakistani streets and newspaper editorials were brimming with anti-American sentiment? Such escalating pressures against General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the chief of the army staff, come just after Pakistan’s security establishment was publicly humiliated for either being complicit or incompetent in America’s Osama bin Laden raid, and was accused of attempting to stage a coup in the recentmemogatescandal.

Compounding the partnership’s endless string of controversies are recurring incidents along the Af-Pak border. These incidents hurt the honor of Pakistan’s military, decrease the country’s resolve to cooperate with America, and highlight a glaringly obvious problem with America’s current strategy. U.S. officials claim the coalition cannot fight its way to victory in Afghanistan. But by continuing to attack indigenous insurgents before withdrawing or engaging in negotiations, the coalition is undermining the potential for a diplomatic solution. Look no further than Pakistan’s refusal to attend this week’s Bonn summit. As Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, told Dawn News television this week, “It is definitely not Pakistan’s intention to work against the rest of the world. But the rest of the world also has to understand that if they have pushed Pakistan into this corner, violated red lines, then they have denied the basis of partnership.”

An iteration of this discrepancy comes from Pakistani columnist Ejaz Haider, who wrote last year:

Behind all the nice talk about setting the world right through a Lockean cooperative framework lurks Mr. Hobbes… Mr. Obama… (de-hyphenated) Pakistan and India by not including Pakistan on this visit even as Pakistan is supposed to be a vital strategic partner and a state that is, presumably, going to determine, by his own admission, not only the future of this region but of the entire world. This would be amusing if it did not indicate a deep policy flaw.

Only America’s hubris can explain why officials continue to believe that they can win a war in which the neighboring state—with legitimate security interests—actively assists elements of the insurgency, denies transit routes for delivery of war supplies, and uses its leverage to increase the costs of America’s military presence. The 10-year war’s latest casualty is the ongoing effort to bring insurgent networks into a broader power-sharing arrangement in Kabul. U.S. militarism has deprived diplomatic efforts of a key regional player. Absent the cooperation of Pakistan, the United States continues to dig its own grave.

Cross-posted from “The Skeptics” at the National Interest.

John Mueller Joins Cato

I am pleased to announce that John Mueller, a leading scholar in the fields of political science, international relations, and national security, has joined the Cato Institute as a senior fellow.

All of us at Cato are very excited to have John as a colleague. Over the last decade as a professor of political science and as the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at the Ohio State University’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies, John has taken on the conventional wisdom in the national security arena with a rare combination of accessible, breezy prose and meticulous cost-benefit analysis. In particular, he has focused on how policymakers inflate national security threats at home and abroad.

His newest book, Terror Money and Security, which he presented at a recent Cato forum, examines whether the gains in security over the past decade were worth the funds expended. For the vast majority of U.S. homeland security and counterterrorism policies, John and his co-author, Mark Stewart, resoundingly conclude “no.”

As a member of the Cato Institute, John will contribute to our multitude of programs and publications while furthering his work on the subjects of security, defense, and U.S. foreign policy. Cato is fortunate to have such a brilliant scholar join its staff.

For more Cato Institute work on foreign policy and national security, go here.

How Much Homeland Security Is Enough? Monday Book Forum

At noon Monday, Professors John Mueller and Mark Stewart will be here to discuss their new book: Terror Security and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits and Costs of Homeland Security. Register here.

The question in this post’s title is the book’s. It quantifies Mueller’s skepticism about the utility of homeland security spending with cost-benefit analysis, which is Stewart’s specialty. They use this analysis, which is employed by various federal agencies as part of the regulatory review process, to show that little of what the Department of Homeland Security does is a good investment. That is, the bulk of its activities cost more—measured in lives or dollars— than they save. In the conclusion, where you find most of the book’s political science, Mueller and Stewart discuss why DHS avoids this sort of analysis—neither it nor its political advocates have much reason to advertise its wastefulness—and why that should change.

Alan Cohn, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at DHS, has boldly agreed to join the proceeding. DHS rules prohibit him from commenting directly on the book, but he will presumably defend his department and discuss how it considers policies’ cost and benefits, or what it calls risk management.

That all sounds very wonky, I know. Here is why the book and forum should interest those not particularly concerned with homeland security or risk analysis: the book calls a bluff. One of the great myths about U.S. national security is that it aims to maximize safety. Almost everyone speaks about security as if this were so.

The truth is instead that every security policy, indeed every government policy, is a choice among risks. Most policies aim to mitigate risk in some way and by expending resources expose us to other risks. Our policy preferences and ideologies are largely beliefs about which risks to combat socially and which to leave to individuals, or least how much attention we should pay to competing risks. Our society, it turns out, is willing to pay far more to save lives from terrorism than most other dangers. That is, we value lives lost from it far more highly than those lost in other ways. We trade small gains in protection from terrorists for substantial losses in our ability to combat other troubles.

By asking what U.S. homeland security would look like it if truly aimed to maximize safety against all dangers, Mueller and Stewart’s book makes plain that we have chosen to do otherwise. People that disagree about the merit of that choice should agree at least that it is one we should make openly. Democracies make better choices when they perceive them.