Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Naked Truth about TSA Spending

Governments tend to spend money on low-value activities because they do not have market signals or customer feedback to guide them. In this report, I examined the problem with respect to the Transportation Security Administration. As one example, TSA’s SPOT program for finding terrorists spends more than $200 million a year with few if any benefits.

Further confirmation of TSA’s misallocation problem comes from a new academic study looking at the full-body “nudie” scanners installed in U.S. airports at great expense between 2009 and 2013. A team of university researchers bought a Rapiscan Secure 1000 backscatter X-ray machine and began testing it on various types of weapons and explosives. It turns out that a terrorist could fool the machines pretty easily:

We find that the system provides weak protection against adaptive adversaries: It is possible to conceal knives, guns, and explosives from detection by exploiting properties of the device’s backscatter X-ray technology.

If you walked though the machines with a big block of C-4 plastic explosive in your hands, it would be detected. The problem, of course, is that terrorists are smarter than that:

We show that an adaptive adversary, with the ability to refine his techniques based on experiment, can confidently smuggle contraband past the scanner by carefully arranging it on his body, obscuring it with other materials, or properly shaping it. Using these techniques, we are able to hide firearms, knives, plastic explosive simulants, and detonators in our tests. These attacks are surprisingly robust, and they suggest a failure on the part of the Secure 1000’s designers and the TSA to adequately anticipate adaptive attackers.

The Rapiscan machines were pulled from U.S. airports due to concerns about civil liberties and the possible health effects of emitted radiation. But as one of the study authors observed to Bloomberg: “What does this say about how these scanners were tested and acquired in the first place? … It says there’s something wrong with the government’s process … [the process] is secret and not independent. Those are problems.” It’s also a problem that the government has a monopoly on aviation security, and that TSA is not accountable to anyone for its level of efficiency or performance. Well, it’s accountable to Congress I suppose, but that doesn’t really amount to much these days.

The good news is that airport security screening does not have to be a government monopoly. We should move to private contracting with federal oversight, which is the approach taken by Canada and numerous European countries. For more, see my report and check out the writings of Bob Poole at Reason.

Cato Live Tweeting Obama’s ISIS Speech! #CatoWHSpeech

#CatoWHSpeech

At 9:00PM tonight, President Obama will announce expanded U.S. military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He will likely explain an apparent change in direction that will include airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and possibly increased training and weapons procurement for the Iraqi military and “moderate“ segments of the Syrian rebellion. Americans are understandably worried about getting sucked back into an open-ended conflict.

Don’t miss Cato experts live tweeting Obama’s speech tonight, using the hashtag #CatoWHSpeech. You can check out the reactions and opinions of our scholars in real time. Just follow along and join in!

U.S. Policy Choices Regarding China

While the Obama administration has preoccupied itself with developments in Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq, a far more important foreign policy relationship continues to deteriorate.  Late last month, a nasty incident occurred when a Chinese fighter plane intercepted and harassed a U.S. spy plane near Hainan Island, where China has a major submarine base.  It is just the latest in a growing list of spats between Washington and Beijing. 

Relations had already become tense because of China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea and its acrimonious dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.  Washington suspects that China is trying to become the dominant power in East Asia and gradually displace the United States from that role.  Beijing suspects that the United States is trying to enlist East Asian nations in a de facto containment policy directed against China, although Americans also want to continue enjoying the benefits of an extensive economic relationship with that country.  Both sides are probably correct in their suspicions.

In an article over at the National Interest Online, I suggest that the Obama administration’s China policy is a dangerous muddle.  Instead of continuing to drift toward an implicit, hostile containment policy, even as America’s regional clout continues to erode, the United States should consider two other options.  One would be to recognize China as the pre-eminent power in East Asia, thereby accepting a Chinese equivalent of America’s long-standing Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere.  I discuss that option in greater detail in an article in China-U.S. Focus.  Britain’s willingness in the 1890s to defer to the United States in the Western Hemisphere ended tensions between the two countries and ushered in an era of extremely close relations.  A similar trend might occur following such a U.S. concession to China in East Asia. 

But as I note, Britain and the United States were both democratic, capitalist states with similar cultures and overlapping interests.  Today’s China, on the other hand, is an authoritarian, quasi-capitalist country.  Conceding regional pre-eminence to a country with those characteristics would be much harder and riskier for the United States.

The other policy option would be for the United States to adopt a much lower security profile in that part of the world and allow a natural balance of power to develop between China and its uneasy neighbors, led by Japan.  That approach would recognize that the strategic and economic dominance that the United States enjoyed following the end of World War II was artificial and has been fading for at least a quarter century.  Not only China’s rise, but the growing prosperity and capabilities of other East Asian nations have eroded Washington’s advantages.  U.S. power in the region is still superior to that of any other actor, but the margin grows narrower, and that trend is likely to continue.  Policymakers need to ask themselves whether it is realistic to expect that a country whose homeland is thousands of miles away can continue to be East Asia’s hegemon much longer.  It makes more sense to relinquish that role gradually and create incentives for Japan, Indonesia, India, Vietnam, South Korea and other countries to become more assertive in balancing China’s growing power and sometimes abrasive behavior. 

Fostering the development of an independent regional balance of power has some drawbacks.  It would require the United States to relinquish the security role it has played for nearly seven decades, as well as relinquish the prestige and influence accompanying that role.  And there is no guarantee that adopting a lower U.S. security profile in East Asia would produce the outcome we desire.  Although unlikely, it is possible that the countries there would capitulate and accept Chinese dominance instead of assuming the costs and risks required to balance that country.  Alternatively, the emergence of multiple well-armed powers could create greater instability in the region.  No strategy is risk free.

One point is increasingly apparent, however.  Clear policy choices, even if difficult, need to be made.  As China’s power grows, it will become harder and riskier for Washington to continue its contradictory strategy of containing China while trying to enjoy the fruits of a close bilateral economic relationship.  We need a more coherent China policy—and soon.

Degrade ISIS’s Capabilities, Avoid Mission Creep

In a primetime address Wednesday evening, President Obama will announce that he will authorize U.S. airstrikes in Syria as part of his larger strategy to degrade and destroy ISIS. This represents a marked escalation of U.S. action against the notorious group that now controls large swathes of northern Iraq and Syria. According to the New York Times, the president’s strategy will be “a long-term campaign far more complex than the targeted strikes the United States has used against Al Qaeda in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.”

In advance of his speech, I have written a piece for Reason in which I urge the president to listen to the American people.

A majority of Americans support a military response – though not U.S. troops on the ground. Very few are content with allowing ISIS to spread its influence with impunity, especially after the brutal killing of the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The group has effectively declared itself an enemy of the United States, and there is growing support for action against the group before it even attempts an attack on the U.S. homeland (something that it appears only to be aspiring to, as opposed to actively planning for).

In the article, I also warn against mission creep, the possibility of which is all too real.

The hawks on both the left and right believe that a large U.S. ground presence is required because they don’t want to limit the mission to merely hitting ISIS – they want to restore stability and order in Iraq, exclude Iranian influence from Iraqi politics, and topple Bashar Assad in Syria. In other words, they want us back in the nation-building business, but now in two countries racked by civil war and sectarian hatreds, instead of just one.

To avoid being drawn into such a scenario, the president needs to clearly answer two particularly relevant questions: how large a response is justified; and what end state is acceptable? The president should resist sending in a large number of ground troops and be content to degrade ISIS to the point that it can be contained by the many enemies that directly surround it.

Read the whole thing here.

What Sort of Problem Is ISIS?

The quality of the discussion about what sort of problem ISIS poses to the United States has been unsurprisingly poor, given who is framing it. All Americans have been appalled by the grotesque killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two American hostages held by the Islamic State. The justness of vengeance against their killers is something everyone agrees on.

But beyond that, the debate is stunning by its internal contradictions. Take, for example, the fact that the outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center recently announced that while ISIS “poses a direct and significant threat to us,” there is “no credible information [it] is planning to attack the US.” This echoed the judgment of both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which issued similar judgments last month.

At the same time as those charged with threat assessment are stating ISIS does not at present pose a threat to US territory, our political leaders are unanimous in judging that the United States needs to involve itself more deeply in the war taking place across the Syria-Iraq border. Shouldn’t we worry at least a bit that taking sides against it in that war makes the Islamic State more likely to target the United States at home, not less? (For their part, the barbarian murderers of Foley and Sotloff stated that their actions were intended to avenge prior US airstrikes on ISIS.) One could argue that trying to destroy ISIS is worth raising the risk they will target US territory, but shouldn’t the marginal impact of its likelihood of an attack on us here at least show up on the ledger?

Or take the recent statements of our politicians. President Obama famously remarked that he didn’t have a strategy for what to do about ISIS, even though his administration was already bombing them. On Meet the Press, Obama added his voice to those claiming there’s been no “immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL.” Rather, according to Obama, “ISIL poses a broader threat because of its territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria.”

Secretary of State Kerry offered some thoughts on ISIS last week, in which he made clear the administration’s desired end-state: “destroy ISIL”:

these guys are not 10 feet tall. They’re not as disciplined as everybody thinks. They’re not as organized as everybody thinks. And we have the technology, we have the know-how. What we need is obviously the willpower to make certain that we are steady and stay at this.

There is no contain policy for ISIL. They’re an ambitious, avowed genocidal, territorial-grabbing, Caliphate-desiring, quasi state within a regular army. And leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us…

Two points here. First, if ISIS is in fact as Kerry describes it—a group that isn’t 10 feet tall, a group that isn’t as disciplined or organized as everybody thinks, and a group that is really a quasi state with grandiose objectives—then why isn’t containment a viable option? Grandiose objectives are hard to obtain even for actors who are disciplined and well-organized, even those that are 10 feet tall. So why isn’t ISIS—which Kerry says isn’t so powerful but has ambitious objectives—likely to burn out like so many of its predecessor groups have?

U.S. Need Not Defend Turkey From Islamic State

Apparently Washington believes its allies to be wimps and weaklings.  Why else would NATO officials promise to defend Turkey from the Islamic State?  Surely this well-armed U.S. ally can hold off a few thousand Islamic irregulars, some of whom Ankara allowed to enter Syria next door.

The rise of the Islamic State has led to much nonsense from Washington officials who speak as if the group was capable of conquering America.  ISIL is made up of dangerous fanatics, but in the form of the Islamic State they are largely powerless to harm the U.S. 

Their conventional capabilities are minimal compared to those of the U.S.  Moreover, so long as the Islamists are attempting to conquer territory they cannot afford to launch terrorist attacks on America, which would bring down the full wrath of the U.S. military on the return address they had so thoughtfully provided.

Among the states really threatened by ISIL is Turkey.  This led NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to promise to defend Ankara:  “If any of our allies, and in this case of course particularly Turkey, were to be threatened from any source of threat, we won’t hesitate to take all steps necessary to ensure effective defense of Turkey or any other ally.”

However, Ankara is partly to blame for ISIL’s rise.  The Erdogan government decided to support the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and allowed opposition fighters from all sides, including ISIL, easy access to the battlefield. 

Washington Should Stop Praising Military Tyranny in Egypt

CAIRO—Egypt’s capital is crowded, busy, confused, and messy.  Security isn’t obvious, until you get close to a sensitive site, such as the Interior Ministry. 

The military has taken firm control, elevating its leader, Abdel Fata al-Sisi, to the presidency.  The army permitted dictator Hosni al-Mubarak’s ouster by street protests in 2011 because he planned to turn military rule into a family dynasty.

If ousted president Mohamed al-Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood been defeated in a future election, they would have been discredited peacefully.  However, the coup turned the movement’s members into angry victims.  In Cairo they took over Rab’a al-Adawiya and al-Nahda Squares, just as the anti-Mubarak and anti-Morsi crowds had done in Tahir Square. 

The military government responded with a campaign of premeditated murder.

In a new report Human Rights Watch detailed the junta’s crimes.  From the beginning the military used deadly force with no concern for casualties.  In fact, the army began using live ammunition against protestors just two days after the coup. 

The most horrific episode occurred when the regime deployed soldiers, APCs, bulldozers, police, and snipers to destroy a vast tent village in Rab’a Square.  Explained HRW:  “security forces used lethal force indiscriminately, with snipers and gunmen inside and alongside APCs firing their weaponry on large crowds of protestors.  Dozens of witnesses also said they saw snipers fire from helicopters over Rab’a Square.” 

In roughly 12 hours HRW figured that at least 817 and likely more than 1000 people were slaughtered.  Since then, said HRW:  “Security forces have continued to use excessive lethal force against demonstrators.” 

Moreover, the regime moved against liberals and other critics, including youthful leaders of the revolution against Mubarak.  Bahey al-Din Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, argued that military control “is more horrible than the old regime.” 

In fact, by its own count the government has arrested 22,000 people, many of whom have been tortured.  When meeting a visiting delegation organized by the International Coalition for Freedoms and Rights of which I was part, Ayaalaa Hosni, spokeswoman for a women’s anti-coup group, complained that you can’t demonstrate without a warrant but if you “go to ask for a warrant you get arrested.”

Outside assessments are uniformly negative.  David Kramer, president of the group Freedom House, declared in June:  “the human rights situation has worsened compared to what it was at any point under Hosni Mubarak.”   His organization reported that Egypt had gone from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” after the coup, with significant deterioration across the board. 

In a separate study Freedom House rated Egypt’s media “not free.”  An organizer for press freedom told our delegation that ten journalists had been killed.  Scores had been shot and injured, more than 100 had been assaulted, and scores more had been arrested.  Another reporter said simply:  “Journalism has become a crime.”

Yet repression is unlikely to deliver stability.  Terrorism may be seen by more than jihadists as the only way to challenge a regime which bars peaceful dissent.  Mubarak’s jails helped turn Brotherhood member Ayman al-Zawahiri into al-Qaeda’s leader. 

There isn’t much the U.S. can do to change Cairo.  But the Obama administration could stop intervening constantly and maladroitly.  In fact, Washington’s influence is extremely limited.

As I wrote in Forbes online:  “The U.S. should work with Cairo on issues of shared interest but otherwise maintain substantial distance.  In particular, the administration should stop using foreign aid to bribe Egypt’s generals.  They don’t have to be paid to keep the peace and shouldn’t be paid for anything else.”

Egypt appears likely to end up without liberty or stability.  Instead of pretending to be in control, Washington should step back from a crisis which it cannot resolve.