Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Random Searches = Poor Counterterrorism

terrorism [ter-uh-riz-uhm]
- noun
1. the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.
2. the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
3. a terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.

So, one would think that countering terrorism would involve resisting coercion by resisting fear and submission.

That’s not the case in Washington, D.C., where Metro officials plan to start random searches of travelers’ bags. Not because of any specific threat, but because “Americans everywhere are at some risk from terrorism.”

Let’s get something out of the way first: Random searches do not provide security against terrorist acts. If it comes to it, a bomber can inspire fear just as well by exploding a checkpoint as he can by bombing any other part of the Metro system. Other kinds of attacks can be snuck past random checks or even comprehensive checks. Random searches are security theater, designed to make it seem like something protective is being done when it’s not.

What random searches do is reward past acts of terrorism by demonstrating that they have successfully cowed our society, made it fearful, and subject to coercion. This will tend to encourage future acts of terrorism. Seven years later, the 9/11 attacks are still paying dividends.

Searching at random in the Metro system plays into the terrorism strategy. Metro officials mean well, there can be no doubt, but they’re patsies to terrorism.

Terrorism and Elections

With elections a week off, should we be especially worried about an Al Qaeda attack? Writing last week in Slate, Brookings’ Daniel Benjamin says yes, following in the footsteps of other terrorism experts. They could be right, but they have almost no evidence. Like the others, Benjamin supports his claim with a handful of past examples of Al Qaeda attacks that occurred around election time. But if Al Qaeda attacks occur when they are most convenient for the attackers, they will be randomly distributed throughout the year, meaning that a certain percentage, which will head toward 1/12 as years go by, will fall in the month before elections. Citing a few attacks that occured around election time is evidence of nothing.

What about specific attacks? Do they reveal qualitative evidence for the hypothesis that Al Qaeda tries to sway elections, such as attackers saying that this was their goal? Short answer: no. The only Al Qaeda attack that remotely fits this billing, and the one that all the experts cite, is the Madrid train bombings in 2004.

The attack came 72 hours before Spain’s general elections. When the Popular Party, led by José María Aznar, made a clumsy attempt to blame the ETA, a Basque separatist terrorist organization, the Spanish elected the Socialists, who then pulled troops from Iraq. Because the terrorists evidently influenced the election, pundits tend to assume that this was their aim.  But evidence for this assumption is almost nonexistent. The main data point is that some plotters may have read a tract on a website saying to attack around election time. That’s about it.

What’s more, the plot was only an Al Qaeda attack in spirit. So far as we know from public sources, there was not central planning from the remnants of Al Qaeda in Pakistan or elsewhere. The perpetrators organized locally. Even if they meant to swing the election, their tenuous connection to other groups makes it hard to form conclusions about the movement as a whole.

Some might say that what matters about the Madrid attack is the lesson that other terrorists drew from it. The apparent success in influencing the election might provoke imitation. Maybe so. But there is scant indication that imitation has occurred.

Terrorist plots, especially those that occur in countries foreign to the plotters, are tough to pull off. They require considerable organization. Police and intelligence agencies are hunting jihadist groups. They are likely to organize attacks to maximize the odds of success rather than to fit US election cycles.

In general, we should be wary of analysis that talks about Al Qaeda as a unified entity. Al Qaeda is a loosely connected network of small organizations and groups of guys. Assigning overarching preferences or goals to them can be analytically useful, just as talking about a country as a unified actor can be. But this kind of theorizing exaggerates terrorist unity. Psychology tells us that we tend to see patterns in random events – causality, order and centralization where none is. We overtheorize, experts in particular. They deserve skepticism.

A Defense Cut?

Republicans are up in arms over signs that the Democratic leadership in the House may be considering cutting the defense budget.

Last week, Barney Frank told the editorial board of the SouthCoast Standard-Times – a local paper in Massachusetts – that the Pentagon’s budget should be cut by 25%. I didn’t believe this at first. The Democratic position on these matters has long been to support the Pentagon’s budget requests for fear of opening a line of attack for Republicans. But Congressman Frank’s office confirms that he did indeed say this.

You might say, so what? Frank is not on any defense committee and is probably just running his mouth for his liberal base in a reelection campaign. Maybe so. But Frank does not have a serious opponent and is close with the Democratic leadership in the House. It’s would be surprising if he got crosswise of Speaker Pelosi. Plus, you already have John Murtha, chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, telling reporters that, because of the bailouts, defense spending will need some trimming (Murtha, who has taken to calling his constituents names, might actually lose his seat). So it’s fair to guess that we’re seeing an emerging position or trial balloon. Frankly, it’s shocking that any Democrat would take this stance a week before elections where they stand to gain a couple dozen seats by standing still. The Republican reaction (danger! war! surrender!) is utterly predictable.

It is also wrong. The truth is that we should cut the defense budget by more than 25%. The non-war defense budget has grown by around 45% since Bush took office, once you adjust for inflation. The Pentagon accounts for half the world’s military spending, most of which is irrelevant to counter-terrorism, and more than half of U.S. discretionary spending. The threats we face from rival militaries are historically small. We can save plenty of money and still be safe – probably safer, in fact, since our profligate defense spending serves our instinct to intervene willy-nilly around the world, creating enemies.

What’s important to keep in mind is that cutting defense spending requires cutting defense commitments and force structure. Frank is quoted saying: “We don’t need all these fancy new weapons.” That’s true, but you don’t save 25% of the budget by going after weapons procurement alone. You need to cut force structure. If you do that while keeping troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, the Philippines, and Japan, sending a peacekeeping force to Sudan, defending Taiwan, threatening Iran, rebuilding a failed state or two, and defending Georgia and Ukraine from Russia, the military will scream in justified agony. Saving on defense starts with doing less.

Today at Cato

Article: “Mark-To-Model, Into The Twilight Zone,” by Steve H. Hanke and John A. Tatom in Investor’s Business Daily

Daily Podcast: “Rail Versus Gas,” featuring Randal O’Toole on Cato.org

Article: “Questionable Deals in a Volatile Region,” by Malou Innocent and Christopher Preble in The South China Morning Post

Radio Highlight: Robert A. Levy discusses the constitutionality of the bailout on WBAL’s “The Ron Smith Show” (Baltimore)

The Next President and the Use of Force

Robert G. Kaiser shows in today’s Washington Post what many of us have known for some time: notwithstanding their differences over the wisdom of going to war in Iraq, Barack Obama and John McCain may largely agree on the wisdom of going to war in general.

Neither man wants you to believe that, of course. It behooves them to highlight their differences, both to rally their core supporters, and to make an affirmative case for why they should be chosen by the voters to lead the country for the next four years. These differences are most pronounced in domestic matters: in fiscal policy and on taxes, on health care, and on the benefits of international trade.

But, Kaiser writes, the two candidates share many similar views on national security:

[B]oth have revealed a willingness to commit U.S. forces overseas for both strategic and humanitarian purposes. Both agree on a course of action in Afghanistan that could lead to a long-term commitment of American soldiers without a clear statement of how long they might remain or what conditions would lead to their withdrawal.

Both candidates favor expanding the armed forces, Obama by 92,000 and McCain by as many as 150,000. Both speak of situations when the United States might have to commit its troops for “moral” reasons, whether or not a vital American interest was at risk. Both accept what Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor at Boston University, calls the “unspoken consensus which commits the United States to permanent military primacy” – shared, Bacevich said, by leading figures in both parties.

Obama has worn his opposition to the Iraq War as a badge of honor. And rightly so. His principled stand, taken at a time when precious few politicians were willing to do the same, has allowed him to turn his opponents’ (first Clinton and now McCain) supposed advantage – their experience – into a liability, or at least a nullity. If experienced politicians could make such a colossal blunder as to support a war that now two thirds of all Americans believe to have been a mistake, then what is the value of experience?

But the great unknown remains the lessons that Obama has taken away from the Iraq experience. Was the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein from power a good idea, poorly executed? Or was it a bad idea at the outset, further complicated by bungling in the Executive Branch? Obama has signaled that he believes the latter, but some of his advisers seem to have more confidence in their ability to pull off similar missions in the future – say, for example, against the government in Sudan, as Obama advisers Susan Rice and Tony Lake suggested in late 2006.

Given the continuing influence within the Democratic Party of the so-called liberal hawks, there is even the disturbing possibility that a President Obama would be more prone to military intervention than his predecessor.

That said, John McCain’s continued strong support for the Iraq War is merely one of many examples of his enthusiasm for using our military to solve distant problems. He has adopted a similarly bellicose stance toward North Korea and Iran, and has hinted darkly at a confrontational posture toward Russia that could ultimately result in a ruinous military conflict. In that respect, I wholeheartedly agree with Justin Logan’s deliberate ambivalence in his most recent paper, “Two Kinds of Change: Comparing the Candidates on Foreign Policy”: “The best case that can be made for Senator Obama’s foreign policy is the fact that the alternative to his approach is Senator McCain’s.”

It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the lingering effects of the Iraq War will greatly limit the next president’s enthusiasm for foreign military intervention. But nothing that either candidate has said during this campaign gives me sufficient assurances that that is the case. Foreign policy has generally been pushed aside during this long campaign, an understandable shift given the current economic climate. But it is not too late for both men to clarify their views on the use of force, and to explain how they might differ from their opponent.

Twitter Terror — Laughable? Or Is There a Lesson?

I was amused to read that a draft Army intelligence report identified micro-blogging service Twitter as a potential tool for terrorists. On the other hand, it’s regrettable that this terrorism mania persists to foster this kind of report and media attention. There’s no distinct terror threat from Twitter.

If you’re reading this, you’re familiar with blogs. On Twitter you can publish ever-so-brief thoughts, giving your readers (or “followers”) ambient awareness of what’s on your mind or what you’re doing. Here’s an example: the Cato Institute’s Twitter feed, which I encourage you to follow. WashingtonWatch.com has one too. And CNN. And former Cato intern Felix Ling.

Now, to use of Twitter by terrorists: Sure, it’s possible, just like it’s possible with any communications medium. Twitter is right up there with telephones, pen and paper, email, SMS, and smoke signals as a potential tool for terrorism. Each of these media have different properties which make them more or less susceptible to use for wrongdoing — and more or less protective of legitimate privacy for the law-abiding.

Like most common digital communications, Twitter is a pretty weak medium for planning bad things. Copies of every post are distributed far and wide — and all “Tweets” are housed pretty much permanently by a single organization.

If you want to get caught doing something wrong, use Twitter to plan it.

Securing against terrorism is hard because terrorists don’t wear uniforms or occupy territory. Their tools are our tools: sneakers, sandwiches, credit cards, cars, steak knives, box cutters, cameras, cell phones, driver’s licenses, Web sites, Napster, Friendster, Facebook, spinach. The list goes on and on and on.

(Yes, spinach — it grows terrorists’ muscles.)

The problem is determining what things in our society have a proximate relationship to terrorism that is greater than their relationship to all the good things we do with them. Box cutters were integral to the 9/11 attacks, but they are used by millions of people every day for wonderful purposes, so we haven’t pursued restrictions on, or monitoring of, box cutters (beyond airplanes, of course). Highly enriched uranium can be used to do a lot of damage. There is exceedingly little chance of it being used by terrorists, but it’s prudent to pursue controls on this material and monitor for peoply trying to acquire it.

Twitter and other digital media are used billions of times a day for all the good things law-abiding people do. There is also a small chance that they’ll be used for wrongdoing, and we have rules about what to do when that chance arises. Alas, Supreme Court cases under the Fourth Amendment are a little too permissive these days.

The chance of Twitter being used by terrorists (real ones, serious ones) is very small and not newsworthy. We’re all relatively inexperienced with the security dilemmas created by terrorism, and it’s appropriate to give a brief thought to how all the implements and infrastructure in society might be used to do damage. In summary, the production of a report on Twitter terror is just shy of silly. The media attention paid to the question: fully silly.

Fears of Nuclear Terrorism

Nightmare scenarios of terrorists gaining possession of nuclear weapons might make for good movie plots, but Americans grossly exaggerate the likelihood that an act of nuclear terrorism will occur within the next five or ten years. So says the RAND Corporation’s Brian Michael Jenkins in a new book, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (See also some of John Mueller’s writings on this subject here and here.) 

James Kitfield’s interview with Jenkins, posted at The National Journal, is an interesting read. Jenkins focuses on the fear factor surrounding nuclear terrorism, fears that terrorists are happy to exploit, even as their capacity for using such weapons is very, very small. I particularly appreciated Jenkins’ ideas about breaking the “chain reaction of fear” and his advice to American political leaders is worth repeating verbatim:

Rather than telling Americans constantly to be very afraid, we should stress that even an event of nuclear terrorism will not bring this Republic to its knees. Some will argue that fear is useful in galvanizing people and concentrating their minds on this threat, but fear is not free. It creates its own orthodoxy and demands obedience to it. A frightened population is intolerant. It trumpets a kind of “lapel pin” patriotism rather than the real thing. A frightened population is also prone both to paralysis – we’re doomed! – and to dangerous overreaction.

I believe that fear gets in the way of addressing the issue of nuclear terrorism in a sustained and sensible way. Instead of spreading fear, our leaders should speak to the American traditions of courage, self-reliance, and resiliency. Heaven forbid that an act of nuclear terrorism ever actually occurs, but if it does, we’ll get through it.

It is understandable why politicians are reluctant to embrace such recommendations. On the other hand, if they understood that terrorists seek to engender panic, public officials would pay as much or more attention to calming the public’s fears as they do to stoking them.