Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Another $700 Billion

For the second time in six years, the Bush administration has asked Congress for nearly unlimited authority without an independent professional review of the evidence that led the administration to request such authority.

In making the case for the Iraq war resolution, according to Senator John D. Rockefeller, “the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even nonexistent. As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.”

As it turned out, of course, no “weapons of mass destruction” were ever discovered.

The skeletal proposal for the Troubled Asset Relief Program states that “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency. The Secretary is authorized to take such actions as the Secretary deems necessary to carry out the authorities in this act without regard to any other provision of law regarding public contracts” – again without an independent professional review of the evidence that led the administration to request such extraordinary authority.

In both cases, the administration requested urgent congressional approval of these measures when members of Congress were anxious to go home to run for reelection. And a final irony: the total direct cost of the Iraq war to date has been about $700 billion, the same amount that the administration has requested to buy bad mortgages.

Fear Is a Terrorism Multiplier - Quelling Fear Is Good Counterterrorism

UPI Homeland and National Security Editor Shaun Waterman has a very interesting analysis that reveals the communications dimension of terrorism counterstrategy.

Fear of Terror Worsens Attacks” examines a Department of Homeland Security document pointing out how the “number of people suffering psychologically induced symptoms could far outweigh the number of actual victims in a chemical, biological or nuclear incident.”

Allowing fear to metastasize across the population will do actual damage and could multiply the direct costs of any attack many times over.

The piece quotes yours truly (perhaps biasing me in its favor), but also brings in true communications experts:

“You have to give people a sense of control,” said Paul Slovic of Decision Research, a risk-perception specialist. “Either the sense that their government is in control, is handling it … and/or explicit information (about the possible effects of any attack) which will enable them to take control themselves.”

Though I have been looking for it, I don’t see any evidence that the administration or the Department of Homeland Security have done any real thinking about the strategic communications they should be using now to inoculate against fear. They should have a communications plan prepared, rehearsed, and ready for use in the event of any future attack.

Two years ago, I noted a particularly bad example of official communications, and in the current election I have pointed out the related problem of politicians inadvertently exalting terrorists.

Kudos to Waterman for some excellent reporting on this important dimension of terrorism counterstrategy.

Fear of Sharia? Oh, Please.

Reviewing the new bills in Congress for my side-project, I come across some interesting stuff — and some dumb stuff.

Very dumb is how I would characterize a new bill introduced this week. H.R. 6975 would require aliens to attest that they will not advocate installing a Sharia law system in the United States as a condition of their admission to our country.

On the blog, I assessed it thusly:

First, there’s the simple bureaucratic nonsense of administering this thing: We’re going to ask every Christian, Catholic, Zen Buddhist, and Hindu not to advocate traditional Islamic law? What an utterly stupid waste of time. I don’t want a penny of my money going to pay for this.

But more importantly, a law like this communicates precisely the wrong thing to new immigrants and the world at large. It tells the world that we’re a weak, fearful country, and that we believe Sharia law is possible in the United States. It tells the world that we’ve come off our traditional moorings and that we no longer believe in free speech and tolerance of all opinions, no matter how wrong.

Let’s talk substance, just in case one or two of you out there are weak and fearful: There is no possibility — none — that Sharia law will be established in the United States. Not by any government body at any level. This country can stand to have Sharia advocated by whatever tiny minority might want to — without any risk. In fact, allowing such discussion will help dispel whatever small demand there could be for Sharia, because it would be so obviously incompatible with our way of life.

It’s embarassing that a strong, free country like ours would even consider an idea like this.

McCain for FCS?

John McCain attacked Barack Obama last week for saying that he would slow development of the Army’s $160 billion modernization program, Future Combat Systems.* That is interesting, because McCain was himself recently against the program. In a budget plan released in July, the McCain campaign said FCS should be “ended.”

Because he brought it up, it’s worth noting one curious facet of McCain’s former opposition to FCS, noted recently by Gordon Adams in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists but no major media: FCS is a Boeing-run program, as were the two other programs that McCain came out against in his July budget plan – Airborne Laser, a type of missile defense, and Globemaster, a cargo plane. These are the only three defense programs that McCain has advocated canceling during the campaign. (Obama has not mentioned any defense programs that he would cancel.) 

All three programs deserve to be ended. But it may be no coincidence that McCain opposes only Boeing programs. He has been feuding with Boeing since the aborted 2002 Air Force refueling tanker lease deal. The short version of that saga (McCain gave his summation on the Senate floor in 2004) is that the Air Force tried to push a deal through Congress where they would lease tankers from Boeing without competition, adding costs for taxpayers. Authority for the deal was in a Defense Appropriations Bill and therefore would have bypassed authorizers like McCain. McCain led the opposition, in the process disgorging documents showing Pentagon and Boeing officials working together on the deal through various chicanery including corruption. McCain won – Air Force Secretary Jim Roche lost his job and Pentagon and Boeing officials were convicted of crimes – but may still be punishing his enemies. Last fall, McCain successfully pressed the Pentagon to change the requirements for the tanker deal in two ways that aided the bid of Boeing’s rival, EADS-Northrop. Some suggest that he did this because of campaign contributions from Northrop and EADS executives and the presence of their lobbyists on his campaign. It seems more likely that McCain was just out to get Boeing.

*Here’s what McCain said about Obama and FCS, according to the Army Times: “He promised them he would, quote, ‘slow our development of Future Combat Systems’. This is not a time to slow our development of Future Combat Systems.”

Maybe McCain is pretending that he thinks Obama’s comment means he is against all future combat systems in the military rather than the program of that name. But that would be a particularly naked lie.  McCain obviously knows what Obama meant; he complained about the program on the Senate Armed Service Committee for years. So I’m being charitable and assuming that he just changed his mind.

A “Tech Czar”? No Thanks.

Congress Daily reports that an Obama administration “would likely create a national technology czar with broad authority to develop policy, elevating high-tech issues to the cabinet level in a major recalibration of the government’s approach to regulating the communications sector.”

No thanks.

Technology, telecommunications, and information policy are important areas, but not everything that is important needs a lot of attention from the government. And as federal priorities go, tech is not even in the same league as national defense and fiscal order - issues that deserve a cabinet-level officer.

Creating a cabinet-level “tech czar” would be an odd joke and it would stand out as a queer sop to some political constituencies. It’s an unserious idea.

If you’re on the fence, consider the results that have come from raising other fields to “cabinet-level” importance. Education ascended to these heights in 1979 with the establishment of the Department of Education under the Carter administration. Nearly 30 years later, education in America is no better for it, and arguably even more awash in bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Yes, technology is important. No, a federal “tech czar” is not a good idea.

Convention Speeches So Far: Only a Little Terror Hype

I’m proud to report being almost perfectly indifferent to the goings-on at the two political conventions. I don’t care one way or the other about Sarah Palin, though she’s obviously an interesting pick. Here’s what interests me: the rhetoric around terrorism.

Over-the-top speechifying that stokes terrorism fears at the conventions would be bad for the country because it would help perpetuate various costly overreactions and misdirected responses to terrorism. It would encourage would-be terrorists and terrorist groups by granting them more power than their capabilities merit.

I’m pleased to report that the speeches so far have been fairly muted, including Palin’s last night, for the most part. (I’ve only reviewed the presidential and vice presidential candidates’ speeches. I’m sure plenty of speakers have said unfortunate things, but they draw far less attention than the candidates.)

Senators Obama and Biden both referred to keeping nuclear weapons out of terrorists’ hands - an appropriate aim, but perhaps not a significant enough threat to merit mention in a speech of this type. The consequences of a nuclear detonation on U.S. soil (or anywhere) would be significant, of course, but the chance of it happening is vanishingly small.

Governor Palin indulged in a little excess as she criticized Barack Obama’s putative approach to terrorism: “Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America … he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights?”

It’s almost certainly true that Al Qaeda terrorists (and others) plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America, but what matters more is their capability to do so. The vigilance of various agencies and people almost certainly has their capabilities in check.

I suspect that the man accused of plotting to attack the Republican convention with Molotov cocktails was a more proximate danger to “the homeland,” and he undoubtedly was read his rights.

Reading terrorists their rights, and treating them with scrupulous fairness, would help start to make them boring, and it would keep the focus on their wrongdoing. This would enervate terrorism and deprive terrorist groups of recruits and support. On these grounds alone, we should all be for reading terrorists their rights.

I’ll be watching - scratch that - I’ll check the transcript tomorrow to see if Senator McCain repeats any of his terror-hyping lines. I noted here a few weeks ago when he declared himself a follower of Osama bin Laden.

It’s an exciting line - “I will follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell” - but it is a singularly foolish thing to say. It suggests that, as president, McCain would be owned by bin Laden.

I hope Senator McCain charts his own rhetorical course, rather than the one terrorists might like him to follow.