Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

DHS Was Bluffing

Last week, I published an Op-Ed in the Detroit News predicting chaos at the border in the face of ramped up document checks. I was wrong.

In fact, the DHS was bluffing. Border crossers who lacked government-issued photo ID and proof of citizenship like birth certificates or naturalization certificates weren’t prevented from crossing. They were given fliers.

As the AP reports:

Bobby and Genice Bogard of Greers Ferry, Ark., … who winter in Mission, Texas, knew the requirements were coming but thought they took effect in June. So even though they have U.S. passports, they had left them at home.”He allowed us to pass with a driver’s license,” Bobby Bogard said of a border agent.

“But next time he said he wouldn’t,” added Genice Bogard.

Yeah.

Something to keep in mind as the DHS threatens to make air travel inconvenient for people from states that don’t comply with the REAL ID Act’s national ID mandate.

Is The Domestic Terror Threat ‘Overblown’?

As Cato’s new research fellow for Defense and Homeland Security (and someone who’s written extensively on how the terror threat to the United States is hardly an “existential” one), I was glad to see this headline on the cover of latest Rolling Stone (right behind the left ear of Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke): “The Fake Domestic Terror Threat: How the FBI Became a Factory of Fear” — even if it’s a bit hyperbolic. (The article is not online.)

The author, Guy Lawson, does not tell readers much that they could not have gathered from the Washington Post or the New York Review of Books. But he repeats something that bears repeating: Six plus years of fevered searching for terrorists on American soil has turned up precious little of the real thing.

The hunt, led by the FBI, has found several wanna-be jihadis willing to sign up for phony terror plots often organized by FBI informants, various illegal immigrants with shady overseas connections, a number of people gathering funds for foreign terrorist organizations, and only a handful of true terrorists (and not particularly formidable ones). A report from NYU’s Center for Law and Security finds that from September 11, 2001 through September 11, 2006, only “four individuals have been convicted of federal crimes of terrorism” in the United States and “no sleeper cell with logistical or tactical links to al Qaeda has been convicted of plotting an attack to be carried out within the U.S.” That means we have found no terrorist sleeper cells in the United States since September 11, as the FBI admitted.

Time and again, federal officials held press conferences to announce the break-up of a terrorist plot and vaguely described the disaster prevented. The evening news and the headlines repeated their lurid claims. Months later, the inside pages of the papers would report that the plot was not what we were told — and TV doesn’t even bother. The plans have turned out to be unfeasible or preliminary. On other occasions, it turned out the plotters visited a terrorist camp but did little plotting. Some charges have been dismissed. Some have been completely bogus.

Experts, like an FBI agent Lawson quotes, say that just because you haven’t found something, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. That’s indisputable. But when several federal agencies, local police, alarmed citizens, and ambitious federal prosecutors search for terrorists for years and find almost none, you have good evidence that there just aren’t many to find. To that some will say that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. But that expression is illogical. If you spent two hours spent searching your car for your lost wallet, it is good evidence that it’s not there, though it’s not proof.

Don’t mistake me. The domestic terror threat is not altogether false. Most of those the government has prosecuted in the name of counter-terrorism should have gone to prison or been deported, and the FBI should not quit looking. The point is simply that the threat is greatly exaggerated.

Without that exaggeration it would be harder, obviously, to justify illegal wiretapping and other brazen assertions of unconstitutional executive power. Lawson mentions another consequence of overreaction to domestic terrorism; one that is mostly ignored: fewer resources devoted to fighting good old-fashioned crime. He quotes a Northern Illinois police officer frustrated by the funds the FBI devotes to chasing terrorists when there is plenty of real federal crime going unsolved and wonders if this is the best use of our tax dollars. He could have gone further.

The FBI has shifted about 2,400 agents from crime to counter-terrorism in recent years, despite the doubling of its topline budget — now $6.4 billion. The result is likely more fraud, more racketeering, more mafia. In a 2005 report, Justice Department inspector general Glenn Fine notes that the FBI opened 45 percent fewer criminal investigations in 2004 than 2001 and referred 27 percent fewer cases to a U.S. Attorney for prosecution. Cases opened on violent crime dropped 47 percent, financial crimes 40 percent, public corruption 42 percent and American criminal enterprises — often the mafia — 50 percent.

Even readers skeptical about the merits of federal policing ought to agree that it is wiser for the feds to chase real criminals than imaginary terrorists. As Jim Harper recently said here, terrorists usually impose large costs only by inducing the unwitting help of their victims. By encouraging the FBI to ignore its traditional responsibilities, we magnify the costs of terrorism. A recalibration of priorities is in order. But American politics being what they are, that will take a few hundred more articles like Lawson’s.

Terrorism and Terrorism Counter-Strategy: Some Rudimentary, Necessary Thoughts

I share Tim Lee’s disagreements with our colleague Roger Pilon’s WSJ op-ed. Roger received far less gentle treatment elsewhere. I’m impressed, as usual, with Tim’s depth on the FISA law and the FISA debate.

This stir reminds me of a broader problem that pervades debates on anti-terror policies. Many perfectly intelligent public policy experts still lack a sound understanding of terrorism as a strategy. This degrades their ability to conceive of counter-strategic responses, causing them to promote ideas that would not help and that would even hurt our efforts to control terrorism.

In early January, I presented at a conference held by the International School on Disarmament and Research on Conflicts, the Italian branch of the 1995 Nobel-Prize-winning Pugwash Group. The topic of the conference was “Terrorism, Counterterrorism, and Human Rights.” I have done some work on the privacy implications of technical anti-terrorist efforts, of course, and am increasingly (and necessarily, it seems) focusing on terrorism strategy and counter-strategy. I presented on both and learned a great deal from the perspectives represented at the conference.

Though I don’t feel fully expert yet, I’d like to share some more detailed thinking about terrorism and counter-terrorism strategy. I hope more people will put their thinking into this kind of context.

To Define or Not to Define “Terrorism”

The terrorism definition I offered was: “a strategy used by the weak to goad the strong into self-injurious overreaction.” Rightly, my colleagues prompted me to refine this to “A strategy of violence used by the weak to goad the strong into self-injurious overreaction.” Civil disobedience is designed to elicit overreaction, of course, but it is as far from terrorism as one can get.

Some questions emerged during the conference that are relevant:

  • Can states use terrorism? Or is it only used by non-state actors? - These are important questions. My preference is to find that terrorism is only used by non-state actors. When a state tries to provoke another in some way (even using proxies who look like non-state terrorists), this can and should be treated as a tactic in war. The terrorism counter-strategy I’ll discuss below is inapposite for when a state does terrible things, and this should be treated as a separate problem.
  • Is terrorism only used by the weak? - Regrettably to me, I have heard the United States cited as a possible example of a “strong terrorist.” It is possible that the strong might use terror to provoke, but the strong are almost always states whose use of terror may be acts of war or crimes against humanity, but not acts of terrorism that can be addressed with terrorism counter-strategy.
  • Does terrorism require attacks on civilians? - I think not. Terrorism can be committed by attacks on civilian or military infrastructure, or even without attack - by making a credible threat. To the extent it can be defined at all, terrorism can not be defined with reference to specific targets or acts.
  • Is terrorism a crime or an act of war? - Placing terrorism in a conceptual box like this is a part of developing a counter-strategy, which I discuss below.

Intentional creation of fear would also seem to be an element of terrorism. Not all fear-creating is terrorism, of course. Legitimate war-making probably includes and requires instilling fear at key times in key populations.

Despite all this, I’m tentatively persuaded that it is not actually useful to spend a lot of time parsing it down to the “definitive definition” - not for these purposes, at least. Terrorism requires a definition if you’re going to extradite people for “terrorism,” but as I conclude below, terrorist acts are best treated as crimes and made extraditable as such. States, especially, will use the process of defining terrorism for self-preservation, treating all non-state violence as terrorism. They do this to have a rhetorical upper-hand when confronting any rebellion, even a legitimate one, fought fairly. George Washington’s army may have been considered “terrorist” by the British.

What matters is not the definition, but how terrorism works.

Terrorism at Work: Overreaction
I do believe that terrorism has a defining characteristic: it seeks to goad the strong into self-injurious overreaction, with results falling into the following categories:

  • Waste of Blood and Treasure - Terrorist attacks - or well-placed threats of attack - can prompt the victim to waste its own resources, both the blood of its soldiers and the wealth of its people. The U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks provides many examples of both. It terms of blood, there is the Iraq War. (n.b., I was sympathetic to the war at the beginning and quite capable of defending its rationale, but the result now is clear: that we have wasted many lives and much treasure.) The creation and operation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration are basically permanent multi-billion-dollar drains on the public fisc. The REAL ID Act and Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative are similarly wasteful, self-destructive programs. These are just a few examples and they all were prompted by a $500,000 al Qaeda investment. Ohio State professor John Mueller’s legendary Regulation article is required reading for anyone studying terrorism or thinking in terms of terrorism counter-strategy.
  • Recruitment and Sympathy Gains - A strong power victimized by terrorism is very likely to do violence or take other responses that are badly directed, or even entirely misdirected. This will tend to engender sympathy for the terrorists and aid in their recruiting and support. The Iraq War has drawn energy to al Qaeda, as the U.S. is widely perceived as a Middle East menace, its good intentions unknown. Not just the war-making matters, of course; its conduct does, as well. Think Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo - gigantic PR victories for terrorists, and many other opponents of U.S. power. Paddy Hillyard from Queen’s University Belfast has articulated well how British responses to IRA terror won sympathy and recruits for them. Lashing out against the communities in which terrorists live, or the places where they hide, forces local neutrals into the wrong camp. These are people who are uniquely positioned to undermine those terrorists should they so choose.
  • Weakened Political Order/Society - Finally, terrorism causes what I have tentatively called a “weakened political order/society.” Terror attacks on the Western democracies have caused them to come somewhat loose from their (classical) liberal moorings. In the U.S. since 9/11, we have seen proposals for massive domestic surveillance, we have seen Americans taken prisoner and held without charges, we have seen surveillance conducted in violation of the law. These are just a few of the more prominent examples. (A list Paddy Hillyard produced with reference to Northern Ireland looks remarkably familiar.) Now, naming all these “civil liberties violations” is not mere (neo) liberal carping. Mike German’s book Thinking Like a Terrorist shows that terrorists are battling for legitimacy. With little ability to build their own legitimacy, they can at least degrade their opponent’s. Overreaction by the victim state erodes its claim of moral authority to rule. This is more relevant when a terrorist group makes a credible claim on territory or when it represents a distinct population, of course, but look at how Osama bin Laden has occasionally offered to make “great power”-like deals with European states. This is a man seeking after legitimacy. Unfortunately, U.S. officials have given it to him in their rhetoric by allowing HIM to declare war! U.S. officials have likewise undermined U.S. legitimacy (and grown the terrorists’) by seeking excessive new powers, exaggerating threats, and undermining the rule of law. It is a successful execution of the terrorism strategy when an attack causes a state to deviate from its ordinary practices and founding ideals.

So now that we have the terrorism strategy in hand, and how it works, we can turn to counter-strategy. My potentially-clever line summarizing good terrorism counter-strategy is:

Do what you can – AND NOTHING MORE!

There are lots of things to do that can thwart terrorism and defend against terrorist attacks, such as infiltrating and disrupting terror groups. (They have to operate clandestinely so they are wonderfully paranoid. This can be exploited, and has been in the past.) Targeted, lawful surveillance of terrorists and terror suspects is good. Controlling access to weapons of mass destruction and WMD precursors - vital. Taking reasonable precautions to secure against likely vectors of attack on infrastructure. Preparing for attacks and their aftermaths. Communications that accurately convey risks and appropriate responses. These are all viable counter-terrorism activities - and it’s not nearly an exhaustive list.

The counter-strategy’s most interesting part, of course, is the “nothing more” part. This is the commonsensical but elusive idea that you should not take anti-terrorism measures that aren’t going to work. Believe it or not, this implies a slight preference for inaction (or perhaps under-action) in anti-terror efforts. If it isn’t provably a good idea, don’t do it!

This is not pacifist foolishness; this is hard-edged counter-strategy taking advantage of the fact that terrorism alone is inherently self-destructive. Only when joined with overreaction does terrorism become “productive.” Overreaction must be avoided.

So our counter-strategies, which map to the gains terrorists seek, are:

  • Hold on to Blood and Treasure - If at all possible, don’t go to war. As I said, I was sympathetic to the Iraq War at the outset. My intellectual superiors here at Cato did a better job of it at the time, and now continue to counsel less war over more. This is consistent with good terrorism counterstrategy.
  • Don’t Give the Gift of Overreaction - As I touched on above, terrorists want their opponents to strike at them and miss. They don’t even mind too much if they get hit - as long as there is some good collateral damage. Overreaction - in war, prisoner detention and mistreatment - even in the conduct of investigation - these things are all good for terrorists because it helps them get recruits and support.
  • Stand By the Values of Your Society - Similarly, deviating from the rule of law, seeking extraordinary powers, using mass surveillance - these things all give terrorists legitimacy by admitting their power. These things also undermine the legitimacy of an incumbent government by placing the state at odds with its people. (By the way, false security measures will do yet more to undermine a state’s legitimacy when they actually fail. Placing the government’s legitimacy on the table in a bet on “security theater” is anti-terrorism malpractice.) When the terror-victim-government simply behaves well, this can be a devastating blow to terrorism because it causes the bad behavior of terrorists to dominate public perceptions. It destroys terrorists’ legitimacy and it undercuts their support, sympathy, recruitment, and fundraising.

One thing about all this is important: “War” is the wrong reaction by any measure. Going to war literally saps a nation of blood and treasure. It also will result in damage that draws sympathy and support to the terrorists. The rhetoric of “war” also gives terrorist groups legitimacy in the eyes of their current and potential allies, supporters, or members. I get very frustrated when I hear U.S. public officials give Osama bin Laden this gift.

Rather than war, terrorism should be treated as a crime problem, for at least two reasons: First, that treatment is far less likely to lead to overreaction, and, second, treating terrorism as a crime is an energy-draining “dis” to terrorists themselves. My colleague Roger Pilon is mistaken to put our efforts against terrorism within the constitution’s “Commander in Chief” power, whatever its appropriate scope is. As far as extradition, terrorists should be extradited based on the criminal acts or criminal planning they have committed. (Perhaps certain conspiracies might be added to the substantive law in some countries.) Treating them fairly - as criminals - will quickly melt the “mystique” that terrorists try to mold around themselves.

There are many pieces missing from this discussion. There are certainly many details about which reasonable people can differ. One thing I think is certain: Failing to address terrorism counter-strategically has done our nation immense damage, and threatens still more. We need to change that.

Atilla Yayla Found Guilty

Atilla Yayla, the courageous leader of the Association for Liberal Thinking in Turkey, who has spoken at the Cato Institute and taken part in Cato conferences and programs, has been found guilty of allegedly insulting the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The 15 month prison sentence was suspended.

Background from my previous blog posts here and here.

The New York Times ran a piece on Friday on the likely direction for freedom of speech in Turkey, “Turkey to Alter Speech Law,” which focuses on Atilla’s case.

Atilla is a brave man and a friend of the liberty of everyone. Please write to the Turkish Ambassador in your country, respectfully (please) requesting that proceedings be undertaken to void the sentence. Here is the info for the Turkish Embassy in the USA.

The Real Story from the Interview with Saddam’s Interrogator

There’s been a decent bit of buzz over the 60 Minutes interview that ran last night with George Piro, Saddam’s Arabic-speaking interrogator. To my mind, though, there wasn’t too much new information in the piece. This, however, while not new, is as alarming as it’s ever been:

out of 10,000 FBI agents, only about 50 speak Arabic.

You go to war with the FBI you have, to be sure. But the fact that the administration has spread these people as thinly as possible by opening new fronts in the struggle against terror at every opportunity is a truly dark legacy.

WaPo’s Marc Fisher on O’Malley’s REAL ID Misstep

Today Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher takes Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (D) to task for needlessly committing his state to implement REAL ID, the national ID law.

Fisher recognizes that REAL ID will not prevent illegal immigration, but will merely foster deepened criminality: “Maryland’s highways will soon gain tens of thousands of unlicensed motorists, thanks to an abrupt reversal by Gov. Martin O’Malley.”

O’Malley backtracked on campaign commitments to keep Maryland an immigrant-friendly state when he announced that the state would link driver licensing and immigration status. Somehow O’Malley and his secretary of transportation, John Porcari, convinced themselves (and apparently Fisher) that REAL ID requires them to refuse licenses to illegal immigrants, and that moving toward REAL ID compliance would allow them to avoid standing out:

Porcari says Maryland was forced to reject the two-tier system [in which the state would still license illegal immigrants] not because the governor is suffering from low popularity and wants to glom onto the anti-immigrant movement but because “the national landscape is shifting” and Maryland could have found itself nearly alone in resisting Real ID. But seven states are refusing to comply with Real ID, and 17 have condemned the law, which was passed after the 9/11 attacks and requires states to conduct time-consuming identity checks.

States can issue licenses to anyone consistent with REAL ID. Licenses that don’t meet the federal law’s strictures would simply have to be labeled as such.

On O’Malley’s pre-commitment to REAL ID, there are two possibilities. One is that Governor O’Malley and Secretary Porcari actually don’t understand what REAL ID requires and are ignorant of sentiment about the law among sister states. The other is that O’Malley, indeed, has abruptly reversed his professed friendliness toward immigrants.