Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Roxana Saberi Was Released

This is fairly old news, but in the event anyone had been hearing about the story only at C@L, I failed to note that last week the U.S. reporter I’d been posting about was released from prison in Iran.  She has left the country, flying to Austria with her family.

Interesting back story on the circumstances surrounding her arrest here.  Whatever the details, it’s good news that she was released.

Dick Cheney: Obama’s Enabler

That’s the theme of my Washington Examiner column this week:

Dick Cheney’s “Shut Up and Listen” tour continued last week on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” There, the former veep reiterated his favorite theme: Obama is putting America at risk by “taking down a lot of those policies we put in place that kept the nation safe.”
 
What in the world is Cheney talking about? Granted, Obama’s anti-terror policies are clouded by rhetorical “Hope” and euphemism, and the new administration is less given to chest-thumping than its predecessor. Otherwise, Obama’s approach to terrorism is virtually identical to Bush/Cheney’s.

 Harvard Law prof and former Bush OLC head Jack Goldsmith makes a similar point in a New Republic piece out today, though Professor Goldsmith is happier about the continuity than I am.   For more, see Glenn Greenwald.

Don’t Fear Attacks on the Food Supply

Bruce Schneier, a participant in our January counterterrorism conference, reviews a recent report and discusses the possibility of attacks on the food supply in a post on his blog:

The quantities involved for mass poisonings are too great, the nature of the food supply too vast and the details of any plot too complicated and unpredictable to be a real threat. That becomes crystal clear as you read the details of the different incidents: it’s hard to kill one person, and very hard to kill dozens. Hundreds, thousands: it’s just not going to happen any time soon. The fear of bioterror is much greater, and the panic from any bioterror scare will injure more people, than bioterrorism itself.

Pakistani Nukes: The Solution or the Problem?

The New York Times writes up the revelation that Pakistan is rapidly expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal.  Congressmen and Senators, we’re told, are worried that US military aid might be diverted to this purpose.

Two points here.

1. Insofar as we are giving money to Pakistan, it probably doesn’t matter much if we restrict it to our priorities. Money is fungible – by funding something Pakistan might have paid for itself, we free its funds for other priorities. Maybe it’s the case that the Pakistanis view aid that US gives them for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capability as purely wasteful – and therefore wouldn’t spend a dime if we didn’t provide it. But probably they would have bought much of this capability if we didn’t, and therefore we are freeing up funds for other purposes like the expansion of the nuclear weapons arsenal. If we don’t want to help them do that, we should quit funding them, period.

2. Lots of people point out that Pakistan’s big problem is India – that its preoccupation with its largely indefensible Indian border prevents it from devoting sufficient resources to pacifying its restive Pashtuns and encourages it to employ high-risk strategies like using extremists to tie down Indian forces in Kashmir. 

What you don’t hear much is that nuclear weapons, and particularly the secure second strike capability that Pakistan is likely pursuing, is a potential solution to this problem. Nuclear weapons are a cheap form of defense. In theory, the security that they provide against Indian attack would allow Pakistan to limit its militarization, stop bankrolling extremists, and focus on securing its own territory as opposed to its border. (Note: I’m not arguing that that’s necessarily right, I’m arguing that if you think vulnerability to India is what creates danger for us in Pakistan, you should consider the utility of nuclear weapons in solving this problem).

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are frightening, no question. But the series of wars Pakistan and India have fought since their split should put that fear in perspective. If they can arrest conventional conflict, the nukes are doing great good.

With our president calling for a nuclear-weapons free world, it’s worth considering whether abolishing nukes makes sense if you can’t abolish war.

Elections in India

Despite being hit by the global recession, the ruling Congress Party-led coalition swept to an unexpected victory in India’s general election, mainly because of rural prosperity in a country where 70 percent of the population is rural. Good monsoons and high agricultural prices—linked partly to the global commodity boom—helped agriculture grow at a record annual rate of almost 4.5 percent for five years. The combination of high prices and high output yielded a happy peasantry. High food prices did not outrage rural workers because of a new rural employment scheme guaranteeing up to100 days work, and this helped despite corruption in implementation. Many states raised minimum wages too, raising worker pay faster than prices, and this was sustainable because of high crop prices. The government had partly or fully forgiven bank loans to small farmers, and this too won its votes.

However, this policy will encourage loan defaults in future: far better would have been cash payments to the needy, while maintaining loan discipline. The world commodity boom made it possible for the government to hike its support prices for crops as well as minimum wages, but such happy conditions will not last. India needs agricultural reform that focuses on raising productivity rather than loan waivers and hikes in controlled prices. And it must carry on its good work in improving rural infrastructure.

Most election forecasts predicted a hung parliament and an unstable government. But Congress’ victory means India will have a stable government for five years. Unlike last time, it will not depend for survival on the Marxist parties, which thwarted several economic reforms and opposed the nuclear deal and defense framework agreements with the USA . Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s courage in risking his government on this issue has been vindicated, and the two countries can now raise cooperation to a higher level. This could be especially important in checking Islamic terrorism, a serious problem for both countries.

The Congress must now proceed with legislation earlier thwarted by the Marxists—on pension reform, allowing private investment in coal mining, and raising foreign investment limits in insurance, telecom and retail. Victory and stability should also make it politically possible to avoid brazenly protectionist measures advocated by some sections of industry. The new agenda should include education reform—school vouchers to promote choice, liberalized rules for private schools, permission for foreign universities to set up shop in India . India badly needs administrative reforms to make civil servants and the police more accountable to citizens. A perceived lack of justice is an important cause for Maoist insurrections in some states, to which force alone cannot be the answer.

Tightening the Noose Around the Right to Travel

Ask anyone who has experienced life in a country where freedom of movement is not recognized, and you’ll come away impressed with the importance of having the right to travel. That right takes another step back in the United States today.

Today the federal government takes over from airlines the process of running passengers against its terrorist watch lists. This means that when you fly, the Transportation Security Administration now requires airlines to give the government your full name, your itinerary, your date of birth, your gender, and an optional “redress number.”

Running names against watch lists does not secure against even modestly sophisticated attackers — 17 of 19 9/11 hijackers were “clean skin” terrorists, without histories of activity that would get them on watch lists. And in 2002, an MIT study (the “Carnival Booth”) showed how passenger profiling failed as a security measure. Attackers could “step right up” and test the system on dry runs to see if it singles them out. The same applies to watch listing.

Transferring responsibility for checking watch lists is a small step, but it brings into sharp focus that the government is now pre-screening Americans’ travel and travel plans.

There is no telling which direction this mission will creep over time. In the event of an attack on some other mode of travel — even a small or failed attack — expect the government to extend pre-approval for travel in that direction. The government will soon discover that it can run names of travelers past other lists — first dangerous wanted criminals, then wanted criminals, then “deadbeat dads,” and on down the line to people with unpaid parking tickets.

With government officials pushing fear of disease to the level of mania, watch for medical records to be used in government pre-screening of travelers.

The current policy is to retain information about travelers for no more than seven days after each leg of a trip has been completed. If a person is a suspected match, TSA will retain the information concerning that potential match for seven years. If the potential match is confirmed, TSA will retain the confirmed match for 99 years.

Seven years is already a lot for people who just happen to have a name similar to a name on the burgeoning terror watch list. But the policy is likely to change too, and deep dossiers of Americans’ travel will grow.

Remember, again, that watch listing is security theater. It looks like it protects air travel, but it doesn’t. When you are prescreened for travel by the government — as this program saps your freedom to travel — you are giving up something for nothing.

Obama’s Military Commissions

President Obama is expected to announce how his administration is going to prosecute prisoners for war crimes and perhaps other terrorist offenses.  Instead of civilian court, courts-martial, or new “national security courts,” Obama has apparently decided to embrace George W. Bush’s system of special military tribunals, but with some “modifications.”

Glenn Greenwald slams Obama for seeking to create a “gentler” tribunal system and urges liberals to hold Obama to the same standards that were applied to Bush:

What makes military commissions so pernicious is that they signal that anytime the government wants to imprison people but can’t obtain convictions under our normal system of justice, we’ll just create a brand new system that diminishes due process just enough to ensure that the government wins.  It tells the world that we don’t trust our own justice system, that we’re willing to use sham trials to imprison people for life or even execute them, and that what Bush did in perverting American justice was not fundamentally or radically wrong, but just was in need of a little tweaking.  Along with warrantless eavesdropping, indefinite detention, extreme secrecy doctrines, concealment of torture evidence, rendition, and blocking judicial review of executive lawbreaking, one can now add Bush’s military commission system, albeit in modified form, to the growing list of despised Bush Terrorism policies that are now policies of Barack Obama.

Greenwald is right.  The primary issue is not due process.  The tribunals might ultimately be “fair” and “unbiased” in some broad sense, but where in the Constitution does it say that the president (or Congress) can create a newfangled court system to prosecute, incarcerate, and execute prisoners?

For more about how Bush’s prisoner policies ought to be ravamped, see my chapter “Civil Liberties and Terrorism” (pdf) in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers.