Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

DHS: And We Even Obey the Law!

The Department of Homeland Security’s Officer for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, Daniel W. Sutherland, explains here the great pains DHS is taking … well, not to embarrass itself as American Muslims return from the Hajj. Well and good.

But he goes a little far in touting the department’s efforts: “For the first time in the federal government, a Cabinet-level Secretary has placed two civil libertarians in senior leadership positions – Hugo Teufel, our Chief Privacy Officer, and me.”

The Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Privacy Officer are statutory positions. I’m not sure self-congratulation is in order for following the law.

Defeat Terrorism

Terrorism is a strategy used by the weak to goad the strong into self-injurious overreaction.

DownsizeDC has a campaign underway that I think is critical to defeating terrorism. It’s described on their site this way: “We’re looking for a few brave Americans to start a real war on terror — by not being afraid!”

The “I am Not Afraid” campaign is not about passing or killing any legislation. It is just to get Washington, D.C.’s consistent overreaction to the threat of terrorism under control. The sense of proportion this campaign seeks to create really makes it worth a visit, but here’s a taste:

Nearly 800,000 people have died in car accidents in the last twenty years. During that time there have been exactly two Islamic terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, with less than 3,000 total fatalities. That’s more than 200 TIMES as many Americans dying in their cars as at the hands of Islamic terrorism. And yet …We’ve turned the whole world upside down in response to the two terrorist attacks. We’ve launched invasions, created vast new bureaucracies, shredded the Bill of Rights, compounded regulations, spent hundreds of billions of dollars, and disrupted travel and commerce. But no one is suggesting that we do 200 times as much to address the driving risk, which is 200 times greater.

Terror warriors, keep your straw men in the barn. This is not a pacifist, terrorism-denial campaign. It seeks proportional responses to threats, and acceptance of harms that cannot reasonably be prevented. The message to legislators:

“I am not afraid of terrorism, and I want you to stop being afraid on my behalf. Please start scaling back the official government war on terror. Please replace it with a smaller, more focused anti-terrorist police effort in keeping with the rule of law. Please stop overreacting. I understand that it will not be possible to stop all terrorist acts. I accept that. I am not afraid.”

This is good, important work to defeat terrorism.

Virginia’s National ID Tax

The Washington Post had a story yesterday on whether Virginia would implement the REAL ID Act, the national ID law that has been rejected by other states across the country. They object to its formidable costs, bureaucratic burdens, insoluble privacy problems, and ineffectiveness as a security tool. Why might Virginia go along?

“The vast majority of 9/11 terrorists used Virginia licenses,” Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said. “I think that’s why you haven’t seen as much of a push back.”

It’s the hairshirt theory of policymaking - never mind whether making the driver’s license into a national ID will add to our protections.

Noting the governor’s proposal for a $10 increase in the fee to renew a Virginia driver’s license, the Roanoke Times editorializes today with a little more clarity:

Americans should not have to wait weeks for a driver’s license. They should not have to worry about a massive database tracking their every move. They should not have some wannabe national ID card sloughed onto states.

If you think a national ID tax and all this nonsense somehow adds to the country’s protections, then, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Lipstick on a Pig

The Fair, Accurate, Secure and Timely Redress Act of 2007 is a recently introduced bill that would establish a dedicated agency within the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate and streamline the appeals of people who believe they have been wrongly watch-listed by DHS or the Department of Justice. This office would maintain a “Cleared List” of names that have been identified as not representing a risk.

This is not an answer. As I’ve written before, watch-listing is alien to our system of justice and law enforcement. And because of the potential for opening holes in the pseudo-security watch-listing provides, getting “cleared” by this office would be a bureaucratic nightmare.

This proposal is lipstick on a pig. The pig is watch-listing.

Fareed Zakaria Is Making Sense (Again)

Another bang-up column from Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek:

To recover its place in the world, the United States should first recover its confidence. It remains the world’s only superpower, the only big country with a total portfolio of military, economic and political dominance. Most major states are either well disposed toward it or, at worst, neutral. The challenges America confronts come from small, faceless terrorist organizations and a few rogue nations. This is not to minimize the challenges. Today’s asymmetries of power mean that small groups can do big damage. But it is to put things in perspective. When President Bush speaks of Iran’s nuclear program as the road to World War III, one wonders if he has noticed that Iran’s total GDP is just one sixty-eighth that of the United States, or that its military spending is less than 1 percent of the Pentagon’s.

The real challenges that the United States faces come not from globalization’s losers but from its winners, not from yesterday’s bombs but from tomorrow’s factories. The crucial project for the next president will be to change the basic focus of U.S. foreign policy, away from the Middle East and toward the Far East. When the history of these times is written, surely the great trend that will dominate the accounts, far larger than the war in Lebanon or the tensions over Iran, will be the rise of China and India and how they reshaped the world.

More Cost-Ineffective Security: Criminalizing Tourism

I’ve written in the past about the costliness of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative compared to its small security benefit.

Here’s more cost-ineffective security: Fingerprinting visitors to the U.S.

The Department of Homeland Security announced this week that it would begin collecting 10 fingerprints from foreign visitors to the United States, an extension of the US-VISIT program. This looks like another self-injurious overreaction to the threat of terrorism.

I don’t think collecting ten fingerprints in the US-VISIT program violates civil liberties. People have a diminished right against search and seizure at our international borders. But it is a serious privacy concern for visitors to the U.S.

Their biometrics are entered into a U.S. government database and they have no idea what may be done with that information in the future. DHS keeps that data for 75 years. Yes, lawful visitors to this country, who come to snap pictures of the Statue of Liberty and teach their kids about the United States, go into a U.S. government database for the rest of their lives. It’s just insulting to the millions of good people who want to visit us.

With that, let’s do a rough cost-benefit analysis of collecting 10 fingerprints from foreign visitors to the U.S. It appears to be another security program whose costs outweigh its benefits.

On the costs side of the ledger:

- First, it treats international visitors to the U.S. like criminals. This erodes the goodwill that the United States enjoys in the world, meaning we are less able to convince foreign governments to work with us on all kinds of very important issues. That cost is not easily quantified, but it is substantial. If we can’t get cooperation from Russia on Iran’s nuclear program, for example, that could cost us hundreds of billions or more in the next decade or two.

- More easily quantified is the reduction in lawful trade and travel: The findings of a House bill meant to encourage foreign tourism recite a 56,000,000, or 17 percent, drop in international visitors to the U.S. versus what was expected from 2001 to 2006. Let’s say 10% of this is caused by fingerprinting in the US-VISIT program – people don’t want to come here if we insult them on arrival. The Commerce Department estimates that these visitors would have spent $98,000,000,000 (valued in 2007 dollars) in the U.S. Ten percent of that is $9.8 billion in lost revenue – a significant loss to the economy caused by our harsh treatment of visitors.

- Then there are the costs of running the program – I don’t know what they are, but they’re probably in the tens of millions to $100 million+ per year in Americans’ tax dollars.

Is it worth it? Let’s look at the benefits:

The DHS release says that since 2004, collecting fingerprints in the US-VISIT program has been used “to prevent the use of fraudulent documents, protect visitors from identity theft, and stop thousands of criminals and immigration violators from entering the country.” It gives no hard numbers, but it would have said “tens of thousands” if it was in that range, so let’s say it’s 10,000 violators they’ve caught. ($9.8 billion/10,000=$980,000) Each violator would have had to do almost a million dollars in damage for this security measure to be cost-effective. The average document fraudster, ID fraudster, and immigration violator does nothing near that much harm.

But perhaps the program prevented a single terrorist, or a small group of them, from entering the country, people who would have done $10 billion in damage. This could only be true if we knew in advance exactly which terrorists were coming into the country. But terrorists are fungible. A terrorist organization can select people to send to the U.S. that have no prior participation in terrorism, people who can pass through US-VISIT. With two exceptions, this is what Al Qaeda did for the 9/11 attacks – sent people without any history of terrorism.

US-VISIT can’t prevent a terrorist organization from infiltrating the country – at best, it might delay their activities a couple of weeks while they select the right people to send. Delaying a terrorist attack that causes $10 billion in damage by a month is worth about $42 million. Obviously, spending $9.8 billion to avoid $42 million in damage is not cost-effective security.

My conclusion is that US-VISIT does more harm to the country than it prevents. I welcome suggested refinements to these numbers. Again, this is very back-of-envelope.

Now, should we pass the legislation to make people feel better about us? I’m not sure that’s the solution. The Senate version of legislation to improve our esteem in the world costs $1.80 per person in the United States - $5.64 per U.S. family.

Why spend this money to make people feel better about us when we could make people feel better about us by spending less! US-VISIT doesn’t significantly add to our protections. Given its costs, we should drop it.

A “Bombshell” on Iran

It has taken me about 36 hours to digest the implications of the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran (.pdf), but I have finally come to some preliminary conclusions. The NIE is, in the words of Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, a “bombshell,” that was “as close to a U-turn as one sees in the intelligence world.”

How to explain this U-turn? Beyond the increased focus on collection from both human sources and intercepted communications, a focus that produced a windfall of new information that, according to a senior official, “unlocked stuff we had, which we didn’t understand fully before,” Ignatius offers some additional insights:

The most important finding of the NIE isn’t the details about the scope of nuclear research; there remains some disagreement about that. Rather, it’s the insight into the greatest mystery of all about the Islamic republic, which is the degree of rationality and predictability of its decisions.

For the past several years, U.S. intelligence analysts have doubted hawkish U.S. and Israeli rhetoric that Iran is dominated by “mad mullahs” – clerics whose fanatical religious views might lead to irrational decisions. In the new NIE, the analysts forcefully posit an alternative view of an Iran that is rational, susceptible to diplomatic pressure and, in that sense, can be “deterred.”

“Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs,” states the NIE. Asked if this meant the Iranian regime would be “deterrable” if it did obtain a weapon, a senior official responded, “That is the implication.” He added: “Diplomacy works. That’s the message.”

Who knew? (Hint: Ted Galen Carpenter and Justin Logan, among others.)

Bravo to the intelligence community. Analysts have been singled out (I think unfairly) for criticism on Iraq, but they are to be commended this time around. Some of the credit goes to Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and his chief deputies who, according to the lead story in today’s Washington Post, “compelled analysts working on major estimates to challenge existing assumptions when new information does not fit.”

As Ignatius notes, such advice is consistent with that of Sherman Kent, the godfather of U.S. intelligence analysis, who warned “When the evidence seems to force a single and immediate conclusion, then that is the time to worry about one’s bigotry, and to do a little conscientious introspection.”

I am reminded of a comment by John Maynard Keynes, one that has been quoted so often that it has become clichéd: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Were that question to be posed to George Bush, that most incurious of modern presidents, it appears we already know the answer, at least based on the President’s public remarks. As the Post reported, “Bush defended his approach [toward Iran] during a televised session in the White House briefing room, saying ‘our policy remains the same’ regardless of the new intelligence.” This would seem to confirm that the President does not employ intelligence to inform policy.

But former CIA officer Robert Baer offers a different, and more hopeful, take: while the President will continue to talk tough, Baer says, military action is off the table. Baer suggests that the President himself pushed the NIE to the surface as cover for a 180-degree turn in U.S. policy, and to face down the hawks who are calling for war.

Let’s hope Baer is right.