Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Louisiana Rejects REAL ID

Melissa Ngo reports and comments on her “Privacy Lives” blog about the passage of a particularly strong anti-REAL ID law in Louisiana.

There’s a gem in the comments from a military veteran on the notion that the Veterans Admininstration might withhold benefits to those not having a national ID as required under the REAL ID Act:

I would suggest those who are in office stop thinking you are in control of the American people. I for one went to war once, I am not afraid to do so again. The government serves the people, not the other way around.

Obama vs. Sudan

Here’s Obama, being interviewed by Fareed Zakaria, on why he supports creating a no-fly zone in Sudan to protect Darfurians (whether the UN backs it or not):

In a situation like Darfur, I think that the world has a self-interest in ensuring that genocide is not taking place on our watch. Not only because of the moral and ethical implications, but also because chaos in Sudan ends up spilling over into Chad. It ends up spilling over into other parts of Africa, can end up being repositories of terrorist activity.

This formulation, which comes ironically just after Obama praises George Kennan and realism, demonstrates a dangerous confusion between charity and self-defense. Tragic as it is, the civil war underway in Darfur (whether or not it’s a genocide, the government backed violence against civilians is part of a counter-rebel campaign) has virtually no effect on US welfare. If instability in that part of Africa hurts trade, the impact is infinitesimal. The idea that war in Sudan or Chad would cause terrorism is based an analysis of failed states that does not stand empirical scrutiny. Sure, terrorists have participated in civil strife in several failed states in the Muslim world, but that hardly proves that Sudan or Chad would be a terrorist haven, especially terrorists that target Americans. In fact, it is American participation in conflicts in the Muslim world that makes us a terrorist target, not the absence of our stabilization efforts.

If Obama is so concerned about the violence against civilians in Sudan endangering Americans, why is he only advocating a no-fly zone? Sudan has an air force, but the combatants in Darfur mostly travel on the ground. If our safety is at stake in Darfur, why not buttress the obviously insufficient African Union force with US ground forces?

But an even better way to end chaos in Sudan would be to take the side of the Sudanese state against the rebels, instead of aiding the dissolution of Sudan via a no-fly zone.

Probably Obama does not really believe that our interests are at stake in Sudan but feels compelled to buttress a humanitarian argument with an interest-based one. Advocates of intervening in the Balkans and Iraq used the same all-good-things-go-together trick. Bombing Serbia to protect Kosovars was supposed to save NATO, protect Europe from instability and so on. Invading Iraq was supposed to spread freedom in the region, remove a threat to Saudi Arabia and get our troops home from there, solve the Arab-Israel conflict, quell terrorism, make the North Koreans and Iranians quit pursuing nukes, and produce several other miracles.

This sort of oversell confuses public debate and makes it harder to end interventions. If your sense of charity says that we should get mixed up in another civil war in Sudan, you’re probably not going to want to pay a very high price in blood and money. But once you told everyone that they can never sleep soundly unless Darfurians do, it’s a lot harder to hit the road if the war turns ugly.

Obama’s position on Darfur is indicative of a larger problem in his foreign policy view, which you might call a belief in (or rhetorical commitment to) the indivisibility of security, a tendency to define insecurity anywhere as a threat to security everywhere. He wants to expand the ground forces so we can better fight occupational wars to fix failed states, and agrees with John McCain that we need to surge troops and resources into Afghanistan to transform it into a stable state, which is the wrong objective there. He thinks fighting terrorism requires that he “make it focus of my foreign policy to roll back the tide of hopelessness that gives rise to hate,” a project that will dovetail nicely with our current President’s plan to end evil. This approach to foreign policy is so expansive that it is unrealistic and thus inoperative. That makes it loose talk, which is less harmful than neoconservatism, but nothing to write home about.

Talking at You is Different from Talking with You

Department of Homeland Security Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis Charlie Allen has a longish post on the DHS “Leadership Journal” blog today entitled “Why the Country Needs the National Applications Office.” The NAO has come under a lot of fire for the threats to privacy and civil liberties that come from its national satellite remote sensing capability.

I haven’t spent a lot of time studying the NAO, so I’m not well positioned to discuss all of its issues, but this post probably doesn’t clear the air much. It helps illustrate why the credibility of communications like this is relatively low.

The need for the NAO, as Allen puts it, is established by the agreement by a couple of government agencies that they should do it.

In 2005, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the U.S. Geological Survey, which chairs the CAC [Civil Applications Committee], chartered a blue-ribbon commission to review how the CAC facilitated, managed and oversaw capabilities and resources of the Intelligence Community for appropriate domestic applications. The commission concluded that there is “an urgent need for action because opportunities to better protect the nation are being missed.”

People in government got together and agreed that people in government should be doing more. Surprise, surprise.

Does the NAO have support?

I am not sure what some commentators meant when they said the NAO lacks for champions. All they needed to do was ask a homeowner whose home was saved by the kind of overhead imagery NAO will be able to provide firefighters. Or they could have spoken to me, who has served this country as an intelligence officer for 50 years, or to my bosses, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell. The homeowner or any one of us in government service would have been happy to explain how the NAO will benefit the American people.

This is classic, and ham-handed, appeal to authority. “We all agree that we should do this, so we should do this. And homeowners would agree with us because we plan to save their homes from fires.” Fires are in the headlines this week, y’know.

Where the post really falls down is its defense against charges that the NAO threatens privacy and civil liberties.

The Department of Homeland Security, with the assistance of a number of partner agencies, has designed the NAO with an extraordinary amount of scrutiny and oversight to ensure that the civil liberties, civil rights and privacy of Americans are protected. A National Applications Executive Council will oversee the NAO. It will be chaired by the Deputy Secretary of DHS, the Deputy Secretary of Interior, and the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, and aided by their policy, legal, privacy, and civil liberties and civil rights advisers.

Both the Privacy and Civil Rights and Civil Liberties offices of DHS thoroughly reviewed the NAO Charter and other plans, and completed privacy and civil liberties impact assessments. In addition, DHS’ Inspector General reviewed the NAO’s privacy stewardship and issued a very favorable report.

To rephrase: “The government has agreed that it will safeguard your privacy. We’ve got a lot of panels and boards to do it. So you’ll have your privacy.” The DHS Privacy Committee, on which I serve, is one such panel, and nobody asked us … All the government stamps of approval can go on a government program and that doesn’t show that it will protect privacy.

There is a big difference between telling someone something and showing someone something. Officials like Allen can announce from every rooftop that the NAO will protect privacy, but people won’t believe it unless they can get a look at its operations, understand all that it does, and see what will prevent its work from slipping into privacy-violating domestic surveillance. This is when the secrecy trump card gets played, of course.

This post is Charlie Allen talking at the public, not talking with the public.

I’ve experienced this before. When he spoke before the DHS Privacy Committee, it was pretty much a fillibuster. He spoke for nearly the entire time his schedule allowed and took only two questions before whisking himself away to go be important somewhere else. We were talked at, not with. I gained no assurance that Allen has privacy in hand, much less in mind, as he goes about his work.

Al-Marri Ruling

Yesterday, a federal appellate court finally issued its ruling in the Al-Marri case. This ruling highlights the most important constitutional issues that have arisen since 9-11, namely, the power of the executive vis-a-vis Americans here at home. True, Al-Marri is a citizen of Qatar, but Bush’s lawyers have been clear that what they’ve done to Al-Marri (incommunicado imprisonment in a military brig) can be done to any American suspected of terrorism. As a practical matter, it means Americans can be arrested without warrants and jailed without trials. The Padilla case was never really resolved by the courts, the momentous legal issues involved were left hanging out there once he was transferred into a civilian court to face criminal charges. To clear up the uncertainty, let’s hope the Supreme Court will hear this matter next term.

I’m still studying the 200+ pages in the ruling, but that’s my quick take. For additional info, go here and here (pdf).

John Bolton’s “Delay, Depose, Denuclearize” Hokum

The Wall Street Journal’s editors have apparently plugged the word “Iran” into their John Bolton op-ed generator, and out comes the product: a proposal for bombing Iran. There’s not terribly much new in the piece to cover, but the Bolton piece does a good job of describing the hokey idea that bombing in order to buy time is a worthy endeavor:

…Israel is now at an urgent decision point: whether to use targeted military force to break Iran’s indigenous control over the nuclear fuel cycle at one or more critical points. If successful, such highly risky and deeply unattractive air strikes or sabotage will not resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis. But they have the potential to buy considerable time, thereby putting that critical asset back on our side of the ledger rather than on Iran’s.

With whatever time is bought, we may be able to effect regime change in Tehran, or at least get the process underway. The alternative is Iran with nuclear weapons, the most deeply unattractive alternative of all. (emphasis mine)

This is an awfully, awfully thin reed on which to base a case for starting another unprovoked war in the Middle East. Bolton concedes that bombing will not resolve the nuclear crisis, and concedes further that any delay (common estimates range from 3-7 years) resulting from air strikes may not allow for the regime to be changed.

So then what are we left with? The third U.S. war with a Muslim country in the last 7 years, with attendant casualties and the images beamed all across the Islamic world, further convincing Muslims that the United States is at war with Islam; the inevitable Iranian response that could range from annoying to catastrophic; a rally-around-the-flag effect in Iran, shoring up the position of Iran’s neoconservatives, who have driven the economy into the ground; the certainty that Iran will redouble its nuclear efforts, this time with massive support from its citizens; and a demonstration effect for all countries that the only sure way to stave off attack from the United States is to acquire a nuclear deterrent, tout de suite. That’s just off the top of my head. But maybe, somehow, we can engineer a coup or something in Iran in the five extra years that we will have purchased at the costs outlined above.

Let’s have this debate.

Rep. Wexler: “Don’t Vote for My Iran Bill, Please!”

A few weeks ago, I puzzled over what the heck Congress was doing on Iran. Turns out I wasn’t the only one puzzled.

We now have one of the co-sponsors of the House bill, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fl.), posting on the Huffington Post begging his colleagues not to vote for his own bill. Why? Because:

It is clear that despite carefully worded language in H. Con. Res. 362 that “nothing in this resolution should be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran” that many Americans across the country continue to express real concerns that sections of this resolution will be interpreted by President Bush as “a green light” to use force against Iran.

The language that is most disconcerting in the resolution is the third resolved clause, which demands that the president initiate among several things an “international effort to impose stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran.”

I firmly believe it was not the intention of the authors of this resolution to open the door to a US blockade or armed conflict with Iran. However, I fully understand and share the American public’s mistrust of President Bush and his administration, which has abused its executive powers, willfully misled this nation into a disastrous war in Iraq and disturbingly continues to beat the Iran war drum.

Now, it takes a big person to say “I made a mistake,” and if that’s what Rep. Wexler believes, he should be commended for magnanimity. But it isn’t such a long bill. The wording isn’t complicated. And presumably if he holds this skeptical view of the Bush administration, it didn’t emerge in the time since he signed on to the bill. Which raises the question, “Why did you co-sponsor the bill, then?”

Yet another puzzle for the civics teacher attempting to teach America’s youth “how bills become law.”

Hostages Returned to a Less-Free U.S.A.

Couldn’t help noting that Keith Stansell, one of the U.S. hostages recently rescued from Colombia, had this to say:

To the government and armed forces of Colombia, their heroic actions, those of those soldiers that day, brought me home safe, and for this I thank them.

To my country who never forgot me, never, and especially to the U.S. embassy in Bogota, my heartfelt thanks.

And to you, the men and women of the media, thank you for respecting our privacy in these last few days. Thank you. I ask you please to continue to do so, please, as we proceed with our transition process back to a normal life as a family. Thank you very much.

And to Governor Crist of the great state of Florida, sir, I don’t have a driver’s license. How am I going to get home?

Without a government-issued ID to show at the airport, it appears that Stansell will have to undergo a deep background check, which may include his political party. (Having been “off the grid” the last three years, he may not have much background to check.) The Department of Homeland Security welcomes you home, Mr. Stansell.