Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

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.

How Much Defense Spending Is Enough?

Over at the National Interest, my boss Ted Carpenter has been slugging it out with former senator Jim Talent over (originally) Fred Thompson’s proposal to spend 4.5% of GDP on defense.

Ted notes correctly that we already spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, but Sen. Talent is nonplused. To the contrary, he protests that

the Navy must buy new DDG-1000 destroyers, ramp up procurement of Virginia-class submarines, and buy large numbers of littoral combat ships and the next-generation cruiser. The Air Force must buy its new superiority fighter, the F-22, as well as Joint Strike Fighters or equivalent aircraft and additionally fund its strategic-airlift requirement, design and build a new tanker and develop an interdiction bomber to replace the B-52. The Army must modernize and replace almost its entire capital stock of fighting vehicles.

How does Ted oppose doing the things Sen. Talent says we “must” do? Because, according to Talent, he

ignores the risks created by: the collapse of democracy in Russia, the rapid growth of Chinese power and the reemergence of Chinese national ambitions, the proliferation of nuclear weapons to rogue states and unstable governments, the rise of Islamic fanaticism empowered by the tools of asymmetrical warfare, and the intense ethnic and religious rivalries that have led to genocide on a vast scale in Europe, Africa and Asia in the last twenty years.

This is an interesting exercise in bait-and-switch. So the justifications for buying new battleships, the Joint Strike Fighter, and a new bomber are supposed to include all of these things? How is the Joint Strike Fighter going to deal with the collapse of democracy in Russia? How would new battleships help us deal with nuclear proliferation? And how would a new bomber help us deal with “the rise of Islamic fanaticism empowered by the tools of asymmetric warfare” or “the intense ethnic and religious rivalries that have led to genocide on a vast scale in Europe, Africa and Asia in the last twenty years”?

The only plausible case Mr. Talent could be making is that we should be preparing these tools because ultimately we’re going to have a shooting war with the Chinese. And indeed, if one were inclined to look seriously at the prospect of a shooting war with the Chinese, many of these tools are ones you’d like to have. Then again, a shooting war with the Chinese would also collapse the global economy and possibly have macroeconomic effects that would be felt for decades. Also, a lot of people would die.

Alternatively, if we’re going to get ourselves ready to replicate our experience in Iraq with Iran, the responsible thing to do would be to scrap a lot of these technologies and invest heavily (and quickly!) in a large-scale expansion of the ground forces. The men and women who have taken orders from this administration in the Army and Marine Corps have served valiantly, but they aren’t supermen. At some point, those who advocate endless wars in the Middle East (to be fair, I’m not sure what Sen. Talent’s views are on the Iran question) are going to have to decide which is more important: these large-ticket defense items, or equipping the DOD with the tools it needs to enact the strategies given it by the political leadership in this country.

Alternatively, we could spend 10 or 12 percent of GDP on defense, but I haven’t heard that proposal floated in serious quarters. Another alternative would be to continue initiating wars in the Middle East, continue preparing for war with China, and continue all of the other security commitments America has taken on in the past decades, on what would be the shoestring budget of 4.5 percent of GDP, inadequate to support any of these policies sufficiently.

It’s not clear how Sen. Talent proposes to deal with these tradeoffs, but what’s certainly unhelpful is pretending that the DDG is a workable solution to proliferation. In addition, given that he throws around accusations of “weakening” the United States as opposed to a “strong” United States, it’s worth observing that the charge is coming from a proponent of the current war, which has done more than anything in 40 years to weaken our country.

For a much sounder assessment of where we are and where we should go, see Richard Betts’ article in the current Foreign Affairs, “A Disciplined Defense.”

Is Rudy Running for Editor of the Weekly Standard, or President of the United States?

Lest one worry that Rudy Giuliani’s campaign consists of little more than repeating “9/11” over and over again, it’s worth having a look at his appearance yesterday at the “Politics and Eggs” event in New Hampshire to see what he’s up to. It appears he’s most focused on currying favor with the couple dozen or so die-hard neoconservatives who buzz around Washington complaining that President Bush isn’t hawkish enough.

First, Giuliani assembled a world class cadre of extremists to staff his foreign policy team, including David “End to Evil” Frum, Norman “I Hope and Pray that President Bush Will Bomb Iran” Podhoretz, Michael “The Case for Assassinating Foreign Leaders” Rubin, and a host of others.

But then, at yesterday’s Politics and Eggs breakfast, Giuliani played some dog-whistle politics, blasting away at the State Department for having undermined the Bush administration’s foreign policy. “We have to do a better job of explaining ourselves,” Giuliani observed. “The core of diplomacy is being able to explain the United States in various parts of the world, in cultures that might be very different, and it’s our job to understand them better.”

And then came the time to take in the State Department, a bête noire for neoconservatives, for a drubbing. (I’m loosely transcribing from a video of the speech.)

I would change the mission of the State Department. The State Department exists not just for the purpose of explaining other countries to us–it’s real important–as I said, with the Middle East, maybe we didn’t do a good enough job with understanding them….but the main purpose of an Ambassador is to sell the United States…

I think we need to reinvigorate the State Department. When you tell me America’s reputation is in trouble in various parts of the world, I say “what has our Ambassador done to protect that reputation? How much explanation has the Ambassador done on television? How much explaination has the Ambassador done in the media and in meetings, explaining what the United States is all about?”…

We’ve got to have a State Department that understands that we have a reputation that needs to be defended and respected… We don’t want to force things on anyone in the world–we’d like to share it with them. That’s what diplomacy is about, it’s about sharing who we are with others and getting them to understand us better, and to understand our motives, because we don’t have bad motives…

Rarely has such banality been married to such obtuseness. It’s as though this is somehow a revelation: Giuliani has discovered that the State Department should be concerned with America’s image abroad! Eureka! But this rests on the comfortable fallacy that our problem is fundamentally one of perception rather than reality. Foreigners understand our policies quite well. They dislike them. So flogging the State Department for apparently not understanding the platitude that “we have a reputation that needs to be defended and respected” is a bit much. Particularly when coming from a man who holds such easy-to-explain-to-the-world views as that the United States has favored the Palestinians too much in the Israel-Palestine dispute.

Public diplomacy isn’t a magic bullet. If the medicine tastes bad enough, all the sugar in the world isn’t going to help it go down.

Giuliani decided to finish the talk with a flourish. Discussing his views on diplomacy further, he observed that:

You need to know when to negotiate and you need to know when not to negotiate. Because negotiating when you’re not supposed to negotiate, you can kill more people. I know that’s hard for some people to understand, but if you negotiate at the wrong time, you can cost human lives…

I’ll just leave you with this example: What about Hitler? Should Chamberlain have negotiated with Hitler? Or should England have listened to Churchill in the 1930s? The answer is pretty simple: We’d have saved millions of lives if we’d stood up to Hitler at a much earlier stage. We’d have saved a lot of lives if we’d stood up to Islamic terrorism at an earlier stage.

Ah, the Hitler analogy. The last refuge of a neocon.

Which Secretary Chertoff Do You Believe?

In February, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the following about the REAL ID Act: “If we don’t get it done now, someone is going to be sitting around in three or four years explaining to the next 9/11 Commission why we didn’t do it.”

Alice Lipowicz of Washington Technology reported on REAL ID yesterday:

[Chertoff] and other DHS officials have said that older drivers present a lower terrorism risk and, therefore, might be allowed more time to switch to Real ID licenses. According to the Washington Post, DHS might extend the deadline to 2018 for drivers older than 40 or 50. Moreover, states will have more time to implement the act, Chertoff said.

DHS had previously extended the statutory May 2008 deadline for beginning implementation to December 2009 and recently set 2013 as the deadline for full implementation.

2013 is more than 5 years from now - 2018 is more than eleven. For all Chertoff’s urgency at the beginning of the year, has the Department abandoned its mission to secure the country?

Of course not. But Chertoff and the DHS were clearly trying to buffalo the Congress and the American people on REAL ID earlier this year. They haven’t succeeded.

Happily, this national ID system doesn’t add to our country’s security as its proponents have imagined. We are not unsafe for lacking a national ID. I explored all these issues in my book Identity Crisis.

If REAL ID were a sound security tool, pushing back the deadline for compliance would be a security risk, of course, as would reducing the quality of the cardstock used to make REAL ID-compliant cards - another measure DHS is considering.

Forget security, though. DHS is straining to get the program implemented just so it can claim success and save some face.

“[T]hose who are singing a funeral dirge, I think they’re singing the wrong tune,” Chertoff said November 6th. Alas, as before, Secretary Chertoff is the one more likely to sing a different song.

Norman Podhoretz’s Questionable Quote

Via Andrew Sullivan, this Economist blog post points out that a quote that Norman Podhoretz used to portray the leadership in Tehran as undeterrable came from none other than known fabricator Amir Taheri, who published the false story in the spring of 2006 about the Iranian government making Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians wear badges.

Iran expert and GMU professor Shaul Bakhash did some digging and concluded that his “research, I think, clearly establishes that the alleged quotation is a fabrication.”

The Iranian regime says plenty of deplorable things. So it says a lot that Mr. Podhoretz’s preferred policies are so far around the bend that the quote that best made the case for them is false. Then again, maybe this sort of thing is par for the course. Mr. Podhoretz has a variety of peculiar views.

WHTI Should Go

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) has had the good sense to introduce a bill to repeal the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

WHTI is a classic self-injurious overreaction to the threat of terrorism. The reductions in lawful trade and travel produced by WHTI and the direct costs of the program are greater than the damage to the country that would be averted by this readily defeated “security” measure.