Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The CIA Is Not the Nation’s Security

Michael Hayden went on Fox News Sunday this week, fiercely objecting to the Obama administration’s release of Bush-era memos regarding “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He and three other former CIA directors objected to the release.

That common front might draw the memo release into doubt if it wasn’t a given that CIA directors are always going to defend the interests of the CIA.

Hayden trotted out the tired “war” on terror metaphor. This framing may be exciting to him and his colleagues, but it is strategic error to address terrorism this way, and the American public chose a presidential candidate last November who campaigned to emphasize hope over fear. Intoning about war did not help Hayden’s case.

The heart of his argument was that release of the memos would allow our enemies to train for “enhanced interrogation techniques” and that we would lose the benefits of those techniques. But a telling moment came when he shifted his argument:

There’s another point, too, that I have to make, and it’s just not the tactical effect of this technique or that. It’s the broader effect on CIA officers. I mean, if you’re a current CIA officer today - in fact, I know this has happened at the agency after the release of these documents - officers are saying, “The things I’m doing now - will this happen to me in five years because of the things I am doing now?”

Moving from tactical considerations to the “broader effect,” Hayden spoke of how the memo release would chill CIA activity. That’s not irrelevant, but it’s not the broader effect that matters: the strategic effect of using torture in counterterrorism activity. Like the myopic critic I wrote about in my post last week, Hayden is not focused on countering the strategic logic of terrorism, but on defending the interests of the agency he headed.

Chris Wallace showed a brief clip of White House press secretary Robert Gibbs criticizing “enhanced interrogation techniques” on a strategic level: “It is the use of those techniques … in the view of the world that [has] made us less safe.” Being a secretive torturer drives allies away from the United States.

Hayden didn’t get it, answering, “Most of the people who oppose these techniques want to be able to say, ‘I don’t want my nation doing this,’ which is a purely honorable position, ‘and they didn’t work anyway.’ That back half of the sentence isn’t true.”

Against the argument that the use of torture is strategic error, Hayden responded, “But it works!” Arguing its tactical utility does not meet the strategic case against torture.

And Hayden was well back on his heels when asked whether Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month.

Hayden is a fierce defender of the CIA. The CIA provides some elements of the nation’s security. But the CIA is not the nation’s security.

People Are Discovering A Beautiful Read

I’m a bit ashamed to admit it: I just finished reading The Beautiful Tree, Professor James Tooley’s new book recounting his remarkable travels through some of the world’s poorest slums discovering for-profit private school after for-profit private school. I’m ashamed because The Beautiful Tree is a Cato book and I should have read it long before it became publicly available. Fortunately, it seems many people outside of Cato caught on to the importance of Tooley’s work the moment they heard about it.

Yesterday, the Atlantic’s Clive Crook blogged about Tooley’s book, calling Tooley “an unsung hero of development policy” for bringing to light — and refusing to let others blot that light out — how mutual self-interest between entrepreneurs and poor families brings education to the world’s poorest children. And there’s the companion story: How billions of government dollars have erected some relatively nice public school buildings but have created an utterly dilapidated public school system, one that enriches government employees while leaving children — sometimes literally — to fend for themselves.

In addition to the blogosphere, the national airwaves have begun carrying the uplifting story of Tooley’s findings. On Wednesday, ABC News NOW ran a lengthy interview with Prof. Tooley in which he laid out many of the book’s major themes. And the book was only released, for all intents and purposes, that same day; much more coverage is no doubt forthcoming.

It needs to be.

The Beautiful Tree, quite simply, contains lessons applicable not only to slums or developing nations, but to all people everywhere, and they need to be learned. In the United States, whether the subject is  government-driven academic standards or the desirability of for-profit education, this book offers essential insights. But many readers will find the overall lesson tough to take: The cure for what ails us is not more government schooling — providing education the way we think it’s always been done — but embracing freedom for both schools and parents.

Whether or not this lesson is tough to stomach, it must be acknowledged by all who honestly seek what is best for our children. For as Tooley’s work makes abundantly clear, denying reality — no matter how unexpected or politically inconvenient it may be — only ends up hurting the people we most want to help.

Fighting Piracy through Nation Building?

Even though I was on vacation last week, I followed the story of the Maersk-Alabama and Captain Richard Phillips with great interest. And I exulted when three of the four pirates met their end. The safe return of the Maersk-Alabama and her entire crew was a clear win for the cause of justice, and could serve as a model. Future efforts to protect ships from pirates are likely to include some combination of greater vigilance on the part of the shipping companies and crews, in collaboration with the navies of the many different nations who have an interest in keeping the sea lanes open and free. (This is one of the themes that I develop in my new book, and that I will discuss next Monday at Cato.)

We do not need to reorient our grand strategy to deal with pirates. We don’t need to reshape the U.S. Navy to fight a motley band of young men in leaky boats. As my colleague Ben Friedman has written, piracy is a problem, but decidedly minor relative to many other global security challenges.

But some are criticizing the approach taken to resolve last week’s standoff. They say that the only way to truly eliminate the piracy problem is to attack and ultimately clean out the pirates’ sanctuaries in lawless Somalia. This “solution” fits well with the broader push within the Washington foreign policy community that would deal with our security problems by fixing failed states.

I have gone on at length, usually with my colleagues Justin Logan and Ben Friedman, on the many reasons why an overarching strategy for fixing failed states is unwise and unnecessary. I won’t expand on that thesis here, other than to point out that of all failed states in the world, Somalia is arguably the most failed. “Fixing” it would require a massive investment of personnel, money, and time — resources that would be better spent elsewhere.

Mackubin Owens offers one of the more intriguing defenses of this approach in a just published e-note for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Owens likens a strategy of fixing Somalia to Gen. Andrew Jackson’s military operations in Florida, a story that features prominently in John Lewis Gaddis’s Surprise, Security and the American Experience. As Owens notes, when some members of President James Monroe’s cabinet wanted to punish Jackson for exceeding his mandate — in the course of his military campaign he captured and executed two British citizens accused of cavorting with the marauders who had attacked American citizens — Secretary of State John Quincy Adams jumped to Jackson’s defense and proposed a different tack. He demanded that Spain either take responsibility for cleaning up Florida or else give it up. And we all know what happened. Under the terms of Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, Florida became a territory of the United States. Some 26 years later, it became our 27th state.

I’ve vacationed in Florida many times. Walt Disney World is wonderful for the kids; I’ve been there six times. I spent three memorable days watching March Madness in Miami a few years back. Spring training baseball is great fun. Adams couldn’t have imagined any of these things when he acquired a vast swampland; he cared only that Florida under Spanish control, or lack thereof, posed a threat.

Here is where the parallels to the present day get complicated. I’ll admit that I’ve never been to Somalia. Perhaps they have their own version of South Beach, or could have some day. But I’m frankly baffled by the mere intimation that our national security is so threatened by chaos there that we need to take ownership of the country’s — or the entire Horn of Africa’s — problems.

And yet, that is what many people believe. And this is not a new phenomenon. In many respects, we have chosen to treat all of the world’s ungoverned spaces as the modern-day equivalent of Spanish Florida.

Max Boot and Robert Kaplan compare U.S. military operations in the 21st century to the westward territorial expansion of the 19th century. In 1994, Kaplan authored one of the seminal works in this genre, “The Coming Anarchy,” in which he advised Western strategists to start concerning themselves with “what is occurring … throughout West Africa and much of the underdeveloped world: the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war.” Less than two years later, William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote, “American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order.” Boot in 2003 advised Americans to unabashedly embrace imperialism. “Afghanistan and other troubled lands,” he wrote, “cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.”

Americans have resisted such advice, and with good reason. The world will not descend down the path to total ruin if the United States hews to a restrained foreign policy focused on preserving its national security and advancing its vital interests. That is because there are other governments in other countries, pursuing similar policies aimed at preserving their security, and regional — much less global — chaos is hardly in their interests. The primary obligation of any government is to defend its citizens from threats. Curiously, our conduct in recent years suggests that U.S. policymakers doubt that other governments see their responsibilities in this way. Indeed, we have constructed and maintained a vast military largely on the grounds that we, and we alone, must police the entire planet.

In The Power Problem, I quote Machiavelli, who noted in his discourses: “Men always commit the error of not knowing where to limit their hopes, and by trusting to these rather than to a just measure of their resources, they are generally ruined.” I continue:

As Machiavelli would have predicted, the notion of what Americans must do to preserve and advance our own security has steadily expanded over the years to encompass the defense of others. Seemingly unconstrained by the resources at our disposal, we are driven by our dreams of fashioning a new global order. But we are also driven by false fears. We believe that we can only be secure if others are secure, that insecurity anywhere poses a threat to Americans everywhere. If someone on the other side of the planet sneezes, the United States is supposedly in danger of catching pneumonia. The putative cure is preventive war. Such geostrategic “hypochondria” has gotten us all into much trouble over the years. We would be wise to take measure of our relative health and vitality, and not confuse a head cold with cancer.

[Cross-posted from PSA’s Across the Aisle]

Obama and the Interrogation Memos: The Right Decision

President Obama’s decision to release Bush-era memos discussing “enhanced interrogation techniques” is the right decision. Critics, such as the one featured in this Politico article, fail to comprehend terrorism as a strategy. Thus, they are locked into counterproductive policies like secrecy and torture.

Let’s start with the strategic logic of terrorism: By goading strong powers into overreaction and error, terrorism weakens those powers and strengthens itself. Among other things, overreaction and misdirection on the part of the strong power draw sympathy and support to terrorists as it confirms the terrorist narrative that they are in a struggle against evil powers.

Torture or credible accounts of torture provide confirmation of a suspicion among relatively unsophisticated observers in the Middle East (once known as the “street”) that the United States is a colonist and an oppressor of Muslims and Arabs. Secrecy is a way in which such stories grow and multiply. The results of torture and secrecy are millions of people who believe, suspect, or worry that they and their culture are on the losing end of a battle for supremacy in the world. (We have some of those on the American street, too.)

From these millions emerge individuals and groups — eventually perhaps networks — who devote their creativity to developing and eventually mounting attacks on the United States and the West. (The path to terrorism is not simple or well-understood. Several panels in our January counterterrorism conference explored dimensions of this question.)

Just as important, non-participants in terrorism who are ideologically or physically nearby to inchoate terrorists decline opportunities to undermine the terrorism brewing around them. Terrorists are bad people with ugly ideologies, and their neighbors know it, but these neighbors will overlook all that if they see the United States as a wrongdoer. Because of secrecy and torture, the United States loses these natural allies and the security they would otherwise provide.

But what about the loss of enhanced interrogation techniques? “Publicizing the techniques does grave damage to our national security by ensuring they can never be used again,” says a critic, “even in a ticking-time-bomb scenario where thousands or even millions of American lives are at stake.”

The ticking-time-bomb scenario is a movie plot that evidently thrills some in the counter-terrorism community. But the chance of a significant weapon being acquired and used by terrorists is very small. The chance that U.S. authorities will know about it and know who to interrogate at just the right moment: pure fantasy. Such a moment would only arrive as the result of many, many failures on the part of U.S. intelligence and security organizations to protect our interests.

Even assuming that torture actually works, which is very much in dispute, the security given by having the sympathy of millions of people in the Muslim and Arab worlds is much, much greater than the security of having legal authorization to torture. The security of having world goodwill helps ensure that we never arrive at the ticking time-bomb moment.

If that’s frustrating to torture hawks, there are video games where they can avenge the 9/11 attacks over and over again. The rest of us will rue the failings that allowed 9/11 to happen while we work on sophisticated, strategic counter-terrorism that actually secures the country. Many in the intelligence and security communities have sophisticated views on counter-terrorism and are eager to get on with policies that aren’t counterproductive.

President Obama has made the right decision in releasing the memos — and not just right in some abstract legal or moral sense. It is the correct strategic decision for countering terrorism.

His critics’ focus on one or two trees — saplings like the “ticking time-bomb” fantasy — obscures the forest that would grow higher still should the United States persist in being a secretive torturer.

Mike German on ‘Intelligence’ Reports

On the ACLU blog (“because freedom can’t blog itself”), Mike German has a great write-up that captures the depth of error in recent DHS “intelligence” reports on ideological groups.

German shows that any ideology can be targeted if the national security bureaucracy comes to use activism as a proxy or precursor for crime and terrorism:

A Texas fusion center warned about a terrorist threat from “the international far Left,” the Department of Homeland Security and a Missouri fusion center warned of threats posed by right-wing ideologues, and a Virginia fusion center saw threats from across the political spectrum and called certain colleges and religious groups “nodes of radicalization.” These are all examples of domestic security gone wrong.

“Gone wrong” means weak in theory, threatening to liberty, and not helpful to law enforcement:

If these “intelligence” reports described recent crimes and the people who perpetrated them, there would be little problem from a civil rights perspective, and it could actually be helpful to the average police officer. Instead, they have followed a “radicalization” theory popularized by the NYPD (PDF). That theory postulates that there is a “path” to terrorism that includes the adoption of certain beliefs, and political, religious, or social activism is viewed as another step toward violence. Actual empirical studies of terrorism conducted in the Netherlands and Britain refute this theory, but the idea that hard-to-find terrorists can be caught by spying on easy-to-find activists appears too hard to resist to U.S. law enforcement.

The takeaway: “Threat reports that focus on ideology instead of criminal activity are threatening to civil liberties and a wholly ineffective use of federal security resources.”

Mike German was a participant in our January conference on counterterrorism strategy.

Mueller on Afghanistan

John Mueller, who has been helping out with Cato’s counterterrorism project, has a short essay in Foreign Affairs questioning the premise behind continuing the war in Afghanistan. That is: Al Qaeda would gain haven in Afghanistan absent a U.S. ground presence and use it to attack us here.

Mueller says that the Taliban would not be dumb enough to again offer aid and comfort to the wackos whose attacks brought the U.S. intervention that swept them from power before. I think this overstates the extent to which our enemy in Afghanistan is a singular entity with one way of thinking about its interests, rather than an amalgam of militias that view the utility of cooperation with foreign jihadists in varying ways. But the general point is mostly right.  Advances in UAV technology alone make a replay of the 1990’s impossible.

Mueller’s argument is badly needed in official places like Foreign Affairs where the “failed states are always terrorist havens” thesis is gospel. One can usefully export it to Somalia. The al-Shabab group’s loose ties to Al Qaeda are producing calls for U.S. intervention, despite the lack of evidence that international terrorists are using Somalia as a training ground or could.

Gun Control for the Sake of Mexico: The Meme That Wouldn’t Die

Fox News already debunked the claim that 90% of the guns involved in Mexico’s drug war come from the United States.  Facts aside, the press onslaught continues in a new push for gun control.

The fact is that out of 29,000 firearms picked up in Mexico over the last two-year period for which data is available, 5,114 of the 6,000 traced guns came from the United States.  While that is 90% of traced guns, it means that only 17% of recovered guns come from the United States civilian market.

Where did the rest come from?  A number of places.  To begin with, over 150,000 Mexican soldiers have deserted in the last six years for the better pay and benefits of cartel life, some taking their issued M-16 rifles with them.

Surprisingly, a significant number of the arms are coming to the cartels via legitimate transactions.  They are produced and exported legally every year, regulated by the State Department as Direct Commercial Sales.  FY 2007 figures for the full exports are available here, and State’s report on end-use is available here, alleging widespread fraud and use of front companies to funnel the weapons into the black market.  (H/T to Narcosphere)  This doesn’t even take into account the thousands of weapons floating around Latin America from previous wars of liberation.  This Los Angeles Times article also shows how the cartels are getting hand grenades, rocket launchers, and other devices you can’t pick up at your local sporting goods store.

Perhaps this is why law enforcement officials did not ask for new gun laws to combat Mexican drug violence at recent hearings in front of Congress.

Never mind those pesky facts.  The story at the New York Times recycles the 90% claim.  The associated video is just as bad.  Narrator: “The weapons that are arming the drug war in Juarez are illegal to purchase and possess in Mexico.”  They’re also illegal in the United States.  As the narrator says these words, the Mexican officer is handling an M-16 variant with a barrel less than sixteen inches long.  This rifle would be illegal to possess in the United States without prior approval from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE).  As the video mentions the expired “Assault” Weapons Ban, the submachine gun in frame would also be classified as a short-barreled rifle and require BATFE approval.  Ditto for many of the rifles shown in the video.  The restrictions on barrel length would not apply to weapons exported as Direct Commercial Sales.  Law enforcement folks call this a “clue.”

The language of gun control advocates is changing subtly to demonize “military style” weapons.  “Military style” weapons is a new and undefined term that means either (1) automatic weapons, short barreled rifles, short barreled shotguns, and destructive devices already heavily regulated by federal law; or (2) a term inclusive of  all modern firearms in a back-door attempt to enact a new gun control scheme.

Yes, ALL modern firearms.  Grandpa’s hunting rifle?  Basis for the system used by military snipers.  The pump-action shotgun you use to hunt ducks and quail?  Basis for the modular shotgun produced for the military.  The handgun you bought for self-defense, a constitutionally protected right?  Used by every modern military.

This is not a new tactic.  The Violence Policy Center has previously tried to fool people by portraying ordinary rifles as machine guns with the term “assault” weapons: “The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons-anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun-can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.”

Making our domestic policies based on the preferences of other countries is unacceptable, especially in an activity protected by the Constitution.  One of Canada’s Human Rights Commissioners is on record saying that “[f]reedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.”  (Apparently, it makes the folks at the Department of Homeland Security nervous too)  In a similar vein, the United Nations says “[w]e especially encourage the debate on the issue of reinstating the 1994 U.S. ban on assault rifles that expired in 2004.”

It’s not theirs to say, and we shouldn’t listen to an argument based on lies.  Related posts here and here.