Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Predicting Alarmism

Here’s the punchline from the report released last week by the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism: “It is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”* That prediction was the lead in hundreds of news reports that the report generated last week.

The trouble is, in over 100 pages, the report’s authors never justify their alarming claim. It’s not that they do a poor job explaining how they arrived at the “more likely than not” in five years figure. They simply make no attempt to explain how they got there, other than to say that they talked to lots of experts.

They missed some. For a sober assessment of terrorists’ utterly failed efforts to develop biological weapons, see Milton Leitenberg. On nuclear terrorism, see John Mueller or Michael Levi. Note that even Mueller’s critics tend to agree that the odds of nuclear terrorism are generally overstated. See also Brian Jenkins and Michael Krepon.

Readers of the report should know that Commissioner Graham Allison has been making these sorts of predictions for some time, as John Mueller has noted:

[Allison] proclaims his “considered judgment” in his book: “on the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not” (2004, 15). He repeats that judgment in an article published two years later without reducing the terminal interval to compensate — apparently the end date is an ever-receding target (2006, 39). Actually, he had been in the prediction business on this issue at least as early as 1995 when his imagination induced him boldly to pronounce, “In the absence of a determined program of action, we have every reason to anticipate acts of nuclear terrorism against American targets before this decade is out.”

It would have been helpful if the authors offered some analysis of why past dire predictions have not come true before issuing new ones.

For more on this issue, come to Cato’s upcoming counterterrorism conference. On January 12 and 13, a variety of experts will be here discussing the danger of terrorism and the danger of overreacting to it. I’m running a panel on terrorists’ ability to use nuclear and biological weapons with Mueller, Leitenberg, Randy Larsen and a soon-to-be-named fourth expert.

*As I have written before, we should abolish the term, “weapons of mass destruction.” It confuses the lethality of the weapons it subsumes and policy discussion. On the silliness of the phrase, read Owen Cote.

More Like $355 Million Per Plane, but Who’s Counting?

Today’s New York Times reports:

Two of President-elect Barack Obama’s stated goals — cutting wasteful spending and saving or creating millions of jobs — are on a collision course in a looming decision over whether to keep building the F-22 fighter jet.

That is a dubious claim. The predicted job losses associated with allowing the F-22 program to come to an end are exaggerated, and insignificant when compared against the many other jobs in our $13 trillion economy. Yes, some people currently employed manufacturing F-22s might have to find new work, but these workers should not receive special treatment; military necessity, not politics, should drive our decisions on what military hardware to buy. By that standard, the F-22 program should be terminated because the plane is ill-suited to the types of missions that the U.S. military is likely to undertake.

But the more egregious error pertains to the Times’s use of Air Force and industry estimates for per unit F-22 costs going forward. “Supporters of the F-22 program…argue that Mr. Obama should extend its production, at least temporarily, to preserve thousands of jobs related to building the jets, which cost $143 million each.” (my emphasis)

The actual per unit costs of each F-22 can be compiled from other figures cited in the story. To date, the F-22 program has cost taxpayers $65 billion, and has delivered 183 aircraft. My calculator doesn’t do real well with so many zeroes, but that comes out to more than $355 million – making the F-22 the most expensive fighter aircraft in history.

The Air Force contends that it is unfair to translate all of the program’s research and development costs into the price tag of the newest planes rolling off the assembly lines. According to this creative accounting, the “flyaway” costs of prospective purchases, which essentially write off program R&D as sunk costs, will range between $176.8 million and $216.3 million per aircraft. This assumes, however, that this next stage of F-22 production will not encounter any of the cost growth that has plagued the program from the very beginning. At every stage of its development, actual F-22 costs have exceeded projections. Even the flyaway estimates have proved woefully inaccurate. (In 1986, the Air Force estimated F-22 flyaway costs at $35 million.) When weighing the prospects of additional F-22 purchases, it seems prudent to assume that the plane will cost much more than its supporters want you to believe.

If President-elect Obama is serious about cutting wasteful spending, the F-22 is a pretty good place to start. The contention about jobs saved or lost is a red herring. So-called military Keynesianism might have been popular in the 1960s, but subsequent research has shown that expecting to stimulate the economy through military spending is a bad bet.

A Case for Climbing Out of the Middle East

Cato-at-liberty readers frustrated with the United States’ travails in the Middle East may want to have a look at John Mearsheimer’s article in the current Newsweek, “Rebalancing the Middle East.”  Mearsheimer makes the case for offshore balancing, which is to say removing forward deployed U.S. forces from the region and scaling back our objectives to center on merely precluding one power from gaining hegemony over the whole region.  He closes on this note:

Offshore balancing wouldn’t eliminate all the problems we face in the Middle East. But it would be considerably less expensive in both human and financial terms. It’s not a foolproof strategy, but it’s probably as close as we can get.

Mearsheimer’s version is a lot less “offshore” than some of us would like, but his case is worth a look.  Trying to run the Middle East is just one fruitless government program we could cut and save trillions of dollars in the coming years.  Libertarians ought to consider it.

Are We Keeping Gates’ Defense Budget?

Barack Obama’s apparent decision to retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense is popular in the Beltway. One thing pundits admire is Gates’ talk about sacrificing expensive weapons systems designed for peer competitors to pay for the counterinsurgency campaigns that we are fighting. What Gates’ fans don’t point out is he has done little more than talk. Under his watch, the Pentagon recently drafted a fiscal year 2010 defense budget that requests a $60 billion increase over FY 2009 spending, not including war costs. That is a departure from prior Pentagon plans that envisioned defense spending leveling off next year. The 2010 budget proposal comes with a new five-year plan that would boost spending by $450 billion. The increase would avoid the kind of painful choices that Gates has discussed.

This request sets up a dilemma for the Obama administration. There are indications that the Democratic leadership on the Hill wants to contain defense spending to help pay for the proliferating bailouts. But the Pentagon’s plan is, by most accounts, an attempt to box Obama in – even a decision to hold spending at last year’s level could be called a cut, and open the President up to attack from the right. The services and Bush administration, including Gates, would like to fix defense spending at over four percent of GDP, even if the wars wind down and GDP resumes its normal growth. This budget serves that purpose, which is devoid of strategic rationale.

Ideally, Obama would force massive cuts on the Pentagon. Its budget is already far too big. At a minimum, if only to demonstrate that he won’t be bullied by the bureaucracy, Obama should tell the Pentagon to rewrite its proposed budget without the increase. If Obama is keeping Gates’ spending ideas along with Gates, it is one more indication that Obama’s defense policy is likely to be a kindlier, gentler version of Bush’s, a more competent imperialism.

The Broad-Mindedness of Richard Holbrooke

Lots of scuttlebutt today involving the name “Richard Holbrooke.”  An emblem of the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment, Holbrooke is revered by some for his ruthlessness and ability to crack heads.  A dedicated global interventionist, Holbrooke is high on the list of “people antiwar Democrats don’t want involved in an Obama administration.”  In addition to ruthlessness, let’s take a walk down memory lane and attempt to determine how well Holbrooke would fit in an Obama administration that is supposed by many to be broad minded and determined to evaluate all arguments on a policy before leaping in.  Here’s Holbrooke in 1994 chairing a meeting with mid-level officials to discuss NATO expansion:

Without having spoken to [Anthony] Lake or to the president, Holbrooke told the interagency group that there was a presidential policy to enlarge NATO that needed implementation.  Holbrooke also made clear that [Warren] Christopher had asked him to set up and run the mechanism to expand NATO.

The new assistant secretary of state had a reputation for abrasiveness, and at this meeting, he demonstrated why.  General [Wesley] Clark has recalled:

[Joseph] Kruzel spoke first, since he was the policy guy, and said, “Why is this the policy?  It’s supposed to be an interagency process.”  Holbrooke crushed him like a bug.  He said, “It is policy.”  Ash Carter walked out of the room.  Then, as the meeting was about to conclude, I said, “I don’t know that a decision has been made.”  Holbrooke said, “Anyone questioning this is disloyal to the country and to the president.”  My ears turned bright red…and I demanded that he take it back.  The room stopped.  I got ready to leave.  Holbrooke took it back.

That’s from James Goldgeier, Not Whether But When, pp. 73-74.  So here you have it.  Pursuing disastrous policies while impugning the motives of career military officials and labeling them anti-American if they have the temerity to object?  Check.  As compared to the tactics of the Bush administration, that’s not exactly “change,” but I sure can believe it.

Not Just a Program with Problems, a Program with Constitutional Problems

Recent reporting on the weakness of behavioral profiling in airports has overlooked a key dimension of the problem with it.

According to this story in USA Today, interviewing or patting down 160,000 people with (unreported) indicia of suspicion at airports has resulted in 1,266 arrests. It has failed to find wrongdoing 99.3% of the time. Occasionally, investigations based on behavioral profiling have turned up such things as drug possession and the use of fake identification.

Behavioral profiling has never turned up someone planning harm to aviation security. It has never turned up a person with weapons, guns, bombs, or any other implement that would cause a flight to be delayed, much less brought down.

A 0.7% success rate in finding crime is not relevant. Behavioral profiling has a 0% success rate in finding threats to aviation. Behavioral profiling does not have a proximate relationship to securing against harm coming to commercial aviation.

The Fourth Amendment requires searches and seizures to be reasonable. Courts give law enforcement considerable leeway and often use the stamp “experienced officer” to grant the police broad authority to follow hunches. What we have here, though, is a basis for suspicion that has a 100% failure rate. It never finds what it is looking for.

It may be argued that the consequence of an aviation security breach is so great that behavioral profiling, despite its failings, is “reasonable.” But this argument proves too much.

If national security authorities developed a theory that vans with dented doors are likely to carry nuclear materials, this reasoning would allow the search of any van with dented doors. The consequence of a nuclear blast, of course, is thousands of times higher than an attack on aviation. But a wrong theory is still a wrong theory. The fact that searching vans for nuclear weapons turns up stolen goods 0.7% of the time would not save it. Arguing for the leeway to use a false basis for suspicion because of the size of the potential danger is simply a cleverly cloaked argument for a general warrant, which the Fourth Amendment prohibits.

In the future, there are likely to be more cases where statistical probabilities replace such things as the hunches of “experienced officers” in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. It is important to remember that suspicion properly arises from observing behaviors that are both consistent with unlawful behavior (the part people remember) and inconsistent with lawful behavior (the part people often forget).

Exhibiting stress in airports — a likely part of behavioral profiling — is consistent with terrorism planning, yes, but it is also consistent with: arriving late, disagreeing with a travel companion, missing a flight, feeling sick, missing loved ones, being disorganized, fearing the security bureaucracy, and so on, and so on, and so on. There is not a rational relationship between exhibiting stress in airports and threats to aviation security. (A discussion of these concepts in the data mining context appears on page 9 of my paper with Jeff Jonas, “Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining.”)

Behavioral profiling is an unreasonable basis for search and seizure. Any arrest based on it is in violation of travelers’ constitutional rights.

Balko: Three for TSA

Radley Balko has nominated me to head the Transportation Security Agency. It’s a kind compliment. His column this week has some good ideas in it, too.

Fellow nominee Bruce Schneier doesn’t want the job. Of Bruce’s refusal, Radley says:

[I]t sorta’ reminds me of what a retired police chief once told me about how he staffed his SWAT team. He said he’d ask for volunteers, then disqualify every officer who raised his hand. He added, “The guys who want the job are the last ones who should have it.”

That leaves John Mueller, whose excellent 2004 Regulation magazine article “A False Sense of Insecurity?” has stood the test of time. His insight into the strategic logic of terrorism will eventually turn around our country’s maladjusted approach to securing against terrorism.