Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Soaring Cost Overruns

Last week, we found out that new combat ships for the Navy will cost taxpayers at least 59% more than promised.

Today, the Washingon Post reports that upgraded Air Force cargo planes will cost taxpayers at least 35% more than originally promised.

Are such cost overruns some sort of unfortunate accident? Or are they a routine scam perpetrated by an iron triangle of federal officials, companies feeding off the government’s teat, and members of Congress with taxpayer-financed activities in their districts? 

Examine the record of overspending in the table here and decide for yourself.

Hill Fires Back at Bolton

A lot of observers took note when former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton blasted the Bush administration’s new North Korea deal before the ink was dry:

You know, Secretary Powell in 2001 started off the administration by saying he was prepared to pick up where the Clinton administration left off. President Bush changed course and followed a different approach. This is the same thing that the State Department was prepared to do six years ago. If we going to cut this deal now, it’s amazing we didn’t cut it back then. So I’m hoping that this is not really what’s going to happen.

Now that the deal has been seemingly endorsed by the president, it looks like Christopher Hill, the architect of the deal, is feeling his oats and looking to shoot back at Bolton. On the Charlie Rose Show the other night, Hill engaged in this exchange:

CHARLIE ROSE: You believe — there are those who suggest there are hard-liners in North Korea who don’t believe this will happen.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Hard-liners in North Korea? There are hard-liners all over the place.

CHARLIE ROSE: Hard-liners in Washington?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: I sometimes think they’re all related, because there are hard-liners who don’t believe in a negotiated process.

Now, for those not versed in the subtlety of cufflinked diplo-speak, this isn’t such a jab, but in the State Department lexicon, this is about as close as you get to a middle finger. (Secretary of State Rice had responded to Bolton’s criticism by stating flatly, “He’s just wrong.”)

Substantively, there’s an interesting question here: do you take what you know to be an imperfect deal in order to at least, say, retard the North Koreans’ nuclear program? In a Korea war game conducted by the Atlantic magazine a couple years back, former Clinton administration official Robert Gallucci described the thinking after having argued with Kenneth “Cakewalk” Adelman and retired Lt. Gen Thomas McInerney about the right approach to dealing with North Korea:

“When I came back with the Agreed Framework deal and tried to sell it,” he said, “I ran into the same people sitting around that table — the general to my right, Ken across from me. They hated the idea of trying to solve this problem with a negotiation.

“And I said, ‘What’s your — pardon me — your [expletive] plan, then, if you don’t like this?’

“ ‘We don’t like—’

“I said, ‘Don’t tell me what you don’t like! Tell me how you’re going to stop the North Korean nuclear program.’

“ ‘But we wouldn’t do it this way—’

“ ‘Stop! What are you going to do?’

“I could never get a goddamn answer. What I got was, ‘We wouldn’t negotiate.’”

I pointed out that the North Koreans had — as McInerney emphasized — cheated on the 1994 agreement. “Excuse me,” Gallucci said, “the Soviets cheated on virtually every deal we ever made with them, but we were still better off with the deal than without it.”

To people who say that negotiating with the North Koreans rewards bad behavior, Gallucci says, “Listen, I’m not interested in teaching other people lessons. I’m interested in the national security of the United States. If that’s what you’re interested in, are you better off with this deal or without it? You tell me what you’re going to do without the deal, and I’ll compare that with the deal.”

He was adamant that we were better off under the Agreed Framework—cheating and all — than we are now. “When the Clinton folks went out of office, the North Koreans only had the plutonium they had separated in the previous Bush administration. Now they’ve got a whole lot more. What did all this ‘tough’ [expletive] give us? It gave us a much more capable North Korea. Terrific!”

On a less substantive note, all the back-and-forth sniping between the diplomats and the Boltonites should make Bolton’s forthcoming memoir all the more readable. He’s reportedly “typing as fast as his fingers can go.”

‘Terror Porn’

The Homeland Security budget has become a business-as-usual way for politicians to steer tax dollars to contributors and supporters. But even though the budget is being allocated using traditional pork-barrel methods, the arguments for more homeland security spending are based on exaggerated claims that the money is necessary to thwart terrorism.

Veronique de Rugy, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and Cato adjunct, call these claims ”terror porn.” ABC News’ John Stossel quoted de Rugy as part of a recent report:

[T]he bureaucracy hypes terrorism to justify its pork. “Terror porn” is what economist Veronique de Rugy calls it. Why “porn”? “Because porn sells, [and] terrorism sells even better,” she says. “It’s great for politicians. They can campaign on the fact that they are protecting us. They also can campaign on the fact that they’re bringing more money to their states.”

Lots of small towns do get absurd grants for homeland security. Lake County, Tenn., a rural county with only 8,000 people, got nearly $200,000 in homeland-security money. …”I don’t know that terrorists will come, but I don’t know they won’t come,” Lake County Mayor Macie Roberson told us, smiling.

At least he didn’t do what Columbus, Ohio did: spend it on bulletproof vests for police dogs.

Inordinate fear of terrorism leads to more than just wasteful spending. Stossel also cites a study estimating that 1,000 people have died because they avoided air travel and instead relied on a much riskier mode of travel:

Of course, terrorism is a real threat. But fear kills people, too. A University of Michigan study found that an additional 1,000 Americans died in car accidents in the three months after Sept. 11, because they were afraid to fly. We need to keep risk in perspective.

USA Today Goes 0-5 on REAL ID

This morning the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Public Liaison was good enough to email me a copy of USA Today’s editorial supporting the REAL ID Act.  Curiously absent from the email was a copy of, or even a link to, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero’s opposing view.

It has been called unwise to argue with someone who buys ink by the ton, but USA Today’s praiseworthy adoption of “Web 2.0” interactivity on its Web site shows how ink is shrinking in relevance.  So let’s go ahead and see how the paper did in its point-by-point assessment of REAL ID.  Below, USA Today’s points are in bold.  My commentary in roman text:

Taking the arguments of Real ID opponents one at a time:

•It won’t make the nation safer. True, there’s no guarantee that the law would have stopped the 9/11 hijackers and that determined terrorists won’t find a way around the new requirements. Averting terror attacks, however, requires layers of security. Credible IDs are an important layer.

To be more clear, the law would not have stopped the 9/11 hijackers.  All of the 9/11 attackers could have gotten driver’s licenses legally had the REAL ID Act been the law on September 11, 2001.  Identification really doesn’t provide any security against committed threats.

“Layered security” is a legitimate way of thinking about things.  One shouldn’t rely on a single security system, because that creates a single point of failure.  However, security layering doesn’t end the inquiry.  Each layer must provide security that is cost-justified.  If creating a national ID doesn’t create a substantial protection - and it doesn’t - the national ID layer does more harm than good.  Speaking of cost …

•It costs too much. Motorists will have to spend an estimated $20 more, a relatively small sum for a standardized, tamper-proof license. For states, the costs are estimated at up to $14.6 billion over five years, offset by as much as $100 million in federal grants this year alone, on top of $40 million in federal aid already provided. Governors can make a case for more help, but cost-sharing arguments shouldn’t stop the program from going forward.

DHS’s own cost estimate is that REAL ID costs over $17 billion dollars.  That’s about $50 per man, woman, and child in the United States.  State government officials are probably not enthused to know that DHS is making available less than 1 percent of the costs to implement REAL ID.

•It violates privacy. The creation of large databases always is reason to be wary. But the new regulations don’t create a national ID card or giant Big Brother-like federal database. States will still issue the licenses and retain information used to verify identity. Making an existing database more credible threatens privacy far less than many private sector data collections do.

To most people, a nationally standardized, government-issued card that is effectively mandatory to carry is a national ID card.

No database, huh?  Here’s section 202(d) of the Act:

To meet the requirements of this section, a State shall adopt the following practices in the issuance of drivers’ licenses and identification cards: …

(12) Provide electronic access to all other States to information contained in the motor vehicle database of the State. 

(13) Maintain a State motor vehicle database that contains, at a minimum–

(A) all data fields printed on drivers’ licenses and identification cards issued by the State; and

(B) motor vehicle drivers’ histories, including motor vehicle violations, suspensions, and points on licenses.

As to private sector data collections, these, at least, people can prevent.  But if the private sector is wrong to do this, two wrongs don’t make a right.

It forces illegal immigrants to drive without licenses or insurance. Illegal immigrants won’t be able to get Real ID licenses, but states will be allowed to issue permits allowing them to drive and obtain insurance. In any event, the nation’s immigration problems require a comprehensive solution in Washington; they can’t be solved at state motor vehicle departments.

When the state of New Mexico de-linked driver licensing and immigration status, uninsured vehicle rates in the state dropped from 33 percent to 17 percent.  Unlicensed driving, hit-and-run accidents, and insurance rates probably followed a similar course.  It’s true that states will be allowed to issue non-federally-compliant IDs, including to illegal immigrants.  Knowing that such cards are “for illegals,” illegals are unlikely to get them.  Thanks to REAL ID, these drivers will kill innocent law-abiding Americans on the highways.

It’s too hasty. This is just absurd. DHS gave states until the end of 2009 to have programs in place to replace all licenses by 2013 — a sluggish 12 years after the 9/11 attacks.

Each day that driver’s licenses lack credibility is a day of needless vulnerability. As DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress last month, “If we don’t get it done now, someone’s going to be sitting around in three or four years explaining to the next 9/11 Commission why we didn’t do it.”

Few have made the argument that REAL ID is “too hasty.”  The Department of Homeland Security’s regulations didn’t make the law workable and neither can a delay.  The real problem is the law itself, and it needs to be repealed.

Careful observers noted the contrast between Secretary Chertoff’s urgency when speaking to Congress about REAL ID and his Department’s willingness to kick implementation down the road another year and a half, to December 2009.  Cards wouldn’t even be in everyone’s hands until 2013.  This puts the lie to the idea that a national ID is a security tool at all.

USA Today’s editorial page has been rather good on privacy issues in the past, and willing to call out government hypocrisy.  They took a winger on this one and got it wrong.

Webb on US Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Trolling through a news story about Sen. Jim Webb’s effort to preemptively deny the administration funds for attacking Iran unprovoked, this statement seems like one of the smartest things a congresscritter has said about foreign policy in a long time:

It is important that we clarify, formally, the perimeter of our immediate military interests in the Middle East.

Who would object to that?

Further Evidence of Federal Silliness

As an irony junkie, I enjoy watching federal officials argue that they should be able to run the country’s educational system at the same time they flunk the basics.  For example, the Clinton Administration once posted this map on the White House website:

 

There are a number of interesting things about this map.

  • Apparently, Owensboro, Kentucky, isn’t in Kentucky anymore.  In fact, it looks like Kentucky isn’t in Kentucky anymore.  It has moved to Tennessee. 
  • Illinois has annexed the entire western portion of Kentucky, completely cutting off everything south and west of Union county, and with it Kentucky’s access to the Mississippi River.
  • It seems that Kentuckians were so infuriated by the loss of western Kentucky — and their state’s very name — that they invaded their neighbors to the east, capturing the city of Roanoke, Virginia.
  • Both Minnesota and Iowa have led incursions into South Dakota, conquering and dividing up that state’s southeastern corner.  South Dakota’s largest city, Sioux Falls, has fallen into the hands of wild-eyed Minnesotans.  Everything south of Sioux Falls is living under brutal Iowan occupation. 

So the other day, while in a lobby shared by CNN and the U.S. Department of Education (ED), a poster on the ED side bearing the following logo caught my eye:

U.S. Department of Education and Federal Student Aid logo (Start here. Go further.)

The proper usage of further and farther is the subject of some dispute.  Authorities have traditionally instructed that farther is used when discussing distance (Maine is farther from DC than New York) while further expresses a difference of degree (he further refined his craft).  Some argue that the distinction has been effectively erased by usage.  But I figured that since the ED’s new slogan was based on the common expression “you’ll go far,” there was a good chance that I had struck gold.

Yet the fun had really just begun.  When I pulled out my mobile phone to snap a photo, a very large man jumped up from behind the security desk and interposed himself between me and my prize.  He told me to put the camera away.  Irony or no irony.  Why?  Federal building.  Therefore, no taking pictures.   Of a poster.  In the lobby.  Of a building that doesn’t house, and isn’t near, anything even mildly important.  (Okay, that’s not fair.  If anything happened to those offices, who would all those former college attendees blow off?)

By the time I was done at CNN, an even larger man (the first man’s supervisor) wanted to have a word with me.  I wonder if their demeanors would have been different had the CNN reporter and cameraman not happened to follow me downstairs.

When Common Sense Just Isn’t Enough

The National Association of Manufacturers has been in Washington long enough to know that sometimes, if you make that last appeal, that last argument, compliment the right person, then things might just go your way. 

In an unusual (to me, at least) letter expressing opposition to an utterly inane amendment sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer that would required ALL inbound cargo at U.S. ports to be screened (an impossibility without bringing international trade to a halt), NAM’s Jay Timmons urges the Senate to oppose the amendment. In the letter, Timmons describes the impracticability of the idea and describes how such measures would actually make the ports less secure.

But, to be sure, to cover his bases, and to appeal to that special sense of honor and duty reserved only for politicians, Timmons concludes with this gem:

The NAM’s Key Vote Advisory Committee has indicated that votes on the Schumer amendment will be considered for designation as Key Manufacturing Votes in the NAM voting record for the 110th Congress.  Eligibility for the NAM Award for Manufacturing Legislative Excellence will be based on a member’s record on Key Manufacturing Votes.

That could be the clincher!