Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Odd Phenomena

Jeffrey Goldberg looks in Matt Yglesias’ and my direction and declares that “it’s an odd phenomenon” that people care about the fact that Goldberg and James Kirchick are making false claims about what the president of Iran said. False claims that are leading people in the United States to want to go to war with Iran.

You know what else is an odd phenomenon? That Jeffrey Goldberg still hasn’t addressed the fact that he published a number of articles before the Iraq war falsely linking Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda that helped get 4,000 Americans killed, drive America’s reputation into the ditch, flush $600,000,000,000 down the toilet and enhance Iran’s position in the region. That’s odd.

Family Security Matters: REAL ID = National ID

A month ago, I wrote here and in a TechKnowledge article about the telling imagery that a company called L-1 Identity Solutions had used in some promotional materials. The cover of their REAL ID brochure featured an attractive woman’s face with her driver license data superimposed over it, along with her name, address, height, eye color, place of birth, political affiliation, and her race. This is where the national ID system advanced by the REAL ID Act leads.

Here’s another example. A group called Family Security Matters has reprinted on its site a blog post supporting the $80 million in grant money that the Department of Homeland Security recently announced, seeking to prop up the REAL ID Act. (I’ve written about it here and here.)

What’s interesting is not that a small advocacy group should support REAL ID, but the image they chose to illustrate their thinking: a man holding his “National Identity Card,” his fingerprint and iris images printed on it, and presumably programmed into it.

Were there ever any doubt that REAL ID was a national identity system and a step toward cradle-to-grave, government-mandated biometric tracking, Family Security Matters has helped clear that up.

TSA Background Check Includes Political Party

We’re now learning the meaning of a new policy that Americans can’t “willfully” refuse to show ID at airports. The Consumerist has a write-up of one man’s experience with IDless travel. It turns out they do a background check on you using, among other things, your political affiliation.

That’s a nice window onto what identity-based security is all about: giving the government deep access into all of our personal lives. Of course, this type of security is easy to evade, and the 9/11 plot was structured to evade it. Checking ID cannot catch someone who has no history of wrongdoing.

Identity checks at airports require law-abiding American citizens to give up their privacy, including their political affiliations, with essentially no security benefit.

Congress Confuses on Iran

Over at TPMCafe, M. J. Rosenberg points our attention to two pieces of legislation winging their way through the House and the Senate The matching pieces of legislation declare the sense of the House and the Senate that “preventing the Government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, through all appropriate economic, political, and diplomatic means, is a matter of the highest importance to the national security of the United States and must be dealt with urgently” and call for President Bush to

initiate an international effort to immediately and dramatically increase the economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities by, inter alia, prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran; and prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program

Now, as Rosenberg reasonably concludes from reading the legislation, this sounds an awful lot like a blockade, which I’m pretty sure (I’m not a lawyer) qualifies as an act of war under international law. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which reportedly has been pushing the legislation through the House and Senate, replies to Rosenberg by asserting that

AIPAC supports sanctions on Iran and favors a voluntary international effort lead by the United States to stop selling Iran refined petroleum, not a blockade. Iran is highly vulnerable to such pressure. Sactions are the best way to persuade Iran to stop it’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability. To suggest that AIPAC supports anything but tough economic sanctions on Iran is totally false…

I’m confused. The legislation calls for “prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran.” Now, what sort of mechanism would police such a “prohibition?” If the shipment of refined petroleum products to Iran has been “prohibited,” and a tanker sails toward it anyway, what happens? Who will be enforcing the “stringent inspection requirements on all person, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran?”

More on REAL ID Grants - DHS’ REAL ID Fervor Is Fading …

I wrote here last week about the limping DHS grant-making process for the REAL ID Act. (Summary: Good money after bad.)

Unsurprisingly, ID card maker Digimarc is touting the spending going to “its” states in a press release. I wrote about the plans of biometric technology company L-1 to acquire Digimarc’s ID card business in a recent TechKnowledge entitled “L-1: The Technology Company in Your Pocket.” (Digimarc recently received a higher offer for its ID card business from a French conglomerate. The appetite for national ID systems is certainly higher in old Europe and elsewhere around the globe than in the United States.)

Late Friday, DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker posted on DHS’ “Leadership Journal” blog about the grants. Late Friday is the time of the week when releases are least likely to get uptake - are DHS web staff trying to suppress Baker? You’d expect to see something like this on Friday morning, or the night before grants are announced.

Anyway, in his blog post, Baker tries to inflate the money available for REAL ID, claiming that this $80 million is really more like $511 million. It’s not. And if it were, it still would be only 3% of the $17 billion cost of implementing REAL ID.

Of course, Baker claims that the costs of implementing REAL ID are lower now, but that’s only because DHS assumed away much participation in the program. I suppose France could have defeated Germany buy building only 27% of the Maginot line, but it’s doubtful. That’s what a national ID card is - a Maginot line that’s easy to avoid. Baker wants us to believe that a bad security system which is also incomplete is therefore … somehow … good.

Baker’s post, like the rest of DHS’ recent efforts, is a tired effort to prop up REAL ID. He tries to skip past the issues, saying “The arguments for having secure identification speak for themselves.” They don’t, and Baker hasn’t spoken for them either.

DHS’ institutional support for REAL ID grows more and more anemic with each passing day. Witness the thoroughly lame effort of the Department to revive it by banning “willful” refusal to show ID at airports. I now find myself in the position of trying to draw attention to the corpse of REAL ID - I do so because government programs like this have to be really dead before they’re truly dead.

Giving away grants that nobody wants. Defending what can’t be defended. I would be tired too. Congress can make everyone’s life better by rescinding these grants and repealing the REAL ID Act.

REAL ID Grant Process Collapses, Money Goes to No-Bid Contract

Mickey McCarter at Homeland Security Today has the scoop on REAL ID grants that the Department of Homeland Security is doling out today.

Yes, REAL ID grants. Ten states have passed legislation to bar themselves from participating. (Arizona was the most recent.) And many more have registered their objections to the national ID law. But the Department of Homeland Security is still trying to revive it — this time, by spreading a little money around.

What’s “a little money”? The estimated $85 million in grants is about 0.5% of the $17 billion that it would cost to implement REAL ID, so it’s just a little. But that’s $85 million that taxpayers won’t be getting back.

It’s interesting to see where the money is going, of course.

The breakdown of awards, obtained by, signifies that AAMVA effectively gains a no-bid contract under the awards, as DHS designates it the sole national centralized database of driver’s license information under REAL ID through a grant award to the state of Missouri… . . A competitive grant process could have resulted in multiple hub awards instead of a sole-source contract to AAMVA, sources argue, decentralizing REAL ID information somewhat and encouraging the rise of the most effective database solution between competing vendors.

With enthusiasm for the program distinctly lacking, DHS abandoned its plan to award grants competitively and just divvied up the money state by state.

[A]lthough many states did submit proposals in response to the REAL ID guidance, according to a source knowledgeable of the evaluation process who requested anonymity, many of the state proposals for REAL ID grants were very poor. Evaluators who examined the proposals received by March 7 were surprised by the number that did not even request the funds for the specific program, instead asking for the money to spend on emergency response equipment and other needs.

No-bid contracts and funds for a program the states don’t want? Congress should not allow DHS to throw this good money after bad.

The Dangers of Dilettantism

I’m sometimes amazed at the ability of generalist pundits in Washington to inveigh on a host of issues ranging from gay rights to foreign policy to constitutional law. I find it hard enough to keep track of the various facets of my own field, American foreign policy. But sometimes there are instances where the presence of the dilettantes is damaging to the discourse. For example, here is The New Republic’s James Kirchick sneering at Matthew Yglesias’ suggestion that when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared his desire to see Israel “wiped off the map,” he might not have envisioned the genocide of the Jewish people.

I don’t like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I think he is a dangerous simpleton who should not be in charge of anything more portentous than perhaps municipal garbage collection in Shiraz. But he does enough repulsive things that he need not be accused of additional ones.

French television followed up with Mr. Ahmadinejad, doing an interview with him in 2007, in which the reporter asked him about this controversial remark. (Clip is in French, exchange begins about 6:00 into the clip.) In it, the interviewer references the quote and asks Ahmadinejad about whether he can understand why people are afraid of Iran’s nuclear program in its context. Ahmadinejad responds:

Why are you worried? Where is the Soviet Union? It has disappeared, has it not?

Ahmadinejad goes on to demagogue the issue, talking about democracy across all of Palestine, which for obvious reasons would cause Israel to be “wiped off the map.” But the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union did not involve the genocide of the Russian people, or even any military action against the USSR. Instead of haranguing about analogies to Poland, Kirchick would be better served researching what analogy Ahmadinejad himself has used on the matter.

Now, maybe Ahmadinejad is lying. That’s a fair debate to have. But since the discussion is about what Mr. Ahmadinejad said, it seems relevant to pay attention when someone asks “hey, what did you mean by that remark?” and the speaker responds.

I think this is the danger of having generalists parachute into all manner of debates over national policies. As I said, it’s hard just to keep track of my little world. I can’t imagine thinking I had the breadth to contribute to the debate on many more issues than my own.