Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

DHS Officials Skirt Open Meeting Laws to Promote REAL ID

There’s not much chance that U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials went to Annapolis to argue against having Maryland implement the national ID law. Maryland’s Gazette reports:

Federal homeland security officials skirted open meetings laws at a briefing last week on the state’s efforts to comply with the federal Real ID Act, unsettling several lawmakers in an era of heightened government transparency.

A meeting with the Maryland House Judiciary Committee members and other lawmakers was carefully regulated to avoid reaching a quorum so open meeting rules could be avoided.

Something is funny in the state of Maryland, and something is funny at the DHS, to insist on holding closed meetings about REAL ID during what President Obama promised would be the most open and transparent administration in history.

Napolitano revealed early this month that she has been collaborating with the National Governors Association on REAL ID. Just what they plan also remains a secret.

As governor of Arizona, she signed legislation to resist REAL ID, but politicians that come to Washington have a tremendous capacity to go native and start working to build federal power. There’s even precedent for them working with the NGA to do it.

The Problem of Guantanamo

The Constitution obviously does not leave Americans helpless in fighting against those who wish them ill.  But it also sets standards of conduct that should not – indeed, cannot – be carelessly tossed aside.

The prison at Guantanamo Bay has become such an international symbol of the U.S. abandoning its principles because it reflects an anti-terrorism policy gone badly awry.  First, the Bush administration was both callous and careless in imprisoning people, even paying unreliable tribal allies for captives.  Second, the U.S. government created no effective and objective truth-determining process to assess guilt.  Third, Washington employed torture, violating both domestic and international law.

No doubt dangerous terrorists have been incarcerated at Gitmo.  But so too have many innocent people.  Indeed, the claims of former State Department Chief of Staff Larry Wilkerson are particularly sobering:

Lawrence B. Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, admitted today that of the approximately 800 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay since the controversial detention center opened, only “two dozen or so” were actually terrorists. Wilkerson told the Associated Press today that “there are still innocent people there,” and that “some have been there six or seven years.”

Wilkerson made other comments earlier in the week in an internet posting entitled “Some Truths About Guantanamo Bay.” In that posting he said that “several in the US leadership became aware of the lack of proper vetting very early on and thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.”

Wilkerson also claimed that then-Secretary Powell and Richard Armitage were pressuring for the repatriation of as many detainees as possible, and that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney were unphased by the fact that “among the detainees was a 13 year old boy and a man over 90,” standing in opposition to returning detainees.

Even if Wilkerson exaggerates–and he has been a credible witness so far–he points to the price America has paid for failing to live up to its principles.  The U.S. has locked up many who were neither terrorists nor otherwise dangerous.  Doing so undoubtedly has helped turn some people in and out of Gitmo towards violence against America.  And mistreating the innocent has badly sullied America’s reputation as a shining city upon a hill.

Confronting terrorism will never be easy.  But violating America’s principles is no way to defend the America in which we all claim to believe.

Week in Review: Bailout Bonuses, Marijuana and Eminent Domain Abuse

House Approves 90 Percent ‘Bonus Tax’

Sparked by outrage over the bonus checks paid out to AIG executives, the House approved a measure Thursday that would impose a 90 percent tax on employee bonuses for companies that receive more than $5 billion in federal bailout funds.

Chris Edwards, Cato’s director of tax policy studies, says the outrage over AIG is misplaced:

While Congress has been busy with this particular inquisition, the Federal Reserve is moving ahead with a new plan to shower the economy with a massive $1.2 trillion cash infusion — an amount 7,200 times greater than the $165 million of AIG retention bonuses.

So members of Congress should be grabbing their pitchforks and heading down to the Fed building, not lynching AIG financial managers, most of whom were not the ones behind the company’s failures.

Cato executive vice president David Boaz says this type of selective taxation is a form of tyranny:

The rule of law requires that like people be treated alike and that people know what the law is so that they can plan their lives in accord with the law. In this case, a law is being passed to impose taxes on a particular, politically unpopular group. That is a tyrannical abuse of Congress’s powers.

On a related note,  Cato senior fellow Richard W. Rahn defended the use of tax havens in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, saying the practice will only become more prevalent as taxes increase in the United States:

U.S. companies are being forced to move elsewhere to remain internationally competitive because we have one of the world’s highest corporate tax rates. And many economists, including Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas, have argued that the single best thing we can do to improve economic performance and job creation is to eliminate multiple taxes on capital gains, interest and dividends. Income is already taxed once, before it is invested, whether here or abroad; taxing it a second time as a capital gain only discourages investment and growth.

Obama to Stop Raids on State Marijuana Distributors

Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week that the president would end federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries that were common under the Bush administration.

It’s about time, says Tim Lynch, director of Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice:

The Bush administration’s scorched-earth approach to the enforcement of federal marijuana laws was a grotesque misallocation of law enforcement resources. The U.S. government has a limited number of law enforcement personnel, and when a unit is assigned to conduct surveillance on a California hospice, that unit is necessarily neglecting leads in other cases that possibly involve more violent criminal elements.

The Cato Institute hosted a forum Tuesday in which panelists debated the politics and science of medical marijuana. In a Cato daily podcast, Dr. Donald Abrams explains the promise of marijuana as medicine.

Cato Links

• A new video tells the troubling story of Susette Kelo, whose legal battle with the city of New London, Conn., brought about one of the most controversial Supreme Court rulings in many years. The court ruled that Kelo’s home and the homes of her neighbors could be taken by the government and given over to a private developer based on the mere prospect that the new use for her property could generate more tax revenue or jobs. As it happens, the space where Kelo’s house and others once stood is still an empty dustbowl generating zero economic impact for the town.

• Daniel J. Ikenson, associate director of Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies, explains why the recent news about increasing protectionism will be short-lived.

• Writing in the Huffington Post, Cato foreign plicy analyst Malou Innocent says Americans should ignore Dick Cheney’s recent attempt to burnish the Bush administration’s tarnished legacy.

• Reserve your spot at Cato University 2009: “Economic Crisis, War, and the Rise of the State.”

Update: Obama on Iran

In response to President Obama’s video message to the Iranian people this morning, Iranian presidential aide Aliakbar Javanfekr is quoted as saying, “The Obama administration so far has just talked. By words and talking the … problems between Iran and America cannot be solved.”

I wish we knew the reaction of Khamene’i, but I do find myself fearing that the CIA may continue its major covert operations to undermine Tehran’s clerical regime. The administration has yet to repudiate this official policy. If Obama decides to repeal it, and dialogue with Iran falls through, Bush administration officials will trumpet that their policy could have had a chance to succeed.

Obama may be in a tough spot, but history is on his side. As we witnessed in 1953 with the overthrow of Mossadegh, covert activities, at least in the long-term, hold no promise of achieving our desired objectives.

A Far Cry from ‘Axis of Evil’

Hoping to derail the re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President Obama today gave an unprecedented appeal to the Iranian people in a special video message. In it, he offers a “new beginning” of engagement to end the nearly 30 years of hostile bilateral relations. 

This video comes less than a month after the administration wrote a letter to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, who, as opposed to Ahmadinejad, truly controls the apparatus of government and has the final say on the country’s nuclear ambitions. Khamene’i sent a congratulatory letter to Obama after he won the presidency. 

My colleague, Justin Logan, has written extensively on U.S. policy toward Iran, such as here and here, to name a few. He argues — and I agree — that U.S. policymakers must press for direct diplomacy with the Iranian leadership and have a plan “B” in case that diplomacy fails.

In response to those (usually neoconservatives) who fear Israel will be wiped off the map, Logan argues persuasively that attempting to deduce Iranian intentions from public statements is not helpful in ascertaining whether the clerical regime values self-preservation. Instead, we must evaluate what the regime has done when confronted with overwhelming force. For example, rather than wage the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) to the bitter end, Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, one of Iran’s most radical Ayatollahs, saved his country from more suffering by accepting a disadvantageous ceasefire with Saddam Hussein.

Overall, the track record of Iranian behavior shows pragmatism and calculating temperament when attempting to advance their interests in the region. As I’ve written here, occasionally the interests of Tehran and Washington have overlapped, most recently when Iran quietly supported America’s effort to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Thus, it would be prudent for Washington to engage Tehran and allow it to produce uranium and plutonium if the regime agrees to IAEA safeguard regulations in compliance with United Nations resolutions.

National self-preservation has figured prominently in modern Iranian diplomacy. President Obama and his subordinates appear to understand that. Hopefully, this new strategy will work.

Thursday Podcast: ‘Bureaucratic Inertia and Fighting Terrorism’

Regardless of whether the threat of terrorism is still real and eminent, bureaucratic inertia will keep the so-called war on terror on auto-pilot for years to come, says John Mueller, professor of political science at Ohio State University.

Author of the book, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them, Mueller spoke at Cato’s January Counterterrorism conference. In Tuesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, he discusses why terrorism is no longer the prominent issue in the nation and how the government should react to the perceived threat:

My concern is that the threat that we’re trying to protect ourselves against has been massively exaggerated. Al Qaeda consists of about 150 people riding around in the hills in Pakistan…It’s not clear, in fact, that Al Qaeda has done anything really since 9/11 except put out a lot of videos…Mostly, Al Qaeda has not really done much of anything except do a lot of publicity for itself.

Freedom for Yang Zili

Congratulations to Yang Zili, a Chinese advocate for political pluralism and human rights who has been set free after serving eight years in prison.

As I noted in the Fall 2007 edition of Cato’s Letter, Yang was an admirer of the libertarian thinker F. A. Hayek and described himself as a political liberal. A computer engineer by trade, Yang quickly recognized the power of the internet to spread ideas, founding a website, the “Garden of Ideas” (www.lib.126.com), where he forcefully condemned communism and argued for democratic reforms. “I am a liberal,” he wrote, “and what I care about are human rights, freedom and democracy.” Yang also participated in a discussion group called the New Youth Society, where he discussed the potential for political reform in China with young people who were similarly passionate. In 2001, Yang Zili and three of his colleagues were jailed for conspiring to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party.

As the Washington Post reported in 2004, the small group met for only a few months, and during that time one of its members was reporting to the Ministry of  State Security. Indeed, the Post reported:

What happened to the New Youth Study Group offers a glimpse into the methods the party uses to maintain its monopoly on power and the difficult moral choices faced by those caught in its grip. The fate of the study group also illustrates the thoroughness with which the party applies one of its most basic rules of survival: Consider any independent organization a potential threat and crush it.

The eight members of the New Youth Study Group never agreed on a political platform and had no real source of funds. They never set up branches in other cities or recruited any other members. They never even managed to hold another meeting with full attendance; someone was always too busy.

And yet they attracted the attention of China’s two main security ministries. Reports about their activities reached officials at the highest levels of the party, including Luo Gan, the Politburo member responsible for internal security. Even the president then, Jiang Zemin, referred to the investigation as one of the most important in the nation, according to people who have seen an internal memo summarizing the comments of senior officials about the case.

Such is life in a police state.

Yang Zili spent eight years in prison for being brave enough to speak out against an authoritarian regime, which is 8 years too many in my book. Still, we can take comfort that he got out, and that his colleagues are slated to be released from prison next year.
Unfortunately, many young internet activists brave enough to stand up for freedom still languish in jail.