Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Undeterrable

The subhead to Joshua Muravchik’s “Operation Comeback,” a strategy memo for his fellow neocons that appears in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, reads:

Neoconservatives have the president’s ear, but they also have lots of baggage. To stay relevant, they must admit mistakes, embrace public diplomacy, and start making the case for bombing Iran.

Which I might ordinarily chalk up to mischief by a smartass editor, but in this case it’s a fair summary of the piece.

First among the mistakes Muravchik says neoconservatives need to own up to? “We are guilty of poorly explaining neoconservatism.” Apparently it’s the packaging, not the product, that has led the American public to reject perpetual war aimed at “transform[ing] the political culture of the Middle East from one of absolutism and violence to one of tolerance and compromise.”

There’s no need to give up on that dream, says Muravchik. We can get ‘er done with a bigger army, and by repairing America’s public diplomacy apparatus abroad. That problem with the packaging? Leave it to the folks who designed the product–they’ll fix it: “No group other than neocons is likely to figure out how to [repair public diplomacy]. We are, after all, a movement whose raison d’etre was combating anti-Americanism in the United States. Who better, then, to combat it abroad?”

Wasn’t this the movement that once styled itself as “liberals mugged by reality”? Somewhere along the line they really learned how to fight back.

The Great Crocodile Dies

P. W. Botha, who was prime minister of South Africa as the struggle against apartheid reached its climax, has died at 90. In 1988, I attended a conference organized by South African libertarians in neighboring Swaziland. When I arrived at the conference and approached the registration table, the first thing I saw was a stack of bumper stickers reading “I ♥ PW.” I was appalled – libertarians proclaiming their support for the boss of the apartheid state?

Then I got closer and realized it wasn’t a heart, it was a tomato, as in “I PW.” Why a tomato? My hosts explained to me that the bumper sticker expressed solidarity with a protester who had thrown a tomato at the State President. Well, that’s better, I thought.

Botha was pushed out of power soon after that by F. W. de Klerk, who freed Nelson Mandela from jail and negotiated the end of apartheid.

No End in Sight

The front page story in yesterday’s Washington Post by Tom Ricks and Peter Baker is a sobering must-read. (“Tipping Point for War’s Supporters?”)

Don’t be fooled by the headline or the first few paragraphs. While it is true that stalwart Republicans such as John Warner have become more outspoken about the lack of progress in Iraq, and some in the GOP have mused openly about the need for a new approach, the consensus that emerges from the article is toward “a new phase” of the conflict, not an end to it. That is how former Pentagon official Dov Zakheim describes the current state of play. Zakheim dismisses the notion that the United States will leave any time soon, and it is his words – not Warner’s – that close out this important article. (Ricks, by the way, will be at Cato on Thursday to discuss the U.S. experience in Iraq. Visit the Cato web site for more details.)

That a solid majority of Americans want a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq must now be seen as irrelevant. Public and so-called elite opinion has diverged almost from the moment that the Bush administration launched the war in Iraq. In other words, the tipping point, if you want to call it that, occurred long ago. This has had no impact on the size of the U.S. military presence in the country, nor on the mission as a whole.

If you think this assessment too pessimistic, consider the table that appears below the Ricks/Baker story in the Post’s print edition. The piece compiled by the Post’s Dita Smith, with research assistance by Robert Thompson, documents the sliding target date for when U.S. troops might begin to be withdrawn from Iraq. The graphic begins by noting that Pentagon planners expected that the 150,000 troops would be cut to about 30,000 by the fall of 2003. But this was only the first of many misjudgments as to the costs and risks of this war. A progression of statements by senior civilian and military personnel since January 2005 shows how projections for troop cuts have consistently missed their mark. According to Gen. George Casey, security in Iraq might improve in 12 months time, which would allow for some troops reductions in the fall of 2007, but for now more troops might be needed.

That doesn’t sound like a change of course to me; and to the extent that it is, it is a change in the wrong direction.

Fake Boarding Pass Generator Underscores ID Woes

Yesterday, the blogosphere crackled with news that ‘net surfers could use a website to generate fake boarding passes that would enable them to slip past airport security and gain access to airport concourses. The news provides a good opportunity to illustrate a credentialing (and identity) system, how it works, and how it fails.

It’s very complicated, so I’m going to try to take it slowly and walk through every step.

The Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) separates commercial air passengers into two categories: those deemed to require additional security scrutiny — termed “selectees” — and those who are not. When a passenger checks in at the airport, the air carrier’s reservation system uses certain information from the passenger’s itinerary for analysis in CAPPS. This analysis checks the passenger’s information against the CAPPS rules and also against a government-supplied “watch list” that contains the names of known or suspected terrorists.

Flaws in the design and theory of the CAPPS system make it relatively easy to defeat. A group with any sophistication and motivation can test the system to see which of its members are flagged, or what behaviors cause them to be flagged, then adjust their plans accordingly.

A variety of flaws and weaknesses inhabit the practice of watch-listing. Simple name-matching causes many false positives, as so many Robert Johnsons will attest. But the foremost weakness is that a person who is not known to be a threat will not be listed. Watch-listing does nothing about people or groups acting for the first time.

In addition, a person who is known and listed can elude the system by using an alias. The use of a false or synthetic identity (and thus an inaccurate boarding card) could assist in this. But the simplest wrongful use of this fake boarding card generator would be to make a boarding card that allows a known bad person to receive no more security scrutiny than all the good people.

When CAPPS finds that a passenger should be given selectee status, this is transmitted to the check-in counter where a code is printed on the passenger’s boarding pass. At the checkpoint, the boarding pass serves as a credential indicating that the person is entitled to enter the concourse, and also indicating what kind of treatment the person should get — selectee or non-selectee. The credential is tied to the person bearing it by also checking a government-issued ID.

In a previous post, I included a schematic showing how identification cards work (from my book Identity Crisis). This might be helpful to review now because credentials like the boarding pass work according to the same three-step process: First, an issuer (the airline) collects information, including what status the traveler has. Next, the issuer puts it onto a credential (the boarding pass). Finally, the verifier or relying party (the checkpoint agent) checks the credential and accords the traveler the treatment that the credential indicates.

Checking the credential bearer’s identification, a repeat of this three-step process, and comparing the names on both documents, ties the boarding pass to the person (and in the process imports all the weaknesses of identification cards).

Each of these steps is a point of weakness. If the information is bad, such as when a malefactor is not known, the first step fails and the system does not work. If the malefactor is using someone else’s ticket and successfully presents a fake ID, the third step has failed and the system does not work.

The simple example we’re using here breaks the second step. A person traveling under his own name may present a boarding pass for the flight for which he has bought a ticket — but the false boarding pass he presents does not indicate selectee status. He has eluded the CAPPS system and the watch list.

The fake boarding pass generator does not create a new security weakness. It reveals an existing one. Though some people may want to, it’s important not to kill the messenger (who, in this case, is a Ph.D. student in security infomatics at Indiana University who created the pass generator to call attention to the problem). As I’ve said before, identity-based security is terribly weak. Its costs — in dollars, inconvenience, economic loss, and lost privacy — are greater than its security benefit.

Hopefully, the revelation that people can use fake boarding passes to elude CAPPS and watch-lists is another step in the long, slow process of moving away from security systems that don’t work well, toward security systems that do. Good security systems address tools and methods of attack directly. They make sure all passengers on an airplane lack the capacity to do significant harm.

Staying the Course: 2006

At one point, we needed to stay in Iraq to establish a beachhead of liberal democracy in the Arab world. Today, if you listen to some of the war’s strongest supporters, our goals are considerably less inspiring. Here’s Frederick Kagan from today’s Washington Post:

The presence of American troops is vital to restraining Iraqi soldiers – the Iraqis know not to participate in death squad activities when Americans are around. The fact that large numbers of U.S. troops are not embedded with the Iraqi police is a main reason for the participation of those forces in the killings. When the U.S. troops go, the Iraqi army will probably go the same way.

And here’s Reuel Marc Gerecht writing in the Weekly Standard:

staying in Iraq ought to be a compelling choice…. We–not the Iraqis–need to lead a major effort to break the Sunni insurgency. We–not the Iraqis–must police the Shiite-dominated security services to ensure they don’t slaughter the Sunnis, especially as we and a Shiite-dominated army with an important Kurdish contingent make a more serious effort to control Baghdad, Ramadi, and the centers of Sunni resistance. We need to keep building up a Shiite-dominated Iraqi army and slowly deploying it in ways that it can handle–with integral American involvement, as at Tal Afar. We should expect a few Iraqi governments to collapse before we start seeing real progress. Yet our presence in Iraq is the key to ensuring that Shiite-led governments don’t collapse into a radical hard core.

This may be too much for the United States now. It certainly appears to be too much for the Democrats. We would have all been better off if President Bush and his team had done what Senator John McCain advised back in 2004, when the insurgency started to rip: Tell everyone that the war would be long and hard, and pour in more troops. If we no longer have the stomach for this fight–and it’s going to be ugly, with few sterling VIP Iraqis who will make us proud–then we should at least be honest with ourselves. Leaving Iraq will not make our world better. We will be a defeated nation. Our holy-warrior and our more mundane enemies will know it. And we can rest assured that they will make us pay. Over and over and over again. (Emphasis added).

We’re no longer fighting to create a democratic Iraq that will be an example to the Muslim world. Now we’re supposed to fight to put down the Sunnis while using the other hand to hold back the Shiites from doing it an overly zealous and gory fashion. In the best-case scenario, what rickety government we keep standing will not be one to make us proud, as Gerecht puts it. These are the war’s supporters. This is the case for staying. Not something I’d want my kid or yours to die for.

But any other course, Frederick Kagan declares, would be “morally contemptible”: “Both honor and our vital national interest require establishing conditions in Iraq that will allow the government to consolidate and maintain civil peace and good governance.” Which is a bit cheeky. One might wish for a little less moral bombast and a little more humility when being lectured on matters of honor and vital national interest from one of the people who helped lead us into the biggest foreign policy disaster in three decades.

But put that aside. We need to stay, Kagan says, to help the nascent Iraqi government “consolidate and maintain civil peace and good governance,” a phrase that comes just three paragraphs after Kagan tells us we need to stay because the Iraqi police forces are carrying out sectarian murders and the Iraqi army would quickly turn to “death-squad activities” but for our supervision.

“Civil peace.” “Good governance.” Through what method of social alchemy are our soldiers going to transform the army and the police force into institutions that even aim at providing those goods, let alone institutions capable of providing them? How long will that transformation take, and can that goal possibly be achieved? If it can’t, how moral is it to ask more Americans to die for it?

The End of Fidel Castro?

NPR has a report this morning that it’s looking more and more like Fidel Castro is terminally ill and will not return to power. NPR and Reuters both suggest that younger brother Raul Castro may open up the economy and even the political system to some extent.

Meanwhile, after 47 years of tyranny, some leftists still revere the Cuban dictator. A “colossal portrait” depicting Castro as “a champion of civil rights” will be unveiled in Central Park on November 8.

Should Government Identity Documents Use RFID?

Interesting question - and perhaps simpler than many people think. 

Back in June, the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee (on which I serve) published a draft report on the use of RFID for human tracking.  (“RFID” stands for radio frequency identification, a suite of technologies that identify items - and, if put in cards, track people - by radio.)  The report poured cold water on using RFID in government-mandated identity cards and documents.  This met with some consternation among the DHS bureaus that plan to use RFID this way, and among the businesses eager to sell the technology to the government.

Despite diligent work to put the report in final form, the Committee took a pass on it at its most recent meeting in September - nominally because new members of the Committee had not had time to consider it.  The Committee is expected to finish this work and finalize the report in December.

But skeptics of the report continue to come out of the woodwork.  Most recently, the Center for Democracy and Technology wrote a letter to the Privacy Committee encouraging more study of the issue, implicitly discouraging the Committee from finding against RFID-embedded government documents.  CDT invited ”a deeper factual inquiry and analysis [that] would foster more thoughtful and constructive public dialog.”

If the correct answer is ”no,” do you have to say “yes” to be constructive? RFID offers no anti-forgery or anti-tampering benefit over other digital technologies that can be used in identification cards - indeed it has greater security weaknesses than alternatives.  And RFID has only negligible benefits in terms of speed and convenience because it does not assist with the comparison between the identifiers on a card and the bearer of the card.  This is what takes up all the time in the process of identifying someone.   (If that’s too much jargon, you need to read my book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.)

I shared my impression of CDT’s comments in an e-mail back to Jim Dempsey.  Jim and CDT do valuable work, but I think they are late to this discussion and are unwittingly undermining the Privacy Committee’s work to protect Americans’ privacy and civil liberties. My missive helps illustrate the thinking and the urgency of this problem, so after the jump, the contents of that e-mail:

Jim:

I’ve had time now to read your follow-up comments on the Department of Homeland Security Privacy Committee’s draft report on RFID and human tracking, and you and I have spoken about it briefly.  I wanted to offer a response in writing, and make my thinking available to others, because you and CDT are important figures in discussions like this.

First, I think it’s important to put the burden of proof in the right place.  When DHS proposes a change as significant as moving to radio-frequency-based (RF), digital human identification systems, the burden of proof is on the DHS to show why they should be adopted.  The burden is not on the Committee to show why they should not.

The use of digital methods to identify people is a sea change in the process of identification.  You know well, because you have written on these subjects extensively, that digital technologies make it very easy to collect, store, copy, transfer, and re-use personal information.  The leading identification systems being proposed and deployed for use on Americans are not just digital – they go a step further and use radio frequency technology of various stripes. 

Digital identification systems, such as the government-mandated RF systems we discuss generally in the report, have entirely different consequences for privacy from the analog and visual identification methods primarily used in government ID up to this point.  We begin to explore these consequences in the report. 

The report tries to confine itself to the concerns created by the addition of RF because trying to reach all the concerns with government-mandated digital ID systems is such a formidable task and because RF systems are the leading ones under consideration and development. 

Which brings me to a second important point: These systems are being designed, built, and implemented right now

The DHS components that want to use RFID to track people are not awaiting the study or studies you propose.  The Privacy Committee’s role is to call out important privacy issues at relevant times and the draft report on using RFID for human tracking does that. 

If you wish to step back and ponder the issues, you are welcome to, but the inference I draw from your letter – that we should delay or suspend the Committee’s report on use of RFID for human tracking – would make the Committee a full participant in a program planning scenario we see too often in Washington, D.C.:  “Ready … fire … AIM!”

As you point out, the draft report does not reach every concern with every system, nor the detailed differences among them.  But it is not the job of the Committee to perform the in-depth study or studies you suggest. That is the job of the Department of Homeland Security components that seek to deploy these systems.

The members of the drafting subcommittee sought information about these systems and the privacy issues associated with them, and considered everything we were told and given by industry, privacy advocates, members of the public, and DHS components.  The information we have leads us fairly and accurately to conclude that the merits (and, through cost-benefit comparison, the net benefits) of these systems have not been shown.

I won’t belabor the specifics of all you invite the Committee to study in your comments, but I was particularly struck by your challenge to us to substantiate the following statement from the draft report:  “Without formidable safeguards, the use of RFID in identification cards and tokens will tend to enable the tracking of individuals’ movements, profiling of their activities and subsequent, non-security-related use of identification and derived information.”

Jim, we have yet to see an RF human identification system that does not collect and store information about every American subject to it for at least 75 years. You know that data collections this deep, held for periods of time this long, tend to find new, unanticipated, and often undesirable uses.  This is but one of the concerns with these systems.

Your letter is awfully sanguine for an organization that advocates for civil liberties and democratic values.  If CDT plans to do a “full and objective” assessment of RFID’s use in human tracking, I would be happy to help bring you up to speed.

 

Jim Harper
Director of Information Policy Studies
The Cato Institute