Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Government Identity Programs in Collapse?

Government Computer News has had a number of articles recently about the problems besieging the Transportation Worker Identity Card (or TWIC), one of a number of government identification systems nominally responding to the post-9/11 threat environment.  It should be no surprise to government watchers that a service provider for TWIC, viewed by many as unqualified, happens to be in the district of the former Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee.

The REAL ID Act is a bigger government identity control project, by far, which attempts to force states to convert their drivers’ licenses into a national ID card.  Regulations implementing REAL ID are widely expected to be released this week.  

Even while the architects of the surveillance state gather to talk about implementation, the Washington Post has an article out today that is probably best taken as the first post mortem on REAL ID

The headline (“As Bush’s ID Plan Was Delayed, Coalition Formed Against It”) wrongly attributes REAL ID to the Bush Administration, which was not a proponent of REAL ID, though the President did accept it as part of a military spending bill.  The article correctly attributes responsibility to Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the former Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Though the Bush Administration has room to distance itself from this colossal unfunded national surveillance mandate, a prominent member of the Administration appears to have consumed the REAL ID Koolaid - in quantity.

“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,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee on Feb. 13.

Secretary Chertoff’s shameless terror-pandering is matched only by his ignorance of identification’s utility as a security tool.  People who understand identification know that it does not provide security against committed threats.

It’s unfortunate that government works by trial and error, but this trial may soon show that a national ID is error.

Some Sensible Thoughts on the REAL ID Act

Today I’ll be testifying on the REAL ID Act in a state legislature for the second time in two days. In the morning yesterday, I spoke to the Government Operations Committee of the Utah House of Representatives, along with the Committee’s Chairman Glenn Donnelson (R-North Ogden). His resolution to reject the REAL ID Act was passed unanimously by the committee and sent to the full House.

Mid-day, I flew from Salt Lake City to Boise, Idaho to speak on a panel about REAL ID convened in the capitol building by Representative Phil Hart (R-Athol). Today, Hart’s resolution opposing REAL ID will be heard in the House Transportation and Defense Committee.

Among the people on yesterday’s panel in Boise was Bill Bishop, Director of the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security. You might think that a homeland security guy would support REAL ID. He doesn’t. Knowing full well he might be making it harder on himself the next time it comes time to getting grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, he laid out his opposition to REAL ID.

Along with his philosophical objections to a national ID, he pointed out its practical weaknesses as a security tool. You can nail down the identity of everyone and you’ll be no better off in preventing something like a terrorist attack. And as soon as you come out with a highly secure, highly valuable ID like the REAL ID, the hackers and forgers will go to work on faking it or corrupting someone in order to get it. It’s a good security practice to diversify your protections rather than creating a single point of failure like the REAL ID Act does. You might make yourself less safe if you rely on a uniform ID system for your security.

What frustrates me about this kind of guy (I say, tongue firmly in cheek) is that I had to study security and risk management for a couple of years before I understood these concepts well enough to put in my book. The Bill Bishops of the world just kinda know it. Not fair.

Summarizing REAL ID’s utility as a national security tool, Bishop said: “I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny, I don’t believe in Santa Claus, and I don’t believe in the Lone Ranger. Which means I don’t believe in silver bullets.”

We ought to take advantage of this kind of wisdom, and the obvious benefits of local knowledge - maybe by coming up with some kind of decentralized governmental structure. I don’t know how you would do that. Just putting an idle thought out there.

Why the United States Must Leave Iraq

The U.S. military occupation of Iraq has already cost more than 3,000 American lives and $350 billion. In “Escaping the Trap: Why the United States Must Leave Iraq,” Cato scholar Ted Galen Carpenter argues for a rapid and comprehensive withdrawal from Iraq. “It is time to admit that the Iraq mission has failed and cut our losses. We need an exit strategy that is measured in months, not years.” Carpenter also examines alternative prescriptions offered by opponents of immediate withdrawal—gradual or partial withdrawal, escalation, and partitioning—and concludes that they are unrealistic, expensive, and insufficient to stem the violence in Iraq.

War Is Swell

In his post below, Justin Logan outlines some of Max Boot’s howlers on Iraq, and asks: “why should anyone be listening to him now?”  It’s a good question.  However, I think Boot serves a useful function.  If you find yourself arguing that neoconservatives are empire-hungry, war-mad, and contemptuous of civil liberties–and your opponent accuses of you of setting up a straw man–point him to Boot.  He’s the real deal.   

As Justin noted, here’s Boot making ”the Case for American Empire.”  And here he is telling us that “Empire” is the right term:

“No need to run away from the label,” argues Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York: “America’s destiny is to police the world.”  

Here’s Boot offering America’s occupation of the Philippines–with its 200,000 dead civilians–as a success, and as reason for hope that Iraq will be a success as well.  Here he is suggesting that China may be looking into “creating man-made earthquakes” as a way of fighting an asymmetric war against the United States.  (There’s a threat to keep you up nights.)  So threatening is the world we live in, in fact, that it’s time to ”Forget privacy, we need to spy more.” 

But for classic Boot, you can’t beat this LA Times column from last summer, in which he declares that General Curtis LeMay was one of the “greatest peacemakers in modern history,” a proper candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize.  It’s an odd choice.

  As head of the air war in Japan during WWII, LeMay ordered the firebombing of Tokyo, which killed 100,000 civilians; as well as the bluntly named “Operation Starvation” designed to destroy Japanese food supplies.  “I suppose if I had lost the war I would have been tried as a war criminal,” LeMay said later.

Well, “they” started it, some will say.  But if deliberately killing large numbers of civilians doesn’t disqualify one from “peacemaker” status, then how about trying to start a nuclear war?  As head of Strategic Air Command in the ’50s, it was LeMay’s view that the United States should strike the Soviet Union while America retained nuclear superiority.  If the weak-willed civilians wouldn’t sanction preventive war, he hoped to provoke an incident that would allow him to deliver his “Sunday Punch,” unleashing the U.S. nuclear arsenal and causing an estimated 60 million Russian dead.  Without authorization, in 1954 he ordered B-45 overflights of the Soviet Union, commenting to his aides, “Well, maybe if we do this overflight right, we can get World War III started.”

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay repeatedly challenged President Kennedy’s courage, urging him to approve airstrikes.  That action might well have led to the nuclear exchange LeMay dreamed of.   All in all, it’s not surprising that some people identify LeMay as the model for General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, a movie that according to Fred Kaplan, author of Wizards of Armageddon, got a little too close to the truth for comedy. 

In the column linked above, “Messed up Are the Peacemakers,” Boot suggests that modern-day peace activists have questionable priorities and bizarre affections.  Maybe so.  But he’s hardly in a position to criticize them.

Unsurprising News from the Pentagon

The Washington Post reports yesterday on cost overruns for weapons procurement. “It is not unusual for weapons programs to go 20 to 50 percent over budget, the Government Accountability Office found.”

That’s for sure. As I’ve documented, it’s not unusual for weapons to more than double in cost. I’m talking about the F/A-22 Raptor, the V-22 Osprey, the CH-47F helicopter, the Patriot missile, and on and on. See here, and see the discussion in Downsizing the Federal Government.

The same pattern occurs in federal highway projects, energy projects, and many other government endeavors.

Part of the reason this occurs is that contractors and government officials have a quiet understanding that the initial cost numbers that are used to get projects launched should be low-balled. Both sides know that later on, after projects are underway, excuses can be found to raise the price tag. “The scope of work has expanded.” “We couldn’t have foreseen those additional problems.” “The mission requirements have changed.” “There are new regulatory requirements.”

It doesn’t really matter. Once the money is flowing to certain states and jobs are at stake, no member of Congress has an incentive to be frugal with taxpayer money. 

Max Boot as Oracle

Max “Case for American Empire” Boot’s latest LA Times column walks us through a seminal text in counterinsurgency, David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, in the course of describing the “Keys to a Successful Surge.”

Since the ideas are mostly Galula’s and not Boot’s, the column is decent, but this seems as good an occasion as any to recall that Boot was arguing that victory in Iraq would be quite easy as recently as 2003.  This was his take then:

Formal empire is passe, and Americans have little enthusiasm for it. Promoting liberal democracies with U.S. security guarantees is more our style. In Iraq, that means purging the Baathists, providing humanitarian relief, starting to rebuild, and then setting up a process to produce a representative local government…

This means using American troops to secure all of Iraq. It will be insufficient to set up a peacekeeping force whose authority extends only to the capital. It will be unacceptable to say that peacekeeping is not a job for the U.S. military. Since the United States is committed to a “unitary” Iraq, it will have to commit sufficient force to make this a reality. This probably will not require the 200,000 troops suggested by Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki, but it will require a long-term commitment of at least 60,000 to 75,000 soldiers, the number estimated by Joint Staff planners. (emphasis added)

So in 2003, Max Boot was arguing that 60-75,000 U.S. troops could provide security all across Iraq, while simultaneously “purging the Baathists, providing humanitarian relief, starting to rebuild, and then setting up a process to produce a representative local government.”

Why should anyone be listening to him now?

Aqua Teen Overreaction Force?

Boston officials investigating this week’s marketing campaign gone awry should be sure to include themselves in the scrutiny, asking if they overreacted to the incident.

A In case you missed the story, Cartoon Network, a division of Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting, recently launched a “guerrilla marketing campaign” to promote its new adult-audience cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force. As part of the campaign, the network hired New York marketing firm Interference Inc. to place notepad-sized, electronically lit signs of the show’s “mooninite” characters in unusual locations around urban areas.

The campaign received little notice in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Austin, Texas. But in Boston, public officials treated the signs as a possible terrorist threat, closing bridges, subway stations, roadways, and even part of the Charles River while bomb squads removed the signs.

Once the nature of the signs became known, Boston mayor Thomas Menino issued a press release blasting the campaign:

It is outrageous, in a post-9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme. I am prepared to take any and all legal action against Turner Broadcasting and its affiliates for any and all expenses incurred during the response to today’s incidents.

Estimates for those expenses have already topped $1 million.

Boston officials’ initial concern is understandable and appropriate. Seeing an out-of-place object containing batteries, circuitry, and glowing lights is unsettling in these times and it should be investigated. But at what point should Boston officials have realized that the signs posed no threat, and called off the bomb squads?

This raises an issue that we often discuss here at Cato, and that has become especially important in the post-9/11 era: should we be more concerned about Type-1 errors (false positives) or Type-2 errors (false negatives)?

Detection systems, whether mechanical (burglar alarms, ultrasounds) or human (analysts, emergency services workers) are rarely error-free. Often, we have to decide whether we want a very sensitive detection system that likely will detect any real problem but also subjects us to Type-1 errors, or else a less sensitive system that likely won’t give us many false alarms but may also miss a real problem.

Boston officials’ bomb-squad response to the mooninite signs is a perfect example of a Type-1 error produced by a highly sensitive detection system. I suspect that government officials would defend the high sensitivity, saying “it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

But Type-1 errors can end up making us feel very sorry. The current Iraq War can be considered a Type-1 error resulting from the Bush administration’s high sensitivity to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Or consider the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, during which local schools publicized that they were in “lockdown mode” and keeping schoolchildren indoors — that is, they went into “better safe than sorry” mode. The snipers later told police that the schools’ pronouncements enticed the snipers to try to kill a child, and they ultimately wounded a 13-year-old as he arrived at his Bowie, Md., middle school.

For an excellent discussion of why 9/11 should not lead us to be too accepting of Type-1 errors, read Ohio State University national security professor John Mueller’s article “A False Sense of Insecurity?