Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

“Data Mining Doesn’t Catch Terrorists”

That’s the quickest summary of a paper the Cato Institute issued today, which I co-wrote with Jeff Jonas, distinguished engineer and chief scientist with IBM’s Entity Analytic Solutions Group.

Data mining is the effort to gain knowledge from patterns in data.  A retailer can use data mining to sift through past customer interactions and learn more about potential new customers, but it can’t figure out which customers will actually come into a new store.  Terrorism is so rare in society that there are no patterns to search for.  Data mining has no capability to ferret out terrorists. 

It appears that the Automated Targeting System, which made news last week (because of its previously unknown focus on American travelers), uses data mining.  It sifts through information about border-crossers to assign them a “risk score.”

In a National Journal article published last week, Secretary of Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff discussed ATS, revealing the need for government officials to get more clear about what they are doing, what works, and what doesn’t work.  According to NJ, Chertoff called ATS “the process by which we collect that information and analyze it to see what are the patterns and the relationships that tell us, for example, that a particular telephone number is associated with a terrorist, or something of that sort.”

Comparing the number of a traveler to phone numbers of terrorists is data matching and it is not what ATS does - or at least not the interesting part of what ATS does.  Data matching, link analysis, or “pulling strings” is a proven investigative method and, as we discuss in our paper, it’s what could have prevented the attacks of 9/11.

There should be forthright public discussion about whether a program like ATS, or any data mining program, can catch terrorists.  Such a program might help fight ordinary crime, where suitable patterns may be detectable.  But whether the public would countenance mass surveillance for ordinary crime control is a different question than whether it would accept such methods to prevent terrorism.

‘New Lipstick on a Very Old Pig’

My friend Spencer Ackerman has an appropriately depressing piece on Baker-Hamilton online at the American Prospect. A snip:

There is something of an upshot to the commission, however. Even though it doesn’t really propose ending the war, it will shift the Iraq debate in favor of the modalities of extrication. Welcome to 1968: everyone knows the war must end and victory is unachievable, but the will to actually withdraw in full remains unpalatable to the political class. Bush will have a very hard time recommitting the country to a chimerical “victory” in Iraq. But in the name of “responsibility,” thousands more will die, for years and years, as the situation deteriorates further. Someone, at sometime, will finally have to say “enough,” and get the United States out.

Sometime. Read the whole thing.

Talking to Bad Guys, Part II

Back in July, as the war in Lebanon raged, I questioned the president’s unwillingness to deal directly with Syria and Iran on issues of mutual concern in the Middle East. The issue has resurfaced in the past few days as the Iraq Study Group is expected to recommend that the Bush administration negotiate with Iraq’s neighborsall of Iraq’s neighbors – in an attempt to rein in the escalating civil war in the country.

For now, President Bush appears firm in his opposition to direct talks with either Iran or Syria. He is encouraged in this posture by neoconservatives who believe that talking to either country is tantamount to a reward for bad behavior. A related argument is that negotiations afford respect and legitimacy to regimes that deserve neither.

I have never understood this position. Ronald Reagan, the supposed patron saint of neoconservative hawks, was never afraid to negotiate with our enemies. Indeed, his willingness to reach out, for example, to the leaders of the Soviet Union engendered considerable criticism among neoconservatives. They were equally skeptical of many of his policies in the Middle East and Asia.

As Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke write in their book America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order:

Reagan had presented the conflicts of international politics in essentially moral terms, and for this reason he looked like the president whom neo-conservatives had waited for. But as his declaratory policies gradually moved toward pragmatism, those events that seemed to be disasters in foreign policy to neo-conservatives appeared as major achievements to the moderates who were making the key decisions in the administration.

One of those moderates was James Baker. The New Republic’s Martin Peretz urges us to ”Ignore James Baker,” and AEI’s Michael Ledeen accuses Baker et al of “active appeasement.” It is easier to understand Baker’s ability to shrug off such neoconservative sniping when we recall what he learned from the master communicator and strategist. You can almost see a Reaganesque gleam in his eye when Baker explains “it’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies.”

It may be impossible to avert Iraq’s slide into full-scale civil war. But Iraq’s neighbors surely do not want to see the chaos expand over Iraq’s borders, and threaten their own peace and security. That seems reason enough to want to reach out to others in the region, including those countries we don’t like very much.

Throwing Another Foreign Policy Log on the Fire

With so many foreign policy issues dominating the news lately (Lebanon, the Gates confirmation hearings, Baker-Hamilton, the ongoing mess in Iraq, North Korea…), I wonder whether people don’t get burned out and stop wanting to hear about foreign policy.

But if you aren’t sick of hearing about the various foreign policy challenges we face, today marks the release of a new policy analysis on Iran [.pdf] authored by yours truly.  I’ll comment on the paper at our half-day conference next Monday, which hosts a whole group of prestigious Iran watchers: Michael Eisenstadt, Larry Korb, Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, Trita Parsi, Sanam Vakil, Flynt Leverett, and last but not least, my highly esteemed boss Ted Carpenter.

Please register to attend.

Ideology and Critical Infrastructure Protection

I recently received a pair of reports on critical infrastructure protection in the mail, and have now had a chance to read them. Both are written by Kenneth Cukier, reporter for The Economist. They are well-written, thought-provoking, balanced, and blessedly brief. They summarize a roundtable and a working group convened by an organization I had not heard of before called The Rueschlikon Conference.

One is called Protecting Our Future: Shaping Public-Private Cooperation to Secure Critical Information Infrastructures. The other is Ensuring (and Insuring?) Critical Information Infrastructure Protection. They focus on an important question: How do we make sure that the facilities of our networked economy and society survive terrorists acts and natural disasters?

I want to come back to the ‘compliment’ I gave both papers: “balanced.” The first report finds, among other things, that we should “harness the power of the private sector” and “use market forces” to protect critical information infrastructures. It notes that Wal-Mart had 66% of its stores in the region of Hurricane Katrina back in operation 48 hours after the storm. It also notes how, with electrical lines downed by Katrina, BellSouth’s backup generators had kicked in. When fuel supplies ran low, government officials confiscated the fuel being trucked in to keep them running. Yet, for reasons I cannot discern, the report maintains that “public-private cooperation” is what’s needed rather than getting the public sector out of the way.

The second report finds that the marketplace is insufficient to protect critical infrastructure because it lacks proper incentives. It also finds that the insurance industry can create a market for security. It’s got to be one or the other. The “balance” of these reports becomes more and more just contradiction.

A telling line can be found in the second report: “[O]ne person expressed skepticism that relying on the market to solve [critical information infrastructure] security would work, since it seemed to fall too neatly into the modern ideological mantra that markets solve all problems.” In other words, a conclusion in favor of market solutions was avoided because it might further validate markets as a problem solving tool.

The uncomfortable search for “balance” in these otherwise good reports may reflect an ideological preference for government involvement – despite the harm that did in the case of Hurricane Katrina.

It is insufficient, of course, to identify ideological bias (or anti-ideological bias?) in the reports. I did find them useful and interesting, and they inspired a few thoughts that I think deserve more exploration:

  1. Anti-trust law thwarts communication among companies responsible for infrastructure protection. Rather than convening so many government work-groups, the root of the problem in anti-trust law should be addressed.
  2. Government secrecy is one of the things undoubtedly keeping the insurance industry from having the confidence to insure against terrorism risk. Thus, it does not promulgate better terror-security practices among its insureds, and a valuable tool in the struggle against terrorism lies on the shop floor. Rather than subsidies, the government should give the insurance industry information.
  3. People interested in these issues should attend or watch Cato’s upcoming forum on John Mueller’s book Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them.

Sen. Richard Lugar: Public Menace

Representatives of NATO are in Latvia this week to talk about the alliance. But no international gathering is safe from the careful eye of Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN). On the eve of the NATO meeting, Lugar gave a speech at conference sponsored by the German Marshall Fund arguing that NATO must be capable of responding if producing states use energy “as a weapon” to cut supplies to NATO members.

Now, think about this for a minute. Lugar is implying that if A decides not to sell to B, then B has the right to shoot A in the head. If A decides to sell less to B than B might like, B is apparently also justified in shooting A in the head.

Sometimes, however, military retaliation might be a bit over the top – even for Sen. Lugar. In those cases, Sen. Lugar proposes that consumers diversify their sources of supply as a preventative measure. Apparently, this would never occur to market actors. This would only occur to United States Senators.

And now, let’s toast the new Democratic majority in the Senate ….

Hagel Makes the Case for an Exit Strategy

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) penned an important op ed in Sunday’s Washington Post Outlook section calling on President Bush to fashion an exit strategy from Iraq.

Hagel’s candor is refreshing, but I have come to expect this from Hagel. Equally impressive is his brevity. He manages to say in a short 739 words what so few of his fellow senators have been willing or able to articulate in twice or three times as many: “The United States must begin planning for a phased troop withdrawal from Iraq.”

The gist of the editorial explains that we must exit Iraq because it is in our interest to do so. He notes the “devastating” costs “in terms of American lives, dollars and world standing.” He points out that ”We are destroying our force structure, which took 30 years to build.” This cost to our military – and therefore to our national security – cannot be quantified. Neither can the cost in lives. But this much we do know: in dollar terms alone, war costs now exceed $300 billion, and are accumulating at a rate of $8 billion per month.

As to Hagel’s pragmatic understanding of the limitations of military force to achieve noble ends, the following passages are instructive:

Militaries are built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations. We are once again learning a very hard lesson in foreign affairs: America cannot impose a democracy on any nation – regardless of our noble purpose.

We have misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged our honorable intentions in Iraq with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam. Honorable intentions are not policies and plans.

Well said, Senator Hagel. Here’s hoping that some of your fellow senators took time off from leftover turkey and stuffing to read the newspaper.