Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Don’t Tread on Me

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales does not like it when members of Congress poke their noses into the affairs of the executive branch. 

Consider today’s Washington Post report on this week’s release of the transcript from an April House Judiciary Committee hearing on such matters as domestic surveillance and treatment of potential terrorists. During the hearing, Gonzales repeatedly evaded lawmakers’ questions.

Here’s a snippet from the exchange between Gonzales and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY):

Nadler: Can you assure this Committee that the United States Government will not grab anybody at an airport or anyplace in U.S. territory, and send them to another country without some sort of due process?

Gonzales: Well, what I can tell you is that we’re going to follow the law in terms of what—

Nadler: Well, does the law permit us to send someone to another country without any due process, without a hearing before an administrative, an immigration judge or somebody? Just grab them off the street and put them on a plane, goodbye without — we’ve done that. Does the law permit us to do that? Do we claim that right?

Gonzales: I’m not going to confirm that we’ve done that.

Bush and Gonzales have this message for the Congress: Go back to investigating steroid use among athletes or something, but don’t tread on us!

On Media and Habeas Corpus

TV.  People call it the “boob tube.”  People banish it from their homes to demonstrate how smart and superior they are (oh, and elitist).  People argue endlessly about who should be able to own TV stations because, with too much media in too few hands, other people might hear or learn the wrong things.

The inferiority of TV.  Its subjection to the control of media titans, who play footsie with political power.  These things are demonstrated to be absurd by things like this: a former sportscaster on a throwaway cable news channel imploring his audience and the President about habeas corpus, the Military Commissions Act, and American history - for nearly nine minutes.  This is the kind of thing that happens in our supposedly vapid, short-attention-span media world.

Now, I’m not a fan of Keith Olbermann, nor an opponent of the current administration (though I criticize policies unreservedly when I think they’re wrong).  I make these disclaimers to encourage you to consider the arguments Olbermann makes, looking past some of his personal invective.  He states quite strongly things that our careful scholars are suggesting and exploring here, here, here, here, and here

People, when you’re not reading Levy, Moller, or Lynch - watch TV!

The Costs of War

With 103 American fatalities, October was the fourth-bloodiest month since the beginning of the Iraq War. But the focus on the number of battle deaths may understate the true costs of the war for the American soldier. Due to innovations in battlefield medicine, we’re getting much better at saving soldiers’ lives. In WWII, 30 percent of those injured in combat died. In Vietnam–and even in the Gulf War–it was 24 percent. Now it’s around 10 percent. That is unquestionably a positive development. But it also means that many of those we save are horribly maimed. As this article from the New England Journal of Medicine describes:

One airman with devastating injuries from a mortar attack outside Balad on September 11, 2004, was on an operating table at Walter Reed just 36 hours later. In extremis from bilateral thigh injuries, abdominal wounds, shrapnel in the right hand, and facial injuries, he was taken from the field to the nearby 31st CSH in Balad. Bleeding was controlled, volume resuscitation begun, a guillotine amputation at the thigh performed. He underwent a laparotomy with diverting colostomy. His abdomen was left open, with a clear plastic bag as covering. He was then taken to Landstuhl by an Air Force Critical Care Transport team. When he arrived in Germany, Army surgeons determined that he would require more than 30 days’ recovery, if he made it at all. Therefore, although resuscitation was continued and a further washout performed, he was sent on to Walter Reed. There, after weeks in intensive care and multiple operations, he did survive. This is itself remarkable. Injuries like his were unsurvivable in previous wars. The cost, however, can be high. The airman lost one leg above the knee, the other in a hip disarticulation, his right hand, and part of his face. How he and others like him will be able to live and function remains an open question….

[F]or many new problems, the answers remain unclear. Early in the war, for example, Kevlar vests proved dramatically effective in preventing torso injuries. Surgeons, however, now find that IEDs are causing blast injuries that extend upward under the armor and inward through axillary vents. Blast injuries are also producing an unprecedented burden of what orthopedists term “mangled extremities” — limbs with severe soft-tissue, bone, and often vascular injuries. These can be devastating, potentially mortal injuries, and whether to amputate is one of the most difficult decisions in orthopedic surgery. Military surgeons have relied on civilian trauma criteria to guide their choices, but those criteria have not proved reliable in this war. Possibly because the limb injuries are more extreme or more often combined with injuries to other organs, attempts to salvage limbs following the criteria have frequently failed, with life-threatening blood loss, ischemia, and sepsis.

Even with all the efforts made to save limbs, “the amputation rate in Iraq is double that of previous wars,” as the LA Times reported earlier this year, in its three-part series on wounded American soldiers. 

That war is a bloody business is hardly a novel point.  And, of course, it is not by itself an argument against any particular war. If these men incurred similar injuries charging Al Qaeda positions at Tora Bora, that would have been terrible, but far easier to justify.  However, it is becoming increasingly hard to justify the costs of our open-ended commitment in Iraq, where our mission becomes ever murkier, and victory, however defined, continues to recede over the horizon.

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.