Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

A Look into the “Grinder”

Senator Hagel is the one Republican in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who stood against President Bush’s plan to escalate the war in Iraq.  Explaining his reasoning, Hagel noted

There is no strategy. This is a ping pong game with American lives. And we better be damn sure we know what we are doing, all of us, before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder.

Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney remains focused on the “enormous successes” our policy in Iraq has created, and grouses that people who oppose the President’s plan “are so eager to write off this effort or declare it a failure.”  In Vice President Cheney’s world, we are not in a “terrible situation” in Iraq.

The New York Times has a report today describing the early results of the “surge”:

In a miniature version of the troop increase that the United States hopes will secure the city, American soldiers and armored vehicles raced onto Haifa Street before dawn to dislodge Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias who have been battling for a stretch of ragged slums and mostly abandoned high rises. But as the sun rose, many of the Iraqi Army units who were supposed to do the actual searches of the buildings did not arrive on time, forcing the Americans to start the job on their own.

When the Iraqi units finally did show up, it was with the air of a class outing, cheering and laughing as the Americans blew locks off doors with shotguns. As the morning wore on and the troops came under fire from all directions, another apparent flaw in this strategy became clear as empty apartments became lairs for gunmen who flitted from window to window and killed at least one American soldier, with a shot to the head.

Whether the gunfire was coming from Sunni or Shiite insurgents or militia fighters or some of the Iraqi soldiers who had disappeared into the Gotham-like cityscape, no one could say.

“Who the hell is shooting at us?” shouted Sgt. First Class Marc Biletski, whose platoon was jammed into a small room off an alley that was being swept by a sniper’s bullets. “Who’s shooting at us? Do we know who they are?”

Up from Neoconservatism

Today, NYT columnist David Brooks tells us that he is disillusioned with the dream of transforming Iraqi society from the top down.  Better late than never.  But then Brooks has the audacity to criticize Senator James Webb’s idea of a slow pull-out because “it takes no note of the long-term political and humanitarian consequences.”

This is too much. 

Let’s not forget that Jim Webb anticipated the current debacle in Iraq back in 2002.  At that time, David Brooks was calling skeptics of Bush’s Iraqi war plans “kibitzers.”  In fact, Brooks was not only urging Bush to use our military power to transform Iraqi society, he went further and advocated the use of military power to transform the entire Arab world.  Thus, on a John McLaughlin scale of “anticipating the long term consequences of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East,” Webb gets something approaching “metaphysical certitude” whereas David Brooks is off somewhere in the negative numbers.

The neocons have had a pretty good record with respect to short-term politics.  That is, they often get their policy proposals adopted.  Unfortunately, we all must face the disastrous consequences of those policies. 

Hear That? It’s the Sound of a Nation Constricting

Beginning today, citizens of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda are required to present a passport to enter the United States when arriving by air from any part of the Western Hemisphere.

This new restriction on local international travel is part of the “Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.” Tightening up on travel documentation was a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that Congress passed into law in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.

To downplay the consequences of this new travel restriction, a Department of Homeland Security press release points out that over 90 percent of U.S. citizens, 97 percent of Canadians, and just about all Mexicans and Bermudans flying to the United States over the past week arrived with passports. But this means that fully 10 percent of Americans who currently travel overseas this way are going to be at least inconvenienced, and at most dissuaded, from doing so.

It’s hard to quantify what a marginal restriction on travel like this means, but let’s try:

As early as January 1, 2008, the new restriction may apply to citizens entering the U.S. from the Western Hemisphere by land or sea. Air travelers are probably more likely than land or border crossers to have passports so let’s assume that 10 percent of all American border crossers lack passports.

To get a rough idea of what this means, in 1999, there were approximately 300 million roundtrips between the United States and Mexico and the United States and Canada, the vast majority of them same-day trips. Let’s assume 250 million of them were U.S. citizens. If 1% of these trips don’t happen (10% of current non-passport holders) because of the new Western Hemisphere travel restrictions, that’s 2.5 million cross-border trips forgone each year, along with the commerce, goodwill, and freedom those trips would have entalied.

What price freedom? Well, let’s make it 10 bucks. At that price, using these strictly back-of-envelope estimates, WHTI costs $25 million per year (not counting the cost of administration). The net present value of a $25 million annual expenditure is $500 million (at a 5% interest rate). In other words, more than half-a-billion dollars (a low estimate) worth of freedom and commerce goes down the drain starting today.

It would be worth every penny if it improved our national security by a similar margin. Alas, it does not.

The reason why requiring passports at borders provides so very little security boils down to the fact that identity does not reveal intention.

In our daily lives, we use identity to assure ourselves of the bona fides of others - neighbors, coworkers, stores, and restaurants, for example. But terrorists and hardened criminals are not similarly constrained by the social and legal pressures we can bring to bear on our law-abiding neighbors.

You could have perfect knowledge of who everyone is - lock down everyone’s identity with a mandatory cradle-to-grave biometric tracking system - and you would still not prevent crime and terrorism. I have carefully analyzed the utility of identity for security in my book, Identity Crisis.

Terrorists can defeat an identity-based security system either physically or logically. They can enter the country someplace other than a border crossing for example - and the half-billion expendture on WHTI is 100% wasted. A logical evasion of identity-based border security is to enter the country legally, not having participated in terrorism planning or acts before. This was the technique used by al Qaeda with most of the 9/11 terrorists.

Checking passports at the border of the country is what security expert Bruce Schneier correctly calls “security theater.” It may make you feel safer, but it doesn’t make you safer. It does corral law-abiding citizens into the habit of showing ID as they go about their business, and it puts information about law-abiding travelers into government data stores for who-knows-what future use.

With the travel restrictions going into effect today, America does not get safer, just smaller.

Facts and Logic Pertaining to the Enemy

I was preparing to write a lengthy blog post responding point by point to the many erroneous assertions and flawed arguments contained within the president’s State of the Union address, but then I discovered that I didn’t have to. Veteran Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler did it for me.

Among the gems contained within Kessler’s article:

– “The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat,” the president said. In other words, Kessler writes: “Under Bush’s rubric, a country such as Iran … is lumped together with al-Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.”

– With respect to Hezbollah, which President Bush singled out as a terrorist group “second only to al-Qaeda in the American lives it has taken,” Kessler points out that those attacks on the U.S. embassy and a Marine barracks in Lebanon occurred “nearly a quarter-century ago…when the United States intervened in Lebanon’s civil war by shelling Hezbollah strongholds.”  

– In the president’s cataloguing of the actions of “the enemy” since 2005, he “tried to tie together a series of diplomatic and military setbacks that had virtually no connection to one another, from an attack on a Sunni mosque in Iraq to the assassination of Maronite Lebanese political figure [sic].”

– The so-called freedom agenda also takes a few hits. In a familiar refrain, the president argued that “free people are not drawn to violent and malignant ideologies – and most will choose a better way when they are given a chance.”

– However, as Kessler reminds us, “In the two of the most liberal and diverse societies in the Middle East – Lebanon and the Palestinian territories – events have undercut Bush’s argument… Hezbollah has gained power and strength in Lebanon, partly at the ballot box. Meanwhile, Palestinians ousted the Fatah party – which wants to pursue peace with Israel – from the legislature in favor of Hamas, which is committed to Israel’s destruction and is considered a terrorist organization by the State Department.”

– As for the “moderate” governments that the terrorists wish to overthrow, ”Many of the countries that Bush considers ‘moderate’ – such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia – are autocratic dictatorships” whose “Freedom House ratings are virtually indistinguishable from Cuba, Belarus and Burma, which Bush last night listed as nations in desperate need of freedom.”

– Finally, with respect to the president’s assertion that “we have a diplomatic strategy that is rallying the world to join in the fight against extremism,” Kessler notes that “global opinion of U.S. foreign policy has sharply deteriorated in the past two years.” A recent poll found that nearly three-quarters of those surveyed “disapprove of U.S. policies toward Iraq, and nearly half said the United States is playing a mainly negative role in the world.”

Notably, Kessler’s article was not identified as a “News Analysis” – the typical flag that reporters employ when they wish to call attention to the fact that an article in the news portion of the paper (as opposed to the Opinion page) contains opinions. Kessler’s piece did not require such a designation because it was based not on opinion, but rather on a fair and accurate reading of the facts.

Which is more than can be said for the president’s speech.

More on Bush’s Surveillance Flip-Flop

Based on the DOJ briefing regarding the NSA surveillance about-face, it appears that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) is not approving surveillance on a program-wide basis.  Instead, it is issuing individualized surveillance orders against particularized targets.  It remains unclear, though, how exactly the FISA orders have changed to permit more “speed and agility” and, because so much is taking place within the dark, all suggestions are pure, unadulterated guess-work.

One compelling theory is Orin Kerr’s:  namely, that the FISA court is issuing anticipatory warrants (warrants based on a finding that there is probable cause to search when a future triggering condition appears.)  As Kerr notes, that’s consistent the one bit of evidence we can glean:  that the FISA court is limiting the approval orders to a 90 day period, rather than the full statutory one year period permitted under FISA.  Shorter review is consistent with ensuring that the triggering condition for the search and the probable cause requirement mesh.  It also helps explain the timing, since the Supreme Court approved anticipatory warrants in United States v. Grubbs last term.  (For more on Grubbs, read Professor David Moran’s article on last term’s Fourth Amendment cases, The End of the Exclusionary Rule, Among Other Things, in the latest Cato Supreme Court Review.)

Kerr’s theory, however, doesn’t explain one part of the puzzle:  multiple sources’ statements to the Washington Post that the orders touch on ”programmatic” issues.  What might this mean, if FISC is approving orders on a case-by-case, rather than program-level, basis?

One possibility is that DOJ has adopted a streamlined internal approval process for emergency FISA applications within the executive branch, and that FISC has approved it.  FISA imposes some internal pre-approval requirements for emergency applications–including review by the AG and a cabinet level official with foreign affairs responsibility.  In February testimony last year, Gonzales complained at length that this statutory approval process had become overly cumbersome:

To be sure, FISA allows the government to begin electronic surveillance without a court order for up to 72 hours in emergency situations or circumstances. 

But before that emergency provision can be used, the attorney general must make a determination that all of the requirements of the FISA statute are met in advance. 

This requirement can be cumbersome and burdensome.  Intelligence officials at NSA first have to assess that they have identified a legitimate target. After that, lawyers at NSA have to review the request to make sure it meets all the requirements of the statute. And then lawyers at the Justice Department must also review the request and reach the same judgment or insist on additional information before processing the emergency application.  Finally I, as attorney general, must review the request and make the determination that all of the requirements of FISA are met.  

But even this is not the end of the story. 

Each emergency authorization must be followed by a detailed formal application to the FISA courts within three days. The government must prepare legal documents laying out all of the relevant facts and law and obtain the approval of a Cabinet-level officer as well as a certification from a senior official with mass security responsibility, such as the director of the FBI. 

Finally, a judge must review, consider and approve the application.  All of these steps take time. Al Qaida, however, does not wait.  … Just as we can’t demand that our soldiers bring lawyers onto the battlefield, let alone get the permission of the attorney general or a court before taking action, we can’t afford to impose layers of lawyers on top of career intelligence officers who are striving valiantly to provide a first line of defense by tracking secretive Al Qaida operatives in real time.  

In the briefing on the new FISA process, however, the administration noted that one change that made compliance with FISA possible was a change in executive branch “infrastructure”:

[O]ne thing that did change was – authorization earlier this year, last year, the National Security Division, which is a new agency in the Department of Justice, which will – be coordinating with the FISA Court on all kinds of matters including this one. So we’re now equipped in a way we weren’t before to handle this work.

One way to read this is that the new FISC order finds that new streamlined executive branch procedures for internal review of emergency applications accords with FISA.  Its hard, unfortunately, to guess exactly what such procedures might be, but it almost certainly includes eliminating duplicative layers of legal oversight within the executive.

Goodbye Warrantless NSA Surveillance?

The DOJ announced today it has reached a double super-secret deal with the FISA court which allows it to bring the administration’s NSA surveillance program within the statutory FISA framework governing surveillance warrants. What deal, you ask? The DOJ’s letter to Senators Leahy and Specter provides few details, except to say that it is based on a FISA court order that establishes “innovative” and “complex” warrant procedures that allow the administration to act with “speed and agility.”

Absent further information, its hard to tell whether this is a good development, although as Marty Lederman notes, it is “difficult to imagine that the FISA court would roll over and approve an ‘innovative’ legal theory if it were dubious – especially not in this context, where DOJ has many incentives to get the FISA court on-board and where the congressional and public spotlight is shining so brightly.”

The administration’s about face underscores what I argued in this piece: that the administration’s claims that it was simply too cumbersome to comply with FISA held absolutely no water.

Lederman also notes that the threat of losses in ongoing multi-district litigation involving the state secrets privilege as well as the threat of congressional subpoenas, and possible litigation over executive privilege, may well have prompted the administration to give up its go it alone stance. I’ve previously argued that such threats had the potential to rein in the administration, without involving a winner-takes-all show down with the Supreme Court, here.

Identity Crisis Book Forum Thursday at Cato

On Thursday, the Cato Institute is having a book forum on my book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.

Commenting on my presentation of the book will be James Lewis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Jay Stanley from the ACLU.

The REAL ID Act is under siege from state leaders who are bridling at this unfunded surveillance mandate, and legislation was introduced at the end of the 109th Congress to repeal REAL ID. But the immigration debate this year will surely fuel the push for a national ID with the demand for “internal enforcement” of immigration law. Identity Crisis lays the groundwork for all these discussions.

The event is streamed for those not in the area. To register, go here.