Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Seth Stodder’s Weak Defense of ATS-P

Seth M.M. Stodder with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a former director of policy and planning for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, has a piece in the Federalist Society’s Engage magazine defending the Automated Targeting System — specifically ATS-P, which is a system for screening border crossers.

The piece starts with the gripping example of a man named Ra’ed Mansour al-Banna who was turned away from the U.S. border and later blew himself up in Iraq. DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker (who undoubtedly now lives in fear of my relentless blogging!) told the story at a CSIS event in December 2006:

[In 2003,] he showed up at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago with a valid passport from Jordan, a valid visa to come to the United States to conduct business and he asked to be admitted. There’s no bar to his being admitted other than the fact that he had been selected for a second look by our Automated Targeting System. He was flagged as somebody who just ought to be looked at more closely.

And so one of the CBP officers did exactly that: interviewed him, asked him a bunch of questions about what he intended to do in the United States, and concluded, at the end of the day, he just didn’t like the answers. He wasn’t confident that this guy was going to live up to the obligations that we imposed under the visa and he said, I’m sorry, you’ve got a valid visa, you’ve got a valid passport, you’re not going to come into the United States, and he sent him back to Jordan. Eighteen months later, of course, he was in Hillah, Iraq driving the vehicle-borne IED.

Baker is a smart man and he chooses his words carefully. If al-Banna had been identified by ATS-P as a likely terrorist, Baker would have said so. But he didn’t. He talked about visa obligations.

Maybe the system identified him as a potential visa over-stayer — he had lived in California for two years — and when al-Banna couldn’t convince his interviewer otherwise, CBP excluded him. Maybe, as some news reports have it, CBP sent al-Banna back to Jordan because he falsified details on his visa application (after which he “became withdrawn, holing up in a makeshift studio apartment, sleeping late, and displaying a new interest in religion”). Others say that “Homeland Security officials had no reason to suspect that Albanna had become a terrorist.” Until the full story has been examined, this is anecdotal luck at best, not proof of a successful system.

In his paper, Stoddard claims to take on criticisms I have leveled at the program — and some I haven’t. Here’s the relevant part of Stoddard’s article:

Some have disagreed with the 9/11 Commission’s assessment of ATS-P’s effectiveness in assisting CBP, and have asserted that ATS-P is simply ineffective. Jeff Jonas and Jim Harper of the Cato Institute have asserted that, in general, “[t]hough data mining has many valuable uses, it is not well suited to the terrorist discovery problem,” because of the purported absence of “terrorism patterns” which [sic] to draw strategic intelligence. During a panel at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jim Harper applied this analysis to ATS-P as well. But Jonas and Harper do not appear to understand all of ATS-P’s functions—including its link analysis function, operationalizing specific tactical intelligence by drawing linkages between known facts (e.g., a credit card number used by a known terrorist) and travelers seeking admission to the United States (e.g., if the PNR on a traveler indicates that traveler used that same credit card number to purchase his ticket). To the extent this conclusion also is pointed at ATS-P, Jonas and Harper may be uninformed. Indeed, the ultimate testimony to ATS-P’s effectiveness is not al-Banna, but its continued use by CBP and CBP’s ongoing efforts to improve it.

(link added)

Now let’s review what I said at the CSIS event:

The story of the suicide bomber in Iraq was gripping and thrilling, frankly, but I think it was an invitation to us to indulge in what’s known as the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. That’s Latin for “because it followed in time, there must be correlation.” Because ATS existed, he was stopped at the border. It may be true, but [it’s] not necessarily true. Had he gotten into the country, he would have done in this country what he was able to do in Iraq. Maybe true, but probably not true. The infrastructure isn’t here and the support isn’t here to be able to pull off that kind of thing. So it’s, again, a gripping story, but not necessarily a good basis for policymaking.

In addressing what ATS is, it’s a check against the no-fly list. I think most people are aware of that. Link analysis, it makes pretty good sense in many cases. [Baker d]idn’t address the question of the risk score, which is the most concerning, I think, to most people, for a variety of reasons. And exactly how that risk score is created isn’t known, and I imagine that Secretary Baker and others would refuse to tell us how that risk score is created because that would create a security breach in the system. But it’s precisely there that the capacity for rank unfairness in the system is created. And it’s a system that doesn’t just apply, as I understand it, to foreigners coming to the country, but to everyone traversing the border, and that’s – I’m sorry to be so parochial, but I’m most interested in the rights of American citizens who are traveling internationally and returning to the country.

(emphases added)

Now, it’s true that I am less informed about ATS-P than Stodder and Baker. Homeland Security folks hold inside information and they try to use secrecy as a trump card. My oral recitation of ATS-P’s details lacks polish, but I know enough to have specifically approved of link analysis while disapproving predictive data mining. In our paper, Jeff Jonas and I excluded link analysis (referred to as “subject-based analysis”) from our criticisms. Stodder refutes an objection I did not make, suggesting that I’m uninformed.

And he does not address the objection I did make, based on the paper Jeff Jonas and I published: predictive data mining won’t catch terrorists.

His evidence that ATS-P works?: “[I]ts continued use by CBP and CBP’s ongoing efforts to improve it.” It takes several logical leaps and generous inferences to make that good evidence.

The only other successes with finding immigrating terrorists he cites beyond al-Banna (if indeed he was a terrorist at the time) are “Millennium Bomber” Ahmed Ressam and Mohammed al-Qahtani. Those two, though, were picked up by alert CBP officers unaided by ATS-P (so far as we know — and one expects we would know).

Two terrorists that perhaps should have been picked up by ATS-P but weren’t are Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, 9-11 attackers who entered the country and lived openly in the United States even though they were known to be linked to the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. Before U.S. authorities failed to look for them, ATS-P failed to pick them out for additional questioning at the border. That’s typical of data mining for terrorism: high false positives and high false negatives.

Let’s Talk Passport Privacy!

With the revelation that the passport files of all three major presidential candidates were wrongly accessed, Sen. John McCain’s office issued the following statement:

The U.S. government has a responsibility to respect the privacy of all Americans. It appears that privacy was breached and I expect a thorough review and a change in procedures as necessary to ensure the privacy of all passport files.

Yes, the government does have a responsibility to respect our privacy, retaining as confidential the data it collects as a condition of our exercising the right to travel.

And all the presidential candidates might want to take a look at a recent State Department notice in the Federal Register. It would open passport files to:

  • the Department of Homeland Security,
  • the Department of Justice, including the FBI, the BATFE, the U.S. Marshals Service, and other components,
  • the Internal Revenue Service,
  • INTERPOL and other international organizations,
  • the National Counterterrorism Center,
  • the Social Security Administration,
  • public and private employers,
  • Members of Congress,
  • contractors, and
  • foreign governments.

So, yes, let’s talk about passport privacy!

Stewart Baker: Light on Security and History

One would be right to worry about Stewart Baker, Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary for policy. He’s as smart and cagey as they come, but for all his years at DHS, his security thinking seems not yet to have matured. At the same time, his recollection of the REAL ID Act is showing signs of somewhat advanced age. Let’s walk through some things with our friend Stewart:

Writing on the DHS blog in support of our national ID law, the REAL ID Act, he intones about the importance of driver’s licenses to national security. “Unfortunately,” he says, “we learned this the hard way. Twice.”:

First, in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh was able to create a fake South Dakota license with ease; all it took was a manual typewriter and a kitchen iron. He used the license to rent a Ryder truck in Oklahoma and destroy the Murrah Federal Building. Then, on September 11, 2001, eighteen of the nineteen hijackers carried government-issued IDs – mostly state driver’s licenses, many obtained fraudulently.

What, actually, did we learn from these stories?

I researched McVeigh’s attack on the Murrah building for my book Identity Crisis, concluding that he and Terry Nichols used false names inconsistently and with little purpose or effect. McVeigh used his true name to register at a motel for the nights directly preceding the bombing. This certainly clouds the theory that insufficient identification security had a relationship to the success of the bombing.

No, McVeigh and Nichols used surprise, not anonymity, to carry out their attack. They were playing cat and mouse with a cat that wasn’t looking for them. Once they struck, they were easily found.

The 9/11 story similarly fails to create a foundation for REAL ID or more secure identification. The 9/11 Commission noted that the 9/11 terrorists acquired U.S. identity documents — “some by fraud” — but it made no effort to establish how possession of identity documents, whether fraudulently or lawfully gotten, was proximate to the success of the 9/11 attacks.

A monograph on terrorist travel issued by 9/11 Commission staff without the endorsement of the Commission documented many issues related to travel documents and identity cards, but it too failed to establish how weakness in our identity systems were proximate to the 9/11 attacks, or — more importantly — how more secure identification systems would foreclose future acts of terrorism. Stewart Baker hasn’t establish this either. Nobody ever has. Identity security was a minor recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, and not a well-supported one.

But Baker characterizes it thusly:

The 9/11 Commission recognized that it’s too easy to get false identification in the U.S. That’s why the Commission determined that “(s)ecure identification should begin in the United States. The federal government should set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses.” Congress responded with the REAL ID Act of 2005, which requires the federal government to set standards for the identifications it accepts.

Now poor Stewart has fallen down a different way. Actually, Congress responded to the 9/11 Commission report with Section 7212 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-458). It created a committee of interested parties to assess how to strengthen the security of state ID cards and licenses. The REAL ID Act repealed section 7212 and disbanded that committee. Legislation to restore it is pending in both the Senate and the House.

Baker plans to write more on the REAL ID Act in the coming days. His purpose, of course, is to menace the states whose leaders may refuse to accept an extension of the compliance deadline under the Act. These states may force a showdown with DHS and Congress over this sprawling albatross of an unfunded surveillance mandate.

Not a single state in the entire country will comply with REAL ID by the statutory deadline of May 11, but DHS hopes that getting all states to agree to take deadline extensions can be counted as a REAL ID win. I suppose logic like that makes Stu Baker’s security chops and memory look pretty good! It’s a close call, but at this point I think it’s premature to take his driver’s license away.

A Blow Against the Flat Earthers Conspiracy Theorists

Reading through Bill Kauffman’s Ain’t My America, I’ve learned that John Randolph believed that with respect to his political opponents, “it is a mere waste of time to reason with such persons. They do not deserve anything like serious refutation. The proper arguments for such statesmen are a strait-waistcoat, a dark room, water, gruel, and depletion.”

This is probably good advice particularly for dealing with the deniers and fantasists who choose to ignore the fact that Saddam Hussein wasn’t in league with al Qaeda. I don’t know whether the Weekly Standard is running a Laurie Mylroie Contest for Weapons-Grade Conspiracy-Mongering or what, but somehow the delusion that the war was a good idea because Saddam was working with al Qaeda to plan an attack on us has cropped up again.

That said, with the passion of a younger man and the pen of a better writer, my friend Spencer Ackerman has taken up the cudgels on behalf of reality. Spencer apparently still has his files dealing with this topic; many of us threw ours away when it became plain that no self-respecting author would stand for the idea of a Saddam-al Qaeda axis.

Spencer takes aim at Stephen Hayes, the Lyndon LaRouche figure of the conspiracy cult. Here’s Spencer on the latest mumbo-jumbo from Hayes:

About as close as anything could come to linking Saddam to Al Qaeda was a memo from one Saddam’s intelligence services “written a decade before Operation Iraqi Freedom.” It says: “In a meeting in the Sudan we agreed to renew our relations with the Islamic Jihad Organization in Egypt.” That organization would eventually merge with Al Qaeda in the late 1990s, long after the apparent meeting in Sudan. It also says that for a time in the mid-1990s, Saddam and Al Qaeda had “indirect cooperation” by offering “training and motivation” to some of the same terror organizations in that country.

Out of this thin gruel, Hayes attempted to make a meal in the Standard’s pages this week. He lifted as many bullet points from the report as he could that, out of context, seemed to bolster his theory. He then went about attacking reporters who accurately wrote that the study found no direct connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda. Hayes tacitly promised his readers that history will ultimately vindicate him, writing that “as much as we have learned from this impressive collection of documents, it is only a fraction of what we will know in 10, 20 or 50 years.” And he expressed puzzlement that an administration with an obvious credibility problem had not “done anything to promote the study.”

It would be genuinely perplexing if an administration that has every possible interest (its legacy, its current popularity, the judgment of its most basic principles in history’s ledger) in advancing this argument simply refused to promote “facts” that help argue for their policy views. The most obvious explanation why they haven’t seems to be that they aren’t “facts”–that Stephen Hayes is cobbling together disparate pieces of raw intelligence to paint a picture that doesn’t represent reality. (Which would not be unprecedented in his corner of the political ring.) But other theories are hereby solicited.

Dispensing with Hayes, Spencer leaves us with this:

At the risk of belaboring the point, it should be obvious that if Saddam Hussein was as important to Al Qaeda as Hayes has erroneously and deliberately written for years, then Al Qaeda should be reeling years after the destruction of his regime. Instead, according to a mid-2007 warning from the National Counterterrorism Center, Al Qaeda is “Better Positioned to Strike the West.” Never once does Hayes, in all the thousands of words he has written on the “connection,” reckoned with this basic strategic problem. In essence, he asks every U.S. soldier and Marine in Iraq to be the last man to die for a debater’s point.

I wish I’d come up with that last line. If you’re wondering about what’s brewing in the danker corners of the conspiracy-mongering fever swamps, Spencer climbs down into the muck so you don’t have to. But it’s sad that we still have to have this discussion at all. We don’t give equal time to flat-earthers anymore.

Oy, Hillary

Matt Yglesias, reading Dana Milbank in the Washington Post, notes that Hillary Clinton’s campaign apparently believes that U.S. support for Israel should be unconditional.

According to Clinton adviser Ann Lewis (Barney Frank’s sister): “The role of the president of the United States is to support the decisions that are made by the people of Israel. It is not up to us to pick and choose from among the political parties.” Lewis said this at a United Jewish Communities event in response to Obama’s wild notion that he should not be captive to the Likud line.

I am not up on what level of rhetorical fealty to Israel is standard these days, but this is too much. Ours being a representative government, the president shouldn’t even unconditionally support the wishes of the American people, but that would at least be the right country.

Some reporter really ought to ask Clinton if this is her position. According to Ann Lewis, if Bibi Netanyahu comes back to power and decides to give up on the two-state solution, permanently reoccupy Gaza, displace a bunch more West Bank Palestinians in favor of Jewish settlers, and bomb Iran, Clinton would say, “We stand with you Israel! Here’s your $3 billion in annual military aid and your arms buys, and don’t forget to ask for a Security Council veto if you need one!”

In general, the United States shouldn’t tell our foreign friends what to do, but we also shouldn’t back them no matter what they do. If you take our support, you should take our advice.

John McCain, Determined to Fight al Qaeda Wherever It Isn’t

Matt Yglesias links to this astonishing gaffe from the presumptive Republican nominee:

Speaking to reporters in Amman, the Jordanian capital, McCain said he and two Senate colleagues traveling with him continue to be concerned about Iranian operatives “taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back.”

Pressed to elaborate, McCain said it was “common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that’s well known. And it’s unfortunate.” A few moments later, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, standing just behind McCain, stepped forward and whispered in the presidential candidate’s ear. McCain then said: “I’m sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda.”

Yet another lesson that talk can be simultaneously straight and wrong. The persistence of this sort of unified field theory of terrorism is truly remarkable. Anyone who’s reading the newspapers knows that Iran is, of all countries in the region, most supportive of the Iraqi government. Don’t take my word for it: ask Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who referred to President Ahmadinejad on his recent victory lap visit to Iraq as a “brother.” And then there’s al Qaeda in Iraq, which is not so supportive. It can be difficult to keep all this straight, but the man’s running for president on the basis of his *ahem* peculiar expertise in fighting terrorism, after all.

The Remarkable Moral Deafness of Rep. Rohrabacher

Walter Pincus has a writeup today of a House hearing last Tuesday on what we should be doing about Iraqi refugees. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) remarked on the failure of the administration to help Iraqis who have worked for the Coalition as translators:

“I can’t remember President Bush speaking about this refugee crisis or the need for the United States to respond aggressively to it except in passing,” Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) said.

As for the Iraqi translators, some 500 more of whom have signed up to seek visas, Ackerman said, “I don’t understand why the administration isn’t processing them … unless that was never their intention and all along they were willing to talk a good game but leave these people high and dry.”

Then there’s the Republican position, as presented by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.):

“They’re wonderful people who’d like to live here, especially the ones who have helped us, but the last thing we want to do is to have people who are friendly to democracy … moving here in large numbers at a time when they’re needed to build a new, thriving Iraq.”

So Rep. Rohrabacher knows better than these Arabic-speaking, living-in-Iraq Iraqis what’s best for them. And, as it happens, what’s best for them is to stay in the hellish maelstrom of violence that is Iraq, despite the stated views of these folks themselves. Somehow the foolish idea has gotten into their heads that they’re owed something for having put their lives on the line, day in and day out, to assist the Coalition. In fairness to Rep. Rohrabacher, he’s offering them something: the right to help salvage the grandiose political science theories of men like Rohrabacher. And for that, we should be sure they’ll be eternally grateful.

My colleague Malou Innocent had a piece on the plight of Iraqis who’ve aided the Coalition back in December. Give it a read and see if Rohrabacher’s position doesn’t become all the more uncomfortable.