Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Free the Scholars

Justin Logan discussed the “Travesty in Tehran” – the arrest and incarceration of Haleh Esfandiari – astutely yesterday. As he noted, these actions are a real provocation at a time when reduced tensions between Iran and the United States are devoutly to be hoped for. But more importantly, the unjust imprisonment of a peaceful scholar is a striking affront to human rights. The people of both Iran and the United States who want to see Iran as part of a peaceful and democratic world must deplore these actions.

And of course, to make matters worse, Esfandiari is not the only scholar currently being held by the Iranian government. The regime is also holding Kian Tajbakhsh of the Open Society Institute; journalist Parnaz Azima from the U.S.-funded Radio Farda; and Ali Shakeri, a peace activist and founding board member at the University of California, Irvine’s Center for Citizen Peacebuilding. There is no evidence that any of these people are engaged in espionage or threatening Iranian national security. Indeed, most or all of them have worked to improve relations between Iran and the United States and to turn both countries away from a collision course.

Leading human rights groups and activists have spoken out against these arrests. In a joint statement, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, the International Federation for Human Rights, and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi urged Iran to stop “harassment of dual nationals.”

To add insult to injury, Esfandiari’s husband was informed yesterday that Citibank had frozen his wife’s bank accounts “in accordance with U.S. Sanctions regulations,” which stipulate that U.S. banks are prohibited from servicing accounts for residents of Iran. A resident? She’s an involuntary resident of the notorious Evin Prison. Late in the evening, after many phone calls and the intercession of the State Department, Citibank relented and unfroze the accounts. As painful as that experience was, her husband no doubt wishes that a day’s worth of phone calls could persuade an Islamic government to admit its mistake.

REAL ID Proponents Miss Yet Another Chance

Writing in National Review Online, the Heritage Foundation’s James Jay Carafano argues that Democrats are killing the REAL ID Act (oh, and that the administration and Senate Republicans aren’t supporting it either). This apparently is a reason to oppose comprehensive immigration law reform. Notably, Carafano passes up yet another opportunity to tell us how REAL ID would add to our nation’s protections.

In my spoken testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on REAL ID (written testimony here), I characterized the two schools of thought among supporters of REAL ID: the “Just Do It” school and the “Do-Overs” school.

Carafano is from Just Do It. Not engaging on the question whether REAL ID would actually add to our protections, he just implores for its implementation. He never explains exactly how REAL ID would secure us, or why counter-measures wouldn’t lay its alleged benefits to waste. Just Do It doesn’t even attempt making the affirmative case for spending $17 billion undermining our privacy through REAL ID.

The Do-Overs school is epitomized by consultant Janice Kephart, a terror profiteer of sorts, who is cashing in on having been a 9/11 Commission staffer. The Do-Overs school at least argues that REAL ID provides security, but somewhat fantastically.

Among their arguments: If we just had REAL ID back in 2001, maybe the fact that one or two of the 9/11 terrorists had overstayed their visas would have prevented them using a driver’s license at the airport, and they would have had to use a passport, and this would have created suspicion that there was an attack of some kind underway, and the plot would have been broken up.

Evidently, hindsight isn’t always 20/20. Had REAL ID been in place, the 9/11 attackers would have figured out that they should stay current on their visas. Had they not, using Saudi passports at the airport, they would have created no suspicion. Remember - this was before 9/11.

Another chance has passed for REAL ID proponents to make the case for its security benefit.

Rumors that the UK Will Abandon National ID

Via SecureID News, politics.co.uk reports on speculation that incoming Prime Minister Gordon Brown will abandon the UK’s national identification card scheme.

Back-handed encouragement for that has come in an open letter to Brown from Conservative shadow home secretary David Davis:

As chancellor you already bear responsibility for the £58 million of taxpayers money wasted on this expensive white elephant… .Experts in the field warn that, far from making us more secure, ID cards risk making us less safe. By clustering a mass of personal information in one place, ID cards will make us a prize target for hackers, fraudsters and terrorists.

Almost a year ago, the Sunday Times reported on leaked emails showing that the UK national ID scheme is in collapse. Much like the U.S. scheme is now.

National Service Is Garbage

In Albania, anyway. NPR reports that garbage is piling up in the streets of Tirana, and “It’s something you could blame on the fall of communism.” As reporter Vicky O’Hara explained,

When communism collapsed here in the early 1900s so did the city’s system of garbage removal. Shpresa Rira, a teacher at the foreign language institute in Tirana, remembers that under communism families were ordered to spend part of their weekend picking up trash.

Ms. SHPRESA RIRA: It was called the communist Saturday because people were meant to come to come together and give their services to the community.

O’HARA: Rira says that people were not paid but they turned out anyway, because if they didn’t, the consequences could be dire.

So it was universal compulsory service, like Melvin Laird and John Edwards want for the United States. But it turns out it didn’t work so well in Albania.

The communist tactic, she says, destroyed community spirit in Albania.

Ms. RIRA: We thought that we were closely connected, but as soon as communism was over, you know, we understood that that community spirit didn’t exist at all. It was just a fake.

And like most collectivist systems, it did not  “foster a culture of responsibility for our democracy.” Instead, it left people expecting that government would handle everything. So now, the government no longer threatens people with dire consequences for not picking up trash, and no one does. The city has been slow to create a normal garbage collection system. Maybe this forced community spirit stuff isn’t such a good idea after all.

A Travesty in Tehran

I’ve been out of the office for a bit, but coming back I see that the Government of Iran has now charged Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Haleh Esfandiari with trying to foment a “velvet revolution” in Iran. It is awful news for several reasons.

First, the charges that Esfandiari was plotting to overthrow the Tehran government seem ridiculous. The notion is entirely at odds with the body of Esfandiari’s scholarly work at the Wilson Center, not exactly a hotbed of ideological bomb-throwing. (The Wilson Center chief, Lee Hamilton, tried quietly approaching President Ahmadinejad starting in February, keeping the matter out of the headlines. He has as yet received no response.) It is also worth mentioning that Esfandiari had come under some criticism from neocons and right-wingers in Washington for being too sympathetic to Tehran’s position in the bilateral relationship. The notion that she is a U.S. or Israeli spy strains credulity.

Second, her arrest gives hardliners in Washington grounds to wag their fingers in the faces of those of us (including people like Esfandiari) who favor dialogue and reduced tensions. Reuel Marc Gerecht immediately charged to the pages of the New York Times to argue that the event made clear that his view of the Islamic Republic, “suspicious, cynical, hawkish and religiously oriented,” offered the most plausible explanation. In part as a result of the Esfandiari case, it is an argument with more momentum than this analyst would like.

Third, it greatly jeopardizes U.S.-Iran relations at a time when the Bush administration is seen (grading on a curve, admittedly) as taking small steps away from confrontation with Iran and toward conciliation. Whether Esfandiari’s detention and arrest were an attempt by hardliners in Iran to scuttle rapprochement or not, the events have an effect of putting a damper on pushes from Washington to get to the negotiating table and avert a catastrophe.

But all of the political implications pale by comparison to the fact that a human being–and one who has worked tirelessly to produce outcomes that would benefit the citizens of both Iran and the United States–has been imprisoned unjustly and without even the pretense of due process. One can only hope that the leadership in Iran will come to its senses, whether out of recognition of its error or out of the realization that this sort of confrontation serves no one’s interests: the regime’s, the Iranian people’s, or the world’s.

The American Islamic Congress has set up a “Free Haleh” website here, and for further back story, read the op-ed from Esfandiari’s husband, GMU professor Shaul Bakhash.

Phil Bond Doesn’t Understand Security

Here’s an interesting Washington Technology article on the security issues that would be created by implementing the REAL ID Act. Complying with the law would require states to create huge, nationally accessible databases of information about all licensed drivers and ID card-holders. Computer security guru Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at BT Counterpane Internet Security, is quoted, saying “Computer scientists don’t know how to keep a database of this magnitude secure.”

The really striking quote from the article, though, goes to a different kind of security: security against terrorist attacks. Information Technology Association president Phil Bond is quoted in a statement on the REAL ID Act:

“Today’s system is the system that helped to bring us the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” said Phil Bond, ITAA president, in the statement. “We know the problem, and we have the technology to fix it.”

How many different ways has Bond gotten security wrong? I can’t list them all, but …

The first is the implied causal relationship between our present-day ID card system and terror attacks. There are many causes of terrorism and terrorist attacks - Ron Paul recently stirred the Republican pot by suggesting they include an interventionist foreign policy. To respond to the literal import of Bond’s statement: the ID system in our country did not cause weak groups elsewhere to adopt the strategy of terrorism. Our current ID and licensing system did not “bring us” the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

But Bond was making purposeful use of inaccurate language. His implication is that the current driver licensing system is so lacking in security measures that it can be treated as an equivalent to a real cause of terrorist attack. This is where Bond’s security ignorance shines like a beacon.

For all the benefits they provide, including a modicum of security, identity systems provide almost no security against committed opponents like terrorist organizations, criminal enterprises, or even hardened criminals. In my book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood, I show how identity acts as an economic and social glue. It brings people together for all kinds of transactions, and it holds them together if and when things go wrong. But I also show how breakable this glue is. Identity does not reveal intention.

People who have studied identity and security know that you can’t extrapolate from the use of identity in every-day transactions to the use of identity in counter-terrorism. Commited bad actors will defraud, inflitrate, or corrupt card issuing systems, or create fraudulent identity documents directly - to say nothing of simply avoiding targets that are controlled by identification checks. (That’s not a big improvement in security. There are far more uncontrolled targets than controlled targets.)

Evidently, Phil Bond is not someone who has studied identity and security, which is a shame given that he is the highly regarded leader of a significant technology-industry trade association.

I’ll Take the Frying Pan over the Fire

Via Ars Technica, here’s a Quad-Cities Online report on the state of Illinois using $1 million in taxpayer dollars to fund litigation in support of an unconstitutional ban on video game violence. The money was taken from other budget areas, including public health, welfare, and economic development.

The ideal would be to give the money back to taxpayers. It rightly belongs to them. But given the choice between using the funds to erode free speech rights or using them to support the welfare state, I’ll take the welfare state.