Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

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have it, CBP sent al-Banna back to Jordan because he falsified details on his visa application (after which he “became withdrawn, holing up in a makeshift studio apartment, sleeping late, and displaying a new interest in religion”).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.

Boiling the Voter-ID Teapot

Last week, former Federal Election Commissioner Hans A. von Spakovsky published a Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum entitled Stolen Identities, Stolen Votes: A Case Study in Voter Impersonation. Contrary to claims made by prominent newspapers and attorneys, he argues, in-person voting fraud is a real problem.

The evidence he provides is a vote fraud ring that began operating in 1968 and that was broken up more than 25 years ago in 1982. Impersonation fraud can be committed at polling places, and a voter-ID requirement would make it a little harder, but a quarter-century-old case is hardly evidence of a significant problem.

How states secure their voting processes should turn on how they structure their voting processes. States might choose a voter ID requirement if they can do so in a way that balances security against access, convenience, and privacy. Absentee balloting is generally a far greater threat to the security of elections than weak or non-existent ID requirements at polling places.

The thing that matters most is avoiding a uniform national voter ID requirement. I wrote about this in my TechKnowledge piece Voter ID: A Tempest in a Teapot That Could Burn Us All: “To ensure that American voters enjoy their franchise in a free country, clumsy voter ID rules should be avoided. A national voter ID system should be taken off the table entirely.”

Rep. Bachman Misleads Her Constituents

Over the last few weeks, I’ve pointed out a few of the misleading arguments being deployed on behalf of expanding executive power in the wiretapping debate. But I think this op-ed in my home state’s largest newspaper, the Star Tribune, may take the cake. It’s written by Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-MN), and it’s a brazen effort to mislead my fellow Minnesotans about the wiretapping debate without saying anything that’s technically false. Rep. Bachman writes:

One of the critical tools that has allowed us to keep the homeland safe after 9/11 has been the Protect America Act. It updated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to deal with new, deadly challenges in this age of terror – enabling intelligence services to immediately listen to phone calls made between foreign terrorists.

Now, it’s true that the Protect America Act was passed “after 9/11.” It’s also true that the Protect America Act was passed after Pearl Harbor. And the Battle of Hastings, for that matter. The key point is that the Protect America Act was passed in August 2007, six years after 9/11.

This matters because, as Kurt Opsahl at EFF points out, Bachman goes on to imply that “attack after attack,” including the liquid explosives plot in the summer of 2006, was stopped by the Protect America Act. Indeed, she writes, “last year, the Heritage Foundation compiled a list of 19 confirmed terror plots against American targets that had been thwarted.”

Here is the report Bachman is presumably referring to. The 19 attacks range from the Richard Reid shoe bomb attack in December 2001 to the JFK Airport plot in June 2007. In other words, all 19 thwarted attacks occurred before the Protect America Act was enacted in August 2007. Bachman never explicitly says otherwise, but she’s obviously doing her best to give her constituents the impression that the PAA was enacted sometime in 2001 or 2002. Reasonable people could disagree about whether this qualifies as a lie. But I think it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Rep. Bachman has a low opinion of her constituents’ intelligence.

RateMyCop.com Enjoying Streisand Effect

A site for community review of police officers called RateMyCop.com gets the benefit of the “Streisand effect” today. For a period of time, it was shut down by its web registrar, GoDaddy.com, most likely because of law enforcement complaints about being subject to public oversight.

(The “Streisand effect” is the phenomenon where an attempt to censor or remove information from the Internet backfires, causing it to be more widely publicized. The term refers to a 2003 incident in which Barbra Streisand sued a photographer and Web site in an attempt to have an aerial photo of her house removed from a publicly available collection of 12,000 California coastline photographs. The lawsuit made the photo very popular.)