“Montana Wins REAL ID Standoff”

So reports the Missoulian on the Department of Homeland Security’s capitulation in the face of Governor Schweitzer’s resolute rejection of REAL ID.

On Friday, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath notified the Department of Homeland Security that the state will not comply with REAL ID but will pursue the identity security policies it deems appropriate. McGrath urged DHS not to penalize the state for rejecting REAL ID.

DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker chose to interpret McGrath’s letter as a request for an extension of the REAL ID compliance deadline and granted it.

In other words, DHS has abandoned any pretense that it can tell states what to do. A showdown with recalcitrant states around the May 11 compliance deadline would require the Transportation Security Administration to disrupt the passenger air travel system, something DHS evidently recognizes to be a losing proposition.

Montana wins.

More reporting at the Threat Level blog.

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.

NYT Gets It Wrong, Story at 11

The New York Times Magazine’s most recent issue (March 16, 2008) simultaneously features a shariah apologetic and an accusation that the Supreme Court is in the pocket of big business

In the former, Harvard law professor Noah Feldman prescribes the election of Islamist parties and entrenchment of Allah’s law (as interpreted by a council of scholars) as the cure to the Muslim world’s ailments. In the latter, GW law professor Jeffrey Rosen contends that liberal and conservative elites — like NYT readers? — have colluded to do in the common man. There is so much wrong with these analyses, one hardly knows where to begin.  (For a point-by-point takedown of the Rosen piece, see Eric Posner’s post on Slate’s new legal blog.)

Feldman, who “had a small role advising the Iraqi [constitutional] drafters,” sees shariah as both a proto-aspirational document somewhat akin to our Declaration of Independence and a source of law more legitimate than duly constituted (secular) legal codes. But both of these things cannot be: Either shariah is the law of God as strictly interpreted (on what authority?) by man or it is a non-binding sentiment, much like American politicians’ references to America’s Judeo-Christian values. Advocates of shariah would be the first to admit that if you’re going in for God’s law, you can’t summarily ignore its anachronisms.  Let people live under shariah if they so desire, but be wary of its negative externalities.

Rosen, meanwhile, sees a conspiracy involving anyone who has ever studied the “economic analysis of law” (and uses phrases like “negative externalities”) while holding up as a paragon of judicial virtue a jurist who said he was “ready to bend the law … against the corporations.” At the same time, Rosen posits that the Chamber of Commerce destroyed Ralph Nader’s noble crusade to help the consumer and hoodwinked the Court — even, at times, that model of “liberal judicial restraint,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — by hiring a bunch of rich lawyers (presumably not the same rich lawyers who reap all the punitive damages from the state tort claims that Rosen lauds). These sentiments distort legal history and misunderstand the proper role of the judiciary; to paraphrase a salient point then-nominee John Roberts made at his confirmation hearings, the little guy should win when the law is on his side, and the big corporation should win when the law is on its side.

In short, those of us who believe in the rule of law rather than men and in a Constitution that circumscribes the powers of government are heartened by both the outcry against Rowan Williams and the Supreme Court’s near-unanimous view that corporations are people too (indeed, they are, but legal persons composed of human directors, officers, employees, and investors). But then perhaps we are all in on the conspiracy.

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!

Who’s Coddling These “Greedy Bastards”?

A letter to the editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal just came to my attention.  It reads:

In his Sunday commentary, “On the road to health care hell,” Steven Miller quoted Michael F. Cannon of the Cato Institute, hardly a person who could be trusted to give an even evaluation of government spending on health care, considering that the Cato Institute wants to limit government.

It is wonderful of Mr. Miller and Mr. Cannon to place all responsibility for Southern Nevada’s public health crisis on the government and none on the greedy bastards who violated their oath to do no harm, and to line their pockets with as much wealth as they could squeeze out of the public. Those who treated Mr. Duke Breuer and sent him home with an IV needle in his arm all had licenses from the state of Nevada, so I guess that Mr. Miller and Mr. Cannon would, by their twisted logic, place the blame solely on the state of Nevada.

However, I hold the state of Nevada responsible for not providing the level of regulation that is currently required, and in view of the level of greed that these doctors have shown, it is high time to level the playing field. We should strip them of every nickel that they have.

Wallace Eastman

LAS VEGAS

Whuh? There’s a public health crisis in Southern Nevada? I’m an apologist for greedy bastards? They sent some guy home with the needle still in his arm?? Yikes!

I went back and read the original Las Vegas Review-Journal op-ed by Steven Miller, vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. Actually, Miller provides a more responsible critique of the U.S. health care sector than most free-market advocates. For example, Miller takes seriously the alarming number of medical errors that Eastman decries. 

Eastman may be surprised by how much he and Miller have in common. Nevada’s physician-licensure laws obviously are not doing enough to protect patients from low-quality care. While Eastman argues that more stringent regulation would fix things, I suspect Miller would argue that licensing simply does not work that way; that physicians inevitably come to control the licensure process and manipulate it to protect themselves from competition, including competition from delivery systems that would reduce medical errors.

My guess is that Eastman and Miller agree that there are greedy bastards out there trying to squeeze as much wealth as they can out of the public, but that Miller would argue it’s the very regulations Eastman supports that’s letting the greedy bastards get away with it.

(As for my trustworthiness: Sure, I want to limit government. When I claim government is ineffective, readers should bear in mind my viewpoint. That’s fair, and doesn’t worry me.)

Switzerland Re-Affirms Bank Secrecy

Tax-loving politicians in Europe and tax-harmonizing bureaucrats at the European Commission in Brussels and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris are not smiling today. They have already received bad news from Austria and Luxembourg, and now Switzerland has announced that it has no intention of weakening its human rights laws regarding privacy simply because money is escaping high-tax nations. Here’s the report:

The Swiss finance minister has warned that anyone challenging the Swiss banking secrecy laws will break their teeth on them. Hans Rudolf Merz used an emergency debate in Switzerland’s Parliament on Wednesday to defend the country’s competitive position as a business location….

Merz claimed that Switzerland’s competitive position as an international business base of choice was at risk and called it vital that the position was not only held but if possible improved…. “The sovereignty of each state, however, — in particular with reference to its tax legislation — has to be respected,” Merz said. He mounted a strong defence of Switzerland’s right to provide a well-regulated financial system with “an internationally competitive tax burden….”

Merz added that Switzerland’s political and economic stability, modern financial infrastructure and highly qualified workforce also contributed to its attractiveness, but that the banking secrecy was not just crucial to the country’s international financial position but central to the country’s value system.

NFIB Individual Mandate Debate

Earlier this week, I participated in a lively debate on individual mandates — i.e., a legal requirement that every American purchase health insurance.  Also on the panel were Prof. Sherry Glied of Columbia University, Bob Moffit of the Heritage Foundation, and Peter Harbage of the New America Foundation. 

The debate can be viewed online at KaiserNetwork.org.

As the debate was sponsored by the National Federation of Independent Business, which has yet to take a position on an individual mandate, it should be of particular interest to small business owners and employees. 

Congressional Quarterly quoted me as saying, “Universal coverage is a bomb that will blow up for small businesses.”  (I meant to say that a policy of universal coverage, and thus an individual mandate, would blow up in their faces.  We’ll have to see what the tape says.)  Also: “Tax reform and deregulation are how to relieve the burden of health benefits for small business, and they have the added benefit of being the right thing to do.”