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.

Victim Shot While Calling 911

A California woman was shot to death as she pleaded with emergency dispatchers to come and help her. Her death will not make the network news programs this evening, but this is the latest reminder that we must take responsibility for our own safety and not rely on the police. 

Bill Masters, a libertarian and sheriff of a Colorado county tells the residents of his county, “It is your responsibility to protect yourself and your family from criminals. If you rely on the government for protection, you are going to be at least disappointed and at worst injured or killed.” 

Gun control puts honest citizens in the position of having to choose between protecting their lives or respecting the law. What kind of government would do such a thing

More on gun control here and here.

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.

California Attempts to Silence State Contractors

Imagine that you do business in California.  Maybe you’re in construction, or health care, or auto repair.  Now imagine some or all of your income comes from state contracts; using the above examples, perhaps you build schools, or take care of patients on Medi-Cal, or fix broken-down LAPD squad cars.  Now imagine that the state comes in and says, aha, because we pay your bills – again, on contracts relating to construction, health care, auto repair, etc. – and we love unions, you can’t talk to your employees about any negative aspects of unionization.  Ridiculous, right?  Who is a customer to tell you what to do with money that’s already in your pocket?

Well, that’s precisely what the great state of California is trying to do with a new statute that small businesses are challenging in the case of Chamber of Commerce v. Brown.  It’s a little bit more complicated than I outline above because the case implicates highly technical provisions of the National Labor Relations Act (and previous Supreme Court interpretations thereof), but the gist is that California is attempting to silence employers by tying speech restrictions to unrelated state spending.  For reasons that the petitioners ably present in their briefs and that I summarize in a podcast and in Cato’s own amicus brief, the Supreme Court should strike down this statute.

In any event, that’s the background to my trip to the Court to hear argument in Chamber v. Brown today.  (The plaza in front of the courthouse steps was remarkably free of demonstrators after yesterday’s hoopla surrounding the DC Gun Ban case.)  I’ll save you the detailed summary of the argument, but suffice it to say that the outcome will almost certainly go against California.  It’s always dicey predicting the scorecard, but based on oral argument it will probably be 7-2, 6-3, or maybe 6-1-2.  On one side, Justices Scalia and Alito and Chief Justice Roberts were safely on the side of free speech; Justices Justice Souter surprisingly led the charge against California’s interpretation of labor law; Justice Breyer, though skeptical, will likely write his own opinion agreeing in the Court’s opinion for separate reasons or possibly calling for remand rather than strict reversal; and Justice Thomas was silent but is expected to join the majority.  On the other side, Justices Stevens and Ginsberg seem to have no problem with California’s regulation.  On his own side as usual, Justice Kennedy’s vote seems to be up for grabs, but – based on his decisions in previous labor and regulatory preemption cases – I would bet on him siding with the majority.

In short, California employers will live to speak another day.

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.

ACLU Sues Pigs for Failing to Fly

After successfully outlawing flight by birds in Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against pigs for their failure to take to the skies.

Okay, not exactly. But what they’re doing amounts to the same thing. In January of 2006, the ACLU convinced Florida’s Supreme Court to strike down a voucher program that was letting kids escape from failing public schools. This week, they filed suit against the Palm Beach County public school system for providing no escape from its failing schools.

After killing a program that was already achieving their goal, they are now suing a public school system that cannot possibly achieve their goal.

Dear ACLU,

Before committing years of your time and hundreds of thousands of dollars to this lawsuit, please take a moment and reflect. Public school monopolies don’t fail by choice, they fail by design. Having a court order them to stop failing is like ordering a pig to fly.

When, in the history of the world, have monopolies delivered the relentlessly improving quality, flexibility, innovation, and efficiency that we all want from our education system? Why – given the perennial disappointments of public schooling – do you imagine education monopolies are any different?

Privately, in your own offices and homes, reflect on the kinds of responsive and efficient services you have come to expect in every other field, and ask yourselves: why not harness in education the same free enterprise system that has driven miraculous progress in the rest of our economy? Market forces work just as well in education as in every other field, and your fears about the social effects of real parental choice are not justified by the evidence.

Fixing the Revenue-Estimating Process on Capitol Hill

The (hopefully) much anticipated final installment in the video series on the Laffer Curve has been released. This new video discusses the revenue-estimating process, and it builds upon the discussion of theory in Part I and evidence in Part II.

You will notice that the video clearly concludes that “dynamic scoring” is preferable to “static scoring,” but it also explains that there are significant challenges in properly estimating revenue feedback when tax rates are changed. That is why a key point is the need for transparency. If the Joint Committee on Taxation no longer operated in secrecy, it would be possible for experts to engage in a productive debate on how to best measure the revenue effects of various tax policies.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or feedback. I also will be narrating the Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s next two videos, which will discuss the global flat tax revolution and the flat tax v. national sales tax debate. Stay tuned.