Putin Returns

In a piece published today over at Townhall, I talk about Vladimir Putin’s recent disappearance from the public eye, and why it wasn’t as big a deal as you might think.

The rumors surrounding his ten-day disappearance ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was kept busy, scotching speculation that the Russian leader was ill, quashing reports of a power struggle within the Kremlin, and refuting assertions that Putin had been absent to attend the birth of his new child.

When Putin finally reappeared on Monday, he waved away all questions about his absence, simply noting that “life would be boring without gossip.”  We’ll probably never know where Putin was for those ten days, though his pallor implied a minor illness. Given the consistent unwillingness of the Kremlin to divulge information about Putin’s personal life, the whole thing may have been nothing more than the flu.

But it’s worth asking why Putin’s disappearance caused such a media furor. Putin’s centrality to the Russian political system is so well-accepted that commentators and policymakers routinely treat Putin himself as sole representative of the Russian state, psychoanalyzing the man for insight into Russian foreign policy choices. His disappearance, therefore, implied the possibility of chaos in Russia.

Putin is certainly the key figure in Russian politics today, in terms of both personality and power. His ability to mediate between key factions inside the Russian state has allowed him to solidify power, and to govern far more effectively than his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, ever did. He is still overwhelmingly popular. Yet Putin is not the only player in Russian politics. He has a number of close, senior advisors, many of whom could fill a central role in the system Putin built. His death or incapacitation would be a shock, but it wouldn’t necessarily result in major political changes.

Obviously, we can’t predict the future. After all, who could have predicted when Boris Yeltsin picked a young, unknown former intelligence operative as his presidential successor how successful Putin would be in reining in the corrupt excesses of the Russian state, or how effectively he would undermine Russian democratic reforms?

Yet it is unlikely that Putin’s departure from office, no matter when it occurs, will result in chaos and the collapse of the Russian government. It is even less plausible that his death would result in a pro-democracy or pro-Western protest movement like the one we saw in Ukraine.

Instead, as I argue in the article, it is probable that one of Putin’s close advisors would become his successor, taking over as Russia’s president, probably with a thin veneer of legitimacy in the form of largely uncontested elections. With a similar background and worldview, this successor would simply continue many of Putin’s policies. In short, Putin’s Russia – and its odious foreign policy – probably isn’t going anywhere, even if the man himself does. 

Police Body Cameras Are Not a Panacea

Las Vegas police officer Richard Scavone is facing a misdemeanor battery charge after body camera footage revealed that he had, according to Undersheriff Kevin McMahill, used excessive and unreasonable force while arresting a woman for loitering for prostitution in January.

Scavone’s lawyer said that his client, who is suspended with pay, was one of the 400 volunteers taking part in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s body camera study. Footage of the incident has not been released, as it is being used in the ongoing investigations conducted by the Clark County District Attorney and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

This is not the first time that police body cameras have captured alleged excessive force. In January, prosecutors in Albuquerque, New Mexico said that they would be pursuing murder charges against two police officers who in March 2014 shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless paranoid schizophrenic camping in the Sandia Mountains. The killing was filmed by a helmet camera worn by one of the officers at the scene. Speaking about the case, Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said, “We have evidence in this case to establish probable cause we didn’t have in other cases.”

Both the Las Vegas and Albuquerque incidents highlight that body cameras are valuable in providing extra transparency and accountability but are not a panacea for allegations of police misconduct.

President Obama’s Dismissal of Drug Reform

Yesterday President Obama seemed to make light of the push for drug reform (again), arguing that young Americans should put it at the bottom of their priority list in favor of issues like climate change and war:

I understand this is important to you but, you know, you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace. Maybe, way at the bottom, you should be thinking about marijuana.

As a member of that millennial generation, I’d like to ask: why?

Setting aside the strange suggestion that environmental and peace activism are somehow mutually exclusive with opposing the drug war, I would suggest that Americans have much more influence over drug policy than we have over the global climate or the U.S. government’s penchant for warmaking. 

Despite the President’s insinuations, the fight to end the drug war isn’t just a crusade by young stoners to get high without worry of arrest.  Prohibition doesn’t work.  It didn’t work in the 1920s when alcohol prohibition turned entire American cities over to organized crime, and it doesn’t work in 2015.

The War on Drugs is a key reason why America’s incarceration rate is off the charts, why more than 60,000 Mexicans have been killed in drug violence over the last decade, why violent gangs control entire swaths of urban America the U.S. prison system, why there are more than a million drug arrests clogging up our courts every year, why our cherished protection from unreasonable searches and seizures has been eroded and twisted to nearly nothing, and why paramilitary police raids have gone up 1,500% in the last generation, leaving dead bodies and maimed children in their wake.

To his credit, President Obama has made some positive policy decisions to lessen the burden of the drug war.  His decision to “de-prioritize” marijuana busts in jurisdictions that have voted to legalize marijuana is commendable.  But that is merely one small tile on a vast mosaic of ruinous government prohibition efforts.

There are thousands of non-violent drug offenders in federal custody which President Obama could free with the stroke of a pen today.  There are hundreds of state and local law enforcement agencies receiving military weaponry from the Obama Administration, while the administration’s own task force acknowledges there is very little accountability, training, or respect for civil liberties built into the weaponry distribution system.  There are thousands of immigrants seeking refuge in America from the violence spawned by our drug war.

I don’t see what’s so funny or unimportant about any of this.

The Fatal Conceit of the “Right to be Forgotten”

Intelligence Squared hosted a lively debate last week over the so-called “Right to be Forgotten” embraced by European courts—which, as tech executive Andrew McLaughlin aptly noted, would be more honestly described as a “right to force others to forget.”  A primary consequence of this “right” thus far has been that citizens are entitled to demand that search engines like Google censor the results that are returned for a search on the person’s name, provided those results are “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant.”  In other words, if you’re unhappy that an unflattering item—such as a news story—shows up as a prominent result for your name, you can declare it “irrelevant” even if entirely truthful and ask Google to stop showing it as a result for such searches, with ultimate recourse to the courts if the company refuses.  Within two months of the ruling establishing the “right,” the company received more than 70,000 such requests.

Hearteningly, the opponents of importing this “right” to the United States won the debate by a large margin, but it occurred to me that one absolutely essential reason for rejecting this kind of censorship process was only indirectly and obliquely invoked.  As even the defenders of the Right to be Forgotten conceded, it would be inappropriate to allow a person to suppress search results that were of some legitimate public value: Search engines are obligated to honor suppression requests only when linking some piece of truthful information to a person’s name would be embarrassing or harmful to that person without some compensating benefit to those who would recieve the information.  Frequent comparison was made to the familiar legal standards that have been applied to newspapers publishing (lawfully obtained) private information about non-public figures. In those cases, of course, the person seeking to suppress the information is typically opposed in court by the entity publishing the information—such as a newspaper—which is at least in a position to articulate why it believes there is some public interest in that information at the time of publication. 

Stingrays and Police Secrecy

The New York Times this week published a troubling article detailing the secrecy surrounding police use of Stingray cellular site simulators.  Essentially, these devices (which can be mounted on vehicles or carried by hand) mimic the signals of a cell phone tower in order to force cell phones in a given area to connect to the device.  Both data on the phone (including numbers, texts, emails, and any other data stored on the phone) and the phone’s physical location can then be accessed and recorded by police.

Additionally concerning is the extensive use of non-disclosure agreements by the Harris Corporation, which sells the devices, to prevent the public (and in some cases even judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors) from finding out how these devices are being used or even whether a given department owns any.   The preference for secrecy is so powerful that prosecutors have dropped serious criminal charges simply to avoid having the police use of Stingrays subjected to examination by defense attorneys or judges.

According to the Times,

The confidentiality has elevated the stakes in a longstanding debate about the public disclosure of government practices versus law enforcement’s desire to keep its methods confidential. While companies routinely require nondisclosure agreements for technical products, legal experts say these agreements raise questions and are unusual given the privacy and even constitutional issues at stake.

The stated reason for the secrecy is the common refrain that terrorists will circumvent the technology if they know what law enforcement is up to.  However, a recent ACLU report was unable to uncover a single instance of these devices being used to bring domestic terrorists to justice in any jurisdiction surveyed. 

The ACLU report estimates that Stingrays are in wide and rapidly increasing use in law enforcement agencies across America.  However, there appears to be very little oversight structure for police departments, legislatures, or courts governing the use of these devices. In some instances, it seems that courts have even unwittingly been authorizing their use without the judge’s full understanding.  For instance, a sampling of applications for court orders from Florida law enforcement agencies informs the judge that the order is for cell phone records, but doesn’t mention anything about how they’re to be obtained.  Police claim such vague orders authorize Stingray deployment, but some judges have been less than enthused upon finding out.

The House Budget Proposal Leaves Much to Be Desired

House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) released his budget proposal this morning, which outlines spending priorities for 2016 through the next decade. The proposal is a mixed bag. It includes some reform steps, but also fails to aggressively confront the dire fiscal realities facing the nation with specific spending-cuts.

The positives:

Spending Restraint– The budget proposes $43.2 trillion of total spending over the next decade, which is $5.5 trillion below baseline projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Ten year projected deficits are also much lower than CBO projections; $1.3 trillion compared to $7.2 trillion. This proposal balances the budget within ten years, moving us closer to solving our long-term fiscal challenges.

ObamaCare Repeal– Price’s proposal includes full repeal of ObamaCare including all of its health care and tax provisions. This constitutes a large share of the spending cuts, $2 trillion of the $5.5 trillion.

The negatives:

Defense–The 2011 bipartisan Budget Control Act (BCA) set caps on defense and nondefense discretionary spending through 2021. Many Republicans have pushed Price to rescind the caps on defense spending, claiming that they are too draconian and will undermine America’s security. Other Republicans pushed to keep the BCA caps as an effective restraint on spending. The Price budget goes for the easy political solution: it retains the BCA caps for defense spending for fiscal year 2016, but it increases the “emergency” defense spending account, known as Overseas Contingent Operations (OCO), by $16 billion compared with fiscal year 2015. This allows Price to honor the BCA, while violating its spirit. Under this plan, the U.S. will spend $387 billion more on defense over the next decade than CBO baseline projections.

Entitlement Reform–CBO projects that 85 percent of spending growth over the next decade will be due to Social Security, Medicare, and net interest. The Price budget acknowledges the need to reform Social Security and Medicare, but fails to meet the challenge. The budget does not include a plan to reform Social Security, other than saying it needs a “long-term solution” from a “bipartisan commission.” Medicare reforms don’t start until 2024. Waiting up to a decade to reform these two programs is a dereliction of duty.

Tax Reform–The budget proposal is vague about this important topic. It urges Congress to consider tax reform, but does not detail any specific reforms, nor does it provide a timeline for considering proposals.

Overall, Price’s budget proposal would cut spending and balance the budget, but it still leaves much to be desired.

Washington Should Stop Equating Ugly Regimes and Security Threats

President Obama raised eyebrows last week when he issued an executive order declaring Venezuela to be a threat to national security.  It would be pertinent to ask just how that deeply divided, nearly bankrupt country could menace the security of the global superpower.  Venezuela has no long-range ballistic missiles or bombers, much less nuclear weapons.  It does not have a large, well-equipped army.  The Venezuelan navy is both small and antiquated.  Although rumors continue to circulate that the leftist government of President Nicolás Maduro flirts with terrorist organizations in neighboring Colombia and elsewhere, those reports remain little more than rumors.

Most telling, Obama’s executive order did not cite evidence that Venezuela actually posed a threat to the security and well-being of the United States.  Instead, it focused on the Maduro regime’s ill-treatment of the Venezuelan people.  The executive order is a textbook example of an overly broad definition of national security.  The White House emphasized that the order imposed sanctions on officials who undermined democratic processes or institutions, abused human rights, were involved in prohibiting or penalizing freedom of expression, or were guilty of corruption.  White House spokesman Josh Earnest declared that the United States now had the tools to block the financial assets of Venezuelan officials “past and present” who dare “violate the human rights of Venezuelan citizens and engage in acts of public corruption.”

Those are all tragic aspects of that country’s dysfunctional political system.  There is little question that Venezuela’s government is horrifyingly corrupt and autocratic.  Cato’s Juan Carlos Hidalgo has ably described the many abuses committed by both Maduro and his predecessor and mentor Hugo Chávez..  It may well take Venezuela a generation or more to recover from the socialist idiocies of those two rulers.  But as I point out in the pages of the National Interest Online,  just because a regime is repugnant does not make it a credible security threat to the United States.

Obama’s executive order is ominous because it signals a return to the overuse of national security justifications that was so common in previous administrations.  It should be recalled that U.S. officials asserted, apparently while maintaining straight faces, that such small, weak adversaries as North Vietnam, Serbia, Iraq, and Cuba posed dire national security threats.  The ensuing policies produced frustrating, counterproductive results.  Indeed, in the cases of Vietnam and Iraq, the outcomes of such a promiscuous invocation of U.S. security needs were disastrous wars that squandered hundreds of billions of tax dollars and snuffed out the lives of thousands of American military personnel.  One might hope that policymakers had learned from those bruising experiences and would avoid such folly in the future.

It is imperative to adopt a more rigorous standard about what does and does not constitute a threat to national security.  A foreign regime’s domestic behavior, however reprehensible, does not per se pose a menace to America.  The actions of Maduro and his henchmen fall into that category.  Venezuela’s government is riddled with corruption and behaves in a disturbingly repressive fashion toward political opponents.  But that makes Venezuela an obnoxious neighbor, not a security threat to the United States.