Tag: homeland security

The NYT’s Weak Defense of Homeland Security Grants

Last week, the House passed a homeland security appropriations bill slashing funding for grants to states and localities. The New York Times has now noticed and unleashed an indignant editorial:

House Republicans talk tough on terrorism. So we can find no explanation — other than irresponsibility — for their vote to slash financing for eight antiterrorist programs. Unless the Senate repairs the damage, New York City and other high-risk localities will find it far harder to protect mass transit, ports and other potential targets.

The programs received $2.5 billion last year in separate allocations. The House has cut that back to a single block grant of $752 million, an extraordinary two-thirds reduction. The results for high-risk areas would be so damaging — with port and mass transit security financing likely cut by more than half — that the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King of New York, voted against the bill as “an invitation to an attack.”

Only a few months ago, Times editorials accused King of trying to “hype” and “stoke” fear of homegrown Muslim terrorism. It’s sort of touching to see them get behind his fearmongering when the beneficiaries are local firefighters, police, and other local interests.

But the editorial has trouble worse than hypocrisy. For starters, it’s light on facts. Its accounting seems to omit over $320 million in funds for local firefighters that a floor amendment put in the bill. It also fails to mention that the bill eliminates a formula that ensures that homeland security funds are distributed to every state. Because it means that counterterrorism spending is highest per-capita in rural areas where the threat from terrorism is lowest, homeland security watchers have long attacked that minimum funding provision. So while this bill would indeed cut homeland security funds going to New York, it would also mean that New York gets more of the remaining funds.

More importantly, the Times evidently did not try too hard to find an explanation for the cuts once they settled on irresponsibility, given that Republican appropriators readily offered one: the funds are wasteful. Rather than explain why they think the money is well spent (my definition of responsibility), the editorial conflates spending on security with security itself. It says the cuts will be “damaging,” but it cites only damage to the budgets of recipient agencies, not their purpose.

In fact, the threat of terrorism is so low in the United States and the efficacy of the funds in mitigating it so uncertain that the right amount of homeland security spending in most parts of the United States is none. That is especially true now that we are roughly a decade removed from the September 11 attacks, which spawned a massive increase in homeland security grant-making. That splurge was meant to bolster our ability to defend against what has proved a massively inflated threat of catastrophic terrorism; it was not meant to be a permanent subsidy to state and local governments.

New York City is uniquely threatened, but that does not mean that federal taxpayers should foot the bill. The federal government should collect intelligence on terrorists and hunt them down. Local and state officials should use that information to determine the right amount of local security spending. They have to ask whether normal policing funds, school spending, or slightly lower taxes are worth sacrificing for a new camera or chemical clean-up suit. Federal grants, because they are buried in a massive budget and partially deficit-funded, dilute our ability to perceive those tradeoffs. They also heighten fear of terrorism by encouraging state and local interests to overstate their peril to win the grants, as the editorial demonstrates.

It ends by instructing the Senate to “stand up for security over politics” and restore funding to past levels. But these decisions should be made politically. We give power over security policy to politicians — rather than leaving it exclusively to unelected bureaucrats — because these decisions are important. That is a product of design, not an accident. The notion that security is too important for politics is backwards.

Luckily, the attempt to divorce security policy from electoral politics is a pretense. The Times is engaging in politics by asking for funds. They aim to politically punish those that oppose their preferred policies. If the Senate restores most of the grant funds, as it likely will, it will do so for sound political reasons.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

The Defense Authorization Bill Is Awful

If you like bloated nuclear arsenals, executive discretion to wage endless war, large checks to countries that aid our enemies, and institutionalizing hostility toward gays in the military, you will love the defense authorization bill passed yesterday by the House Armed Services Committee. Below are the lowlights. For slightly better news from the Appropriations Committee on homeland security spending, skip to the end.

  • The bill contains a provision replacing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and their hosts. The Committee evidently found that legislation, which the last two administrations have used to justify all manner of power grabs, insufficiently open-ended. They add groups “affiliated” with al Qaeda and the Taliban to the list of certified enemies. Though disinterested in authorizing the war in Libya, the Congress may now give the President new authority to start new ones. Somewhere John Yoo is ruefully imagining all the creative ways he could have affiliated bombing targets with al Qaeda and Taliban. Certainly Pakistan would qualify, given its barely hidden support for elements of the Taliban and the suspicion that some of its intelligence agents have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on the whereabouts of al Qaeda leaders.
  • Nonetheless, the bill authorizes all $1.1 billion in military aid requested for Pakistan. An amendment intended to trim it failed.
  • Speaking of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Committee’s Republicans are determined to prevent its repeal from letting homosexuals feel comfortable in uniform. The bill outlaws gay marriage on military facilities. It also defines “marriage” in military regulations as the union of a man and a woman. The aim is to deny marriage benefits to gay couples. The bill also includes a provision sponsored by San Diego Republican Duncan Hunter that would keep Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in place until all four service chiefs agree that it will not impair combat effectiveness. That last provision will not become law, but it sends unfortunate messages. Beyond its implication that gays undermine military effectiveness, it reflects a tendency to defer to the wishes of the force on issues of its composition and use, at least rhetorically. That tendency erodes the traditional U.S. view of civil-military relations, driving a wedge between the military and the society it serves.
  • The bill contains several measures that will prevent future cost savings. It would block the executive branch from reducing nuclear weapons force levels in various ways unless the secretaries of defense and energy certify that the White House makes good on its offer of increased nuclear weapons modernization funding. Incidentally, the administration promised those funds in exchange for New START treaty votes that Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) did not deliver, including his own. The bill would buy the Army more Abrams tanks than it wants, to keep the production line open. It requires the government to remain prepared to build the Joint Strike Fighter’s second engine and would reopen competition between the two engines should the administration request more funds for the first (Pratt & Whitney) engine, which seems likely.
  • The Committee made a modest effort to control government health care costs by mildly increasing annual premiums for retired military of working age. That’s progress. Premiums have not increased in 15 years. They are low enough that many retirees keep Tricare, the Military Health System coverage, rather than getting private health care via their new employer, thus shifting costs onto the taxpayer. But the Committee rejected the administration’s effort to peg future premium increases to medical costs rather than general inflation.

The full House or Senate will likely eliminate most of the damage. The taxpayer will get no relief from the House Appropriations Committee, however, which just released its planned spending levels for FY2012.  Defense will grow by about $17 billion from FY 2011, not including the wars, Department of Energy nuclear weapons spending, and military construction. No surprise there.

House appropriators deserve credit, however, for keeping the bloated Department of Homeland Security budget on the cutting board. The National Journal reports that appropriators would give the department $40.6 billion—$1.1 billion less than last year and $2.7 less than it requested. The bulk of the cuts come by providing less than half ($1.7 billion) of the requested spending for local security grants. The grants would now be distributed at the department’s discretion rather than requiring them to go to certain subcategories (e.g., ports) and using a formula to insure that every state get a taste.

Hopefully this is a step toward eliminating federal homeland security grants, which have grown into a seemingly permanent subsidy even for regions where the terrorism threat is wildly remote. If states think it worth sacrificing something to buy local counterterrorism capabilities, they ought to pay for it with their own budgets. Federalization of the spending takes those decisions from those in the best position to weigh local priorities and encourages states and cities to chase federal dollars by exaggerating their peril.

Warning Without Color

Jim Harper noted yesterday that the Department of Homeland Security (after lengthy review) has decided to scrap its color-coded alert system. The change is long overdue–the alerts implied, absurdly, that danger was equally distributed across the nation. The fact that the Department never used the blue and green threat levels (general and low risk), which most accurately describe the true danger most Americans face from terrorism, showed the systems’ inherent threat inflation. Eventually, everyone started ignoring the threat level, officials stopped changing it, and system became a charade.

Jim argues that, in place of the colors, the Department should inform “the public fully about threats and risks known to the U.S. government,” treating us like adults with a shared responsibility for protecting ourselves. According to a report from the National Journal’s Chris Storm, DHS agrees, sort of.  Storm links to a DHS document on the new warning policy, which states:

  • DHS will implement a new system that is built on a clear and simple premise: When a threat develops that could impact the public, we will tell you.  We will provide whatever information we can so you know how to protect yourselves, your families, and your communities.
  • The new system reflects the reality that we must always be on alert and be ready.  When we have information about a specific, credible threat, we will issue a formal alert providing as much information as we can.
  • Depending on the nature of the threat, the alert may be limited to a particular audience, like law enforcement, or a segment of the private sector, like shopping malls or hotels.
  • Or, the alert may be issued more broadly to the American people, distributed — through a statement from DHS — by the news media and social media channels.
  • The alerts will be specific to the threat.  They may ask you to take certain actions, or to look for specific suspicious behavior.  And they will have an end date.
  • This new system is built on the common-sense belief that we are all in this together — that we all have a role to play — and it was developed in that same collaborative spirit.

The first bullet point embraces maximum information sharing, but things get hazier after that. In the end, it’s not clear when DHS will warn all of us, warn some of us, or just warn police. Nor do we get much indication about what information warnings will include. Unlike Jim, though, I think that’s fine. Actually, there are a couple reasons why I hope DHS winds up being tighter-lipped.

First, most threat warnings are false alarms. A government that publicized every warning received by intelligence agencies would swamp the public with confusing and frightening information that people would have to learn to ignore. Better to reveal only intelligence that has been vetted.

Second, the theory of providing the public maximum information about danger (often a cover for the CYA imperative to have warned the public if an attack does occur) in practice easily degenerates into vague exhortations to be vigilant, which are almost as bad as the color-coded threat warnings. The difficulty is that the threat information is vague and that authorities worry that revealing too much detail will give away sources. The warning issued to Americans going to Europe last October, is an example, as I discussed here.

Given that such general warnings create false leads, cancelled travel, anxiety, and harassment, they may do more harm than good.  In response to this argument, people point to the vigilant airline passengers who subdued the shoe and underwear bombers or the Times Square vendors who called the cops after Faisal’s Shazhad’s car failed to explode. But, at least since 2001, we hardly need the government to tell us to respond to people lighting their underwear on fire on international flights or cars burnings in Times Square. The theory that increased public vigilance is always a good thing needs testing.

John Brennan on Countering Terrorism

Earlier today, I attended a lecture at CSIS by John Brennan, a leading counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to President Obama. His speech highlighted some of the key elements of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy, in advance of tomorrow’s release of the National Security Strategy (NSS).

I hope that many people will take the opportunity to read (.pdf) or listen to/watch Brennan’s speech, as opposed to merely reading what other people said that he said. Echoing key themes that Brennan put forward last year, also at CSIS, today’s talk reflected a level of sophistication that is required when addressing the difficult but eminently manageable problem of terrorism.

Brennan was most eloquent in talking about the nature of the struggle. He declared, with emphasis, that the United States is indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, but not at war with the tactic of terrorism, nor with Islam, a misconception that is widely held both here in the United States and within the Muslim world. He stressed the positive role that Muslim clerics and other leaders within the Muslim community have played in criticizing the misuse of religion to advance a hateful ideology, and he lamented that such condemnations of bin Laden and others have not received enough exposure in the Western media. This inadequate coverage of the debate raging within the Muslim community contributes to the mistaken impression that this is chiefly a religious conflict. It isn’t; or, more accurately, it need not be, unless we make it so.

I also welcomed Brennan’s unabashed defense of a counterterrorism strategy that placed American values at the forefront. These values include a respect for the rule of law, transparency, individual liberty, tolerance, and diversity. And he candidly stated what any responsible policymaker must: no nation can possibly prevent every single attack. In those tragic instances where a determined person slips through the cracks, the goal must be to recover quickly, and to demonstrate a level of resilience that undermines the appeal of terrorism as a tactic in the future.

I had an opportunity to ask Brennan a question about the role of communication in the administration’s counterterrorism strategy. He assured me that there was such a communications strategy, that elements of the strategy would come through in the NSS, and that such elements have informed how the administration has addressed the problem of terrorism from the outset.

This was comforting to hear, and it is consistent with what I’ve observed over the past 16 months. Members of the Obama administration, from the president on down, seem to understand that how you talk about terrorism is as important as how you disrupt terrorist plots, kill or capture terrorist leaders, and otherwise enhance the nation’s physical security. On numerous occasions, the president has stressed that the United States cannot be brought down by a band of murderous thugs. Brennan reiterated that point today. This should be obvious, and yet such comments stand in stark contrast to the apolocalytpic warnings from a few years ago of an evil Islamic caliphate sweeping across the globe.

Talking about terrorism might seem an esoteric point. It isn’t. Indeed, it is a key theme in our just released book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It. Because the object of terrorism is to terrorize, to elicit from a targeted state or people a response, and to (in the terrorists’s wildest dreams) cause the state to waste blood and treasure, or come loose from its ideological moorings, a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy should aim at building a psychologically resilient society. Such a society should possess an accurate understanding of the nature of the threat, a clear sense of what policies or measures are useful in mitigating that threat, and an awareness of how overreaction does the terrorists’s work for them. The true measure of a resilient society, one that isn’t in thrall to the specter of terrorism, is the degree to which it can conduct an adult conversation about the topic.

We aren’t there yet, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and by what I heard today.

The Red Team’s Spin on The Christmas Bomber

In recent weeks, conservatives have worked themselves into a self-righteous lather over how the Obama administration handled the would-be Christmas bomber.  It’s a complaint you could hear again and again at last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference: Mirandizing the 23-year-old Nigerian Muslim was a big mistake, the story goes, because it denied us valuable intelligence, and it’s just so typical of Barack Obama’s callow, weak, law-enforcement-oriented approach to the terrorist threat.

As a constitutional matter, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the Miranda decision, which smacks of judicial lawmaking, and I don’t think liberty stands or falls on whether one failed terrorist got read his rights.  In fact, I think Mirandizing Abdulmutallab was a pretty silly thing to do.  The administration could and should have continued to question him and gather intelligence (and it’s not as if you’d need his statements to convict when there were scads of witnesses aboard the plane).

Nonetheless, I still find it hard to see all the hubbub as much more than manufactured partisan outrage.

After all, Richard Reid, the failed shoebomber of December 2001, was Mirandized repeatedly by George W. Bush’s FBI, who, rather than questioning him for 50 minutes, read Reid his rights as soon as the Massachusetts staties handed him over. That was barely two months after the largest terror attack in American history, at a time when we had good reason to fear that the terrorist threat was far greater than it now appears to be.  Somehow, though, I don’t recall hearing quite as much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Right back then. Moreover, outside of the special pleading of former Bush officials, there’s little evidence that Bush would have handled the situation much differently even if it happened much later in his tenure as president.

We’re told that the Christmas Bomber’s treatment reveals Obama’s pusillanimous new paradigm for the War on Terror. But  virtually anyone who’s taken a serious look at Obama’s terrorism policies has concluded they differ from Bush’s mainly in terms of rhetoric, not substance. You can love the Bush approach or hate it, but if you’re drawing a sharp distinction between his policies and Obama’s, you’re misinformed at best.

Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, notes that the

premise that the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era policies is largely wrong. The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric.

For instance, Goldsmith notes, the Obama team “has embraced the Bush view that, as a legal matter, the United States is in a state of war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, and that the president’s commander-in-chief powers are triggered.” Moreover, Obama’s Justice Department “filed a legal brief arguing that the president can detain indefinitely, without charge or trial, members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, ‘associated forces,’” et al.

The abortive plan to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed near Ground Zero has to count as Obama’s dumbest political move since he tried to strongarm the Olympic Committee.  But it hardly constitutes a repudiation of the Bush approach to terrorism. When the Bush Team was confident of winning, they tried terrorists in civilian courts – including Zacarias Moussaoui, the would-be 20th hijacker (tried and convicted in Alexandria, so horrifyingly close to the Pentagon!). And since the Obama Team continues to use military tribunals, and reserves the right to imprison KSM indefinitely in the unlikely event he’s acquitted, it’s pretty hard to see their plan for selected civilian trials as a departure from Bush-Cheney – much less an attempt to curry favor with the ACLU.

James Carafano, the Heritage Foundation’s homeland security guru, isn’t the sort of guy who carries water for Barack Obama, but he recently told the New York Times

“I don’t think it’s even fair to call [Obama’s policies] Bush Lite. It’s Bush. It’s really, really hard to find a difference that’s meaningful and not atmospheric.”

Atmospherics seem to matter a great deal to GOP partisans these days, though. Asked what specific policies Obama could adopt to reassure supposedly terrified Americans, Peter King, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee (formerly R-Derry), could do no better than: “I think one main thing would be to — just himself to use the word terrorism more often.”

The essence of King’s complaint seems to be that, policies aside, Obama isn’t stoking fear enough, isn’t talking tough enough, and seems reluctant to act the part of “the strong father who protects the home from invaders.” Forgive me if I’m unmoved.  Thus far the discussion serves to remind one of the fact that, though Republicans talk a good game about reducing the size of government, when the rubber meets the road, they repair to reliable political gambits that allow them to duck the hard choices: flag-burning amendments, the Pledge of Allegiance, Terry Schiavo, and the like.

If you’re sincerely concerned about the best way to handle terrorist suspects in the United States, then trying to score cheap political points isn’t the best way to start the conversation.

Holder on the Hot Seat

Today Politico Arena asks:

Terror suspects: Eric Holder’s defense (nothing new here)–agree or disagree?

My response:

There’s no question that after the killings in Little Rock and Fort Hood, the decision to try the KSM five in a civilian court in downtown Manhattan, and the Christmas Day bombing attempt (the government’s before and after behavior alike), the Obama-Holder “law-enforcement” approach to terrorism is under serious bipartisan scrutiny.  And Holder’s letter yesterday to his critics on the Hill isn’t likely to assuage them, not least because it essentially ignores issues brought out in the January 20 hearings before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, like the government’s failure to have its promised High-Value Interrogation Group (HIG) in place.
 
Nor are the administration’s repeated efforts to justify itself by saying it’s doing only what the Bush administration did likely to persuade.  In the aftermath of 9/11, and in the teeth of manifold legal challenges, the Bush administration hardly developed a systematic or consistent approach to terrorism.  Much thought has been given to the subject since 9/11, of course, and it’s shown the subject to be anything but simple.  Nevertheless, if anything is clear, it is that if we are in a war on terror (or in a war against Islamic terrorists), as Obama has finally acknowledged, then the main object in that war ought not to be ”to bring terrorists to justice” through after-the-fact prosecutions – the law-enforcement approach – but to prevent terrorist attacks before they happen, which means that intelligence gathering should be the main object of this war.  And that, precisely, is what the obsession with Mirandizing, lawyering up, and prosecuting seems to treat as of secondary importance.  Intelligence is our first line of defense – and should be our first priority.

1,000 Troops = $1 Billion/Year

There is a useful math lesson buried near the end of Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung’s widely discussed story on an Afghan war game that the Obama administration is using to weigh the costs and risks of competing strategies.

One question being debated is whether more U.S. troops would improve the performance of the Afghan government by providing an important check on corruption and the drug trade, or would they stunt the growth of the Afghan government as U.S. troops and civilians take on more tasks that Afghans might better perform themselves. Another factor is cost. The Pentagon has budgeted about $65 billion to maintain a force of about 68,000 troops, meaning that each additional 1,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan would cost about $1 billion a year.

I haven’t seen this figure before, and it is based upon a back-of-the-envelope calculation that might be undone by economies of scale. It is not obvious, for example, that the first 1,000 troops would cost the same as the last 1,000. Still, it is a reasonable estimate that is apparently being used inside of the Obama administration.

Accepting the number as basically accurate, the question then turns to “Is it worth it?” That can only be answered by weighing the opportunity costs.

If the Obama administration goes along with Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops, and therefore chooses to spend additional money on this mission, the administration is saying, in effect, that an expanded troop presence will do more to prevent a repeat of 9/11 than if the money had been spent on countless other missions and programs ostensibly directed to the same purpose.

Count me a skeptic. There is considerable evidence that a large-scale and open-ended troop presence is counterproductive to fighting terrorism. Meanwhile, there have been a number of highly effective counterterrorism programs that cost far, far less than even $1 billion a year. The proponents of a huge troop increase in Afghanistan obviously disagree, and thus implicitly claim that $40 billion is money well spent (for reference, the entire Dept. of Homeland Security budget for FY 2010 will total $42.8 billion).

Let the advocates for a larger troop presence attempt to make that case. At least now we have a tangible measure for weighing competing options. Thanks to Jaffe and DeYoung for shedding some light on a previously under-reported statistic.