Foreign Policy and National Security

January 17, 2020 4:29PM

On “Imminence”: Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence

“We caught him in the act and terminated him,” President Trump said in his first public comments about the January 3rd targeted killing of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani. The strike was ordered to avert “imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.” Over the last two weeks, the Trump administration has offered a farrago of conflicting accounts—and zero evidence for that claim. In this case — apologies to Don Rumsfeld—absence of evidence is evidence that imminence was absent. And, unless you believe the Constitution gave the president practically unbridled discretion to embroil us in war, that means legal authority for the move was absent too.

The Pentagon’s initial announcement made no claim of exigent circumstances: “this strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.” Hours later, however, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed the president acted “in response to imminent threats to American lives” — “dozens if not hundreds” of them. Since then, when asked to elaborate, Pompeo has served up (1) a word‐​salad about “situational awareness of risk and analysis”; (2) a backward‐​looking theory by which past attacks demonstrate the imminence of future ones; and (3) the defensive insistence that “it was real,” even if “we don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where” — also, don’t give me that look: “those are completely consistent thoughts”! He may yet crack under questioning.

Don't be so cynical!

Would I lie to you about an “imminent threat”?

“We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy,” President Trump said last Thursday; wait, make that embassies, plural, four of them, he told Fox’s Laura Ingraham on Friday. Given the administration’s well‐​known preference for keeping Congress in the dark, maybe it’s not surprising nobody mentioned the alleged embassy threat in the post‐​hoc, closed‐​door Hill briefing last week. But surely it’s a little odd that Trump’s own secretary of defense didn’t get the intel memo.

There’s a simple explanation for the Trump Team’s shifting explanations: they’re lying. Leave aside the dubious notion that it’s possible to stop an imminent attack by killing a senior military commander (were the plans just in his head?) — apparently, the president conditionally authorized the Soleimani killing some seven months ago. (According to NBC News, Pompeo and then‐​national security adviser John Bolton even urged Trump to greenlight the hit last June, in response to the Iranians plinking a US drone.) The news that the day of the strike, U.S. forces tried and failed to take out another top Quds Force commander in Yemen further undermines the administration’s story that their aim was to avert an imminent threat.

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January 16, 2020 12:56PM

The Democrats’ Search for a New Foreign Policy

By A. Trevor Thrall and Jordan Cohen

Cato will be hosting a panel discussion on January 28, The Future of Progressive Foreign Policy: 2020 and Beyond, featuring Kate Kizer from Win Without War, Loren DeJonge Schulman from the Center for a New American Security, Dan Nexon from Georgetown University, Adam Mount from the Federation of American Scientists, and Mena Ayazi from the Alliance for Peacebuilding.

To provide some broad perspective for the discussion, we are sharing a slightly updated version of an article we published in the November/​December issue of the German magazine, Internationale Politik. In it we use speeches and campaign literature from the candidates to discern their foreign policy perspectives. Through our efforts we identified three broad clusters within the Democratic Party that we call traditional liberal internationalist, millennial liberal internationalist, and progressive. The challenge for Democrats, as we discuss below, is to determine which vision is the right one for the post‐​Trump era…

The recent Democratic debate was the first to showcase foreign policy in a meaningful way. The candidates grappled with questions about the role of Commander‐​in‐​Chief, the confrontation with Iran, whether to keep troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and broader questions of military intervention. Though foreign policy hasn’t played a huge role in the Democratic race so far, international affairs are poised to play a central role this fall. Even without the Ukraine scandal, Trump’s erratic and unpopular record as a statesman provides an opening for Democrats to score points on foreign policy in 2020, but only if they can articulate a new vision that resonates with the American public.

Even before Trump’s election in 2016 foreign policy thinkers were beginning to realize that American grand strategy had to change. After more than fifteen years of war in Afghanistan and the Middle East Americans enthusiasm for foreign adventures had expired, and many observers believed that public support for the traditional American leadership of the liberal international order had expired along with it. The big question was: what would come next?

To most of the Washington foreign policy establishment, Trump’s embrace of “America First” suggested the most terrifying answer possible to this question. Instead of steady American leadership, free trade, a robust system of alliances, and intervention in hot spots around the globe, Trump’s vision relied on unilateralism, protectionism, and withdrawing from America’s endless wars. To say Trump’s election sent shock waves through foreign policy circles in the United States is an understatement.

As Trump nears his fourth year in office, however, it turns out that the public has not embraced his “America First” vision. In fact, Trump has single‐​handedly pushed public support for international engagement and free trade to near record highs. Since Trump took office, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs finds that Americans are seven percentage points more likely to support global engagement, six percentage points more likely to support the Iran deal and Paris Climate Accords, ten percentage points increase for support for NAFTA, and support for alliances with Japan, South Korea, and NATO are at their highest level since polling began. The result is that Democrats have an opportunity to respond not only to Trump but to provide an updated strategy for dealing with 21st century challenges.

The problem is that Democrats have not yet developed a consensus around that new vision, whatever it might be someday. Since the 2016 campaign candidates and foreign policy experts have been waging a slow but steady, behind‐​the‐​scenes battle to define the future of Democratic foreign policy. Though most Democrats can agree on several things like how disastrous Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Treaty was, or how poorly Trump has treated America’s allies, or how harmful his cozying up to autocrats has been, Democrats have not yet provided a definite answer to at least six important questions:

  • Should the United States continue to pursue primacy, attempting to control events around the world, or should it accept that the world is becoming more multipolar and seek to do less abroad?
  • Should the United States continue to rely heavily on military intervention, or should it use non‐​military tools of foreign policy to deal with terrorism, civil war, and other issues?
  • Should the United States pursue a foreign policy aimed at spreading liberal values, such as human rights and democracy, or is such an approach contrary to the American national interest?
  • Should the United States embrace multilateralism and enhance alliances and international institutions, or should it pursue a more unilateral foreign policy?
  • Should the United States seek to strengthen and expand the global system of free trade, or instead pursue a nationalist and protectionist trade policy?
  • Should America partner with China and accept a growing Chinese sphere of influence in Asia, or should it attempt to confront, contain, and undermine Chinese power?

To determine where the Democrats stand today we assessed the eighteen most serious candidates’ positions on nineteen different issues. These issues include things like what the United States should do in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, whether the United States should intervene militarily in North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Ukraine, or Yemen, and how the United States should deal with both China and the war on terror. We also examined candidate positions on how ambitious and active American foreign policy should be, the importance of alliances and international agreements like the Paris Climate Treaty, and support for free trade agreements as well as the trade war with China.

To identify the candidates’ views we reviewed the candidates’ speeches, websites, sound bites in media coverage, their answers to foreign policy questions in the debates, as well as other efforts by organizations like the Washington Post and the Council on Foreign Relations to summarize their views on the issues.

Our general approach for each issue was to ask whether the candidate’s position was roughly in line with current policy and, if not, in what direction it differed. For military issues we asked whether a candidate was taking a more or less hawkish position than the status quo. We asked whether the candidate favored more or less international cooperation on a range of issues. And we assessed whether candidates were more or less supportive of free trade than current policies.

Though this approach simplifies things a good deal, it allows us to make use of the available information, which is relatively scarce for certain issues and several candidates. This scoring system also allowed us to provide each candidate with an easy‐​to‐​understand score for militarism, embrace of international cooperation, and support for free trade. Figure One below summarizes the results of this exercise, illustrating both where candidates stand relative to current American policies and also to one another (warning: these figures were made before several candidates dropped out).

Figure One. 3 Dimensions of Democratic Foreign Policy View

International Cooperation Index

Militarism Index

Free Trade Index

The numbers make it all look very scientific, but it’s important not to push our data too far. After all, most of the candidates have not produced a fully imagined foreign policy doctrine, nor has foreign policy taken center stage at any point so far in the campaign. Some candidates may have remained noncommittal in order to make themselves attractive as a vice presidential running mate. We have undoubtedly missed some important nuances and some candidates may articulate positions different from the ones we have captured here.

The analysis nonetheless helps us identify broad patterns. First, in relation to President Trump, all of the Democrats are less hawkish (though to varying degrees), more inclined toward international cooperation (with very little variation), and only slightly more supportive of free trade. None of these findings are surprising, but they do bolster our confidence that our approach to measuring candidate positions makes sense.

Competing Camps of Democratic Foreign Policy

The second and more interesting pattern emerges from focusing on the issues that divide the Democrats. As Figure One shows, all Democrats embrace the need for international cooperation in a general sense. The two main issues dividing them into competing factions today are 1) how forcefully should the United States attempt to exert global leadership, and 2) what role should the use of military force play in American foreign policy?

As Figure Two reveals, when we array the Democrats across the dimensions of militarism and foreign policy activism, we can identify three camps competing to define next generation Democratic foreign policy.

Figure Two. Democratic Foreign Policy Matrix

Foreign Policy Matrix

The traditional liberal internationalists

The first of these is what we call the traditional liberal internationalist camp and comprises the status quo wing of Democratic foreign policy. This camp includes candidates who score high both on militarism but also on the broader index of foreign policy activism, which we determined by how often a candidate has called for doing more than the status quo on an issue, whether the issue is trade, cooperation, or military focused, and by factoring in any explicit statements they have made about the role of American leadership in the world.

The animating principle of the traditional liberal internationalist camp has not changed much

over time. Its advocates believe that the United States remains the “indispensable nation” and has the responsibility to defend the liberal international order and to intervene around the world – through diplomacy as well as by military force – to resolve international problems like climate change, to promote regional stability, to prevent humanitarian tragedies, and to contain the rise of peer competitors like China.

This camp has long dominated both the Republican and Democratic parties, and its members have included George W. Bush and Barack Obama as well as Hillary Clinton. Former Vice President Joe Biden now carries the flag, ranking at the top of the group on both the militarism and cooperation scales and advocating energetic American leadership abroad. Biden’s fellow travelers in this camp include Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota and Dan Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado.

Biden has made it clear that if he is elected, he would abandon the inward‐​looking aspects of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. On a page from his web site aptly titled “American Leadership,” Biden argued that the United States must take “immediate steps” to “once more place America at the head of the table, leading the world to address the most urgent global challenges.”

And despite the fact that Biden, like all of the other Democrats, has called for ending the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq, his campaign rhetoric makes it clear that he fully supports the continued pursuit of military primacy, embraces the global war on terrorism, and views the use of military force as an essential foreign policy tool.

The Millennial liberal internationalists

In the middle of the matrix we find the largest group of candidates in a cluster that we call the Millennial liberal internationalists. This group of candidates represents a generational shift between older Democrats who continue to embrace the traditional notion of American exceptionalism and younger Democrats who seem more comfortable with a framework of shared global leadership.

Though the older candidates like Biden, Sanders, and Warren currently lead the pack, these younger candidates clearly sense that the days of traditional foreign policy are numbered. Pete Buttigieg, the 38‐​year old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is technically the only member of the Millennial generation in the race, but he is also the candidate who has spent the most time articulating what this vision might look like. In a major foreign policy speech earlier this year, Buttigieg noted that “…we face not just another presidential election, but a transition between one era and another….I believe that the next three or four years will determine the next 30 or 40 for our country and the world.”

On a policy level, the Millennial liberal internationalists tend to have less ambitious visions and, perhaps most importantly, they exhibit less enthusiasm for the use of military force than their older colleagues. As Andrew Yang argues, “America is the beneficiary of the international world order we helped establish throughout the twentieth century. That said, we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we are capable of doing things that we are not, sometimes at a terrible cost to ourselves and others. My first principles concerning foreign policy are restraint and judgment — we should be very judicious about projecting force and have clear goals that we know we can accomplish.”

Progressive internationalism

Finally, on the left side of the matrix we can identify the progressive foreign policy camp, championed most energetically by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but also including former Representative Beto O’Rourke, Senator Kristin Gillibrand, and Representative Tulsi Gabbard. Thanks to the success of Bernie Sander’s 2016 campaign and the increasing prominence of progressives in the Democratic Party since the 2018 midterm elections, the progressive foreign policy camp has generated a good deal of momentum of late.

The clearest thread connecting the members of the progressive wing is distaste for the use of military force. The most dovish of this group is Tulsi Gabbard, who argues that the United States needs a new foreign policy that “stops wasting our resources, and lives on regime change wars, and redirects our focus and energy towards peace and prosperity for all people.” In a similar vein, Elizabeth Warren articulated a common progressive critique of American foreign policy when she wrote that “we have allowed the imperial presidency to stretch the Constitution beyond recognition to justify the use of force, with little oversight from Congress. The government has, at times, defended tactics, such as torture, that are antithetical to American values.”

But though the lack of militarism is the most obvious factor that distinguishes this camp from the other two, the most important differences are actually the progressive camp’s idealism and its attempt to link domestic and foreign policy with a unifying thread. The result is that even though there is a good deal of overlap between the policy positions of the progressives and many of the other Democrats, the animating forces of progressive foreign policy and some of its ultimate aims are quite different.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, in particular, have articulated foreign policy visions that embrace vigorous American leadership while placing much heavier emphasis on promoting American ideals. They promise much more active American efforts to defend the liberal international order, for example, as well as the promotion of democracy in the face of rising authoritarian challenges. As one observer said of Sanders’ platform, ““It’s a vision in which international economics would be subordinated to a vision of political relations and human rights that would be as big a departure from Clintonism as Trumpism, just in a different direction.”

And in recognition that Trump’s America First rhetoric has struck a chord on Main Street, both Sanders and Warren have attempted to justify foreign policy activism by connecting it to domestic economic concerns. As Warren has written, “Policymakers promised that open markets would lead to open societies. Instead, efforts to bring capitalism to the global stage unwittingly helped create the conditions for competitors to rise up and lash out.” Sanders concurs, arguing that, “we see a growing worldwide movement toward authoritarianism, oligarchy, and kleptocracy” and that the United States needs to “take into account the outrageous income and wealth inequality that exists globally and in our own country.”

Looking Ahead

This snapshot of the competing Democratic visions raises two important questions. First, assuming one of these Democrats becomes the next president, how far can we trust this analysis to predict his or her future foreign policy choices? Second, which of these will generate the most support from the American public?

Sadly, for foreign policy analysts the predictive power of exercises like this is relatively limited. Rarely do four years pass without events derailing the best laid plans of an administration. George W. Bush, recall, took office in 2001 having argued on the campaign trail that the United States should resist nation building and military intervention abroad.

But even if events did not intrude, there is simply an enormous amount of inertia in American foreign policy, reflected in international institutions and alliances, in domestic politics and public opinion, and in the worldviews of national security professionals. The “Blob” as President Obama called the foreign policy establishment, dominates public foreign policy debates and its members occupy almost all of the important roles in foreign policy making. This has made it difficult for presidents to pursue foreign policies that deviate from traditional liberal internationalism. President Trump has met tremendous backlash whenever he has threatened to chart a more “America First” path, dampening his ability to make big changes. Democrats promoting more radical departures from the status quo like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or Tulsi Gabbard, would very likely face similar difficulties.

The last question is how well these competing visions are playing with the public. Though Biden leads in most of the polls, his foreign policy is the least appealing to most Democrats, and to young Americans more generally. Research has shown that younger Americans remain committed to cooperative forms of international engagement, but are far less supportive of defense spending and the use of military force than older Americans. In a recent poll, for example, just 44 percent of Millennials felt that maintaining superior military power should be a critical U.S. foreign policy goal, compared to 64 percent of Baby Boomers and 70 percent of the Silent Generation.

The shift from militarism is easily understood. Younger Americans have spent their formative years and early adulthood watching – and fighting in – lengthy, unsuccessful military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Unlike their grandparents, they did not experience the heady aftermath of World War II when the United States enjoyed incredible economic and political dominance. Coming of age after the end of the Cold War, neither Millennials nor members of Generation Z have a real awareness of the role military strength played in the successful containment strategy of the Cold War. If they were aware, they’d have also noticed that the United States rarely used military force after the Vietnam debacle and still won the Cold War in 1991. Simply put, to young Americans, war has looked like a poor strategy. As a result, they do not share their elders’ confidence in America’s ability to use military force to pursue national interests effectively.

This intergenerational shift favors both the Millennial liberal internationalists like Pete Buttigieg and the progressive internationalists like Sanders and Warren, at least to a point. A red flag for progressives, however, is the way both Sanders and Warren have recast foreign policy as an extension of domestic debates over economic and social policy. To win middle‐​class votes, both Sanders and Warren have decried unfair trade deals, kleptocracy, global inequality and the influence of multinational corporations.

Though these are important issues, they are also potential justifications for fruitless and expensive efforts to reshape the world. And just as American military power has failed – dramatically and at staggering cost — to reshape the Middle East over the past 18 years, so too would American economic and diplomatic power fail to reorganize the world to the tastes of the progressives in the Democratic Party.

In short, the danger is that in their search for a motivating principle for the future of U.S. foreign policy, Democrats may propose big ideas that sound nice but will instead promote more misguided U.S. activism under a new heading. Instead, the Democrats’ best bet to win public support, especially from the next generation, is to identify what current U.S. responsibilities — from the ongoing forever wars in at least eight countries to longstanding treaty commitments to militarily defend more than 60 nations abroad – should be abandoned and which must be maintained for the 21st Century.

A special thanks to Sally Huang for compiling and coding the data and to Lauren Sander for creating the graphics.

January 15, 2020 3:11PM

When Debating Base Closure, Look at the Data

By James Knupp and Christopher A. Preble

Despite years of calls from the Pentagon for a new round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), Congress has refused to authorize one since 2005. With the Department of Defense running at 22 percent excess capacity and constant calls for more money for operations and modernization, Congress should allow the Pentagon to reallocate funds away from unnecessary bases into more urgent projects. But fears of communities losing their bases and watching their local economies suffer as a result has kept talk of a new BRAC off the table.

BRAC opponents should take a look at some of the data measuring the economic health of post‐​BRAC communities. Research shows that while there may be some short‐​term pain, in the long run most communities rebound — and oftentimes end up in a much stronger position before. A presentation last year at the Association of Defense Communities’ Base Redevelopment Forum looked at three very different cases: Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (1988); Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas (1991); and the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard (1991). With both large and small communities represented, the evidence reveals BRAC’s actual effects.

We looked at four measures of economic and community health: housing prices, municipal bond rating, tax revenue per capita, and population growth. As the following charts show, these measures did not change in the same ways for each case, reflecting more regional trends than national.

For housing prices, we used data from the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) on single family home prices and looked at an index of median single‐​family home prices for each community compared to the national index. These indices from the FHFA used sales and appraisals of single‐​family homes and are not seasonally adjusted. The chart reflects the change over time to median home prices. We have set both the local and national indexes to begin at the same date and an index value of 100. Values over 100 represent an increase in value, values under 100 represent a decrease.

As can be seen in the charts, in all three cases housing prices were at or above their values within 10 years of base closure. In the case of Philadelphia, housing prices remained relatively steady, following the national trend, while Austin’s post‐​closure housing prices actually grew at a faster rate than the national trends. Only Portsmouth, New Hampshire, saw a significant drop in home prices following the closure of Pease AFB, but within a decade its housing market has rebounded, and price changes today are on par with national trends.

As a measure of a community’s economic health, municipal bond rating is about as literal as it gets. Using information from Michael Touchton and Amanda J. Ashley’s research, we looked at what these communities had as their bond ratings before closure, and several years after closure.

In each case, bond ratings increased, sometimes substantially. In the cases of Portsmouth and Philadelphia, both went from Ba (below investment grade) to Aaa, the highest grade possible.

Another key marker is total tax revenue, but that must be controlled for population growth. We looked at tax revenue per capita and found in each of the three cases this key metric has increased over time. Only Austin experienced a brief decline, and it quickly recovered.

And finally, we decided to look at population growth. One of the biggest fears with base closure is that associated job losses will cause people to move away in search of better prospects elsewhere.

Here, the picture is more mixed. Both Portsmouth and Philadelphia experienced population loss, with Portsmouth seeing a 21.5 percent decline between 1990 and 2000. As the smallest of the communities studied (population 26,160), the loss of the base would prove more significant than for Austin or Philly. At closure, Pease had employed over 4,500 people, both active duty military and civilians. The Air Force had also estimated that Pease created 2,466 secondary jobs in the surrounding communities. As for Philadelphia, the city had been experiencing population losses for at least a decade prior to the closure of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, but it has begun to recover somewhat, so its hard to say whether the base closure had an effect or not. By comparison, Austin has seen considerable population growth, likely due to a number of factors completely unrelated to the closure of Bergstrom AFB.

These three cases, and these measures of economic health, are merely snapshots into how base closure can affect a community, but they provide an important perspective. Taken together, they reveal how post‐​BRAC communities recover following a base closure. These facts should be taken into consideration in any future discussion over whether or not to authorize another BRAC round.

January 8, 2020 2:03PM

Trump the Decider

The MQ‑9 Reaper attack that took out Iranian General Qassim Suleimani was a drone strike for peace, President Trump explained last week: we took action “to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.” That’s a theory, and it’s going to be put to the test. “All is well!” the president tweeted last night as a salvo of Iranian missiles fell on U.S. positions in Iraq: “So far, so good!”

Trump’s decision to target Suleimani — a figure described as the Iranian equivalent of “an American Vice President, chairman of the Joint Chiefs and CIA director rolled into one” — wasn’t the first time the U.S. government has aimed lethal force at a top government official. There’s the checkered — and occasionally absurd — history of the CIA’s Cold War assassination attempts, including the Kennedys’ efforts to kill Fidel Castro. But we’ve also gone after legitimate targets in congressionally authorized wars: the downing of Admiral Yamamoto’s plane in WWII and the attempted decapitation strike against Saddam Hussein at the start of the Iraq War.


Ready. Fire. Aim.

The Suleimani killing was something new under the sun. It marked the first time an American president has publicly ordered the assassination of a top government official for a country we’re not legally at war with.

This is where you’re supposed to acknowledge that the Quds Force commandant was an evil guy who got what he deserved. Done. But that’s got nothing to do with whether the move was wise or constitutionally permissible.

U.S. forces took out Suleimani “at the direction of the President,” per the Pentagon’s announcement. On what authority, exactly? For now, the official rationale is classified. In terms of public justification, all we have is some hand‐​waving by Trump’s national security adviser about the president’s “constitutional authorities as commander in chief to defend our nation” and the 17‐​year old Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq (2002 AUMF). Neither comes close to vesting the president with the power to set off a whole new war.

The 2002 AUMF authorizes the president to use military force in order to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq” and enforce various UN resolutions “regarding Iraq.” Unless “45” is going to break out the presidential sharpie and change the “q”s to “n”s, that’s not going to cut it. Neither will the 2001 AUMF, as I’ve explained at length elsewhere (See: “Repeal Old AUMFs and Salt the Earth”).

If and when the administration deigns to reveal its legal theory, the argument will probably be: (1) the AUMFs license our continuing presence in Iraq; and (2) the president has inherent power under Article II to defend our personnel from the sort of attacks Iranian proxies have carried out in recent weeks. (National Review’s David French outlines that theory here.)

How far up the escalation ladder are these powers supposed to extend, however? “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sits atop the military chain of command and apparently had to approve the recent militia attacks. Does Article II empower Trump to order a hit on the Ayatollah? That we wouldn’t miss that guy either seems rather beside the point.

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January 7, 2020 3:39PM

How Extensive Is FBI Domestic Spying? We’re Trying To Find Out

Earlier today, Cato issued a press release based on the current results of a major and ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) project designed to try to determine the magnitude of FBI domestic surveillance activities that may be unconstitutional or otherwise questionable from a civil liberties standpoint. First, some background.

Since April 2019, I’ve filed over 400 FOIAs. One of the core questions my FOIA work seeks to answer is whether, and to what extent, the kinds of domestic surveillance abuses that were surfaced by the Church Committee (and later the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) have resumed—particularly the targeting of domestic groups on the basis of their constitutionally protected right to free speech and association. Based on the evidence I and others in the media and civil liberties community have accumulated to date, I believe the answer is yes.

To refresh your memory, I wrote this piece for JustSecurity on Constitution Day 2019 regarding some very disturbing findings I and others had made regarding FBI targeting of domestic advocacy groups, including groups involved in immigration work.

On November 26, I reviewed all of the FOIA responses I’ve received to date to ensure any additional actions that might be necessary on my part and not previously addressed were cataloged and scheduled. In the course of that review, I realized that one Department of Justice Office of Information Policy (DoJ/OIP) response I received in June 2019 regarding Cato contained “Glomar” exemption language. The third paragraph of the DoJ letter contains the key language and reads as follows:

"I have determined that the FBI properly refused to confirm or deny the existence of any national security or foreign intelligence records responsive to your request because the existence or nonexistence of any such responsive records is currently and properly classified. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1). Please be advised that the Department Review Committee will determine whether the existence or nonexistence of this category of records should continue to be considered a classified fact. Additionally, the existence or nonexistence of any such responsive records is protected under the FOIA pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(3). This provision concerns matters specifically exempted from release by a statute other than the FOIA (in this instance, 50 U.S.C. § 3024(i)(1), which pertains to the National Security Act of 1947 and the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949).”

So what exactly is a “Glomar” FOIA response and what does it mean? A little background follows.

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January 5, 2020 7:26PM

Does Trump Have An Ethnic Iranian Interrogation and Detention Program In The Works?

The reported detention and interrogation of Iranian Americans in Washington state over the weekend raises an obvious question: was this an isolated incident, or is the Trump administration now rolling out an interrogation and possible detention program targeting persons of Iranian heritage? A FOIA response from the Justice Department I received in May 2019 may offer a telling clue. First, a little background.

In April 2019, not long after President Trump designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization, I decided it would be a good idea to find out if the administration was engaged in any other war planning with Iran that would have a domestic nexus. Specifically, I wanted to know if the administration had plans on the shelf to detain persons of Arab or Iranian heritage in the event of yet another war with a country in the region.

Accordingly, I submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the Department of Justice (multiple components, including the FBI), United States Northern Command (NORTHCOM), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the United States Postal Service (USPS), and the Census Bureau. I picked these agencies or departments because each has, in past wars, played key roles in either the surveillance of ethnic populations deemed a threat or actually incarcerating persons of a particular ancestry who happened to be from a country at which we were at war.

As the FOIA responses rolled in over the next few months, I got the typical “Your request is too broad” or similar dodges from DHS, the Postal Service, and the IRS. NORTHCOM didn’t even bother to respond, and neither did the FBI. But the Department of Justice, via its Office of Information Policy, did respond.

With regard to the second part of my FOIA request for any records regarding “implementation of detention programs for persons of Arab or Persian/​Iranian heritage in the event of the declaration of a national emergency, declaration of war, or authorization for the use of military force against certain entities,’ DoJ said this:

With regard to part 2 of your request, I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of such records. The existence or non‐​existence of such records would be protected pursuant to Exemption 7(E) of the FOIA, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(E), which concerns records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, the release of which would disclose techniques or procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions.

That infamous “neither confirm nor deny” language is what’s known in the FOIA world as a “Glomar” response — a more than 40 year old judicially created carveout from FOIA that makes it possible for an agency or department to dodge a FOIA request on a particular topic, absent a review by a judge. It was not until 2010 that the CIA admitted the original Glomar case had been used to hide its partially successful efforts to raise a sunken Soviet sub from the Pacific Ocean via billionaire Howard Hughes’ deep sea mining vessel Glomar Explorer.

More recently, CIA attempts to “Glomar” the ACLU over the existence of the agency’s “Drone War” in Iraq and Afghanistan failed. And just last year, the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press won its Glomar FOIA case against the FBI, which had argued that it properly invoked Glomar to avoid confirming or denying whether its agents sometimes impersonate journalists. In each of these national security or law enforcement cases, the “Glomar” invocation in question was used to cover a real activity undertaken by the agency or department in question.

So does DoJ have a plan on the shelf to detain persons of Iranian heritage in the event of a conflict with Iran? If so, is that plan part of a larger “whole of government” effort also involving, among other elements, DHS’s Customs and Border Protection? CBP denied it in a late Sunday afternoon tweet. However, the specific accounts of Iranian Americans allegedly detained by CBP personnel at the Peace Arch Border Crossing as relayed to CAIR, as well as the history of such detentions and interrogations in this country, make the scenario frighteningly plausible. It’s one reason I have two active detention‐​related FOIA lawsuits — one against NORTHCOM, the other against the Postal Service—grinding away in the D.C. Circuit, with more likely on the way.

January 3, 2020 12:16PM

With Airstrikes in Iraq, Trump Draws America Further into Middle East Conflict

The U.S. airstrike that killed the Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani is a dangerous and reckless act that is almost certain to trigger an escalation of violence in the Middle East, including the possibility of retaliatory Iranian actions against U.S. forces in the region.

There is also likely to be backlash from Baghdad. The bombing killed Soleimani as well as Abu Mahdi al‐​Muhandis, an important Shia paramilitary leader in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units with close ties to Iran. (Note: Iran’s increased influence in Iraq is a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the subsequent decisions of the Bush administration.) U.S. forces are in Iraq with the permission of the Iraqi government, which has grown increasingly infuriated by repeated U.S. airstrikes on Iraqi territory that lacked the approval of the sovereign government there. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul‐​Mahdi has already condemned the attack as a violation of the terms of the agreement authorizing U.S. forces in Iraq. This could make U.S. troops and personnel, as well as innocent civilians caught in the cross‐​fire, even more vulnerable in the potential fallout.

Trump came into office with an Iran that was effectively denuclearized, plus a newly opened U.S.-Iran diplomatic channel to continue to improve relations following the JCPOA. Thanks to the president’s warrantless withdrawal from that deal and the administration’s incoherent maximum pressure “strategy,” that diplomatic channel is no more, and Iran has resumed its nuclear activities and ratcheted up its violence in the region.

This dangerous game of tit‐​for‐​tat escalation was entirely predictable, and indeed predicted. The approach was senseless from the beginning and it has had the exact opposite of its intended effect.

While we can expect Iran to pursue retaliatory actions of some kind, the leadership in Tehran knows they are outmatched by the United States, so they are likely to employ tactics they expect will be below the threshold of what would prompt a major U.S. military response inside Iranian territory. Still, this could trigger a sharp uptick in violence across the Middle East, to the detriment of regional stability, U.S. interests, and global peace and security.

Although President Trump boldly stated in his last State of the Union address that “great nations do not fight endless wars,” with this act he has likely further drawn the United States into the morass of Middle East conflict. The United States has been attacking the Middle East every year for 29 years. As president, Trump has broadened ongoing bombing campaigns across multiple countries and, in his first two years, increased the U.S. troop presence in the region by more than 30 percent. He has ordered an additional nearly 15,000 deployed since summer 2019.

For decades, this approach has failed. Its continuation is fueled by unthinking policy inertia, an erroneous belief that U.S. partners in the region are vital for U.S. interests, and an irrational fear of Iran. As I put it last May, “most of the political establishment in Washington perceive[s] the threat from Iran to be serious when in fact it hardly exists at all.”

Americans must begin to appreciate how peculiar it is for a country like ours to be so maniacally obsessed with, and terrified by, a country like Iran. The United States is a global military juggernaut whose core national‐​security concerns are rendered rather trivial due to its outsize capabilities and its uniquely protective geography, reinforced even further by a reliable nuclear deterrent. Iran is a third‐​rate military power in a tough neighborhood half a world away. It poses no direct threat to us. Iran’s main regional rivals possess conventional and nuclear capabilities that can deter Iran quite sufficiently. Washington’s phobia of the supposed threat of an Iranian attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 30 percent of the world’s crude oil flows, is mostly overheated babble. A sincere attempt would be damaging to Iran’s own economic self‐​interest, not to mention its security, as retaliation would surely be swift. Additionally, Iran’s much ballyhooed support for non‐​state actors, mostly Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis in Yemen, does not present a real threat to America. Those groups have local concerns. Hezbollah and Hamas are almost exclusively focused on Israel, and the Houthis in Yemen are a nationalist movement. These are not transnational terrorist groups spending time trying to hatch 9/11 style plots against America.

How is it that the United States of America can get whipped up into such a hysteria over such a weak, distant, and hemmed in Iran? Much of Washington seems unable to properly assess risk. Threat perceptions on Iran are fueled by an outdated enemy image where Iran plays the role of the villain, but presents no objective direct threat to this country.

At this point, neither side appears willing to back out of this destructive round of escalation. That bodes ill for all parties. If the White House isn’t prepared to find a way to reduce tensions and develop a strategy that will reliably avoid war and serve U.S. interests, Congress must (but probably won’t) step up to assert its prerogatives over the executive branch’s war powers.