Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Fusion Centers

Most people don’t care about government surveillance – just so long as they are not affected by it.  We want the police to be on lookout for trouble – so some surveillance is necessary for the work they do.  But how much?

After 9/11, state officials said they had difficulty “connecting all the dots.”  Fusion centers are supposed to remedy that problem.  Police departments around the country are creating databases (“fusion centers”) and the objective is to link them together so that the police can spot patterns of behavior so that crimes or terrorist attacks can be thwarted.

The goal seems sensible and worthwhile but as the details emerge on how fusion centers operate, the concept gets controversial fast.  Who will be monitored? What kind of information will be  collected?   And who decides when pieces of information should be discarded or entered into a massive database?  If false information about, say, YOU, goes into the database, will you ever learn about it?  Have an opportunity to erase it or correct it?

Fusion centers are springing up all over the country and they are coordinating the efforts of some 800,000 American law enforcement officers to collect information about anyone deemed suspicious. One problem is that terrorists are not of a monolithic character. Terrorists can be extremely religious or secular; they may be Arab, white, black or any other race; terrorists come from both rich and poor backgrounds; they come from the far right, the far left – and some are simply against society generally. And when criminals are added to the mix, the potential dragnet for this casual government surveillance potentially covers scores of people.

Behaviors that make someone eligible for government monitoring are quite broad. As noted by Bruce Fein in his testimony before Congress in April, citing a July 2008 ACLU report on fusion centers, such suspicious behaviors in one LAPD directive include “using binoculars,” “taking pictures or video footage “with no apparent aesthetic value,” “drawing diagrams,” and “taking notes,” among others.

Former vice-president Cheney might argue that the monitoring is not extensive enough.  He recently said (pdf): “When just a single clue goes unlearned … can bring on a catastrophe – it’s no time for splitting differences.  There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance.”  National security, it seems,  requires that we get everyone into the central database for scrutiny.  We can’t afford any ”gaps” in the surveillance matrix.

I will be moderating a Cato event about fusion centers on Thursday, June 11, at noon.  The panel will include attorney Bruce Fein, the ACLU’s Mike German (who co-authored the report linked above), and Harvey Eisenberg, Chief of the National Security Section in the Maryland Division of the U.S. Attorney’s office. 

America’s Power Problem

Numerous polls show that Americans want to reduce our military presence abroad, allowing our allies and other nations to assume greater responsibility both for their own defense and for enforcing security in their respective regions.

But why haven’t we done so?

In his new book, The Power Problem, Christopher A. Preble contends that the vast military strength of the United States has induced policymakers in Washington to broaden the perception of the “national interest,” and ultimately to commit ourselves to the impossible task of maintaining global order.

Preble holds that the core national interest — preserving American security — is easily defined and largely immutable. In his view, military power is purely instrumental: if it advances U.S. security, then it is fulfilling its essential role.

Preble spoke at Cato about what we views as the proper role of the United States in the world.

Tiananmen Square: 20 Years Later

tsAfter 20 years China has made substantial economic progress, but the ghosts of Tiananmen are restless and will continue to be so until the Goddess of Liberty is restored.

The Chinese Communist Party’s “Human Rights Action Plan” (2009–10) addresses several human rights abuses, but it fails to establish a well-defined boundary between the individual and the state that protects rights to life, liberty, and property.

Until China limits the power of the CCP and allows people to exercise their natural rights, there will be corruption, and the goal of “social harmony” will be elusive. The lesson of Tiananmen is that the principle of nonintervention (wu wei) is superior to the heavy hand of the state as a way to bring about true harmony.

More on the Tiananmen Square massacre below.

Some Early Thoughts on Obama’s Speech

I listened live to the president’s Cairo speech this morning on my ride into work. I know that it will be parsed and dissected. Passages will be taken out of context, and sentences twisted beyond recognition. At times, it sounded like a state of the union address, with a litany of promises intended to appeal to particular interest groups.

That said, I thought the president hit the essential points without overpromising. He did not ignore that which divides the United States from the world at large, and many Muslims in particular, nor was he afraid to address squarely the lies and distortions – including the implication that 9/11 never happened, or was not the product of al Qaeda – that have made the situation worse than it should be. He stressed the common interests that should draw people to support U.S. policies rather than oppose them: these include our opposition to the use of violence against innocents; our support for democracy and self-government; and our hostility toward racial, ethnic or religious intolerance. All good.

Two particular comments jumped out at me (the speech text can be found here):

1. The president clearly stated his goals for the U.S. military presence in Iraq. He pledged to “honor our agreement with Iraq’s democratically-elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July,” “the removal of our combat brigades by next August,” and “to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012.”

This might not seem like much. As noted, it is the established policy of the U.S. government and the Iraqi government under the status of forces agreement. Some recent comments by Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, however, implied that U.S. troops might remain in Iraq for a decade. I’m glad that the president cleared up the confusion.

2. President Obama wisely connected U.S. policy in the 21st century to its founding principles from the earliest days to remind his audience – or perhaps to teach them for the very first time – that the United States was not now, nor ever has been, at war with Islam, or with any other religion. George Washington affirmed the importance of religious equality in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. President Obama quoted John Adams, who saw no reason why the United States could not enjoy good relations with Morocco, the first country to recognize the United States. When signing the Treaty of Tripoli, Adams wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.”

But the president also drew on the Founders to convey a broader message. They believed that the new nation should advance human rights and the cause of liberty by its example, not by military force. Some of our recent leaders seem to have forgotten that, and a few pundits have actually scorned the suggestion. The president wisely cast his lot with the earlier generation, quoting Thomas Jefferson who said “I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

It is a good quote. I use it in my book, too.

Is Dr. Tiller’s Killer a Terrorist?

I’ve been intrigued to watch the foment about whether the man who killed Dr. Tiller is a terrorist.

At the ThinkProgress Wonk Room, Matt Duss says, emphatically, “Yes, Dr. Tiller’s Murderer is a Terrorist.” LifeNews.com, a nominal representative of the other “side,” is equally eager to report that abortion activists are calling pro-life advocates “terrorists.”

Mostly, it appears, the Tiller/terrorist question is emotional energy-drink for both sides of the abortion debate. We should let these ideologues be ideologues and move on. But it is worth thinking about the issue in terms of terrorism broadly and in terms of reducing violence prospectively.

Here’s an interesting statement of Duss’ about the killing: “It’s [sic] goal was to intimidate women against exercising their right to choose abortion, and to intimidate doctors who perform them.” Perhaps Duss has had an opportunity to interview Tiller’s killer, who has been highly forthcoming, but more likely Duss is imputing motives to the killer that fit his own worldview and that start an argument he wants to have.

Knowing nothing about the killer, I think it’s a possibility that he might have wanted to avenge what he sees as wrongful deaths that the doctor has brought about, with no contemplation of the prospective effect on women or doctors. The killer might have been trying to impress someone he knows who hated Dr. Tiller. Perhaps he suspected Dr. Tiller was sleeping with his wife (very unlikely, but possible). I don’t think that Duss is wrong, but ascribing motivations to people based on the results they cause is a fascinating habit. To match the hugely shocking results of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush supplied huge reasons that terrorists do what they do, and a deeply unproductive “war on terror” was on.

Now, if the goal is to reduce violence, calling Dr. Tiller’s killer a “terrorist” seems distinctly unhelpful. The criminal laws against homicide contain every penalty that the killer deserves, and he should get justice as the criminal law prescribes it. There is no criminal offense called “terrorism” - and there shouldn’t be, for reasons that follow.

The question in play with Tiller/terrorism goes to future violence - the actions of others. If Tiller’s killer has allies - direct allies or people who agree with what they think he was doing - calling him a “terrorist” will tend to exalt his actions to them. They will perceive it less as an ugly murder and more as political violence done for a cause - something righteous.

If Tiller’s killer were to become widely viewed as a “terrorist,” this would deepen the resolve of his “allies” because they would come to regard the political structure as arrayed against them and their cause. Tiller’s killer would look heroic to them, and his example is one they might seek to emulate in their ideological struggle.

The better approach is to methodically and calmly apply the criminal law to the killing - without rhetorical excess. Putting aside the “political” content will let the ugliness and sadness of the murder carry the day in terms of public attention. This will signal to abortion opponents who might be susceptible to “radicalization” that violence is something sad and pathetic people do. The criminal law accords criminals the justice they are due, families grieve, and the society moves on.

These messages will drain power from the idea of using violence to advance political aims. The best way to talk about the killing of Dr. Tiller is to deal with it only as a grisly and pathetic murder - if the goal is to protect doctors who perform abortion from future violence.

McCarthy Does Petraeus a Disservice

General Petraeus recently gave an interview to Fox News. Petraeus speaks approvingly of the decision to close Guantanamo, limiting interrogation to the techniques in the Army Field Manual, and how adherence to the Geneva Conventions takes propaganda fodder out of the hands of our enemies.

Andy McCarthy attacks Petraeus over at National Review Online’s The Corner:

With due respect to Gen. Petraeus, this is just vapid. To begin with, he doesn’t identify any provision of the Geneva Conventions that we have actually violated - he just repeats the standard talking-point of his current commander-in-chief that we took “steps that have violated the Geneva Conventions” during those bad old Bush days. What steps is he talking about? How about naming one?

McCarthy then uses the brief reference to the Geneva Conventions to attack strawman arguments as if Petraeus wanted to give full Prisoner of War status to Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters and had just proposed ending military detention of combatants picked up on the battlefield.

I’m pretty sure that Petraeus is not squeamish about keeping detainees in custody. As CENTCOM Commander, he’s got over 600 of them in Bagram.

When you watch the video it’s pretty clear that Petraeus was referring to the treatment of detainees and the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” as violating the Geneva Conventions, a position consistent with his previous statements. Petraeus doesn’t supply a specific provision to satisfy McCarthy, but he is likely thinking about Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.  This provision bans, even in a conflict of a non-international nature (read: counterinsurgency and counterterrorism), cruelty, torture, and humiliating and degrading treatment.

McCarthy is also broadly dismissive of the propaganda effect that Guantanamo has had in encouraging people to take up arms against US forces. This sentiment is counter to the doctrine that I learned in the Special Forces Detachment Commander’s Qualification Course. Low-level insurgencies and terrorism are driven by propaganda.

To build an insurgency, you don’t need to win battles. You need to take a few shots at your enemy and tell stories about how successful you were, even when you weren’t. Over time you get sympathetic parties to join your struggle and gain critical mass to move into outright guerrilla warfare.

To sustain a worldwide terrorist organization, you don’t need to actually pose an existential threat. You need to prod a superpower into deploying large troop formations into the Muslim world, where they can be entangled in local disputes over local grievances. Usama bin Laden is not the commander-in-chief of any significant armed force, but he can be the inciter-in-chief who makes broad claims about opposition to America. He tries to link local insurgencies to his global caliphate narrative even where they are not supportive of his broader goals. Check out David Kilcullen’s book, The Accidental Guerrilla, for a detailed discussion. Incidentally, Kilcullen worked for Petraeus as a senior counterinsurgency advisor in Iraq.

This is the propaganda war we are fighting, and most everyone agrees that we have not been doing it very well. Every time we drop a bomb in Afghanistan, the Taliban beat us to the punch with exaggerated (and mostly false) claims of civilian casualties. US forces are now reviving body count reports to counter Taliban propaganda. While I don’t think that body counts are a good metric for success in the long run, trying to be an honest broker of good and bad information blunts enemy propaganda.

McCarthy is wrong to mischaracterize Petraeus’ words and dismiss the propaganda war where we have largely been a punching bag. Cheerleading our military leaders who produce gains on the ground but dismissing the fundamental insights that produced their success is willful blindness.