Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

ID-Based Security Is Broken - and Can’t Be Fixed

The Government Accountability Office testified to the Senate Finance Committee today that investigators were easily able to pass through borders using fake documents. Indeed, sometimes documents were not checked at all.

“This vulnerability potentially allows terrorists or others involved in criminal activity to pass freely into the United States from Canada or Mexico with little or no chance of being detected.”

That’s true, but shoring up that vulnerability would add little security while devastating trade and commerce at the border.

Identity-based security works by comparing the identity of someone to their background and determining how to treat them based on that. To start, you need accurate identity information. That’s not easy to come by from people who are trying to defeat your identity system.

Here’s a schematic of how identification cards work from my book Identity Crisis.

As you can see, proof of identity involves three steps: Info goes from the person to the card issuer; info goes from the issuer to the verifier via the card; and the verifier checks to make sure the person and the card match.

Each of these steps is a point of weakness. Let’s take them in reverse order:

Obviously, as the GAO found, if nobody looks at the ID card, the “verifier check” can’t be done and the system fails. If the verifier is careless, the system will also fail. This weakness can be fixed with machine-read biometrics, but that is time-consuming and it typically subjects everyone to monitoring, tracking, surveillance – whatever you prefer to call it.

If the card can be forged or altered, this compromises card security, the second point of weakness in the process. Weakness in card security (non-obvious forgery) is what GAO sought to expose when it stumbled across the fact that border agents weren’t checking IDs at all. Card security can also be fixed various ways, though the best, such as encryption, will also tend to increase monitoring, tracking, and surveillance of every card-holder.

The first step is the hardest by far to fix: getting accurate information about people onto cards. For anyone wanting to defeat the current U.S. identification system, there is a substantial trade in documents that are false but good enough to fool Department of Motor Vehicle employees into issuing drivers’ licenses and cards. Criminals also regularly use the option of corrupting DMV employees to procure false documents. Can this problem be curtailed? Yes. Solved? No.

For the sake of argument, let’s fix all these things with a cradle-to-grave, government-mandated, biometric tracking system. Enough to make even the irreligious think “mark of the beast.” Even then, we will not have effective security against serious criminals and terrorists. The greatest weakness of identification-based security remains.

Knowing who a person is does not reveal what they think or what they plan to do. Examples are legion in terrorism, and routine in crime, of people with no record of wrongdoing being the ones who act.

For example, Al Qaeda selected operatives for the 9/11 attacks who had no known records of involvement in terrorism. (See 9/11 Commission report, page 234.) It was operating in a mode to defeat watch-listing well before the spasm of watch-listing that underlies identification-checks like the ones GAO has found so flawed.

If we were to have a comprehensive, mandatory, biometric identification system, it would help find bad people after they are identified, but do little to secure against attackers who are not already known. Al Qaeda planners would have to continue factoring in a risk they have already accounted for.

And having such a system should be a big “if.” Subjecting all Americans to increased monitoring, surveillance, and tracking, then delaying their lawful trade and travel at the borders, would do a lot of damage to liberty and commerce. It would provide only a tiny margin of security – almost no margin against sophisticated threats.

Details, Please

Here’s a snippet of a National Review editorial on the Middle East:

The fight has to be taken to Syria and Iran, which doesn’t mean imminent military action, but does mean more serious pressure on all fronts. Iran’s agents in Iraq currently don’t fear us — they should. And our patience with the current round of ineffective nuclear diplomacy should be wearing thin fast. As for Syria, there are still sanctions that can be levied against it, and Israel should make it clear that it considers Syria’s continued arming of Hezbollah a hostile act. The downward drift of events in the Middle East is eventually going to force the Bush administration either to tacitly admit defeat in the region or to accept the confrontation that its regional antagonists are forcing. And defeat is too awful to contemplate.

This sort of thing is fine for a stump speech, or for a Senator’s think tank address, but there’s precious little policy guidance here. Magazines criticizing policy should be able at least to describe their counter-proposals in clear language that indicates what, exactly, is being proposed. For example, what does “more serious pressure on all fronts” toward both Iran and Syria look like?  Or, if our patience with the nuclear negotiations with Tehran should be “wearing thin fast,” what should follow on once it’s worn through? It seems there’s only one stick left.  Is NR proposing we use it?  There is no mention of any carrots.

Then we get proposed sanctions against Syria.  Never mind the fact that they would almost certainly fail to gain international support, given the Bush administration’s total indifference to world opinion on the current crisis.  Beyond that, economic sanctions generally have a remarkably poor track record of success, in particular unilateral sanctions.  But then comes the follow-on proposal to whisper in Israel’s ear and advise it to tell Syria that it considers Syria’s continuing patronage of Hizbollah “a hostile act.” Does that mean we should promote and then support an Israeli attack against Syria?

National Review’s editors, and the Bush administration itself, have the look of a compulsive gambler who, after losing his life savings, takes out a line of credit in the mistaken belief that his luck is changing.  Yes, the Middle East was in turmoil before Bush came into office, and yes, it will be in turmoil after he’s gone.  But the current “downward drift of events” that NR laments is a direct result of the Bush administration’s failed policies.  And yet NR is advocating an escalation of the same policies as a remedy.

Where’s Fidel?

Reading major newspapers and listening to NPR this morning, I don’t hear anyone asking what seem to me to be the obvious questions about Castro’s condition: Is Castro alive? Is he incapacitated? Did he compose or approve the statement read in his name? In a secretive dictatorship, you can’t believe everything the regime says. Raul Castro and his colleagues may be trying to create the impression of a gradual transition. On the other hand, it could well be the case that Fidel is himself trying to prepare Cubans for a transition that will happen eventually. I’m just surprised that no one seems to be asking whether Fidel directed this cession of power himself – except in the streets of Miami.

Boehner Cites, Promotes Americans’ Anxiety

National Journal’s Hotline has dutifully reprinted House Majority Leader John Boehner’s open letter of encouragement to fellow Republicans as they go into the summer recess. In it, Boehner cites Americans’ ongoing anxiety about a number of issues.

“International threats are also contributing to the anxiety American families feel,” he writes.  He continues:

[Terrorists are] bent on destablizing democracies throughout the world. And they are more determined than ever to penetrate our leaking borders and carry out their murderous ambitions against innocent citizens on American soil.

Naturally, Boehner derides Democrats for failing to do security like Republicans do security.

Last year, for example, 152 Democrats voted against the REAL ID Act, which implemented needed driver’s license reforms, making it more difficult for potential terrorists to obtain driver’s licenses or state ID cards, and ensuring that states improve their data security.

Nevermind that false ID was not part of the modus operandi of the 9/11 terrorists. Identification requirements are not very good for tracking or controlling criminals and essentially worthless for stopping suicidal terrorists, but they are very good for tracking and controlling law-abiding citizens.

In Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, Timothy Naftali frames this kind of letter:

The politics of fear have … prevented a serious national conversation about the true dimensions of the threat. The public has no idea of the tradeoffs between security and freedom. Their elected representatives speak of doing everything necessary to protect them, while each political party argues that it is more likely than the opposition to keep the nation secure.

This perspective turns the Boehner letter into a caricature. Naftali adds, “The American public should be informed that the terrorists cannot win any war against the United States … .”

Is the President Even Paying Attention Anymore?

Via Matt Yglesias, this from President Bush:

“There’s a lot of suffering in the Palestinian Territory because militant Hamas is trying to stop the advance of democracy.”

As Matt properly asks, does it really make sense to argue that Hamas is trying to stop the advance of democracy – when democracy is what put them in power in the first place???

A Telling Analogy

From the Washington Post:

“At this point, it seems like the war on drugs in America,” added Spec. David Fulcher, 22, a medic from Lynchburg, Va., who sat [in a barracks in Baghdad]. “It’s like this never-ending battle, like, we find one IED, if we do find it before it hits us, so what? You know it’s just like if the cops make a big bust, next week the next higher-up puts more back out there.”

Is Opposition to the Bush Doctrine “Isolationism”?

The online version of the New York Times runs the following headline for its story covering its poll on Americans’ attitudes on foreign policy:

Americans Showing Isolationist Streak, Poll Finds

The substance of the poll shows several things: Americans want out of Iraq, they don’t want to deploy US servicemen to try to make peace in Lebanon, and they don’t think that it’s our responsibility to go around the world attempting to force peace on warring nations.

Is that really “isolationism”? I covered the topic of “isolationism” earlier this year when a Pew poll interpreted Americans’ desire to “mind our own business internationally” as a sign of isolationism. (Should we not mind our own business internationally???)

I’ll say one thing: If the media keeps portraying the choice as between the Bush doctrine or “isolationism,” then isolationism is going to end up with a lot more adherents than any of us thought.