The Zero Percent Doctrine

I was never a fan of Dick Cheney’s one percent doctrine.

According to Ron Suskind, after 9/11 Cheney explained to law enforcement and intelligence officials that they should treat even the one percent chance of a terrorist attack as a mathematical certainty. The particular case was of a Pakistani nuclear scientist helping al-Qaeda to acquire a nuclear bomb, but the standard became a shorthand for U.S. counterterror efforts generally. No scale of effort would be too great. Better to chase down 100 leads, 99 of which turn out to be bogus, because finding just that one nugget would have been worth the level of effort.

Now we have evidence that the federal government is chasing down far more than 99 blind alleys for just one lead. From today’s front-page story in the New York Times, Eric Schmitt explains how the FBI has adapted and evolved since 9/11:

The bureau now ranks fighting terrorism as its No. 1 priority. It has doubled the number of agents assigned to counterterrorism duties to roughly 5,000 people, and has created new squads across the country that focus more on deterring and disrupting terrorism than on solving crimes.

But the manpower costs of this focus are steep, and the benefits not always clear. Of the 5,500 leads that the squad has pursued since it was formed five years ago, only 5 percent have been found credible enough to be sent to permanent F.B.I. squads for longer-term investigations, said Supervisory Special Agent Kristen von KleinSmid, head of the squad. Only a handful of those cases have resulted in criminal prosecutions or other law enforcement action, and none have foiled a specific terrorist plot, the authorities acknowledge. (Emphasis mine.)

So, just to review:

  • 5,500 leads over 5 years
  • 5 percent deemed credible
  • “A handful” technically would mean five or less, but charitably might total a few dozen. Still, that translates to far less than 1 percent of leads investigated resulting in a criminal prosecution.

But, and here’s the kicker,

  • None – zero, zip, nada – foiled a specific terrorist plot.

On the face of it, this seems like a waste of time and resources that should be spent elsewhere.

There are several plausible explanations, however, for why I’m wrong and why those who believe that we are not dedicating sufficient resources to combating terrorism are right.

  • Perhaps other government agencies have been far more effective at disrupting terror plots. (But when the relative comparison is zero, it isn’t very hard to clear that bar.)
  • Perhaps Schmitt got his facts wrong. (Doubtful. He is one of the most experienced and reliable reporters on the beat.)
  • Perhaps the knowledge that 5,000 people chasing down 5,500 leads deters would-be terrorists from even attempting anything. (Or it could simply be helping bin Laden’s plan “to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy.”)

Two other points bear consideration. First, it is possible that arresting, prosecuting and convicting people of lesser crimes disrupts what might someday become a full-scale terror plot. There is no reason to think that the guy trying to cut down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch was much smarter than the 15 guys who provided the muscle for the 9/11 attacks. The difference was leadership, which defined a plausible terrorist attack and devised the means to carry it out. That said, there are problems associated with the expansion of federal laws, and the growing power of prosecutors, and I would still much prefer that common criminals be handled in a run-of-the-mill fashion. Local cops, local prosecutors, local jails.

Which leads to the second point. Reflecting the growing federalization of the criminal law, the FBI strayed into a number of areas even before 9/11 that should have been handled by local law enforcement. This expansion of the federal criminal law poses a threat to individual liberty. (Thanks to Tim Lynch for pointing to this source.) But counterterrorism is one of the few legitimate functions for a federal law enforcement agency, and if the FBI is devoting more resources to that than to other crimes, that in and of itself wouldn’t be a bad thing.

I remain unconvinced, however, that what we are seeing is a wise expenditure of resources. And while I understand that zero terrorist plots uncovered is not equal to zero threat of a future attack, it is incumbent on the FBI – and more generally those who think that the problem is too little, as opposed to much, being devoted to counterterrorism – to prove why they need still more resources.

Until that occurs, I think that UCLA’s Amy Zegart, who is quoted in the Times story, should get the last word on this point:

Just chasing leads burns through resources. … You’re really going to get bang for the buck when you chase leads based on a deeper assessment of who threatens us, their capabilities and indicators of impending attack. Right now, there’s more chasing than assessing.

Arizona to Feds: No “Enhanced” Drivers License

Last week, the governor of Arizona signed H.B. 2426, which bars the state from implementing the “enhanced” drivers license (EDL) program.

If the federal REAL ID revival bill (PASS ID) becomes law, it will give congressional approval to EDLs, which up to now have been simply a creation of the federal security and state driver licensing bureaucracies.

As governor of Arizona, the current Secretary of Homeland Security signed a memorandum of understanding with the DHS to implement EDLs, and she backs PASS ID even though she signed an anti-REAL ID bill as governor. As I said before, Secretary Napolitano seems to be taking the national ID tar baby in a loving embrace.

Sorry Boys, Sarah Palin Is (Partly) Right

Don’t believe everything you read at The Plank – including the part about Sarah Palin’s “death panel” claim being a “lie.”

Palin’s claim was a tad hyperbolic, but that does not change the fact that – as I explain in the Detroit Free PressPresident Obama has proposed a new government panel that would enhance Medicare’s ability to deny care to the elderly and disabled based on government bureaucrats’ arbitrary valuations of those patients’ lives.

Obama Administration Sides With Special Interests and Status Quo on Sugar Imports

Pardon me while I pile on the post earlier today by my colleague Sallie James about the Obama administration refusing to allow more sugar to be imported to the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week declined to relax the quotas the federal government imposes on imported sugar despite soaring domestic prices and understandable complaints from U.S. confectioners and other sugar-consuming businesses about potential shortages.

For all his talk about change, President Barack Obama has shown no inclination to pursue meaningful reform of U.S. agricultural programs. He supported the subsidy-laden and protectionist farm bill that finally passed Congress in 2008. On the eve of the U.S. presidential election in October 2008, he wrote a letter to the U.S. sugar industry reminding growers that they were one special interest that had nothing to fear from an Obama administration.

In his letter, he offered the sugar lobby this assurance:

With respect to the sugar program specifically, while it’s true I have had concerns about the program, I will commit to listening and working with you in the future to ensure that we have a safety net that works for all of agriculture.

He then went on to criticize his opponent John McCain for opposing the farm bill and voting consistently against the sugar program (or, as Obama put it, “against sugar growers”).

In my new Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, I call the sugar program “the poster boy for self-damaging protectionism.” As I write in the book,

When the program is not raising prices for consumers at the store, it is savaging the bottom line for American companies. Artificially high domestic sugar prices raise the cost of production for refined sugar, candy and other confectionary products, chocolate and cocoa products, chewing gum, bread and other bakery products, cookies and crackers, and frozen bakery goods. Higher costs cut into profits and competitiveness, putting thousands of jobs in jeopardy.

If the president is looking for good bedtime reading on why he should dump the sugar program, I suggest he go straight to pages 147, 154-55, 160-62, and 170-72.

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Bringing the States Back In

afghanistanIt’s an annoying, hackneyed trope of foreign policy types to say “if you want to understand X, you have to understand Y.”  That said, let me engage in a little bit of it.

What’s going on in Afghanistan, we’re supposed to believe, is about terrorism, failed states, economic development, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, human rights, and some other stuff.  And to an extent, it is about each of those things.  But to my mind, if you want to get a handle on what’s driving events over there, and on its historical status as a plaything of regional and extraregional powers, you ought to read this article in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The themes that permeate the article are familiar: States as the primary actors in international politics, their uncertainty about other states’ intentions, the fundamental zero-sumness of security competition…somebody should cook up a theory or two on this stuff.

Eventually–although in fairness, God only knows when–we’re going to leave Afghanistan.  When that happens, India and Pakistan are still going to live in the neighborhood.  They’d each prefer to have lots of influence in Afghanistan, and to preclude the other from having too much.  Accordingly, they’re both trying to set up structures and relationships that would, in the ideal scenario, let them control Afghanistan.  In a less-than-ideal scenario, they’d like enough influence to undermine the other’s control of the country.  Until you grasp that nettle, you’re really just fumbling around in the dark.

Find a solution for that in your COIN manual.

Sweet, and Yet Very, Very Sour

sugarMy colleagues have blogged before about the recent sugar “market” woes. There was some hope that the USDA, which manages sugar imports very carefully to maintain U.S. prices up to three times higher than world prices, would relax the sugar quotas this year and give sugar users some well-deserved and long overdue relief.

Alas, it was not to be. According to Congress Daily, the USDA announced today [$] that there would be no increase in the import quota for the time being, and that their models saw no cause for alarm because of predicted increases in domestic production and Mexican imports (allowed special import status through NAFTA). And who cares about sugar users’ concerns when you have models?

The American Sugar Alliance says (sigh) that the announcement “makes perfect sense. Supplies are adequate and will soon be building. If any tightness were to emerge, it would not be until next summer. USDA will have adequate time next spring to boost supplies.”

Do you hear that, sugar consumers of America? The USDA is on the case. Now, I’ve got nothing personally against the folks at USDA. I know many of them personally and they are fine people, and smart economists, who are just following congressional orders. But, really, are we still, in 2009, in an at least nominally market-oriented economy, seriously attempting to micro-manage supply and demand of commodities?

One last point from the Congress Daily story (which requires a subscription to read this far):

Last August, the Bush administration adjusted the tariff rate quota to allow an additional 300,000 short tons of sugar to enter the country…[American Sugar Alliance Economist Jack Roney] said the additional sugar … caused raw cane sugar prices to plummet from 23 cents per pound to 19 cents per pound. (emphasis added)

In November 2008, when U.S. raw sugar prices were 19.83 cents per pound, world prices were 12.87 cents per pound. Even allowing for the fact that domestic prices indeed fell quite a lot, on what planet does Mr Roney consider a domestic price over 50 percent above an (unusually elevated) world price to be a “plummet”? Is whether we are paying a lot more – rather than a lot, lot more – really the standard we are aiming for here?

To be sure, world sugar prices are high right now, at least by historical standards. (The average world raw sugar price last fiscal year was 13.67 cents per pound. Last quarter the average world raw sugar price was 16.09 cents per pound. See here for all my price data) But even if they fall back to to historically average levels, Big Sugar wants to keep domestic prices high, and to prevent Americans from having access to cheaper sugar, forevermore.

It really leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth.

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