Questioning the claim that Americans now are more vulnerable to terrorism, and probing its implications.
Read more. [Image: Reuters]
There’s a moment in Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass’s excruciatingly tense tale of the 2009 capture of an American ship captain by Somalian pirate, where the audience gets a rare chance to laugh. It’s probably not meant to come off this way, but after 90-ish minutes of nightmarish, shaky-cam time spent with Tom Hanks’s schlubby title character and his harried, emaciated captors, the appearance of square-jawed, capital-H Handsome Navy Seals onscreen sent at least a few of the people in my theater into titters.
The mood changes in other ways once these guys literally parachute in and then, spoiler alert, bring an end to the hostage situation. An aircraft carrier and a couple Navy destroyers assist; as Time’s Michael Crowley wrote, “you feel that the U.S. military has come to your rescue.”
Captain Phillips joins a host of recent, acclaimed, non-fiction films that leave viewers gleeful about the power of the United States’ national-security forces. Zero Dark Thirty documented the abuses, dead-ends, and bureaucratic bullshit that prolonged the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but its final third satisfyingly drove home just how smart and surgical the CIA and Seal Team 6 ended up being. Argo leapt back a few decades to show Ben Affleck’s covert agent as a personality-free avatar of competence who whisked a group of stranded Americans out of a hostile Tehran.
Read more. [Image: Columbia; Showtime]
The ongoing debate about the national-security state’s conduct drills down, for many participants, to this question: How much do you trust the people in charge? Do you believe they’ll reliably uphold the laws and norms of a free society? Or do you think that, permitted enough secrecy, they’ll break U.S. laws and violate rights?
For me, it isn’t a close call.
The United States needs protection from the people protecting it, always has, and always will. The character of the president isn’t the issue. Neither are the individuals running the FBI, CIA, NSA, JSOC, or the Department of Homeland Security. It wouldn’t matter if the national-security state was staffed from top to bottom with people I could hand select based on my esteem for their character.
Letting them operate in secret would still be dangerous.
That conclusion isn’t something I’ve derived in the abstract from political philosophy. The best reason to mistrust the national-security state is its track record. Abuses at the FBI, CIA, and NSA go back a long way, as any student of the J. Edgar Hoover era or the Church Committee report can attest in shocking detail. There’s no reason to think that generation was more prone to misbehave than ours. But one needn’t look to past generations to find good reasons for mistrust.
The War on Terrorism is full of them.
Read more. [Image: Reuters]
Every municipal police and fire department has mastered the oldest bureaucratic budget maneuver in the book: If told to cut your budget slightly, don’t eliminate unneeded positions, buy less fancy office furniture, or delay buying new cars and equipment.
Just announce the closure of an entire police or fire station.
As the Chicago Tribune reported not long ago, “‘Everybody on the City Council is in favor of facilities consolidation until they start to talk about the police station in their neighborhood,’ said Ald. Ricardo Munoz, 22nd, who added that he would fight attempts to close the station in his ward.”
Since protecting citizens’ lives is the first duty of government, public-safety functions are usually the last to feel the effects of tightened budgets. This is especially true at the federal level, where cuts to the defense budget are generally portrayed as assaults on the nation’s very existence. There are a variety of reasons to tread softly on any sort of defense cuts: You only get to err by under-defending the country once. The battlefield edge today, and even more so in the future is a product of advanced—and expensive—technologies. Those who put their lives on the line for the rest of us deserve the best equipment and protective gear, and the most reasonable pay and benefits, that we can afford.
But does that mean that we cannot cut the defense budget without short-changing national security? To hear some tell it the answer is “no.” But the Defense Department is part of the same government that most Americans abjure for its inefficiency, waste, and fraud. In fact, you can find just about everything that’s wrong with government in the defense budget. Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn, no liberal, has derided the Pentagon as the “Department of Everything” for its wide-ranging activities.
Read more. [Image: Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters]
Inside the House of Representatives, there is an internal communications system designed specifically for members and their staffs. It’s a legacy product from when members used to send each other physical interoffice mail, addressed “Dear Colleague.”
The “e-Dear Colleague” system now exists as an intranet database of messages that can be searched by topic, and as a kind of listserv on official doings for the 435 representatives’ offices. With so many people on it, the volume of email is high, which is why when there’s an important intelligence briefing for members of Congress, staffers are formally notified directly by their party leaders in the House.
Except in August, according to Rep. Justin Amash, when something extraordinary happened. An important national-security document the libertarian Michigan Republican and some of his colleagues on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence had been trying to see for some time was made available to all members on less than 24 hours’ notice by the Intelligence Committee chair, with a viewing scheduled for when they were supposed to be voting, and on the very day Congress was set to begin its five-week summer recess. And the email went out through the “e-Dear Colleague” system, where it was buried.
Read more. [Image: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]
If a major attack incapacitated the president, Congress, or Supreme Court, the nation would have no way to replace them — despite 12 years of warnings.
Read more. [Image: Hyungwon Kang/Reuters]
Leaks from the whistleblower Edward Snowden have catapulted the NSA into newspaper headlines and demonstrated that it has become one of the most powerful government agencies in the country. From the secret court rulings that allow it collect data on all Americans to its systematic subversion of the entire Internet as a surveillance platform, the NSA has amassed an enormous amount of power.
There are two basic schools of thought about how this came to pass. The first focuses on the agency’s power. Like J. Edgar Hoover, NSA Director Keith Alexander has become so powerful as to be above the law. He is able to get away with what he does because neither political party — and nowhere near enough individual lawmakers — dare cross him. Longtime NSA watcher James Bamford recently quoted a CIA official: “We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander — with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets.”
Possibly the best evidence for this position is how well Alexander has weathered the Snowden leaks. The NSA’s most intimate secrets are front-page headlines, week after week. Morale at the agency is in shambles. Revelation after revelation has demonstrated that Alexander has exceeded his authority, deceived Congress, and possibly broken the law. Tens of thousands of additional top-secret documents are still waiting to come. Alexander has admitted that he still doesn’t know what Snowden took with him and wouldn’t have known about the leak at all had Snowden not gone public. He has no idea who else might have stolen secrets before Snowden, or who such insiders might have provided them to. Alexander had no contingency plans in place to deal with this sort of security breach, and even now — four months after Snowden fled the country — still has no coherent response to all this.
Read more. [Image: Gene Boyars/Associated Press]
In its coverage of the government’s investigation into national-security leaks, the media have forfeited any claim to professional objectivity. News reports are loaded with editorializing terms such as “aggressive [anti-leak] policy,” “sweeping subpoenas,” and “fishing expedition.” And while editorials in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Slate are full of sound and fury, condemning these and earlier investigations as “outrageous,” “threatening,” and Nixonian, voices on the other side are much less frequently heard.
There are, however, two sides to this story. A free society requires vigilant protection of a free press—and of national security. Each poses full legitimate claims, and neither should a priori trump the other. The issue is how to sort out when one of these claims may be privileged and who is best situated to make this decision.
Read more. [Image: Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters]
One of the assurances I keep hearing about the U.S. government’s spying on American citizens is that it’s only used in cases of terrorism. Terrorism is, of course, an extraordinary crime, and its horrific nature is supposed to justify permitting all sorts of excesses to prevent it. But there’s a problem with this line of reasoning: mission creep. The definitions of “terrorism” and “weapon of mass destruction” are broadening, and these extraordinary powers are being used, and will continue to be used, for crimes other than terrorism.
Back in 2002, the Patriot Act greatly broadened the definition of terrorism to include all sorts of “normal” violent acts as well as non-violent protests. The term “terrorist” is surprisingly broad; since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it has been applied to people you wouldn’t normally consider terrorists.
The most egregious example of this are the three anti-nuclear pacifists, including an 82-year-old nun, who cut through a chain-link fence at the Oak Ridge nuclear-weapons-production facility in 2012. While they were originally arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge, the government kept increasing their charges as the facility’s security lapses became more embarrassing. Now the protestors have been convicted of violent crimes of terrorism — and remain in jail.
Meanwhile, a Tennessee government official claimed that complaining about water quality could be considered an act of terrorism. To the government’s credit, he was subsequently demoted for those remarks.
Read more. [Image: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock]
The answer: A whole lot.
“It would be myopic in the extreme to view the flow of oil to the United States as a legitimate national security issue but to view the flow of foreign capital into Treasury securities as a matter of no particular concern.”