Failed Times Square Plot Shows Folly of Security Theater

One thing the recent failed Times Square car bomb incident reveals is just how absurd the level of security theater in the United States is. That is, it’s true that we may succeed in making air travel extremely unpleasant, but the fact of the matter is that there are innumerable crowded locations spread throughout the United States that given a certain level of tactical sophistication (which it seems al Qaeda seems to lack at the moment) could be exploited by motivated individuals to cause massive destruction.

Anyway, consider that an introduction to a James Fallows post that makes a few points I was making to my family over the weekend. This, in particular is the key point for understanding why our government has taken airport security to such a ludicrous level.

The restrictions would never be lifted and the TsSA would have permanent life, because the political incentives here work only one way. A politician who supports more open-ended, more thorough, more intrusive, more expensive inspections can never be proven “wrong.” The absence of attacks shows that his measures have “worked”; and a new attack shows that inspections must go  further still. A politician who wants to limit the inspections can never be proven “right.” An absence of attacks means that nothing has gone wrong — yet. Any future attack would always and forever be that politician’s “fault.” Given that asymmetry of risks, what public figure will ever be able to talk about paring back the TSA?

It’s worth noting this dynamic has been exacerbated by opportunistic politicians (most recently conservatives) who are eager to paint their political opponents as ineffectual against terrorism. Consider the hysterical Republican response to the “Underpants Bomber” followed by President Obama’s institution of quasi-profiling measures and you’ll have your answer for why flying is such a pain in the ass.


Speaking about the possibility of AG Holder weighing appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Bush era torture policy, Matt Yglesias wonders if the possibility of political derailment is really something Democrats should worry about.

Holder’s quite right to say that he’s not supposed to think of the impact on the domestic legislative agenda. But I think it’s something we here in the peanut gallery both can and should think about. Back during the transition, I had a lot of concern about this derailment possibility. But from the vantage point of July, it doesn’t look to me as if there are any substantial number of Republicans interested in voting “yes” on a universal health care bill or on a clean energy bill. So how derailed can the agenda become?

Granted, the data is a bit outdated (May 2009), but polling suggests 57 percent of Americans don’t favor Congressional investigation of torture policies and slightly less (50 percent) actually approve of waterboarding, even though 60 percent believe it to be torture. I think the risk then isn’t in losing a Republican vote on health care or energy legislation, but giving Republicans a political bludgeon that will help shift the momentum of all political debates by handing the GOP an issue with which they enjoy a modicum of support. You can envision a scenario wherein growing support for the GOP allows centrists like Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh, or Mary Landrieu the shred of political cover they might need to vote no on cloture.

Unfortunately, I think the prosecution of Bush era war criminals is the sort of thing that can’t be driven without wide margins of public support. After all, such a high profile investigation isn’t merely about bowing to the rule of law. It’s also a very public disavowal, and if the support for that type of mea culpa doesn’t exist, it’s going to be highly unpopular.

Guantanamo, Forward Causality, and Other Things

I’m not sure if David Brooks saw the same speech I did:

Obama has taken many of the same policies Bush ended up with, and he has made them credible to the country and the world. In his speech, Obama explained his decisions in a subtle and coherent way. He admitted that some problems are tough and allow no easy solution. He treated Americans as adults, and will have won their respect.

Do I wish he had been more gracious with and honest about the Bush administration officials whose policies he is benefiting from? Yes. But the bottom line is that Obama has taken a series of moderate and time-tested policy compromises. He has preserved and reformed them intelligently. He has fit them into a persuasive framework. By doing that, he has not made us less safe. He has made us more secure.

The remainder of Brooks’ column today can be best summarized as a bunch of hemming and hawing about how Obama’s policies are really quite similar to those in place when Bush left office coupled with justified praise for Obama’s rhetorical shift. Fair enough, but I’m pretty sure this passage from Obama’s speech addresses that head on.

The third decision that I made was to order a review of all pending cases at Guantanamo. I knew when I ordered Guantanamo closed that it would be difficult and complex. There are 240 people there who have now spent years in legal limbo. In dealing with this situation, we don’t have the luxury of starting from scratch. We’re cleaning up something that is, quite simply, a mess — a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my administration is forced to deal with on a constant, almost daily basis, and it consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country.

I know at some point people will tire of blaming Bush, but this is one of those instances where within the context of forward moving time, it’s really tough to build a compelling case against Obama. I mean, were it not for the Bush Administration’s system of willy-nilly extralegal detention, Obama could not possibly be confronting this problem.

On another related note, I know that as a progressive in good standing, I should be outraged that Obama isn’t working harder to break from Bush’s policies, but considering he has literally inherited a prison with a non-insignificant number of possible terrorists, I think the politics are stacked against him. That is, I’m not sure how Obama can simply let the subset of prisoners who are likely terrorists but also impossible to indict,  simply return to Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Of course, I understand that the policy of lawlessness epitomized by the Bush Administration animates anti-American extremism, but the literal connection between the release of likely terrorists and the damage they may cause in their recidivism makes the political sell all but impossible. I think a little sympathy from progressives on this point is warranted.

Politico Again Ignores Fact, Common Sense to Sell Sensational “News”

Ah, boy (god, man, shit), it’s been a while since I’ve ripped on Politico. This stems most directly from the fact that I simply don’t read it anymore, but I do read Spencer Ackerman who sagely points out the lunacy in a story purporting Dick Cheney and Barack Obama to be planning “dueling speeches” on national security policy. Of course, given that Politico’s rise to prominence grew with the 2008 campaign, it’s easy to see why they report on government like it’s a popularity contest, but seriously? Dick Cheney is a discredited hack and Barack Obama is the President of the United States. These speeches are not “dueling.” But even more egregious than the idiotic framing of the article is the substance, which recent public polling seems to completely and totally invalidate. Let’s go to the tape!

President Barack Obama will attempt to regain control of a boiling debate over anti-terrorism policy with a major speech on Thursday — an address that comes on the same day that former Vice President Dick Cheney will be weighing in with his own speech on the same theme.

Now while it’s certainly conventional wisdom that Republicans own “national security” — and indeed, they have for a while — it’s simply not true any more. But why take my word for it? Here’s some data (linked above), starting deep in the throes of the “Global War on Terror” in 2003:

As you can see, Democrats have steadily closed the gap while Republicans have slowly squandered their support. That’s the broader picture. But how about this “boiling debate” of which Barack Obama has lost control? That is, specifically on the question of whether Obama is doing a better job than Bush, or as Politico put it, “the only subject on which many Republicans believe they have been able to gain traction against a popular president and the Democratic majority.”

As you can see — even if Politico can’t — Obama’s policies poll better than Bush’s by roughly two to one. Naturally, the relevance of substance hasn’t much stopped Politico from writing inflammatory stories in the past, so there was no reason to expect it would stop them now, but alas, this publication is really a bad thing for American government.

FBI Interrogator: Torture Didn’t Work, Hurts Capacity, “Emboldens” Terrorists

I’m glad former FBI Agent Ali Soufan’s Op-Ed ran in the times today to counter the idiotic “news analysis” explaining that the effectiveness of torture lies at the heart of the public debate on the matter and features primarily arguments advanced by should-be discredited villain, Dick Cheney. But since I’m not bound by any need to adhere to “one-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand-bullshit”, I’ll spare you the tired arguments of Cheney and just highlight some of the Soufan piece.

FOR seven years I have remained silent about the false claims magnifying the effectiveness of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding. I have spoken only in closed government hearings, as these matters were classified.[…]

One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.

[…]It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.

[…]There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

There’s more in the piece itself, like a simple chronological debunking of the claims bandied about by the pro-torture folks. Maybe more importantly though, Soufan makes the astute point that illegal and clandestine acts like torture serve to corrode our legal system from the inside. Agencies unwilling to break the law are restricted from working with agencies with less scruples and a great deal of expertise and institutional capacity is completely wasted.

I’m really not sure why we can’t all just agree that this part of our national securit policy was utterly dispicable. The whole thing is simply disgusting.

Blah, Blah, Blah

Some of my closer friends know how irritating I find, to put it mildly, ideological defenses of environmentalism. There are many legitimate and evidence supported reasons for advancing the green cause; imploring respect for the Earth Mother Gaiea is only going to turn people off. To prove a point, here’s what this ideology looks like from the other side:

See what I mean? Anyway, aside from the fact that uranium is imported, FBI Director Robert Mueller has warned of national security risk these plants present, and there’s nowhere to store the radioactive waste, nuclear power isn’t quite as safe as John McCain would have you believe. Here is list of nuclear safety problems from the USA Today.