Entries Tagged "homeland security"

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The TSA Is Legally Allowed to Lie to Us

The TSA does not have to tell the truth:

Can the TSA (or local governments as directed by the TSA) lie in response to a FOIA request?

Sure, no problem! Even the NSA responds that they “can’t confirm or deny the existence” of classified things for which admitting or denying existence would (allegedly, of course) damage national security. But the TSA? U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard granted the TSA the special privilege of not needing to go that route, rubber-stamping the decision of the TSA and the airport authority to write to me that no CCTV footage of the incident existed when, in fact, it did. This footage is non-classified and its existence is admitted by over a dozen visible camera domes and even signage that the area is being recorded. Beyond that, the TSA regularly releases checkpoint video when it doesn’t show them doing something wrong (for example, here’s CCTV of me beating their body scanners). But if it shows evidence of misconduct? Just go ahead and lie.

EDITED TO ADD (9/14): This is an overstatement.

Posted on September 10, 2013 at 6:55 AMView Comments

Book Review: Rise of the Warrior Cop

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, by Radley Balko, PublicAffairs, 2013, 400 pages.

War as a rhetorical concept is firmly embedded in American culture. Over the past several decades, federal and local law enforcement has been enlisted in a war on crime, a war on drugs and a war on terror. These wars are more than just metaphors designed to rally public support and secure budget appropriations. They change the way we think about what the police do. Wars mean shooting first and asking questions later. Wars require military tactics and weaponry. Wars mean civilian casualties.

Over the decades, the war metaphor has resulted in drastic changes in the way the police operate. At both federal and state levels, the formerly hard line between police and military has blurred. Police are increasingly using military weaponry, employing military tactics and framing their mission using military terminology. Right now, there is a Third Amendment case — that’s the one about quartering soldiers in private homes without consent — making its way through the courts. It involves someone who refused to allow the police to occupy his home in order to gain a “tactical advantage” against the house next-door. The police returned later, broke down his door, forced him to the floor and then arrested him for obstructing an officer. They also shot his dog with pepperball rounds. It’s hard to argue with the premise of this case; police officers are acting so much like soldiers that it can be hard to tell the difference.

In Rise of the Warrior Cop, Radley Balko chronicles the steady militarization of the police in the U.S. A detailed history of a dangerous trend, Mr. Balko’s book tracks police militarization over the past 50 years, a period that not coincidentally corresponds with the rise of SWAT teams. First established in response to the armed riots of the late 1960s, they were originally exclusive to big cities and deployed only against heavily armed and dangerous criminals. Today SWAT teams are nothing special. They’ve multiplied like mushrooms. Every city has a SWAT team; 80% of towns between 25,000 and 50,000 people do as well. These teams are busy; in 2005 there were between 50,000 and 60,000 SWAT raids in the U.S. The tactics are pretty much what you would expect — breaking down doors, rushing in with military weaponry, tear gas — but the targets aren’t. SWAT teams are routinely deployed against illegal poker games, businesses suspected of employing illegal immigrants and barbershops with unlicensed hair stylists.

In Prince George’s County, MD, alone, SWAT teams were deployed about once a day in 2009, overwhelmingly to serve search or arrest warrants, and half of those warrants were for “misdemeanors and nonserious felonies.” Much of Mr. Balko’s data is approximate, because police departments don’t publish data, and they uniformly oppose any attempts at transparency or oversight. But he has good Maryland data from 2009 on, because after the mayor of Berwyn Heights was mistakenly attacked and terrorized in his home by a SWAT team in 2008, the state passed a law requiring police to report quarterly on their use of SWAT teams: how many times, for what purposes and whether any shots were fired during the raids.

Besides documenting policy decisions at the federal and state levels, the author examines the influence of military contractors who have looked to expand into new markets. And he tells some pretty horrific stories of SWAT raids gone wrong. A lot of dogs get shot in the book. Most interesting are the changing attitudes of police. As the stories progress from the 1960s to the 2000s, we see police shift from being uncomfortable with military weapons and tactics — and deploying them only as the very last resort in the most extreme circumstances — to accepting and even embracing their routine use.

This development coincides with the rhetorical use of the word “war.” To the police, civilians are citizens to protect. To the military, we are a population to be subdued. Wars can temporarily override the Constitution. When the Justice Department walks into Congress with requests for money and new laws to fight a war, it is going to get a different response than if it came in with a story about fighting crime. Maybe the most chilling quotation in the book is from William French Smith, President Reagan’s first attorney general: “The Justice Department is not a domestic agency. It is the internal arm of national defense.” Today we see that attitude in the war on terror. Because it’s a war, we can arrest and imprison Americans indefinitely without charges. We can eavesdrop on the communications of all Americans without probable cause. We can assassinate American citizens without due process. We can have secret courts issuing secret rulings about secret laws. The militarization of the police is just one aspect of an increasing militarization of government.

Mr. Balko saves his prescriptions for reform until the last chapter. Two of his fixes, transparency and accountability, are good remedies for all governmental overreach. Specific to police departments, he also recommends halting mission creep, changing police culture and embracing community policing. These are far easier said than done. His final fix is ending the war on drugs, the source of much police violence. To this I would add ending the war on terror, another rhetorical war that costs us hundreds of billions of dollars, gives law enforcement powers directly prohibited by the Constitution and leaves us no safer.

This essay originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Related essay.

Posted on August 13, 2013 at 1:31 PMView Comments

Latest Movie-Plot Threat: Explosive-Dipped Clothing

It’s being reported, although there’s no indication of where this rumor is coming from or what it’s based on.

…the new tactic allows terrorists to dip ordinary clothing into the liquid to make the clothes themselves into explosives once dry.

“It’s ingenious,” one of the officials said.

Another senior official said that the tactic would not be detected by current security measures.

I can see the trailer now. “In a world where your very clothes might explode at any moment, Bruce Willis is, Bruce Willis in a Michael Bay film: BLOW UP! Co-starring Lindsay Lohan…”

I guess there’s nothing to be done but to force everyone to fly naked.

Posted on August 9, 2013 at 6:04 AMView Comments

TSA Considering Implementing Randomized Security

For a change, here’s a good idea by the TSA:

TSA has just issued a Request for Information (RFI) to prospective vendors who could develop and supply such randomizers, which TSA expects to deploy at CAT X through CAT IV airports throughout the United States.

“The Randomizers would be used to route passengers randomly to different checkpoint lines,” says the agency’s RFI.

The article lists a bunch of requirements by the TSA for the device.

I’ve seen something like this at customs in, I think, India. Every passenger walks up to a kiosk and presses a button. If the green light turns on, he walks through. If the red light turns on, his bags get searched. Presumably the customs officials can set the search percentage.

Automatic randomized screening is a good idea. It’s free from bias or profiling. It can’t be gamed. These both make it more secure. Note that this is just an RFI from the TSA. An actual program might be years away, and it might not be implemented well. But it’s certainly a start.

EDITED TO ADD (7/19): This is an opposing view. Basically, it’s based on the argument that profiling makes sense, and randomized screening means that you can’t profile. It’s an argument I’ve argued against before.

EDITED TO ADD (8/10): Another argument that profiling does not work.

Posted on July 19, 2013 at 2:45 PMView Comments

Counterterrorism Mission Creep

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.

The notion of making a terrorist threat is older than the current spate of anti-terrorism craziness. It basically means threatening people in order to terrorize them, and can include things like pointing a fake gun at someone, threatening to set off a bomb, and so on. A Texas high-school student recently spent five months in jail for writing the following on Facebook: “I think I’ma shoot up a kindergarten. And watch the blood of the innocent rain down. And eat the beating heart of one of them.” Last year, two Irish tourists were denied entry at the Los Angeles Airport because of some misunderstood tweets.

Another term that’s expanded in meaning is “weapon of mass destruction.” The law is surprisingly broad, and includes anything that explodes, leading political scientist and terrorism-fear skeptic John Mueller to comment:

As I understand it, not only is a grenade a weapon of mass destruction, but so is a maliciously-designed child’s rocket even if it doesn’t have a warhead. On the other hand, although a missile-propelled firecracker would be considered a weapon of mass destruction if its designers had wanted to think of it as a weapon, it would not be so considered if it had previously been designed for use as a weapon and then redesigned for pyrotechnic use or if it was surplus and had been sold, loaned, or given to you (under certain circumstances) by the secretary of the army ….

All artillery, and virtually every muzzle-loading military long arm for that matter, legally qualifies as a WMD. It does make the bombardment of Ft. Sumter all the more sinister. To say nothing of the revelation that The Star Spangled Banner is in fact an account of a WMD attack on American shores.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, one commentator described our use of the term this way: “What the United States means by terrorist violence is, in large part, ‘public violence some weirdo had the gall to carry out using a weapon other than a gun.’ … Mass murderers who strike with guns (and who don’t happen to be Muslim) are typically read as psychopaths disconnected from the larger political sphere.” Sadly, there’s a lot of truth to that.

Even as the definition of terrorism broadens, we have to ask how far we will extend that arbitrary line. Already, we’re using these surveillance systems in other areas. A raft of secret court rulings has recently expanded the NSA’s eavesdropping powers to include “people possibly involved in nuclear proliferation, espionage and cyberattacks.” A “little-noticed provision” in a 2008 law expanded the definition of “foreign intelligence” to include “weapons of mass destruction,” which, as we’ve just seen, is surprisingly broad.

A recent Atlantic essay asks, somewhat facetiously, “If PRISM is so good, why stop with terrorism?” The author’s point was to discuss the value of the Fourth Amendment, even if it makes the police less efficient. But it’s actually a very good question. Once the NSA’s ubiquitous surveillance of all Americans is complete — once it has the ability to collect and process all of our emails, phone calls, text messages, Facebook posts, location data, physical mail, financial transactions, and who knows what else — why limit its use to cases of terrorism? I can easily imagine a public groundswell of support to use to help solve some other heinous crime, like a kidnapping. Or maybe a child-pornography case. From there, it’s an easy step to enlist NSA surveillance in the continuing war on drugs; that’s certainly important enough to warrant regular access to the NSA’s databases. Or maybe to identify illegal immigrants. After all, we’ve already invested in this system, we might as well get as much out of it as we possibly can. Then it’s a short jump to the trivial examples suggested in the Atlantic essay: speeding and illegal downloading. This “slippery slope” argument is largely speculative, but we’ve already started down that incline.

Criminal defendants are starting to demand access to the NSA data that they believe will exonerate themselves. How can a moral government refuse this request?

More humorously, the NSA might have created the best backup system ever.

Technology changes slowly, but political intentions can change very quickly. In 2000, I wrote in my book Secrets and Lies about police surveillance technologies: “Once the technology is in place, there will always be the temptation to use it. And it is poor civic hygiene to install technologies that could someday facilitate a police state.” Today we’re installing technologies of ubiquitous surveillance, and the temptation to use them will be overwhelming.

This essay originally appeared in TheAtlantic.com.

EDITED TO ADD (8/4): Other agencies are already asking to use the NSA data:

Agencies working to curb drug trafficking, cyberattacks, money laundering, counterfeiting and even copyright infringement complain that their attempts to exploit the security agency’s vast resources have often been turned down because their own investigations are not considered a high enough priority, current and former government officials say.

Posted on July 19, 2013 at 9:40 AMView Comments

The Cost of Terrorism in Pakistan

This study claims “terrorism has cost Pakistan around 33.02% of its real national income” between the years 1973 and 2008, or about 1% per year.

The St. Louis Fed puts the real gross national income of the U.S. at about $13 trillion total, hand-waving an average over the past few years. The best estimate I’ve seen for the increased cost of homeland security in the U.S. in the ten years since 9/11 is $100 billion per year. So that puts the cost of terrorism in the US at about 0.8% — surprisingly close to the Pakistani number.

The interesting thing is that the expenditures are completely different. In Pakistan, the cost is primarily “a fall in domestic investment and lost workers’ remittances from abroad.” In the US, it’s security measures, including the invasion of Iraq.

I remember reading somewhere that about a third of all food spoils. In poor countries, that spoilage primarily happens during production and transport. In rich countries, that spoilage primarily happens after the consumer buys the food. Same rate of loss, completely different causes. This reminds me of that.

Posted on June 6, 2013 at 5:58 AMView Comments

Are We Finally Thinking Sensibly About Terrorism?

This article wonders if we are:

Yet for pretty much the first time there has been a considerable amount of media commentary seeking to put terrorism in context — commentary that concludes, as a Doyle McManus article in the Los Angeles Times put it a day after the attack, “We’re safer than we think.”

Similar tunes were sung by Tom Friedman of the New York Times, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe, David Rothkopf writing for CNN.com, Josh Barro at Bloomberg, John Cassidy at the New Yorker, and Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune, even as the Washington Post told us “why terrorism is not scary” and published statistics on its rarity. Bruce Schneier, who has been making these arguments for over a decade, got 360,000 hits doing so for The Atlantic. Even neoconservative Max Boot, a strong advocate of the war in Iraq as a response to 9/11, argues in the Wall Street Journal, “we must do our best to make sure that the terrorists don’t achieve their objective­ — to terrorize us.”

James Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation noted in a radio interview that “the odds of you being killed by a terrorist are less than you being hit by a meteorite.” Carafano’s odds may be a bit off, but his basic point isn’t. At present rates, an American’s chance of being killed by a terrorist is about one in 3.5 million per year­ — compared, for example, to a yearly chance of dying in an automobile crash of one in 8,200. That could change, of course, if terrorists suddenly become vastly more capable of inflicting damage­ — as much commentary on terrorism has predicted over the past decade. But we’re not hearing much of that anymore.

In a 60 Minutes interview a decade ago filmmaker Michael Moore noted, “The chances of any of us dying in a terrorist incident is very, very, very small.” Bob Simon, his interlocutor, responded, “No one sees the world like that.”

Both statements were pretty much true then. However, the unprecedented set of articles projecting a more restrained, and broader, perspective suggests that Simon’s wisdom may need some updating, and that Moore is beginning to have some company.

There’s also this; and this, by Andrew Sullivan; and this, by John Cole. And these two polls.

And, of course, President Obama himself declared that “Americans refuse to be terrorized.”

Posted on May 29, 2013 at 11:22 AMView Comments

The Politics of Security in a Democracy

Terrorism causes fear, and we overreact to that fear. Our brains aren’t very good at probability and risk analysis. We tend to exaggerate spectacular, strange and rare events, and downplay ordinary, familiar and common ones. We think rare risks are more common than they are, and we fear them more than probability indicates we should.

Our leaders are just as prone to this overreaction as we are. But aside from basic psychology, there are other reasons that it’s smart politics to exaggerate terrorist threats, and security threats in general.

The first is that we respond to a strong leader. Bill Clinton famously said: “When people feel uncertain, they’d rather have somebody that’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right.” He’s right.

The second is that doing something — anything — is good politics. A politician wants to be seen as taking charge, demanding answers, fixing things. It just doesn’t look as good to sit back and claim that there’s nothing to do. The logic is along the lines of: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.”

The third is that the “fear preacher” wins, regardless of the outcome. Imagine two politicians today. One of them preaches fear and draconian security measures. The other is someone like me, who tells people that terrorism is a negligible risk, that risk is part of life, and that while some security is necessary, we should mostly just refuse to be terrorized and get on with our lives.

Fast-forward 10 years. If I’m right and there have been no more terrorist attacks, the fear preacher takes credit for keeping us safe. But if a terrorist attack has occurred, my government career is over. Even if the incidence of terrorism is as ridiculously low as it is today, there’s no benefit for a politician to take my side of that gamble.

The fourth and final reason is money. Every new security technology, from surveillance cameras to high-tech fusion centers to airport full-body scanners, has a for-profit corporation lobbying for its purchase and use. Given the three other reasons above, it’s easy — and probably profitable — for a politician to make them happy and say yes.

For any given politician, the implications of these four reasons are straightforward. Overestimating the threat is better than underestimating it. Doing something about the threat is better than doing nothing. Doing something that is explicitly reactive is better than being proactive. (If you’re proactive and you’re wrong, you’ve wasted money. If you’re proactive and you’re right but no longer in power, whoever is in power is going to get the credit for what you did.) Visible is better than invisible. Creating something new is better than fixing something old.

Those last two maxims are why it’s better for a politician to fund a terrorist fusion center than to pay for more Arabic translators for the National Security Agency. No one’s going to see the additional appropriation in the NSA’s secret budget. On the other hand, a high-tech computerized fusion center is going to make front page news, even if it doesn’t actually do anything useful.

This leads to another phenomenon about security and government. Once a security system is in place, it can be very hard to dislodge it. Imagine a politician who objects to some aspect of airport security: the liquid ban, the shoe removal, something. If he pushes to relax security, he gets the blame if something bad happens as a result. No one wants to roll back a police power and have the lack of that power cause a well-publicized death, even if it’s a one-in-a-billion fluke.

We’re seeing this force at work in the bloated terrorist no-fly and watch lists; agents have lots of incentive to put someone on the list, but absolutely no incentive to take anyone off. We’re also seeing this in the Transportation Security Administration’s attempt to reverse the ban on small blades on airplanes. Twice it tried to make the change, and twice fearful politicians prevented it from going through with it.

Lots of unneeded and ineffective security measures are perpetrated by a government bureaucracy that is primarily concerned about the security of its members’ careers. They know the voters are more likely to punish them more if they fail to secure against a repetition of the last attack, and less if they fail to anticipate the next one.

What can we do? Well, the first step toward solving a problem is recognizing that you have one. These are not iron-clad rules; they’re tendencies. If we can keep these tendencies and their causes in mind, we’re more likely to end up with sensible security measures that are commensurate with the threat, instead of a lot of security theater and draconian police powers that are not.

Our leaders’ job is to resist these tendencies. Our job is to support politicians who do resist.

This essay originally appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD (6/4): This essay has been translated into Swedish.

EDITED TO ADD (6/14): A similar essay, on the politics of terrorism defense.

Posted on May 28, 2013 at 5:09 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.