Wednesday, April 29, 2009

More on cameras that survive terrorist attacks

Ka-Boom! The sequel.

Pix from 14 out of 16 cameras were recovered.  Pretty cool for dirt-cheap cameras.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I testified today on cybersecurity

It was a pleasure to be back in front of such a thoughtful, bipartisan committee.  Here's the gist:

"DHS's execution of its responsibilities has certainly not been perfect, but it has spent much of the last year improving on its record. It has able new leadership and a head start on creating the capabilities it needs. I would be inclined to build on that foundation rather than starting over," he said.

Isn't there good news about swine flu?

I haven't seen anything to this effect in the press, but it seems to me we're very lucky in the timing of this outbreak. Flu has trouble spreading in the summer; flu viruses don't usually survive as long in high-humidity conditions. So this variant will probably spread slowly until next autumn. Which is about how long it will take to develop a vaccine. So we'll get targeted protection just when we need it.

Why hasn't someone in the media mentioned this? Maybe they're smarter than I am. Or maybe it cuts down on media hype and frenzy and sells fewer papers.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why Don't We Cut Sec. Napolitano Some Slack?

Most of the blogs I read, and some House Republicans, are trashing Janet Napolitano and demanding her resignation. These are my peeps, but I think they're wrong to be doing this. Here's why.

Her sins are said to be three: refusing to talk about terrorism and instead referring to "man-caused disasters;" issuing an intel report that focuses on right-wing extremism and says that veterans are the subjects of right wing terror recruiting; and falsely saying that the 9/11 hijackers came through Canada. I don't think any of these things are the basis of a demand that she step down.

1. The man-caused disaster quote isn't easy to defend (although at least she didn't talk about "person-caused disasters"). The attention-getting awkwardness of the language could have been the result of translation issues, I suppose (she gave the quote to a German paper in Germany). But there's no doubt that she is avoiding any language that could be called fear-mongering. In so doing, she's feeding the public's reluctance to face the very real threat that's out there. The risk today is not fear and panic but self-satisfaction and torpor in the face of risk. So she deserves the criticism she's getting on this point.

At the same time, I suspect that she's constrained here by a President and a White House suffering from George Costanza syndrome ("just do the opposite of whatever the last team would have done"). She just can't sound like the last administration. Putting the best face on it, I think the serious people in the new administration are hoping to be just as effective as the last team but without the drama -- sort of the Gary Coopers of counterterrorism. Personally, I think they're kidding themselves. If elected leaders aren't candid about the threat and willing to talk about it, then people get insouciant; voters start demanding that any antiterrorism measure that's inconvenient be rolled back. And then the quiet tough Gary Coopers who thought they could do the job without the drama end up trying to do the job without any of the tools they were counting on.

So: bad idea, but not exactly a firing offense.

2. The intel report. Watch what you wish for here. The worst you can say about the report is that it wasn't written so as to avoid the possibility of giving offense. But if you believe that intelligence about possible terror threats should be sent in a timely way to local cops, who outnumber federal agents about 10 to 1 and are out on the street a lot more than federal agents, this is pretty much the kind of thing that is going to be sent.

Do you really want the intel reports sent to local cops to be written to avoid even the possibility of offense by any group that gets hold of the report, or do you want them issued quickly and written by people who are better at counterterrorism than political correctness? Frankly, the report as a whole is already so full of hedging and backfilling that its value was limited. Should it have said even less? Pretended that Timothy McVeigh wasn't a terrorist or ignored his background? By making a political issue out of an admittedly clumsy effort to survey the risk of right wing terrorism, the critics on the right have almost guaranteed that future intelligence reporting will be slower, less informative, and more politicized. And how long do you think it will be before the new PC standards are applied to other groups? Maybe the American Gangster Antidefamation League will object to the next MS-13 report, or CAIR will want to be sure that al-Qaeda is not linked to any particular religion in future reports. Like I said, be careful what you wish for.

But wait, wasn't the report the opening salvo in a Democratic war on the right? I'm sorry, I just don't see it. In fact, I'm more afraid the current flap is the beginning of an effort to galvanize conservative paranoia about antiterrorism measures: "We're out of power and now we're being disrespected and oppressed by Big Government." Talk about letting the left colonize your mind. Isn't that the netroot model -- paranoid delusions of oppression while sipping chardonnay at the Bel Air Country Club? Seriously, if the right falls into this trap, antiterrorism measures will turn into permanent partisan footballs -- necessary protections in the view whoever's in the current administration and instruments of oppression in the view of whoever's out of power. Shirts v. skins; paranoids v. authoritarians. And everyone gets to change sides every four to eight years. That's just wrong. Maybe this administration will misuse their authorities, though I'm more worried that they'll fail to use them out of political correctness, see 1. above. If DHS misuses its authority, we should call the Secretary on it, but this humdrum report is not a sign of looming oppression.

3. It's true that none of the 9/11 hijackers came through Canada, but the Secretary didn't exactly give a speech saying they did. She was misled, probably deliberately, by a Canadian reporter with an agenda and a trick question. She tried, a bit awkwardly, to turn the conversation to what she knows -- that Canada is the source of most of the border threats she sees or that we saw in the years after 9/11. That is true. So she was right directionally if not in her literal response to the gotcha question.

But let's go beyond the question to the broader agenda the question was meant to serve. The fact is that the US and Canada have different national interests at the border. That journalist's question was part of a concerted Canadian effort to roll back American border security measures by suggesting they were imposed by ignoramuses who don't even know where the 9/11 hijackers came from. That's wrong, but the fuss being raised by the right over this remark will feed the Canadian sense that they're being victimized unfairly by DHS security measures. Again, I'm surprised to see the right taking sides against their own government and in favor of Canada's media and its political class in this dispute.

4. Finally, for my fellow conservatives, who are you hoping to get at DHS if Janet Napolitano steps down? I gather there still are a few law professors who haven't been appointed to high office in this administration; want one of them? The fact is that she has delivered quietly on the substance of counterterrorism -- facing down people in her party and in Canada who tried to get her to drop the border passport requirement that will go into effect in June, keeping Secure Flight (an improved no-fly approach with privacy critics) on track, and resisting European Union efforts to undercut our existing passenger screening measures. From a substantive security point of view, you aren't going to do better, and you definitely could do worse.

I suppose it's possible to argue that nailing a scalp to the wall this early will weaken the administration and that that will slow the administration down across the board. But in my view that's not a good reason to go after the leadership at DHS -- or DOD, or the FBI, or any of the agencies that keep us safe. We worked hard in the last administration to keep DHS out of partisan games like that; it's bad for the country and it could cost lives. We shouldn't play them now that we're out of power.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Gotcha, part 2

You can't say that Canadian media doesn't know how to do its job.  Immediately after a journalist misleads the Secretary into suggesting that maybe the 9/11 hijackers came from Canada, Canadian politicians get to express outrage at the suggestion.

A diplomatic skirmish has broken out over suggestions by the U.S. homeland security chief that terrorists routinely enter the country through Canada - including the perpetrators of 9-11.

Janet Napolitano's remarks in a recent Canadian television interview have angered MPs who are in Washington to participate in a border conference.

The comments have also frustrated Ambassador Michael Wilson, who is once again trying to dispel the 9-11 border myth nearly eight years after the 2001 attacks.

Canadian broadcaster plays gotcha with Secretary Napolitano

The CBC interview with Secretary Napolitano gives a good feel for the continuing demonization of DHS in media north of the border.  The passport/passcard requirement is attacked as unnecessary right out of the box:

"[A] lot of people in Canada, and I suspect a lot of people in the northern part of the United States, are wondering why, why tamper with something that has clearly worked so well for so many years?

Then, when the Secretary defends the initiative by saying that "to the extent that terrorists have come into our country or suspected or known terrorists have entered our country across a border, it's been across the Canadian border," the journalist leads her into an error:

NM: Are you talking about the 9/11 perpetrators?

JN: Not just those but others as well. So again, every country is entitled to have a border. It's part of sovereignty. It's part of knowing who's in the country.

Having set her up, the journalist pounces:

NM: You know you mention terrorism, and there have been a lot of prominent American officials, including Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton when she was a senator and a number of other congressmen and senators, that have said that there has to be tighter security because a lot of the 9/11 perpetrators came in through Canada.

The fact, of course, is that they didn't. They all came directly into the States, sometimes with U.S. visas. Senator [Charles] Schumer cited terrorists crossing at Buffalo, and then had to concede that that hadn't happened. I think there's kind of a popular misconception in this country that Canadians have been battling for a long time that we're somehow a nest of terrorism. But in reality it's not the case. And why is that view so common here?

Arguably, the Secretary should have known where all of the 19 came from, but that is history, and she's got a lot to worry about in the present.  I don't see any sign that she actually believed the hijackers came from Canada or that this impression was driving policy.  What's driving policy is the other terrorist threats that she cites.  It looks to me as though she was simply going along with what seemed to be the journalist's statement of fact.

But if the journalist wanted to know why Americans worry about Canadians' commitment to the fight against terrorism, he provides it himself by grousing that the US hasn't taken Maher Arar off our no-fly list, making the dubious claim that Arar was found "not guilty" by a Canadian judge.  When the Secretary says that Arar's case was reviewed and we concluded that his status shouldn't change, he insists on treating this as hostility to Canada:  "So Canada was wrong."

That's it.  On terrorism policy, the Canadian media's two main concerns are getting the US to defer border security measures and getting us to take Arar off our no-fly list.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Lawyers run amok

Federal lawsuit filed against Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano

Here's the theory, if you can call it that:

Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel of the Law Center stated, "Janet Napolitano is lying to the American people when she says the Report is not based on ideology or political beliefs. In fact, her report would have the admiration of the Gestapo and any current or past dictator in the way it targets political opponents.  This incompetently written intelligence assessment, which directs law enforcement officials across the country to target and report on American citizens who have the political beliefs mentioned in the report, will be used as a tool to stifle political opposition and opinions.

Lawyering up the border

Only a lawyer would think that our border officials should  treat travelers who spend three months in Waziristan exactly the same as travelers from Iceland.  But that's apparently what the Asian Law Caucus and the Stanford Law School Immigrant Rights Clinic are proposing.  Anything else would be a "proxy" for ethnic profiling:

CBP officers have also indicated
that they consider travel to high-risk
destinations as a factor warranting greater
scrutiny.40 In theory, this basis for scrutiny
looks to behavior – where people go rather
than who they are ....
Depending on how this factor is applied,
however, use of travel histories could serve as
a proxy for more invidious profiling, since
most travelers to particular countries are
people who have ethnic ties to those

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

DHS makes headlines in both Drudge and Huffington Post

The notorious DHS report looking at possible right-wing extremism has managed to hit the top of both left and right blogs, with HuffPo hyperventilating at the prospect of actual proof that right-wingers are coming to get them and the conservative blogosphere shouting that they've been smeared in a Obama administration hit job.

Everybody take a deep breath.

Sorry, HuffPo, but DHS's intel office doesn't really justify the scary headline, and BelAir is still safe. DHS's intel office seems to be writing a spec piece; it doesn't want to look stupid if there is a series of violent acts in the near future. So it assembles the conventional wisdom, sprinkles its limited factual matter over the result, and sends it out. The theory is that this assemblage of clues and stories and guesses might be useful to some Montana trooper or Virginia patrol officer who stumbles upon a right-wing extremist group in the course of his duties. And it might be, I suppose.

Sorry, Michelle Malkin, Powerline, etc. but I doubt that this is politically motivated in any partisan sense. It takes a few months to produce something like this, especially without a deadline, and there's no partisan political leadership at the intel office. The report does have a whiff of someone toward the top of the bureaucracy saying, "Shouldn't we do a report on the risk of right wing violence, now that we've got a black President and all? Might get us some attention higher up, and I'd like to know how worried we should be." So some poor shlub gets assigned to see what he can pull together. You can find anticonservative bias in that if you want to, but the author clearly was working to avoid it, which is why the piece noted that lots of people who, say, oppose wider or illegal immigration are just exercising their rights.

I've read a fair amount of intel analysis over the years, and you really have to read it with some care. This report is pretty typical of product that DHS intel turns out by the dozen -- for better or worse. The right way to read the report is to say, "This analyst was assigned to pull all the evidence of growing rightwing extremist violence into one place so decisionmakers could evaluate the risk. This is all he could find." Read that way, it's a lot more favorable to the right than either the right or left blogosphere seems to think.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


The NYT says that a series on television (FX) plans to include a character, played by a guy named Daniel Sunjata, who will claim in an episode that "9/11 was “an inside job, 'the result of “a massive neoconservative government conspiracy' that was designed to increase American power by creating a pretext for seizing control of the world’s oil supplies — a view Mr. Sunjata himself happens to share."

Well, it isn't just that he "happens" to share those views. He got them into the script. Sunjata was peddling this loathsome line of malarkey on the set; the understandable offense taken by the firefighters who advise the series seems to have inspired the writers to include the shtick. (Anyone else might have said, "Wow, that's both wacked and offensive, let's show this guy the door." In Hollywood, though, offensive and wacked are pretty much the business model.)

Pretending that al Qaeda didn't carry out the 9/11 attacks is a blood libel against the United States; it will be used to justify the murder of Americans and to dishonor the sacrifices our troops have made since 9/11.

Here's my favorite line from the article: "Mr. Sunjata admits to some trepidation about how the show’s audience will react to the story line. “I won’t say that my opinions were warmly received on the set,” he said. “At one point I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll get fired if I keep opening my mouth.’"

From his lips to God's ear.

He really means it -- immigration reform effort to begin this year

Monday, April 6, 2009

Drumbeat of alarm over EU-US law enforcement relationship

Well, maybe two articles don't make a drumbeat, but Mark Richard's article with Leslie Lebl parallels many of the concerns I've expressed here and in print.  Mark is a legendary DAAG in the criminal division at Justice, and a long-time Justice rep in Brussels.  He thinks the US hasn't faced up to the threat that is posed to US law enforcement by the peculiar dynamics of Brussels.  I agree.  (Nice sidenote:  Mark praises the DHS agreement with the EU on PNR as favorable, particularly in contrast to concessions given up by Treasury in a similar negotiation.)