Category Archives: National Security

‘Bloody Nose’ Strike Illegal but Unstoppable


February 9, 2018

Eighteen Democratic Senators have reportedly signed a letter to President Trump informing him they are “deeply concerned about the potential consequences of a preemptive military strike on North Korea and the risks of miscalculation and retaliation.” Further, they assert, “without congressional authority, a preventative or preemptive U.S. military strike would lack either a constitutional basis or legal authority.”

They are certainly right. Under the provisions of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, “The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” While it has never been tested in court, there’s little question that this framing is Constitutionally sound. (The subsequent provisions giving Congress the power to force the president to cease hostilities after 60/90 days are much more contested.)

The problem, alas, is that there’s simply nothing the Senate, or the Congress as a whole, can do to stop the President from acting as he sees fit. The House could certainly impeach him after the fact for overstepping his legal authority and, subsequent to that, the Senate could punish him by removing him from office. But the strike itself would be a fait accompli—as would the almost certain international war that would follow.

The Constitution famously set forth, as Edward S. Corwin put it over fifty years ago, an “invitation to struggle” over foreign policy and military affairs. Article I gives Congress the power to declare war, control of defense appropriations, and all manner of authority to regulate the armed forces. Article II makes the President commander-in-chief. In theory, the legislature is much more powerful in peacetime and the advantage shifts to the executive when the nation is at war. The reality is not that simple.

The mere existence of a standing force gives the President enormous leverage. Teddy Roosevelt recognized this more than a century ago. In his memoirs, he described a standoff with Congress over sailing the Navy into the Pacific:

The head of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs announced that the fleet should not and could not go because Congress would refuse to appropriate the money—he being from an Eastern seaboard State. However, I announced in response that I had enough money to take the fleet around to the Pacific anyhow, that the fleet would certainly go, and that if Congress did not choose to appropriate enough money to get the fleet back, why, it would stay in the Pacific. There was no further difficulty about the money.

Roosevelt understood that, while Congress certainly had the power to withhold funds, it would have been politically impossible for them to do so. Realistically, then, a President’s action with a force-in-being is limited mostly by the political fallout that ensues, not the approval of Congress.

Historically, the size of the force was itself a powerful constraint. While the United States has maintained a sizable Navy for the last century and a half, the Army was typically a garrison force until Congress declared war and provided the authority and money to build it up. That tradition ceased with the advent of the Korean War in 1950. While the nation continued buildups for war and drawdowns after, the exigencies of the Cold War and the desired for continued global hegemony in its aftermath have kept the “peacetime” force massive by global standards. This has significantly enhanced the freedom of maneuver of the commander-in-chief.

The existence of nuclear forces complicates matters even more. The deterrence strategy of the Cold War depended on the President be able to order a massive retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union in short order. It was simply not feasible to involve Congress in the decision, given the exigencies of time. While the Cold War has been over more than a quarter-century, few questioned the notion that the commander-in-chief should retain that power until Trump assumed that post and began routinely issuing provocations via his Twitter account.

Hearings this past November before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee aimed at rethinking this policy. Senator Chris Murphy, a signatory to Monday’s letter, declared at the time, “We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic, that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests.”

Alas, witnesses including the sitting and former commanders of US nuclear forces, former national security officials, and scholars were unanimous that there was little that could be done by Congress to prevent such a strike. While lawyers could advise the president against the action and civilian and uniformed professionals are duty-bound to refuse to follow orders they deem illegal or immoral, the entire system is predicated on swift obedience to the duly elected commander-in-chief. A President hell-bent on launching missiles would simply fire people until he got to ones who would carry out the order.

The bottom line is that absent radical disarmament on a scale that no serious analyst is calling for, the major restraint on a President’s war powers rests with his or her character and good judgment. The public ought to seriously weigh whether they trust a candidate to make life-and-death decisions before entrusting them with such awesome responsibilities. Failing that, the Constitution provides the extreme options of removal via the aforementioned impeachment process and the provisions of the 25th Amendment. Both of those are extreme options, however, that would undermine faith in our democracy if undertaken in other than the most exigent circumstances. Otherwise, we must wait until the next election and hope the public chooses more wisely—and that the commander-in-chief does not start World War III in the meantime.

Original article 

The New National Defense Strategy: Everything is a Priority

The National Interest

February 2, 2018

Lost to all but the most committed security wonks in the midst of the government shutdown debacle was the unveiling by Secretary Jim Mattis of a new National Defense Strategy. At first blush, it’s a bold declaration of the Trump administration’s priorities. In reality, there’s little new here—least of all a real strategy.

This is the first National Defense Strategy in nearly a decade. The last was published under the signature of Bob Gates in June 2008, during the latter days of the Bush administration. There was, however, a document published in January 2012 known in national-security circles, if not its cover page, as the Defense Strategic Guidance, which had a similar remit.

The most remarked-upon aspect of the new NDS is its declaration that “the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers.” But this isn’t really that remarkable. While it’s true that the 2008 NDS declares, “For the foreseeable future, this environment will be defined by a global struggle against a violent extremist ideology that seeks to overturn the international state system,” that’s hardly shocking given that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in full swing. But even that document conceded, in the very next sentence, “Beyond this transnational struggle, we face other threats, including a variety of irregular challenges, the quest by rogue states for nuclear weapons, and the rising military power of other states.” Literally all of those remain, if in different sequence, in the 2018 version.

Similarly, the 2012 DSG mentions all the same threats. Most significantly, it takes increased notice of China’s rise, announcing the so-called “Asia Pivot.” It does, however, highlight the chief strategic blind spot of the Obama administration in its declaration “our engagement with Russia remains important, and we will continue to build a closer relationship in areas of mutual interest and encourage it to be a contributor across a broad range of issues.” That’s the only mention of Russia in the document, outshone in its wrongheadedness only by the president’s snide quip to Mitt Romney that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”

Regardless, while the Defense Department has devoted enormous resources to fighting violent extremism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, planning for war with near-peer adversaries has always been front and center—especially at the level of the service departments (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines), which are responsible for organizing, training, and equipping our armed forces. F-35 fighters and Ford-class carriers weren’t bought with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State in mind.

Earlier this week, Tom Spoehr rightly observes, “To have real-world value, a defense strategy must establish priorities. That requires making tough choices.” But I couldn’t disagree more with his assessment that “in this document those choices are made.” Yes, as Spoehr notes, there’s the aforementioned declaration that China and Russia pose the “central challenge.” But there’s nothing in either the document or the actions in the first year of the Trump administration to indicate that lesser challenges will receive any less attention than they have in the recent past.

While China—and especially Russia—are called out much more vociferously than in the previous two defense strategies and termed “principal priorities for the Department,” they’re also termed “long-term strategic competitions,” language very similar to those of the 2008 and 2012 documents. As to the lesser threats, “Concurrently, the Department will sustain its efforts to deter and counter rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, defeat terrorist threats to the United States, and consolidate our gains in Iraq and Afghanistan while moving to a more resource-sustainable approach.” Granting that one wouldn’t expect an unclassified, public-facing document to tell adversaries that they’re not a priority, it’s hard to read “sustain,” “defeat,” and “consolidate” as some sort of cutback.

Indeed, as Christopher Preble details elsewhere, aside from the standard lip service about bureaucratic efficiency (and yet another call for a Base Realignment and Closure process that Congress has signaled time and again it has no stomach for) there’s no concession anywhere in the document that there will be any prioritization at all. Indeed, it’s a veritable Christmas wish list. It declares that a “backlog of deferred readiness, procurement, and modernization requirements has grown in the last decade and a half and can no longer be ignored.” Accordingly, Mattis envisions that the 2019–2023 budget requests will call for “accelerating our modernization programs and devoting additional resources in a sustained effort to solidify our competitive advantage” across the entire spectrum of conflict. Among the highlights of the envisioned spending spree: “modernize the nuclear triad,” “investments in resilience, reconstitution, and operations to assure our space capabilities,” “invest in cyber defense, resilience, and the continued integration of cyber capabilities into the full spectrum of military operations,” “developing resilient, survivable, federated networks and information ecosystems from the tactical level up to strategic planning,” “layered missile defenses and disruptive capabilities for both theater missile threats and North Korean ballistic missile threats,” and “invest broadly in military application of autonomy, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, including rapid application of commercial breakthroughs, to gain competitive military advantages.” That’s just a sampling from one section of the wish list.

While the above assessment sounds harsh, it’s not really a criticism of Mattis or the NDS. In point of fact, everything being asked for here is perfectly in line with not only President Trump’s recent National Security Strategy (which I wrote about last month) but the last several strategy documents, including those of the Obama administration (of which I was also quite critical).

If the United States wishes to have global hegemony, then it needs to do precisely what Mattis is asking for. Being able to deter and, if it comes to it, defeat major powers like China and Russia while at the same time constraining rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea, as well as non-state actors like the Islamic State and Boko Haram, and while maintaining access to the global commons of sea, space and cyberspace, is going to require that the United States spend a whole lot more money than it’s already spending. There is little evidence, however, that there is the political will to implement massive tax hikes or cut funding elsewhere in the budget in order to achieve that goal.

Original article

Who Suffers the Most from Government Shutdowns?

The National Interest

January 23, 2018

he federal government shutdown of 2018—or, at least, the first one—ended with only one workday missed. To the extent ordinary citizens noticed at all, they likely think it was no big deal. This is especially true with regards to the impact on the U.S. military, who they’ve been steadily assured went right on working, without so much as having to endure the hardship of missing the weekend’s NFL playoff games. In fact, however, millions of man-hours of productivity have been lost from this continuing crisis, with a real impact on readiness.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis issued a memorandum at the onset of the shutdown declaring, “We will continue to execute daily operations around the world—ships and submarines will remain at sea, our aircraft will continue to fly and our warfighters will continue to pursue terrorists throughout the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.” While that absolutely happened—and would have continued for quite some time even in an extended shutdown—that’s not all his department does on a daily basis.

While current operations continue, many training and support activities cease—especially those that require travel. Military students at resident courses, including the one where I teach, are allowed to remain in place to continue their studies, but their civilian faculty are sent home. Ongoing field exercises are typically suspended, with personnel required to return to home station. And, depending on which pots of money they’re paid from, students at nonresident schools are often sent home mid-course, only to have to come back at a later date.

At my own institution, which has a roughly even mix of military and civilian faculty, we were able to weather the 2013 shutdown with only modest inconvenience. While we were in the middle of a block of instruction taught by civilian PhDs, we were able to slide lessons taught by lieutenant colonels and commanders to the left.

This go-around, we happen to be in an elective period, and because we have several outside faculty teaching, adjusting the schedule was impractical. Had the shutdown continued another day, the classes designed and normally taught by the furloughed PhDs would have been picked up mid-term by colonels and lieutenant colonels with twenty-four hours to prepare. It was likely the best out of a set of really bad options, but it would have not only been a suboptimal outcome for the students—themselves majors and lieutenant commanders deserving of the best education we can provide—and put the new instructors in an incredibly awkward position, but it would have taken up valuable preparation time for upcoming classes and exercises led by those same officers.

Additionally, while the military students would have remained in the course, their interagency civilian colleagues were furloughed for the duration. During the 2013 shutdown, which lasted sixteen days, this meant that not only were students from the CIA, State Department, and other agencies missing a significant chunk of the curriculum, but the military students were missing the invaluable perspective that they’re in the room to provide. And, because they’re staffed almost exclusively by civilians, the library and similar critical support facilities were closed, as were all manner of base programs and services for the troops and their families.

As I noted in this space after the October 2013 shutdown, the best estimates are that it costs between $2 billion and $4 billion to prepare for a government shutdown and the same amount to get back up and running. And, while this was the first actual shutdown since then, there have been more than a dozen near-shutdowns in the interim, as we continue to fund the government by continuing resolutions, often mere weeks at a time, and play a constant game of chicken with the debt ceiling.

Beyond the financial cost, of course, there is the impact on morale. DoD civilians constantly worry about being furloughed and whether the next paycheck is coming—including right before Christmas this past year. Then-SecretaryChuck Hagel declared “we can’t continue to do this to our people, having them live under this cloud of uncertainty.” If anything, it’s gotten worse, given the frequency of the brinkmanship.

Perhaps worse than the uncertainty is the constant reminder that we’re less valued. While we’ve finally gotten rid of the insulting “essential” vs. “nonessential” label, opting for the more sterile “exempt” and “nonexempt,” the fact remains that the vast majority of the civilian workforce is considered expendable while every single uniformed member of our armed forces is considered mission-critical—even though they’re frequently doing the identical job.

The flip side of that is that, as Mattis declared in his memo, “active forces will stay at their posts adapting their training to achieve the least negative impact on our readiness to fight.” For the duration of the shutdown—and, again, this one was thankfully short—our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coast guardsmen pull double duty, doing their own jobs while trying to cover for the furloughed civilians.

This is a great cost to the nation and its armed forces for no obvious gain. Historically, Congress has always authorized and the president always signed off on back pay for employees furloughed during a shutdown, so we’re actually paying people not to work. Like the debt ceiling, wherein Congress periodically has to authorize borrowing the money it has already voted to spend or else put the nation in peril, it’s an absurdity that needs to end.

In the meantime, we’re scheduled to go through this farce again on February 8.

Original article

How Trump’s National Security Strategy Breaks with the Past

The National Interest

December 19, 2017

President Trump unveiled a new National Security Strategy on Monday. Previews of the document, based on leaked drafts and backchannel interviews, had given the impression that it would be a bland continuity of previous administrations’ strategies, with a few sops to Trumpism thrown in to satisfy the boss. A careful reading, however, shows it to be the reverse: a radical departure from the past within a penumbra of stability.

Obama’s February 2015 NSS was an idealist wish list, bordering on constructivism. Trump’s is petulance and solipsism masquerading as realism.

Certainly, there is considerable overlap in the documents; all National Security Strategies to date have centered on protecting the physical and economic security of the American people, with the standard homilies on enduring threats and interests. And the current NSS, like other recent iterations, pays due homage to terrorism and cyber threats.

But this version is starkly different, repeatedly sandwiching Trumpian policy in between platitudes about long-standing American values. Of course we’re not racist—but no immigrants. Of course we love our allies—but they’d better stop freeloading. Of course we support free trade—but only if we come out ahead. Of course we continue to support global institutions—but only insofar as we win.

Trump’s cover letter declares, “The American people elected me to make America great again,” and brags, “During my first year in office, you have witnessed my America First foreign policy in action.” After a long litany of complaints about the ways the country had declined under his predecessor, he promises, “we are charting a new and very different course.”

And, indeed, he is.

Any previous NSS could have contained the sentence, “Americans have long recognized the benefits of an interconnected world, where information and commerce flow freely.” But it’s hard to imagine one that followed that sentence with, “Engaging with the world, however, does not mean the United States should abandon its rights and duties as a sovereign state or compromise its security.” Or one that then continued, “Openness also imposes costs, since adversaries exploit our free and democratic system to harm the United States.”

It’s only natural that the document would begin with the premise that “the United States is safer when Europe is prosperous and stable, and can help defend our shared interests and ideals” and “the United States remains firmly committed to our European allies and partners.” But, in true Trumpian fashion, that’s caveated: “The United States fulfills our defense responsibilities and expects others to do the same. We expect our European allies to increase defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2024, with 20 percent of this spending devoted to increasing military capabilities.” None of that is new as a matter of U.S. policy, but it’s unprecedented for it to be so bluntly stated in our capstone strategic statement.

While no one would have been surprised to see the line, “The United States understands the contributions immigrants have made to our Nation throughout its history” in a previous NSS, it seems a departure from the rhetoric and policies of this president. But that nod to our better angels is quickly followed by the caveat that “illegal immigration, however, burdens the economy, hurts American workers, presents public safety risks, and enriches smugglers and other criminals.”

While averring that “the United States will continue to welcome lawful immigrants who do not pose a security threat and whose entry is consistent with the national interest,” the focus is on “enhancing the screening and vetting of travelers, closing dangerous loopholes, revising outdated laws, and eliminating easily exploited vulnerabilities.” It vows to “reform our current immigration system, which, contrary to our national interest and national security, allows for randomized entry and extended-family chain migration.”

Along those lines, the standard declaration that “the United States rejects bigotry and oppression and seeks a future built on our values as one American people” is used to set up the not-so-subtle anti-Islamist line, “We will deny violent ideologies the space to take root.”

There’s doubtless continuity in the line, “For 70 years, the United States has embraced a strategy premised on the belief that leadership of a stable international economic system rooted in American principles of reciprocity, free markets, and free trade served our economic and security interests.” Alas, that assertion serves merely to bolster the complaint that “the United States helped expand the liberal economic trading system to countries that did not share our values” and “espouse free trade rhetoric and exploit its benefits, but only adhere selectively to the rules and agreements.”

Likewise, the standard rhetoric, “Working with our allies and partners, the United States led the creation of a group of financial institutions and other economic forums that established equitable rules and built instruments to stabilize the international economy and remove the points of friction that had contributed to two world wars” is followed by the threat, “But the United States will no longer turn a blind eye to violations, cheating, or economic aggression.”

The document explains that “a world that supports American interests and reflects our values makes America more secure and prosperous.” But that’s immediately followed by the declaration, “We will compete and lead in multilateral organizations” (pick one!) “so that American interests and principles are protected.”

Perhaps the biggest departure from the trend of sandwiching Trumpian policy between odes to classic values is the long tribute to America’s diplomatic corps, “our forward-deployed political capability, advancing and defending America’s interests abroad.” It declares that “diplomacy catalyzes the political, economic, and societal connections that create America’s enduring alignments and that build positive networks of relationships with partners,” “sustains dialogue and fosters areas of cooperation with competitors,” and “reduces the risk of costly miscommunication.”

There is no caveat to that homage, save perhaps a backhanded declaration that “we must upgrade our diplomatic capabilities to compete in the current environment and to embrace a competitive mindset.” But none of the listed reforms speak to ridding the State Department of its most experienced personnel, gutting the hiring of topflight young people, or failing to appoint key senior leaders.

That said, the section on diplomacy is buried in a chapter on “Preserving Peace Through Strength,” which, as one might expect, focuses heavily on the military instrument. The actions of the administration thus far, as well as the longstanding predilections of Congress, leave little doubt where the priority of resourcing will be.

Those who voted for Trump, especially those who took him both seriously and literally, should rejoice in this strategy. Those who did not can perhaps take some small comfort in the fact that these documents seldom have much influence on public policy. Regardless, elections have consequences, and this is undoubtedly a very different strategy than we would have seen had Hillary Clinton’s name been on the signature page.

Original article

Ignoring the Hagel Hearing Farce

The National Interest

February 1, 2013

The Senate confirmation hearings over Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be the next secretary of defense were a classic case of garbage in, garbage out. Sadly, they were par for the course in the American national-security debate.

The hearings literally broke Twitter in the early going, and the tweets with the hashtag #Hagel flew so quickly that it was impossible to follow them from TweetDeck. But my regular foreign-policy coterie shared my real time reaction to the unfolding farce: the questions were outrageous and the answers were frustrating.

Army War College strategist Steven Metz declared, “Yesterday’s confirmation hearing was the political equivalent of ‘Jersey Shore.’”

Security blogger Marcy Wheeler, on a rare bright spot after an actually thoughtful question from Maine’s Angus King (he’s new), proclaimed, “See? Hagel DID prep for a hearing. One where serious, rather than clown show, questions were going to be asked.”

The Center for American Progress’ Zach Beauchamp perhaps summed it up best: “The one thing I’ve learned today: I’m terrified that some of these people are making foreign policy on my behalf.”

While I usually disagree with them on security policy, I respect both John McCain and Lindsay Graham as players. They’ve both spent decades steeped in the issues, both in the Senate and in uniform. But both used their time for grandstanding and score settling rather than probing the man who will potentially lead the nation’s largest department through a perilous and uncertain future.

Frankly, whether the 2007 troop surge in Iraq was a good idea is completely irrelevant to leading the Pentagon in 2013. And the views of the secretary of defense on our diplomatic stance toward Israel aren’t relevant, period. As The Atlantic‘s James Fallows observes, “Virtually none of the hostile questions for Hagel reflected awareness that a Secretary of Defense, no matter how influential, does not set U.S. foreign policy, does not decide where and whether to commit troops, does not decide on boycotts versus engagement with Iran, does not make war-or-peace decisions, and in countless other ways is not the President of the United States.” Although, interestingly, John Kerry was just confirmed easily as secretary of state despite sharing Hagel’s views on these issues.

Hagel, chairman of the Atlantic Council, is my boss’ boss. But the policy wonk in me found his answers, even given how little he had to work with, disappointing, even frustrating. We agree on almost every issue he was challenged on yesterday and, frankly, I could have given better answers to most of the questions off the top of my head, without the weeks of preparation at the hands of Pentagon staffers, than he gave yesterday. Hell, I think Global Zero is silly and could still offer a decent defense.

Then again, so could the Chuck Hagel who’s led the Atlantic Council the last four years.

The Project on Government Oversight’s Winslow Wheeler describes Hagel’s performance as “fumbling and apologetic” and declares, “Unlike most effective politicians who are always clever at saying nothing or changing positions, he was so inarticulate at doing so that it is also hard to understand how he ever could have been elected twice to the Senate from Nebraska.” But that’s precisely the problem: Hagel never has been a typical politician. Like the late Mayor Ed Koch, Hagel is that rare public official who’s always said what’s on his mind and voted his conscience on the issues without much caring what anyone thought about it.

Like Hagel, I was an early skeptic of the Iraq War ultimately persuaded by my president to support the effort. Like Hagel, I turned against the war pretty quickly once it became obvious that the costs exceeded the benefits. But the only price I paid for it was alienating some readers and fellow bloggers; Hagel was branded a traitor by the vice president of the United States and lost good friendships, including that of fellow Vietnam War hero McCain.

Some of those questioning his patriotism and judgment yesterday still see the Iraq debate first and foremost as a test of party loyalty that Hagel failed. For someone who learned the cost of war at an early age, there was a higher loyalty at stake: to those Americans who had volunteered to fight for their country, trusting in the judgment of their elected officials to make sure it was worth their going into harm’s way.

Alas, his hands were tied yesterday. For perhaps the first time since Basic Training, he wasn’t free to speak his mind. CAP’s Matt Duss puts yesterday’s circus into perspective:

Looking to make sense of the spectacle, I spoke to a former senior defense official who has testified over 200 times before Congressional committees, who suggested that Hagel may have been right not to push back harder. “The thing to remember with these hearings is that the Senators have home-field advantage,” he said. “You really can’t win. If they’re there to score points, they’ll do it.”

As to the element of performance involved, “Once, before a hearing, I was passed a note by a Senator,” the former official continued. “It read ‘Don’t pay attention to what I’m about to say, it’s not directed at you, it’s directed at my constituents.’ So there’s a lot of theater involved in these things.”

That’s a rather kind understatement. In fact, the hearings—like pretty much all congressional hearings—are almost entirely theater with very little substance. The senators have already made up their mind on how they’re going to vote. Many of them know Hagel personally; he served with them for eight years. They’ve already met with the nominee privately and their staffs have already prepared massive briefing books for them on Hagel’s previous statements and writings on issues of importance. So, they’re not there to have a genuine exchange of information; they’re there to score points back home.

Original article

A Drone Strike on Democracy

New York Daily News

December 6, 2012

As a theoretical matter, remotely piloted vehicles are simply a tool of warfare, morally indistinguishable from manned aircraft. The more efficiently the U.S. can target and kill its enemies, the better. And drones are cheaper to operate, carry far less risk for American military personnel and make it easier to collect intelligence than their manned counterparts.

In reality, though, the U.S. uses drones differently than it uses traditional weapons. Because they’re small and cheap, they’re in constant operation in parts of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — and thus much more likely to be used to deliver lethal strikes. We’ve gone from a policy of firing only on high-value targets, such as senior terrorist leaders, to one of engaging groups of young men who present the mere “signature” of militant groups.

Not only has this increased the percentage of noncombatants killed but, according to at least one major study, it has bred fear and resentment among the civilian populations in those societies — potentially creating more terrorists.

Most problematic, though, is the fact that drone policy is so shrouded in secrecy that it’s essentially impossible to accurately assess the costs and benefits. Because it’s run covertly by the intelligence and special-operations communities, only a handful of people are privy to the details of the drone war — and almost all of them are prohibited from sharing what they know.

What we do know is from the combination of dogged reporting and selective (and quite probably self-serving) leaks. Back in May, the New York Times described the painstaking process President Obama and his national security team allegedly use to decide who goes on its kill list. We were told that the President personally ensured that each strike would “align . . . with American values.”

More recently, The Times reported that, in the weeks leading up to the election, the administration began “pushing to make the rules formal and resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about exactly when lethal action is justified.”

Apparently, it occurred to the White House that it might be a good idea to have some structure in place in case a President Romney were to take office and inherit the drone program. As one official put it, “There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands.”

Of course, Obama easily won reelection; consequently, the enthusiasm within the Obama administration for defining and reining in presidential power is likely to wane. And given the acrimony on Capitol Hill, it’s hard to imagine that the President is eager to have congressional Republicans weigh in on something as sensitive as a kill list.

Then again, this seems to be one issue where there’s very little daylight between the two parties. Even the two separate fall 2011 drone strikes that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, both American citizens, in Yemen raised few official eyebrows.

And because it’s all so incredibly classified, there’s not even an opportunity for informed public debate over the use of drones.

Perhaps the news that China has joined the ranks of the drone-possessing community, having unveiled an operational vehicle that looks suspiciously like the American Reaper but reportedly at a fraction of the per-unit cost, will finally force a major debate, much as Russia’s acquisition of nuclear weapons did in the last century.

It’s one thing for an American President to have the ability to control flying killing machines in disparate corners of the globe.

It’s quite another to put that power in the hands of an authoritarian regime in Beijing — much less those of any number of despots around the world who might be lining up as customers.

Original article

America’s Scandalous Drone War Goes Unmentioned in the Campaign

The New Republic,

September 26, 2012

*Republished by The Australian  as “Drones Backfire as Civilian Toll Mounts,” October 3, 2012)

A new study released this week by researchers at Stanford and NYU has found that American drone strikes in Pakistan are killing far more civilians than advertised, taking out few high value targets, and have become the primary recruiting tool for the terrorist groups the policy is aimed at combating. The report, “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan,” is based on “more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting” conducted over nine months.

The research found that, over the last eight years, drone strikes have “killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.” Meanwhile, only 2 percent of those killed were “high-level” targets. This means that the strikes have killed three times as many children as terrorist leaders. The report also shows that the impact of the drone war isn’t limited to those directly affected by strikes because the constant presence of drones overhead “terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities.” People in these regions have become afraid to render assistance to innocent victims or to attend funerals, as both rescuers and mourners have been targeted for secondary strikes.

The report’s findings are irrefutably stunning. Even more so is the fact that these revelations won’t play any role at all in the pending presidential campaign.

The study authors point to several legal, moral, and philosophical questions that arise from the drone policy, including whether it’s wise for a democratic government to undertake a systematic policy of killing over a period of years with virtually no transparency to its own people. Let’s leave those aside, however, and focus on the narrow and basic question of whether the campaign of targeted killing facilitated by the use of unmanned vehicles serves U.S. policy interests. American citizens are, after all, unlikely to demand that their leaders abandon a policy that’s keeping them safe from another 9/11 attack on the basis of some innocent lives ruined halfway across the world. It is, after all, easy to rationalize the toll on civilians who are family or associates of terrorists who mean us harm.

To be sure, some extremely high-value al Qaeda leaders have been killed under the policy. Qaed Sinan Harithi, believed to have been a planner of the USS Cole attack and killed in Yemen in November 2002, was likely the first. Saeed al-Masri, then-al Qaeda’s number 3, and Ahmed Mohammed Hamed Ali, East Africa embassy bombing mastermind, and others are also on the list. Further, as the report begrudgingly acknowledges, “Documents selectively released by the US after the raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound indicate that bin Laden himself expressed concern about, and modified operations in response to, drone strikes.”

Still, the vast majority of those killed are mere “foot soldiers” or simply those who might be “militants” of some stripe. Indeed, that’s been an explicit policy choice by President Obama, under whose tenure the pace of attacks have dramatically escalated. The Bush administration carried out between 45 and 52 attacks, all aimed at major terrorist leaders. In less than half the time, his successor has carried out nearly 300, lowering the targeting threshold to include so-called “signature” strikes against “groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known.”

While obviously dangerous—the 9/11 hijackers themselves were low level operatives, after all—they are much easier to replace than senior leaders. It’s debatable whether it’s worth the reported one million dollar per strike price tag for taking out these low level targets, much less whether it’s worth the resentment and collateral damage that’s the natural fallout.

The report authors note that “evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks.” They cite a May New York Times report asserting that “drones have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants” along with a June Pew survey which finds “74 percent of Pakistanis now consider the US an enemy.” (Although, in fairness, they omit the fact that the exact same survey shows very low support for al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other anti-American extremist groups and that, if anything, the trend in that regard is positive.) The report also cites a June 2012 Middle East Policy Council report which “identified a correlation between drone strikes and terrorist attacks in the years 2004-2009”and found it “probable that drone strikes provide motivation for retaliation, and that there is a substantive relationship between the increasing number of drone strikes and the increasing number of retaliation attacks.”

These findings reflect the increasing sense among expert analysts and practitioners that the policy is backfiring. New America Foundation national security studies program director Peter Bergen declared earlier this month that “If the price of the drone campaign that increasingly kills only low-level Taliban is alienating 180 million Pakistanis–that is too high a price to pay.” Retired Admiral Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence, declared in an August 2011 New York Times op-ed that “Drone strikes are no longer the most effective strategy for eliminating Al Qaeda’s ability to attack us,” and that the drone campaign “is eroding our influence and damaging our ability to work with Pakistan to achieve other important security objectives like eliminating Taliban sanctuaries, encouraging Indian-Pakistani dialogue, and making Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal more secure.”

Despite the increasing intensity with which this issue is being debated in foreign policy wonk circles, the discussion has been all but absent in the ongoing presidential campaign. Terrorism is not among the twenty-six “issues” discussed on Mitt Romney’s website and the treatment of “Afghanistan & Pakistan” doesn’t mention the drone policy. To the extent that the issue is getting any traction on the domestic political front, it’s coming from the likes of Glenn Greenwald and others on the president’s left. One suspects that’s just fine with Obama, whose ability to tout the fact that “we got bin Laden” has put him in the unique position among Democrats of having the edge on national security issues.

Indeed, Obama has shrewdly—some might say cynically—positioned himself to the right on foreign policy, thereby insulating himself from the “weak on defense” canard that has plagued his party going back to the days of George McGovern. He doubled down on Afghanistan, at the expense of more than a thousand dead American soldiers and marines, at a point when it was obvious the war was unwinnable on the timetable he set. He ignored the hectoring over damaged relations with Pakistan that would result from the bin Laden raid, betting that success would ensure his re-election. And his use of drone strikes makes George W. Bush look like a cautious man.

Romney seems to sense that he can’t use foreign policy to his advantage and has embarrassed himself on the few occasions he’s tried, notably his bizarre performance the morning after the murder of America’s ambassador to Libya. So, he’s taken James Carville’s axiom (“It’s the economy, stupid”) far more seriously than Bill Clinton ever did. The result is that the most important national security issues of the day aren’t being debated during the contest to determine who will be commander-in-chief the next four years.

Original links: America’s Scandalous Drone War Goes Unmentioned in the Campaign,” Drones Backfire as Civilian Toll Mounts” 


Oversight or Not, Drones Are Here to Stay

World Politics Review

July 27, 2012

In “The Imperial Presidency: Drone Power and Congressional Oversight,” Michael Cohen argues persuasively that the U.S. Congress has abdicated its constitutional and statutory responsibility to reign in the executive branch in matters of national security policy. Then again, few who have been paying attention this past decade — some would say, the past several decades — need much convincing on that point.

Yet, while I agree with Cohen that we desperately need Congress to do its job here as a matter of principle, it’s far from clear that it would change our policy.

Cohen cites the extraordinary decision to kill American citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in a Predator strike in Yemen last September as particularly troubling. While Cohen and I both find risible the administration’s claim that its internal deliberations over the assassination of U.S. citizens qualify as their constitutionally guaranteed right to  “due process,” it’s pretty clear that we’re in the minority.

In the immediate aftermath of the raid, President Barack Obama earned effusive praise across the political spectrum.

Rep. Peter T. King, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, issued a statement declaring, “The killing of al-Awlaki is a tremendous tribute to President Obama and the men and women of our intelligence community.”

Mitt Romney, already the Republican frontrunner in the race to unseat Obama, called the killing “a major victory in our fight against Islamist terrorism and proper justice for the numerous attacks and plots [Awlaki] inspired or planned against America.” 

Obama’s fellow Democrats were similarly effusive.

Meanwhile, a June survey by the Pew Research Center found that these strikes were equally popular with the American public, with 62 percent approving, “including most Republicans (74 percent), independents (60 percent) and Democrats (58 percent).” And a February ABC News/Washington Post poll found even stronger support. The Post write-up drolly noted, “83 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s drone policy, which administration officials refuse to discuss, citing security concerns.”  

Cohen, it should be noted, is fully aware of all this. In an insightful piece for Foreign Policy last month, he pointed out that all of the Obama policies that are controversial among foreign policy wonks are wildly popular with voters. Indeed, he remarks, Obama’s toughest critics are in “his own liberal base.” As Cohen rightly states, “It’s hard to imagine that the Obama campaign in Chicago is worrying much about such criticism.”

This is hardly surprising, as Americans rarely punish a president for taking aggressive actions in the name of their safety. Back in January 2006, when former President George W. Bush enjoyed just 37 percent support in polls, the public nonetheless backed his controversial, arguably illegal, policy of eavesdropping on the telephone calls of Americans without a warrant. A New York Times/CBS News poll found that 53 percent supported monitoring “Americans that the government is suspicious of” in connection with terrorism. A Gallup poll found the identical result a month later.

In his 1957 classic, “The President: Office and Powers,” Edward S. Corwin famously declared, “The Constitution is an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy.” While the framers clearly intended for Congress to be the predominant branch in domestic policy, both branches were given substantial power in the realm of international affairs, with no bright lines to delineate them. Most notably, Congress is granted the power to declare war, but the president, as commander-in-chief, has the power to send troops into harm’s way.

In practice, however, presidents have been winning this struggle for more than a century. Teddy Roosevelt was famously contemptuous of Congress in matters of foreign affairs, mocking their dithering over the Panama Canal and sending the Navy halfway around the world, daring Congress not to appropriate the funds to bring it back.

Franklin Roosevelt permanently redefined the role of the presidency during his three-plus terms. Demanding in September 1942 that Congress amend the Emergency Price Control Act, he declared, “The president has the powers, under the Constitution and under congressional acts, to take measures necessary to avert a disaster which would interfere with the winning of the war.”

Roosevelt went on to submit the amendments to Congress, which acceded to his demands, so the judiciary never had a chance to rule on whether the president could so brazenly flout the law. 

During the Cold War, the National Security Act of 1947 further centralized national security policy in the White House, leaving Congress increasingly isolated. This was quickly followed by an undeclared war in Korea, a slow descent into an undeclared war in Vietnam and numerous military and intelligence operations of dubious legality, especially in Latin America. 

Historian Arthur Schlesinger dubbed this largely unchecked growth of executive power the Imperial Presidency. Congress reasserted itself with the 1973 War Powers Act and the 1975 Church Committee hearings, but the momentum of expanding executive authority was already too great. Presidents have largely treated the former with impunity, and though some of the intelligence abuses of the past have been halted, the latter has received substantial blame for the intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks. 

If the Constitution is “an invitation to struggle,” it is to a struggle that presidents have been winning for decades. The modern presidency has reversed the constitutional presumption that Congress is the pre-eminent branch and the president secondary. Since Franklin Roosevelt, it has been axiomatic that “the president proposes, Congress disposes.” That is especially true in foreign policy and even more so in national security matters.

Congress, of course, retains the theoretical power to reverse all of this. While often reckless, Senate Republicans have demonstrated during Obama’s tenure just how much institutional power exists to fight back against a president. But it’s almost inconceivable that any Congress would marshal its resources in the cause of “weakening” America’s national security. Which means that oversight or not, the use of drones is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Original article

The Dragon Stirs

Tech Central Station

August 2, 2004

For the decade after the Cold War, the United States military strategy was built around a scenario involving two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts with Iraq and North Korea. Much derided by analysts throughout that period, the doctrine was formally abandoned with the September 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review. Ironically, the announcement a few months later that North Korea had acquired nuclear capability and the long march to war with Iraq soon thereafter made that scenario much more likely than ever before. Similarly, strategic planners have long projected a burgeoning People’s Republic of China as the most likely military competitor for the United States. While considered a reach by most observers, this, too, may soon become a reality.

Recently the Washington Times‘ Bill Gertz reported a massive buildup in the Chinese submarine fleet that had caught US intelligence flatfooted.

China’s naval buildup has produced a new type of attack submarine that U.S. intelligence did not know was under construction, according to U.S. defense and intelligence officials. . . . One official said the new submarine was a ‘technical surprise’ to U.S. intelligence, which was unaware that Beijing was building a new non-nuclear powered attack submarine. U.S. intelligence agencies have few details about the new submarine but believe it is diesel-powered rather than nuclear-powered, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The new boat, which appears to be a combination of indigenous Chinese hardware and Russian weapons, suggests that China is building up its submarine forces in preparation for a conflict over Taiwan, defense analysts say. “China has decided submarines are its first-line warships now, their best shot at beating carriers,” said Sid Trevethan, an Alaska-based specialist on the Chinese military. “And China is right.” “One has to marvel at the enormity of the investment by the People’s Liberation Army in submarines,” said Richard Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military.

China also is building two nuclear-powered submarines – one Type 093, believed to be based on the Russian Victor-III class and armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles, and a Type 094 attack submarine, which the Pentagon believes has a finished hull and will be ready for deployment next year. According to Mr. Trevethan, China currently has a force of 57 deployed submarines, including one Xia-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine, five Han submarines, four Kilos, seven Songs, 18 Mings and 22 Soviet-designed Romeos. Beijing also has eight more Kilos on order with Russia.


A Pentagon report made public in May stated that China is changing its warship forces from a coastal defense force to one employing “active offshore defense.”

“This change in operations requires newer, more modern warships and submarines capable of operating at greater distances from China’s coast for longer periods,” the report said, noting that submarine construction is a top priority.

Gertz’ report comes on the heels of several recent reports, none of which has gotten much attention. Hamish McDonald, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, notes that the United States and China are both sending strong signals to one another on the Taiwan issue.

Over recent weeks — and the operations will continue through to next month — the US Navy has been testing an awesome display of military force, by deploying seven aircraft-carrier strike groups simultaneously at different locations around the globe. The aim is to prove a new operational doctrine called the “fleet response plan” that can provide six carrier groups in less than 30 days to deal with military contingencies anywhere in the world, with another two carrier groups to be battle-ready within three months. The exercise, “Summer Pulse 04,” is being studied very closely in Beijing, where it is clearly being read by some as a warning to China as much as any of the so-called rogue nations that might challenge American dominance.

Concern about a Chinese military strike against the US-shielded Taiwan has sharpened drastically since the island’s independence-leaning President, Chen Shui-bian, gained a new term in the March elections and foreshadowed changes to its constitution.

This month, the People’s Liberation Army is holding ground, sea and air exercises involving its latest fighters, submarines and missile ships around Dongshan Island, off the Fujian coast near Taiwan, to send what official media called “a substantial warning” to the island’s leadership. The tone of Beijing’s rhetoric has changed, notes Richard Baum, a leading China specialist at the University of California in Los Angeles. The decibel-level of harsh anti-Chen polemic has subsided, replaced by a mood of “grim determination,” Baum said in a Yale Review article. “Before a tiger attacks, it remains calm and quiet,” one Chinese scholar told Baum.

CNN reports that the PLA exercises involved “months of preparation,” involved 18,000 troops, and “will aim for the first time to demonstrate air superiority in the Taiwan Strait.”

Jim Wolf of Reuters reports that Dragon’s Thunder, “a crisis-simulation drill based on a growing Chinese military threat to Taiwan,” was held at National Defense University last week.

Pentagon officials cautioned against reading anything into the timing of the strategy drill or into the deployment of seven U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups worldwide simultaneously. “Neither the deployment of carrier strike groups worldwide nor this NDU tabletop exercise should be seen as sending a signal to any specific country,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Flex Plexico, a Pentagon spokesman.

While it is certainly true that the Pentagon plans for a wide variety of scenarios on a routine basis, the confluence of so many of them based on a conflict with China — during a time when the nation is engaged in a global war against Islamic terrorists and spread very thin by major combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, is quite noteworthy. From later in Wolf’s report:

The scenario in the U.S. exercises, ninth in a series prompted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “specifically examined responses to an increasing possibility of military action by China against Taiwan,” the National Defense University said. Details of the scenario and “lessons learned” were classified, but such crisis-simulation was meant to be as realistic as possible, said David Thomas, a defense university spokesman. “Participants examined the gravity, complexity and difficulty inherent in responding to a sequence of escalating tensions between China and Taiwan,” he added in a statement. “The exercise sought to understand the full range of policy options and associated consequences available to the U.S. to restore stability to the Taiwan Straits and surrounding region, while avoiding nuclear confrontation with China,” NDU said.

Opening the session, Navy Secretary Gordon England noted the value of such games for addressing “some of the complex security problems the nation confronts today,” it said. Participants were from Rumsfeld’s office, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, U.S. Pacific Command, White House National Security Council, National Intelligence Council and departments of State and Commerce, according to NDU. Also taking part were 14 members of Congress, including Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Maryland Republican who chairs the House of Representatives Projection Forces Committee.

Again, given the other commitments of the Defense Department, it is highly unlikely that they would hold nine simulations of a China-Taiwan conflict and draw the attention of several Members of Congress if they believed the scenario to be off-the-wall.

Certainly, the Chinese are giving every indication that they think a military clash over Taiwan is inevitable. According to CNN,

China believes Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian will push for formal statehood after winning a second four-year term in March and is preparing for a possible showdown with the island, which Beijing has claimed since their split at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. The period “before or after 2020 is the time to resolve the Taiwan issue,” military chief and ex-Communist Party chief Jiang told a recent expanded meeting of the Central Military Commission, the decision-making body of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Wen Wei Po newspaper said. The meeting also approved military, political, logistics and armament development plans over an unspecified period for the 2.5-million-strong PLA, the newspaper said. It gave no details.

McDonald indicates that the conflict may come much sooner:

Numerous US analysts believe that China’s military is close to reaching the capability it sees as necessary for an attack on special forces in Taiwan before the US Navy could execute its 30-day ‘surge’ of massive reinforcements to the region — a Chinese version of US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘shock and awe’.

The decisive moment could come even as early as Taiwan’s elections for its legislature this December, when Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party is expected to sweep out many of the conservative Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist) oppositionists who have so far protected the existing constitution that sees Taiwan as part of China. But most see 2006, when Chen introduces his constitutional reforms, as a critical time. Repeatedly, in recent months, Chinese spokesmen have warned that any price — large casualties and physical damage, broken diplomatic ties, economic reverses, and disruption of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing — will be paid to prevent Taiwan declaring its independence.

An assessment published last week in the Wall Street Journal indicates that China’s military, while still nothing close to a match for that of the U.S., has made great strides in recent years.

“The Chinese have leapfrogged,” says James Mulvenon, a Chinese military specialist with Rand Corp., a think-tank often commissioned by the U.S. government to study security issues. “Don’t comfort yourself by thinking that they’re not formidable.”

The PLA isn’t likely to catch up with the U.S. for a long time, foreign military analysts say. Its 2.25-million-member force, the world’s largest, is largely land-bound. It has an improving arsenal of missiles but underpowered naval and air forces; they and the infantry rarely train together. China also still relies on Russia and other foreign suppliers for major weapons systems. Defense attachés who have visited Chinese ships describe seeing a mish-mash of electronics, some of it commercially available. Only in recent years have commanders boasted of a new capability — encrypted e-mails.

Despite the disparity, though, China has the ability to create fear and disruption in Taiwan.

With its growing proficiency, the PLA is making a concerted push into information warfare — the use of computer viruses to paralyze an enemy’s financial markets or traffic systems. The PLA has opened an information-warfare center and is training special units in these skills, according to Shen Weiguang, a former aide to the PLA’s recently retired chief of staff and a lecturer at military academies on warfare trends. In 1996, the PLA couldn’t track two U.S. aircraft-carrier groups that Washington dispatched to Taiwan, recalls Mr. Shen. “We’re not deaf and blind anymore. If you come, we’ll know,” he says.

All these changes are giving China’s leadership real military options for the first time in decades. Military analysts think the PLA still lacks sufficient naval and air power to launch a full invasion of Taiwan, for example. But the areas where the PLA is making its greatest strides — commando forces, information warfare and missiles technology — could, if deployed together in a few years time, demolish Taiwan’s military bases and command centers, according to a Pentagon assessment of the PLA’s capabilities.

It should also be noted that, while China is still well behind the U.S., Taiwan is another story. As noted in the Gertz piece, “Taiwan currently has just two World War II-era Guppy-class submarines and two 1980s Dutch submarines.” The US offered to sell them an additional eight submarines in 2001 but that sale has not occurred.

China may calculate that, with the U.S. straining under the burdens of the war on terror and sustaining a force in Iraq, it will be reluctant to intervene in a conflict over Taiwan. Despite several decades of bipartisan U.S. policy to the contrary, that calculation may not be entirely unfounded.

 Original article 


Bouncing the Security Check

Tech Central Station

June 1, 2004

The massive hiring in the security sector in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks has left us with a huge backlog of people waiting for federal security clearances. A recent General Accounting Office report estimated the total at 360,000 — including 188,000 civilian contractors for the Defense Department alone. The average time to obtain a Top Secret clearance has ballooned to well over a year.

All observers agree that this backlog has serious consequences, including substantial cost overruns, long delays in bringing in experts in the high tech sector desperately needed in the war on terrorism, and the loss of people who get other offers while waiting for their clearance.

Moreover, it skews the hiring process. Rather than pay employees for a year or more awaiting a clearance, many firms simply will not look at a candidate who does not already have a clearance in hand. As a senior manager told the Washington Post, “We’re essentially creating a new class of people here, where a clearance takes precedence over skills or ability, and that’s sad.”

The GAO cites several reasons for this problem, including too few people to handle the new workload; an increase in the proportion of personnel requiring time-intensive Top Secret clearances; inaccurate estimates by agencies of how many clearances they would need; and the fact that clearances granted by one government agency are not always accepted by others. While these issues no doubt need to be addressed, a far more serious issue is that the process itself is hopelessly outdated, designed to meet the needs of a Cold War world in which we no longer live.

The amount of paperwork necessary to apply for a Top Secret clearance is simply staggering. The SF-86, which is increasingly completed electronically but is still done on paper by several agencies, requires applicants to give extensive information on every school, employer, and residence they have had from their sixteenth birthday to present, including the names, addresses, and phone numbers of two neighbors from each place. While this was simple enough for a typical applicant in 1950, joining right out of high school or college and having lived in the same town his entire life, it is a daunting task indeed for someone in today’s mobile society. Most applicants in their thirties have had numerous jobs, lived in several states, and barely know their current neighbors, let alone the whereabouts of people with whom they were casually associated in 1985. Further, even if the applicant can find this information, almost all of the bosses, co-workers, and neighbors have likely themselves moved on.

Once the form is processed, an investigation is launched by one of several agencies (there is not a single process that covers the entire federal government) into a dozen areas: a national agency check to verify that people have not had run-ins with the FBI, have paid their taxes, registered with the Selective Service, and look into their military service; a credit check to ensure that the subject is not so deeply in debt as to be a blackmail target; local agency checks for each place lived during the investigation period; citizenship records for the subject, his immediate family, and anyone with which whom he has cohabitated; corroboration of education records; review of employment records, including interview with supervisors and coworkers; interviews with neighbors and others listed on the SF-86 which are done solely to generate leads for others to interview; national agency checks on current and former spouses and other cohabitants; various other public record checks to answer any questions about bankruptcy, divorce, and criminal and civil cases raised by the investigation so far; and, finally, a subject interview to resolve any inconsistencies. For especially sensitive positions, polygraph and drug tests will also be administered. It is also noteworthy that most this check is repeated periodically even for people who have received a clearance.

The point of this exercise is to ensure that the person in question is loyal to the country, emotionally stable, and does not engage in a lifestyle that would make him susceptible to blackmail. While these goals remain vital, almost all of the current process is unnecessary in the computer age. With fingerprints and a Social Security number, a reasonably competent government researcher can obtain all the information he needs in a matter of seconds. Indeed, the lady who signs new tenants at the apartment complex, the guy at the pawn shop who sells firearms, and the girl who takes your American Express at your favorite restaurant do it every day. The added value of talking to nosy neighbors and bitter ex-spouses is questionable at best.

The clearance process really does nothing more than ensure people do not have a criminal record, a history of drug abuse, so much debt as to be likely blackmail candidates, or ties to subversive organizations. Almost everyone meets this standard. Real security comes from maintaining strict protocols in the handling of sensitive information and monitoring the activities of the people who handle that information once hired. Remember, Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames had the highest clearance known to man and still sold secrets to our enemies.

Original article