Showing posts with label The Patriot Act. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Patriot Act. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Patriot Act, Terrorism and the Irrationality of Fear (Part 2)

READ: Part 1 here.

“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
James Madison

Now let’s look at the two main arguments that lawmakers and spy agency officials constantly put forward to justify the far reaching and arbitrary nature of the current surveillance programs. Governments around the world agree that acts committed by seemingly normal people with no affiliation to a terrorist group are both the new soup du jour and their greatest fear. Yet, a few honest people in security establishments also add that there is virtually no way to detect or stop these people unless we can find a way to read their minds.

This begs the question whether programs exposed by Snowden, like PRISM, are an attempt by the government (perhaps unwittingly) to build a machine designed to detect an act of terror before it happens? A sort of pre-crime unit like in the one in the Steve Spielberg movie, Minority Report. Is the US government attempting to collect every piece of communication from every citizen, in the hope of trying to establish a pattern of behaviour that might indicate self-radicalization? Proponents of the current NSA programs would have us believe that such a program is the only way for the government and security agencies to keep us safe by stopping lone wolf attacks. 

Many lawmakers defend these programs by talking about the number of terrorist attacks that have been thwarted as a result of this surveillance, but are conveniently unable to provide any statistics due to national security concerns. Both the Justice Department and the FBI have publicly admitted that “in spite of all that added spying, they couldn’t point to one single case that was solved, or one single terrorist act that was thwarted through the use of these Patriot Act provisions.” (Source: Washington Post Article). Some people disagree with this view and argue the opposite, but, since we do not have access to ‘sensitive’ information, let’s look at the last few major terrorist attacks that have been thwarted.

In the case of the Times Square bomber it was a vigilant food vendor that alerted police and not the massive surveillance apparatus the government has built. It was a last minute tip from a Saudi informant that prevented the printer bombs, aboard cargo planes, from exploding in midair en-route to Chicago. The two packages bound for the US, had passed undetected “through four countries in at least four different airplanes, two of them carrying passengers” (source: NY Times). The Nigerian underwear bomber’s father personally went to the US Embassy in Abuja to warn the US government that his son was becoming radicalized. This tip was passed on to counterterrorism officials in the US, yet less than a month later Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab successfully passed through Nigerian and Dutch security using his real identity, paying cash for a one way ticket and never checked luggage – all things that are supposed red flags in our post-9/11 Patriot Act security apparatus. The older brother in the Boston marathon bombings was identified by Russian intelligence, who warned US intelligence that this young man on a path to being radicalized. I guess the NSA’s multi-billion dollar machine did not think so. 

Time after time we have seen that human intelligence is the only surefire way to thwart a terrorist attack. Human intelligence will always be the most valuable and effective way for us to stop any kind of attack, because all attacks require time to plan and the process of radicalisation is visible to the people closest to the would-be terrorist. The attacker needs time to procure bomb-making expertise, buy physical materials and will likely also have some accomplices. A friend, co-worker, family or community member will witness changes in these people; homegrown terrorists do not live in isolation. All of the recent lone wolf terrorists in the US have been well-educated and functioning members of society – but all must at some point have displayed signs of odd behaviour and warning signs to the people around them. This is where we need to focus. 

No amount of reading emails or storing metadata from our Skype and cellphone calls can provide this intelligence. We should focus our energy on winning trust in local communities and educating people to inform authorities the moment they see well-defined warning signs. I am not talking about asking everyone to spy on neighbours, but about picking up on overt changes in behaviour in people we have known all our lives.

One other factor that should concern us is the government’s growing reliance on machines and data. Every data scientist will tell you that ‘too much’ data is worse than having none at all. It can actually hamper one’s ability to prevent attacks because you either miss the needles in the haystack or spread yourself too thin trying to understand and connect every dot. Consider the sheer amount of data being collected today; it requires authorities to cast a much wider net and as a result lose focus on the more important warning signs.  

I am not suggesting that we abandon spying programs or get rid of the entire Patriot Act. Nor am I suggesting that we lay down our arms and meekly accept our fate. We absolutely must be vigilant and put measures in place to prevent attacks, but there also needs to be a discussion about the limits and oversights that must be placed on these programs. Government needs to be more honest about the realities and limits of how safe we can be, rather than pandering to voters and behaving like there is always something more that can be done after a new attack. 

America’s founding fathers were acutely aware of too much power corrupting people and built safeguards into the constitution. Today, our government and security agencies are building deeply sophisticated and frighteningly broad surveillance systems designed to spy on their own citizens in the name of protecting us from acts of terror. The problem is that this is a disingenuous and irrational argument, one that will not make us safer, but will lead to greater abuse of power with less transparency and virtually no accountability.

The question we need to answer is – have we become so irrational in this fear that we would give up freedoms for which our forefathers gave their lives? Are we willing to live in a world where government watches our every move and monitors every form of communication just to find one needle in a vast haystack? I know I do not want to live in such a world. I would rather take my chances and die in a terrorist attack.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Patriot Act, Terrorism and the Irrationality of Fear (Part 1)

“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
James Madison

I believe most can agree that, no matter what your stance on national security, terrorism is and always will be a heinous and cowardly act of violence committed against innocent people, motivated by political, religious or social fanaticism. However, how we chose to let our government protect us and how we decide to fight this cowardly and invisible enemy is a choice we must make. 

The questions we have to ask ourselves are: How many hard-fought freedoms are we willing to let our government sacrifice in the name of protecting us? And how much privacy are we are willing to give up to feel safer? To say that we need to make an absolute choice between our freedoms and our security is a false argument because it’s impossible to be 100% safe from an enemy that is willing to give up their own lives to take ours. 

This is an extremely important debate given the revelations about the opaque nature with which our government and the NSA have been operating and abusing their powers. They have gone beyond our borders, bypassed our laws and their severely overextended their remit. The NSA no longer felt the need to keep the President of the United States of America informed about some of their spying programs. 

We urgently need a new framework for the NSA, one that has sufficient and effective oversight by the executive, legislative and the judicial branches of government. The NSA has shown they cannot be trusted, operating with complete impunity, little transparency and zero accountability. Beyond the argument to protect privacy, there are a number of other reasons why the current NSA spying program needs to be curtailed and have some reasonable limits applied to it, before it is too late.

Let’s start with the simple fact that, while fear is an irrational thing, it does have a tangible effect in our daily lives and societies. Take the stock market, for example, it goes up and down based on a number of rational factors, but is also directly driven by irrational sentiment – our level of confidence or lack thereof, in the economy, personal job prospects and optimism or pessimism about our future. So too with terrorism, there are irrational and rational elements that we need to consider when determining the level of security that is reasonable to protect against attacks.

First, security experts around the world agree that the majority of airport security procedures are completely ineffective in preventing an act of terror; yet the TSA’s budget in 2014 was over $7 Billion (source: Wikipedia). There have been numerous studies and reports published on how ineffective the TSA and their methods are (Source: “Airport Security Is Making Americans Less Safe” and “Report Says T.S.A. Screening Is Not Objective” and “TSA Chief Out After Agents Fail 95 Percent of Airport Breach Tests”.)  

If you examine these facts rationally, you could build a strong argument for getting rid of most of these airport security measures, or at the very least cut down on the number of inconveniences travelers face. Yet, the reason for all this security is simple and has little to do with making us more secure on an aircraft. It is psychological and driven by the fact that air travel is vital for global commerce and economic growth.

Imagine if people became too scared to fly - the world and business would come to a grinding halt. So even though the amount of money spent on airport security is disproportionate to the actual security it provides, the visibility and inconvenience makes people feel safer, which in turn helps them go about their daily lives. For this reason, there are sometimes important and valid reasons to make a show of security. There is a tangible economic benefit involved and this is why airports and not train stations, bus depots or sea ports are protected in the same manner. This is also the reason we always see a beefed up security presence on the streets in the aftermath of a terror attack anywhere in the world.

The second thing to weigh in this debate is that we have a disproportionate emotional response to terrorism as compared to every other event that ends with loss of life. Consider our response to the Boston Marathon bombings against our response to the Texas refinery explosion that happened the same week. Three people died in Boston and fifteen in Texas. In Boston, a number of people were maimed; in Texas an entire town was leveled with hospitals, schools and homes all destroyed. 

Yet, we and the media fixated entirely on the events in Boston and the subsequent manhunt for two young men. Within a few weeks America had donated $61 Million to the OneFund for the Boston victims; while Texas has received little more than $1M of our kindness in that time. I am not arguing that one was less or more devastating than the other, simply pointing out how disproportionate, both our fixation and our tangible responses is to terrorism versus any other calamitous event. 

Ultimately it is much easier to unite against a common enemy that has a name and face, and get some sense of closure when our government hunts down and kills them.


Friday, September 30, 2011

September 11 - Ten Years Later (Part 1)

“If we were about to be attacked or had been attacked or something happened that threatened a vital U.S. national interest, I would be the first in line to say, ‘Let’s go,’ I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice.”
Robert Gates

This is what George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense said on being asked if he had any words of wisdom during his final interview before retirement. This lifelong Republican said that the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he has witnessed first-hand are far too great to start wars that were not necessary. He said he had learned clearly over the past four and a half years that wars “have taken longer and been more costly in lives and treasure” than anticipated.” The man George Bush handpicked to fix the mess his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld made in Iraq, effectively told America that the Iraq war was not something he would have embarked on; a war that was clearly one of America’s choosing. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/19/us/politics/19gates.html

Ten years after the September 11th attacks, Americans are still avoiding having an open, honest and meaningful discussion about the far reaching implications and long-term costs of the decisions their government made in the name of national security. I truly believe that until America has this conversation and in doing so faces the real ghosts of 9/11, they will struggle to move forward as a unified nation again. Instead, the country will continue down the post 9/11 path of a nation deeply divided and one that has never stopped living in and reacting out of fear. Nobody denies the fact that the country’s security should be a major concern when attacked in this way. Nor would anyone have a problem with the United States going after those responsible with any and all means possible; we can also expect and discount a certain amount of knee-jerk reactionism in the short-term. However, after a short period of time the elected leaders should have been the first people to step up and ensure that cooler heads prevailed. They should have been the ones to ensure that both the short-term costs and the long-term implications of every major decision was weighed and counter-weighed; that every plan was carefully examined before there was a rush to judgement. Now, ten years later, the best way to have this important conversation is to do it by looking at the facts and figures, and by studying the realities and outcomes that resulted from those decisions made by the Bush government in those fear filled months and fear-mongering years after 9/11. 

Let’s start by examining the financial burden of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. This figure now stands at a staggering $1.7 trillion and counting; and that is just for military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans’ health care. It is worth mentioning that 1% - 2% of this total amount has been misplaced. The government now acknowledges that they have no accounting for this loss of taxpayer money. The Iraq war accounts for $872 billion (or 63%) of the total. Of that amount, $803 billion has been spent on military operations, $28 billion on local security and $41 billion that includes funds for reconstruction and foreign aid (source: “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11” prepared by the Congressional Research Service). Keep in mind this does not include the future cost of both these wars; which along with the estimated veteran care are projected to cost US taxpayers another $867 billion. Of course critics say these projections are too high but think back to when Cheney was lobbying for the Iraq war, he also repeatedly re-assured us that the price tag for this war - to oust Saddam, restore order and install a new government would not exceed $50-$60 billion. As we compile the total costs of post 9/11 government actions we are still not accounting for the increased expenditure from huge new additions to the government bureaucracy with the inception of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Department of Homeland Security and increased domestic intelligence budgets that were all non-war related expenses. In fact, if you tally all of this government expenditure, then George W. Bush has the distinction of “presiding over the largest increase in the size of government since the Great Society,” and those are John McCain’s words.

Next, we need to examine the current state of the regions within which these conflicts reside to fully understand the very real outcomes from both a regional stability and geopolitical stand-point. In the Middle East, the US’s closest ally Israel finds itself increasingly isolated and alone in the region. Meanwhile, Iran’s influence and power has grown substantially, directly as a result of America removing enemies on her borders, Iraq and Afghanistan.  What’s more, today Iraq is one of Iran’s largest trading partners, and Iran is rapidly strengthening trade ties with Afghanistan, giving it unparalleled clout and influence in both countries.  Ironically, Bush’s War on Terror has resulted in unimaginable gains and geopolitical power for this “axis of evil” country. The US has inadvertently helped change Iran’s status from an isolated pariah state, in 2003, to a major regional power broker by 2009. One wonders if America had not taken its eye off the ball when it had the Taliban and Al’ Qaeda on the run, and finished the job, if the situation would be different today with Iran. By taking the entire focus away from the Afghan conflict and relying instead on writing blank cheques to Pakistan and a corrupt Afghan government, it seems America was hoping they could have their cake and eat it. The US expected to wrap up a quick and cheap Iraq war – we all know how that turned out. This decision is even more amazing given that the US was fully aware of the murky history between the ISI and Taliban and acutely aware of Pakistan’s paranoia about India’s growing influence in a new Afghanistan. By 2008 the Taliban had the opportunity to fully re-group, and had turned Pakistan’s tribal regions into a new safe harbor for themselves and a host of other affiliated terrorist networks, including Al Qaeda. Pakistan is still the launching point for all attacks on US troops in Afghanistan, and arguably closer to being a failed state, with nuclear weapons, than ever before in its history. I believe there is a strong argument that things would be very different in this region, today, had the US not diverted all its military resources, assets, support and political focus and diverted it to a war of choice in Iraq. 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, between warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation, water boarding, the patriot act and illegal domestic surveillance programs, we are only now starting to scratch the surface of secret government decisions made in the name of our security. It is also apparent that many of these decisions did not uphold America’s high ideals, beliefs and strong democratic values. Rather than get into a discussion about civil rights violations, let us examine the net result of the actions of creating a huge new domestic security apparatus with the TSA, Homeland Security and a mega-billion dollar domestic intelligence gathering network. One that starts with a SAR (Suspicious Activity Report) that local police officers are encouraged to fill out on their beats, which gets stored in a massive database without any further scrutiny or investigation of the person named in the report. All this information is then analysed using sophisticated software that is meant to stitch disparate pieces of information together, distributing it to federal “authorities” in real-time. In the context of this enhanced security apparatus, let’s review the last three major terrorist plots against the US, starting with the Christmas Day bomber.  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab managed to board a flight to Detroit with an explosive device hidden in his underwear. Luckily this device failed to detonate, after which he was wrestled to the ground by a fellow passenger. What boggles the mind is the fact that this new and improved multi-billion dollar security apparatus completely missed him - this after his father, a respected Nigerian banker, called US authorities and warned them that his son was becoming radicalized. Despite being on a no fly list Abdulmutallab was not stopped at two different airports, and even though he bought a one-way ticket (like all the 9/11 hijackers) it was not picked up as a red flag by all our new and highly sophisticated security algorithms and apparatus. We are told that his name was misspelled on the no-fly list; clearly our government’s multi-billion dollar taxpayer funded state-of-the-art software does not contain a basic spell check or even the level of sophistication that Google’s search box provides with its query suggestions. Next we had the Times Square bomber who was caught, not by our enhanced security, but only because some alert citizens noticed a man acting strangely after parking his SUV near Times Square. A couple of street vendors called police after seeing what looked like smoke and some strange apparatus inside the abandoned vehicle, Finally, we had another close call with two packages located on separate cargo planes bound for the US from Yemen. Both had home printers with plastique explosives and a sophisticated detonating mechanism timed to blow up in mid-air over US cities. The only reason we discovered and disarmed them was thanks to a call from a reformed Al Qaeda terrorist to the head of Saudi intelligence. It begs the question of what all this increased prying, searching, and snooping has resulted in. Clearly it has not served as a deterrent, because the number of terrorist attacks has actually increased dramatically worldwide* (see footnote for sources), and in the US, in the past decade and at a much greater rate than before the Iraq war. The point is that securing the country is important but finding the right balance between technology, paranoia and human intelligence is equally important. Think about the fact that every new action by terrorists has led to a knee-jerk and piece-meal reaction to our growing security paranoia. First, we were asked to remove our shoes, then our belts, then gels were prohibited, next liquids had to be less than 3.4 ounces, and put in clear plastic baggies. Now since they cannot ask us to take off our undergarments we are instead virtually strip searched. Arguably, all this money is not being well spent because it is being done in a completely reactionary fashion rather than as part of a well thought out plan. We know that the terrorists will stop at nothing to kill us, so the only question is where will we draw the line?




*NOTE: Sources: The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from September, 2006.  The NIE is issued by the President’s Director of National Intelligence and their conclusions are based on analysis of raw intelligence collected by all the US spy agencies.  It is an assessment on national security.  The 2006 NIE said that the number of terrorist attacks (defined as “as an act of violence or the threat of violence, calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm”) had risen dramatically worldwide since the Invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The same NIE also cited the Iraq war as a major factor in this startling rise in global jihadist terrorist attacks.   We also have the US State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism, 2006 which stated that there had been a 29% increase in terrorism worldwide in 2006, over the previous year; terrorist attacks on non-military targets rose to 14,338 with an increase of deaths to 20,498.  If you need any more data then I can point to another independent global study on terrorism conducted by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, research fellows at the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law.  They found that there was a 607 percent rise in the average yearly incidence of attacks since the Iraq invasion. It is true that Iraq and Afghanistan do cause a huge blip and together account of 80 percent of attacks and 67 percent of fatalities; however, if you exclude these two countries you still see a solid 35 percent per year increase in the number of terrorist attacks in the rest of the world.