National Security

Threat of Terrorism Still Making People Stupid

Save us from this man.
When you're a partisan, you have a certain obligation to be, well, partisan. That means you have to put the things your side does in the best light and the things the other side does in the worst light. Their motives are always suspect while your are always pure, and if anything goes wrong it was obviously their fault, while if anything goes right they had nothing to do with it. But just how far does this obligation extend? How far beyond the borders of logic and reason can you ride it? The unfortunate answer is, pretty darn far. As you've heard, the administration ordered a number of embassies, mostly in the Middle East, closed for a few days because of some "chatter" relating to a potential al Qaeda attack. Republican Congressman Peter King said that this demonstrates that "Al Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11," which is kind of like saying that the fact that the Backstreet Boys are currently touring shows that they're even more popular than they were in the...

Kerry's Heavy Lifting Begins on Israel-Palestine

Preliminary peace talks begin in Washington next week amid hopes that the U.S.'s efforts will engender much-needed change in the region. 

 

AP Images/ Fadi Arouri
Defying the skeptics, Secretary of State John Kerry announced last Friday that Israelis and Palestinians had “established a basis” to return to peace talks, which have stalled since 2010. Kerry is wisely keeping a close hold on details so as not to create opportunities for spoilers in advance of negotiations actually taking place, but the latest is that preliminary talks, in which the Palestinians will be represented by longtime negotiator Saeb Erekat and the Israelis by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu’s “personal envoy” Yitzhak Molcho , will begin in Washington next Tuesday . Now that new talks are imminent, critics are hard at work detailing the challenges ahead. As Daniel Levy noted in a recent piece, “Predicting the difficulties for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is about as challenging as predicting the media interest in a British royal birth.” The more important question now is whether, having successfully brought the parties back to the table, Kerry will be...

Pray the Atheists Away

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
AP Photo/The Fayetteville Observer, Raul R. Rubiera Earlier this week, two Democratic representatives felt the sting of the old adage, “no good deed goes unpunished.” Earlier this summer, Colorado representative Jared Polis and New Jersey representative Robert Andrews tried to push through an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act—a large defense budget bill—that would allow the Department of Defense to add nonreligious chaplains to the ranks of the military. Not only did the amendment fail, its opponents were so incensed that they introduced their own amendment, requiring any chaplain appointed to the military to be sponsored by an “endorsing agency,” all of which are religious. The new measure passed resoundingly, 253 to 173. Republicans seemed simultaneously baffled and horrified by the notion that nonreligious chaplains might have something to offer service members. “They don’t believe anything,” explained Representative Mike Conaway, a Republican from Texas, during a...

Congress Tells NSA to Keep Up the Good Work

National Security Agency headquarters.
What with the important news of a baby being born in England and the further adventures of Anthony Weiner's penis dominating our attention, you probably didn't notice the failure yesterday of an amendment in the House to end the NSA's program collecting phone records on you, your neighbors, and every other American. Keep in mind that, as Sen. Ron Wyden has intimated , there are almost certainly other NSA surveillance programs that we would also be shocked to hear about, but remain secret. That this amendment, sponsored by Republican Rep. Justin Amash, got a vote at all is somewhat surprising, but from all appearances , Speaker John Boehner saw it as a way to allow the more libertarian members of his caucus to let off some steam and take a stand against government surveillance. It may not have ever had much of a chance of passing both the House and Senate, but the Obama administration pushed for a no vote and General Keith Alexander himself went to Capitol Hill to lobby against it, and...

Liz and Dick

With the help of her powerful father, Liz Cheney is running for Senate and setting off the next round of an intra-GOP fight over foreign policy. 

AP Images/Cliff Owen
AP Images/Cliff Owen It’s not much of a surprise that Liz Cheney has decided to run for office, as she announced yesterday. With the help of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and access to his considerable network of donors and supporters, she’s been building a national profile herself, mainly on national security issues, for several years. What is surprising is that she would challenge a sitting Republican Senator in Wyoming, rather than the state in which she’s spent most of her time over the last decade. “When I heard Liz Cheney was running for Senate I wondered if she was running in her home state of Virginia,” said Senator Rand Paul in response to the news that Cheney would challenge incumbent Mike Enzi. The problem isn’t that a primary fight could weaken the GOP in Wyoming. As Jonathan Chait noted yesterday, there’s little real danger of a Democratic upset in reliably-red Wyoming. The problem, Chait continued, is that “Cheney is nuts—a spokesman of the deranged wing...

Transatlantic Trouble

How much has America's spying on European allies damaged the transatlantic trade deal once thought to be one of Obama's best opportunities for shaping his foreign policy legacy?

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
Recent revelations that the U.S. government had been spying on European allies continue to rile public sentiment on the continent, just as officials from both sides of the Atlantic sit down for talks in Washington on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a wide-ranging deal that the Obama administration has been pushing as a key foreign policy initiative. If successful, TTIP would deepen the economic ties between North America and the European Union and represent the biggest trade deal in over two decades. But with public trust in the United States ebbing throughout the core countries of the European Union, President Obama will probably have to do more than simply downplay the scandal as a hyped-up, misunderstood policy detail. Old school Atlanticists have long touted the wisdom of deeper economic integration between the United States and the European Union, which is already vast and significant. U.S.-EU trade in goods and services totals about one trillion...

Three Guiding Principles for NSA Reform

Many Americans are disturbed by government data-mining, but what can we actually do to change the system we're so uncomfortable with? 

AP Images/Oliver Berg
APImages/Oliver Berg E dward Snowden, the Booz Allen Hamilton contractor who leaked the details of top secret National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs could have tried to remain anonymous and avoid the consequences of his actions. That he chose not to, instead recording a lengthy interview explaining his motives and worldview, is remarkable for a modern-day leaker. While his supporters complain that the subsequent focus on Snowden has directed attention away from his leaks, his decision—and his moral calculus—are actually central to the public debate that’s erupted. Rather than petulantly whine that it’s unfair to examine the motives of a man desperate to justify himself, we should instead grapple with why Snowden chose to leak. The programs he exposed prompted a steady roar from civil libertarians, transparency activists, and reporters. It also prompted remarkable pushback from progressive Senators like Al Franken , who felt the program was legal and necessary. What...

Your Guide to the Polls on U.S. Military Involvement in Syria

Flickr/Freedom House
It's obviously a bad idea for the administration to decide whether to jump into a whole new Middle East quagmire based on whether the famously inattentive and uninformed American public thinks it's a good idea. Nevertheless, public opinion is inevitably going to play a role in President Obama's decision-making on this. That isn't to say Obama won't take any particular step unless the polls show the public approves, but any time a politician does something unpopular, he'll always be looking over his shoulder a little bit. So what do the American people think about the prospect of American military involvement in Syria? The first thing to understand is that they're not paying very much attention to the issue, which means few have given it a great deal of thought. According to a new Pew poll , only 15 percent of the public says they're following the story very closely, a figure that has been basically unchanged over the two years of the civil war there. (Another 30 percent say they're...

Where's the Intelligence Fallout?

That's what you say, but how can we be sure? (Flickr/sunnyUK)
You can make a reasonable argument for why Edward Snowden was wrong to release the information he did to The Guardian and The Washington Post (for instance, here 's Jeffrey Toobin and here 's Josh Marshall making that argument). But if you're going to turn Snowden into a villain, you'd have to show that the leaks did some kind of demonstrable harm to American national security. Even if you don't find Snowden's action heroic, it's quite possible that leaking this classified information was illegal and wrong, but nevertheless didn't do much damage or make us less safe than we otherwise were. So what is that harm? What the government has been saying so far isn't all that persuasive. While some of the details are new, we've known for years that the NSA was tracking phone and Internet traffic. This reminds me a little bit of 2006, when The New York Times reported on a government program to track and disrupt financing for terrorist groups through the banking system. The Bush administration...

Follow the Leaker

I don't know about you, but I don't feel like I'll truly understand the citizen's relationship to government in an age of sweeping electronic surveillance until I read Edward Snowden's girlfriend's blog. And this morning, Fox & Friends answered the question everyone in America was surely asking: Does Lou Ferrigno think Snowden is a traitor? (For the record, Ferrigno's response was nuanced, but leaned toward "yes.") But let's say you're glad you found out what The Hulk thinks, but you're still asking yourself, "Has Rob Schneider weighed in on this yet?" Politico has you covered . We all know that the news runs on personalities; a "story" without protagonists and antagonists isn't a story at all, it's just an "issue," and that's dullsville. But I'm sure the White House couldn't be happier that the NSA story is quickly becoming dominated by a discussion of Edward Snowden himself, which naturally crowds out discussion of the substance of his leak and whether we want to make...

Why the Public Doesn't Care about Surveillance

Pew Research Center
If there’s a major political problem faced by civil libertarians—on both sides of the aisle—it’s that there isn’t a large constituency for civil libertarian ideas. It’s not hard to see why. We have concrete examples of what happens when the federal government doesn’t make anti-terrorism a priority. The United States isn’t a stranger to civil liberties violations, but overwhelmingly, they’ve targeted the more marginal members of our society: Political dissidents, and racial and religious minorities. For the large majority of Americans, the surveillance state is an abstraction, and insofar that it would lead to abuses, they don’t perceive themselves as a target. And, in general, it’s hard to get people motivated when there isn’t a threat. Which is why it’s not a surprise to find that most Americans support the National Security Agency’s program of mass data collection. According to the latest survey from the Pew Research Center, a majority (56 percent to 41 percent) say it’s acceptable...

When the Bushies Return

Remember this guy? (Department of Defense/Denny Cantrell
Last week I noted that most people are being pretty consistent in how they're reacting to the revelations about NSA spying on your phone records, your Internet surfing, your toenail hygiene practices, and whatever else we're going to learn they've been up to (Glenn Greenwald is promising more revelations). There are some liberals defending it and some conservatives criticizing it, but most people seem to be holding to roughly the same positions they held when George W. Bush initiated these kinds of practices. Having said that, it's far from black and white. There's a very strong temptation when a controversy like this arises to just step in with your party's official position, but in this case neither party has an official position. Most liberals look to be at odds with a Democratic president, and there is some disagreement on the right between the neo-cons and libertarians despite their mutual dislike of Barack Obama, as Michael Tomasky discusses . Nevertheless, if this were a...

A Shocking Outbreak of Intellectual Consistency

National Security Agency headquarters (photo from nsa.gov)
As soon as an issue like the NSA surveillance comes along (and by the way, it needs a name—BigDataGulp, perhaps?), we immediately start hearing charges of hypocrisy. When a Democratic administration does something normally associated with Republicans, we've come to expect everybody to give their partisan affiliations precedence over their prior substantive beliefs, and switch sides. So liberals should now be fervently defending the government's right to see who you called and read your emails, and conservatives should be decrying the expansion of the national security state. And most of all, everyone should be accusing everyone else of hypocrisy. But weirdly enough, though there are some charges of hypocrisy, actual hypocrisy is in relatively short supply, outside of a few isolated cases here and there. I've spent the morning going around to websites of various political stripes, and amazingly, most commentators seem to be taking the same positions they did on this matter during the...

Get Your Hands Off My War on Terror!

AP Images/Holly Ramer
AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File P resident Barack Obama’s speech at the National Defense University last week represented the latest and probably most significant rhetorical shift away from the “war on terror” since he took office in January 2009. “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” he said in one of the speech’s key passages. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.” “Core al-Qaeda is a shell of its former self,” the president said. “ Groups like AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that label themselves al-Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.” Time will tell whether Obama puts real weight behind some of the changes articulated in the speech. There’s no question that it marked another important turn toward a more nuanced assessment of the threat posed by Islamic terrorism. But like...

The Forever War, Still Forever

White House photo by Eric Draper
*/ AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File T oday, President Barack Obama gives what has been billed as a major address on the status of the "war on terror," a term that the Obama administration doesn't use but that is still how we refer to the efforts the United States takes around the world fighting al-Qaeda, those affiliated with al-Qaeda, those who might be affiliated with someone who is affiliated with al-Qaeda, and pretty much any nongovernmental entity that looks at us funny. Whatever you call it, the war on terror is our endless war, just as George W. Bush set it out to be. With a Congress and most of a public willing to let him do almost anything he wanted, Bush and his administration told us all those years ago that we were fighting not al-Qaeda nor even terrorism but "terror" itself. In other words, our war would be not against a group of people or even a tactic that anyone can use but against our own fear. And that's a war we can never win. Nevertheless, when Obama was running...

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