National Security

Soldiering on an Empty Stomach

AP Images/Keith Srakocic
S ince the start of the Recession, the dollar amount of food stamps used at military commissaries, special stores that can be used by active-duty, retired, and some veterans of the armed forces has quadrupled, hitting $103 million last year. Food banks around the country have also reported a rise in the number of military families they serve, numbers that swelled during the Recession and haven’t, or have barely, abated. About 2,000 food-stamp recipients listed their occupations as active-duty military in 2012, according to the most recent data from the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food-stamp program. It’s a tiny fraction of the 47 million Americans who receive food stamps on an average month. The military also has its own program designed to provide families with additional money for food so that they don’t qualify for food stamps. Uptake is low—only 427 families used it. Those who work on anti-hunger issues worry that there are more complicated reasons...

No, Fracking Is Not Making the U.S. More Secure

AP Images/Brennan Linsley
AP Images/Brennan Linsley W hen it rains, it pours, so they say, but pouring rain is not exactly what you want in a drought. The big storm that hit the parched American Southwest at the end of February only scratched the surface of the problem. The land is far too dry and hard-packed to absorb the deluge; instead of recharging the earth, much of the water bounced off the dirt, turning into wasted runoff and even flash floods. These dry lands are dryer than they would otherwise be because of global warming-driven climate change . As it turns out, its not just the burning of oil, gas, and coal that's accelerating the loss of available freshwater, but also the drilling for two of the fuels themselves. A report by Ceres, a non-profit organization that promotes sustainability, found that almost half of the wells that were dug between January 2011 and May 2013 to hydraulically fracture (or "frack") shale rock to extract natural gas and "tight" oil were located in regions with "high or...

Dealing with Iran's Two Faces

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I srael’s announcement on Wednesday that its naval commandoes had seized a civilian ship laden with Iranian rockets bound for militant groups in Hamas-ruled Gaza came a day late to be included in the bill of particulars against Iran in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference. But it did come in time for a briefing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee by Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, who used it to bolster the argument that Iran’s only true face is the terrorist one. “You see on the one hand there is this charm offensive” from Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Steinitz told The Daily Beast . “And now you discover underneath the mask of this charm offensive, that Iran is still the same Iran.” Make no mistake, this is bad news, the latest exhibit in a sizable portfolio demonstrating again Iran’s destabilizing support for violent extremist groups in the...

No Exit: The Digital Edition

AP Images/Weng Lei
AP Images/Weng Lei P rivacy advocates say we should care about privacy because its erosion threatens liberty. "A human being who lives in a world in which he thinks he is always being watched is a human being who makes choices not as a free individual but as someone who is trying to conform to what is expected and demanded of them," Glenn Greenwald said in an interview. His statement echoes staunch privacy defenders of yore, like Justice Louis Brandeis, who described privacy as “the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” The public outrage that followed revelations about mass surveillance of citizens by the National Security Agency suggests many Americans agree. But appealing only to the ethical justifications for privacy won’t be enough to spur the rescue of this right. For one, it’s not clear how the visceral want for privacy translates into actual rules and policies in the digital age, especially when surrendering personal data just seems like its...

The Size of the Army Tells You Almost Nothing About Our Military Strength

Click inside for the full size-graph. You know you want it.
If you were watching the news in the last 24 hours, you undoubtedly saw a story about the new proposal from the Defense Department to make some personnel cuts. And if you saw one of those stories, you almost certainly saw the same factoid, whether you were reading the New York Times , watching the ABC News listening to NPR, or hearing about it via carrier pigeon: the Army is going to be reduced to its smallest size since World War II! Conor Friedersdorf does a good job of explaining why this is bunk, the main reason being that before World War II there was no Air Force; the people who did the flying and bombing were part of the Army. When you account for the 325,000 uniformed Air Force personnel of today, the Army looks much bigger than it did in 1940. But the weirdest part of this discussion is the idea that American military strength can be measured by the number of people in one service branch, or even in all the branches. If that were the case, the world's strongest military would...

Daily Meme: El Chapo and Our War on Drugs

Splashed all over this weekend's news was the capture of Joaquín Guzmán Loera aka, El Chapo , the Mexican drug kingpin ranked #67 on Forbes' s "Powerful People" list who got his billions from the being the man in at the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, responsible for an estimated 25 percent of the illegal drugs that make their way across the U.S.-Mexico border. The capture was surprisingly undramatic—he was found in bed—especially for a man who created a network of tunnels connecting six safe houses (one which emptied into a bathroom of his ex-wife's house ... cheeky of him). Now is as good a time as any to review the facts of the U.S. War on Drugs. Spoiler alert: It ain't pretty, and the capture of one guy probably won't change much about the current state of affairs. Last February, The Chicago Crime Commission named El Chapo Public Enemy No. 1 (a title once held by the irrepressible Al Capone). "While Chicago is 1,500 miles from Mexico, the Sinaloa drug cartel is so deeply embedded in...

The Good War, Now Not So Good

Flickr/U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Casteel
When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he promised that he would get us out of Iraq, the war everyone hated, and concentrate our efforts in Afghanistan, the good war. We had gone into Iraq on the basis of two false premises, one implied by the Bush administration (Saddam Hussein was responsible in some way for September 11) and one stated explicitly (Saddam had a terrifying arsenal of weapons of mass destruction with which he would be attacking us any day if we didn't attack him first). But Afghanistan was the war we could agree on. Sure, we'd been there for too long, and it was a devil of a mess. But that's where the September 11 attacks came from, so we were justified in going there. Over 12 years later, we've finally passed a milestone. According to the latest Gallup poll , a war that was supported by nine in ten Americans at its outset is now opposed by a plurality of us, with 49 percent saying it was a mistake to ever go there in the first place and 48 saying it wasn't a...

America In Decline

What freedom looks like.
I've always held that if there's one thing that proves America's superiority to all other nations, it's the quality of our television. Sure, other countries might be able to put together a Borgen or The Returned now and again, but nobody can match the good old U.S. of A. for our sheer quantity of top-shelf, high-production-value programming. But others might find proof of America's dominance not in our cultural hegemony but in our military hegemony. For years since September 11, we've been able to say proudly (or something) that we don't just spend more than every other country on Earth on our planes and bombs and fighting ships, we spend more than every other country on Earth combined . But if that's your measure of American greatness, you might want to sit down. The latest report on global military spending from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute is out, and the story they tell is a bracing one. What with the winding down of the Iraq War—and the increase in...

The Moment of Creation

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AP Images O n May 12, 1948, President Harry Truman convened a tense Oval Office meeting. In less than three days, Britain would leave Palestine, where civil war already raged between Jews and Arabs. Clark Clifford, Truman’s special counsel, argued the position of American Zionist organizations and Democratic politicians: The president should announce that he would recognize a Jewish state even before it was established. Secretary of State George Marshall was incensed. “I don’t even know why Clifford is here,” Marshall said. “He is a domestic advisor, and this is a foreign policy matter.” Marshall was asking for an impossible division. Foreign policy and domestic politics can’t be kept apart in a democracy, nor should they be. But this incident, described in John Judis’s Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict , shows that the question of whether U.S. policy toward Israel is captive to a special-interest group has existed even longer than Israel has...

Federal Board Finds NSA Program Illegal and Unjustified

AP Images/Oliver Berg
Yesterday, as Charlie Savage of the New York Times reported , the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) created by Congress issued a comprehensive report on the National Security Administration's collection of telephone data. This damning report makes it clear that President Obama's proposed reforms to the program don't go far enough . The PCLOB report raises serious questions about the legality of the program, and perhaps even more importantly, finds scant evidence that it has been effective at achieving its anti-terror goals. To start with question of the legality of the NSA program, the report raises both statutory and constitutional concerns. The report finds that the program exceeded the authority granted by Congress under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. According to the report, "Section 215 is designed to enable the FBI to acquire records that a business has in its possession, as part of an FBI investigation, when those records are relevant to the investigation...

Defense Spending Is the Most Expensive Way to Create Jobs

Th F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin).
When you're a defense contractor beginning a big new program, one of your key challenges once you've gotten the contract is to make sure the contract never goes away. One way to do that is to bring in the weapons system on time and under budget and win the thanks of a grateful nation. But since big weapons systems almost always come in late and over budget—and being over budget means bigger profits—the better way is to make sure a critical mass of congresspeople have a particular interest in keeping the taxpayer money flowing to your weapon. Which is why subcontracts on things like fighter jets and bombers are spread far and wide throughout the land, as though Lockheed Martin were a Johnny Appleseed of employment. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for instance, involves 1,300 subcontractors spread across 45 states. Which means that almost every senator and a few hundred members of the House would never think of killing it or scaling it back, no matter how many problems it encounters. But...

The Examined Life of the Digital Age

AP Images/Jose Luis Magana
You've seen it on CSI and other police procedurals a hundred times: the detectives take a surveillance photo and watch as their computer cycles through a zillion photos of perps and crooks until it blinks with a match, telling them who their suspect is. You may have known enough to realize that they can't actually do that—computerized face recognition isn't capable of taking a grainy, shadowed photo and identifying it positively as a particular person. Or at least they couldn't until recently. But the technology has been advancing rapidly, and now some law enforcement agencies are using powerful new software that can do just that, at least sometimes. It has a ways to go yet, but the question is when, not if, computers will be able to take the video that was shot of you as you walked down the sidewalk or browsed in a store and know exactly who you are. Last Friday I brought up the question of the future of surveillance, after President Obama's speech proposing new limits on the...

One Small Step for the Fourth Amendment

AP Images/Susan Walsh
Last week, Barack Obama delivered a speech announcing some reforms in response to Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency. As with most aspects of Obama's record on civil liberties, my response is inevitably mixed. The outlined reforms would certainly constitute a real improvement over the status quo, but they are also too narrow and limited. Some of these limitations reflect real political constraints, while others don't. To start with the good news first, Obama has announced that some checks and balances will be restored to the NSA's inquiries under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Under current practices, the NSA doesn't need to get judicial approval to query the database of metadata it collects; it can simply make queries if it makes a self-determination that the query was "reasonable." This self-enforced reasonableness standard is functionally indistinguishable from having no standard at all. Obama announced that he was ending this practice: the database...

The Surveillance State of Tomorrow

Flickr/Bryan Chan
By the time you read this, President Obama will probably have finished his speech outlining some changes to the NSA's global information vacuum. According to early reports , he'll propose creating an independent body to hold the phone metadata that the NSA gathers, and forcing the agency to get some kind of approval (presumably from the FISA court) before accessing it. Which is all fine and good. But the real question is whether we set up procedures and systems that constrain the NSA from doing not just what we already know about, but the things we haven't yet heard of, and even more importantly, the kinds of surveillance that will become possible in the future. Just today, we learned from the Guardian that "The National Security Agency has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks, and credit-card details, according to top-secret documents." I can't imagine that will be the last revelation...

Want to Predict the Future of Surveillance? Ask Poor Communities.

AP Images/Stephen Chernin
S ince Edward Snowden started disclosing millions of classified NSA documents in June, terms like metadata, software backdoors, and cybervulnerability have appeared regularly in headlines and sound bites. Many Americans were astonished when these stories broke. In blogs, comment sections, and op-ed pages, they expressed disbelief and outrage. But I wasn’t surprised. A decade ago, I sat talking to a young mother on welfare about her experiences with technology. When our conversation turned to Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (EBT), Dorothy* said, “They’re great. Except [Social Services] uses them as a tracking device.” I must have looked shocked, because she explained that her caseworker routinely looked at her EBT purchase records. Poor women are the test subjects for surveillance technology, Dorothy told me ruefully, and you should pay attention to what happens to us. You’re next. Poor and working-class Americans already live in the surveillance future. The revelations that are so...

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