Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Minnesota Organization of Blogs

Redistricting revisited

As a follow-up to my earlier post about redistricting, here's one idea for how a fair redistricting plan would work.

6. Each district shall be as contiguous as compact as practicable. With respect to compactness, to the extent practicable a contiguous area of population shall not be bypassed to incorporate an area of population more distant.

a. Respect for contiguous and compact districts shall be secondary to the goals of representativness and competitiveness.

7. District boundaries shall conform to the existing geographic boundaries of a county, city, or city and county, and shall preserve identifiable communities of interest to the greatest extent possible. A redistricting plan shall provide for the most whole counties and the fewest county fragments possible, and the most whole cities and fewest city fragments possible. For the purposes of this section, communities of interest are defined by similarities in social, cultural, ethnic, and economic interest, school districts, and other formal relationships between municipalities.

They also suggest forming large, multirepresentative districts out of (for example) three individual districts, and then electing the top three votegetters. That way you get fair minority representation without having to gerrymander individual districts.

Couple this with instant-runoff voting and you'd go a long way toward making elections fair, competitive and representative.

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The cost of ignoring civil liberties

The United States has agreed to pay $300,000 to an Egyptian man detained after 9/11.

NEW YORK -- The U.S. government has agreed to pay $300,000 to an Egyptian man who was detained for nearly a year following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but was never linked to terrorism, his lawyer said.

The settlement was filed in Brooklyn federal court on Monday, said attorney Haeyoung Yoon, who represents Ehab Elmaghraby. She said she believed it was the first settlement involving the claims of people detained after Sept. 11.

Elmaghraby, a former restaurant worker, was held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn from Oct. 1, 2001, until August 2002, Yoon said.


Elmaghraby said he was shackled, shoved into walls, punched and called a terrorist and epithets at the facility. Yoon said he was subjected to repetitive strip searches and a correction officer penetrated his anal cavity with a flashlight.

While in custody, Elmaghraby's thyroid condition was misdiagnosed as asthma, worsening it, Yoon said. He wanted to continue with the lawsuit but settled because of his mounting medical costs, she said.

This may well be just the first of many lawsuits, not counting a class-action suit that has been filed on behalf of all such detainees. It demonstrates once again the high cost of arbitrary detention and abuse of prisoners.

Ignoring civil liberties is a bad idea to begin with. And now it's going to become an expensive one.

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Drawing a bead on drawing districts

The Supreme Court has agreed to examine the 2003 redistricting in Texas, which moved the Texas Congressional delegation from a 17-15 Democratic majority to a 21-11 Republican majority.

The arguments will be about legality and minority voting rights, but the underlying case is a more basic one: what are the limits of gerrymandering political districts?

The basic facts are straightforward. The districts are supposed to be redrawn after each Census. They were, but the Texas legislators couldn't agree, so the issue got bounced to the courts, where a panel of judges basically reaffirmed the existing boundaries while adding two new districts.

Three years later, Delay and Texas Republicans reopened the issue and redrew the boundaries to suit themselves.

Politically, you'll be outraged if you're a Democrat and you think the 2003 redrawing violated the tradition of only redrawing districts after each census. Or you'll feel justice was served if you're a Republican who thinks that legislatures, not courts, are supposed to draw the districts, and so the court-drawn districts were illegitimate.

Me, I hope (probably forlornly) that the case will lead to some reasonable rules about drawing political districts.

Gerrymandering is wrong, period. Districts should be drawn in ways that make sense, not solely to favor one political party or the other.

Those charged with drawing districts should be required to follow one or more basic rules for the boundaries, such as major geographical or political boundaries (mountains, rivers, city limits) or geometrical guidelines such as average distance from a central point. The boundaries should be susceptible to mathematical or logical analysis using those criteria; districts that fail the analysis are thrown out.

Hey, a guy can dream, right?

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Monday, February 27, 2006

A new Guantanamo in Afghanistan

The New York Times reports that as Guantanamo has come under increased scrutiny, the detention center at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan is quietly turning into another version of the same problem.

Pentagon officials have often described the detention site at Bagram, a cavernous former machine shop on an American air base 40 miles north of Kabul, as a screening center. They said most of the detainees were Afghans who might eventually be released under an amnesty program or transferred to an Afghan prison that is to be built with American aid.

But some of the detainees have already been held at Bagram for as long as two or three years. And unlike those at Guantánamo, they have no access to lawyers, no right to hear the allegations against them and only rudimentary reviews of their status as "enemy combatants," military officials said.

Privately, some administration officials acknowledge that the situation at Bagram has increasingly come to resemble the legal void that led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in June 2004 affirming the right of prisoners at Guantánamo to challenge their detention in United States courts.

While Guantánamo offers carefully scripted tours for members of Congress and journalists, Bagram has operated in rigorous secrecy since it opened in 2002. It bars outside visitors except for the International Red Cross and refuses to make public the names of those held there. The prison may not be photographed, even from a distance.

So Guantanamo has become an international embarassment -- and rightly so. And instead of learning that lesson and changing the way we run our "war on terror" prisons, we simply find another place out of the spotlight to keep doing the same old thing -- guaranteeing that the problem will continue.

To repeat once again:

1. It is sleazy and unethical to deliberately place a prison in a "legal limbo" so we do not have to afford the inmates even rudimentary legal protections.

2. It also violates core American values and actively hampers our fight against terror.

3. If a prisoner was captured on the battlefield, the Geneva Convention should apply. Technically we can ignore it for non-signatories, but it has been American tradition to heed the Conventions even when not legally required -- which is the practical *and* moral thing to do. Such POWs should be released when the fighting in Afghanistan ceases, rather than being held for the duration of a vaguely defined "war" on terror.

4. If a prisoner was captured elsewhere, they are entitled to the rights we afford all criminals, even serial killers: To be charged and tried before an impartial court, in a speedy manner and with legal help.

5. Keeping detainee's identities secret serves no practical purpose, but it can easily mask many unsavory purposes. Our detentions should be able to withstand outside scrutiny.

It's really not that difficult.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

Blair calls for Gitmo camp to be shut down

When even our staunchest allies don't like something, perhaps we ought to listen.

While Mr Blair again described the five-year-old camp, which stills holds around 500 terror suspects, as "an anomaly", he told his monthly press conference in Downing Street: "It should end sooner rather than later."


His comments about closing the camp came just hours after Lord Falconer said he believed Camp Delta should "come to an end" and Lord Goldsmith, the government's senior legal adviser, saying the rule of law "is, or should be, of universal application".

Yesterday, the foreign affairs committee said it was not good enough for ministers to lobby behind the scenes but called on them to voice "loud and (in) public" their protests about Guantanamo Bay. The MPs argued the camp in Cuba was a "hindrance" to the fight against terrorism and had diminished America's moral authority around the world.

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From Gitmo to Abu Ghraib

The ACLU has released more details of FBI memos it obtained detailing interrogation methods at Guantanamo Bay in 2002 and 2003.

From a typical news story on the release:

FBI officials who were interrogating terrorism suspects at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2002 and 2003 strenuously objected to aggressive techniques the military was using and believed they could be illegal, according to FBI memos released yesterday.

The agents wrote in memos and e-mails that they were at odds with interrogators working for a Defense Intelligence Agency human-intelligence group and with guidance from senior Pentagon officials. The agents also repeatedly expressed their concerns to the senior military officer at the base, Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, and said that the less aggressive FBI-approved methods were more effective.

Miller later was sent to Iraq, bringing with him his advocacy for aggressive interrogation techniques. The Abu Ghraib scandal followed.

The key point:

"Now we can say that the documents show conclusively that abuse and torture at Guantanamo was not the result of rogue elements but was the consequence of policies deliberately adopted by senior military and Pentagon officials," said Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU lawyer.

The Pentagon responds with the technical defense that what occurred was perhaps abusive, but not illegal. That does not excuse it in my mind. Not only is such treatment immoral, it results in unreliable information -- as well as being inadmissible in court. And never mind the damage done to America's reputation.

What exactly occurred? In one case, this:

Military interrogators posing as FBI agents at the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, wrapped terrorism suspects in an Israeli flag and forced them to watch gay pornography under strobe lights during interrogation sessions that lasted as long as 18 hours.

Does anybody think such treatment is liable to elicit information?

The same article notes a related development:
A federal judge Thursday ordered the Pentagon to release the identities of hundreds of detainees at Guantánamo Bay to the Associated Press, a move that would force the government to break its secrecy and reveal the most comprehensive list yet of those who have been imprisoned there.

Some of the hundreds of detainees in the war on terror being held at Guantánamo Bay have been there as long as four years. Only a handful have been officially identified.

Good. Such secrecy is, again, counterproductive. It tarnishes our image and renders hollow our criticisms of other countries' human rights violations when we imprison people secretly, without charge or recourse.

It's a tricky question, what to do with someone captured fighting for the Taliban, say. Military rules say we can imprison them until the end of the war. But which war? The war in Afghanistan, or the "war" on terror?

At a minimum we should accord them rights under either the Geneva Convention or U.S. law, instead of largely ignoring both. For a more comprehensive take on how to handle such prisoners, check out this essay.

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Fun with Ann Coulter

Because any chance to bash Ann Coulter should be embraced and doted on, I'd like to do my part to publicize her own personal Votegate.

Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections records show Coulter voted last week in Palm Beach's council election. Problem is: She cast her ballot in a precinct 4 miles north of the precinct where she owns a home — and that could be a big no-no.

Coulter, who owns a $1.8 million crib on Seabreeze Avenue, should have voted in Precinct 1198. It covers most homes on her street. Instead, records show, she voted in Precinct 1196, at the northern tip of the island.


No matter, Florida statutes make it a third-degree felony to vote knowingly in the wrong precinct. Lying on a voter's registration can cost up to $5,000 and five years behind bars.

Follow up articles here and here.

Personally, I'm pulling for the five years in prison instead of the $5,000 fine....

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Human slugs

It is difficult to find words to adequately describe these folks.

On her way into the church where the funeral was to be held for her 23-year-old son Thursday morning, Deirdre Ostlund approached six men and women waving signs against gays and America and told them in a cold fury: "I'm Andrew's mother, and I want you to know you are truly hateful people."

As Ostlund turned away, Shirley Phelps-Roper taunted her: "Adulterer! You can't admit you sent your own child to hell! If she does not heed this warning, she will look up from hell with him."

Her small group continued to sing "God hates America."

Try to imagine the amount of drooling hate compressed into these protesters' bodies, to the point that they think nothing of hijacking a soldier's funeral to express their views.

If you wonder where they come from, they come from here.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

We have met us, and he is the enemy

Okay, now this is funny.

The Russians aren't the only ones who do this. Don't get me started on how many times I've seen a self-propelled artillery piece or armored personnel carrier referred to as a "tank" in newspaper photo captions.

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I haven't weighed in on this issue yet, but I suppose I should.

I think this is largely a manufactured controversy. The main problem appears to be that this deal took everyone by surprise, including President Bush. But one would hope that mere surprise would yield more (or far, far less) than overheated rhetoric.

Was I surprised to find out our major ports were run by foreign firms? Yes. Is it a scandal? Not in the short-term political sense. It's been that way for years.

I would prefer that important parts of our nation's infrastructure remain in American hands. But if that's not going to be the case, it makes no sense to discriminate against a particular company based on nothing more than nationality. Dubai is not North Korea or Iran or some other loose cannon. Their only crime is being Arab.

As far as security goes, ownership is less important than who is doing the work on the ground -- and those will be American for the most part.

That said, this is an excellent opportunity to focus on the question of port security -- a topic given much lip service but limited action in the last four years.

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Technicalities and unanswered questions

Lewis Libby's lawyers are seeking to have the charges against him dismissed. On what grounds, you ask? Because, they say, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald lacks authority.

Lawyers for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby said his indictment violated the Constitution because Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald was not appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate.

The defense attorneys also said Fitzgerald's appointment violated federal law because his investigation was not supervised by the attorney general. They said only Congress can approve such an arrangement.

The lawyers said illegal assignment of "unsupervised and undirected power" to Fitzgerald requires that he be relieved of his duties in the investigation and that all actions he has taken be voided.

Okay, lawyers have a duty to defend their client by whatever means they can. But seeking a dismissal on a technicality such as this one isn't really the best way to go. It's strikingly similar to the defense Saddam Hussein is using, denying the legitimacy of the court rather than disputing the charges against him.

Here's my free legal advice: Not the best example to share company with, guys.

Especially because there are plenty of substantive questions on the topic.

Off the top of my head:

Was Valerie Plame undercover? As far as I can tell, revealing her name was a crime only if a) she was undercover and b) Libby knew it. You would think that answering those two questions would settle the whole affair, and pretty quickly, too. But here we are nearly three years into the case and neither question has been answered.

Why did Libby lie? He's innocent until proven guilty, of course. But let's assume that Fitzgerald can prove his case in that regard. What was Libby's motivation?

What about Cheney? Libby says Cheney authorized him to talk to reporters about Plame, and also to discuss parts of a classified National Intelligence Estimate with reporters.

This last is the most interesting part, but not for the obvious reasons. Parts of NIEs are regularly declassified, and if that's the case then no crime was committed. Yes, it's using classified info for political purposes. And yes, if the relevant parts of the NIE *weren't* declassified, then it may have been a crime. But let's put that aside for a moment.

Because the main reason it wouldn't be a crime is that Cheney says he has the power to declassify information.

Think about that. Because Cheney is authorized to declassify information, he can declassify and legally leak (er, release) anything he wants. But does that make it okay? How do you judge whether he's using that power responsibly, especially when his motivation for declassifying the info is to discredit or counter political opponents?

If you think it's okay in this case.... then where do you draw the line? I'm interested in seeing what people consider a general case when it comes to declassifying data for political purposes.

For a conservative take on it (including a very helpful explanation of exactly what Cheney was referring to), click here.

Finally, a minor side point: Having declassified it, they secretly leaked it to a reporter instead of simply going public with it. What's up with that?

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Clearing the smoke over "partial-birth" abortion

The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to weigh the constitutionality of a ban on partial-birth abortion.

I generally steer clear of abortion topics because they're almost always pointless. You either think it's okay or you don't. If you're a moderate the issue tends to be where to draw the line, but even then the lines don't move much.

But the bloviating over this case threatens to obscure the underlying facts. So I'll do my best to lay it out.

The claims: Pro-lifers will have you believe they're trying to put an end to a horrifying procedure that kills thousands of babies every year merely for the mother's convenience. Pro-choicers will have you believe that if we restrict this procedure, it's only a matter of time before abortion itself is outlawed.

The facts: Late-term abortions (not all of which are "partial-birth" procedures) are exceedingly rare. In 2002 there were 1.5 million abortions. Only 320 occurred after the 26th week of pregnancy. There is not an epidemic of heartless women killing their babies at the last moment. Conversely, restricting this procedure will not significantly harm abortion rights.

The claims: Pro-lifers say there is no medical reason for the procedure. Pro-choicers say there are times when it must be used.

The facts: The case filings are full of testimony from doctors and patients outlining why late-term abortions are medically necessary. On the other hand, pro-lifers may have a point if they argue that there are alternative procedures that achieve the same medical end without the gruesomeness of partial-birth.

The claims: Pro-lifers say they are trying to outlaw a particularly gruesome and unnecessary form of abortion. Pro-choicers say they prefer that the procedure be rare, but that the definition of "partial-birth abortion" in the bill is so broad that it could outlaw procedures used as early as the 12th week, and there is no exception for the health of the mother.

The facts: Well, the claims are the facts in this case. But the bill's sponsors need to make sure the language is specific enough that it only affects the procedure they describe to the public. Otherwise it's a bait-and-switch. And there's no reason to exclude a "health" exception, since that exception was very clearly required by previous Supreme Court rulings. The bill's sponsors were picking a fight.

So in the end, the debate isn't about whether partial-birth abortion is a good thing or not. It's about how the term is defined and what exceptions the law should recognize -- for a procedure used in less than 0.02% of all abortions in this country.

Sensible people would carefully define the term and allow a "mother's health" exception. But sensible people are in short supply in abortion arguments.

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Pray the cops find you first

Three men were arrested in Ohio and charged Tuesday with conspiring to commit terrorism.

This is good news on several fronts: we foiled a plot, caught the suspects, and did it all as part of the *criminal* justice system, with due process and respect for civil liberties. No warrantless eavesdropping or "enemy combatant" designation required.

We could leave it there: case closed, chalk one up for the good guys. But follow me through a hypothetical to illustrate why we need a unified set of rules for the war on terror, not the mishmash we're currently using.

These guys were tracked by local law enforcement, who gathered evidence against them and then, when the time was right, moved in and arrested them. The fruit of that came Tuesday, when they were charged with crimes. They will be able to dispute the charges; if the charges are weak, they will be let go -- as they should. But if the charges withstand scrutiny, the three will be going to prison for a long time.

So here's my hypothetical: what if the men were not caught in Ohio, but in Iraq -- in a raid by the U.S. military?

In that case, the men would have been tracked by the military, who gathered evidence against them and then, when the time was right, moved in and grabbed them. The men then would have fallen into the murky world of military prisons, where they could be held for months without charge or the ability to challenge their detention.

Or try this not-so-hypothetical example:

A U.S. citizen is a passenger in a taxi that is stopped at a checkpoint and searched. The taxi's trunk turns out to be full of washing-machine timers -- often used to make remote-control bombs. The passenger denies knowledge of the timers; the taxi driver admits they're his.

If this scenario happens in the States, the passenger is afforded full due process -- a lawyer, speedy trial, the right to challenge the charges, etc.

If this scenario happens in Iraq, the passenger once again disappears into the murky world of military prisons.

This makes little sense. The passenger's crime is the same in both cases and he should be treated the same in both cases; His rights should not depend upon which arm of the government happens to search the taxi.

A clear dividing line is needed. If you shoot at U.S. troops, you're a combatant and subject to military rules. Otherwise, you're a civilian and subject to criminal law.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Misplaced priorities

President Bush has vowed to veto any bill that blocks an agreement to let a company based in the United Arab Emirates run six major American ports.
Bush, who has yet to veto a bill during his administration, warned that the United States is sending "mixed signals" by attacking a Middle Eastern company after the American ports had been run by a British firm for several years.

This is what Bush will *finally* use his veto power on? Anyone else find this funny in a tragicomic kind of way?

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Chuck Hagel for president?

Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska is visiting Minnesota today, giving a speech in Blaine and doing an interview with Minnesota Public Radio.

Hagel's to my right on social issues, but I like his approach to economic matters and terrorism, his strong and accurate criticisms of the war in Iraq and his concerns for civil liberties. He's got a brain and he's not afraid to use it; that makes him one of my favorites among the possible 2008 presidential candidates, though a lot will depend upon whom the Democrats put up.

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U.S. reclassifying National Archive documents

The government continues to exhibit its penchant for excessive secrecy:

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 -- In a seven-year-old secret program at the National Archives, intelligence agencies have been removing from public access thousands of historical documents that were available for years, including some already published by the State Department and others photocopied years ago by private historians.


Mr. Leonard said he ordered the audit after reviewing 16 withdrawn documents and concluding that none should be secret.

"If those sample records were removed because somebody thought they were classified, I'm shocked and disappointed," Mr. Leonard said in an interview. "It just boggles the mind."

Things like this are why I'm generally unimpressed by the mere fact that a leaked document is classified. The government routinely classifies stuff that has no business being classified. Leaking such information is against the letter of the law, but it does not violate the law's spirit, nor is it unethical or treasonous.

To determine if a leak is wrong, you have to first determine if the information in question deserved to be secret to begin with. Allowing the government to keep every little thing secret makes it impossible to know what the government is up to, and thus impossible to monitor or regulate it. This can be poisonous to democracy.

For instance, here's an example of a "reclassified" document:

a 1962 telegram from George F. Kennan, then ambassador to Yugoslavia, containing an English translation of a Belgrade newspaper article on China's nuclear weapons program.

Government information should be viewed with the presumption that it is a public record, and only classified if the administration can show sufficient cause. This is in fact the case:

Under existing guidelines, government documents are supposed to be declassified after 25 years unless there is particular reason to keep them secret.

But without oversight and review, nothing stops an official from classifying anything they want.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

Imprisoned for opinion

A British historian has been sentenced to three years in jail for denying that the Holocaust occurred.

While I have no sympathy for people who attempt to revise history, it is simply wrong to jail or fine people for opinions or beliefs -- however repugnant those beliefs may be. Criminal punishment chills discussion without eliminating the problem. In the face of legal pressure, people who deny the Holocaust will simply go underground, where their claims cannot be examined, refuted and then discarded from public discourse.

Europe in general has a free and vigorous political culture and a strong committment to free speech. But cases like these illustrate why the United States is lucky to have a First Amendment -- even if we don't always like some of the speech that it protects.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Is terror a military or a criminal problem?

Is terror a military or a criminal problem?

Therein lies the conundrum at the heart of the ongoing debate over how best to fight terror while protecting civil liberties.

Terror, at base, is a criminal offense. It is nothing more than a crime with political motivation. Terrorists represent no country, have no fixed geographical boundaries. They are a collection of individuals bound only by their beliefs. The metaphorical "war" on terror is just that -- a metaphor, like the "war" on drugs or poverty.

But the military has a role, too. First and simplest is when a terror group receives state support, as in Afghanistan; then fighting terror shades over into conventional war until such time as the state support ceases. If terrorists resort to a guerrilla war, that too is a military responsibility -- although with limitations peculiar to antiinsurgent operations. The rest of what I would call the "hard" side of fighting terror -- Striking known terrorist training sites, killing terrorist leaders and the like -- also are more properly a military task than a police task.

But this leads to confusion about what, if any, rules apply. There are laws that govern warfare and there are laws that govern crime and they are very different, both in what they allow and in their scope and purpose.

Laws that govern crime are geared toward the long term -- minimizing, catching and deterring criminals instead of trying to eliminate them. They assume that the problem will be with us always, and come up with ways to keep it under control while still respecting the rights that are important to a free society. Call it a "chronic condition" approach.

Laws that govern warfare envision certain fixed and rigid limitations -- that there is a front line, that there is a conflict between nations wielding uniformed armies, that there will be an easily defined point of victory. War is a temporary national emergency, with a clearly defined battlefield within which rights do not exist: laws of war spring from agreements between nations, not the text of the Constitution. Call it an "emergency surgery" approach.

The problem with the assumptions behind "emergency surgery" is that none of them are true when it comes to fighting terror. There is no front line, no nation, no uniformed armies, no easily recognized victory, no clearly defined battlefield, and the conflict is expected to last a very long time.

Precisely because it is ill-fitted to the task, there are tremendous dangers in treating terrorism entirely as a military concern:

• Erosion of civil liberties;
• Incarcerating minor "combatants" for years or even decades regardless of the severity of their actions;
• A heavy cost in lives and treasure;
• Erosion of popular support at home and creation of more enemies abroad;
• An overreliance on force that, in the long-term, will be less effective than legal, diplomatic and intelligence efforts.

Criminal law, then, is better suited to the problem that terrorism poses. Accepting that, the question becomes how to define the respective roles of the military and law enforcement.

I'll go through them from easiest to hardest.

1. In a clear civilian situation, such as breaking up a terror cell in Chicago, law enforcement rules apply. That means warrants, probable cause and due process.

2. In a clear battlefield situation, such as someone captured during a firefight, military rules apply. However, prisoners captured in such cases must be dealt with in specific ways (see below).

3. U.S. citizens deserve due process and access to the courts in nearly all cases.

4. Civilians caught in the middle of an insurgency, a la Iraq, should be accorded as many rights as possible. They can be detained by the military for short periods for security reasons, but within a reasonable time (a week, say) must either be charged as an "enemy combatant", turned over to civilian police for nonmilitary charges, or released.

5. Anyone defined as an "enemy combatant" should have the right to challenge that designation. Most such cases would be a slam dunk ("suspect was caught during a firefight"), but they should get a hearing. This is not "normal" wartime practice, but this is not a normal "war".

6. "Enemy combatants" can only be held until the end of the specific war they were involved in. To be held longer, they must be charged and convicted of actual crimes. Insurgents captured in Iraq, for example, must be released when the fighting in Iraq ends unless they can be linked directly to terrorism.

7. Because some insurgencies may last a very long time, we should make an effort to categorize insurgents by the threat they pose. The truly dangerous would be locked up until the insurgency ends; minor players would be released after serving shorter sentences. That way you're not locking up a halfhearted foot soldier for decades. Like with any offense, recapture would result in a much harsher sentence.

8. In areas where we are not in charge, we will strive to work with the ruling government. But if the rule of law is weak or nonexistent -- Think Yemen, for example -- or the ruler is not a reliable foe of terror, we reserve the right to kill or capture proven terrorists whenever we can. This is less a military/civilian issue than a diplomatic one; I include it here for completeness.

There are a few specific steps we should take to make this happen:

1. Congress should make clear that we are not in a war in a conventional sense, so the President cannot claim extraordinary inherent authority. If they wish to grant him specific authority in specific places, they can do that, giving him broad powers to operate in Iraq or other places abroad. But we should not fall into the "war" trap a second time.

2. Congress should clearly state law enforcement's pre-eminence, and outline which laws apply in which situations.

3. We should clarify the warrant rules to ensure that showing a reasonable suspicion of terror links will allow eavesdropping -- but that such a link *must* be shown.

4. We should stop trying to keep certain prisons or prisoners outside of any law, be it U.S., international or the Geneva Conventions. All prisons and all prisoners should be protected by one of those sets of law.

5. We should allow open inspections of our prisons by accredited organizations such as the Red Cross.

6. We should ensure adequate funding for antiterrorism investigations, and if necessary create specific terror-related charges that guarantee lengthy prison terms for true terrorists -- whether their planned attack is successful or not.

Saying terrorism is primarily a law-enforcement issue is not "going soft" on terror -- it is recognizing that the nature of terrorism is more effectively addressed by criminal law than military law. A vigorous enforcement effort -- backed by a limited but vigorous military role -- will defeat terrorism more surely, and at less cost in both money and civil liberties, than if we allow the "war" metaphor to rule our thoughts and actions.

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Why Iraq is a hideously expensive distraction, Part II

Today, for better or worse, Iraq is the central front of the war on terror.

Should it be? This is the second of two articles looking at the terror threat and the Iraq experience through a cost/benefit lens.

Part II: How big is the terror threat, and what should we do about it?

How much would you pay to avoid a 0.0000008% chance of dying?

It's not an idle question. When allocating limited resources, the first step has to be defining the risk. We spend a lot of money researching cancer cures because cancer kills millions of people every year. We spend almost no money researching a cure for mucopolysaccharidosis, which usually kills its victims by age 25 but only affects about 200 people nationwide. That stinks if you're one of the 200, but it makes perfect sense to spend more money on the biggest threats.

Such analytical methods were developed because, quite frankly, people suck at assessing risk. We tend to overemphasize the danger of rare but spectacular events and minimize the danger of common incremental events. That's why more people fear flying than fear driving, even though driving is many times more dangerous.

What happens if we apply the same logic to terrorism?

One way to measure the danger posed by terrorism is to compare the risk of dying in a terror attack to other causes of death in the United States.

Since 1990, there have been four major terrorist attacks in the United States: Oklahoma City, the first Trade Center attack, the Olympic bombing in Atlanta and 9/11.

That's four attacks in 14 years; hardly a crisis. Further, half of those attacks were the work of disgruntled individuals, unrelated to any broader terror movement. And they come against the background of a steady 20-year decline in the number of terror attacks worldwide. Attacks have increased in lethality and spectacle, but there are fewer of them.

Now let's look at casualties. Those four attacks caused roughly 3,175 deaths over 14 years, in a population of about 300 million. That's an average of 230 deaths a year -- far closer to mucopolysaccarhidosis than cancer. Put another way, the average American has a 0.0000008% chance of dying in a terror attack in any given year.

If you look at causes of death in the United States you'll find that terrorism is right up there with such national crises as falling from a ladder (406 deaths in 2002), drowning in your bathtub (352 deaths), riding a "special agricultural vehicle" (149 deaths) and "overexertion, travel and privation" (128 deaths). Heck, on average more people accidentally shoot themselves to death (243) than die at the hands of terrorists.

Put into perspective, terrorism isn't even close to a national threat. It does not threaten our national survival, and it does not threaten the life of average Americans in any meaningful way. One could plausibly argue that our response to terrorism has done more damage to Americans than terrorism itself. 9/11 killed 3,000 people and caused several billion dollars in economic damage. Our response has killed even more people and cost $400 billion, all of it borrowed. The terrorists could only dream of inflicting as much harm on us as we have inflicted upon ourselves.

Of course we still have to combat terrorism, and of course our response should be outsized; we don't just passively accept the murder of American citizens. And there are psychological and economic aftershocks from spectacular stunts like 9/11. But by any measure our response has been way out of proportion to the risk.

So how much effort should we put into fighting terrorism? That requires an honest national debate, but I think critics of the Iraq campaign had it right: terror is better handled as a law enforcement and intelligence matter than as a military one. Not only would that be more effective, it would be far cheaper.

When clear targets are identified, military force can be beneficial: the campaign in Afghanistan is a prime example of that. But the military clearly should play a supporting role, not a starring one. We are better served keeping our soldiers available as a credible deterrent and to fend off true threats to national survival.

So what works? In Part I, I explained why the "war on terror" justifications for Iraq are nonsense. Instead, I think four broad strategies offer the most chance of success:

Go after the terrorists directly. Continue the ongoing effort to boost our intelligence-gathering abilities, so we can root out terrorist cells and choke off terrorist financing. This includes the less noxious parts of the Patriot Act, allowing law enforcement and intelligence communities to share information. We also need to hone our strike and raid capabilities so that we can effectively act on the intelligence we receive.

A homeland focus. If they can't get in, they can't attack us, so the bulk of our anti-terror money should go to domestic security - ports, airports, borders, etc. Such spending pays other dividends as well, tightening the defenses against smuggling and illegal immigration. This category includes investing in alternative energies, mass transit and conservation, because reducing our reliance on oil (and especially foreign oil) will reduce our need to become enmeshed in volatile regions of the world, as well as reduce the political influence of oil-rich countries.

International cooperation. Work with foreign intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to infilitrate and destroy terrorist cells. Work with foreign militaries to spread the burden of military operations. Isolate and destroy regimes that are active supporters of terrorism, using a clearly-drawn definition so that every nation is aware which side of the line they are on.

Foreign aid. It does no good to kill terrorists if we don't change the conditions that generate them: oppression, poverty, hopelessness, lack of education, lack of opportunity. We spend a paltry $18 billion a year on foreign aid; we should double or triple that number and target it on areas and issues related to terror. This means ending support for repressive regimes in the Middle East and devoting money to promoting education, democracy and opportunity in the region. Even if we spend $50 billion a year on foreign aid, it would be cheaper than the staggeringly expensive war we're currently pursuing. And you get a lot more PR benefit out of building schools than you do from dropping bombs.

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Why Iraq is a hideously expensive distraction, Part I

Today, for better or worse, Iraq is the central front of the war on terror.

Should it be? Is Iraq the best way to spend our anti-terrorism resources? Is it making the situation better, or worse?

There is no question that we have a responsibility to the people of Iraq. Having destroyed the previous regime, we must establish a (preferably democratic and secular) government capable of ruling the country. But fixing Iraq and fighting terror are two separate objectives.

This is the first of two articles looking at the terror threat and the Iraq experience through a cost/benefit lens.

Part I: Fighting them over there instead of over here, or "What is a terrorist, anyway?"

As it relates to the war on terror, our invasion of Iraq has often been billed as "fighting terrorists over there instead of over here." But is this true?

To answer this question, we need to first define "terrorist." That word is grossly overused, confusing the issue of who we're fighting and why.

In Iraq and globally, I see three kinds of opponents:

Terrorists: These are the people behind 9/11 and other actual terror attacks -- Al Qaeda and its ilk. They are the relatively few people with the skills, money, patience, imagination and access to pull off attacks inside the United States.

Jihadists: These are people who dislike us but have limited opportunities to act on that dislike. Our invasion of Iraq has both swelled their ranks (thanks to outrage over Western/Christian occupation of a Muslim country) and provided ample opportunities to do something about it: It's far easier to slip across the porous Iraqi border and take potshots at U.S. troops than it is to get into the United States itself to launch an attack.

Insurgents: These are native Iraqis who are fighting us as occupiers, for whatever motive. They were not terrorists before we invaded, and most of them weren't jihadists, either; Saddam Hussein did not take kindly to freelancers.

Having defined our opponents, how does that apply to Iraq?

The U.S. military says 90 percent of the insurgency is native Iraqis. Right off the bat that tells us that most of the people we're fighting and killing in Iraq were not serious opponents until we invaded.

How about the remaining 10 percent that are foreign fighters? Are they terrorists?

Few people think so, and logic suggests why. Would a true terrorist -- the kind who can plan and pull off spectacular attacks inside the United States -- drop everything and head to Iraq to fight well-armed, well-prepared soldiers? Of course not. To think so you have to assume terrorists are stupid, and they're not. True terrorists will just keep on doing what they're good at: planning new and bigger terror attacks.

On the other hand, if you're a jihadist angered by the invasion of Iraq, would this be your golden opportunity to act on your feelings? Of course.

So that's whom we're killing in Iraq: native insurgents and low-level foreign jihadists, most of whom would never have shown up on our threat radar if we hadn't invaded Iraq. And in exchange for the opportunity to create enemies that need killing, we're helping to train and radicalize an entire generation of Middle Eastern men.

Meanwhile our military is overstretched. By being tied down in Iraq it is unavailable to deal with real threats, or to serve as a credible threat of force. Iran isn't exactly quaking in its shoes at the prospect of U.S. intervention, for example. What would we invade them with -- a Reserve public affairs battalion?

As far as the war on terror is concerned, then, Iraq is worse than a distraction: it is actively making things worse.

Then there's the cost. Thus far Iraq has cost more than $200 billion. So it's not just a distraction, it's a hugely expensive one.

Some people argue that Iraq isn't about terror, it's about spreading democracy. Fine; I can support the idea that we should knock down dictators and free oppressed peoples. But that raises a requirement and a question:

You have to be up-front about it. The invasion of Iraq was sold under the banner of the war on terror. If the administration had said "hey, let's spend $200 billion to knock over Saddam because he's a bad guy and we need to free the Iraqi people", they would have been laughed out of town.

How much are we willing to spend to do so? There are 27 million Iraqis. That means we've spent $7,500 per head so far bringing them democracy, never mind the cost in lives and damage to Iraqi infrastructure. The final total will be far, far higher. Democracy is valuable, but not infinitely so given limited resources. How much are we willing to spend? How many more Iraqs can we afford?

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

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Hi! I'm still setting this site up, but eventually it will be devoted to musings on mostly political topics, with a more-or-less nonpartisan attitude. I'm a moderate who leans right on fiscal issues and left on social issues. I'm also a former tank lieutenant who supports an active foreign policy but insists that we spend our soldiers' lives for only the best and most defensible reasons.

I have a backlog of posts from another, now-defunct site that I will transfer here as soon as I can. Check back in a week or so to see the changes!