Monday, March 2, 2015

Yes, We Can(nabis), Except For You Feds

On a cloud of sound I drift in the night,
Any place it goes is right - Steppenwolf (1968)

The WaPo has good advice for Federal employees living in the Washington DC area who are curious about last Friday's marijuana legalization - Pot became legal in D.C. today. Does anything change for federal workers?:
Marijuana became legal in the District of Columbia this morning, but federal-workforce rules remain unchanged for the roughly half million U.S. government employees and military personnel who live in the area.

Since 12:01 a.m., local authorities have allowed anyone 21 and older to possess up to 2 ounces of pot, although the drug is still prohibited on federally administered properties such as the National Mall, Rock Creek Park and even public housing.

Despite the new policy, which came from a voter-approved initiative in November, the U.S. government still considers marijuana to be an illegal drug and expects its civilian and military personnel to abide by federal guidelines.

A threatening letter sent to the Mayor of DC by an angry Utah man had no effect, and the legalization proceeded, except for federally administered properties.

So, my fellow Feds, keep those bongs in your pocket when you get to work this morning.

If Rand Paul gets elected in 2016, then we can talk.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

Achtung, Baby

"Germans balk at new ‘Soviet snitch’ Barbie" - France 24

“As if the idea of an Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter Barbie was not alarming enough ... we can easily imagine the value that a database that collects children’s tastes has for a toy manufacturing company”

The Department of Homeland Security - What's It Good for?

Tonight's vote in the House to extend full DHS funding for another three weeks failed, and failed by a good margin - 224 to 203. There is time for another vote before DHS funding runs out at midnight, but I would not bet that Speaker Boehner can turn enough of his rebellious members to pass an unamended bill tonight.

Would it really be such a great big deal if DHS went into a 'shutdown' mode while Congress, the courts, and the President duke it out over the latter's refusal to deport millions of illegal aliens?

Maybe DHS is the only thing that stands between us and a terrorist invasion of the Mall of America, like Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says. Or, maybe we wouldn't miss it much if it were gone for a while.

As Foreign Policy magazine asks, Who Needs the Department of Homeland Security Anyway?
With two days left until funding for the Department of Homeland Security dries up, Jeh Johnson has been pleading with Republicans to save his department from a partial shutdown.

That job might be easier if the 12-year-old department weren’t so widely derided on Capitol Hill and beyond for its size and clumsiness.

-- snip --

[E]ven the entreaties of the two Republican heavyweights weren’t enough to stop a letter campaign by 30 House conservatives urging House Speaker John Boehner to “stand firm against these unlawful executive actions” and reject an emerging funding deal brokered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

-- snip --

[That deal] may be a tough sell, in large part because Johnson’s dire warnings about the impact of a budget cutoff ring hollow. One reason is practical: 80 percent of DHS employees are deemed “essential” to national security and would still show up to work in a shutdown — albeit without pay. All core functions of agencies such as Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Secret Service would remain intact; the only people from the department’s 240,000-person workforce who would be furloughed would be 30,000 nonessential employees, mostly office workers.

-- snip --

But another reason for the lack of urgency boils down to one word: respect.

-- snip --

The fact that the FBI, the agency tasked to “protect and defend” against “terrorist and foreign intelligence threats” is housed outside DHS indicates the department’s awkward and uncertain place in America’s national security bureaucracy.

“DHS’s biggest problem is that it is still less than the sum of its parts,” said Daniel Byman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a contributor to Foreign Policy. “The whole point of it was integration of homeland security functions, but it is still a divided organization with few synergies — so it has the problems of a big organization without the benefits.”

-- snip --

“The irony in that complaint [referring to blame-shifting by DHS's defenders] is that the very reason DHS was founded was to deal with the problem of insufficient coordination within the government,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “If DHS failed to solve that problem, it’s unclear why it exists.”

-- snip --

Another concern is that the department, forged in a fearful post-9/11 environment, owes its existence to a wildly exaggerated understanding of the terrorist threat to the United States. As Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, has pointed out, Americans are substantially more endangered by threats such as infectious disease, gun violence, and drunk driving than terrorism. In fact, the odds of being killed in a terrorist attack in the United States or abroad are 1 in 20 million.

“This low risk isn’t evidence that homeland security spending has worked: It’s evidence that the terror threat was never as great as we thought,” wrote Kenny.

-- snip --

Although a shutdown still looms, most observers expect House Republicans to cave in to political pressure and pass a “clean” funding bill by the end of the week. Either way, at a time when U.S. media attention on terrorist threats is at an all-time high, it’s ironic that a department dedicated to homeland security has such a hard time justifying its existence. And until it finds more solid footing within the national security bureaucracy, that problem isn’t likely to go away soon.

It turns out that "most observers" were wrong about the House Republicans caving by the end of the week. What happens next is anybody's guess, but, regardless of whether DHS get full or only partial funding, it would be nice if we finally figured out why it exists at all.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

SecState Kerry on Countering Violent Extremism, and A Violent Extremist's Rebuttal

Mohammad Sidique Khan, Teaching Assistant, Terrorist

My hero Marie Harf has not backed down an inch, I'm happy to say. She stands like a stone wall defending the Obama administration's indefensible position on the root causes of terrorism, even if it costs her a promotion to the Number 1 spokesperson slot. We should all have employees that loyal.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the White House summit conference on countering extremist violence, and also published remarks in an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal, Our Plan for Countering Violent Extremism.

Kerry, like President Obama and all the other conference speakers, persists in saying that terrorism and other forms of violent extremism are no more than common crime, just basically an irrational lashing out at life's unfairness. If that's true, the theory goes, then violent extremism might be countered by a strategy of denying the legitimacy of violence by non-state actors and promoting Good Government.

I've excerpted the best parts of Kerry's Op-Ed and juxtaposed them with bits from the martyrdom statement of Mohammad Sidique Khan, a suicide bomber whom I cited yesterday as an example of a highly rational and thoughtful Muslim terrorist who explicitly rejected the poverty-drives-terrorism explanation.

A whole bunch of folks at President Obama's summit conference could have learned more about violent extremism by reading Khan's statement than by listening to Kerry.

Kerry: "A safer and more prosperous future requires us to recognize that violent extremism can’t be justified by resorting to religion. No legitimate religious interpretation teaches adherents to commit unspeakable atrocities, such as razing villages or turning children into suicide bombers. These are the heinous acts of individuals who distort religion to serve their criminal and barbaric cause."

Khan: "Our religion is Islam - obedience to the one true God, Allah, and following the footsteps of the final prophet and messenger Muhammad ... This is how our ethical stances are dictated ... Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters."

Khan justified his politically motivated violence as a defense of his coreligionists around the world who were under attack by Britain and the United States. That was enough, for him and his three fellow suicide bombers, to legitimize the murder of more than 50 persons and the wounding of more than 100 who were riding public transportation in London.

Kerry: "The most basic issue is good governance. It may not sound exciting, but it is vital. People who feel that their government will provide for their needs, not just its own, and give them a chance at a better life are far less likely to strap on an AK-47 or a suicide vest, or to aid those who do."

Khan: "I and thousands like me are forsaking everything for what we believe. Our driving motivation doesn't come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer."

Khan was born and raised in Great Britain, which has exemplary good governance. His parent's native Pakistan? Not so much. But then, as a Muslim, Khan might well have preferred Pakistan's kind of governance, and thought that it is non-Sharia law states which lack the good governance Kerry thinks is so basic to living a good life.

Kerry: "We must identify the zones of greatest vulnerability, the places that could descend into the chaos that breeds terrorism—or that could turn the corner and be the hotbed of growth or innovation. And then we must tailor our efforts and target our resources to meet the specific needs of those places. It may be training young people so they can get jobs and envision a future of dignity and self-reliance. It may be working to eliminate corruption and promote the rule of law, so that marginalized communities can enjoy security and justice. It’s very likely both, and of course much more."

Khan: "Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation."

Khan lived in a highly stable social environment. He had a job, an education, a family, and dignity. He was not marginalized. In his martyrdom video he does not complain of chaos, or public corruption, or a lack of law and order. To the contrary, he said he committed violence to create security and advance justice for the religiously defined community ("my people") with which he identified.

Why should we not take Khan at his word?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Marie Harf Stays On-Message, And She Isn't Alone

Not Marie Harf's official photo, but close

As a cheerleader for the Obama administration, Marie has only one job. It's stupid, but she's going to do it. I have to admire that kind of focus.

Frankly, I wish everybody would leave Marie alone. All she did was repeat a very common bit of conventional wisdom about the "root causes that lead people to join these groups" such as ISIL. You know, root causes, like joblessness and a lack of economic opportunity.

The notion that poverty drives terrorism has been debunked repeatedly, but that hasn't made the idea go away. And it isn't just Marie who insists otherwise. Here's another believer in those root causes:
“We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror” – George W. Bush, remarks at the International Conference on Financing for Development (2002)

Republicans, among others, have pushed the poverty-leads-to-terrorism equation when they were selling foreign economic development programs to the American public. In the case of George Bush in 2002, it was the Millennium Challenge Corporation that was going to undermine those economic root causes of terrorism.

Joshua Keating, today in Slate, demolishes the idea that terrorists are just angry about being unemployed:
The idea of terrorists as desperate young men lacking in economic opportunity is not borne out by empirical evidence. A well-known 2002 paper by economists Alan Krueger (later an assistant secretary of the Treasury in the Obama administration) and Jitka Maleckova found that support for violence among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza was not any higher among those with lower living standards or levels of education. In Lebanon, participation in Hezbollah was actually associated with higher living standards and levels of education. The same was true for Israeli settlers who participated in attacks against Palestinians.

A 2012 survey in Pakistan reached a similar conclusion: Poorer Pakistanis were less likely to support militants than the middle class. The political scientists conducting the study hypothesized that “the urban poor suffer most from militants’ violent activities and so most intensely dislike them.” A 2004 study by Harvard economist Alberto Abadie, looking at country level data, found that “terrorist risk is not significantly higher for poorer countries.” Abadie found political freedom to be a more important factor: Countries in the kinda-free range had more terrorism than highly democratic or highly autocratic countries.

Actual terrorists are often better educated than most in their societies, and, indeed, in ours. From a 2005 New York Times Op-Ed
We examined the educational backgrounds of 75 terrorists behind some of the most significant recent terrorist attacks against Westerners. We found that a majority of them are college-educated, often in technical subjects like engineering. In the four attacks for which the most complete information about the perpetrators' educational levels is available - the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the 9/11 attacks, and the Bali bombings in 2002 - 53 percent of the terrorists had either attended college or had received a college degree. As a point of reference, only 52 percent of Americans have been to college. The terrorists in our study thus appear, on average, to be as well educated as many Americans.

The 1993 World Trade Center attack involved 12 men, all of whom had a college education. The 9/11 pilots, as well as the secondary planners identified by the 9/11 commission, all attended Western universities, a prestigious and elite endeavor for anyone from the Middle East. Indeed, the lead 9/11 pilot, Mohamed Atta, had a degree from a German university in, of all things, urban preservation, while the operational planner of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, studied engineering in North Carolina. We also found that two-thirds of the 25 hijackers and planners involved in 9/11 had attended college.

Pew Research surveyed Where Terrorism Finds Support in the Muslim World and found it has exactly as much support among low-income as among high-income Muslims.

The University of Chicago's project to study suicide bombers found, where information is known about the attackers, that three times as many suicide bombers had professional or skilled occupations, or were students, than were unemployed or low-skilled. As for education, almost three times as many had post-secondary education as had only secondary education or less.

Quite a few filth-rich kids have become terrorists. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 'underpants bomber' who failed to detonate his weaponized BVDs over Detroit, is the youngest child of a wealthy Nigerian banker and businessman, reputedly one of the richest men in Africa, and a former Chairman of First Bank of Nigeria and former Nigerian Federal Commissioner for Economic Development. He was also educated, having earned a degree in mechanical engineering from a University in London.

The four suicide bombers who committed the July 7, 2005, attacks in London did not lack economic or other opportunities. They were all second generation immigrants with university educations, jobs, and families. Why did they commit one of the more heinous terrorist attacks in recent British history?

The ringleader of the four, Mohammad Sidique Khan, explained their motive in a very articulate martyrdom video:
I and thousands like me are forsaking everything for what we believe. Our drive and motivation doesn't come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer. Our religion is Islam, obedience to the one true God and following the footsteps of the final prophet messenger. Your democratically-elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security you will be our targets and until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.

Is there any reason to doubt that was his motive? He was thirty, educated, employed, and married with a child. He did not lack opportunity. As he said, he chose to forsake that opportunity in order to take revenge upon Britons at large for their democratically expressed support for wars against his fellow Muslims. He was not distracted from this mission by tangible commodities, no matter what Washington figures from George W. Bush to Marie Harf may think. Could Khan have made that any more clear?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Shall We Place Overseas Buildings Operations Under a Security Boss?

I like the idea - don't get me wrong - but I wouldn't bet money on it being implemented. Like oil and water, OBO and DS don't mix.

Of course, there is always the chance that the next House Oversight Committee hearing on Design Excellence will blow up so badly that a hostile takeover of OBO starts to look good to the big players in that headquarters building across the river from Rosslyn. Be still, my beating heart!

Here's the unofficial restructuring proposal that has me all a-twitter.

Time for Change: Restructuring the State Department for the 21st Century:

WhirledView author Patricia Kushlis has written extensively on the corruption and incompetence that plague State's personnel system. She has also described in depth the longstanding absence of both internal and external oversight. However, there is another problem that must be addressed: the antiquated, bloated and irrational structure of management operations at State. In this article I map out a new management structure that would address these and other problems.

Because the M portfolio is too large and too diverse to be managed as one entity by one person, it should be broken up and reconfigured into more logical sub-elements. The existing Under Secretary for Management title and portfolio would be eliminated and four new Under Secretaries created – each overseeing a portfolio of related functions in which he/she would have expertise. These four Under Secretaries would report to the Deputy Secretary for Management.

--snip --

Create an Under Secretary for Security Affairs

This portfolio would group together Diplomatic Security, Information Resources Management and Overseas Buildings Operations.

In years gone by, the State Department's security concerns rested largely with threats to personnel and facilities overseas. However, in today's world, the globalization of terror and the growing ability of enemies of the United States to hack our most secure computers present new threats.

In the face of these broader challenges, it only makes sense to group together the safety of personnel and facilities, embassy construction (which is heavily dependent on security standards) and the protection of classified and unclassified information into one bureaucratic domain. The cross-cutting use of security procedures and standards, threat assessments and other intelligence for these three functions would bring greater effectiveness.

Of course the M portfolio is too large and diverse to be managed by one person. Nevertheless, it is, and it has been for a very long time. I wish the best of luck to anyone who tries to break Patrick Kennedy's iron rice bowl into four pieces. Bring Kryptonite.

Fun fact from the past: State Department information programs were placed under the Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security in 1989, and the unhappy marriage lasted until 1992. So the idea of merging information programs with overseas buildings and security isn't altogether new and untried.

According to this publicly available source of information, Sheldon J. Krys, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security from 1989-1992, brought the Office of Information Management (IM) into his portfolio for all the right reasons. However, the merger did not last after his departure.

The Reagan White House also issued NSDD-211, which placed the Department of State in charge of the Diplomatic Telecommunications Service (DTS), which was largely managed by the Office of Communications but worked closely with DS to maintain its security.

Then, in 1989, in an effort to improve information security and better coordination of information, the Department, through the efforts of Assistant Secretary Krys, transferred IM to DS. The IM transfer incorporated OC’s Office of Security (OC/S) and all of OC’s electronic and technical countermeasures into DS. Also, OC’s Field Inspection Teams went to DS, as did the Shield Enclosure program for post communications centers.

The merger of IM and DS proved unpopular and difficult, and the rapid pace of innovation in computer technologies aggravated the situation. Several officials in OC and IM did not like the transfer. One OC/S veteran, Robert Surprise, who was studying at the National Defense University in 1990, devoted his research paper to a reassessment of IM’s transfer to DS. Surprise concluded that the merger did not achieve its intended goals, and that “user and IM communities have expressed dissatisfaction with the new structure” because it was “too bureaucratic, unresponsive, and a hindrance to progress.” The Office of the Inspector General used Surprise’s paper to argue that IM should be removed from DS and put back into the Bureau of Administration. Krys, who had favored the initial transfer, concluded after just two years, that IM should be its own bureau (at least theoretically). After three years, Department officials approved IM’s move back to the Bureau of Administration. While most information management and communications offices left, the security-oriented offices like Computer Security remained with DS.

Okay, so the merger of DS with the Geek Squad didn't work. Geeks with guns? But, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be tried again with DS and Overseas Buildings Operations. Please. Oh, please.