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Archive for June, 2014

It remains unclear where we are heading in Iraq and whether the IRS investigation will gain much traction. But this was a pretty good week for the Supreme Court.

Wednesday, SCOTUS decided unanimously that police need warrants to search cellphones. As the New York Times reported:

“While the decision will offer protection to the 12 million people arrested every year, many for minor crimes, its impact will most likely be much broader. The ruling almost certainly also applies to searches of tablet and laptop computers, and its reasoning may apply to searches of homes and businesses and of information held by third parties like phone companies.”

Andy Greenberg has a useful piece on the decision at Wired.

Thursday, SCOTUS decided unanimously that three of President Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board were unconstitutional. The New York Times editorial board was not happy (insert look of surprise here). Neither was Justice Scalia, who wrote:

“A self-aggrandizing practice adopted by one branch well after the founding, often challenged, and never before blessed by this Court—in other words, the sort of practice on which the majority relies in this case—does not relieve us of our duty to interpret the Constitution in light of its text, structure, and original understanding,”

While Scalia would have liked more, I still rank this a win.

The fact that both of these decisions were 9-0 and both moved the ball in the correct direction should give us some pleasure as we enter the weekend.

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A few weeks ago I posted on the distribution of war surplus to state and local law enforcement agencies under the DOD’s Excess Property Program. This is all part of a larger trend detailed in the ACLU’s new report, War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing. From the executive summary:

This investigation gave us data to corroborate a trend we have been noticing nationwide: American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.Using these federal funds, state and local law enforcement agencies have amassed military arsenals purportedly to wage the failed War on Drugs, the battlegrounds of which have disproportionately been in communities of color. But these arsenals are by no means free of cost for communities. Instead, the use of hyper- aggressive tools and tactics results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties.

The Guardian has a useful overview of the report, and notes:

The findings set up a striking and troubling paradox. The Obama administration is completing its withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the US is on the verge of being free from war for the first time in more than a decade; yet at the same time the hardware and tactics of the war zone are quietly proliferating at home.

This does not seem to be much of a paradox, given the focus on federal, state and local policy since 9/11, the heavy investment in “homeland security,” and the federal government’s practice of providing the surplus tools of war to “first responders,” often times for free. In some ways, this was all too predictable.

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At The American Conservative, Daniel Larison has written a long, comprehensive description and defense of a principled non-interventionist foreign policy that manages to avoid the extremes of isolationism while retaining its coherence. How well does it succeed?

First, a general principle:

When a conflict or dispute erupts somewhere, unless it directly threatens the security of America or our treaty allies, the assumption should be that it is not the business of the U.S. government to take a leading role in resolving it. If a government requests aid in the event of a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis (e.g., famine, disease), as Haiti did following its devastating earthquake in 2010, the U.S. can and should lend assistance—but as a general rule the U.S. should not seek to interfere in other nations’ domestic circumstances.

That sounds right. The rub is how broadly we construe “directly threatens the security of American or our treaty allies.” “Domestic circumstances” could threaten U.S. security interests if, for instance, a foreign government is sponsoring terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens. So let’s look at the details.

Larison argues that the U.S. should remain diplomatically engaged, for instance in arbitrating or mediating disputes at the request of the parties involved, but that this engagement requires taking an even-handed approach to international disputes. True enough, but this example is hardly one of the most important fields of U.S. diplomatic activity. Governments like Norway and Sweden have already established something of a specialty in conflict mediation around the world, and it is difficult to see the U.S. government often stepping into that role, given its strong orientation in favor of the international status quo.

Foreign economic policy plays no role in Larison’s essay, but trade and investment agreements provide one way for the U.S. government to engage constructively with the world. On the other hand, some noninterventionists lazily argue that the U.S. should use “diplomacy” to resolve human rights problems abroad. With what tools? Some of my undergrads who hate war hold forth “sanctions” as an all-purpose alternative to war. But sanctions can impose significant costs on the U.S. economy and inflame anti-U.S. opinion just like war. In some cases they are a prelude to war. Using “carrots” rather than sticks may not be in U.S. interests either. Incorporating human rights instruments into trade agreements is frequently just disguised protectionism. Noninterventionists must bite the bullet and concede that in some cases humanitarian crises require no response at all from the U.S. government. The closest Larison comes to acknowledging this point comes in this passage:

The U.S. would refrain from destabilizing foreign governments or aiding in their overthrow, and it would not make a habit of siding with whichever protest movement happened to be in the streets of a foreign capital. Likewise, it would refrain from propping up and subsidizing abusive and dictatorial regimes and would condition U.S. aid on how a government treats its people.

The last sentence, however, shows how Larison’s noninterventionism differs from realism. It may imply, for instance, that Nixon should not have gone to China. What if a brutal but externally nonthreatening dictator is fighting al-Qaeda? I do not see any reason the U.S. government should rule out sending military assistance to such a government. The condition for the assistance should be successful suppression of the transnational terrorist threat, not greater human rights.

Larison also implies that the U.S. would not abolish all foreign aid, which puts a little space between him and Rand Paul. Here I agree with Larison. If foreign aid can help serve a legitimate U.S. foreign policy interest, and is the cheapest of all the available options, then the U.S. should use it.

On these points, moreover, I am in full agreement with Larison: (more…)

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Various

In Search of a Name

The US Patent Office has ruled that the Washington Redskins name is “disparaging to Native Americans” and the federal trademark for the name must be canceled.

If the ruling is not overturned on appeal, I would assume that this would lead to more Redskins swag on the market rather than less, at least in the short run. But ultimately, if the Redskins lose the right to market gear with their own logo, this will create powerful incentives for Dan Snyder (and other NFL owners who profit from revenue sharing) to change names.

I could imagine a few possibilities for a new name (the Washington Rent Seekers, the Washington Overlords) but I am sure there are better ones out there (suggestions?)

 

The Surveillance State

Thanks to the Snowden revelations, we have learned much about the comprehensive data collection and storage programs run by the NSA. At the same time, one might suspect that the technological savvy of the federal government is not quite as great as one might fear. Yes, the IRS loses email records (when convenient). But even more striking, the FBI’s Intelligence Research Support Unit has developed the extremely useful glossary of internet slang. Why go to  http://www.urbandictionary.com/ when you can spend taxpayer money? As the document (available here) notes: “This list has about 2800 entries you should find useful in your work or for keeping up with your children and/or grandchildren”). Caitlin Dewey (Washington Post) has a fun piece about the glossary, that was obtained through a FOIA request. Some of the selections, like IAWTCSM (“I agree with this comment so much) have been used rarely, in this case, 20 times in the history of Twitter. Others like NIFOC (“naked in front of computer”) may be used rarely (1,065 tweets) but might nonetheless be useful if you are investigating some members of Congress. Speaking of Congress, there is TLDR (“too long, didn’t read”) that might be most commonly used in connection with the legislative process (e.g., “ACA…TLDR”).

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Video of last week’s panel discussion of “Expanding Opportunity in Oklahoma,” sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, is now up.

Things got rather feisty among the three Oklahomans (two progressives and a conservative). I tried to play peacemaker on occasion.

P.S. I did not get any Koch money for participating in this panel, for those who are wondering.

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Want to understand the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq? You can do no better than read this masterful account by Kenneth M. Pollock at Brookings. One quote:

These [ISIS and other Sunni militants] are Militias First and Foremost, Terrorists only a Distant Second. Here as well, Prime Minister Maliki and his apologists like to refer to the Sunni militants as terrorists. Too often, so too do American officials. Without getting into arcane and useless debates about what constitutes a “terrorist,” as a practical matter it is a mistake to think of these groups as being principally a bunch of terrorists.

The problem there is that that implies that what these guys mostly want to do is to blow up building or planes elsewhere around the world, and particularly American buildings and planes. While I have no doubt that there are some among the Sunni militants who want to blow up American buildings and planes right now, and many others who would like to do so later, that is not their principal motivation.

Instead, this is a traditional ethno-sectarian militia waging an intercommunal civil war. (They are also not an insurgency.) They are looking to conquer territory. They will do so using guerrilla tactics or conventional tactics—and they have been principally using conventional tactics since the seizure of Fallujah over six months ago. Their entire advance south over the past week has been a conventional, motorized light-infantry offensive; not a terrorist campaign, not a guerrilla warfare campaign. [emphasis original]

Wonder why political violence has persisted in eastern Ukraine even though public support for the rebels is extremely low? Jay Ulfelder draws on some of Fearon and Laitin’s work to explain:

Their study recently came to mind when I was watching various people on Twitter object to the idea that what’s happening in Ukraine right now could be described as civil war, or at least the possible beginnings of one. Even if some of the separatists mobilizing in eastern Ukraine really were Ukrainian nationals, they argued, the agent provocateur was Russia, so this fight is properly understood as a foreign incursion.

As Jim and David’s paper shows, though, strong foreign hands are a common and often decisive feature of the fights we call civil wars.

In Syria, for example, numerous foreign governments and other external agents are funding, training, equipping, and arming various factions in the armed conflict that’s raged for nearly three years now. Some of that support is overt, but the support we see when we read about the war in the press is surely just a fraction of what’s actually happening. Yet we continue to see the conflict described as a civil war.

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The New York Times had a wonderful piece earlier this week on the disposal of war surplus to state and local law enforcement agencies under the Department of Defense Excess Property Program (1033 Program). Since 2006, the Department of Defense has sold or given away (at minimum):

  • 432 MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles)
  • 435 other armored vehicles
  • 44,900 night vision pieces
  • 533 aircraft
  • 93,763 machine guns (these are real machine guns, BTW, not “assault weapons”)

The story has draws on the example of Neenah, Wisconsin, described as “a quiet city of about 25,000 people” that “has not had a homicide in more than five years.” (I have been to Neenah, and I can testify that the word “quiet” should be capitalized). The Neenah PD has recently acquired its own MRAP. Designed for Afghanistan, these wonderful trucks proved a bit too top heavy for the terrain. So the vehicles are now available for local law enforcement for a song (or free). This is not a bad deal. The original price tag varies, but the top end model cost about $750,000 to produce.

MRAP 6x6

A quick web search reveals a few other locations that have secured their own MRAPs, including Nixa, Missouri, Fort Myers, Florida, Klamath County, Oregon, Christian County, Missouri, Boise, Caldwell, Preston, Nampa and Post Falls (all in Idaho). Even Ohio State University Police Department has one.

Why would Neenah need an MRAP? Simple: the possibility of violence. As the Neenah Police Chief explains: “We’re not going to go out there as Officer Friendly with no body armor and just a handgun and say ‘Good enough.’ ” After all, maybe there have been five years without a homicide, but what about next year…? Reason has similar piece on the sheriff of Pulaski County Indiana who has secured his own MRAP for a simple reason: “it’s a lot more intimidating than a Dodge.”

Speaking of Indiana, the New York Times story has a rather striking paragraph that provides another reason to get that MRAP:

“You have a lot of people who are coming out of the military that have the ability and knowledge to build I.E.D.’s and to defeat law enforcement techniques,” Sgt. Dan Downing of the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department told the local Fox affiliate, referring to improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs.

I will let that one sink in for a moment. The police need MRAPs to protect themselves from veterans.

For a host of reasons, the US murder rate is at a 40-year low. Yet, our law enforcement has never been more militarized thanks to our endless wars abroad and our policy to distribute our surplus tools of war at fire sale prices. With all the surplus yet to be disposed of, this is one trend that is likely to continue for some time.

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