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Category: Security

Airline Security

In the summer of 2004 Patrick Smith, who writes the Ask The Pilot column at and who is an airline pilot himself, briefly commended Representative John Mica, Congressman from Florida and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, for speaking out against the silliness of the “…zero-tolerance obsession with, as I like to call them, weapons of mass distraction” the banning of “potential weapons” like nail clippers, jewelers screwdrivers, butter knives, forks and the like from aircraft cabins.

This has been a pet peeve of mine ever since the rules were tightened after 9/11: I believe it makes us less safe rather than more.

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What Would Kerry Have Done?

At one point during the Bush/Kerry presidential campaign, well after it was clear we would not find any significant stash of chemical or biological or nuclear agents in Iraq, The Boston Globe published an editorial in which they opined that what we needed to know about John Kerry was what he would have done about Iraq “knowing what he knows now”.

I thought the suggestion was rather stupid: no one ever gets to go back and redo their important decisions based on what he learns later. The question we really needed answered was how John Kerry would make decisions in the face of inevitable ambiguity, not how he would re-think those decisions in the clarity of hindsight.

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Decisions and Context

In all the criticism I have heard about the analysis and use of the Iraq intelligence, and especially about the political decisions based on that intelligence, the one thing that never seems to be mentioned is the context in which that analysis and decision-making was taking place. We talk about it as if the analysis and decision-making process were a matter only of political consequence, or as if the option to do nothing implied zero cost so the only question to answer was whether doing something — that is whether going to war — would make things better or worse. But that is not the environment in which events unfolded.

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The 9/11 Report, Iraq, and Al Quaeda

When the commission investigating the events leading up to the World Trade Center attack released their interim staff report, headlines across the country declared that it “contradicted” what the President had said about Iraqi involvement in the attacks — and, when the President and his staff disputed that contention, the story became the “dispute” between he and the commission rather than what the commission had actually found.

After looking at what the report actually said, I concluded that there was not, in fact, a dispute: what the report said and what President Bush had said were consistent; the only contradiction was between what the report said and the words that the news media, against the evidence, insisted on putting into the President’s mouth. I believe that represents a kind of bias that ill-serves us. When we are debating such important matters as war and peace, we need and deserve the unblemished truth.

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The “War” on Terrorism

The war in Iraq has elicited all kinds of nonsense from people on both sides of the issue and, almost every day, I find myself exasperated by someone missing the point. Often, missing the point requires a pointed effort of will — as with people who insist the entire war effort was about oil: if all we wanted was Iraqi oil, by far our best policy, by any measure, would have been to lift sanctions and buy it — but sometimes underlying patterns are obscured by superficial features and are reasonably missed.

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Richard Clarke

Richard Clarke’s charges that the Bush administration ignored the growing threat of Al Quaeda — and ignored his own prescient warnings about that threat — in the months leading up to the attack on the World Trade Center became a cause celebre among those who wished fervently to believe both in the incompetence or venality of the President and his policies and in the capacity for government to keep us safe from such atrocities.

If we only listened to smart and dedicated people like Richard Clarke (and his old boss, Bill Clinton) then we could have back our golden age…

That is certainly the story that was told by the news media. But, notwithstanding subsequent revelations about Mr. Clarke’s apparent epiphany on the dangers of Islamic Fascism between his services on the Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams, is it really reasonable to expect that a new President and a new administration — even if they have both a vision and a mandate — is going to turn around decades of policy thought and practice in their first nine months in office?

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The question of the day seems to be whether Spain’s election results and subsequent announcement that they would withdraw their troops from Iraq amounted to an exercise in democracy or an act of appeasement. Notwithstanding the vehemence and sanctimony accompanying pronouncements either way, the answer may simply be “Yes. Both.”

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National ID Cards

But the biggest downside to a national ID card is that once it was in place, and in order to make the best use of it for fighting terrorism, it would be irresistible that it be transformed from something that is only practically mandatory (like the drivers license and the Social Security card â?? in theory you could arrange your life to live without them) into something that is legally mandatory, not merely if you want to board a plane or to handle dynamite but simply because you exist. And then, once governments and government agencies across the spectrum know that everyone must have one, it is only practical that they demand you present it for every interaction with government â?? for your own protection of course, just to ensure we know who we’re dealing with. And how about when you are acting suspiciously in the street? In fact, why don’t we just make it mandatory that you carry it with you at all times, and show it on demand to any government official?

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The “Injustice” of Non-Proliferation

Periodically, in discussing issues surrounding nuclear non-proliferation, someone — typically but not always someone from some Islamic country — will assert that we have no right to deny the likes of Saddam Hussein or the Iranian Ayatollahs access to nuclear weapons; that such a demand amounts to imperialism, that it interferes with the self-determination of their peoples and usurps their legitimate sovereignty. Inevitably, the need for nuclear weapons in the hands of such countries is rationalized by the need to “counter the threat” from Israeli nuclear weapons or from our own. And, inevitably, attempts to limit the number of nuclear nations in the world are classified as arrogance, a presumption that only members of the nuclear club are sophisticated and moral enough to be trusted with such power.

There is some validity to the issue of the usurpation of sovereignty — although, if we wish to be so solicitous of sovereignty, we really should have a debate over what constitutes legitimate sovereignty in the modern era that honors human rights and celebrates ascendant democracy. But, where nuclear weapons are concerned, basic survival, not sovereignty, is really the most fundamental consideration. And, if our desire that Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il not have nuclear weapons represents a presumption that they are not sophisticated and moral enough to be trusted with such capabilities, that presumption is not arrogant but prudent.

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Brittle Systems

In the September 2002 issue of The Atlantic Thomas C. Mann wrote a profile of Bruce Schneier, one of the gurus of modern-day computer cryptography, and his current crusade to get back to basics on both electronic and physical security with decentralized, interlocking, people-centric approaches to monitoring and defeating attempted attacks. I fully agree with Mr. Schneier’s thesis but I lack his confidence that the rationality of his arguments will make any headway while the discussions are dominated as much by political considerations as by technical ones.

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