Ivan Eland

Are You On the Terror Watch List? Good Luck Getting Off It

After having begun a series of investigative stories criticizing the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in May 2008, CNN reporter Drew Griffin reports being placed with more than a million other names on TSA's swollen terrorism watch list.

Although TSA insists Griffin's name is not on the list and pooh-poohs any possibility of retaliation for Griffin's negative reporting, the reporter has been hassled by various airlines on 11 flights since May. The airlines insist that Griffin's name is on the list.

Congress has asked TSA to look into the tribulations of this prominent passenger.

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, probably responding to the controversy over Griffin, Leonard Boyle, the director of the Terrorist Screening Center, defended the watch list, claiming that because terrorists have multiple aliases, the names on the list boiled down to only about 400,000 actual people.

If there are 400,000 terrorists lying in wait to attack the United States, we are all in trouble.

But wait a minute. There has been no major terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 -- almost seven years ago. Where are all these nefarious evildoers?

Boyle says 95 percent of these people are not American citizens or legal residents and the vast majority aren't even in the United States. He rather sheepishly defends the size of the list by writing, "Its size corresponds to the threat. It's a big world."

That brings up a very important issue. The U.S. government regularly tries to police the world and combat threats to other nations -- in the process, usually generating more enemies.

Examining the 44 organizations on the State Department's highly politicized list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), one finds that only a very few currently focus their efforts on U.S. targets. And the U.S. government has even flirted with one anti-Iranian group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which was put on the FTO list long ago.

Similarly, the State Department's list of five state sponsors of terrorism has included Cuba and North Korea -- neither of which has actively participated in terrorist attacks in decades. These two countries continued to be on the list for other reasons -- namely U.S. government aversion to them.

On its Web site, the State Department even admits that, "The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987."

The Web site also contains an implicit admission that keeping selected countries on the state sponsors list can reap ulterior political benefits for the United States. The Web site notes that under the umbrella of the Six-Party Talks, the United States intends to remove North Korea from the list as that nation takes actions toward getting rid of its nuclear weapons program.

Even the remaining three nations on the list that do sponsor terrorism -- Syria, Iran and Sudan -- don't support groups that focus their attacks on the U.S. Thus, the humongous terrorist watch list for airline travel and the excessively large FTO and state sponsors lists are a few more examples of the United States taking on other nations' security burdens.

Trying to be the "big man on (the world) campus," however, comes at a horrendous cost to American freedom at home.

The terrorist watch list is downright unconstitutional. Under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, no warrants shall be issued unless there is probable cause that a crime has been committed.

If the government has such probable cause that a passenger is conspiring to commit a terrorist act on an airplane, it should not hassle that person at the airport when trying to fly or ban him or her from flying; it should arrest them.

But of course the government does not have the evidence to do that for the vast majority of the 400,000 people on the watch list.

And it's apparently not easy to get yourself off the list once you are on it. Although Boyle claims that the TSA constantly scrubs the list for possible mistaken identities of people who have frequent "encounters" with the list, even if they don't file a complaint, Griffin uncovered an innocent passenger with a common name -- James Robinson -- who has complained endlessly and has received no resolution of his case.

Senator Edward Kennedy -- also with a common name -- experienced endless hassles and red tape trying to get his name off the list. If such a well-known figure has such problems, the average misidentified traveler is in big trouble.

And as the economists would say, what about opportunity cost to real security?

The U.S. government should spend the time it devotes to scrutinizing 400,000 people on the watch list, and the vast majority of the 44 FTOs and all of the five countries who don't sponsor anti-U.S. terrorism, on the again rising principal threat from Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and their tens of hard-core al-Qaeda followers operating out of Pakistan.

The American public would be much safer. As the famous Prussian military ruler Fredrick the Great (and closet economist) said, "To defend everything is to defend nothing."

Moreover, under current government policy, we have neither liberty nor security.

Winning Over Arabs Using Israeli Tactics?

The Bush administration’s recent “get tough” approach to the chaos in Iraq is predictable and will likely make things worse there in the long-term. With few good options left in Iraq -- few foreign countries will send troops to help with the American occupation, inserting more U.S. forces is politically unacceptable, and the newly created Iraqi security forces resemble the keystone cops -- the Bush administration’s escalation of the violence, in an attempt to quell the Iraqi insurgency before next year’s election, comes as no surprise. But such escalation will kill, wound or anger even more Iraqi civilians and thus make long-term stability in Iraq even more unlikely.

Of all the Bush administration’s inept bungling during the occupation of Iraq, the new aggressive tactics on the ground may take the cake. Not only are U.S. forces becoming more combative against the insurgency, they are making no secret about imitating a failed Israeli model. Like the Israeli forces occupying Gaza and the West Bank, U.S. occupiers are now bombing or bulldozing houses and buildings used in attacks against them, wrapping towns in razor wire, locking them down for 15 hours a day, issuing photo identification cards for those Iraqis wishing to go in or out during the other 9 hours, and imprisoning relatives of suspected guerrillas to pressure them to turn themselves in. Senior American military officials admit that the United States sent officers to Israel to learn Israeli techniques in urban counterinsurgency warfare.

Although the U.S. military is the most powerful in the world, it still envies the much smaller Israeli armed forces for their history of winning against larger or multiple opponents. Unfortunately, war is too important to be left to the generals -- Israeli or American.

In the short term, aggressive counterinsurgency tactics work; in the long-term they will be disastrous. Aggressive Israeli tactics have reduced the number of suicide bombings in Palestine -- at least in the short-term. Similarly, more aggressive U.S. tactics have cut in half the number of attacks on allied forces from 40 per day to under 20 a day (of course, some of that reduction has to do with the insurgents redirecting their attacks to “soft” or non-military targets, which are more vulnerable). In the long-term, that combative posture -- designed to intimidate both the guerrillas and ordinary Iraqis -- will alienate the Iraqi populace, which is crucial to win over if a counter-insurgency is to succeed. Although Israel’s military has been successful in fighting conventional Arab armies, its counter-insurgency techniques are only enraging another generation of suicide bombers. Bombs are cheap and easy to make, but recruiting young people willing to kill themselves to fight the enemy is the most challenging aspect of such attacks. The aggressive Israeli tactics are acting as a recruiting poster for such would-be terrorists. Similarly, an enraged and humiliated Iraqi populace will breed and shelter more anti-U.S. insurgents.

Aside from the bad practical consequences of the American adoption of Israeli tactics, such imitation has abysmal moral and public relations implications. Invading and occupying a country with little cause, leveling its houses and imprisoning parts of its population in what are effectively urban prison camps clearly violate international norms. Even worse is holding innocent family members hostage until suspected guerrillas surrender. In the American tradition of holding accountable only those who commit a crime, we do not lock up the families of convicted murders, let alone those of suspected ones.

Apart from the immorality of U.S. actions, imitating anything Israeli in an Arab country is horrendous public relations, which is likely to make the population even more hostile. Such imitation, when combined with well-publicized politically incorrect statements on the part of some U.S. soldiers, is guaranteed to generate ill will in Iraq for some time -- even among the Shiite majority in Iraq. For example, according to the New York Times, when talking about the new aggressive American tactics, Capt. Todd Brown, a company commander in the Fourth Infantry Division stated, “You have to understand the Arab mind. The only thing they understand is force -- force, pride and saving face.” Perhaps Custer’s men at the Little Big Horn had similar ignorant and unsophisticated sentiments about Native Americans.

And Capt. Brown’s boss, Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman, the battalion commander who oversees one village gulag, also came up with some condescending and counterproductive comments for the Times reporter. He succinctly summarized the American administration’s twisted thinking in Iraq by saying, “With a heavy dose of fear and violence and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them.” Lt. Col. Sassaman’s quote is reminiscent of the Vietnam War protesters’ satirical characterization of the American attitude toward the South Vietnamese: “We have to kill these people to save them.” Killing innocent civilians turned much of the South Vietnamese population against their U.S. “saviors” and led, ultimately, to a humiliating U.S. defeat. The adoption of aggressive military tactics in Iraq is likely to have the same horrible long-term outcome.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World.

Is Iraq Another Vietnam?

As the insurgency in Iraq gets bolder, more sophisticated and more deadly, the hawks are falling all over themselves to pooh-pooh comparisons of Iraq to the debacle in Vietnam. But the White House should be alarmed that such comparisons are even being made. Despite some differences between the conflicts, in both wars avoiding defeat means winning “hearts and minds” -- of the American people.

The Vietnamese guerrilla war was larger, took advantage of jungle terrain and was blatantly sheltered and supported by outside powers. In Iraq, the insurgency is on a smaller scale (at least for now), but also gives the guerrillas some advantages. To win a war, you must first know whom you are fighting, and the U.S. Army’s intelligence in Iraq is deficient. In Vietnam, the U.S. military at least knew its enemy. In Iraq the situation is murky. In fact, it appears that U.S. forces may have multiple enemies using a variety of tactics and taking advantage of urban, rather than jungle, terrain.

At the turn of the last century, the Army exhibited competence in fighting guerrillas in the Philippines (albeit by killing 200,000 Filipinos). But within the service, counterinsurgency warfare is now a lost art. During World War II and the Cold War, the Army became much more interested in buying high-tech weapons to fight the conventional armies of nation-states. Even the botched counterinsurgency in Vietnam did not cause much soul searching within the service. The Army essentially just vowed to avoid allowing the civilian leadership to embroil them in “half-in-half-out” limited wars in the future. And it redoubled its efforts to conduct total war against conventional enemies more effectively -- which culminated in the easy victories in Gulf Wars I and II (at least initially). Despite the U.S. experience, the loser is often the one who learns most from the previous war. Saddam Hussein likely learned from Gulf War I that the only way he could survive a future confrontation with a superpower would be to fight guerrilla-style. He probably concluded that the U.S. military would be better at fighting the war than dealing with a hostile occupation. Like the North Vietnamese calculated, Saddam knows that the Achilles’ Heel of the United States is the staying power -- or lack thereof -- of U.S. public opinion.

And Saddam has one big advantage that the Vietnamese communists didn’t have -- 24-hour news. It took years for the American public and press to become disenchanted by the drip-drip-drip of U.S. military casualties in Vietnam. More recently, as U.S. interventions in Lebanon in the early 1980s and Somalia in the early 1990s demonstrated, when U.S. vital interests are not at stake, public and media support for a war can quickly erode after only modest American casualties. Saddam and his allies have undoubtedly noticed that American impatience and have gained inspiration from the successful Palestinian intifadas against Israel and the continuing Chechen insurgency after Russia declared victory in that war.

The American public has been more patient with the U.S. government in Iraq than in Lebanon and Somalia. After the September 11 attacks, the President and his people repeatedly implied -- disingenuously -- that Saddam was implicated in that tragedy. But after President Bush was finally forced to admit that no Saddam-September 11 link had been discovered and that no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq were found that could be given to terrorists, the Bush’s administration’s justifications for war are now in shambles. During Vietnam, the public and press didn’t focus on the questionable justification for taking the country to war -- the shady Gulf of Tonkin incident -- until the war went bad. Today the press has had a field day with the “no WMD” issue, and mushrooming casualties may make the public examine the original reasons for invading Iraq more closely.

And the casualties will likely continue to mount. Although the Iraqi guerrillas are not getting blatant assistance from outside powers, Iran and Syria -- fearing that they could be the next targets of U.S. invasions -- may be actively assisting the insurgency to keep U.S. forces pinned down in Iraq. At the least, they may be looking the other way as fighters and supplies transit their territories and porous borders. Also, Saddam may have squirreled away billions in advance for the fight, foreign Islamic fighters also are likely to be well-financed, and unguarded arms caches in Iraq abound.

So while the circumstances of the insurgency may differ from Vietnam, the political problem of being half-in and half-out is the same. The press is already demanding to know when U.S. troops can be reduced, while at the same time Joseph Biden, the senior Democratic Senator on the Foreign Relations Committee, is pressuring for American forces to be added. Perhaps Biden knows that committing more forces would mire the administration deeper in the quagmire, belie administration rhetoric that the situation in Iraq is improving -- the way the Tet Offensive in Vietnam belied the Johnson administration’s claim that the United States was winning the Vietnam War -- and be the beginning of the end for both public support for the war and the president’s political career. Iraq begins to look more like Vietnam every day.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, "Putting 'Defense' Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World."

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