Thursday, July 20, 2017

Detesting Trump and Others

The London Review of Books has a very nice piece on The Age of Detesting Trump. It's just not clear which party the author detests more at this point, Trump or the feckless media / Democrat opposition to him.

My favorite parts:
The centre-left media went to sleep after the Iran-Contra scandal of 1986-87, dozed through the Clinton years, and were half-asleep and nodding when they approved Cheney and Bush’s war in Iraq and Obama and [Hillary] Clinton’s war in Libya. For obscure reasons, they have been quite certain that Western dismantling of yet another Arab country, Syria, is the surest path to a sane policy in the Middle East. All the mainstream outlets, with CNN and the Times at their head, have now re-emerged as anti-government centres of news, opinion, and news perceptibly mingled with opinion. But they are new to the work of ‘resistance’ and it shows.

-- snip --

[Jared Kushner's plan, or] any plan for back-channel privacy is properly viewed as an attempt to dodge the civic duty of all Americans to submit to US surveillance. Now that we know what we know about Putin, nobody should be free of surveillance: not the president or his advisers or his cabinet; and surely not members of Congress, either. And federal or state judges, and ordinary citizens – why not? The age of detesting Trump is the age of reliance on the deep state and trust in the ‘intelligence community’. If they can’t save us, who will? They need all the powers they have been given if they are to achieve what they must.

-- snip --

The unhappy pattern [of failing to differentiate between news that is true and rumor that you wish were true] anyway is starting to be noticed. The Times published a sharp letter to the editor a few days later that noticed how the paper had now crossed the line separating news analysis from invective ... This has happened across the board, in the culture of the Trump presidency: you see it in the newspapers, the magazines and in television. Mainstream media are speaking almost in unison; they are out of control with a consistency that shows they have forgotten what control feels like ... PEN announced that its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award, which went to Charlie Hebdo in 2015, would be given in 2017 to the two million persons who participated in the women’s march against Trump.

-- snip --

Trump won election to the highest office in the US government by heaping contempt on government. In this, he confirmed and strengthened a tendency of the party he ran with, going back as far as the Reagan administration. The Democrats by contrast remain the party of what-government-can-do-for-you; and a substantial mass of their rank and file denies his legitimacy. He stole the election, they say; it was handed to him by Comey, or by Putin, or by an electoral college whose numbers have no right to cancel the votes of a majority of three million people. The trick, Democrats feel, is somehow to delegitimate Trump and the government he leads (it isn’t a real government) and then move in to take his place, but with a government that has somehow been relegitimated.

-- snip --

The best recourse of sanity to those who would rather defeat Trump than disgust his supporters may be simply to recall that he has at his back the massed weight and momentum of the Republican Party. It doesn’t much matter who is making use of whom: they are not about to part company, while the Democrats have to defend the shrinking redoubt of just 18 of 50 statehouses and a respectable but thoroughly confused minority in Congress. It is Republicans today who see themselves as makers of a revolution.

-- snip --

Nothing now would better serve the maturity and the invigoration of the Democrats than to give up any hope of sound advice or renewal from Bill or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. They were pleasant to think about, but their politics have turned out wrong, and there’s nothing they can do for us now. ... You may curse Putin and Comey and misogyny and Wisconsin, but Trump is marching through the departments and agencies with budget cuts and policy changes that will be felt for years to come. Trump is the name of a cause and not just a person, and you can only fight him with another cause. The name of it might be climate change.

London Review of Books, you had me right up to "climate change."

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

GSA Pulls the Plug on New FBI Headquarters

















When GSA announced it was ending the decade-long search for a new FBI headquarters I noticed the WaPo's commenters assumed that Donald Trump must have ordered it as some sort of personal retaliation against the FBI. In reality, it was the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the GSA’s Inspector General who drove the decision, and the writing has been on the wall since late May.

It's all explained in a construction journal (here) which, back in December 2016, reported on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's decision to cap the FBI's project funding, as well as impose a maximum size on the new HQ building and set a deadline of two years for GSA to close the deal, among other conditions. Furthermore, the journal linked to the March, 2017, GSA Inspector General's critical report on the planning and funding of so-called exchange projects, in which the Fed swaps property it already owns to compensate private developers for new projects. The new FBI HQ project is such an exchange, and the GSA's IG now takes a dim view of them.

The GSA announced in March that it was delaying site selection for the new building until it received a firm financing commitment from Congress, and no such commitment has come. The decision to cut its losses and cancel the project was pretty much inevitable.

Not that the FBI doesn't need a new headquarters. It does. The current HQ is a complete disaster on aesthetics and architectural merit, security, practicality, space needs, maintenance and repair costs, and all other grounds. Because half the building's space is unusable, FBI offices are scattered around the city in leased properties, which is expensive and makes for a dysfunctional program. They'll build a new place someday, but it will have to be in accordance with the conditions that Congress lays down.

More Bollards Are Coming to Your Town

The truck ramming attack in Nice last year killed 87 and injured 484













Vehicle ramming attacks directed at pedestrians have become the deadliest form of terrorism in the West, accounting for just over half of all deaths in terrorist attacks.

And that, naturally, means that cities in the U.S. will see increased use of passive anti-ram barriers - bollards - around high-traffic pedestrians avenues and large venues. The WaPo reported this the other day, vehicles as weapons of terror: U.S. cities on alert as attacks hit the West:
As terrorists overseas increasingly turn to vehicles as weapons, cities across the United States, concerned such attacks could happen here, are ramping up security in public spaces to protect areas with heavy pedestrian traffic.

-- snip --

Transportation planners are exploring innovative ways to use landscaping to create buffers between roadways and sidewalks. Security companies say they are being consulted on how to protect main streets.

“Big cities are realizing that they could have a mass casualty event on all four sides of an intersection at any time,” [said Rob Reiter, a pedestrian safety expert and chief security consultant at Calpipe Security Bollards, one of the nation’s top bollard manufacturers].

-- snip --

U.S. law enforcement officials say the threat of such attacks is real. In an advisory issued in May, the Transportation Security Administration alerted the nation’s trucking companies about the rising risk of rental trucks and hijackings and thefts for purposes of such an attack. The agency urged vigilance as terrorist groups continue to employ the less sophisticated tactics, which can be carried out with minimal planning and training, but have potential to inflict mass casualties.

-- snip --

The latest threat has cities in Europe, Australia and North America making new investments, from barriers along a number of bridges across the River Thames in London to retractable bollards in the tourist area of Surfers Paradise in eastern Australia. Vehicle barriers along roads around the All England club were among the enhanced security measures surrounding Wimbledon this week.

-- snip --

In Washington, which is filled with high-profile targets as the nation’s capital, law enforcement officials would not discuss specific tactics, but they acknowledged that they are pursuing various means to protect pedestrians, including the installation of more bollards on city streets. “We are always trying to stay a step ahead of these terrorists,” said Jeffery Carroll, the assistant D.C. police chief

I noticed that many WaPo commenters recommended banning vehicles from city centers, but that simple solution isn’t practical. Office buildings, residences, hotels, restaurants, and entertainment venues need supplies delivered and trash removed. Pedestrian-only places still need emergency vehicles, public transit, handicapped transport, etc. We cannot completely separate vehicles from our urban centers.

However, there is another measure we could take, and I'm surprised the WaPo didn't mention it since it has already mitigated the damage from one ramming attack. Automatic emergency braking, or collision avoidance systems.

In March 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety announced that the manufacturers of 99% of U.S. automobiles had agreed to include automatic emergency braking systems as a standard feature on virtually all new cars sold in the U.S. by 2022. Europe already deploys them for some commercial trucks, and they became mandatory for new heavy vehicles in 2015.

Beyond the routine traffic safety benefits you'd expect from such systems, there is evidence that the emergency braking system on a hijacked commercial truck prevented greater damage during the 2016 Berlin Christmas market ramming attack.

Bollards and automatic brakes. They are coming soon to a city near you and to your next car.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Transfer Visa Functions to DHS? Who's Listening to Whom?

When you talk to the hand, does the hand listen?













Shall the Trump Administration transfer all passport and visa functions from State's Bureau of Consular Affairs to the Department of Homeland Security? According to Reuters, the Listening Survey Report that will form the basis for a reorganization of the State Department recommends doing so. "There may be an opportunity to elevate efficiency and reduce cost by this change … Indications are that doing so would elevate security at our borders" it said.

Oh? Who indicated that? The report doesn’t say. Possibly no one did, at least no one among the 35,000 State employees who responded to the survey. But then, the only voice worth listening to may have belonged to Carl C. Risch, the current Acting Chief of Staff in the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (DHS), who will be nominated to be the next Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs.

See Diplopundit's posts on this matter here, here, and here.

No matter who listened to whom, there is a long history of legislation and policy on the question of whether passport and visa functions would be better served if retained with State or transferred to DHS, and so far the decision has been to keep them with State.

The post-9/11 Congressional debate on visa policy and the roles of State and DHS resulted in a 2003 memorandum of understanding between the two agencies. See this Congressional Research Service report from 2004, which was updated in 2011, for the details.

Quoting from both reports, the pros and cons of moving visa functions to DHS were, briefly, these.
Proponents of DOS playing the lead role in visa issuances assert that only consular officers in the field have the country-specific knowledge to make decisions about whether an alien is admissible and that staffing approximately 250 diplomatic and consular posts around the world would stretch DHS beyond its capacity.

Those who supported retained immigrant adjudications and services in DOJ and visa issuances in DOS point to the specializations that each department brings to the functions. They asserted that the "dual check" system in which both INS and Consular Affairs make their own determinations on whether an alien ultimately enters the United States provides greater security.

Others opposing the transfer of INS adjudications and Consular Affairs visa issuances to DHS maintained that DHS would be less likely to balance the more generous elements of immigration law (e.g., the reunification of families, the admission of immigrants with needed skills, the protection of refugees, opportunities for cultural exchange, the facilitation of trade, commerce, and diplomacy) with the more restrictive elements of the law (e.g., protection of public health and welfare, national security, public safety, and labor markets).

They also pointed out that under current law, consular decisions are not appealable and warned that transferring this adjudication to homeland security might make it subject to judicial appeals or other due process considerations.

Voices in support of moving Consular Affairs's visa issuance responsibilities to the proposed DHS asserted that consular officers emphasize the promotion of tourism, commerce, and cultural exchange and are lax in screening foreign nationals who want to come the United States.

Some argue that visa issuance is the real “front line” of homeland security against terrorists and that the principal responsibility should be in DHS, which does not have competing priorities of diplomatic relations and reciprocity with foreign governments.

I count more cons than pros. So it's settled then, the functions remain with State, right?

Not so fast. There is still the important matter of political perception. How does the Trump Administration perceive State versus DHS as the implementer of its visa policy?

Writing in National Review a month ago, Jonathon Tobin, the online editor for Commentary, pointed out why the Administration might not trust State as much as DHS:
In January, 1,000 State Department staffers signed a cable protesting Trump’s original travel-ban order. But, unfortunately, the problems in the Foreign Service go beyond such flamboyant, and clearly inappropriate, gestures. As the New York Times reported this week, tension between the White House and senior levels of the diplomatic corps is rising. If true, this is troubling because if senior personnel — people who have served under both Republican and Democratic administrations and who should be setting an example of apolitical behavior — are ready to step outside their lane and demonstrate their opposition to the government of the day, that raises the possibility that the president can no longer count on the loyalty of the Foreign Service.

Snip

[W]hen diplomats start acting like free agents rather than like the voice of those who were elected to set foreign policy, the notion of a conflict between career civil servants and those chosen to run the government stops being a paranoid fantasy ... setting policy is still the purview of the president, not the civil service.

That highly publicized dissent channel cable on the travel ban, and the more innocuous resistance stuff, may be nothing more than the actions of people shell shocked by election night, but they nevertheless create an impression. DHS, meanwhile, is showing itself to be very highly motivated to carry out the White House's policies on immigration and aliens. If you were in the White House, which agency would you trust with a critical part of your agenda?

This is far from a done deal, no matter what the Listening Survey reports or what State's reorganization contractor reads in its word clouds. To transfer those functions to DHS the Administration would have to overcome significant bureaucratic and financial barriers, plus, it would just be a bad idea for all the same reasons that Congress already found in the years after 9/11. But that doesn't mean it won't happen all the same. Should State ends up losing those functions, it will be a self-inflicted wound.

The Contractor: So Quick to Shoot, So Slow to Get Away



“If you’re going to send a Jason Bourne character to Pakistan, he should have the skills of a Jason Bourne to get away,” Pakistan's Ambassador Haqqani told CIA Director Leon Panetta, according to the New York Times. Touché, Ambassador Haqqani. You put your finger on the first and biggest problem with the Raymond Davis incident: it wouldn't have happened at all if Davis had simply shot the two Lahore street thugs who had pointed pistols at him, and then driven off. But he didn't. He hung around the scene until a crowd formed and he couldn't drive away, and then he surrendered himself to Lahore police officers. He stayed in prison while the CIA, it's Pakistani counterpart, and our respective Ambassadors eventually cut a deal for his release.

In his book, Davis boasts about how quickly he can draw a pistol and hit a target, only 1.1 seconds on average. So the shooting part didn't take much time, but, then he spent the next seven weeks in prison while his fate was decided by others. Davis doesn't seem the reflective type, but should he reflect on it, he would probably agree with me that he ought to have done a little more training on putting a car into reverse and departing at high speed. 

The NYT's video embedded above of an interview with Davis is short - just six minutes - and superficial. Back in 2014, the NYT had a very good article about the Davis incident and how it was finally resolved after doing a great deal of damage to U.S.-Pakistani relations: How a Single Spy Helped Turn Pakistan Against the United States. I'd read that for context before reading Davis' own, more limited, account.

The damage Davis caused to our relations with a necessary ally isn't over yet, by the way, since Davis' book is currently feeding Pakistan's appetite for conspiracy theories. Did you know his book was secretly cooked up by India's intelligence agency as a means to slander Pakistan's Army and democratic institutions? Yeah, it's true, according to today's Pakistani press, to take just one random example of Pakistani media reaction.

On a personal level I have to feel sorry for Davis. He was a personal services contractor who by all accounts provided useful service for a long time in Pakistan, not just in Lahore but also in the far more dangerous city of Peshawar. I've heard it suggested that a career employee in his same situation would have had the good sense to get away after the shooting, because he'd know that his career would be over if he caused a public spectacle, whereas a short-term contractor like Davis didn't have the same long-term interest. That could be. Another part of the problem may be that Davis believed he was operating under wartime rules - during the interview he repeatedly refers to Lahore, or Pakistan, as "a war zone" - but of course, we are not at war with Pakistan. If Davis came to confuse discreet personal protection work in Pakistan with military service across the border in Afghanistan, then that was the fault of his employer and supervisors.

One last thought: why has everyone on the U.S. side of the incident forgotten the innocent victim, the third Pakistani killed that day, a bicyclist who was run over and killed by some of Davis's fellow contractors who were driving against traffic in an attempt to extract him from the scene of the shooting? Unlike the two armed criminals Davis shot, that guy was just a plain victim. Yet, the U.S. never even expressed regret for his death, so far as I recall. 

All in all, not a good showing by our side.