Category ►►► On the Border
February 25, 2008
Bombs and Bombast
In a post today, Tom Bevan of Real Clear Politics gleefully reports that the "virtual fence" program hasn't worked well so far:
Keith Epstein of Businessweek reports that the "virtual fence" all the candidates kept referring to (especially the GOP ones) as the cornerstone of border security turned out to be a miserable failure....
Doesn't this hurt McCain, given that the virtual fence was one of the tools he was counting on to help deliver his promise of "certifying" the security of the border? Will he have commit to building the real "g**damn fence" now?
No, it shouldn't hurt McCain... any more than the early failures of the ballistic missile defense system seriously hurt the BMD program. It just means we have to keep building the physical fence -- while continuing to work on the virtual one.
For some reason, the idea of a virtual fence became the focal point of the ire of immigration-absolutists during the debate last year over McCain-Kennedy. It became vital to anti-plea-bargain conservatives to "debunk" the virtual fence, presumably on the grounds that only a real fence -- three hundred feet high and sixty feet thick, dotted with machine-gun emplacements and sporting a minefield -- could keep out the illegal Mexicans.
They saw the virtual fence as a heavily watered drink some cheapskate bartender was trying to foist on them.
Do I sound a bit caustic? Sorry, I tend to get that way when Republicans act-out like Democrats. In particular, the reflexive bias against technology has always set my teeth on fire.
Democrats in the 1980s became hysterical at the thought of a technological shield against incoming nuclear missiles; and now the conservative wing of the GOP is running around like a chicken with its legs cut off over the possibility of a technological shield against illegal immigration.
I can only conclude that they believe even breathing the words "virtual fence" amounts to "surrender" and "amnesty," as if it were always just a ruse to avoid building a real fence. But the areas suggested for the virtual fence are precisely those that have such rugged terrain that (a) there are hardly any illegal crossings, and (b) it's extremely difficult (if not impossible) to build a "real" fence in the first place.
So that those areas would not be left totally unguarded, various people proposed a network of radar installations, cameras, motion detectors, heat sensors, and a computer system tying it all together... modeled roughly on the Aegis combat system that protects many of our cruisers and destroyers.
Regardless of whether or not this particular version of a virtual fence has worked, we absolutely need one. Believe it or not, keeping out Mexicans is not the only problem we have that requires some sort of barrier:
- The border with Canada is vastly bigger than the southern border, and it would take a long, long time to toss a fence across it;
- And then, of course, there's the Gulf of Mexico; terrorists can boat up the Gulf and hop out onto the beach;
- And there are the Iraqi borders with Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran;
- And don't forget the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and (naturally) Iran;
- Not to mention borders between our allies and their enemiess;
- Finally, any physical fence that can be built -- can be breached; cf. the fence that used to separate Gaza from Egypt. Even if we could literally build fences separating us from all potential enemies, those fences can be tunneled under, flown over, or blown up.
We need to keep working on the virtual fence because we are soon going to need it -- desperately, and in many, many places. Similarly, it's a darned good thing that we kept working on BMD, despite early failures of the components of the original Strategic Defense Initiative (particle-beam technology, railgun ground launchers, nuclear-powered pulse weapons)... because now we really, really need it for a completely unforseen adversary. Thank goodness we have it.
It's quite reasonable to argue that the virtual fence technology is not yet good enough to rely upon, so we need to build a physical barrier. But it's wrong -- one of those few actions that are always wrong -- to heap scorn upon a technological program because the early alpha-tests weren't entirely successful. Worse than wrong, it's foolish, Luddite, and short-sighted.
By all means, build the physical double-fencing along the southern border with Mexico; but don't delude yourselves that that's all we need. Or that we'll never need the virtual fence. Or even that we'll actually be able to build an effective physical fence everywhere that we need to stop people from coming... or even along the entire southern border itself.
The physical fence is a stopgap; we urgently need to do two things. As Caiaphas says in Jesus Christ Super Star, "We need a more permanent solution to our problem":
- Perfect the virtual-fence, smart-card, and employer verification technologies;
- Reform our own legal immigration system so that it is rational, just, and above all, predictable, to take the pressure of millions off the wall.
When law-abiding, eager-to-assimilate immigrants see a system that tells them what they need do to be granted residency or citizenship, they will follow the legal brick road. Contrariwise, if they see a system that arbitrarily excludes them, while welcoming much less assimilable immigrants with open arms, the pressure to just give up and sneak into the country, making a better life for their wives and chilren, becomes overwhelming.
(Imagine that you go through four or five years of university, passing all classes and tests; but at the end, somebody hands you a pair of dice... and you only get your diploma if you roll ten or higher.)
Until these two problems are solved, a physical fence is just a very wide target for bombs -- and bombast.
February 9, 2008
Big Lizards Agrees With the WaPo Against a Border Security Measure!
Here's a stunner: I find myself opposing a particular border-control measure we've been using to try to nab terrorists... and on the same side as the Washington Post and other liberal Democrats. The lake of fire is almost ready for ice skating.
It appears that Customs officers in airports have been seizing laptops, cell phones, and other electronic equipment from airline passengers (including some American citizens), with little to no evidence of criminal or terrorist activity or intention. They sometimes hold the electronic devices for months, reading (and sharing?) sensitive or proprietary information from them, or sometimes even wiping them clean.
While I can certainly understand using such aggressive tactics when there is reason to suspect that the device in question contains terrorism-related material or child pornography, or if the owner is on an enhanced-scrutiny list; but if the Post can be believed, the tactic is being used much too cavalierly for people with Moslem-sounding names departing for or arriving from places of interest, such as Jordan, Pakistan... or London:
A few months earlier in the same airport, a tech engineer returning from a business trip to London objected when a federal agent asked him to type his password into his laptop computer. "This laptop doesn't belong to me," he remembers protesting. "It belongs to my company." Eventually, he agreed to log on and stood by as the officer copied the Web sites he had visited, said the engineer, a U.S. citizen who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of calling attention to himself.
Maria Udy, a marketing executive with a global travel management firm in Bethesda, said her company laptop was seized by a federal agent as she was flying from Dulles International Airport to London in December 2006. Udy, a British citizen, said the agent told her he had "a security concern" with her. "I was basically given the option of handing over my laptop or not getting on that flight," she said....
"I was assured that my laptop would be given back to me in 10 or 15 days," said Udy, who continues to fly into and out of the United States. She said the federal agent copied her log-on and password, and asked her to show him a recent document and how she gains access to Microsoft Word. She was asked to pull up her e-mail but could not because of lack of Internet access. With ACTE's help, she pressed for relief. More than a year later, Udy has received neither her laptop nor an explanation....
Kamran Habib, a software engineer with Cisco Systems, has had his laptop and cellphone searched three times in the past year. Once, in San Francisco, an officer "went through every number and text message on my cellphone and took out my SIM card in the back," said Habib, a permanent U.S. resident. "So now, every time I travel, I basically clean out my phone. It's better for me to keep my colleagues and friends safe than to get them on the list as well."
The feds argue that their authority to protect the border allows searches of electronic media without any suspicion at all, just as they can search physical containers:
The U.S. government has argued in a pending court case that its authority to protect the country's border extends to looking at information stored in electronic devices such as laptops without any suspicion of a crime. In border searches, it regards a laptop the same as a suitcase.
"It should not matter . . . whether documents and pictures are kept in 'hard copy' form in an executive's briefcase or stored digitally in a computer. The authority of customs officials to search the former should extend equally to searches of the latter," the government argued in the child pornography case being heard by a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco.
But to me, at least, the problem is not searching; if Customs was performing just a simple search, I doubt many would object. The real problem is twofold:
- The unreasonable failure to return property promptly when no terroristic materials or child pornography is found. Holding non-offending property for months, whether for spite or because the agency is so incompetent it doesn't get around to it in a timely manner, is not "searching;" it's confiscation. Customs has no authority to confiscate materials that are not illegal to pass through the border.
- Failure to safeguard the security of legal proprietary and confidential information. Any such material seized must be held in the strictest confidence while an evaluation is made of its legality. The evaluation should not be unreasonably delayed, and a system must be in place to assure the owners that their confidential or secret information will be safeguarded. Customs should not be allowed to routinely copy sensitive materials, then leave the copies lying around unprotected.
So far as I can tell (and admittedly, I'm basing this entirely on the Washington Post being truthful), Customs meets neither of these two requirements: The agency holds electronic devices for months without explanation; and if they have any system to protect the security of sensitive information on seized devices, they certainly haven't told anyone about it.
Mark Rasch, "a technology security expert with FTI Consulting and a former federal prosecutor," notes some of the dangers:
"Lawyers run the risk of exposing sensitive information about their client. Trade secrets can be exposed to customs agents with no limit on what they can do with it. Journalists can expose sources, all because they have the audacity to cross an invisible line."
The response by the spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Lynn Hollinger, does not exactly inspire confidence:
Hollinger said customs officers "are trained to protect confidential information."
While I'm not dogmatically opposed to racial profiling -- the Post reports that "Almost all [of two dozen cases] involved travelers of Muslim, Middle Eastern or South Asian background" -- when legal travelers with proper documentation, and especially U.S. citizens, are searched (whether physically or their electronic devices), the process should be made as painless as possible; security is vital, but so is liberty... we do need balance.
Instead, Customs appears to be going out of its way to assert its authority simply to seize anything they take a liking to, without regard to how much damage that does to innocent people, like Charlton Heston in Soylent Green. And they seem arrogantly unconcerned about other people's confidential material, as well.
I'm reminded (as was the Post reporter) of the original scope claimed by federal and state authorities for "asset forfeiture," the seizing of valuable property prior to trial, and often holding it indefinitely without even charging its owner. (The legal theory, which I believe most judges accepted, is that the inanimate property itself was being "charged with the crime," hence the owner need never be given any chance to defend his ownership at trial... which I always thought the apex of judicial activism.)
Such disproportionate and badly aimed "legal looting" was eventually overturned by the courts, after too many instances of entire buildings, boats, and rental property being seized by drug agents after some trivial amount of marijuana or other drugs were found on the premises, even when it was clearly without the knowledge or consent of the owner -- a renter grows a pot plant in his apartment, the entire apartment complex is seized; an illegal squatter shoots up in a commercial property, the entire industrial building is taken away from its owners; and my favorite: A single joint was found in the pocket of the abandoned coat belongint to a crewman who had jumped ship several ports earlier... and the feds attempted to seize the entire multi-million-dollar cargo ship. (I remember that specific federal looting was thrown out by the courts.)
I hope we won't have to wait for such court action -- which could take years -- for Customs to stop treating ordinary Americans like terrorists-in-waiting, from whom they can seize property, trade secrets, and contact information on the basis of a hunch. (Just a hunch of my own; has anybody raided the homes of any Customs agents, to see whether any of them have put those "seized" assets to personal use?)
The first border-related task of the new Republican president in 2009 should be to sort out our entire Customs and Border Patrol authorization, so that both private individuals and the agents themselves clearly understand what they can and cannot do, and under what circumstances. We need security; we need liberty; but there is no reason to believe the two are incompatible.
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