Saturday, December 21, 2013

too cheap for NSA

Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal has some very interesting background on how NSA scuttled a software program that wasn't as appealing as its much more expensive alternative.

The current NSA model relies largely on amassing as much data as it can obtain and trying to sort through it all later.
In its place, the presidentially appointed review panel suggested a drastic and fundamental change in the 20th of 46 recommendations in its report released Wednesday: "Software that would allow…intelligence agencies more easily to conduct targeted information acquisition rather than bulk-data collection."
 The panel proposed a feasibility study. But former NSA officials say such a transition is certainly doable. "That's exactly what we did," says former NSA official Ed Loomis. "It's not only feasible—the government threw away the software that did it."
Mr. Loomis said he and his colleagues developed just such a program 15 years ago. It was designed to cheaply search an array of data sets—wherever they happened to be—without first importing all the data into an NSA-held system.

The program helped spies conduct targeted searches of large amounts of data and included a number of privacy protections that performed well in pilot tests. But the program, known as ThinThread, lost an internal bureaucratic fight and wasn't deployed.
Bill Binney, another member of the ThinThread team, said ThinThread was also handicapped because it was too cheap. With a $3 million price tag, the program couldn't compete with a $4 billion program called Trailblazer that was backed by major contractors.
Maybe there's a better justification for NSA's decision, but a lot of bureaucratic battles in government are lost because officials think that bigger is better and expensive programs are harder to kill.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

a Christmas story

Many years ago, the House Master of my college residence held a Christmas party, inviting mostly faculty associated with the House but also a few of us undergraduates.

After a period of drinks and snacks, we gathered around a grand piano to sing carols. I told the woman next to me, the date of one of the junior faculty, "I hope you'll excuse me. I love to sing, especially Christmas carols, but I can't sing worth a darn." She smiled politely.

After we finished the second carol, she turned back to me. "A lot of people say they can't sing, but you really can't!"

I blushed.

unintended consequences

There are strong undercurrents of xenophobia and nativism in American politics. It spiked in the anti-Catholic "know nothings" in the middle of the 19th century, a little later with Asian exclusion laws, and in the early 20th century when a revived Ku Klux Klan opposed civil rights for immigrants as well as blacks.

The anti-immigrant fever led Alabama two years ago to enacted draconian limits on foreigners. As Benjy Sarlin of MSNBC reports,
The lead sponsor of the bill boasted to state representatives that the law “attacks every aspect of an illegal alien’s life.” Among its key provisions: landlords were banned from renting homes to undocumented immigrants, schools had to check students’ legal status, and police were required to arrest suspected immigration violators. Even giving unauthorized immigrants a ride became a crime.
After a sudden flurry of self-deportation, problems arose when foreign businessmen who brought jobs to Alabama were being stopped and even jailed until their status could be verified; sheriffs found their jails filled with people awaiting documentation and their officers diverted from serious crime-fighting by the paperwork requirements of the law. There were also some adverse court rulings.

As  a result of these unintended consequences, Alabama has backed off strenuous enforcement of the law, and even some former advocates feel better about it. Good.

oriental Orwellism

The Japanese government has approved a new five year defense plan calling for a five percent increase in military spending, including new drones and amphibious assault ships. Despite its Constitutional prohibition on maintaining " land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential," Prime Minister Abe has been pursuing a more muscular foreign policy as well as defense posture. Japan already has the world's fifth largest defense budget.

I have no problem with this buildup or the erosion of strict reading of article 9.

What bothers me, however, is Abe's description of this as "proactive pacifism."

Try again.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

fractured, failing Syrian opposition

It's discouraging, though not surprising, that the Syrian opposition to Assad is failing and Assad seems to be winning. A leader of the so-called moderates was forced to flee and the US and UK have suspended their nonlethal aid.

In the bad old days -- Iran 1952, Guatemala 1954 -- the United States could pick a horse and ride him into the presidential palace. Now there are several countries with the will and resources to overthrow governments, and in Syria they are backing different factions. Many in Congress who wanted to get rid of Assad thought it could be done at low cost and risk. While acknowledging public reluctance to get involved in another war in the Muslim world by promising "no boots on the ground," they pretended that weapons could go only to carefully vetted Arab fighters who wouldn't ally with al Qaeda or ever want to attack Israel.  In the chaos of Syria, that was too much to hope for, or achieve, given the many contending players.

can, kicked, down road

The Ryan-Murray [or should it be Murray-Ryan?] budget deal is better than the most likely alternative [government shutdown, fiscal uncertainty, vicious political gridlock], but mainly delays until some point in the future any big decisions on government spending.  To paraphrase Churchill's comment about his opposition Labor Party leader,it's a modest agreement with much to be modest about.

Stan Collender has a good analysis of the losers in this agreement. As he indicates, this deal avoids additional sequesters for the next two years, but tacks on the threat in 2022 and 2023. [Lots of luck for that.] It also makes less likely major tax reform, which probably has to piggyback on a grand bargain doing something about entitlement programs.

I would point out an important toe in the door in the package -- a very minor adjustment to military retired pay for members under age 62, one percent below inflation. Until now military retirees have received generous increases and not forced to share in pay freezes and other restrictions on civilian pay. This is a small step in the direction of fairness and equity.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

flawed analysis

Francis Fukuyama has a long essay pointing to what he calls the decay of American political institutions. I think his analysis is deeply flawed.  Here's the summary of his argument:
If we look more closely at American history as compared to that of other liberal democracies, we notice three key structural characteristics of American political culture that, however they developed and however effective they have been in the past, have become problematic in the present. 

The first is that, relative to other liberal democracies, the judiciary and the legislature (including the roles played by the two major political parties) continue to play outsized roles in American government at the expense of Executive Branch bureaucracies. Americans’ traditional distrust of government thus leads to judicial solutions for administrative problems. Over time this has become a very expensive and inefficient way to manage administrative requirements.

The second is that the accretion of interest group and lobbying influences has distorted democratic processes and eroded the ability of the government to operate effectively. What biologists label kin selection and reciprocal altruism (the favoring of family and friends with whom one has exchanged favors) are the two natural modes of human sociability. It is to these types of relationships that people revert when modern, impersonal government breaks down.

The third is that under conditions of ideological polarization in a federal governance structure, the American system of checks and balances, originally designed to prevent the emergence of too strong an executive authority, has become a vetocracy. The decision system has become too porous—too democratic—for its own good, giving too many actors the means to stifle adjustments in public policy. We need stronger mechanisms to force collective decisions but, because of the judicialization of government and the outsized role of interest groups, we are unlikely to acquire such mechanisms short of a systemic crisis. In that sense these three structural characteristics have become intertwined.
I agree that we are using the courts too much to resolve political issues, but I don't think the executive branch has such wisdom and virtue that the other two branches need to defer to it, nor that it needs further strengthening.

I disagree that interest groups and their lobbyists have undermined American democracy. There are potentially corrupting influences that have to be carefully monitored, but most groups have a clear First Amendment right to promote their favored policies.  There are so many groups, however, that they cancel each other out much of the time, leading to what Fukuyama calls "vetocracy."  I wish we had less gridlock, but I don't know how to get there when the Supreme Court outlaws effective limits on campaign contributions.

I also disagree that these problems would be resolved by shifting to a parliamentary system, which Fukuyama seems to endorse.
Many of these problems could be solved if the United States moved to a more unified parliamentary system of government, but so radical a change in the country’s institutional structure is barely conceivable.
We could make major progress against gridlock and hyperpartisanship if the voters started punishing the extremists and rewarded the lawmakers who want to follow the"regular order" and legislate more than they campaign.

smart lawmaking

In order to maintain a record of passing a defense authorization bill for a 52d straight year, members of the Senate and House armed services committees have agreed on a compromise measure they hope will pass without amendments. The 1,105-page bill has many interesting provisions on issues I follow:

Sect. 932: requires a report on Cyber Command, establishes a post on OSD Policy called Principal Advisor on Military Cyber Force Matters and requires him/her to establish an inter-agency "Cross Functional Team."

Sect. 933: requires a comprehensive "Mission Analysis" for ccyber operations forces.

Sect. 940: requires President to establish "an interagency process" to provide an integrated policy to control proliferation of cyber weapons.

Sect. 941: requires President to establish an interagency process to develop an integrated policy to deter adversaries in cyberspace.

Sect. 1041: Requires prompt notification to defense committees of "sensitive military operations," defined as "lethal or capture operation[s] conducted by the armed forces outside the United States and outside a theater of major hostilities.

Sect. 1042: requires quarterly briefings to defense committees of counterterrorism operations.

Sect. 1043: requires report on porcess for determining targets of lethal or capture operations.

Sect. 1086: requires major "review and assessment" by SecDef of special operations forces and SOCOM. [Note: Sect. 1244 prohibits establishment of Regional Special Operations Forces Coordination Centers.]

Sect. 1087: requires report from defense, transportation and FAA on plans for collaborating on and coordinating useof Unmanned Aerial Systems.

To me, these are good examples of good oversight and lawmaking,the kind of "regular order" that Congress should be doing more often.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

turning inward

The American public is getting tired of foreign engagement. The latest quadrennial survey of opinion for the Council on Foreign Relations paints a gloomy picture.

For example
After the recent near-miss with U.S. military action against Syria, the NATO mission in Libya and lengthy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, about half of Americans (51%) say the United States does too much in helping solve world problems, while just 17% say it does too little and 28% think it does the right amount. When those who say the U.S. does “too much” internationally are asked to describe in their own words why they feel this way, nearly half (47%) say problems at home, including the economy, should get more attention.
There are more interesting findings. but most reflect a kind of pessimism of events abroad and U.S. ability to affect change, and a preoccupation with domestic, especially economic, concerns.

These views make it a hard sell for any leaders who want to promote global engagement.

Monday, December 2, 2013

how much micromanagement is too much?

Obama can't win with the media, at least not this year. When he stays arm's length from an issue, such the budget talks, he's blamed for aloofness. When he gets directly and personally involved in a matter, like fixing the government's healthcare website, he's accused of micromanaging. Whatever the right balance is, the President doesn't seem to have it right now.

I've long believed, drawing on Richard Neustadt's analysis of presidential power, that presidents need to pay attention to some details of governance or else the subordinates would act independently. I also liked the line my former Senate boss, Lloyd Bentsen, used frequently: "Expect what you inspect."

All the management books in the world can't help a decision maker to find the right balance. Let's hope experience does.

reasoning by analogy

Not being a lawyer, I hadn't realized how challenging it is for lawyers to apply laws and cases from years ago to new situations, especially ones created by new technologies.  Politico has a nice piece explaining some of the issues involved.

For example:
Lower courts have been split on the authority of police to search your technology. Currently, court rulings have required warrants to search a cellphone in six states, while they are not required in 20 other states, according to a map put together by Forbes and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
One of the reasons the courts are divided, experts say, is that an important case on the subject was decided in 1973 and involved drugs found in a pack of cigarettes.
Reasoning by analogy can get you part way, but not all the way. Even action by Congress, if possible, would only deal with today's technology, not what might exist in just a few months.