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Archive for the ‘national defense’ Category

Countering Terrorism Isn’t Easy

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

This holiday week’s “attempted act of terrorism” on a U.S.-bound flight reveals the difficulty of getting counterterrorism right. Terrorists use the element of surprise—stuff we haven’t thought of, or timing and locations that we can’t defend—to pull off attacks that instill fear.

We’ll learn what kind of explosive or incendiary material Nigerian traveler Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to ignite, and security measures will be installed to better foreclose this attack in the future. But many efforts to thwart terrorism miss the mark or overshoot their goal.

There are dozens of bills in Congress that touch on terrorism one way or another. Two of the most prominent illustrate how tough counterterrorism is.

H.R. 2159, the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists and its Senate counterpart, S. 1317, are intended to let the U.S. Attorney General deny the transfer of firearms and explosives to terrorists. But this can only work against known terrorists, and it can’t work against terrorists when they’re just entering the country from overseas as in this case.

Commenters on these bills argue that they are overly broad and would deny the Second Amendment rights of U.S. citizens who aren’t terrorists. If they don’t actually prevent a likely attack, and if they undermine rights, that’s a classic example of our country hurting itself because of overreaction to terrorism fears.

Countering terrorism isn’t easy, and there are many more security measures that don’t work than ones that do. It’ll take a little steel in our spines and a little ice water in our veins to continue staring down the terrorist threat. While we do that, it’s important to continue enjoying our American birthright of freedom and opportunity.

One commentator’s take turns away from fear and overreaction in a way that I think is interesting: This episode isn’t something to fear, says Spencer Ackerman. It’s an example of terrorists’ desperate bid for relevance.

Obama’s Afghanistan Strategy

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

afghanistanIt’s a big week ahead. Along with the Senate beginning formal debate on health care legislation, the President will announce his new strategy for Afghanistan on Tuesday. The big quote being circulated is that he will “finish the job.”

According to this Reuters report, the centerpiece of the strategy will be deployment of about 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. They will work to secure population centers and to train Afghan security forces, who will gradually be able to assume control of the country.

Over the next four to nine years, stable conditions in Afghanistan would allow a troop draw-down to occur. That’s a while.

Foreign affairs are an area where the president often gets to act unilaterally, but Congress has not been shy about trying to influence conditions in Afghanistan. Here are a few of the bills floating around Congress that deal with that country.

S. 229 and H.R. 2214 are the Senate and House versions of the Afghan Women Empowerment Act. It seeks to promote the rights and roles of women and girls in Afghan society. Simple peace and stability might be needed to create the conditions for this, of course.

H.R. 1318, the Afghanistan-Pakistan Security and Prosperity Enhancement Act, would provide duty-free treatment for certain goods from “Reconstruction Opportunity Zones” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is an attempt to use trade to bring stability to the region. The Senate version is S. 496.

H.R. 2482, the United States-Afghanistan Security and Stability Act, would require the President to develop a comprehensive interagency strategy and implementation plan for long-term security and stability in Afghanistan. That’s what he’s trying to announce on Tuesday, of course.

H.R. 2404 would similarly require the Secretary of Defense to produce an exit strategy for United States military forces in Afghanistan participating in Operation Enduring Freedom.

With all these good ideas out there, Afghanistan should be fixed up and humming along in no time. Right?

Wartime Internment: A Lopsided Vote

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Manzanar_shrineH.R. 42, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Latin Americans of Japanese Descent Act, has been scored by the Congressional Budget Office. It’s cost is pretty close to zero. (One penny for a family of seven.)

As the name suggests, the bill would set up a commission to study the treatment of Latino and Japanese people during World War II.

When I went to put the cost information in the database, I noticed an unusually high vote against the bill, but no comments indicating why.

I’m eager to learn! Voting against? Why? Or maybe there should just be more votes in favor.

All that is up to you. Here is the current vote on H.R. 42. (At the time of this writing, it was 8% for, 92% against.) Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article about the bill.

“Screw that dumb old boat.”

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

That’s the message Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is sending when he ridicules this earmark, according to Huffington Post reporter Jason Linkins. The earmark would accelerate the renovation and replacement of the pier historically used to berth the Coast Guard Training Vessel EAGLE at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.

Requested at $7,700,000 by Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT), this project is funded at $300,000 in the homeland security appropriations bill.

“[T]he ‘Eagle’ is an an old ‘three masted barque,’” writes Linkin, “that is the only ‘active (operational) commissioned sailing vessel in the U.S. maritime services.’ . . . [T]his sounds like a cool thing to fund.”

What do you think? Is $300,000 dollars for a pier for a fancy boat an extravagance we can’t afford with so many other priorities before the government? Or is it, as Linkin says, a cool thing to fund?

Here is the current vote on the earmark request Senator Dodd put in. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article about the earmark.

Earmark Funds Going to “Scam Artist”?

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

advenovationThat’s the allegation made by a commenter on Rep. Bart Stupak’s (MI-1) requests for $1,900,000 to go to Advenovation, Inc.

The money would fund “research to combine robotics technology, machine vision and sensors with software to create platform-independent robots with advanced vision and sensing capability.” Sounds neat!

But is the proposed recipient a legitimate, reliable business? The public is entitled to investigate.

A comment posted yesterday—apparently by the owner of Advenovation—argues that the allegations about the company are false and that another company is at fault for alleged nonpayments.

What more can we learn about this earmark and the proposed recipient? That’s up to you, America. Anyone who knows something about this is welcome to comment or edit the wiki article about the proposed earmark.

In the meantime, here’s the current vote on it. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article.

Is Congress Crazy? And Other Important Questions

Monday, July 13th, 2009

A WashingtonWatch.com user and subscriber to the email list wrote in and asked the following questions:

Hello — I am a total “newbie” to your site — but I am trying hard to become educated about what goes on in Congress — my question is: every week I receive your updates listing these various bills and their associated cost per family (thank you very much) — are these costs in addition to the “budget”? or have these costs per family already been included in the “budget” — if it is all new spending, how is this possible? Are these people crazy? Where will the money to pay for these things come from?

These are good questions. The workings of Washington, D.C. are pretty obscure to normal people out there in the real world. So, in case it helps others, here is the response I sent:

There are basically two types of bills, authorizations and appropriations.

Authorization bills create programs or allow existing programs to continue. Every year or every few years, Congress reauthorizes programs and agencies that are already in place. These bills say that agencies and programs can do what they do, and how they can do it.

So this week, for example, the Senate is debating the National Defense Authorization Act, which will tell the Department of Defense to keep on defending. We don’t have the amount of spending that bill authorizes yet, but you’ve seen those numbers before.

Appropriations bills cause the actual spending to happen – they say that money can come out of the U.S. Treasury to pay the salaries, buy the pencils, pay the contractors, etc. The Defense Appropriations bill will actually spend the money on defending the country. (The Defense approps bills for FY 2010 haven’t been introduced yet.)

Before the appropriations bills get moving each year, Congress passes a budget. The budget sets the total amount it is supposed to spend in all twelve appropriations bills. The budget isn’t a spending bill – it’s a planning document. We give it an estimate and follow it on the site because budget-setting is an important step in the process.

As we emphasize on the “about” page, you can’t add up these different kinds of bills to get a reliable number indicating what Congress is spending.

You can get a rough sense of what Congress is spending in fiscal year 2010, which starts October 1, on the FY 2010 Spending Tracker page. The authorization bills show how much Congress is proposing to spend over several years by starting or continuing programs.

So there may not be as much spending as it looks like – but, yes! They’re crazy! There aren’t enough tax revenues to pay for all the stuff the government is doing, and it’s going to the national debt.

$1,000 per U.S. Family in War Spending Up for a Vote Today

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

[Update: The Senate counterpart to this bill has been introduced as S. 1054.]

Today, the House is scheduled to debate a supplemental spending bill, mostly for funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill would spend about $1,000 per U.S. family. (OK, the precise figure is $988.)

H.R. 2346 is the bill. If you want to speak with your Member of Congress about it, you can dial (202) 224-3121 to reach the Capitol switchboard. When you’re put through, be polite.

Here’s the current vote on H.R. 2346, The Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2009. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article about the bill.

Do We Want Terrorists In the Country or Out of It?

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

The Sunday morning political shows spent some time today on a bill that was introduced in the House last week. H.R. 2294 is called the Keep Terrorists Out of America Act – OK! OK! I’m for it! With a name like that . . . .

And that’s why the bill has such a name, of course. The bill was introduced by Republican leadership to highlight some challenges that the Obama administration adopted when it pledged to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

You see, there are terrorists and suspected terrorists there. (Heck, a few people in Guantanamo may have become terrorists for being put there!) And they have to be moved. If they can’t be returned to their countries because they would be tortured or killed, they have to go somewhere else, including possibly the United States.

Now, it’s an easy out to throw up your hands and say, “Who cares if they are tortured or killed? They’re terrorists!”

Not so fast. Not all of them are. For example, it’s pretty clear that a group of Uighers, an ethnic group native to China, are not terrorists. They were picked up in Pakistan in late 2001 and have been held in Guantanamo ever since.

Is it OK to send them to China – well-known as a regime that represses minorities and dissidents – to suffer whatever punishment their government wants to mete out? It’s part of our national character not to throw innocent people into the jaws of oppression. We have to figure out what to do with people like this – in Guantanamo but not deserving of being thrown to the wolves.

So there’s complexity here. The Keep Terrorists Out of America Act would require the approval of the relevant State governor and legislature before a person is transferred there from Guantanamo. The answer, of course, is almost always going to be “Hell no!” (We’ve followed Guantanamo NIMBYism in this post.)

So what do you think about the bill? Should this law be passed so something else has to happen to the Guantanamo detainees? (vote “yes”) Or is this a political cheap-shot that muddies the debate? (vote “no”)

Here’s the current vote on H.R. 2294 is called the Keep Terrorists Out of America Act. Click to vote, comment, learn more, and edit the wiki article about the bill.

Obama Seeks More Military Spending

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

Last week, President Obama put in a request with Congress for $83.4 billion in extra military spending this fiscal year.  That’s about $850 per U.S. family or $270 per person.

The Bush Administration was big on making supplemental spending requests for the military even though many military expenditures were entirely predictable and could have been planned for in the normal budget process. The New York Times covered the new spending request here.

The bill to approve this spending hasn’t been introduced yet. We’ll feature it here when it is so you can let your Member of Congress know what you think about it.

The one nice thing about supplemental spending requests is that they let us do nice discrete calculations of what’s going into military spending, but planning for military spending in the regular budget process is probably best.