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Thursday, January 29, 2015

In Brief: USA PATRIOT Act and American Freedoms

Note:  this is a response to a PSU course prompt regarding the USA PATRIOT Act and freedoms/liberties.


If Benjamin Franklin once said “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety,” then it must be respectfully observed that he was misguided in his conclusion, a rare error of judgement. Security and freedoms -- safety and liberty -- are not a zero-sum equation, at odds with each other and vying for dominance. Rather, these two principles of modern American life coexist in a field of many principles, all important, that must be dutifully negotiated and navigated for the best results. Put simply, security does not come at the expense of liberty.

The fundamental nature of the United States is torn between collectivist/utilitarian and individualist proclivities, creating a constant ebb and flow between these two, very different, societal ideals -- within these ideals are the concepts of security and freedom, and differing definitions. If security is defined as the security of an individual person and their property, the framework is individualist; however, if security is defined in a more grand fashion, to include the nation’s security, then the framework is decidedly collectivist. Which definition is chosen inherently influences how freedoms are defined -- such as the ability to do as one pleases or the ability to do as one pleases, so long as it does not negatively affect the ability of others to do so -- and how the security-freedom dichotomy is understood.

The PATRIOT Act serves to illustrate this point. Congress, like most of the modern federal government, defines security as both the security of the country and individual security, with a heavy emphasis on the former. Through this Act, the government sought, and presently seeks, to garner the greatest possible level of security -- in all forms -- for the largest number of its citizens. Notably, this does not include all citizens, as some citizens may fall under the Act’s enforcement, intelligence, or surveillance provisions as the result of their behaviors -- although this may be interpreted as infringing upon the freedoms of such citizens, it must be remembered that they are both few and with negative intent.

Moreover, the PATRIOT Act creates an entire homeland security apparatus, and strengthens the pre-existing law enforcement and intelligence ones, solely for the purpose of further securing the United States, its people, and its interests. In many ways, the only way in which Americans may come into contact with the execution of the Act is through undesirable activities (or marginally inconvenient interactions, such as airport security), since the PATRIOT Act is focused on preventing acts of terror and harm (both domestic- and foreign-sourced), not on limiting Constitutional rights, suppressing certain protected activities, or even monitoring the behaviors of otherwise upstanding citizens. Limited resources dictate the impossibility of constant government surveillance and intrusion into the lives of every citizen, thereby illuminating the negligible manner in which American freedoms are limited in the name of security, despite the warnings of Benjamin Franklin and his modern brethren.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

In Brief: Terrorism and the Pre-9/11 Environment

Note:  this is a response to a PSU course prompt regarding the pre-9/11 American environment, terrorism, and the activities of both the Executive and Legislative Branches as pertains to terrorism.


Although terrorism -- including its cousin, guerilla warfare -- have existed, at various levels of efficacy and visibility, for centuries, the pre-9/11 Western world seems to have concluded it was an issue for non-Western locales or, perhaps, ages past. Despite the continuous use of terrorism as both a strategy and tactic by the under-resourced and out-equipped, any terror incidents rarely occurred in proximity to Western targets, much less within Western borders, creating a tolerance for these activities in certain geographic areas (such as the Middle East) and a false sense of safety. Threats were ignored and what few, isolated attacks there were on Western targets either failed or occurred abroad.

Moreover, the intelligence community of the United States experienced countless events that should have flagged terrorism as a growing threat in the 1990s and in the twenty-one months of the new millennium approaching 9/11, yet the various actors failed to properly identify and mitigate these threats. Terrorism was still not being taken seriously by the United States, even after a series of domestic attack attempts, and resources were not being fully allocated to mitigate the growing threat. Perhaps most notably, terror actors were not yet understood as potentially deadly enemies and the federal government, at the highest levels of the Executive and Legislative Branches, failed to properly understand terrorism in its evolving, modern form.

Hindsight has made clear the various failures of the intelligence community and law enforcement, but the underlying failure falls to those in leadership roles. If the President, Congress, or any of their prominent sub-authorities had taken an interest in the growing threat of terrorism -- particularly after public declarations of war against the United States had been made, disseminated, and acted upon -- then the events of 9/11 may not have happened, since assorted agencies may have seen their individual intelligence collectives in a grander context, choosing investigation instead of dismissal. However, the fateful day did occur, resulting in the belated recognition of terrorism as a viable threat by all members of the federal government.

Kettl, D. (2014). System under stress (3rd ed.). Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.

National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States,. (2004). Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

In Brief: Constitutional Security

Note:  this is a response to a PSU course prompt regarding the role of the Constitution in defining and dividing responsibilities for homeland security, emergency management, and public safety.


In matters of homeland security, emergency management, and public safety, the Constitution clearly outlines the federal government as the primary actor for all activities: Article I Section 8, Article IV Section 4, and Amendments III and IV explicitly delineate the one of the primary responsibilities of the United States government as the protection of its states and people from harm, including invasion, domestic attack, war, and other forms of conflict that may negatively affect persons or their interests. Although the Second Amendment identifies state-run militias as a separate force from the military, its activation into federal duty, under the Commander in Chief, inherently defines a state-led security initiative as a federal one, when actually employed. As such, and as the only mentions of security-related matters in the Constitution or its Amendments, it would seem that the federal government takes primary responsibility for the safety and security of the states and citizens, acting in a lead capacity when engaged.

However, Amendments IX and X ensure that any responsibilities not explicitly mentioned are still protected and remain the responsibility of non-federal governments, such as those of states, tribes, cities, and other local levels. In a modern context, emergency management, homeland security, and public safety do not explicitly appear in the Constitution -- although they are clearly aspects of the safety and security protections both enumerated and constitutionally required of the federal government -- so it may be interpreted that non-federal governments within the United States have roles, perhaps even primary ones, in the constitutional context of these areas. Consequently, the modern environment of shared responsibility for these activities has developed from the perceived ambiguities of the Constitution, itself the result of a failure to explicitly mention them. It should, however, be noted that subsequent laws, regulations, rulings of the Courts, Executive actions, and an assortment of other legal activity has produced a more complex relationship between the federal government and lower governments than appears in the Constitution, particularly in the cases of security and emergency management.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

In Brief: The French Terror Attacks and Homeland Security

Note:  after an unintended hiatus, I've returned to this blog.


The two recent, and apparently coordinated, terror attacks in France sparked outrage and historic protests by the French people, displaying solidarity and unity in the face of much more public fears.  However, the possibility of acts of terror being carried out within a Western state's borders is not a new development (nor its execution an accomplishment), and the probability of such an act occurring is only marginally greater than in recent years.  As has been outlined previously,1 terrorism is a very real, very present threat that the majority of the Western population wishes to largely ignore, considering or addressing it only in the periods immediately preceding and following acts of terror within the homeland.  This is why the security versus privacy argument has so recently weighed toward privacy, yet recent events have spawned inquires regarding why the French and American intelligence services did not anticipate and prevent these attacks from occurring.

Regardless, the possibility remains strong that an individual -- even a domestically-born citizen -- may radicalize to a particular cause, pursue training and marginal support, and execute a small campaign that produces an outsized, terrifying result.  The reason, here, is very simple:  the resources required to do so are minimal, as is any necessary training, and it is, therefore, nearly impossible to predict or prevent.  Unless certain training trips, research contacts, or red-flag purchases are made, an individual may plan, prepare, and execute an attack on the homeland of a state without garnering the attention of local authorities or the intelligence community.  This is a point emphasized, repeatedly, in Al Qaeda's Inspire and other online materials.

Why, then, are such attacks so surprising to so many?  Mundane, everyday life presents ample opportunities to create mayhem and disaster in the name of a chosen cause, with very little effort.  Citizens of Western states should be regularly surprised, instead, that these kinds of attacks are not more regular, as they are in various parts of the Middle East and Northern Africa.  The only true difference between these regions, regarding the prevalence terrorism, can be found in the expectations:  Western societies assume some form of social contract, normalized behaviors, and stable civil society that dictates what is, and is not, permissible.  This assumption is both naive and outdated.

The French attacks were so shocking because they are unusual, not because they were particularly clever, devastating, or impactful, and it is likely that future terror actors will learn from these events.  A single gun or a single explosive device, used effectively, creates more terror than a failed grand plot -- the symbolism and scale of such a failed attack is what many terror actors desire, but these are the types of acts likely to garner the attention of the law enforcement and intelligence communities.  So, too, is there another lesson in the French attacks:  an escape plan is unimportant if the expectation of its actors is to die in the attack's execution or when martyrdom is the desired final outcome.

Western societies need to learn these lessons faster than the terror actors; otherwise, the consequences will continue to be grave.  Rather than expecting large plots executed over long timelines, look for smaller events carried out by a very small group of individuals who might exhibit only a few, rare signs of what they're planning.  Assume that Iraq, Syria, and the Ukraine are providing ample opportunities for creating battle-hardened terror actors who are sourced in the West, retain access to their respective homelands, and make no distinction between civilian life and the ideological battlefield.  Perhaps regular citizens will need to take a more active role in their own security and defense, even to the point of Western societies better armed and trained to respond.  Expect more small-scale terror attacks, throughout Europe and the United States, in the name of a chosen ideology.  Ignore the terror-inspiring threats of nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks for the more pragmatic and probable ones with long, successful traditions.

The period between September 11, 2001 and the present only had a small number of successful terror attacks of note, but this would appear to be a mixture of coincidence and convenience:  dramatic attacks were still being sought by the pre-existing terror actors and a new generation of terror actors takes time to radicalize and train.  With the rise of the Islamic State and the clear demonstration of the damage isolated individuals can create with limited resources, the number of successful terror attacks will rise.  Although there is no reliable way to prevent such attacks, a basic societal awareness of the realities of terrorism within Western borders, even at the hands of their own citizens, would be inherently fruitful.

Terrorism is only successful if terror is the result; otherwise, it's simply murder on a larger scale.

[1]  On this blog in February, July, August, and November 2014.  Through an academic paper in June 2014.