James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Security Theater

  • Before Tonight's Speech About ISIS

    When people say "we must act now!" they are usually wrong. When people say "we can't look weak!" it's usually time to discount whatever else they say.

    Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

    Tonight I won't be able to hear President Obama explain what he intends to do in Syria and elsewhere, and why. So rather than giving my reaction after the speech, let me give it before.

    The magazine's cover eight years ago.

    Eight years ago I did a cover story in The Atlantic called "Declaring Victory," whose central argument was that the United States could best protect itself against the worst long-term damage from terrorist movements by refusing to be whipsawed, baited, or panicked into self-destructive over-reaction. The piece began with a reference to Osama bin Laden that could as well be applied to the barbarous ISIS of today:

    Osama bin Laden’s public statements are those of a fanatic. But they often reveal a canny ability to size up the strengths and weaknesses of both allies and enemies, especially the United States....  In his videotaped statement just days before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, bin Laden also boasted about how easy it had become for him “to provoke and bait” the American leadership: “All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen … to raise a piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’ in order to make the generals race there.”

    ISIS, apparently with a number of Western-convert members, is by all evidence even more sophisticated about manipulating the psychology of the democratic West. As applies to them, I stand by the logic and arguments of the counterterrorism experts I quoted all those years ago. They said:

    • That terrorists can certainly injure a country, but the most dangerous wounds are always self-inflicted, through over-reaction. (The war in Iraq killed many more Americans, had a vastly greater economic cost, and did incalculably more diplomatic and moral damage to our country than did the horrific attacks 13 years ago tomorrow.)
    • That when politicians, columnists, and cable TV guests are most fervent in urging a president to "do something!" about a threat, they most often have in mind a "something"—military attack—that cannot eliminate a terrorist movement, and that often creates more opposition and even terrorism in the long run. The measures that are most effective in undermining terrorism often have least to do with dramatic, highly publicized "kinetic" acts.
    • That when people say "we must act now!" they are usually wrong. Usually time is on the side of the stronger player, which in this case is us. Usually the greatest weapon of the underdog is the potential to panic and rattle the other side.
    • That when people say "we might look weak," usually it's time to discount whatever else they say. Looking weak has little to do with being weak. Every person, institution, and state has ultimate interests to defend and lines that can't be crossed. But the more worried you seem about "proving" strength whenever it is challenged, the weaker you look. Speak softly. Big stick.
    • That there is an asymmetry, to use a current term, in decisions about the use of violence. If you don't attack today, you can always attack tomorrow. But if you do attack today, you have foreclosed other choices for a long time to come. (Our options in 2014 and beyond are limited by the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.)

    You don't have to believe me on this, though as I say I think the article stands up. But if you can't trust me, I hope you will believe David Frum, who is now a colleague at The Atlantic but who during the early George W. Bush years was (as he points out) helping to make the case for war with Iraq. In a wise item today on our site he says:

    No matter how bad things, look, though, it’s always possible to make them worse. A war now against ISIS will do just that....

    Frum rightly captures the standard congressional/op-ed/cable-news reflex in time of crisis:

    Something must be done! This is something! Let’s do this!

    Barack Obama's early and well-explained opposition to invading Iraq, which gave him the opening to beat Hillary Clinton and become president, reflected awareness of all these points about the paradoxes of weakness and strength, of deliberation and haste. Most of the time as president he has acted from the same principles—the obvious exception being his mistaken early approval of the ineffective "surge" in Afghanistan. I hope that in his ISIS remarks and policies he does not feel tempted to again prove that he is "tough."

  • Annals of the Security State, Presidential-Vacations Edition

    Protecting modern presidents is a legitimate and crucial goal. Here is some of what it ends up meaning in practice.

    The red circles show typical 30-mile-radius no-fly zones that accompany a president, in this case one centered on Martha's Vineyard and one over Otis Air National Guard base on Cape Cod. (FAA Sectional Chart)

    I believe I am the only amateur pilot who’s a Democrat. Okay, I'm exaggerating. I can think of four others. No, five! Therefore when people in the aviation community talk about the effect of “Presidential TFRs”—the 30-mile-radius no-fly zones, known as Temporary Flight Restrictions, that travel with a president wherever he is—they often begin by saying, Welcome to Obama's America ... or “That idiot Obama has done it again...” The complaints started some other way between 2001 and 2009.

    Politics apart, I give you this account from someone who flies the same kind of small propeller airplane as I do, but who happens to live in the vicinity of the Clinton-and-Obama-preferred summer vacation site of Martha’s Vineyard. He originally posted this on a pilots’ private-discussion board but agreed to its reposting here. I've added a few explanations of aviation lingo in brackets, [like this]. This person, who uses his plane to fly himself on business trips, writes:

    I just spent the last two weeks living with the presidential TFR on Martha’s Vineyard. I flew through the TFR nearly every day, commuting to work and with other activities. Unlike past years, I did it mostly VFR, IFR days excepting, of course. [VFR is Visual Flight Rules, the clear-sky conditions in which pilots set their own courses. Under IFR, Instrument Flight Rules, pilots file flight plans in advance and must follow controllers' instructions on course, altitude, etc.]

    In the past years when the president was on the Vineyard, I filed IFR every day to go through the outer ring. [The farther-out part of the the 30-mile-radius space, where you need prior approval to fly. The inner ring, usually with 10-mile radius, is much more tightly controlled.] That’s a major PITA, especially when it’s clear skies.

    This year, on the first day of the TFR, I phoned Cape Approach [local Air Traffic Controllers, or ATC] and talked to one of the controllers and asked him what was the best way from their perspective and he said just to call Cape Clearance from Chatham on the ground (CQX [Chatham airport] is untowered) and get a squawk code and that would be fine. [Squawk code is a four-digit code you enter in the plane's transponder, which lets controllers watching radar screens know which plane is which.] Cape Approach’s perspective was that if you are squawking a code and talking to them, you are fine in the outer ring ...

    In the interest of caution and even though I had been given the guidance from Cape Approach, I diligently followed the NOTAM [Notice to Airmen, the equivalent of "now hear this" bulletins] and filed and activated a VFR flight plan every day from Foreflight [a popular and excellent iPad-based flight planning program] when flying VFR.

    Some observations:

    1. VFR flight plans are useless for the TFR. [A VFR flight plan is mainly useful as a search-and-rescue safeguard, so people know where you were intending to go and when, if you don't show up.] Boston Approach stated as much when he alluded to “entering you in the system” as I was picking up flight following on the way home one day. I told him I had a VFR flight plan open, if that saved him some work and he responded to the effect that it wasn’t enough. You need to be in “the system” [in the system = filing identifying info for the plane and pilot, along with intended route and timing for this specific flight, in the ATC system] and added “you don’t want to mess with them”....

    2. Controllers get as nervous as we do. I wonder if there are Secret Service or others sitting in the ATC facility? ATC gets extremely nervous when the president is on the move. At one point, he left the Vineyard and went back to D.C. for a day and this started another TFR centered on Otis (FMH), and creates lots of uncertainty, since he is rarely on time and the TFR times drift. [The image at the top shows airspace when both TFRs are in effect.] I knew this was happening and planned to avoid the FMH inner 10 mile ring already. The controller was very jumpy, asked me my heading and told me he would advise. I let him know I was “direct GAILS [a GPS navigation point], if that helps” which kept me outside the ring. He said “Thank you” and never bothered me again, after an audible exhale.

    3. Lots of pilots are clueless. At one point, ATC asked me if I had a visual on somebody low and slow, squawking 1200. [1200 is the transponder code for planes flying visually and not necessarily talking with controllers. Planes inside the TFR should not be using this code.] I never saw him, but I did see the flash of sunlight off the wings of the orbiting F-16’s from miles out as they turned to investigate. I never heard what happened. Lots of pilots stumble into the area unaware of the TFR. How can this be? There were too many forehead-smacking moments as I listened to the daily dance. We as pilots have to do better.

    4. Actually going to the Vineyard (MVY) [MVY is Vineyard Haven airport, on the island] inside the inner ring is a “whole 'nuther thing”. Yesterday, we went to visit friends who were staying on the Vineyard, and rather than take the ferry for 90 minutes, I decided we would just fly. Made the reservation at Hyannis with the TSA, per the NOTAM and made the 4-minute flight to HYA from CQX [Chatham to Hyannis] for our “check.”

    Wow, what an employment spectacle that was. We were directed to a holding area and a bus was sent to pick us up, after waiting in the plane for some time. The plane was fully unloaded of luggage and we and our bags were taken to a temporary screening area where the bags were searched by hand. We were all frisked/wanded. My plane was inspected by another person. I gave pertinent information to others seated with laptops, who were talking to ATC and passing the approvals on. Eventually, they determined that the duffel bags of lunches, sweatshirts, frisbees, and suntan lotion posed a low security risk.

    An hour after landing, we were loaded back on the bus and dropped at the plane to repack it, and get started again for the 10-minute flight from HYA to MVY. [Hyannis to Vineyard Haven.] How to make a 15-minute flight into 2 hours? With the TSA, anything is possible. In the end, the screening experience left me disappointed that I had to go to such great lengths to fly my airplane within 10 miles of another fellow citizen on my way to the beach. We, as a nation, are very afraid of airplanes. Sigh.

    5. ATC were great to work with throughout. They were absolute professionals.

    6. The amount of hardware and manpower mobilized to support this vacation are incredible. I flew out of the Vineyard last night at 10pm after the TFR had been lifted and saw the exodus of all the supporting cast. Multiple C-5’s taking off for Andrews, two Ospreys, four F-16’s, Coast Guard and State Police helicopters, and more. It was breathtaking and concerning.

    There are multiple businesses that are effectively shut down during the vacation TFR. There is a skydiving outfit at Marston Mills that is in the outer ring, along with some banner towing that stops operations. More impacted are the businesses on the Vineyard. The usual weekend line of planes landing for breakfast on the Vineyard are gone, for sure, but the biggest hit is the grass airfield at Katama. There is a great breakfast place there, bi-plane rides and across the road is the open beach of the Atlantic. Katama hosts dozens of planes on any given summer day. That entire thing shuts down. I wonder if the restaurant owners, bi-plane operator, skydiving businesses, FBO's etc. are compensated? It's a huge hit for these businesses at what is basically prime time of the summer vacation on Cape Cod.

    Life on the Cape has returned to normal. Until next year.

    There is a larger, stricter, and permanent version of these controls sitting over Washington, D.C. airspace all the time. Presidential campaign season is a nightmare for the air-traffic system, because rolling no-fly zones accompany the incumbent president (and sometimes smaller ones for challengers) during campaign travels. Here is what an Obama bus trip in the industrial Midwest did to airspace two years ago:

    The big red circles in Michigan and Ohio were for currently active TFRs. The yellow circles were for ones about to go into effect. The big red one over D.C. is the permanent zone there. The little yellow one just above it is Camp David. Here is a post from a pilot who was flying at the time of that TFR. 

    I am not making a sweeping policy point here. As far as policy points go, anyone who knows the history of the 1960s understands that it is genuinely important to protect presidents from threat of mortal harm. (How would the history of that era differed if John F. Kennedy had stayed in office? Or a century earlier, if Abraham Lincoln had?) Anyone who knows America understands why Barack Obama has required even more protection than most of his predecessors. I am very glad the Secret Service has done its job as effectively as it has.

    Instead this is offered as a specimen of the operating realities of our security state—many of which persist precisely because they don't come to public attention. Are these 60-mile-wide shutdowns the least obtrusive way of realizing the legitimate national goal of protecting a president? They seem excessive to me, though of course I'm biased. But the next time some president asks me for advice on where to summer, I'll suggest: Look for a place that won't snarl life and shut down business for millions of people who happen to live there. Maybe even a place like ... the outskirts of Waco?

  • When U.S. Law Enforcement Had a Different Look

    Americans have often thought of themselves as level-headed and BS-detecting. What would a modern Mark Twain or Will Rogers make of policemen all dressed up for war?

    Sheriff Andy Taylor and equipment-loving Deputy Barney Fife (Wikipedia)

    If you haven't yet seen it, please read this Storify account, by Kelsey Atherton, of how veterans of real combat—in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—view today's wildly over-militarized American police. For instance:

    A reader on the East Coast responded to my post last night, which said that perhaps the scenes of stormtroopers among us would startle the public into realizing how far this security-state trend had gone. This reader, S.C., suggests a contrasting visual cue:

    Maybe you’re right to conjecture that police-state images might horrify the country into restoring good sense about cops in combat gear, riding in tanks on streets. Here’s a thought about that. It’s not new, but it might be worth mentioning.

    I’ve pasted in an image [shown at the top of this post] that may fit slantwise with your insight. It’s not what you meant, but it conveys the message in a country that still likes seeing if calm wisdom and brains can head off any need for ostentatious official bellicosity. From the old and much-loved The Andy Griffith Show, it’s Sheriff Andy Taylor, who spurns sidearms in police work, and whose face expresses all that needs to be said about Deputy Barney Fife’s comically enthusiastic wanna-be militarism.

    I love it that Sheriff Taylor always allowed Deputy Fife to carry only one bullet, and required him to keep it in his pocket. Maybe you’ll want to keep this photo in yours, in case it’s needed (and assuming it’s not already there).

    It’s unrealistic, of course, to try too hard to map this half-century-old sitcom onto present problems. But it’s also unwise not to recall what Sheriff Taylor stood for, and not to recognize the extent of the country’s respect for it.

    Agreed. On that same theme, here is a clip from an episode of The Andy Griffith Show 50 years ago, in 1964, in which Barney Fife has a different helmet but the same enthusiasm for dress-up military gear. 

    That gentle, dismissive, pretense-puncturing humor—something I associated with Andy Griffith in my childhood and that my parents did with Will Rogers in theirs—doesn't have an exact current counterpart, or not one I can think of just now. Stephen Colbert is closer than Jon Stewart; in his earliest, funny-rather-than-angry days, Rush Limbaugh could sound this way. Among politicians, Ronald Reagan was actually good at it—"There you go again!"—as was John F. Kennedy in some of his press conferences. It's an effect Barack Obama strains for and sometimes achieves, for instance when poking fun at the latest Birther-style claim. (And yes, before you point it out, I'm aware that in an actual small Southern town 50 years ago, the real-world counterparts of Andy Taylor and Barney Fife would have been enforcing segregation laws.)

    We would like to think that such level-headed, amused BS-detection is part of our national cast of mind. A Yank at Oxford! The Duke and the King in Huckleberry Finn! The Tweet shown above, by @BFriedmanDC, may offer a glimmer of hope for its reappearance. It is the kind of comment Sheriff Andy Taylor might have made if he had seen legions of Barney Fifes dressed for war.

  • Turning Policemen Into Soldiers, the Culmination of a Long Trend

    Another poisoned fruit of the post-9/11 sensibility

    Ferguson, Mo. police watching over their city (Reuters)

    The images from Missouri of stormtrooper-looking police confronting their citizens naturally raises the question: how the hell did we get to this point? When did the normal cops become Navy SEALs? What country is this, anyway?

    There will be more and more mainstream coverage of the modern militarization of the police, a phenomenon mainly of the post-9/11 years. For reference/aggregation purposes, here is a guide to further reading:

    1) The Book on this topic: Rise of the Warrior Cop, by Radley Balko. It came out a year ago and is more timely now than ever.

    2) "Lockdown Nation," a Peter Moskos review of Balko's book last year in PS magazine.

    3) "How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police," an Atlantic dispatch by Arthur Rizer and Joseph Hartman three years ago. 

    4) "Tanks in Small Towns," a web item I did in 2011 on signs of this trend, including this photo of a police force in South Carolina:

    And this one from a small town in Virginia:

    And this from Florida:

    5) Some other Atlantic coverage here, here, here

    6) Update: An important and well-illustrated report by Matt Apuzzo in the NYT two months ago, called "War Gear Flows to Police Departments." 

    7) Update^2: A new report from Alec MacGillis in TNR on how "anti-terrorist" funding from DHS has equipped police forces with this CENTCOM-style war gear.

    This Ferguson, Missouri episode is obviously about race, and is (another) occasion for pointing readers to Ta-Nehisi Coates's powerful "Reparations" article. It is also about how we govern ourselves, and about how far the ramifying self-damage of the post-9/11 era has gone.

    "Self-damage"? All the literature about terrorism emphasizes that the harm directly done in an attack is nothing compared with the self-destructive reactions it can induce. From Fallujah to Ferguson, that is part of what we're seeing now.

    I won't belabor that theme for the moment but will say: Perhaps these incredible police-state-like images will have some attention-focusing or "enough!" effect, like their counterparts from another era (below). Meanwhile, check out Balko's book. 


  • Friday Update: Filibuster, Surveillance State, Political Macho, and Other Hardy Perennials

    A word we should use more frequently ("filibuster"), and one we should use less ("tough")

    1) Fun with filibusters. Here we go again. Fellow news writers, it is really not that hard to work the word "filibuster" into your stories that deal with minority obstructionism. Yesterday we learned from the AP:

    WASHINGTON (AP) -- Bowing to the Pentagon, the Senate agreed after impassioned debate Thursday to leave the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders in a struggle that highlighted the growing role of women in Congress.

    The vote was 55-45 in favor of stripping commanders of that authority, but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

    In the same length or less, you can be clearer about what happened. See for yourself:

    [before] but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

    [after] but that was short of the 60 needed to break a threatened filibuster of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's bill.

    Why does this matter? Because of the venerable "defining deviancy downward" phenomenon. Through the first two centuries of American history, it was not normal to apply a 60-vote filibuster threat to every routine piece of legislation. That's a recent innovation, and distortion. Each time press reports treat a 60-vote threshold as normal, they contribute to a de facto rewriting of the Constitution.

    Seriously, it's very easy to do this the right way.

    2) Fun with security over-reach. Or maybe not so fun. I am grateful to a reader and fellow Cirrus pilot who sends this note about a surveillance intrusion I find surprising, even given everything else we've learned.

    You can read all the details from Papers, Please, and in the court complaint filed last month, but here is the gist: Armed Customs/Border Patrol agents (CBP) detained and questioned a U.S. citizen whose citizenship was never in doubt, and who was not trying to leave or enter the country. They did so based on the contents of romantic messages they had somehow seen in her personal email. As it happens, this citizen was a 50-something professor at Indiana University (and former CBS employee—as you'll see, her age is relevant), and the detention took place about as far as you can get from any U.S. border, in Indianapolis.

    I've written to CBP to ask their side of the story, but at face value it seems to be another of the ratchet-like expansions of routine surveillance/security-state extensions that over time become the new normal. It's almost as if you put a frog into a pot of lukewarm water ...

    3) China, Russia, and Ukraine. The backstory here involves China's ongoing attempts to match its recently tightened internal political controls with its desire to expand its "soft power" attraction to the rest of the world. CNN's Jaime FlorCruz and Paul Armstrong do a nice job of explaining a related dilemma: how China tries to balance its desire to improve Sino-Russian relations with its longstanding Rule Number One of foreign policy, which is that countries should mind their own business and not interfere in one another's affairs. The story explains what this means for Ukraine and Crimea and what China is likely to do.

    Bonus background point: For both better and worse, the Chinese leadership has less experience as a participant in fast-breaking international crises than do European countries, Russia, or of course the U.S. Therefore its first reaction when trouble brews up is often to seem paralyzed. Sometimes that creates problems, but overall it's probably healthier than a trigger-happy impulse to do something in response to the emergencies of each news cycle.

    Which leads us to ...

    4) Fun with manliness. Usually there is no point quoting from or even mentioning NYT op-ed columns. The ones that are interesting you already know about.

    But because I found myself agreeing with every single word of the opening paragraph of the latest column by Tom Friedman, I wanted to say so, and quote the paragraph. His column began:

    Just as we’ve turned the coverage of politics into sports, we’re doing the same with geopolitics. There is much nonsense being written about how Vladimir Putin showed how he is “tougher” than Barack Obama and how Obama now needs to demonstrate his manhood. This is how great powers get drawn into the politics of small tribes and end up in great wars that end badly for everyone. We vastly exaggerate Putin’s strength—so does he—and we vastly underestimate our own strength, and ability to weaken him through nonmilitary means.

    Yes about the everything-as-sport pathology of the media. Yes about the conversion of everything into "toughness." (If you don't know anything about the substance of an issue—hey, where is this Crimea place anyway?—you can always sound authoritative about who snookered whom, who blinked, etc.) Yes about great powers and small wars.* Yes about misreading Russia's (or China's) strength, and our own.

    It would be OK with me if Friedman made this the boilerplate first (or last) paragraph of every column he writes for a while.

    While I'm at it, I might as well cite a paragraph from Nick Kristof I agreed with too. He quotes bellicose rantings from usual pro-interventionist suspects, ranging from John McCain to the Washington Post's editorial page. He replies:

    Oh, come on! The villain here is named Putin, not Obama, and we should have learned to feel nervous when hawks jump up and down and say “do something!” We tried that in Iraq. When there are no good options, a flexing of muscles by NATO or by American warships in the Black Sea would only reinforce President Vladimir Putin’s narrative to his home audience while raising the risk of conflict by accident or miscalculation.

    Here is something to think about: Friedman and Kristof, who are warning against the impulse to prove our "toughness" by shooting things up, spent significant shares of their reporting careers based in the actual world, outside the United States. Many of the people who are most insistently yelling "Do something!" or "Obama's a wimp," from commentators to politicians, have a firsthand experience of "toughness" and its consequences largely confined to the Acela Corridor, attack ads, think tanks and policy papers, and the green room.**

    Bear that in mind when you hear the next get-tough announcement on cable news or read it in a column. Does this person's imagination of "face" and toughness extend much outside the U.S. political realm?


    * To spare those tempted to write in and remind me: Yes in fact I am aware that a dozen years ago Friedman was very prominently in the "do something!" camp about Iraq. I'll let you search for the "suck on this" video yourself. I disagreed with him then but very much agree with him now.

    ** John McCain is an obvious exception. That he so bravely withstood and surmounted his ordeal as a POW in Vietnam remains to his lasting credit and will always deserve respect. It also took place in an entirely different strategic world—Vietnam now often acts as a de facto U.S. ally in struggles over Chinese influence in the Pacific. His claim to AIPAC that "nobody believes in American strength" suggests to me that he needs to get out more.

  • Edward Snowden in Hong Kong

    I'm glad we have this information; I am sorry we are getting it from Hong Kong.

    Three points:

    1) I believe what I wrote two days ago: that the United States and the world have gained much more, in democratic accountability, than they have lost in any way with the revelation of these various NSA monitoring programs. That these programs are legal -- unlike the Nixon "Plumbers" operation, unlike various CIA assassination programs, unlike other objects of whistle-blower revelations over the years -- is the most important fact about them. They're being carried out in "our" name, ours as Americans, even though most of us have had no idea of what they entailed. The debate on the limits of the security-state is long overdue, and Edward Snowden has played an important role in hastening its onset.

    2) Among the strongest arguments against a surveillance state is that it depends on the subjective judgment of its millions of employees (a) to be applied without over-reach or abuse, or (b) to exist at all. One 29-year-old has just demonstrated the second point. Edward Snowden didn't like the way the system worked, and so he has effectively blown it up. The bigger problem may be with the first point, option (a) -- people who think there should be more intrusiveness  or prying. The Founders' fundamental concern, often distilled as "If men were angels...", was to avoid giving anyone powers that, in the wrong hands, could be abused. The surveillance state is giving too many people too much power -- either to destroy its workings, as Snowden has tried to do, or to abuse and extend them.

    3) I am sorry that Snowden chose Hong Kong as his point of refuge. To be clear: I love Hong Kong. My own brother lived there for many years; I like everything about its verve of life and energy; I admire the determination of its press, judicial institutions, and civil society to maintain their independence after the transfer from British control to that of the People's Republic of China. As shown by these amazing headlines last week in the South China Morning Post (sent by a friend) on the 24th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square crackdown:




    But here is the reality. Hong Kong is not a sovereign country. It is part of China -- a country that by the libertarian standards Edward Snowden says he cares about is worse, not better, than the United States. China has even more surveillance of its citizens (it has gone very far toward ensuring that it knows the real identity of everyone using the internet); its press is thoroughly government-controlled; it has no legal theory of protection for free speech; and it doesn't even have national elections. Hong Kong lives a time-limited separate existence, under the "one country, two systems" principle, but in a pinch, it is part of China

    I don't know all the choices Snowden had about his place of refuge. Maybe he thought this was his only real option. But if Snowden thinks, as some of his comments seem to suggest, that he has found a bastion of freer speech, then he is ill-informed; and if he knowingly chose to make his case from China he is playing a more complicated game.

    And one more point: I have friends who work at Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden's employer at the time he (apparently) decided to leak the PRISM info. I am sure they disagree with my claim that the leaks have done more good than harm. I am sorry for the damage to their firm, which is another reminder of the danger and folly of creating systems that can be upended by one dissenting voice.
  • 'I Cannot Figure Out Why This Was Classified to Begin With'

    What the PRISM leaks have in common with the Pentagon Papers


    Today this note came in from a reader in Florida, about the revelations of NSA phone-surveillance programs:

    In general, I'm partial to ACLU and EFF arguments about privacy and civil liberties in the digital age. But I'm also a pragmatist about national security, and the reality that there are foreign and domestic terrorists who will kill many innocent citizens if they can...

    Now the security damage from these leaks becomes a bit clearer for me. Prior to these revelations, I doubt that Al-Qaeda or domestic terrorist groups (e.g., Aryan Brotherhood) could figure out how they were routinely identified and compromised. They probably assumed an informant betrayed them, or they simply assumed that they were exposed by bad luck. But now, the smarter (therefore more dangerous) terrorists know that their cell phone patterns and networks are likely the problem.

    What to do if you're a terrorist? If it were me, I'd have everyone in my network throw away their cell phone periodically, purchase a new prepaid phone with cash, and distribute new phone numbers via secure means. Maybe I would use clandestine meetings. Or pay phones. Or dead drops. The point is, a very valuable (and top secret) intelligence collection tool has been compromised.
    I wrote back to the reader saying, more politely, Are you kidding? Terrorist or criminal groups would not have to wait for the PRISM revelations to guess that cell phone traffic might give them away. All they would have to do is watch any American movie or TV show produced since about 1985. Half the action in the first few seasons of The Wire involved "burner phones"; think of 24, Breaking Bad, or any other depiction of groups trying to operate outside the authorities' view. Everything now known about Osama bin Laden's final off-the-grid years suggests his scrupulous awareness of the perils of leaving an electronic trail.

    My point is not that crime drama is a perfect representation of reality, nor to set this reader up as a straw man, since he's provided a long stream of otherwise-astute observations. Rather I'm using his message to highlight one of the most striking aspects of the PRISM revelations: the unusual risk/reward balance in this latest large-scale leak.

    The ethics of disclosing classified information can sometimes be a very close call. I don't mean for the government-employee leaker. Those who signed a pledge to protect information are at best breaking their word, and at worst breaking the law and perhaps putting people in danger, when they divulge secrets, even when they believe they are serving a higher cause. I am talking instead about the ethics of the reporter or publisher who receives the leaked info, and the public that absorbs it. If a news story reveals that a certain detail came from inside the North Korean leadership, to choose a recent example -- or from an al Qaeda confidante, or an Iranian scientist -- that disclosure might dry up future information, alert the other group to the presence of a mole, or put that source in mortal danger. Disclosure may still be worth it, but it's not an easy call -- especially when the the very details that would endanger sources would make no difference to most ordinary readers.

    But when it comes to PRISM? At face value, it seems to be one of the most clearly beneficial "security violations" in years. Why?
    • On the plus side, for the general public it is of very significant value to know (rather than suspect) that such a program has been underway. President Obama says that he is "happy to debate" the tradeoff between security and privacy. The truth is that we probably wouldn't be having any such debate, and we certainly couldn't have a fully informed debate, if this program (and others) remained classified. The greatest harm done by the 9/11 attacks was setting the US on a ratchet-track toward "preventive" wars overseas and security-state distortions at home. In withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has partially redressed the overseas aspect of that equation. (On the other hand: drones.) These leaks, which he denounces, may constitute our hope for redressing the domestic part.

    • And on the minus side, what about the harm of the PRISM revelations? Again at face value, it seems minimal. American citizens have learned that all their communications may have been intercepted. Any consequential terrorist or criminal group worth worrying about must have assumed this all along.
    This brings me to Fred Kaplan's interview just now, in Slate, with Brian Jenkins, of RAND. Jenkins is an expert in terrorism whom I have known for decades and have often quoted in our pages -- for instance seven years ago, in my "Declaring Victory" article. Now he tells Fred Kaplan that he worries about the implications of the security-state infrastructure the U.S. has erected. For context: Jenkins was a Special Forces combat veteran in Vietnam and is not a reflexive dove. All of his comments are worth reading, but this about the PRISM revelations really struck me:
    "I cannot figure out why this was classified to begin with. It should have been in the public domain all along. The fact is, terrorists know we're watching their communications. Well, some of them, it seems, are idiots, but if they were all idiots, we wouldn't need a program like this. The sophisticated ones, the ones we're worried about, they know this. There are debates we can have in public without really giving away sensitive collection secrets. It's a risk, but these are issues that affect all of us and our way of life."
    There is a lot more to learn about this program, its reach into public life, its alleged or real benefits, and the possible consequences of its revelation. But at face value, I feel about this news the way I did when the Pentagon Papers were unveiled many decades ago. The public has learned something important about policies carried out in its name, at what seems -- for now -- a modest cost to vulnerable individuals or national safety as a whole.
  • Rice, Power, Obama—and NSA

    The good and bad of today's political news


    To overgeneralize, in foreign policy I consider Susan Rice and Samantha Power to be "liberal interventionists." What is American power for, if it is not to do good in the world? (Rice at center, Power at left in Reuters photo.)

    In the same broad strokes, I consider Barack Obama to be a "liberal non-interventionist," or more simply still a "realist." How long will American power last, if we are not very careful about how we use it? If Dwight Eisenhower were alive, this would be the category for him. (And, as the Eisenhower comparison probably reveals, this is the outlook I am most comfortable with.) Obama's main deviation from this pattern was his approval in 2009 of the temporary troop surge in Afghanistan. But he made this decision only a few months into his term, and the evidence suggests that he later regretted buying the arguments/promises/fantasies from Generals Petraeus and McChrystal that with more time, troops, and money the Afghanistan war could be won.

    The liberal-realist president has now elevated two prominent exponents of a liberal-interventionist view different from his own. Does this suggest a change in overall Administration policy? I doubt it (despite an argument that it might, from Fred Kaplan). The available evidence also suggests that -- ever more so the deeper he goes into his service -- Obama knows and trusts his own judgment, even to a fault. So you can argue that it's a positive sign that a president is comfortable enough to surround himself with people he trusts personally and who will present a range of views. Eg Rice on the one side, Hagel on the other, Kerry and Biden somewhere else, etc. That's the positive side of today's news.

    The negative side? The NSA PHONE SURVEILLANCE STORY!! For the moment, this quick post by Joshua Foust makes good sense to me. Central argument: the Congress keeps voting for these surveillance rights. This is the fruit of a decade's worth of open-ended "war on terror." More to come.
    * Nomenclature update: Why does the headline say just " -- and NSA," rather than " -- and the NSA"? Because by intelligence-world convention, you can say "the National Security Agency" but you're supposed to say "NSA" without a "the." In the paragraph above a sentence starts "The NSA phone surveillance story" because that "the" refers to "story."  The next time you hear a Congressional hearing involving NSA, which could be very soon, listen to hear officials say, "Meanwhile, NSA was beginning a program" etc. 
  • First They Came for the Chinese Tourists, Then They Came for the Yeshiva Students ...

    Air travel as indicator of fray points in society

    Last week I mentioned the accusations in the state-run Chinese press that Chinese travelers to America were getting brusque treatment from United Airlines, allegedly because they were Chinese. Two days ago some 100 high school seniors from Yeshivah of Flatbush, in Brooklyn, were made to leave an AirTran flight, allegedly (according to a Time story) because of bias against a "visibly Jewish" group. According to the AirTran flight crew, it was because the kids wouldn't sit down and turn off their cell phones when told to do so. You can see a picture of some of the kids at the NY Daily News site. Of course there is a long skein of similar rumblings from the modern world of the skies: flying while black; flying while brown; flying while half-Arab and half-Jewish; flying your own plane while Hasidic; flying your own plane from California; and so on.

    Now, three putting-it-in perspective responses. First, a defense of the specific United Airlines staffer singled out for criticism in the Chinese press. I didn't use this person's name in my earlier item, even though it was all over the original piece in the People's Daily, and I've also removed it from the reader's note below. You can find it on your own, but I figure there is no point in feeding a name unnecessarily into the world's search-engine bots. (I have tried to contact this staffer, so far with no results.) But, with permission, I'm using the real name of the reader, Joseph Gualtieri of Hong Kong. He writes:

    I just saw your post about the United Airlines-related article in the People Daily. It so happens that I have encountered XX [the UAL agent] before, and I feel I should jump in to complement the image portrayed in that article.

    Back in March I flew from Hong Kong (where I live) to New York (where I'm from) upon the birth of my first niece. The flight path was a bit weird: direct from HKG to EWR and then LGA-ORD-HKG. Anyway, my flight back from LGA to ORD was an early one and, long story short, I got mixed up and ended up back at EWR and not at LGA. I'm an anxious guy even when the going is good and when I realized my error I was literally shaking with dread at the prospect of missing my connection in Chicago (there there was only an hour to transfer), having to buy a new ticket back to HK, missing work engagements, all that.

    Well, it was my good fortunate to encounter XX. Beginning with "I'm totally screwed, because..." I told her my situation. She gave me possibly the sweetest smile I've ever seen, told me not to worry, and stepped away to make a phone call. Thirty seconds, maybe a minute later she had me on a direct flight from EWR and HKG (UA 116).  I remember her name, and always will remember her name, as a consequence of the great kindness she showed me. In fact, I feel like that was the best customer service experience of my life: through sheer idiocy, I messed everything up and United responded by giving me what was, in effect, a superior product (i.e. a more expensive seat on a direct flight).

    I also want to point out that I'm by no means an elite flyer; I was flying economy (regular, not even premium economy) and I hadn't yet reached silver status on Mileage Plus, not exactly the kind of guy an airline "should" go out of its way to accommodate. Obviously I have no idea what the true story behind the People's Daily article is, but I can tell you that XX is hands down the kindest, most helpful airline employee that I have ever met (or, frankly, than I can imagine)....

    Thanks for reading and do consider at least alluding to this experience if you should revisit this subject. Given that she was mentioned by name in the People's Daily, I just think, in this era of false equivalence, it's important to point out that she was, at least this one time, insanely understanding.

    Noted, with thanks. On the other hand, from an expat I know who has lived for a long time in Asia, this contrary report:

    I have American friends here [in China] who now refuse to fly United because they have witnessed so many instances of flight attendant rudeness to Chinese passengers.  I still take UA, for its convenient routes, but I share their view that far too many United flight attendants;
      a. radiate contempt for passengers who don't speak English
      b. take a very harsh, downright nasty, approach to any incident involving Chinese passengers who aren't sure what is expected of them, or aren't doing what is expected of them by UA's policies.
    Of course there are exceptions, many.  But this seems to be the rule.  UA flight attendants are not known for their patience and charm under the best of circumstances, with any passengers, but a plane that is 2/3 full of Chinese passengers seems to bring out the absolute worst in them....

    [Is it anti-Chinese "bias"?]  I think it's normal rudeness made worse by their refusal to acknowledge that the passengers in question do not understand English and therefore are dependent on the airline to make extra efforts to communicate.  It's not their fault that they don't speak English.  United wants these people's business.  Facial expressions and tones of voice that express annoyance and contempt are way, way out of line. 

    The Continental crews, who insist on referrring to themselves as Continental crews when I speak with them on the Beijing/Newark flights, are better.

    This rings true to my overall experience, on the dozens of mostly-United flights I have taken between North America and Beijing or Shanghai. (Including the ongoing self-identification of the "Ex-Cons," the former Continental crews.) The passenger load seems to be increasingly Chinese -- which is good! Some of these Chinese passengers seem to be taking their first-ever airplane trip, and most of them are from a domestic-Chinese airline culture that just works differently from America's. Domestic Chinese passengers may be accustomed to people walking around when the airplane is taxiing, having the cabin crew give ineffectual suggestions rather than orders, etc. When I can find it, I'll insert a picture of a domestic flight in China in which passengers were lined up in the aisle, bags in hand, as the plane touched down. Not many of these travelers are comfortable in English. Thus the scenario the reader describes.

    But, again, is it "bias"? For our final word I turn to a rabbi from the Midwest, who says of the Yeshivah of Flatbush / AirTran episode:

    While I wasn't a witness to what happened onboard, I question the veracity of the claims made by the adult chaperones of the yeshiva students who were forced off the plane because of Anti-Semitism. I'm wondering if it's just another example of flight attendants who have a zero tolerance because of how they feel about their unhappy professional lives  - as you've opined about in the past - or of inappropriate passenger behavior that was simply intolerable for other passengers and crew.

    This rabbi adds that "I travel frequently and am easily identifiable as someone who is Jewish (i.e. I wear a kippah (yarmulke)). I have never experienced anti-Semitism at the hands of a flight attendant or pilot." I think he's right, in the sentence from his message that I've put in bold. Air travel is becoming a leading-edge indicator of many of the fray-points in modern life, from the unhappy outlook of many who work in the industry, to the increasing incursions of security-state thinking into travel aboard aircraft large or small.

    And in case you're wondering about the headline...

  • Annals of the Security State: Hypotheses

    Why not call it 'spatial profiling'?

    Thumbnail image for 130523searches.jpgI'm going to wait a little while before putting up more first-hand accounts from people who have been subjected to stop-and-frisk in the skies. In a sense -- perhaps like normal stop-and-frisk -- the stories are all the same. In the aviation cases, pilots who have carefully followed all known rules:

    • find themselves surrounded by armed DHS/FBI/DEA/local-police forces when they land at out-of-the-way airports;
    • are detained for between two and four hours while dog-equipped teams inspect all their luggage and every part of the plane;
    • in many of the cases I've recounted the pilots are taken from the plane at gunpoint, as in the photo; and
    • eventually they're let go. The troops are looking for drugs, or terrorists, or something else, but whatever they have in mind, they haven't found it on these planes.
    For now, a few attempts at interpretation. Yes, before you ask, I have queries out to my contacts at the DHS and the FAA. Here we go, starting with a short theory from a reader:
    The worst thing is, like the person who complained about the Google SMS search decision, people feel like there is nothing we can do about the loss of liberties" "I know this is a useless cry into the void."
    But what upsets me most, personally, is when I hear of these "wars" and recall Ronald Reagan's famous statement "We declared war on poverty, and poverty won."
    How come the poverty war gets to end, but the wars on terror and drugs are interminable?
    A longer and more intricate speculation, from someone who is head of a software company:
    I wonder if, in your Annals Of The Security State, you've stumbled into someone's intelligence operation.  Here's what strikes me:

    a) We have a series of remarkably similar incidents in which private pilots are suspected of smuggling something -- drugs, money, or people.

    b) None of the people involved seem very likely to actually be drug smugglers.  Indeed, they're all the sort of people whom police agencies tend to work hard to avoid annoying, because they're often in a position to return the favor through influential friends or through their attorneys.

    c) None of the people involved, however, are celebrities, and none of the planes are corporate. In other words, none of the planes carried someone whose brief detention would in itself be news.  That might be notable because the rich and famous are overrepresented in the ranks of private aviation. 

    d) These detentions were costly and inconvenient to law enforcement agencies. You've got representatives of three agencies, a couple of airport managers, and local police tied up for hours. At the end of the day, you've got an angry pilot and no evidence. Someone has a lot of grousing during the long drive home.

    e) In the most recent report, either FlightAware was wrong, or your correspondent lied to you about something you could very likely check and which your readers at the FAA certainly could check. And, if he was lying, he's called attention to his own criminal act for which he'd otherwise escaped scrutiny.

    These incidents appear at first to resemble TSA nuisances, but I expect something else is happening. Specifically, someone is mounting a disinformation campaign against an inter-agency task force that has something to do with high-value air shipments by private plane from Mexico to the US.

    In the 1960s, to do this you'd either suborn someone on the task force or you'd plant a mole. Either way, you'd need someone who could add false data to the files or apply legitimate clues to innocuous subjects. You'd need Kim Philby. And that might be the case here.

    Alternatively, this might be electronic cat and mouse. Team A is mining databases, looking for suspicious people and suspicious planes.  Team B is quietly planting clues and, perhaps, swapping FlightAware records, in order (1) to protect actual flights, and (2) to lead Team A's superiors to doubt their reliability. You want to swap, not delete, the records because, as you note, airplanes leave lots of evidence (gas receipts, ATC contacts) and the systems are built to notice missing planes. You want to avoid celebrities because, if you surround Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian or the treasurer of a Fortune 500 Company or someone running for the Texas Railroad Commission with guns and blue lights, people are going to look very carefully at the source of the disinformation.

    The pattern of trumped-up searches is especially disturbing.  I wonder how common this is?  I think this may be an important question for rule of law -- much like your false equivalence series:  if people assume that the 4th amendment is a dead letter and that police routinely plant or fake evidence, they simply aren't going to trust the law.

    From someone who is both a pilot and member of the judiciary:
    Just read your recent stories re this. Of course, I'm horrified, but, honestly, I'm a little surprised it took so long for this to start happening. It seemed to me at the time that 9/11 allowed non-pilots to be aware that a VFR flight can take place with no notice or permission, and even my worldly friends were aghast at this idea.  During the weeks after 9/11, I was sure that those freedoms would never be restored to us, and I was profoundly moved when they were....

    I have also sensed that, once having had the chance to restrict uncontrolled flight slip through their grasp, those who were suspicious of GA [general aviation] would seize any opportunity to begin squeezing it off.  Only making sure that these extra-legal violations of the rights and privileges of aviation are done in the sunlight can prevent this, and I thank you for writing about these terrifying events.

    (I realize I am sounding just like my friends and acquaintances who believe the current administration has a grand plan for disarming the public and who are buying up all the ammunition and rifles in sight, and I don't know how to resolve that contradiction in my belief system.)

    From someone who sees a connective theme:
    I've been surprised not yet to see someone pointing out the common thread in the plane stops--that everyone's flying from California--and linking that to what you routinely see on the roads in the midwest.

    My brother drives to see our parents in Iowa from California once every couple of years with his wife. On two different recent trips, he was stopped for no reason by the highway patrol, once in Nebraska, for failing to signal a lane change with enough notice, and once in Iowa for a "broken taillight" (which was not broken). In Nebraska, he and his wife were questioned separately and at length. In Iowa, the patrol backed off when my brother expressed indignation and recorded a badge number. Both my brother and his wife are blond, white schoolteachers.

    On the last trip, after the Iowa stop, my siblings and father and I were at a Boy Scout camp for my nephew's family night, and happened to run into an old acquaintance who is now a police officer. We told him about the stops, and he just nodded and said, "yeah, about 90% of the California plates you see here are running drugs."

    Maybe Jerry Brown can do something about the continuing and expanding criminalization of California?
    Not just California but also Colorado:
    I wonder if the federal authorities' enthusiasm for stopping and searching eastbound private planes from California to the east coast could be related to a story NPR's Planet Money team reported recently entitle "marijuana arbitrage." 

    The gist of the story is, legalization (or medicalization) of marijuana in California has pushed down the prices for the product there, although the prices remain high in the east where the traditional legal environment still reigns.  Growers and sellers see the money to be made by buying cheap in the west and selling dear in the east and just need to find a way to get their product from source to customer.  If private planes are a primary vehicle, and the feds are onto that, it could explain the over-the-top response given to pilots originating in the west and landing in the east.
    Really, did we  learn NOTHING from Prohibition?
    And a new Colorado/California-inclusive name for what we are seeing:
    Why not call it "spacial profiling"? Any flight heading east from the apparently drug-soaked western states seems to be vulnerable only because of its origin and destination.
  • Annals of the Security State: Turboprop Edition

    "At this point I was shaking in my boots. I was absolutely concerned they were going to plant something in my aircraft."

    You can find previous entries here, here, here, and here, with other links included in those items. Today's installment comes from David Blackburn, of San Diego, who like most of the recent correspondents has agreed to let me use his real name to tell about an encounter with the authorities late in 2010. 

    The details follow in his own words, but this is the gist:
    • MU2.jpgBlackburn, a businessman and pilot, was making a normal and by-the-book flight from his home in San Diego, to a training base in Tennessee, and stopped for gas in Texas en route. He was flying a turboprop Mitsubishi MU-2 plane, with its very distinctive low-slung look. (Similar model, not his plane, shown at right.)

    • While in Texas, he overheard DHS officials calling the local airport manager on a phone-answering machine, asking that Blackburn be detained.

    • He left and went on to Tennessee, where on landing he was surrounded by police, in the way that is becoming familiar.

    • After being held and questioned for four hours, he was finally released. At no point was there any reason to think he had done anything wrong.

    • All this while, every inch of his progress across the country had already been monitored by air-traffic control authorities, with whom he had checked in throughout his flight. There is no comparable degree of monitoring in the normal ground-based travel world. To imagine it, think of motorists having to radio in their location to Highway Patrol officials every 20 or 30 miles along the Interstate, or whenever they changed course -- and meanwhile having devices that transmitted their position, speed, and altitude to federal authorities every few seconds. That is how aviation works for planes like this*. So before Blackburn's flight began and at every minute he was underway, government officials knew who he was and where he was going. Still he was the object of a manhunt. [* By "planes like this" I mean high-speed pressurized craft traveling at altitudes above 18,000 feet, where all trips must be under "Instrument Flight Rules" and subject to guidance from air-traffic control.]
    Like the other people I have quoted, David Blackburn is not making any claim for special sympathy. Like other members of the pilot population, he is overall very fortunate, and is used to being on the right rather than the wrong end of scrutiny from the law. Rather I offer these cameos as examples of the way the "stop and frisk" mentality is extending throughout American life, and of the cumulative effect of our two open-ended wars: the War on Terror and the War on Drugs.

    Over to Mr. Blackburn. This is his account, with clarifying remarks about aviation terms inserted in brackets [like this] where useful.
    The following is an account of Three IFR flights from KSEE to L35 for fuel then to KBFE for more fuel then the destination KMQY.  [An IFR flight is under Instrument Flight Rules. The significant point here is that for IFR flights the FAA knows the name of the pilot; the details and home base of the plane; and every inch of the route it will take across the country. Most airports in the U.S. officially have "K" before their airport names -- KLAX, KJFK, etc. KSEE is Gillespie field, in San Diego; KBFE is Terry County Airport in Brownfield, Texas, south of Lubbock, where Blackburn stopped for gas. His destination was KMQY, Smyrna airport in Tennessee. The other airport is L35, in Big Bear Lake, California, where he also got gas. I won't go into why some smaller airports don't start with "K."]

    I departed at 5AM on October 21st 2010 from KSEE. It was IFR, with poor visibility, to Big Bear CA, L35, for fuel and further flight planning. The weather was changing from mid- Texas to the north [and Blackburn had to adjust his planned route]. The route was also IFR more or less direct from L35 to Brownfield Texas and was conducted at Flight Level 270. [Approximately 27,000 feet] It was without a doubt a good fast flight at 300+ Knots [usually there is a tailwind for planes headed west to east].

    The flight was planned for training purposes in the MU2 and for recurrent training to satisfy the requirements necessary to fly the MU2. [The piloting world has both regulatory and insurance-related requirements for frequent recurrent training. I was in fact doing some of that today in my Cirrus SR-22.]

    The weather was down to 2,500 feet upon arrival to KBFE for fuel. [That is, the clouds were 2,500 feet above ground level as he came in for a landing. In pilot-world, "weather" often means "bad weather," as in "we ran into some weather."] The airport manager at KBFE,  whose name was XX, came to assist me with fuel.  He noticed the one of the tires was low and provided me a bottle of nitrogen to fill it up. We had a length discussion [about some mutual friends, including some who had come to tragic ends.] We had a long talk about that and shook our heads with what a small world it was. 

    As I was returning the bottle in his shop the phone rang, the recorder picked it up and the manager answered.  I could hear the entire conversation.  The gentleman identified himself as "Homeland Security" and asked if a Mitsubishi was taking on fuel and XX said yes asked if he wanted to talk to me.  The caller said NO and asked if I could hear him and XX said no, as he did not know I was listening.  The caller said I will call you right back see if you can delay his departure and hung up. 

    As I entered the shop I asked him if that call was about me and he said "Well sort of".  I told him I heard the call on his recorder and that I was going to depart now.  I filed an IFR flight plan and went direct to KMQY, in Smyrna Tennessee.  I landed and parked next to the National Guard after asking permission. [Smaller airports often have a variety of craft -- private airplanes, police helicopters, National Guard, etc, and you get local guidance on where to park.]

    As I walked down the street to the office of the Mitsubishi Flight School, the airport security stopped me and asked if I just arrived in the MU2. I said yes.  He parked his car and said let's walk back to your aircraft.  He would not answer any questions. Just, let's get to your aircraft. 

    As we walked to where the plane was parked,  he said I will need your identification, drivers license, Pilots License, Medical, aircraft registration and any other documents relating to the operation of this aircraft.  In the distance I noticed a string of 5 or 6 cars with Blue Flashing lights.  I asked if those cars were coming for my benefit and he repeated the demands for the documents and watched as I gathered them from the aircraft.  I had everything  arranged as the flight school was also going to need to see all of the same information before we started school. 

    The 5 or 6 cars arrived and the gentleman immediately asked where the other two passengers went.  I said I had no other passengers as I was here to attend [flight training school].  He said several times that he wanted me to tell him who the other two persons were and I said there were none. 

    He then asked If I was carrying a large sum of money and I said well I guess.  I reached into my pocked took the wallet out and counted out $300 which was more then I usually carry with me.  He said he was looking for a large sum.  I said like what and he said well like $250,000. 

    I said NO I no longer carry that type of money because my wife would spend it.  He found no humor in this.  He asked why I did not stop when I crossed the Border.  I answered that I came from Brownfield, Texas, and from California before that.  All he had to do was look at my frequencies on my knee board and or look into my flight on Flight Aware as it was all IFR. [The pilot is saying (a) that the list of radio frequencies, for the air-traffic controllers he had been talking to through the flight, would show a sequence from California through Texas to Tennesee; and (b) that the radar tracks kept on FlightAware would also show his route.]

    To this he answered "We will do this our way". I said again I was attending school for the recurrent training.  He said nothing to that and then requested access to the aircraft.  I said for what and he said he had a need to search the aircraft and that in fact if I was not carrying drugs or large sums of money that I shouldn't have a problem with that.

    I asked him who all these people were and he informed me that he had three agencies investigating me  and they were Homeland Security, The FBI, and DEA.  Each team had their own dogs that would be going through the aircraft and that they would be as careful as they could.  I  gave permission for him to search the aircraft. 

    That is when he brought out 3 dogs and what appeared to be 3 separate teams of two people with each dog.  One team went in at a time and after they were done they came over to ask me questions. 

    At some point I was taken behind one of the vans and asked questions.  I asked to be in front of the vans as I wanted to see what if anything was going into the aircraft and they said no they wanted me right where I was.  They asked about other passengers, Mexico, drugs and money each time.  They would not allow me to make any calls and this went on till the wee hours in the morning for at least 4 hours.

    At this point I was shaking in my boots.  I was absolutely concerned they were going to plant something in my aircraft.  After they completed their questioning over and over again they finally  instructed me to move my aircraft to a different parking  area and that the security would escort me off the airport and that they were done.  

    And they were gone.  No contact information, no reports, no comments no nothing from them, nothing.  My phone was now dead and I knew that my wife was worried.  The security guard allowed me to use his battery as we had the same phone.  He also apologized for the awful interrogation and told me that they had called him earlier in the day and advised him to detain me with any means necessary until they arrived. He had no choice he had to do whatever they told him to do. 

    He knew I was there for school because he knew of the MU2 instruction that was provided at this airport.
    The next day I called my brother and asked him to look on flight aware for my flights.  He called back and said I have your flight from Ksee to L35 Big Bear and also the L35 flight to BFE Brown Field Texas.  The flights were direct and showed the correct flight levels.  The flight from BFE Brown Field however had been changed and showed a speed of 90 knots to 115 knots and never above 3,500 feet and all over the place south to the border and north for 60 miles and all over the place but never to MQY Smyrna Tennessee.  According to the Fight Aware I never arrived in Tennessee.
    I can speculate as to a couple of the details and the first if about the money.  I had a conversation with a business associate about a project I was working on that needed a capital investment of $250,000.00 and during the same conversation I mentioned after my flight to Tennessee that I was going to Mexico in my airplane down to Cabo.  I think it is possible, that someone was listening to my cell phone for some reason and that is what started something with homeland security....

    I really do not know if I am being treated any different than anyone else.... I will continue to fly and mostly IFR.  I will NOT be deterred from my passion of flight.

     In this case, unlike most of the previous ones, Blackburn was not held at gunpoint during the questioning and detention. But in all these cases we have many hours of detention, inspection by dogs, people left rattled and humiliated, and no indication of anything approaching probable cause. Further cases and commentary tomorrow. For now, just adding to the dossier. Sincere thanks to David Blackburn for going on the record here.

  • Annals of the Security State: 'Is Puerto Rico in America?'

    Stop-and-frisk, in the skies

    Here are two more, from people willing to go on the record under their real names. Previous entries here, here, here.

    My name is Ricky Gonzalez. I am a Captain on a Citation Jet for Dorado Aviation based out of San Juan, Puerto Rico. On Wednesday May 22nd, 2013 we were approach by three vehicles right after parking at the National Jets FBO at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport (FLL). The person in charge wore a safety vest " Sheriff" and said that they were working in conjunction with the DHS.

    I could go forever with the description about this. Among a few interesting points, the Law Enforcement Officer asked me if we had clear Customs to which I answered that we were coming from Puerto Rico, which is a US Territory and Commonwealth of the US. He could not understand at first. Also, one of the ladies at the FBO's front desk said that in her many years working for the same FBO she had never seen an operation like ours.

    To make this more interesting my boss the aircraft owner was onboard with his family. The officer asked if he could ask him a few questions. I went inside the FBO and when I walked back they were talking to him in the back of one of the SUVs.

    We stopped in FLL to pick up fuel on the way to TEB [Teterboro, NJ]. ..  They asked the same questions to my Boss, my Co- Captain and myself, almost as I they were looking for one of us to change the version....
    Is it becoming a new tactic from Law Enforcement?

    Now, from David Rivera, who runs a small business in San Diego:

    I too have had this happen twice to me. Both times leaving KSEE [Gillespie Field, on the east side of San Diego] and flying to KMKN [Comanche County airport in Texas, southwest of Fort Worth] in route to KFLL [Fort Lauderdale] Florida. KMKN at the time was the cheapest 100LL in the country and an easy choice in a southern route coast to coast low altitude flying. [100LL, also known as "Avgas," is the main fuel for piston-engine airplanes. It's a higher-octane, and higher-lead-content, version of normal gasoline. The aviation business is in the middle of a much-delayed shift to unleaded aviation fuel, but that hasn't happened yet. Flight planning software lets you know fuel costs at various airports, and there can be a huge difference. It's very common to pick a refueling site because it has cheaper fuel.]

    Both times I departed KSEE IFR and cancelled once in route VFR with flight plan filed. [IFR is Instrument Flight Rules, in which a pilot must follow Air Traffic Control's clearances for route, altitude, speed, etc. Even when the weather is good, pilots often choose to fly IFR to leave or enter a congested urban area with complicated airspace. That simplifies the process of knowing where they are and are not supposed to fly. Once away from the city, the pilot may "cancel IFR" and proceed on his own, under Visual Flight Rules, being careful to stay out of certain kinds of airspace.]

    When I landed [at Comanche County] to refuel, I was greeted by black Ford Expeditions and local and federal law enforcement officers. My story was similar to the others you have posted, except for one crazy difference. Before I agreed to the search I needed to use the bathroom and was allowed to leave the plane and the officers and walk to a bathroom located a significant distance from the officers. I thought wow they actually would let a drug suspect leave their sight? 

    I came back a few minutes later and they asked to me for my license and medical along with airplane documents. I got the BS line about the dog getting a "trigger". I allowed them to search the plane since I have nothing to hide and I was happy to be out of the plane after five hours. The officers were "very" knowledgeable about the FAR [FAA regulations] regarding pilots and planes. An hour later I was allowed to fuel the plane and depart. 

    When I returned home I told my friends at the SDPD [San Diego police] and a good friend of mine that is an FBI agent about the "ramp check". They said that there is no way officers will let you out of their sight if they suspect you of committing a crime. They knew I was on a flight plan intending to land at KMKN and they could track me on Flight Aware. This allowed them to be ready to document a search. Homeland Security has a huge budget to fund government agencies and the agencies have to justify the money. Both of my friends had Homeland Security give them funding for similar projects. I believe this will just continue until the money runs out!
    No more "analysis" at the moment. For now I am just rolling the stories out, and have asked federal authorities for comment. More on the way. (And, to put things in a larger Security-State perspective, consider this, via Michael Ham.)
  • Summarizing the Latest Security-State Post

    The TL;DR version of stop-and-frisk taking to the skies

    The immediately preceding post, another Annals of the Security State installment, is very long.

    Here is the TL;DR version, just for the record, for anyone who can't wade through the original.

    A pilot who was doing absolutely nothing wrong -- had broken no rule, had received no warning, was behaving exactly the way a motorist would on a regular highway or a boater might do on a lake -- landed at night in fully legal fashion at a small airport in Texas. And at that point his plane was surrounded by armed security forces who directed spotlights and strobe lights into his eyes and pointed their guns at his head. The situation was so threatening he thought he was being robbed by a drug gang. But these were the Feds.

    A sample:
    During my engine/turbo cool down period I was blinded from the front right and left with white lights. I just covered my eyes and sat there.... I figured at this point that I was being hijacked by drug dealers who were going to steal my plane....

    When they lowered their flashlights I could see they had long guns (one had a carbine and the other looked like a shotgun).... 

    Once I got the plane shut down I was ordered out of the plane with a shotgun pointed at my head and patted down.   It was pretty stressful. 

    This account is worth reading. And in the end, they determined, again, that he had done nothing wrong. 

    To be clear, I am not saying that the pilot population is being singled out for stop-and-frisk treatment. I am saying that this is another window into what the open-ended War on Terror and War on Drugs have wrought.
  • Annals of the Security State: The Airplane Stories Continue

    "I figured at this point that I was being hijacked by drug dealers who were going to steal my plane." But no, it was the Feds.


    For previous installments in this series, please see the stories of Gabriel Silverstein (right), Larry Gaines and Clay Phillips, and a Cirrus pilot who doesn't want to be identified.

    Our next installment comes from another pilot who has asked me to protect his name and particulars because he is concerned about retribution. The first episode he describes, from Wyoming, was humiliating and annoying; the second, from Texas, sounds potentially dangerous and certainly quite frightening.

    One point of context, which I'll pick up at the end. Many of today's security-state episodes arise from the open-ended "war on terror." Many others arise from the even more open-ended "war on drugs." Some appear to be caused by both at once, or a morphing of one into the other. Follow along with the cases, then a summary-for-now at the end:

    'When they lowered their flashlights, I could see they had long guns.' A reader/pilot reports:

    I've just finished reading your recent article "Annals of the Security State: More Airplane Stories" and it sounded oh so familiar.  I experienced almost an identical situation in flying from CA to TX.  It is hard to relate the stress, anxiety, adrenaline, concern and anger that is experienced during one of these encounters with our new federal government.

    If you find it useful to share this story please delete my name and [other details] as my family has decided (after consultation with legal advisers) that we want no more attention from our wonderful federal protectors.  From what we have learned, they have lists, there is no one you can contact to get off the list and because they assaulted my plane and searched it for drugs, it and I are now tagged with a "drug ID number" and I must expect to be taken out of my airplane at gunpoint every time I land.... 

    1. Wyoming, summer 2012. [From a letter to an aviation-world authority.] I recently had a very disturbing experience that I wanted to share with you. I'm a new pilot, I've owned a [single-engine, turbocharged Cessna] for a little over a year and am loving flying. It's been 14 months and I've racked up over 400 hours [JF note: that's quite a lot]...did I mention I love to fly?

    The people I've met in the flying community have been uniformly helpful and friendly. That includes the folks at all the various FBOs [Fixed Base Operators -- essentially the service stations at small airports], so I was a bit surprised when I arrived at an FBO at a small Wyoming town last month and instead of the usual pleasant greeting the reception was a bit hostile. I found out why about a half hour later, after I'd put in my order for fuel, car rental, and wipe down and hangar storage for my plane. The manager said he'd gotten a call from Homeland Security (DHS) informing them that I was flying in shortly and to check out the plane and keep watch on me because I was "suspected of smuggling drugs."

    At first I thought he was kidding me, or that one of my buddies had put him up to it - I'm an Army vet with lots of active duty military and law enforcement friends - and I wouldn't put it past one of them to play an evil joke like that on me, but it turned out he was serious. He said he decided to tell me because it was so obviously not true, once he got a look at me and at my plane.

    I guess it may be true that my flying habits aren't "typical", whatever that is, but I didn't know that my decision to travel about the country in my own plane would result in Homeland Security monitoring my movements using the FAA ATC [air traffic control] system in real time and tracking me down. But it appears that DHS is calling up FBOs and making allegations that I'm a criminal based solely on my new found love of flying about the country. Because that's all it could be based on, anyone who had taken the slightest effort to look into my life would have known I have nothing to do with drugs or any other criminal activity.

    I'm told by friends who should know that all this came about simply because I fly VFR (I'm not instrument-rated yet), and I often take advantage of ATC's flight following services when crossing the Sierras or Rockies. [Flying VFR, or by Visual Flight Rules, means that pilots find their own routes from place to place in clear weather and don't have to talk to air traffic controllers as long as they stay out of certain kinds of airspace.]

    I'm not sure how much Homeland Security uses ATC's databases to track the activities of general aviation pilots and planes, or asks FBOs to engage in what is basically domestic spying on its behalf, but I thought you and other GA [general aviation] pilots might be interested to hear about what happened to me.

    2. Utah, fall 2012
    [From the same reader's letter to an aviation authority:] I departed [a city in California] on the night of November XX in order beat an incoming Pacific storm.  I stopped for the night in Cedar City, UT and then continued on to Texas the following day.  I flew mostly direct to Lubbock, TX where I stopped for fuel and then on to my destination in Corsicana, TX (just south of Dallas) a municipal airport south of town.  I landed an hour or so after dark.  I had called and made arrangements with the airport manager that morning before departing UT.

    While on final approach to the airport another aircraft came on the frequency and basically blocked the frequency with banter and babble.  Approximately 1 minute after I landed a twin engine aircraft landed and taxied near where I was in the process of shutting down my aircraft. 

    During my engine/turbo cool down period I was blinded from the front right and left with white lights. I just covered my eyes and sat there. There was no one else at the airport so I figured these people had come from the airplane that landed behind me.  I figured at this point that I was being hijacked by drug dealers who were going to steal my plane.  My sidearm was in my luggage in the back seat and I figured I wouldn't be able to get to it.

    I tried to signal using hand gestures that I needed two minutes to cool down the engine/turbo, but I was then hit with strobe lights.  At this point I couldn't even make out the instruments on my panel so I returned the light with my own flashlight in an attempt to get them to stop blinding me.  Once they lowered their lights I was able to shutdown the plane. When they lowered their flashlights I could see they had long guns (one had a carbine and the other looked like a shotgun).  I did notice that one one of them had what looked like a shield on their jacket so I was hopeful that they were some form of law enforcement and not hijackers. The team looked to be composed of 5 or six men.

    Once I got the plane shut down I was ordered out of the plane with a shotgun pointed at my head and patted down.   It was pretty stressful. I was told they were conducting "a standard FAA ramp check."  My ID, pilot's license, aircraft registration, medical, and airworthiness documents were demanded.  I provided all the documentation.

    They continuously requested to search my aircraft and demanded to know where I was coming from and why I was in Corsicana.  After what seemed like 20 or 30 minutes I asked what I had done wrong and when I could leave. Finally I was given my documents back and told "I was free to go."

    Once I secured my plane and loaded my luggage into a car I had arranged for from the airport, a local law enforcement officer arrived with what they referred to as a "drug dog."  I was told that they were going to walk the dog around my plane.  There dog was clearly trained to indicate for drugs when the handler wanted the dog to do so.  And, so, the dog indicated on the pilot's door and the baggage compartment door. 

    The plane was searched without my authorization and against my will.  Obviously nothing was found.  I was then told that all my bags would be taken out of the car and the dog was going to inspect them.  I told them I didn't consent to that and they said they didn't care and continued to go in the car and remove all the bags and place them in the parking lot.  The dog walked around them and did nothing.  I was told I was free to go again.

    After a couple of hours I was released and I headed for my hotel -- never to hear from them again, not that I really want to.  Obviously everything was in order and I was very thankful of that as these guys were very scary.  I've been spending some time trying to figure out how to make sure this doesn't happen again, but I'm not coming up with any real solutions.

    A few thoughts:
    1.  The initial contact was dangerous and unprofessional.  These idiots are going to get themselves or someone else injured or killed.
    2.  No identification was given nor was an announcement made over the common frequency, I had no way of knowing these were government agents, thank god my gun was packed away.
    3.  The only identification that was offered was CBP letters on one or more of the agents jackets.  No badges or identifications were presented...only firearms.

    A European view. A reader combines the war-on-drugs and war-on-terror themes:

    I write to you from Holland. Recently our national police started a similar harassment on pilots. If you ask me why I can suggest the following reason.

    Security services all over the world have been very successful in repressing terrorism done by larger groups. They could do this by attacking the infrastructure necessary for the organization of these large scale attacks. Tapping into phone and e-mail, tracking financial trails and so on.The result is that terrorism has gone back to small operations done by small groups of people (Boston, London).

    The result is also that the huge organizations like DHS suddenly hear and see nothing anymore. So they start to look for patterns done by profilers. Also they want their people to be in the alert status all the time because they have no clues anymore.

    All of a sudden private pilots become a lovely soft target. They use the privileges of their license in the most rigorously controlled environment ever created by man. Do they focus their attention into motor gangs, a category much more likely to yield criminal results? No of course not. That would end in heavy gun battles all around the country.Imagine that you would like to make a trip on your motor bike and are allowed to ride only on certain times in the day due to noise restrictions, that you are obliged to have a tracking device on your bike the allow authorities to constantly monitor where you go and how fast, where you stop and how long. That you would have to file your itinerary one hour before departure and report upon arrival.You would find that absurd and society would not allow it.

    But that is exactly what private pilots are subjected to. These people are obsessed by rules and regulations and are the most hyper obedient citizens you will find. So no resistance expected, soft targets and easy practice targets to keep your swollen bureaucracy going. In one of your stories there are a business jet ($3000/hr) a King air ($1200/hour) and a small army busy for three hours. That is an easy way to spend your budget. And the budget has to be spent at the end of the year. So the good news is that DHS was successful in fighting terrorism, the bad news is that you now live in a police state.

    Similarly, from a reader in the US:

    I might suggest that it's not the "Security" state, but the Drug War state. Which are slightly different things. The latter is the bigger problem than the former, in my opinion.

    And I think as the security state comes under increasing "why did you exist?" pressures, it falls back on drug enforcement. Because that's an endless hole of discretion, for which astonishing infrastructure costs can be justified. Just look at the unbelievable hardware put in use in this episode. 

    And I really appreciate the extrapolation part you discussed at the end. It's important for all of us to "internalize" what this means on the ground for all of us, as I noted yesterday. This could have been a Jay Z song.

    And, from north of the border, a Canadian view:

    Having read your stories about random checks on aircraft pilots, including a glider pilot, I thought that the time may have come to propose a general stand down. Your society seems to have entered a spiral in which more intrusive policing leads to a desire for greater private possession of firearms, and greater resistance to common-sense measures to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals or mentally unstable persons, while police react to the number of firearms in the population with more body armour, more "Terry stops", and a more intrusive and dominance-focused approach to policing.

    A stand down would mean that both individual members of the public, and the public bodies dedicated to law enforcement, should give up some power. On the individual level, that means gun safety: accepting that not all people have the maturity or the mental stability to handle firearms, and accepting necessary restrictions to keep those weapons out of their hands. On the level of law enforcement agencies, it means reducing intrusions on the lives of innocent people. On the level of government, it means reducing penalties and enforcement efforts for consensual crimes and dialing back programs designed to provide police with body and vehicle armour and high powered weapons.

    A few common-sense confidence building measures could level out a process that seems set, to use an aviation metaphor, to turn into a graveyard spiral.

    The apotheosis of the Border Patrol. An American reader refers to a previous message about the Border Patrol's authority to stop and search without a warrant:

    I am not a lawyer, but when I see this:

    "As a former US Border Patrol Agent, and a pilot and aircraft owner I feel for the man who was searched but a border patrol agent is fully authorized by the Government to "board and search any Vehicle, Boat, Aircraft, dog sled, ect.. without a warrant or probable cause.
    The DEA and other law enforcement agencies do not have the authority to "board and search" and that is why the Border Patrol was there."

    I have to wonder by what nebulous authority the Border Patrol can, with legal justification, search a flight originating within the United States (Calaveras County Airport) and flying to an airport in Oklahoma.  Neither airport is international.  Neither airport is particularly close to an international border.  The pilot did not exit US airspace during his flight.

    What part of either airport, what part of the flight, what action by the pilot could allow the BP to consider Cordell Municipal Airport in Oklahoma to be functionally equivalent to the border?
    These actions strike me, on their face, as an abuse of power.

    And, to wrap things up right now, I have received many messages from fellow pilots who (unlike me) are politically very conservative, and who are convinced that what we're seeing is an Obama-era "war on the right wing." I don't believe that -- remember, the two main open-ended "wars" are fully bipartisan -- but offer this exchange as an illustration. It starts with a message from a reader in South Dakota:

    Every time I travel abroad I am taken aside and asked a whole lot of questions that most of these highly irate pilots would ever be asked because I am dark-haired, dark-eyed woman who was born in Greece and is a naturalized citizen.  (NOTE:  I was naturalized when I was three years old; I was an orphan, adopted to this country.)  Considering what I go through in order to travel, and have for years, I have no sympathy at all for them and their encounters with "jack-booted thugs".  In fact, I find it ironic that they have discovered that the war on drugs and the war on terrorism applies even to them - nice, white, middle to upper-class, middle-aged folks - and that the Patriot Act and its ilk might have serious repercussions for all of us.

    Thank you for pointing out that "as a group they're not used to being on the wrong side of routine hassles by the police. Therefore, I concluded, if they (we) are now being viewed with routine suspicion, you can imagine circumstances for people in the "driving while black" category."  And for traveling while looking foreign. 

    I wrote back saying that I understood her "welcome to my world" point, but that I very much disagreed with her saying that she had "no sympathy at all" for other people affected by the same treatment. She responded thus:

    I will amend my statement:  I do have sympathy for anyone subject to harassment.  Until they launch into conspiracy theories and "jack-booted thug" statements, at which point I try (if they're sitting next to me) to explain the way things work in the real world. 

    Sadly, what I often hear is "well of course they're being careful about THOSE people [blacks, Muslims, Native Americans, etc.], but I was doing nothing wrong!"  And they stick to it like glue... 

    What I would really like is for those who do experience such harassment - rather than raise up conspiracy theories or complain endlessly about how badly they have been treated - to recognize that they have just been inducted into the world that thousands, hundreds of thousands, of American citizens undergo every day, and which they have acquiesced, approved, participated in it.  And feel just a little bit ashamed of themselves...  And decide that if it isn't fair for them, it isn't fair for anybody, including the scary black guy or Muslim woman or the 60-year old Greek born woman trying to get to Ireland...  :)

    On these closing points I agree. This is a little sample of the incoming flow. More as soon as I can manage.

  • For Memorial Day, Another 'End the War on Terror' Speech

    A message I have been waiting to hear.

    There's a connection between two themes I've been hitting hard recently: the surprising extension of "stop and frisk" inspections into the general-aviation world, and Barack Obama's announcement that the time had come formally to end the "war on terror."

    The connection is that events in the first category -- overreach of the security state, at home and abroad -- are reflections of the second development: the 11-plus years of "permanent emergency" in America's rhetoric and laws about terrorist threats. In this war like many previous ones, "normal" Constitutional constraints and checks-and-balances were suspended. But all previous wars ended. Until this week, no president or serious presidential contender had argued that, for the health of America's democracy, it was time to end this one too. 

    In his speech this week, Obama quoted James Madison to the same effect: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." Seven years ago, in the issue shown below, I tried to imagine what a future speech like Obama's would sound like. This was its [imagined] peroration:

    DeclaringVictory.jpg"My fellow Americans, we have achieved something almost no one thought possible five years ago. The nation did not suffer the quick follow-up attacks so many people feared and expected. Our troops found the people who were responsible for the worst attack ever on our soil. We killed many, we captured more, and we placed their leaders in a position where they could not direct the next despicable attack on our people--and where the conscience of the world's people, of whatever faith, has turned against them for their barbarism. They have been a shame to their own great faith, and to all other historic standards of decency.

    "Achieving this victory does not mean the end of threats. Life is never free of dangers. I wish I could tell you that no American will ever again be killed or wounded by a terrorist--and that no other person on this earth will be either. But I cannot say that, and you could not believe me if I did. Life brings risk--especially life in an open society, like the one that people of this land have sacrificed for centuries to create.

    "We have achieved a great victory, and for that we can give thanks--above all to our troops. We will be at our best if we do not let fear paralyze or obsess us. We will be at our best if we instead optimistically and enthusiastically begin the next chapter in our nation's growth. We will deal with the struggles of our time. These include coping with terrorism, but also recognizing the huge shifts in power and resulting possibilities in Asia, in Latin America, in many other parts of the world. We will recognize the challenges of including the people left behind in the process of global development--people in the Middle East, in Africa, even in developed countries like our own. The world's scientists have never before had so much to offer, so fast--and humanity has never needed their discoveries more than we do now, to preserve the world's environment, to develop new sources of energy, to improve the quality of people's lives in every corner of the globe, to contain the threats that modern weaponry can put into the hands of individuals or small groups.

    "The great organizing challenge of our time includes coping with the threat of bombings and with the political extremism that lies behind it. That is one part of this era's duty. But it is not the entirety. History will judge us on our ability to deal with the full range of this era's challenges--and opportunities. With quiet pride, we recognize the victory we have won. And with the determination that has marked us through our nation's history, we continue the pursuit of our American mission, undeterred by the perils that we will face." [End of imagined speech. Note: no 'God Bless America' ending.]

    Different leaders will choose different words. But the message--of realism, of courage, and of optimism despite life's difficulties--is one we need to hear.

    The different leader of 2013 did indeed choose different words. But the essence of his message was one I have been waiting for a long time to hear.
    In-house note: That September 2006 issue, with its cover story rashly announcing "We Win," was the first one fully under James Bennet's control after he arrived as editor. By the time he got here I had already begun work on this "declare victory" article.

    It was a very gutsy choice for him to stick with that story, and that claim, as the cover of one of his early issues. What if some big bomb went off somewhere just before or after the issue appeared? By the strict logic of the story, that "shouldn't" matter. In the story I took great pains to explain, quoting many historians and experts in the long arc of terrorism, that attacks probably would continue, as other disasters and misfortunes do. Nonetheless (I said) we shouldn't let that blind us to the damage done by an open-ended state of war. That's fine as far as logic goes -- but in the real, trans-logical world of emotion and buzz, we unavoidably would have looked bad, "Dewey Beats Truman"-style. The risk was all the greater with a new editor's first issue, and even more so when the writer (me) had moved to China as soon as the article was done but before it had appeared. I have always been grateful for the guts of James Bennet's choice to go ahead. 

    It may seem the exact opposite of gutsy to compliment one's own editor for promoting one's own article; I recognize that. But because so many people assume the worst about the choices journalists make, I thought it was worth letting people outside our office know about this one.


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