A Philosopher's Blog

Gun Drones

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2017

Taking the obvious step in done technology, Duke Robotics has developed a small armed drone called the Tikad. One weapon loadout is an assault rifle that can be fired by the human operator of the device. The drone can presumably carry other weapons of similar size and weight, such as a grenade launcher. This drone differs from previous armed drones, like the Predator, in that it is small and relatively cheap. As with many other areas of technology, the innovation is in the ease of use and lower cost. This makes the Tikad type drone far more accessible than previous drones, which is both good and bad.

On the positive side, the military and police can deploy more drones and thus reduce human casualties. For example, the police could send a drone in to observe and possibly engage during a hostage situation and not put officers in danger.

On the negative side, the lower cost and ease of use means that such armed drones can be more easily deployed by terrorists, criminals and oppressive states. The typical terrorist group cannot afford a drone like the Predator and might have difficulty in finding people who can operate and maintain such a complicated aircraft. But, a drone like the Tikad could be operated and serviced by a much broader range of people. This is not to say that Duke Robotics should be criticized for doing the obvious—people have been thinking about arming drones since drones were invented.

Budget gun drones do, of course, also raise the usual concerns associated with remotely operated weapons. The first is the concern that operators of drones are more likely to be aggressive than forces that are physically present and at risk of the consequences of a decision to engage in violence. However, it can also be argued that an operator is less likely to be aggressive because they are not in danger and the literal and metaphorical distance will allow them to respond with more deliberation. For example, a police officer operating a drone might elect to wait longer to confirm that a suspect is pulling a gun than they would if their life was in danger. Then again, they might not—this would be a training and reaction issue with a very practical concern about training officers to delay longer when operating a drone and not do so when in person.

A second stock concern is the matter of accountability. A drone allows the operator a high degree of anonymity and assigning responsibility can be problematic. In the case of military and police, this can be addressed to a degree by having a system of accountability. After all, military and police operators would presumably be known to the relevant authorities. That said, drones can be used in ways that are difficult to trace to the operator and this would certainly be true in the case of terrorists. The use of drones would allow terrorists to attack from safety and in an anonymous manner, which are certainly matters of concern.

However, it must be noted that while the first use of a gun armed drone in a terrorist attack would be something new, it would not be significantly different from the use of a planted bomb. This is because such bombs allow terrorists to kill from a safe distance and make it harder to identify the terrorist. But, just as with bombs, the authorities would be able to investigate the attack and stand some chance of tracing a drone back to the terrorist. Drones are in some ways less worrisome than bombs—a drone can be seen and is limited in how many targets it can engage. In contrast, a bomb can be hidden and can kill many in an instant, without a chance of escape or defense.  A gun drone is also analogous in some ways with a sniper rifle—it allows engagement at long ranges. However, the drone does afford far more range and safety than even the best sniper rifle.

In the United States, there will presumably be considerable interest about how the Second Amendment applies to armed drones. On the face of it, the answer seems easy enough: while the people have the right to keep and bear arms, this does not extend to operating armed drones. But, there might be some interesting lawsuits over this matter.

In closing, there are legitimate concerns about cheap and simple gun drones. While they will not be as radical a change as some might predict, they will make it easier and cheaper to engage in violence at a distance and in anonymous killing. As such, they will make ideal weapons for terrorists and oppressive governments. However, they do offer the possibility of reduced human casualties, if used responsibly. In any case, their deployment is inevitable, so the meaningful questions are about how they should be used and how to defend against their misuse. The question about whether they should be used is morally interesting, but pragmatically irrelevant since they will be used.

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Bans & BS

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 10, 2017
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As this is being written, Trump’s travel ban remains suspended by  the courts. The poor wording and implementation of the ban indicates that amateurs are now in charge. Or, alternatively, that Trump’s strategists are intentionally trying to exhaust the opposition. As such, either the ban has been a setback for Trump or a small victory.

While the actual experts on national security (from both parties) have generally expressed opposition to the Trump ban, Trump’s surrogates and some Republican politicians have endeavored to defend it. The fountain of falsehoods, Kellyanne Conway, has been extremely active in defense of the ban. Her zeal in its defense has led her to uncover terrorist attacks beyond our own reality, such as the Bowling Green Massacre that occurred in some other timeline. In that alternative timeline, the Trump ban might be effectively addressing a real problem; but not in the actual world.

More reasonable defenders of the ban endeavor to use at least some facts from this world when making their case. For example, Republican representative Mike Johnson recently defended the ban by making reference to a report by Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security. He claimed that “They determined that nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees. I mean, those kinds of facts are not as widely publicized, but they should be. I think the American people have a right to know that.” This approach employs four rather effective rhetorical techniques which I will address in reverse order of use.

By saying “the American people have a right to know”, Johnson seems to be employing innuendo to suggest that the rights of Americans are being violated—that is, there is some sort of conspiracy against the American people afoot. This conspiracy is, of course, that the (presumably liberal) media is not publicizing certain facts. This rhetorical tool is rather clever, for it not only suggests the media is up to something nefarious, but that there are secret facts out there that support the ban. At the very least, this can incline people to think that there are other facts backing Trump that are being intentionally kept secret. This can make people more vulnerable to untrue claims purporting to offer such facts.

Johnson’s lead techniques are, coincidentally enough, rhetorical methods I recently covered in my critical thinking class. One technique is what is often called a “weasler” in which a person protects a claim by weakening it. In this case, the weasel word is “nearly.” If Johnson were called on the correct percentage, which is 18%, he can reply that 18% is nearly 20%, which is true. However, “nearly 20%” certainly creates the impression that it is more than 18%, which is misleading. Why not just say “18%”?  Since the exaggeration is relatively small, it does not qualify as hyperbole. Naturally, a reasonable reply would be that this is nitpicking— “nearly 20%” is close enough to “18%” and Johnson might have simply failed to recall the exact number during the interview. This is certainly a fair point.

Another technique involves presenting numerical claims without proper context, thus creating a misleading impression. In this case, Johnson claims, correctly, that “nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees.” The main problem is that no context is given for the “nearly 20%.” Without context, one does not know whether this is a significant matter or not. For example, if I claimed that sales of one of my books increased 20% last year, then you would have no idea how significant my book sales were. If I sold 10 of those books in 2015 and 12 in 2016, then my sales did increase 20%, but my sales would be utterly insignificant in the context of book sales.

In the case of the facilitators Johnson mentioned, the Fordham report includes 19 facilitators and 3 of these (18%) were as Johnson described. So, of the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers the United States took in, there have been three people who were involved in this facilitation. This mostly involved encouraging people to go overseas to fight—these three people were (obviously) not involved in terrorist attacks in the United States. Such a microscopic threat level does not justify the travel ban under any rational threat assessment and response analysis.

The United States does, of course, face some danger from terrorist attacks. However, the most likely source of these attacks is from US born citizens. While the threat from foreigners is not zero, an American is 253 times more likely to be a victim of a “normal” homicide rather than killed in a foreigner engaged in a terrorist attack in the United States. And the odds of being the victim of a homicide are very low. As such, trying to justify the ban with accurate information is all but impossible, which presumably explains why the Republicans are resorting to lies and rhetoric.

While there are clear political advantages to stoking the fear of ill-informed Americans, there are plenty of real problems that Trump and the Republicans could be addressing—responsible leaders would be focusing on these problems, rather than weaving fictions and feeding unfounded fears.

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Threat Assessment

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 2, 2010

By now everyone knows about the terrorist who set himself on fire trying to blow up a plane on Christmas. The response was typical-a media circus and government officials leaping to swing the barn door shut after the horse had escaped (again).

While I am concerned about such incidents, the response to this one nicely shows how poor people are at proportional threat assessment and at coming up with effective security measures.

First, in regards to proportional threat assessment: people tend to blow terrorism far out of proportion. Yes, being killed by a terrorist attack is bad. But, so is being killed in a traffic accident or dying from an untreated disease, or being killed in a robbery, or perishing from contaminated foods. When we receive news of some new terrorist attempt, it is followed by a frenzy from the media and a surge in government activity. Money is pledged, new measures are dreamed up and so on. However, the odds of being harmed by a terrorist are astronomical and, as such, the response to such attempts seems to be way out of proportion. After all, think about all the people who died on Christmas from accidents, disease, crime and so on. Yet, the story of some fool who burns himself with a poorly made bomb is what dominates the news and spurs a strong reaction. I am not arguing that we should ignore the terrorists, but the response should be based on the number of people who are actually at risk and the seriousness of the threat.

Second, in regard to security measures: I actually do not have much to say here that has not already been said about the security theater that passes for a defense against terrorism. While some security is better than nothing, we should use only what really works and get rid of what does not. After all, it makes no sense to waste time and money to achieve (at best) a delusion of safety. The way the safety “planning” seems to work is that something happens and then the government folks present some absurd restrictions that are supposed to deal with the situation that has already happened. In the latest case, the new measures included such brilliant ideas as not allowing people to keep things in their laps and not allowing passengers to move around an hour before landing (better hit the bathroom before then). While this will deal with a terrorist who simply must have a bomb in his lap, this will not deal with anything else. No doubt if a terrorist attempts to smuggle a bomb in a Harry Potter book, Harry Potter books will be banned.

Security measures should be designed to deal with what is probable and to do so in advance. That is, likely methods of attack should be carefully considered and defenses set up to match those. The current system seems to be fool driven-that is, some fool tries to make explosive shoes or liquid bombs and then the politicians put on a clown show to try to re-assure the public that they are doing something. However, it seems unlikely that the security methods are really doing much. After all, it has been well established that it is easy to get weapons and other items through security. The main reason that there has been relative safety in the air is that the attempts seem to be very few and mostly incompetenlty done (with some horrible exceptions).

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Ground War in Gaz

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 2, 2009

After launching numerous air strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza, Israel is prepared to launch a ground invasion. Israel has always done amazingly well in conventional warfare against Arab military forces. However, rooting out combatants who hide among civilians has never been something that conventional armies have done exceptionally well. Of course, an occupying army would help cut down on the rocket attacks-they can respond rapidly to launches. However, a conventional army also presents numerous targets for unconventional attacks and an occupation can be a political risk.

One risk is that Hamas can try to drain the resolve of the Israeli people by trying to bleed the ground forces. Losing friends and family in an occupation is never popular and Hamas presumably knows this. With the support of Iran, they can probably wage a fairly effective campaign.

Another risk is that the inevitable civilian deaths can be exploited by Hamas to bolster their support. As they gain local support, they can step up the attacks on Israeli forces and goad them into more retaliatory attacks. This will lead to yet more civilian deaths and thus further enhance the support given to Hamas. Of course, this tactic can be a risk for Hamas. People in Gaza might actually support Hamas less as things become more bloody.

There is also the general concern about how the rest of the world will react. Israel has never been a generally popular state and invading Gaza would generally not be seen as a positive action. Of course, the United States will stick with Israel-they are a critical ally.

From a moral standpoint,the ground war can be seen as morally acceptable in some ways and less so in others. On one hand, ground troops can be more precise in their attacks and can have better local intelligence (relative to air strikes). Of course, ground forces can still make errors and kill the wrong people (civilians). On the other hand, having ground forces invade Gaza escalates the conflict and can very well lead to more deaths. After all, the Hamas targets are not clear military facilities or locations. Rather, their fighters and rocket launchers are spread among the civilians. As such, the civilian population will be rather involved as Israeli ground forces move towards their targets. Unlike aircraft, the troops have to cover the ground relatively slowly and will no doubt be attacked along the way (thus increasing the odds of civilians being killed during battles).

Of course, Israeli cannot stop the rocket attacks simply by continuing to bomb from the air. While some people have argued that air power alone can win conventional wars, history (from WWII forward) shows otherwise. As such, unless Israel and Hamas can reach a political solution, Israel will almost certainly need to invade. And, once again, more people will die on all sides (Israeli, Hamas and civilians).

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Rockets & Retaliation

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 31, 2008

While the Russians have claimed that Hamas is willing to talk peace, rockets continue to rain down on Israel.

On the face of it, firing rockets into populated areas seems like a clearly immoral action. However, I have had enough debates about such matters to know that some people regard such tactics as morally acceptable. Outside of academic types, clearly the people who are involved with firing the rockets find their behavior acceptable. Either that or they are somehow overcoming any moral reluctance they might feel. It is worth considering what arguments might be used to morally justify such acts.

One main argument is that the rockets are being fired in retaliation for Israeli wrong doings. As such, the rockets are intended as punishment. In general, punishing people for their misdeeds is morally acceptable and can be argued for in terms of deterrence and retribution (see John Locke’s arguments as good examples of this).

To counter this, punishment is something that should be directed at the guilty party and not randomly inflicted. After all, to punish the innocent would simply be to commit a crime against them and would not be an act of justice.

It might be replied that the people hurt by the rockets are (usually) Israelis and hence they are not innocent. However, being and Israeli seems to be a rather weak basis for justifying such attacks. To use a analogy, imagine that professor Sally is fired from her job at Big University so that the university President can give her boyfriend Sally’s job. Now suppose that, in revenge, Sally started randomly slashing the tires of students’ cars because they happened to be students of the university. While the students are associated with Big U, they hardly deserve her wrath. Likewise for the innocent civilians.

It could be argued that being a citizen comes with moral accountability such that each citizen is responsible for all that his/her nation does. So, the rocket attacks would be justified retaliation provided they killed only Israeli citizens (or other “guilty” people).

In reply, while citizens (at least in democracies) do bear some responsibility for the actions of their nation, such random attacks fail to take into account important distinctions. To be specific, surely not every citizen bears the guilt of every misdeed (or perceived misdeed) of a nation. For example, a random rocket attack could kill an Israeli who has worked for the good of the people of Gaza or it could kill a child. Surely such people do not deserve death.

Obviously, it could be argued that collective guilt somehow overrides all other normally relevant aspects (such as past actions).  However, the burden of proof seems to be on those who would make this claim. On the face of it, such distinctions seem very important everywhere else. Why should this situation be different?

In light of these arguments, such random rocket attacks (and similar acts of terror) can not be justified as legitimate retaliation or punishment.

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Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 3, 2008

A recent report assembled at the behest of Congress concludes that a biological terror attack is quite likely by 2013. This conclusion seems quite reasonable.

Biological weapons have been used for centuries. Early forms were fairly crude: dumping dead animals in wells, flinging diseased corpses over city walls during sieges, and similar such activities. Later on, the art of biological warfare was refined a bit. One excellent example is the use of blankets infected with small pox as weapons against the indigenous people of America. During the World Wars and Cold War, biological warfare was further enhanced as natural diseases were intentionally enhanced and new strains were created. This research continues to this day; mostly under the guise of developing defenses against biological weapons.

It is easy enough to imagine how terrorists could gain access to biological weapons. Lax security, bribery, and so forth can allow them access to military grade weapons. Naturally, terrorist groups that are supported by states could simply be given such weapons.

Terrorists could also create their own. While they will typically lack the facilities of a nation, cultivating deadly disease agents is relatively easy to do. They are readily available (after all, people are naturally infected) and usually the challenge is to keep them from spreading rather than spreading them. While the terrorists will most likely lack the ability to create weapons on par with those made by nations, the naturally occurring diseases are often quite dangerous enough.

The main challenge that the terrorists face are infecting a population in an effective manner and getting the disease to spread enough to do serious damage. Of course, even if they were only able to affect a limited population, this would certainly help to create significant terror. After all, “conventional” terrorists attacks tend to kill relatively few people and create relatively little destruction compared with something like an actual battle. As such, the terrorists do not need to duplicate the military grade  biological weapons of mass destruction or even the battlefield versions. They just need a biological weapon that can infect a relatively small number of people. Of course, if they use a natural disease and only infect a small number of people, there will be doubts as to whether or not such an attack is really an attack or not. After all, if a terrorist group claimed credit for the winter flu season, then they would obviously not be taken seriously.

So far terrorist groups have not employed such weapons. One reason might be that they lack access to an effective biological weapon that would serve their purposes (that is, one that would be clearly recognized as a weapon and not a natural breakout). Another reason might be that the biological weapon threshold is one that even the terrorists are reluctant to cross. A third reason is that there are practical concerns about such weapons that are holding terrorists back. For example, there might be greater backlash against the deployment of such a weapon. After all, biological weapons tend to be regarded as being far worse than conventional weapons. As another example, such weapons tend to be too indiscriminate and could spread too far-even for the purposes of terrorism. There are probably other reasons as well.

If the terrorist are able to get past or around these obstacles, then biological weapons will probably be used.  For example, the history of terrorism is a history of crossing ever more evil thresholds. So, it is probably just a matter of time before terrorists cross the biological threshold in a large scale attack.

Nuclear Detection Flaws

Posted in Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on August 18, 2008

In 2002 the Bush administration began a $300 million radiation defense system. The system is intended to screen border traffic between the United States and Canada for radioactive substances. While defending the United States against radioactive-based attacks (such as nuclear weapons or dispersal of radioactive material) is a laudable goal, these efforts have failed. In fact, they have done worse than fail.

Newsweek recently published an article on this defense system that presented two very important facts. First, the system has had 1.5 million false positives in the course of screening 270 million vehicles. While the sensors have been set off by tile, cat litter, granite and even bananas, the majority of these false positives are from patients who have undergone medical procedures involving nuclear isotopes. The patients are, in effect, radioactive and hence are picked up by the sensors. While the sensitivity of the sensors is certainly encouraging, the fact that they cannot distinguish between patients and possible weapons is less encouraging. Of course, it could be the case that there simply is no effective way to distinguish between real threats and false positives using such sensors.

The second fact of concern is that of the 1.5 million positives, all of them have been false. Thus, no terrorists have been caught using this system. On one hand, this can be seen as a positive thing. Perhaps the deterrence factor of the system has kept terrorists from even making the attempt. On the other hand, maybe this is a bad thing. Perhaps terrorists (or others) have smuggled radioactive material across the border without being caught. In “Detecting Nuclear Smuggling” (Scientific American, April 2008 pages 98-104) Thomas Cochran and Matthew McKinzie discuss the unreliability of nuclear detectors. To illustrate their point, they helped ABC news smuggle depleted uranium through such detectors. While the authors go into some technical details in making there case, it is easy enough to make a general and intuitive case for why nuclear smuggling would be so easy.

While I am not a physicist, I know that radiation detectors work by detecting emitted radiation. To use an analogy, they can be compared to an eye seeing light or a nose detecting a scent. In the case of the eyes, if all emitted light is blocked, it cannot be detected. In the case of scent, if the particles coming off the substance can be contained, then it cannot be detected by smell (one might recall the commercials for zip lock bags demonstrating this). In the case of radiation, if the emissions are blocked, then the substance cannot be detected in that manner. Blocking radiation is a relatively simple thing and anyone who had read Superman comics knows how to do it: lead. Naturally, the actual concealing of radioactive material can be a bit more complex, but it is a simple matter of shielding and does not require any advanced technology or special equipment. In short, anyone who can gain access to radioactive material will certainly be able to have access to shielding material as well as a basic grasp of how to use it.

Radiation detectors would be useful against terrorists who lack the most basic grasp of how radiation detection works or in cases where the shielding is not adequate. However, it seems likely that these cases would be extremely rare.

It might be thought that such shielded containers would be easy to spot. However, as ABC news proved, it seems easy enough to get them through ports. Shielded containers could be disguised as any number of harmless items (metal machine parts, for example) that would pass visual inspection during border crossings. Of course, if we have to rely on visual inspection, it makes little sense to have spent $300 million on a system that is almost useless.

The nuclear detection flaws are just yet another example of what Bush’s war on terror has done in terms of defending America: we have spent millions of dollars building a system that inconveniences people needlessly and cannot really protect us. While it might catch very stupid  or ignorant terrorists, it hardly seems worth the cost.

Of course, the stated intent is a good one: protecting the United States from nuclear danger. Radiation weapons do present a potential for serious damage and we should have defenses against them. However, we need to spend our resources on defenses that work rather than ones that do not.

It might be argued that the defense would work, provided that people like Cochran McKinsie and myself did not betray America by drawing attention to the fact that the system cannot work. In reply, I think that the terrorists would figure that out on their own. Also, a citizen has a moral duty to point out wasted resources and inffective defenses. Basing a $300 million defense on the hopes that no one will notice or say that it cannot work is hardly good strategy.

We do need a defense against radiation weapons. Unfortunately, the current system is not the defense we need. Thanks again, George, for burning through so much cash with so little to show for it.

The Watch List Again

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 30, 2008

Drew Griffin, a CNN reporter, has been on the TSA watch list for quite some time now. He has been taking steps to get off the list, but they have proved fruitless. As to why he is on the list, the main reason seems to be that he was critical of the TSA. As to why he cannot get off the list, it might be the nature of all bureaucracies: wrongs are inflicted immediately, righting wrongs takes time. Or perhaps the people in charge are acting out of spite and leaving him on the list as some sort of punishment.

The list has, according to the ACLU, grown to over one million names. There is some dispute over how many people are on the list, however. This is because some individuals are listed under many names. The current estimate is that there are a bit under half a million people on the list (under various names).

According to CNN there are many people on the list who have been trying to get their names removed for quite some time. Many of these people are unsure as to why they ended up on the list and numerous people, such as Griffin, certainly do not seem to belong on it. The ACLU provides numerous examples of people who are on the list. They range from decorated soldiers to members of Congress. Clearly just the sort of people who are a danger to America.

Given that the list is supposed to be a vital instrument in the war on terror, the TSA should do a better job making sure that it is accurate. After all, if there are people on the list who do not belong, time and resources will be wasted dealing with the innocent and this makes it easier for the real terrorists. Further, it creates needless problems for the people who should not be on the list.

The TSA has taken some action. However, this action seems to mainly to claim that the airlines should be doing a better job with the list. However, the last time I checked, Delta was not a federal law enforcement or security agency. As such, passing the buck to the airlines is unreasonable and it is the job of the TSA to provide proper lists. Apparently the TSA plans to do something about the problems-next year.

Of course, the list is just one example of the serious failures of the Bush administration. I acknowledge the importance of effective security (there are, obviously enough, people who want to kill us) and the value of effective lists. However, the Bush administration has failed to deliver that security and that list. Instead, it has squandered billions of dollars, created vast bureaucracies and caused innocent people needless problems. The broken state of American security is outlined in a recent study, lest anyone think I am simply saying that the sky is falling.

Some will no doubt suspect that I am just taking cheap shots at Bush. However, my real motivation is not to attack him and his minions. My motivation is that I want my country to be safe and Bush has failed us horribly in this regard. The next President will inherit one heck of a security mess and will need to sort out this situation in order to protect America. I hope that he is up to the job but I worry that the mess will simply continue until something horrible happens.

TSA Witch…I mean Watch List

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 21, 2008

One way to get on the TSA watch list is to be a suspected terrorist. Another way is to be critical of the TSA. For example, Drew Griffin (a CNN reporter) ended up on the TSA watch list shortly after he did a piece critical of the TSA. Physicist Thomas B. Cochran was also put on the watch list. In 2002 he helped ABC news expose the fact that the nuclear material screening system in use in American ports could easily be defeated. Congressman John Lewis is also on the watch list, but it is unclear why. There are also other people on the list who no doubt should not be on it. Interestingly, Nelson Mandela was recently removed from a terrorist watch list.

Watch lists of this sort do have a legitimate function. After all, it is the duty of a government to protect its citizens and such lists provide a minor tool in achieving this end. While I do recognize their usefulness, I tend to dislike the keeping of such lists. They seem to smell a bit of tyranny.

Naturally enough, a list intended to aid in the defense against terrorists should only contain the names of people who are terrorists or are likely to play a role in terrorism. Obviously, people like Griffin, Lewis and Cochran are not terrorists and should not be on that list.

The reason why Griffin and Cochran made the list seems rather obvious: they were critical of the TSA and revealed truths unpleasant to those in charge of the list. This sort of treatment of critics has been standard practice throughout history. For example, Socrates was placed on trial partially because he exposed the failings of the powerful. However, as Socrates argued, the state should be grateful for such critics because they perform a valuable service. If the goal of the TSA is to protect Americans, they should be grateful when someone assists them in exposing weaknesses and thus enables them to make America safer. Of course, if their main concern is not for the safety of the people but for something else, then such actions would be regarded with hostility.

it might be replied that people such as Cochran and Griffin are actually a threat to America. After all, the exposure of weaknesses in America’s security could be viewed as rendering possible aid to the enemies of America. Such information could be used by terrorists in planning and implementing an attack. For example, the weakness exposed by Cochran and ABC could be used to smuggle in material to make a radioactive weapon of some sort.

This reply does have some appeal. After all, revealing a vulnerability can be seen as a betrayal. For example, the Persians were able to outflank the Spartans by learning of the location of a secret pass. Perhaps what Cochran and Griffin did could be seen as analogous to revealing a pass to America’s enemies.

However, the analogy does break down. Griffin and Cochran were not acting to betray America to her enemies. Rather, they seemed to be acting with the intent of exposing a vulnerability so that it could be corrected. In the case of Cochran, his intent has been made quite clear in a recent article in Scientific American. In this article he argues that the United States should adopt methods that will actual help protect America from nuclear smuggling. This is hardly the sort of thing an enemy of America would do.

Putting such critics on the watch list is clearly morally wrong. First, they are being punished for attempting to expose flaws in security that need to be corrected. If these defects remained unknown, then they would probably remain until a terrorist or other wrongdoer found them and used them to do real harm. Second, taking such action against people who are critical goes against the basic principles of an open democracy. Third, such action can serve to deter the criticism that is so essential to exposing and correcting problems. This could have serious and unfortunate consequences. Fourth, the use of this method to try to punish critics is, as Locke would argue, an act of tyranny. Fifth, putting such people on the list can waste time and resources that could be better spent on people who really should be on such a list.

In light of the misuse of the list, there needs to be greater oversight in regards to who is on the list and why. Failure to do so would be to further a moral wrong and also put America at greater risk.

Bush, Wiretaps and Immunity

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 16, 2008

Currently, AT&T and other telecoms are being sued for allegedly allowing federal authorities to tap phone lines without warrants.

Since wiretapping without a warrant is illegal and seems to be a clear violation of various legal rights there seems to be excellent ground for suing these telecoms. In their defense, the telecoms’ lawyers are claiming that they acted in good faith and hence should not be subject to such law suits. The Bush administration, seemingly devoted to violating the law whenever it can, agrees with the companies.

On one hand, there are good grounds to agree with the telecoms. After all, if they were pressured by the federal government, then they could be regarded as having little choice in the matter. After all, everyone is expected to conform to the dictates of the state and to do otherwise could be regarded as to be acting in a lawless manner. Further, the state can apply a great deal of pressure to get its way and the telecoms would have to go along.  Finally, the telecoms could claim that they were cooperating with the war on terror and believed they were doing the right thing.

On the other hand, the telecoms are big companies who possess legions of lawyers. These folks surely understand the law and the consequences of breaking it. Further, these telecoms have armies of lobbyists and significant influence. This would enable them to resist being pushed around by the federal authorities. After all, big companies influence the state all the time. Further, it is quite possible to resist such illegal requests. Qwest did it and they seem to have suffered no ill effects. As such, there seems to be little justification for the actions of the companies in going along with illegal wiretapping requests.

Turning now to the Bush administration, it was clearly wrong of them to request such wiretaps without going through due process. America prides itself as a country based on law and ethics. To simply disregard the law in such a manner is not only an illegal act, but an expression of pure contempt for the basic principles that are considered the foundation of the United States.

What makes the matter even worse is that the legal mechanisms were already in place to do what Bush and his fellows wanted to do. They could have simply asked for warrants and they would have almost certainly been granted. The fact that the administration could not be bothered to go through such a process to get what it wanted serves to illuminate even more their attitude towards the law and due process. Like someone who lies when the truth would serve as well or better, the Bush administration members seem to have a pathological condition in regards to due process and ethics.

Of course, the Bush administration’s members are not the only players in this game. The Senate and House are playing as well.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence currently claims that the telecoms involved should be granted retroactive immunity. The committee members base their claim on the following line of reasoning:

1. By law, the telecoms have protection from lawsuits in regards to wiretapping when either they are given a legal warrant or the attorney general certifies the action.

2. The Bush administration, as it so often does, has classified any documents it “may or may not” have provided the telecoms as state secrets.

3. Since the documents are secret, the telecoms cannot show these (alleged) documents in court and thus cannot mount a proper legal defense.

4.  Therefore, says the committee members, the telecoms must be granted immunity.

On the face of it, their logic has a certain appeal. It would be unjust to convict anyone when they cannot provide key evidence in their defense because it has been ruled a state secret.

Of course, I am rather suspicious of the state secret gambit. Rather than saying that warrants exist, the committee simply seems to be saying that if there were warrants, then they could not show them. So, even if there were not warrants, then they cannot be sued. While I do appreciate clever maneuvers, this hardly seems to justify granting the telecoms immunity to prosecution. If there are warrants, then the administration can simply make this fact non-secret. The telecoms can thus have their defense. If there are no warrants, then the telecoms acted illegally and should be punished. Since they seem to have been pressured to commit such illegal actions, then those who pressured them should also be subject to  prosecution.

It might be replied that the warrants must remain secret to protect the state in some manner. I do understand that they might not wish to reveal exactly who was being spied on. After all, those people might still be under surveilance and they might actually be terrorists. However, revealing that warrants were issued hardly seems to be something that would harm the state. Of course, if it were revealed that wiretapping took place without warrants, then this would hurt the administration and the telecoms by revealing that they acted illegally. But, of course, the legitimate purpose of state secrets is not to protect people from their violations of the law.

The House has proposed an alternative approach to the matter. Their solution seems to be a fairly reasonable compromise. To appease those devoted to state secrets, the plan is that relevant documents can be presented in secret before a judge with none of the plaintiffs being present. The judge would presumably assess the documents and determine whether the documents show that the wiretapping was illegal or legal. If the judge decides that the wiretapping was done properly, then the telecoms would have a strong legal defense. If not, they would be in some trouble.

While this is better than the senate’s solution, it still keeps an important matter cloaked in secrecy. This is, of course, quite contrary to the ideals of an open, democratic state.

I suspect, but obviously cannot prove, that the secret documents do not show that the telecoms acted in a legal manner. If everything was above board, then there would be no reason to cloak the matter in the stinking shadows of government secrecy. If everything were on the up and up, the relevant information about the warrants would be available and the matter would be settled.