Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Election 2008, #3: Terror/Security Policy

For the founding post in this series, click here. We've done energy and civil liberties, and after those two, the standings are as follows:

Barr - 31
Obama - 30
McCain - 17

So now that terror policy is a big national issue again thanks to Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin's "constitution SUX LOL" bit at the convention, I thought this would be a good time to take a look at what the candidates themselves; you know, the ones actually running for president, as opposed to the ones who look like Tina Fey. To the issues, which each candidate covers rather extensively...

Bob Barr (platform here, more here) is predictably restrictive when it comes to terror surveillance policies. Barr wants to limit the government's surveillance power to only what is absolutely necessary to maintain security. He criticizes FISA and certain elements of the Patriot Act (which, ironically, he helped write). Most notably, he says that any surveillance powers must be consistent with the Constitution, and he has a pretty expansive view of what the Constitution prohibits. If he wants to limit private companies' data-banking, you can be sure he'll limit a lot of the federal government's efforts to do the same.

John McCain (platform here - you'd think a major-party campaign would have copy editors good enough to catch the massive typo on line 4... sorry, that kind of thing really distracts me) talks about a lot of things, but I'll highlight a couple of important issues. First, he supported the Military Commissions Act, which placed responsibility for prosecuting suspected terrorists in the hands of military tribunals. I don't think the act is a horrible compromise, but his platform contains the following line:
John McCain is more concerned with protecting the American people from future terrorist attacks, by killing or bringing to justice those who commit them, than he is with giving terrorists rights that would allow a judge to set them free before they are tried.
Such misunderstanding and misstating of the rights of the accused borders on an automatic DQ, in my book. Second, he wants to beef up the border patrol, which is probably a good thing. Third, he stresses cooperation between federal intelligence and law-enforcement and local and international agencies. He wants terror-fighting funds to be allocated based on risk - which would be a welcome change from the current way of doing things.

Barack Obama (platform here), like McCain, wants money doled out based on risk. Also like McCain, he wants to strengthen security around chemical plants and nuclear power generators. I couldn't find talk about intelligence gathering and detainees on his website, but I'll try to tackle some of this stuff: One, he opposes Bush's ridiculous use of classification, and wants to institute a declassification agency to handle such things. Obama was a critic of the MCA and at least talks like he respects habeas corpus for all. Obama's stance on intelligence, however, is somewhat amorphous - he has spoken out against FISA abuses, but voted not to punish the abusers.

On to the analysis.

The quote everyone loves to use here comes from Ben Franklin: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." But it's often misused in a way that sets liberty and security in opposition. They are not - there are many ways to protect ourselves against attack without sacrificing liberty. Securing chemical plants and spent nuclear fuel are among those ways. The point Franklin was trying to make is that when the two do intersect, we should always choose liberty. It's clear from his support for warrantless wiretaps and opposition to the rights of the accused that McCain chooses security, and for that he gets an automatic third place finish.

Obama's support for telecom immunity in FISA is troubling, even if it was a stance taken out of political expediency. I'm not sure I want a president willing to sacrifice the law for politics, and that's something I know Barr wouldn't do. However, Obama would be excellent on detainees' rights. As would Barr, of course. The questions I have, then: would Barr be too afraid of taking enough of the non-liberty-violating security steps, like securing chemical plants and nuclear plants? And would Barr's admirable zeal for liberty interfere with legitimate, non-liberty-threatening surveillance and intelligence gathering? And when Obama is faced with a choice between expanding his listening powers and preserving liberty, which will he choose? The answer to all of these is, sadly, "I don't know." Obama doesn't seem like a threat to liberty, but the FISA vote makes me queasy. Barr doesn't seem incompetent, but his lack of a security plan bugs me.

Since I have to make a choice, I'll go with Obama, since he appears to have a plan to take care of some of the obvious security risks we face and he's still pretty darn good when it comes to not crapping on the Constitution. We'll keep our fingers crossed that he listens to the Russ Feingolds of the world when it comes to wiretapping under his administration. (Incidentally, if any of you Barr supporters have info that would suggest that Obama would be really bad on privacy issues, let me know please - this ranking is open to change!)

So for this issue, that gives us:

Obama - 24
Barr - 16
McCain - 8

And a cumulative score of:

Obama - 54
Barr - 47
McCain - 25

Sound off.


Ben said...

Haven't even finished reading your post yet, but be careful about criticizing the typographical errors of others. It may cause unintentional humor.

Point in case: there's a sentence early in your post which makes a joke comparing Sarah Palin to Tina Fey. Does this sentence have a conclusion? "I thought this would be a good time to take a look at what the candidates themselves [insert Tina Fey joke as an aside]." I assume you were going to say something about what the candidates themselves "think" or what they "say."

This is insanely small-minded and beside the point on my part, but when you criticized the McCain website for typos, I just couldn't resist.

I hereby fully admit the possibility of typos in this comment.

Ben said...

Okay, on to substance....

Jacob's commentary on Obama's FISA vote makes me wonder where his true intentions lie on such issues. It ain't good. I expect better of a former law professor.

It also troubles me that Obama doesn't say much on detainees. One of the most perplexing problems legally, diplomatically (is there a better word for that?) is what to do about Guantanamo and detainees. Of course, I guess with his silence I can hope for something better than McCain's open contempt for due process of law.

At the same time, the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces should have some sort of plan to actually address security issues. It's easy, especially for a civil libertarian like myself, to criticize overreaching by the government in its attempts to keep us safe. But still, I want government to attempt to keep us safe. And I want the next president to have thought about that. A lot. Has Barr?

Mike said...

Thanks for the first comment, Ben, I was thinking the same thing.

BTW Jeff, if the typo you're referring to is "insure" (when it should be "ensure"), you'd be surprised how many times I have corrected that one during doc reviews at work. You'd think I worked for State Farm. Still, because of this, I'd hardly call it a "massive" typo since it would go over most peoples' heads.

The first link in the Barack Obama column is blank. Still, just from the link name, it sounds like more bureaucracy, which makes me shudder even as I reflect that change from Bush-style classification is a good change.

I'm not really gathering much in the way of how the candidates would actually combat terrorism. Security around chemical/nuclear plants is all well and good, but what about how we approach terrorist nations? (I'm going to allow this train of thought to leave the station and assume this will be part of your foreign policy discussion.)

Obama's vote on FISA is troubling, but McCain would have voted the same way if he'd bothered showing up. Not that this excuses Obama, but it doesn't affect the ranking between them. McCain's website's echo of Palin's frightening applause line from the RNC should drive anyone with a modicum of respect for the U.S. Constitution away from his camp, but we'll see.

Matthew B. Novak said...

So basically it sounds like none of the candidates are terrific on the issue.

A couple of points: first, could you outline what would be ideal in your mind?

Second, if no one is so great, mabye this issue shouldn't be weighted at #3? You're giving Obama a big point bump considering the relative dearth of information he's got on the subject. If Obama isn't making this a centerpiece, can you really be giving him credit for a better policy?

Then again, I hate the Palin "boo civil liberties" rhetoric, so punishing McCain for that is probably good.

Then again, how clearly does McCain address torture? I'd assume he's firmly against it, and maybe the rhetoric is nothing more than a show?

Jeff said...

Ben - I know, there are probably a lot of typos in my column, but we're talking about a political campaign here. You'd think they'd have the budget to hire someone to find that kind of thing. It just bugs me when I find typos where there really shouldn't be typos.

Matt, I contemplated having Barr and Obama tie for the top spot and giving both 20 points. However, Barr's seeming lack of a plan bugged me enough to make me put him second. If I can find proof that Barr's got a decent plan, I'll put them in a tie; a good/great plan, and Barr's first.

Mike - combating terror is going to be part of foreign policy.

Mike said...

Matt, McCain's pretty clearly against torture (for obvious reasons), and that's an extremely good thing, but it doesn't change the fact that, based on campaign rhetoric, he would still detain terror suspects indefinitely without telling them what they are accused of (if anything) and allowing them access to a fair trial - two different things. I think all the candidates are against enhanced interrogation so there's no gain to be had there anyway.

Ben, I should have said this in my last comment, but I'm pretty sure Obama has said he would close the prisons at Guantanamo - but I'm too lazy to find the source where I read that.

Jeff, I will eagerly await that post.

(Apologies ahead of time if this double posts, I ran into an error last time I tried to post. If not, then yay, and ignore this parenthetical comment.)

Jacob said...

Jeff, really appreciating these posts.

Just as a reminder to everyone, McCain's not the golden boy on fighting torture he's cracked up to be. Yes, he's opposed to waterboarding. Good for him on that. But he voted against restricting CIA interrogation techniques to those used in the Army Field Manual, showing a huge amount of trust in executive power -- which is pretty much how we got in this mess in the first place. Details here: