In the wrangle over America's Fiscal Cliff, Barack Obama holds all the cards

There is no incentive for the Democrats to be conciliatory on the budget negotiations; nor, after the last few years of partisan bad feeling, will there be much inclination among them to do so.

As of now, it looks like the US will go off the so-called “fiscal cliff” tonight at midnight. Several days of extraordinary manoeuvring on and around Capitol Hill in Washington have so far resulted in no deal, and with one day left to galvanise America's behemoth political machinery the chances of one looks slimmer and slimmer.

This means that previously agreed measures (under a deal resolved with a kick-the-can-down-the-road Budgetary Control Act in 2011) will slot into place at midnight, removing a whole raft of tax breaks as well and making sadistically deep cuts to federal spending.

At a glance, it is hard to see why the Republicans are trying to make a deal at all. After all, weren't vicious spending cuts exactly what Romney and Ryan spent an election campaign demanding?

Part of the reason is, however, that the Republicans are afraid of public backlash. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that almost twice as many people blamed the Congressional Republicans for the fiscal cliff than the President; a PEW/Washington Post poll from earlier this month said the same. If the country goes off the cliff, the mid-term elections are going to be very hard on the GOP.

Looked at in detail, going off the cliff looks very unpleasant indeed. Sure, it will cut 607 billion dollars from the national deficit – according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office – but its effects on people directly are brutal. Tax breaks for parents will be halved and the Earned Income Tax Credit will go, affecting low and middle-income workers. A 2% payroll tax break for workers will vanish. Capital gains tax will increase, as well as the tax paid on dividends.

Dramatically, more than 40% of the five million people who have been unemployed for longer than six months will lose their unemployment benefits. There will also be cuts to tax credits for families paying college tuition. High-earning Americans won't escape bracing tax hikes either, especially those who earn more than a million dollars a year.

On top of that, all federal services, from roads to schools to homeland security – with a few exceptions including Medicaid and veterans benefits – face cuts, and perhaps redundancies. The defence budget in particular will be hit very hard, and of course that will have a knock-on effect on the vast number of tertiary industries employed by the Pentagon. All of this, experts agree, will hit the stock market hard, perhaps plunging the country back into recession.

Congress, like schoolchildren, have put off doing their homework until the very last minute, and Senators have been told not to make new years' eve plans. This is going right down to the wire: if a deal is going to be reached, it has to happen today.

It is very possible – almost probable – that America will go over the cliff; but – whisper it – it might not actually be so bad. Many of the harsher of these measures can and almost certainly will be reversed straight out of the gate; and the cuts in federal spending are due to be staggered over the course of the next decade. Obama has already stated that if the country goes off the cliff, then the Senate – controlled by Democrats – would act to pass emergency measures to prevent the loss of unemployment benefits and tax increases on lower-income families. In doing so, he would look like the hero. Certainly, there is no incentive for the Democrats to be conciliatory; nor, after the last few years of partisan bad feeling, will there be much inclination among them to do so.

Politically, Obama is holding most of the cards. The situation is lose-lose for the Republican party. If the country goes off the cliff, the House's Republican Speaker John Boehner and his party will probably be percieved as responsible for it – and are going to be forced into helping the Democrats clean up some of the mess. If it doesn't happen, the President is likely to get the credit. Boehner tried to re-cast this narrative with him as the problem solver with his alternative, the so-called “plan B” - but it was a flop, ridiculed by the Democrats and the media.

Now, he and his Congressional colleagues are scrabbling for anything they can to make the deal palatable to Republicans but still acceptable to the Democrats. They aren't being handed many scraps.

Barack Obama returns to Washington. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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Mass surveillance doesn’t work – it’s time to go back to the drawing board

Lacking an answer to the problem of radicalisation, the government has confused tactics with strategy.

This week saw the release of not one but two parliamentary reports on the government’s proposed new spying law, the first from the Intelligence and Security Committee and the second from the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

Both reports suggested the government hasn’t fully made the case for some elements of mass surveillance put forward in the Bill. But neither went so far as to ask the most important question in this debate – does mass surveillance actually work?

The proposed law, known as the Investigatory Powers Bill, looks set to enshrine almost all the government’s mass surveillance powers and capabilities in a single law for the first time. It has been touted by the Prime Minister as a vital weapon in the UK’s fight against Islamic State.

Most of the noise about mass surveillance since the Snowden revelations has predictably come from civil liberties groups. But the privacy and safeguards debate skips over the highly dubious assumption underpinning the Investigatory Powers Bill – that mass surveillance will stop terrorists.

In fact, mass surveillance is not only ineffective but downright counter-productive.

A 2009 report by the US government found that only 1.2 per cent of tips provided to the FBI by mass surveillance techniques made a significant contribution to counter-terrorism efforts. Another recent study by the New America Foundation found that National Security Agency mass data collection played a role in, at most, 1.8 per cent of terrorism cases examined. By contrast, traditional investigative methods initiated 60 per cent of investigations. Suddenly mass surveillance doesn’t seem so vital.

This is because the technology is far from perfect. As computer scientist Ray Corrigan has written, “Even if your magic terrorist-catching machine has a false positive rate of 1 in 1,000—and no security technology comes anywhere near this—every time you asked it for suspects in the UK it would flag 60,000 innocent people.”

Perversely, this lack of precision means mass surveillance can actually frustrate counter-terrorism efforts. Michael Adebolajo, who brutally murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013, was so well known to the security services prior to the attack they had even tried to recruit him as an informant. Yet insufficient monitoring later on let him slip through the net. The same thing happened with the Hebdo killers. Mass surveillance means intelligence analysts are forced to spend their time fruitlessly sifting through endless reams of data rather than carrying out the targeted monitoring and detection that’s really needed.

Counter-radicalisation experts have meanwhile argued that mass surveillance may alienate Muslim communities, making them distrustful of the police and possibly even contributing to radicalisation. In 2014, Jonathan Russell from the counter-extremism group Quilliam wrote that the “introduction of a sweeping [mass surveillance] law…will be exploited by extremists to show that the government wants to spy on its own citizens [and] that all Muslims are suspected of being terrorists.” This will set alarm bells ringing for those who know the fight against terrorism will ultimately be won only by preventing radicalisation in the first place.

And therein lies the real problem with this Bill. It’s tactics, not strategy. If we stop for a second and think about what the problem is – namely that thousands of young Britons are at risk of radicalisation – we’d never prescribe mass surveillance as the answer. It would be nonsensical to propose something that risks making alienation worse.

The trouble is we don’t have a convincing answer to the actual problem. The government’s counter-radicalisation strategy is mired in controversy. So instead a different question is being posed. Not how do we stop people from signing up to join Islamic State, but how do we gather as much communications data as possible? GCHQ have an answer for that. It’s a classic case of confusing a tactic – and a highly unreliable one at that – with a strategy actually designed to tackle the root of the problem.

Never mind our privacy for a moment. For the sake of our security, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and think of something better.

 

Andrew Noakes is Senior Advocacy Officer at the Remote Control Project. He writes about covert and unconventional methods of warfare, counter-terrorism, and human rights.