Editorial roundup – March 21

Congress wants to buy ships the Navy doesn’t need

Bloomberg View (TNS)

As Congress takes up the Defense Department’s budget request, lawmakers scramble to add ships, tanks and planes that the military hasn’t even asked for. This year, however, taxpayers have been promised change — and it’s easy to test how serious Congress is.

The chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have pledged to rein in runaway defense spending. There are plenty of pet projects lawmakers want to add to the military’s 2017 budget, but three stand out:

  • Purchasing three new littoral combat ships rather than the two the military has requested, wiping out hundreds of millions in planned savings.
  • Allocating money to a special fund that would allow the Navy to build the next-generation nuclear-armed submarine without dipping into its ordinary shipbuilding budget.
  • Building 10 new Virginia-class attack submarines, which cost around $2.5 billion each, instead of the nine the military requested over a five-year period.

Their supporters say they’re critical to national defense, which is questionable. But the projects also bring federal money to their supporters’ districts.

The littoral combat ships, for example, have been a contracting disaster, vastly over cost and underperforming. The entire program needs a strict review to decide which one of the two versions should be canceled, or even both.

The most defensible project is probably the Virginia, the world’s best conventionally armed attack sub. It’s a central part of U.S. efforts to counter Chinese expansionism in the Pacific. The Navy eventually will get up to 48 of the Virginia subs, but there’s no pressing security reason to add another to the next batch.

Which goes to the larger point: This kind of budgeting process does even worthy projects no favors.

As they consider the Pentagon’s budget, members of Congress should bear in mind that a country stays powerful by spending wisely. Further padding a military budget already at $600 billion may be politically advantageous for lawmakers. But it won’t make Americans safer.

Not a fair share

The Orange County Register (TNS)

American citizens’ eyes were opened by the awesome power, reach and constitutional violations of the surveillance activities carried out by the National Security Agency and other government agencies, as revealed by the documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013.

Lately, we have discovered that the Obama administration is drawing up rules that will allow the NSA to share raw surveillance data with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other intelligence agencies without first applying any privacy protections.

The NSA is supposed to focus bulk collection of phone calls, emails, text messages and other correspondences on international communications, but Americans may be swept up if an international call or message is to, from or about them.

When such information is shared with other agencies, the NSA is supposed to first strip out Americans’ identifying information. Allowing agencies such as the FBI access to “pre-screened” data thus provides them a “backdoor” to search information without obtaining a warrant.

“It’s all another sobering reminder that any powers we grant to the federal government for the purpose of national security will inevitably be used just about everywhere else,” writes Radley Balko for the Washington Post. “And extraordinary powers we grant government in wartime rarely go away once the war is over. And, of course, the nifty thing for government agencies about a ‘war on terrorism’ is that it’s a war that will never formally end.”

Government agencies have repeatedly proven that they cannot be trusted with our personal information. Congress must immediately put a halt to this government snooping, particularly domestic surveillance, to preserve what privacy we have left.

Cutting U.S. ties to the Net

Los Angeles Times (TNS)

No government or interest group should control the Internet. On that point you’ll find broad agreement, particularly among the world’s democracies. The United States, however, has final say over one small but important aspect of the net: keeping track of the list of “top level domains,” such as .com and .org.

Congress has voted to preserve the Commerce Department’s connection to the Internet’s name-and-address system at least through Sept. 30. But ever since Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. surveillance of the net, much of the rest of the world has been trying to put the technical standards of the Internet out of any government’s reach — or to give more governments a say in the rules of the virtual road.

Some countries have even threatened to create their own name-and-address systems, potentially fracturing the net and undermining its role as a free and open platform.

That’s one reason the Obama administration proposed in 2014 to cut the U.S. government’s ties to the domain name system and give complete control over those functions to the “global multi-stakeholder community” — in other words, an entity broadly representative of Internet users. It asked the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the independent nonprofit that now manages the domain name system for the government, to propose a way to do so.

At issue was the fate of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, which ICANN operates. The authority oversees changes to top level domains, managing a list that Internet service providers around the world rely on to route data and ensure that only one place online corresponds to each domain name.

ICANN’s board has approved a proposal to take over the authority. Although the plan would end formal U.S. oversight, it’s a thoughtful compromise that promises to do more to preserve the status quo online than the current system does.

In particular, it would make ICANN more accountable to those who use the Internet, and give the net more protection against meddling by governments that don’t value the free flow of information online as much as Americans do — a freedom that has been crucial to the development of the net as a boundlessly innovative hub for information, communications and commerce around the globe.

It’s certainly true that many countries crave more control over the Internet, as evidenced not only by China’s “great firewall,” but also Europe’s “right to be forgotten” and Brazil’s proposal to bar companies from exporting the data they collect from users there. ICANN’s plan would be a step in the opposite direction. That’s reason enough for Congress to support it.