With the rumored killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, opinion in Washington appears to be turning decisively against longtime ally Saudi Arabia. Think tanks are returning Saudi money, lobbying firms are rejecting Saudi business, and Congress is actively considering sanctions on Saudi leaders.
The only holdout is President Donald Trump himself, who accepted King Salman’s denials, dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh, and parroted back the idea that Khashoggi could have been murdered by rogue killers. That “rogue killers” are rarely found hanging out in official consulates appears not to have crossed the president’s mind.
Trump’s defense of Saudi Arabia focused on arms sales and U.S. jobs. But his administration has been strongly supportive of Saudi Arabia in general, arguing that it is vital to U.S. energy security and regional interests.
A less friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia won’t harm U.S. interests in the Middle East. It’s time to stop turning a blind eye to the worst excesses of the Saudi leadership.
Four decades ago, oil and security were indeed good reasons to maintain a strong partnership with Saudi Arabia. That is no longer the case
For starters, U.S. and Saudi interests in the Middle East are diverging. Saudi Arabia wants to roll back Iran and undermine democratic gains in nearby states. The Saudi-led war in Yemen has created a humanitarian crisis and produced the worst famine in years.
Whether it is arming rebels in Syria, initiating a blockade of Qatar or kidnapping the prime minister of Lebanon, Saudi foreign policy is increasingly a destabilizing force in the region. Minimizing our ties to Saudi Arabia certainly won’t worsen our regional interests. It could even improve things.
Global oil markets, meanwhile, have changed a lot since President Jimmy Carter argued in 1980 that the United States needed to defend the Middle East to protect the flow of oil. It’s true that Saudi Arabia remains a major global oil producer, but changes in the world market mean that America today is far less reliant on Middle Eastern energy.
To keep the oil flowing, Saudi Arabia needs to be stable. It does not need to be a U.S. ally.
Even Trump’s new justification — that Saudi arms sales are vital to the U.S. economy — is wrong. Arms sales figures are often inflated and are rarely as lucrative as they sound. In fact, experts believe that the purported $110 billion of Saudi Arms sales are in reality worth only about $28 billion. More important, they are responsible for only a small proportion of the overall U.S. defense industry.
Even as the Saudi government seeks to portray an image of reform, it has become increasingly repressive. Dissidents have been kidnapped abroad and returned to Riyadh. Human rights activists have been jailed.
Unlike past decades, however, U.S. leaders today don’t have to tolerate this behavior. A less friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia won’t harm U.S. interests in the Middle East. It’s time to stop turning a blind eye to the worst excesses of the Saudi leadership.Emma Ashford is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.
Washington Post investigative journalist Radley Balko just published a story about a Little Rock, Arkansas police unit conducting no-knock raids with “explosive entry”—literally blowing the doors off of homes—with little or no justification. It turns out many of these drug raids were based on the word of a confidential informant with a lengthy criminal record. As Balko lays out in his story, the informant and the officers who relied on him are unreliable, at best, and very possibly criminal. While the Little Rock story is extreme in some ways, the use of confidential informants to make drug busts invites injustice and police abuse.
The rules for using confidential (also called “criminal”) informants in criminal investigations vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but generally speaking, employing CIs introduces three systemic flaws into the criminal justice system. First, the use of confidential informants definitionally requires secrecy and opacity, which shields CIs and officers alike from sufficient oversight and accountability. Second, the informant system relies on bad inputs—namely, drug-addicted individuals and other people immersed in criminal activity to act as agents of the government—and thus effectively becomes a subsidy for criminal behavior. Third, the use of confidential informants creates some bad incentives for law enforcement actors and the CIs themselves, which skew toward case production and away from public safety and security. Taken together, and in the context of our everyday justice system, these flaws produce an array of bad individual and public policy outcomes while providing only superficial benefits for law enforcement.
Secrecy and Unaccountability
In reforming our criminal justice system, we must pay greater attention to one oft-neglected issue: the distorted use of criminal informants.
From the outset, confidential informants stand in contrast to the original purpose and structure of our criminal justice system. The U.S. Constitution, and particularly the Sixth Amendment, contemplate a criminal system based on fairness and openness. All criminal trials are public record, not to shame the accused, but for the government to present its case to the people at large as fair and just. Moreover, the accused has the rights to counsel, a speedy trial before an impartial jury, and to confront (i.e., challenge) any witnesses who testify against him.
The term “confidential informant,” on the other hand, is just another way to say “secret source,” also colloquially known as a “snitch,” inside and outside of law enforcement circles. They provide criminally implicating information about others to police, most often maintaining their anonymity and escaping cross-examination. As law professor Alexandra Natapoff explained in her book Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, “[S]nitching flows from two dominant characteristics of our criminal justice system: plea bargaining, and a tolerance for a high level of law enforcement discretion.” While there is case law that protects the anonymity of confidential informants at a criminal trial, roughly 95 percent of all criminal convictions nationwide are the result of plea bargains, so most potential cross-examinations of witnesses are precluded because trials are so rare anyway.
Plea bargaining exists independently from CIs, but it helps insulate law enforcement sources from public examination because the prosecutor has already enticed (or coerced) the defendant to waive their right to a jury trial, the right to appeal, and many other rights to take a reduced sentence. In a perfect system, procedural shortcuts would be a positive hallmark of efficiency, assuming that only the guilty are punished and fairly so, but in reality, plea bargains invite injustice and wrongdoing because there are almost no checks on police or prosecutors’ actions. Without trials, confirmed liars can help law enforcement build case after case, because the defendant never gets an opportunity to challenge the liar’s story.
Bad Inputs and Bad Actors
While TV shows like “The Sopranos” portray how informants can be used to infiltrate organized criminal networks like the Mafia, in real life, most CIs are used at the local level to make street-level drug and firearms deals, to build cases against suppliers. They are typically recruited when they are caught selling or using drugs and, again, either convinced or coerced into working with the police to catch the proverbial “bigger fish.” This method of recruiting snitches will then tend to draw young, low-level dealers and problem drug users, which each pose distinct problems when they become informants.
Sarah Stillman wrote a piece for The New Yorker in 2012 that told the stories of several individuals who had been enlisted by police into informing on other dealers. One informant, Rachel Hoffman, was a 23-year-old Florida State graduate who was tasked with buying a large amount of cocaine, some Ecstasy pills, and a gun from a drug dealer after her second arrest for marijuana distribution in Tallahassee, Florida. Three weeks after becoming an informant, Hoffman’s body was found murdered, alongside the gun the police had sent her to buy. The police took an unnecessary risk with her because, frankly, she and those in her situation are relatively expendable, particularly when compared with undercover narcotics officers in whom police departments have invested significant personal and institutional capital.
On the other hand, individuals like Ventura “Benny” Martinez, who became a star informant for the Philadelphia Police Department, are duplicitous con artists that always seem to be running some grift to score pity, drugs, money, or another benefit. Martinez was a key figure in the Philadelphia Daily News’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Tainted Justice,” and the subsequent book Busted by journalists Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman. Laker and Ruderman chronicled how Martinez and the narcotics squad he worked with took down both legitimate and illegitimate scores. The officers got their arrest numbers up, while Martinez got paid for the high volume of targets he ratted out for police. Martinez’s remarkable number of scores, among other things, provided cover for the narcotics squad’s own illicit activities—including shaking down bodegas and other legitimate merchants for cash—because high-producing units earn favorable reputations and are less likely to be second guessed. While Martinez hardly got rich from his efforts, his ongoing substance abuse and petty schemes were subsidized by the PPD while bad cops tarnished the badge by enriching themselves.
Policing Must Be More than Arrests
Of course, most informants aren’t murdered or providing cover for dirty cops. Yet, the use of CIs for drug cases is itself a type of systemic corruption that turns police units into arrest producers rather than public guardians. Part of this problem may stem from basic managerial decision-making.
Like many jobs, police supervisors and leadership can judge officers by certain metrics, such as tickets issued for traffic cops or arrests made in open homicide cases. Police routinely deny that arrest quotas exist, but there is ample anecdotal evidence that vague benchmarks are common, and in specialized units, such as narcotics squads, they would be expected to arrest individuals somewhat frequently. It only makes sense, then, that officers who are incentivized to make arrests will try to meet expectations. Providing opportunities for offenders to stay out of jail and then paying informants per arrest is an efficient way to ensure those expectations are met.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2016, an estimated 10.6 percent of residents 12 and older reportedly used illicit drugs in the previous 30 days. That means millions of Americans continue to use illicit drugs, providing police officers with a virtually endless supply of targets for arrest. Yet CIs are more often used in economically depressed black and Hispanic neighborhoods, arguably because they suffer from higher violent crime rates, but such targeted drug enforcement further adds to the problems affecting those communities. Typically, these communities already suffer strained relationships with the police. Traps to arrest residents—or, worse, to recruit more informants—are more likely to damage police-community relations than strengthen them. As a result of this, and of other aggressive policing methods, officers become very adept at policing high-crime communities for minor offenses but lack the community trust needed to solve major crimes like homicide when they occur. Put another way, aggressive, arrest-driven policing may lead to less safe neighborhoods rather than safer ones.
Deadly Drug Raids
It is in this environment of deception and arrest production that a recent wrong-door drug raid happened in Prince George’s County, Maryland. While that incident ended with two officers being wounded by the innocent resident who fired at them in self-defense, other informant-driven raids have had even more tragic results. Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old woman in Atlanta, was killed by police who were acting on a bad informant’s tip. Ryan Frederick was sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing Detective Jarrod Shivers, who was part of a team conducting a drug raid on Frederick’s residence in Chesapeake, Virginia. Frederick claimed he started sleeping with a gun by his bed because his home had recently been burglarized and he mistook the police for unlawful intruders. The raid was precipitated by a 20-year-old informant who had recently broken into Frederick’s place to find evidence of drug distribution. And just a few years ago, an infant in Georgia was maimed by a police flash-bang grenade that was thrown into her crib during a raid based on bogus informant claims.
These examples are only a few of the innumerable accounts of police raids, triggered by CI information, that undermine the security of residents and endangers the police and community. What’s more, CIs obscure the intended transparency of our justice apparatus, exploit and subsidize criminally involved individuals, and perpetuate a system that values arrests over public safety and well-being. The mistrust their use sows in communities erodes police effectiveness in other realms, like homicide clearance. Using confidential informants to enforce drug prohibition is an endless Sisyphean chore that imposes high social costs, particularly in the United States’s most vulnerable communities, without ridding them of the underlying danger—drugs—that brought the police there in the first place. Indeed, the police often indirectly support an informant’s drug habit to make more drug arrests.
Given the violence posed by organized criminal syndicates, such as MS-13 and the Aryan Brotherhood, recruiting confidential informants already involved with those organizations may be one of several imperfect and more dangerous options that should be available to law enforcement. But those are extraordinary circumstances—and very often, interstate federal operations—to disrupt particularly dangerous organizations whose criminality goes beyond drug distribution. In contrast, CIs should not be cultivated by officers and narcotics squads simply to “make their numbers” and prove to their bosses in the brass that they’re doing something.
The common sense answer to these problems is drug legalization or decriminalization, thus removing the criminal law from the street-level drug trade. The most serious advocates for legalization recognize that drug abuse is nevertheless a legitimate policy problem, but one to be handled with drug treatment and other programs to alleviate the circumstances that drive the substance abuse and crime in the most at-risk communities. Such programs may work in concert with law enforcement, such as diverting drug addicted individuals to treatment after committing a crime, but using CIs to seek-and-arrest is helping no one outside of the station house.Jonathan Blanks is a research associate with Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice.
I generally presume cynicism in politicians’ arguments.
But Philip Hammond implying a Chequers-style relationship with the EU is needed to “end austerity” was shocking in its brazenness.
Ahead of the October Budget, the chancellor has echoed Theresa May in suggesting that looser government spending is just around the corner. Their calculation seems to be that voters truly desire ending fiscal constraint.
Conveniently from a political perspective, Hammond has said that the close EU relationship the government desires is crucial to delivering this higher spending.
A successful negotiated Brexit deal, he said, would lead to stronger growth forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), allowing the government to achieve its fiscal targets while spending more in the coming five years.
Britain’s long-term fiscal challenge remains daunting. Minor changes to long-term growth brought about by differences between Chequers and a Canada-plus agreement do little to change that.
Avoiding the spectre of a no-deal Brexit would furthermore allow the chancellor to release the “fiscal buffer” he had built up for a no-deal scenario. With a stronger growth outlook and no need to budget for contingencies, Hammond says that there would be a supposed double spending dividend from a Chequers-style deal.
First off, any decision to “end austerity” — meaning consolidation of the public finances — would be arbitrary in its timing.
Net borrowing adjusted for the economic cycle has fallen substantially since 2010, but it still stands at around two per cent of GDP — a level which would probably keep the debt-to-GDP ratio constant given economic growth, but would certainly not see debt fall back towards its historic norms.
UK government debt is still extraordinarily high. In the event of another major recession, it would jump to truly unprecedented levels for peacetime.
Worse, the longer-term public finance challenge associated with an ageing population looms just around the corner. On unchanged policies, the OBR forecasts that public sector net debt will rocket from around 85 per cent of GDP today to 380 per cent over the next 50 years.
This is unsustainable, and so won’t happen. Instead, the demands on healthcare and pension spending associated with changing demographics will require some combination of higher taxes or cuts to the spending baseline.
Any claim by politicians today that austerity is over is therefore either dishonest or misinformed.
What then of Hammond’s two “dividends”?
Once a deal is agreed, the UK should indeed see some bounce-back growth, as uncertainty is lifted and businesses begin making new investments in the knowledge of the new arrangements. But this rebound growth from more certainty would be temporary.
Though it might improve near-term growth forecasts, it would not represent a structural improvement in the public finances, and so cannot be used to justify new permanent spending.
The only mechanism through which a Brexit deal could theoretically improve the UK public finances permanently is if raises the long-term GDP potential of the economy. So we return to the classic debate about the long-term effects of Brexit, and the assumptions underpinning different models.
The Treasury view has long been that a no-deal scenario will be meaningfully worse than an ordinary free trade agreement. The leaked Cross Whitehall Briefing suggested a 7.7 per cent long-term hit to GDP with no deal (under WTO rules), and a 4.8 per cent contraction under a Canada-plus deal relative to EU membership.
The government has failed to release the detailed analysis and assumptions of this work, despite over 60 MPs demanding that it does so just last weekend.
Crucially, though, few believe that the UK will have no trade deal with the EU in the long term. Most Brexiteers want a Canada-style free trade agreement — something EU negotiators have stated is on the table, provided that solutions to the Irish border question can be agreed.
It is incredible to suggest that Chequers will deliver some fiscal bonanza through higher growth above and beyond what an extensive free trade agreement would deliver.
For this particular chancellor to hang so much on small changes to growth forecasts is especially galling.
Hammond has suggested in the past that Britain’s main economic problems are homegrown, and little to do with EU policy.
Yet faced with sustained low potential growth rates, he has done virtually nothing to try to improve prospects through tax reform, land-use planning reform, or other serious deregulatory measures.
Appealing to MPs to support Chequers to “end austerity” therefore rings hollow.
Britain’s long-term fiscal challenge remains daunting. Minor changes to long-term growth brought about by differences between Chequers and a Canada-plus agreement do little to change that. And using a temporary growth bounceback to justify permanent spending is irresponsible.
The government might have decided that it wants to open the spending taps. It should not pretend that this is conditional on May’s desired form of Brexit.Ryan Bourne occupies the R Evan Scharf Chair in the Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute in Washington DC.