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Four key points from Klobuchar’s newly released national-security platform

Up to now, national security and terrorism have not been signature issues for Klobuchar.

Klobuchar would like to see a no-fly zone imposed over Syria.
REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have prompted top politicians, from Congress to the campaign trail, to go into greater detail about how they plan to keep the U.S. safe — and how they’d go about eradicating a major culprit of the terror resurgence, the Islamic State.

To that end, this week, Sen. Amy Klobuchar decided to air out her national security and counterterrorism strategy, publishing a 2,400-word post in Medium, the Internet self-publishing start-up. It’s the second time Klobuchar has posted to Medium her thoughts on a national security issue. In August, she wrote on why she supported the Iran nuclear deal.

While senators tend to have broader policy portfolios than House members, national security and terrorism have not been signature issues for Klobuchar, who has cultivated a profile in Minnesota and in the Senate for her work on consumer and economic issues as well as human rights. It makes it especially interesting then, that Klobuchar would now explain her national security platform, point-by-point.

Broadly, that platform is not controversial. Klobuchar laid out a moderate approach that has elements in common with President Obama’s strategy as well as with the platforms of more hawkish members of her party and the GOP.

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Like President Obama, Klobuchar is supportive of intensified airstrikes against the Islamic State, use of U.S. special forces when appropriate, and eschewing American boots on the ground in favor of building up local forces and engaging allies in the region.

However, she did make a few points that put her at odds with the White House and fellow Minnesota Democratic congressmen. Here’s a look at some of those statements, and other interesting passages from her article.

Klobuchar: “I would also like to see a no-fly zone in Syria that would protect civilians. Years ago I called for a no-fly zone after visiting the region and I still believe it must be considered in order to help our partners in Syria who are standing up to ISIS.”

This is an interesting proposal from Klobuchar that puts her against the White House and the Pentagon, and more in line with those of defense hawks in the GOP and in her own party. Imposing a no-fly zone on a given area is one of the strongest projections of military power the U.S. can take while plausibly denying an outright state of war.

The no-fly zone is a relatively recent concept, and the U.S. and its allies have only moved to impose them only a handful of times: in Libya in 2011, Bosnia in 1993, and Iraq at various points since 1991. The Bosnia operation, which was officially under the banner of NATO, was considered a success, though several U.S. and allied planes were shot down along with Serbian aircraft.

In theory, a no-fly zone over Syria would create a demilitarized zone in the air, with the U.S. and allies intercepting, or even shooting down, aircraft that violate the terms of the no-fly zone. The goal is to halt the bombing campaign that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has utilized to consolidate power in the ongoing civil war, and give Syrians necessary cover to flee the country.

In practice, though, a no-fly zone could be messy — and set up unwanted, potentially tense situations with countries, like Russia, that likely would not buy in. Many observers suspect that Vladimir Putin would relish the chance to violate a no-fly zone and make the U.S. look weak. Beyond that, the no-fly zone could also lead to the U.S. military engaging directly with the Syrian air force, which some are loath to do.

President Obama has seemingly taken the strategy off the table, and the Pentagon has suggested the U.S. has the capacity to do it but that doing it would be unwise. But the policy has strong backers in the GOP, including Klobuchar’s Senate colleagues Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, both of whom are running for president. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose presidential campaign Klobuchar is stumping for, is also in favor of a no-fly zone.

In a statement to MinnPost, Klobuchar said that concerns about what Russia may or may not do shouldn’t enter into the debate on the no-fly zone. “From Sen. McCain to Secretary Clinton, there are people advocating for the U.S. to do more to protect the thousands of Syrians who are fleeing barrel bombs from Assad and the barbaric killings of ISIS,” she said. “I know there is some disagreement about the no-fly zone, but I think most people recognize that calls for a no-fly zone come from a common desire to protect civilians and defeat ISIS.”

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“The bomb that ISIS claims took down the plane over Egypt — senselessly killing 224 people, most of them Russian families — reminds us that our country needs a continued and updated focus on airport security…recent reports still found gaps in our own airport security, which means that we must never rest on our laurels. We must be continually updating and improving our methods.”

Criticism of the Transportation Safety Administration has been at a low din for the past few years, with many questioning whether its security checkpoints at airports are effective at all. A steady trickle of tests has suggested they aren’t: one test made public this year revealed that undercover agents were able to slip 95 percent of prohibited items past TSA inspectors.

The bombing of the Russian plane in October has underscored for lawmakers, perhaps as strongly as at any point since September 11th, the need to improve the TSA. At a Congressional hearing this week, TSA official Joseph Terrell answered questions from lawmakers about how to shore up the vulnerable agency — and they reportedly weren’t happy with his answers.

It remains unclear how exactly Congress will be able to bolster the TSA, as Klobuchar has called for. She told MinnPost that one of the central elements of improving air travel security is “giving the TSA all of the tools it needs so that it has the capacity to update and improve our airport security.”

Klobuchar also said Congress would do well to pass policy to implement changes to the visa waiver program, under which nationals of 38 countries are granted visa-free entry to the U.S. It would put up additional barriers for passport holders from countries like France and Belgium, where the Paris attackers were from, to get to the country.

The House of Representatives already passed that bill by a large margin, though Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison voted against, arguing it was too broad and would make it harder for academics and journalists to come to the U.S. Klobuchar has co-sponsored the Senate companion bill introduced by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California.

“As I have learned during many hearings and in several meetings with FBI and local law enforcement, getting the [court] order isn’t the problem when the case is strong. Instead, new technology installed by the phone companies and other communications companies has made it technologically impossible to access communications of and data on many of the terror suspects. It is imperative to our national security that companies responsible for promoting this type of encryption work with law enforcement to ensure that legitimate counterterrorism investigations are not unduly hindered.”

Here, Klobuchar is, in a polite way, calling out tech companies like Apple and Microsoft who some believe are not adequately cooperating with investigations. In recent years, those companies have implemented stronger encryption technology, partly in response to the news that the National Security Agency was tapping into communications networks to collect individuals’ conversations and messages.

The tech companies say they’ve been forced to take stronger measures to protect user privacy, but the government says valuable counterterror data is being withheld as a result. A New York Times story from this year illustrates the case in point: pressed with a Department of Justice court order to turn over text messages in a criminal (not terror) case, Apple said it could not comply because of its encryption policy. Various legal battles are proceeding in court, and it’s not clear yet if the government or the tech sector has the upper hand.

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For Minnesota politics-watchers, though, Klobuchar’s point here is interesting because it opens a rare, substantial fissure between Klobuchar and Sen. Al Franken. Franken, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, has carved out a niche for himself in the Senate as a tech and privacy policy wonk, publicly needling the NSA and elevating a privacy-oriented agenda.

In a July hearing, Franken suggested that law enforcement agencies were using scare tactics to convince lawmakers that meaningful counterterror information was being tied up by stubborn tech companies. “We haven’t seen any real data about how often encryption is thwarting investigations,” Franken said, adding that the DOJ should track “the number of times you run into technological challenges and therefore don’t seek a warrant for a wiretap.” DOJ officials responded by saying it’d be almost prohibitively difficult to do.

Klobuchar maintained the significance of the evidence Franken questioned. “I can tell you that federal and local law enforcement see encryption as a problem,” she said, citing a recent opinion from Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom claiming that encryption is a major public safety problem.

“Two of our best allies in Europe and countries key to our fight against extremism − Norway and Sweden − are without U.S. ambassadors. Both nominees for those ambassadorships made it through committee with both Republican and Democratic support and with no objections. Our nominee to Norway is a Minnesotan − Sam Heins − and that key European ally has now been without an ambassador from the United States for nearly 800 days!”

Being the good Minnesota booster she is, Klobuchar worked in a local angle to her national security platform: confirming the U.S. ambassador to Norway!

There hasn’t been an official U.S. ambassador to Norway since September 2013. In 2014, President Obama nominated George Tsunis, a major New York fundraiser for his campaign, but it fell apart when it became clear Tsunis didn’t know much about Norway. In May, Obama nominated Sam Heins, a prominent Minneapolis lawyer and Obama supporter, for the post, but Senate Republicans have vowed to block virtually all White House ambassador appointments to protest various foreign policy decisions.

It’s unclear if the vacancy in the ambassador’s chair in Oslo does much to harm our counterterrorism partnership with Norway — there is a career diplomat acting as interim ambassador — but the length of time it has taken Congress to confirm a new one is widely considered an embarrassment.

Aside from drawing attention to the plight of a Minnesotan, Klobuchar appears to be chiding Republican Senators like Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz, urging them to get out of the way on diplomatic appointments for the good of national security.