Tag Archives: National Security

On classifying and unclassifying….

I know many were outraged by Wikileaks because it ‘put our national security at risk’.  Maybe that’s true…maybe it’s not.  But it sure does make the case harder to justify when you see stuff like this:

A onetime biomedical technician with a penchant for gambling, Mr. Montgomery…received more than $20 million in government contracts by claiming that software he had developed could help stop Al Qaeda’s next attack on the United States. But the technology appears to have been a hoax…

The Justice Department, which in the last few months has gotten protective orders from two federal judges keeping details of the technology out of court, says it is guarding state secrets that would threaten national security if disclosed. But others involved in the case say that what the government is trying to avoid is public embarrassment over evidence that Mr. Montgomery bamboozled federal officials.

Unfortunately, this was (and remains) all too common an occurrence.  People popping up with the latest gee-whiz vaporware technology making all sorts of grandiose promises and pitching them to people who have no clue whatsoever about intelligence or (even if the stuff was real) what they’d do with it.  But, they’re so hypnotized by the flashing lights, fancy words and…well…I’m sure I read about something just like this in a Tom Clancy novel and whoa…how cool would we be if we could brag we had it first!

A Pentagon study in January found that it had paid $285 billion in three years to more than 120 contractors accused of fraud or wrongdoing.

The only reason you don’t see these kind of numbers at the sub-federal level is because they don’t have access to that sort of cash.

On brighter news…the Swedish government has decided to unclassify around 90 reports from the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.  It’s unclear what prompted such a disclosure since reports (at least those in English) haven’t made it sound like the reports were to be disclosed a la Wikileaks or that there was anything embarrassing in them.  A big thumbs up for releasing them into the cloud and let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend that attempts to declassify information at the earliest (rather than at the latest and reluctantly at that) possible time.

A big thumbs down however for the format in which they released them.  I can understand not translating them into English.  After all, they speak Swedish.  But they put it in this cockamamie format so that you can’t even cut and paste it into a translator website.  C’mon!  I’m jonsin’ for some secret diplomatic cables and since the my nation is being a bunch of party poopers I need my fix!

Wikileaks and classification

When Wikileaks released those thousands of documents about Afghanistan I thought the real lesson to be learned was that we were still classifying way too much stuff.

I’m glad to see I’ve got some additional company now.  Stratfor has come to a similar conclusion after reviewing the Iraq document dump.

By saying there are very few true secrets in the cache of documents released by WikiLeaks, we mean things that would cause serious damage to national security…However, it is important to understand up front that something that causes embarrassment and discomfort to a particular administration or agency does not necessarily damage national security.
Only 204 of the 391,832 documents were classified at the confidential level, while 379,565 of them were classified at the secret level. This demonstrates the propensity of the U.S. government culture to classify documents at the highest possible classification rather than at the lowest level really required to protect that information. In this culture, higher is better. 

There are so many problems resulting from over-classification that it’s hard to even know where to begin describing them all.  I suspect one of the least discussed is the erosion of respect for the whole classification system.  When the mundane is classified then you’re practically begging individuals to take the system in their hands and release information as they see fit. 

Power fragmentation or centralization?

Interesting juxtaposition of positions about the future of the state and where power will reside.

In this corner is this interview with John Robb.

Democracy, as we knew it, will wither and the nation-state bureaucracy will increasingly become an enforcer for the global bond market and kleptocratic transnational corporations. Think Argentina, Greece, Spain, Iceland, etc. As a result, the legitimacy of the developed democracies will fade and the sense of betrayal will be pervasive (think in terms of the collapse of the Soviet Union). People will begin to shift their loyalties to any local group that can provide for their daily needs. Many of these groups will be crime fueled local insurgencies and militias. In short, the developed democracies will hollow out.

And compare that with this interview with Ian Bremmer who argues that we’re seeing an emerging of state capitalism which

if they leave it entirely to market forces to determine who wins and who loses from market activity, they risk enriching those who might use their new wealth to challenge the state’s political legitimacy.To determine how (and for whom) wealth is generated, authoritarians have invented various forms of state capitalism. Inside China, Russia, and other authoritarian countries, the state now dominates entire economic sectors. They use state-owned and privately owned national champion companies to intervene in global markets for energy, aviation, shipping, power generation, arms production, telecommunications, metals, minerals, petrochem­icals, and other industries. They finance state capitalism with the help of sovereign wealth funds. Their purpose is to use the power of markets to create wealth that can be directed as political officials see fit. The ultimate motive is not economic (maximizing growth) but political (maximizing the state’s power and the leadership’s chances of survival).

Kind of interesting in that Robb seems to argue that the forces of globalization will cause power and loyalty to spiral out from the center while Bremmer argues that globalization will cause the state to clamp down in order to maintain the political system.  And since the state still has a preponderance of force at its disposal it will be able to maintain control, at least for the foreseeable future.

Robb seems a bit alarmist to me.  I’m getting a bit weary of hearing about the imminent demise of the nation state and think he might be assuming that since some nations have trouble with stability they all will.  So, when he says:

…large scale governance is on the way out. Not only are nearly all governments financially insolvent, they can’t protect citizens from a global system that is running amok.

I suspect Bremmer would respond with something like:

China’s success has persuaded authoritarians around the world that they really can have explosive growth without undermining their monopoly hold on domestic political power. China has enjoyed double-digit growth for thirty years without freedom of speech, without well-established economic rules of the road, without judges that can ignore political pressure, without credible property rights—without democracy. And the events of the past 18 months have made China more important that ever for the future of global economic growth.

Update: I’ve been thinking about this some more and I’m not totally sold on Robbs’ vision.  Iran has had one failed state on its border (Afghanistan) for 30 years now and another (failed?  failing?  stability challenged?) in Iraq for the past seven yet somehow (to almost universal dismay) it’s managed to hold on and maintain power throughout much of its territory.  Likewise, Africa is awash in failed states that border others that are able to function as real nation states.  So, to say that events on the Mexican border will result in America ‘hollowing out’.  Are we really more fragile than countries like Iran and Chad?

Further, I’m not too sure about this ‘local resiliency’ thing he talks about.

So, instead, control is ceded to local groups that can provide basic levels of opt-in security, minimal services, and jobs via new connections to the global economy…

I’m not sure if we’re at the point where we can maintain connections to the global economy and have the withering of the nation state.  It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the legal or illegal flow of goods and services, I suspect many of those systems in place now depend on some level of existence by a nation state in order to function.  Twitter and Facebook will not replace the Westphalian system.  If the nation-state dissolves, those with power will attempt to fill the vacuum and if that were to happen (again, I think the old girl still has some life left in her) a likely contender would be multinationals that have access to resources and wealth to hack out a new order.

In a way I get the feeling that these guys are both trying to describe the world in the late 5th century as the Roman Empire was collapsing.  Maybe Robb is writing from Gaul where the Dark Ages are closing in, society if fragmenting and things are about to get real local, real quick.

And maybe Bremmer is writing from Constantinople.  Increased state control will keep the empire chugging along but it’ll look very different from the principate of Augustus (or even Diocletian’s reformed empire).

Of course the real trick, if these guys are right and given the division between Robb’s Gaul and Bremmer’s Constantinople isn’t necessarily geographical, is deciding in which area you’d want to be in and how to make sure you get there.

Must see TV – Afghanistan edition

University Channel just posted a couple of panel discussions from Columbia University about Afghanistan.  The panels took place in April and are titled “The Obama Administration Faces Afghanistan“.  I’m going through them now and they appear to be quite good and broken down into easily digested parts of about 15-30 minutes each.

Kimberly Marten’s intro to the FATA is worth watching in order to understand some of the complexities and myths about the area.

Other topics include:

  • India’s role in Afghanistan and Indo-Pakistani conflict as a driver for Afghan instability
  • The U.S. policy review process during the transition between administrations

Where is our moral authority?

I have to admit, I’m still shocked that people, fellow Americans, don’t get that torturing people is wrong.  They’ll squirm and wiggle away from using the word and invent bogus euphemisms (enhanced interrogations!), attempt to rationalize their beliefs (‘They’d do it to us!’) or ignore evidence that it does not produce credible intelligence to make themselves feel better but the bottom line is they do not have a moral problem with torturing another human being.

So this article in the Washington Post today is not surprising but it is still disturbing:

“We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani,” said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in February 2007. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution.

And yet, there are still people in this country to adhere to the circular logic of the President and Vice-President:

President Bush and Vice President Cheney have said that interrogations never involved torture. “The United States does not torture. It’s against our laws, and it’s against our values,” Bush asserted on Sept. 6, 2006…”

Yes, ‘Americans don’t torture because it’s against the law and our values, therefore anything we do must be something other than torture.’

Can you imagine that line being used in other places?  ‘Your honor, my client couldn’t have murdered the victim because murder is against the law and our values.  Defense rests.’  Ah…an airtight case.

I’m not naive enough to believe that this outrage was the sole product of the current administration.  For every collaborator you need many more bystanders who do nothing even though they should know better.  This is how good people allow evil to flourish.

He's got one fan, at least

“I like Bush. He made America weak.”


Taxi driver in Amman, Jordan. Dec. 8 2008

Global Trends 2025 part 1

Here are my initial thoughts on the Global Trends 2025 report that many have been talking about recently (assuming you’re a policy geek).

First, I’m not thrilled with the idea that NIC continually gets to produce documents about events that occur two decades in the future. Would it tax the system too much to have several, parallel assessments going on simultaneously? For example, the last report, written in 2004, was designed to predict what the world would be like in 2020. Why couldn’t they continue writing assessments of 2020 at regular (5 year?) intervals. It seems to me that having estimates done of the world 5, 10, 15, and 20 years out could be quite helpful.

Why would this be important?

Early in the report the authors compare it to the previous one. They say:

The most dramatic difference between Mapping the Global Future: Report of the Intelligence
Council’s 2020 Project and Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World is the latter’s
assumptions of a multipolar future, and therefore dramatic changes in the international system.
The 2025 report describes a world in which the US plays a prominent role in global events, but
the US is one among many global actors who manage problems. In contrast, the 2020 report
projects continued US dominance, positing that most major powers have forsaken the idea of
balancing the US.

Now, that’s a pretty big change and while it’s great they tell us that there is a change I think it might be more important to know why that change occurred.  Why did the intelligence community see the future of the world so differently than they do today?  How might this altered view affect how the world will look in 2020?

Without such a process of evaluating old predictions, assessments of such distant horizons risk becoming a way to project current concerns into the far future.  We can’t just take the current headlines and try to fast-forward 25 years with them.  After all, 25 years ago (1983) I’m guessing an assessment like this would be talking about the threat of Soviet expansionism and communism in Latin America.  Are either of those a concern today?  It would be nice, therefore, to see some imaginative thinking or, at least, some explanation about how they came to the conclusions they write about.  I’ll have to see how they do as I delve deeper into the document.

What immediately came to mind was the fact the the first report was published around the time of the reelection of George W. Bush and, coincidentally (?) seems to reflect his worldview.  A dominant U.S. for the foreseeable future?  Energy supplies “sufficient to meet global demand”?

Meanwhile, the current report has a much more ‘Obama’-like feel to it.  The world will be multipolar (do I hear coalitions, anyone?), adoption of alternative energy sources will be critical, perhaps everyone in the world doesn’t want a Western style, liberal democracy.

The authors really need to explain their thought process so they can avoid appearing to be a bunch of self serving toadies looking to keep their cushy government jobs.

The authors do say that making predictions so far out is a tricky business and I’m certainly not knocking them for making the wrong predictions (we won’t know for 20 years) but rather the lack of clarity of how they came to their decision and why they think events of the last four years have fundimentally changed how the world will work 20 years from now.

The problem of pirates

Ok, I’m not particularly qualified to discuss this issue but that’s the beauty of blogging.

There’s certainly been a lot of press over the past month or two about the Somali pirates who are running amok.

The Indians just blew up a ‘mothership‘ (hopefully E.T. got away) but it doesn’t sound like anyone has much hope this will have any long term effect on the problem.

This article (H/T State Failure Blog) tries to address some of the underlying issues fueling the problem (and this one from MSNBC), and there are lots of them.

  • The ocean is too big
  • Nobody wants to pony up the lion’s share of resources to patrol the area more effectively
  • There hasn’t been a plan of what to do with the pirates
  • The lack of a functioning government on land means there’s no enforcement coming from that side of the equation

“The American military’s solution has been to advise ships to hire private security. But many in the shipping industry have been reluctant, fearing armed guards will prompt increased violence from pirates.”

Blackwater is reported to be sending a ship out there to do escort duty but I’m not sure why the U.S. military can’t take a more proactive approach.

Would it be that expensive or resource intensive to create a small fleet of ‘Q ships‘?  Buy some old merchant ships, outfit them with some arms, good radar/sonar/reconnaissance capabilities, lure the pirates to them and blast them out of the water.  I’m sure you’d have marines knocking each other over to volunteer for that duty.

What am I missing to explain why this isn’t a good idea?

Afghanistan…it don't look good

Nir Rosen writes a brilliant, if disturbing, article in Rolling Stone after embedding with the Taliban.  It goes a long way towards showing how you can be ahead by 4 touchdowns at halftime but if you don’t show up for the second half of the game, you’ll still lose (ok, that’s my limit on sports metaphors for the rest of the year).

By May 2003, only 18 months after the beginning of the war, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld all but declared victory in Afghanistan. “We are at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction,” Rumsfeld announced during a visit to Kabul. The security situation in Afghanistan, in his view, was better than it had been for 25 years.

I was in Afghanistan at this time.  I remember there was a lot of talk about transitioning to away from combat operations to reconstruction.  The big rumor among the rank and file in the mess hall was that ‘soon’ we wouldn’t have to carry our weapons and that the Department of Defense would soon withdraw hazardous duty pay from troops serving in Afghanistan since there was no threat there anymore (!).  I wasn’t quite that optimistic but I certainly could see the possibility of transitioning to an environment more similar to Kosovo or Bosnia than Iraq.

Ten months later, as I was getting ready to leave Afghanistan I was much more pessimistic.  I saw a complete lack of progress and interest in addressing Afghanistan’s problems and saw my time there essentially as a ‘time out’ allowing the Taliban and other anti-coalition elements to get their shit together.

The Pentagon, already focused on invading Iraq, assumed that the Afghan militias it had bought with American money would be enough to secure the country. Instead, the militias proved far more interested in extorting bribes and seizing land than pursuing the hardened Taliban veterans who had taken refuge across the border in Pakistan. The parliamentary elections in 2005 returned power to the warlords who had terrorized the countryside before the Taliban imposed order. “The American intervention issued a blank check to these guys,” says a senior aid official in Kabul. “They threw money, weapons, vehicles at them. But the warlords never abandoned their bad habits — they’re abusing people and filling their pockets.

The thinking in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 was definitely short term.  While there were programs nominally designed to disarm the militias and take power away from warlords, those programs were undermined by commanders who viewed those militia leaders as important for keeping the peace.  While I can’t speak for the entire theater, I did have the opportunity to view decision making close up at one command (brigade command equivalent)  and thinking and planning never extended beyond the end of the tour we were on.  Questions about long term effects, fulfilling the superior commanders intent, or trying to apply any sort of counterinsurgency principles were dismissed out of hand.   Rather, the priority was keeping the natives calm on our watch.  That generally involved paying off militia leaders and local warlords through work contracts on post, granting them exclusive access to sell goods to military personnel through a bazaar (a very lucrative trade), and turning a blind eye to widespread extortion of local workers as they left the base.  All of these things eroded support among the local population and created the impression that we viewed these warlords as allies.  The local warlords used that impression to keep local villagers obedient by threatening to call down American air strikes on anyone who opposed them.  The warlords had no such pull with us but it didn’t help to see Americans visiting these warlords, kowtowing to them and distributing U.S. taxpayer largess through them.

God willing, he adds, it will take no more than 30 years to rid Afghanistan of foreigners.

Read that again.  It’s not just propaganda.  No one has ever adequately explained what war means today.  Yes, it was called ‘The Long War’ for awhile but before all this began, no senior person (like the president) ever sat down and told the American people ‘Look, we’re going to be at this for a generation or two.  That means we might have tens of thousands of soldiers fighting and dying for twenty, forty or more years.  That’s what we’re in for.’  Instead we got a whole bunch of ‘hoo-ah’ nonsense that set expectations way too high.

Unfortunately for us, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, et. al. don’t think in terms of election cycles or fiscal quarters.  They can (and do) think in terms of years, decades, and generations.  If we aren’t prepared to stick it out, we should just cut our losses now and be done with it.

“…Parwan province, which borders Kabul to the north, has also become dangerous. “All of a sudden we see IEDs on the main road in Parwan and attacks on police checkpoints,” the intelligence officer says. “It’s the last remaining key arterial route connecting Kabul to the rest of the country.”

This is the most personally distressing part of the article for me.  It may be silly but I spent my entire tour in Parwan province and spent a lot of time in the villages, on the roads, and meeting the people there and have a fond regard for the place.  The people of Parwan were so exhausted by warfare and so positive about our presence there that I find it difficult to think about there being a prevalent threat there.  In the dozens of times I left the wire, I can think of only a handful where I felt the threat was sufficient for me to wear my kevlar helmet.

In 2003/2004, everyone still wanted to get into a shooting war and (at least it seemed like) no one wanted to try to win the war we were in.  So, I had a string of motivated NCOs from various units come into my office asking ‘Where can we get into a fight?  Where can we kill some Taliban?’  I remember one XO of a marine battalion tell me ‘You guys in the Army can deal with that hearts and mind bullshit.  We’re here to kill people.’

Now, I’m not saying that was wrong.  Our military needs people who want to go out and risk their lives to blow stuff up and ‘kick some ass’.  I think it’s been pretty well established, however, that relying exclusively on such a mindset or strategy isn’t going to do us a whole lot of good.  Some of us knew that we needed to look towards a further horizon in 2003/2004 and lay some groundwork to prevent the Taliban and others from finding fertile ground for a comeback.  Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of people interested.

This is the price for six years of neglect.

“You Westerners have your watches,” the leader observed. “But we Taliban have time.”

So this is success?

There are two National Intelligence Estimates floating around in draft form, one about Afghanistan and one about Iraq.  The NIEs are classified but people are leaking the jist of them…and it ain’t good.

Afghanistan is in a “downward spiral”

…the breakdown in central authority in Afghanistan has been accelerated by rampant corruption within the government of President Hamid Karzai and by an increase in violence by militants who have launched increasingly sophisticated attacks from havens in Pakistan.

…unresolved ethnic and sectarian tensions in Iraq could unleash a new wave of violence, potentially reversing the major security and political gains achieved over the last year.

The findings of the intelligence estimate appear to be reflected in recent statements by Army Gen. David Petraeus, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq, who has called the situation “fragile” and “reversible” and said he will never declare victory there. (emphasis added)

The biggest piece of nonsense peddled about Iraq is that we can achieve some sort of VE/VJ day type of ‘victory with honor’.  Neither Iraq or Afghanistan are going to become free, secular, Western style democracies.  With Iraq we need to figure out what we want to acomplish already and work towards that.  My ‘off the cuff’ suggestions:

  1. Prevent al-Qaeda from establishing havens in the Western part of the country
  2. Prevent Iran from turning Iraq into a client state
  3. Keep the Kurds from starting a regional conflict

Those are things we can do without running our military and economy in the ground.  There’s very little evidence to support the idea that we can turn Iraq’s kleptocracy into a functioning democracy.  We’ve overseen a rough segregation of Iraqi society along sectarian/ethnic lines which can avoid a major bloodbath so long as all the players keep to their corners (that’s a really big ‘if’).

Oh…one thing both of these reports agreed upon:

U.S. officials familiar with the new National Intelligence Estimate said they were unsure when the top-secret report would be completed and whether it would be published before the Nov. 4 presidential election.

Wow…what a shocker.