To recap the intelligence news of the last 24 hours: revelations about the NSA tapping the phone of German Prime Minister Angela Merkel for the past decade are having a pronounced political effect. Longtime NSA allies are jumping ship, President Obama is contemplating a move to ban spying on foreign leaders, and both the White House and the intelligence community are now leaking information designed to combat the other guy's spin.
The United States intelligence community has had better weeks.
That said, Obama's proposal to ban spying on allied leaders seems a bit hasty. As I argued last week, the issue here is that "European governments engage in the exact same hypocrisy, just with fewer intelligence capabilities."
In the Financial Times, Richard McGregor and Geoff Dyer note that U.S. officials are split over just how much the Europeans are outraged because of the principle of spying on leaders and how much they're cheesed off because they want to level the intelligence playing field:
Confronted with European fury at US spying, Washington is divided over whether its allies’ anger is genuine or a calculation that they can use the revelations to change the terms of intelligence sharing and targeting....
Underlying the debate over Ms Merkel are longstanding and deep tensions over intelligence sharing between the US and European nations such as Germany and France.
The US has for decades, and with few interruptions, shared intelligence with four other countries, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, under the so-called “five eyes” agreement which includes a proviso that they do not spy on each other.
“Germany and France have long resented this special relationship in intelligence,” said Tim Naftali, of the New America Foundation. “But the question is whether [France and Germany] would be able to accept the co-ordination of their foreign policies that comes along with the agreement.”
When intelligence agencies discuss targeting they are giving away what they know, said Mr Naftali. “Is the US prepared to do that across the board with France and Germany?”
Here's an idle thought -- why doesn't the United States -- after consulting with the other Five Eyes partners -- offer to extend the arrangement to France and Germany? Doesn't that force France and Germany to confront their own hypocrisy on these intelligence questions?
This sort of gambit happens pretty frequently in global political economy. When the United States developed the Marshall Plan, it invited Soviet bloc countries to participate, confident that they would say no. Similarly, the U.S. has invited China to join negotiations for a Trans Pacific Partnership, knowing full well that Beijing would be reluctant make the necessary concessions on intellectual property rights.
This is an honest question -- I'm not an intelligence expert, I don't know the feasibility of this proffer. But given the strong likelihood that Germany and France like spying on the United States and don't want to give it up, is there any harm that comes from offering them membership into Five Eyes? What am I missing?
Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore have a must-read essay in Foreign Affairs about the impact that Wikileaks and Edward Snowden are having on a little-discussed power resource for the United States: it's ability to act hypocritically on the world stage:
The deeper threat that leakers such as Manning and Snowden pose is more subtle than a direct assault on U.S. national security: they undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it. Their danger lies not in the new information that they reveal but in the documented confirmation they provide of what the United States is actually doing and why. When these deeds turn out to clash with the government’s public rhetoric, as they so often do, it becomes harder for U.S. allies to overlook Washington’s covert behavior and easier for U.S. adversaries to justify their own.
Few U.S. officials think of their ability to act hypocritically as a key strategic resource. Indeed, one of the reasons American hypocrisy is so effective is that it stems from sincerity: most U.S. politicians do not recognize just how two-faced their country is. Yet as the United States finds itself less able to deny the gaps between its actions and its words, it will face increasingly difficult choices -- and may ultimately be compelled to start practicing what it preaches.
This is really a terrific essay, and I agree wholeheartedly with Farrell and Finnemore's theoretical points about hypocrisy as a vital power resource for the United States. But -- and you knew there was a "but" -- I'd dispute the empirical premises a bit.
First, the article lumps the effect of the Wikileaks cables that Manning leaked with Snowden's revelations about the depth and breadth of NSA surveillance. I'd posit that the only thing these two cases had in common was the participation of Wikileaks. The most surprising thing about the diplomatic cables that were leaked wasn't the occasional cable that was at variance with U.S. public rhetoric -- it was the surprising degree of consistency between the public and private diplomacy of the United States. As I blogged at the time:
There are no Big Lies. Indeed, Blake Hounshell's original tweet holds: "the U.S. is remarkably consistent in what it says publicly and privately." Assange -- and his source for all of this, Bradley Manning -- seem to think that these documents will expose American perfidy. Based on the initial round of reactions, they're in for a world of disappointment. Oh, sure, there are small lies and lies of omission -- Bob Gates probably didn't mention to Dmitri Medvedev or Vladimir Putin that "Russian democracy has disappeared." Still, I'm not entirely sure how either world politics or American interests would be improved if Gates had been that blunt in Moscow.
If this kind of official hypocrisy is really the good stuff, then there is no really good stuff.
I'd wager that assessment still holds up -- Cablegate had far greater ramifications for U.S. allies and adversaries than it did for the United States. Manning's leaks didn't expose U.S. perfidy so much as the hypocrisy of other countries. This suggests that even when looking at hypocrisy, the U.S. possessed a relative advantage.
Snowden's revelations about the NSA, on the other hand, do expose considerable amounts of U.S. hypocrisy, as Farrell and Finnemore document in their article. The U.S. reaction to Snowden's flight -- particularly the grounding of a Latin American head of state -- exacerbated the issue even further, eroding any Westphalian sympathies that might have existed in the international system.
What is interesting is not whether France (or Mexico, or Brazil, or Germany) is being hypocritical in pretending to be shocked at what the US is doing. It's whether their response (hypocritical as it may be) has real political consequences. And it surely does. The decision of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff to cancel a state visit to the US (and start to disentangle Brazil from what had been an increasingly cooperative relationship) is one example. I have few doubts that if Rousseff had had the option, she would have preferred to have ignored US spying, and gone on with the visit and the burgeoning relationship. But she didn't have that choice (or at least, it would have been domestically very costly). Similarly, the EU Parliament's decision on Monday to reinstate rules restricting personal data transfer to the US are a direct response to the Snowden revelations. It is going to be tough for European governments to push back on these rules, even though they would probably like to, because they're going to face a public outcry if they do. France can't summon the US ambassador to ream him out about NSA surveillance one day, and effectively accede to NSA surveillance the next. However hypocritical this behavior is, it has consequences.
Farrell might be correct, though even here there are empirical distinctions to be made. As Farrell implies, the problem is that European governments engage in the exact same hypocrisy, just with fewer intelligence capabilities. The substantive effect of these revelations in France or Mexico to date have been surprisingly muted. So far, the biggest policy blowback has been Rousseff's cancelling of the state visit to the United States. That's not nothing -- but if that's the worst of the damage, then even this episode won't lead to that much of a hit to U.S. interests.
That said, I concur with Farrell and Finnemore that the worst of the damage might be yet to come. The interesting theoretical and empirical question is whether a weakening of "hypocritical power" has a disproportionate effect on a hegemon. Even if the U.S. is somewhat less hypocritical than rival great powers, the nature of the liberal international order means that hypocrisy hurts the U.S. more. As Farrell and Finnemore observe:
Of course, the United States is far from the only hypocrite in international politics. But the United States’ hypocrisy matters more than that of other countries. That’s because most of the world today lives within an order that the United States built, one that is both underwritten by U.S. power and legitimated by liberal ideas. American commitments to the rule of law, democracy, and free trade are embedded in the multilateral institutions that the country helped establish after World War II, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and later the World Trade Organization. Despite recent challenges to U.S. preeminence, from the Iraq war to the financial crisis, the international order remains an American one.
This system needs the lubricating oil of hypocrisy to keep its gears turning. To ensure that the world order continues to be seen as legitimate, U.S. officials must regularly promote and claim fealty to its core liberal principles; the United States cannot impose its hegemony through force alone. But as the recent leaks have shown, Washington is also unable to consistently abide by the values that it trumpets. This disconnect creates the risk that other states might decide that the U.S.-led order is fundamentally illegitimate.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see whether the Obama administration adopts new policies and rhetoric designed to reduce the exposed levels of hypocrisy. So far, administration officials have veered in the opposite direction -- the mantra of "we're only using this super-high-powered surveillance stuff on foreigners, not Americans" has tarnished America's image abroad even more. Unless the U.S. government changes its tune, then we're about to get a good empirical test of what happens when the hegemon's "lubricating oil of hypocrisy" evaporates.
UPDATE: One final coda on this hypocrisy question. It's worth noting that Snowden's revelations about U.S. hypocrisy are petty tame when compared to revelations about, say, U.S. intelligence activities during the Vietnam era. America's "hypocritical power" was tarnished pretty badly back then, but eventually recovered rather nicely. One could argue that this was due to a combination of a) greater transparency (the Church Committee); b) less hypocrisy (the Carter administration's emphasis on human rights); c) ideational renewal (the Reagan administration's rhetoric); and d) the overarching Soviet threat. The first three elements of this recovery recipe are doable, but the overarching threat just isn't the same. I do wonder whether the absence of that threat renders hegemons more vulnerable to an erosion in hypocritical power.
The touchstone for hypocrisy in popular culture is this scene from Casablanca, in which Claude Rains' character, Captain Reynaud, closes Rick's bar on the flimsiest of pretenses:
I bring this up because of Glenn Greenwald's revelations in Le Monde that the NSA has been spying, like, a lot, on France. Here at FP, Shane Harris and John Hudson have noted that the French are shocked about these revelations. The question is whether they're genuinely shocked... or Claude Rains shocked.
In the New York Times, Alissa Rubin's reportage suggest the latter:
French officials called the spying “totally unacceptable” and demanded that it cease.
“These kinds of practices between partners are totally unacceptable, and we must be assured that they are no longer being implemented,” Mr. Rivkin was told, according to a ministry spokesman, Alexandre Giorgini.
The same language was used late Monday in a statement from President François Hollande describing what he had said in an earlier telephone conversation with President Obama.
However, in a discreet signal that some of the French talk may have been aimed at the government’s domestic audience, France did not call this episode a breach of sovereignty, as Brazil did last month after similar revelations....
[M]any observers both then and now suggested that the French government’s harsh tone was in part political theater rather than genuine outrage because France runs its own version of a spying program on the Americans, which came to light in 2010.
At that time, a previous White House director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, tried to put in place a written agreement pledging that neither country would spy on the other’s soil — similar to the “gentleman’s agreement” that the United States has with Britain. The deal fell through in part because some members of both countries’ intelligence communities wanted to continue to spy on each other, said officials close to those negotiations.
In addition, the facts of the N.S.A. data collection in Europe have been known for months, which led two nonprofit groups that oppose the spying to describe it as “astonishing” and “cowardly” that the French government would portray itself as not knowing about the surveillance. It also became clear over the summer that France’s espionage agency, the General Directorate for External Security, carried out data collection on French citizens without clear legal authority, suggesting that although the technology used by the United States may be more sophisticated, electronic eavesdropping as an antiterrorism and anticrime tool is broadly practiced. (emphasis added)
Yeah, that's Claude Rains shocked, not actually shocked.
Rubin's entire article is worth reading, as it also addresses the Mexican government's response to spying allegations there -- and a similar kind of Claude Rains-style reaction.
As I've blogged previously, I'm extremely dubious that any kind of international regime will ever genuinely restrict espionage activities. Monitoring by NGOs, the press and whistleblowers might cause the occasional flare-up in attention, but eventually it disappears into an SEP field.
As a coda to this point, it's worth re-reading this passage from John Le Carré's The Secret Pilgrim, in which George Smiley explains the permanence of the espionage profession to new recruits:
Spying is eternal. If governments could do without it, they ever would. They adore it. If the day ever comes when there are no enemies left in the world, governments will invent them for us, so don't worry. Besides--who says we only spy on enemies? All history teaches us that today's allies are tomorrow's rivals. Fashion may dictate priorities, but foresight doesn't. For as long as rogues become leaders, we shall spy. For as long as there are bullies and liars and madmen in the world, we shall spy. For as long as nations compete, and politicians deceive, and tyrants launch conquests, and consumers need resources, and the homeless look for land, and the hungry for food, and the rich for excess, your chosen profession is perfectly secure, I can assure you.
Am I missing anything?
Well, Richard Perez-Pena has quite the New York Times front-pager, doesn't he?
America’s research universities, among the most open and robust centers of information exchange in the world, are increasingly coming under cyberattack, most of it thought to be from China, with millions of hacking attempts weekly. Campuses are being forced to tighten security, constrict their culture of openness and try to determine what has been stolen.
University officials concede that some of the hacking attempts have succeeded. But they have declined to reveal specifics, other than those involving the theft of personal data like Social Security numbers. They acknowledge that they often do not learn of break-ins until much later, if ever, and that even after discovering the breaches they may not be able to tell what was taken.
Universities and their professors are awarded thousands of patents each year, some with vast potential value, in fields as disparate as prescription drugs, computer chips, fuel cells, aircraft and medical devices.
“The attacks are increasing exponentially, and so is the sophistication, and I think it’s outpaced our ability to respond,” said Rodney J. Petersen, who heads the cybersecurity program at Educause, a nonprofit alliance of schools and technology companies. “So everyone’s investing a lot more resources in detecting this, so we learn of even more incidents we wouldn’t have known about before.”....
Analysts can track where communications come from — a region, a service provider, sometimes even a user’s specific Internet address. But hackers often route their penetration attempts through multiple computers, even multiple countries, and the targeted organizations rarely go to the effort and expense — often fruitless — of trying to trace the origins. American government officials, security experts and university and corporate officials nonetheless say that China is clearly the leading source of efforts to steal information, but attributing individual attacks to specific people, groups or places is rare.
What's interesting is the difference in how universities are responding to these threats as opposed to corporations:
Like major corporations, universities develop intellectual property that can turn into valuable products like prescription drugs or computer chips. But university systems are harder to secure, with thousands of students and staff members logging in with their own computers.
Mr. Shaw, of Purdue, said that he and many of his counterparts had accepted that the external shells of their systems must remain somewhat porous. The most sensitive data can be housed in the equivalent of smaller vaults that are harder to access and harder to move within, use data encryption, and sometimes are not even connected to the larger campus network, particularly when the work involves dangerous pathogens or research that could turn into weapons systems.
“It’s sort of the opposite of the corporate structure,” which is often tougher to enter but easier to navigate, said Paul Rivers, manager of system and network security at the University of California, Berkeley. “We treat the overall Berkeley network as just as hostile as the Internet outside.”
Now, far be it for me to suggest an alternative strategy to counter these kind of cyberattacks, but I do wonder what would happen if academic institutions decided to simply throw open almost all of their Internet traffic to outside observation. The idea here would be to drown cyberspies in so much minutiae that the following would happen:
SETTING: NONDESCRIPT BUILDING, SHANGHAI, CHINA, AT LEAST TEN PEOPLE SURROUNDING ONE COMPUTER TERMINAL
ENTER GENERAL CHANG INTO THE ROOM.
CHANG: Well, Comrade Li, what valuable information have you extracted from Tufts University? Anything valuable?
MAJOR LI SEES CHANG, STANDS UPRIGHT, SALUTES.
LI: Oh, it's very exciting, General. I've been monitoring their Central Committee exchanges, although they use the bourgeois term "faculty governance" instead.
CHANG: Major, I think we were more interested in whether Tufts had any technical---
LI: Apparently, the Tufts faculty has splintered into many, many factions, sir! Some of the splittists are waging a fierce online guerilla campaign to secure coveted parking spots!!
CHANG: Major, maybe it's time you took that holiday we talked about---
LI: No, sir!! Then I wouldn't be able to see which faculty members manage to avoid membership in the accursed admissions committee!!
CHANG: You fool, Li!! Can't you see that is distracting you from your real purpose?! Is this all you've found out, Li?
LI: No, sir, I've also hacked into the New York Times server and have acquired all the necessary metadata to produce a detailed graph function of who is sleeping with who, sir.
CHANG: Well done, Li!! With this information, we will continue our peaceful rising no matter how badly the Americans try to stifle us!
Seriously, beyond the few precautions discussed in the article, I'm dubious that much can or should be done about this. Perhaps some intellectual property would be preserved by cracking down on the openness of the university system. I suspect, however, that far more would never be created in the first place.
What do you think?
An awful lot of international relations can be dispiriting. A glance at the Syrian conflict reveals its awful humanitarian toll, which stands in stark counterpoint to the coldly realpolitik nature of great-power foreign policies toward that country. My point is, it's very easy to feel beleaguered when studying world politics.
But then, every once in a while, comes a story that cries out for its own theme song.
Yesterday the Russians busted an American spy. The Washington Post's Will Englund and Greg Miller provide the straight reporting:
An American diplomat accused by Russia of spying for the CIA was ordered to leave the country Tuesday after a highly publicized arrest that seemed designed to embarrass the United States and its premier intelligence service.
The expulsion of Ryan C. Fogle was announced by the Russian Foreign Ministry, and footage on state-run television showed him wearing a blond-streaked wig and a baseball cap as he was held facedown and handcuffed.
The Soviet-style episode came just days after U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry visited the Russian capital in an attempt to soothe diplomatic tensions over the conflict in Syria and the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing.
A statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which appeared intended to put the United States on the defensive, said, “While our two presidents have reaffirmed their willingness to expand bilateral cooperation, including between intelligence agencies in the fight against terrorism, such provocative Cold War-style actions do not contribute to building mutual trust.”
For somewhat droller reporting on the incident, one needs to surf over to the New York Times, where it's clear that David Herszenhorn and Ellen Barry just enjoyed the dickens out of filing this report:
The circumstances of Mr. Fogle’s unmasking seemed bizarre, even given the long, colorful history of spying by the Soviet Union, Russia and their rivals.…
[T]he Russians released the videos and photographs of Mr. Fogle’s assortment of props, which also included two pairs of sunglasses, a pocketknife and a protective sleeve made to shield information held on the electronic chips now routinely imprinted on passports, transit passes and identification cards.
He also carried a decidedly un-smart phone that from a distance looked like an old-model Nokia. Unlike its counterpart in the “Get Smart” television series, it was not built into the bottom of a shoe.
The most recent comparable spy folly came at the Russians’ expense. In 2010, the American authorities arrested 10 “sleeper” agents who had been living in the United States for a decade, posing as Americans. Some were couples with children; some had well-developed careers in real estate and finance.
What they had not done was send any classified secrets back to Russia, and when they were caught they were not charged with espionage but with conspiring to work as unregistered foreign agents. They were eventually expelled to Russia in a swap that included the Kremlin’s release of four men convicted of spying for the West.
If Americans then wondered exactly what sort of high-level intelligence the Russian government had expected its operatives to find while living humdrum lives in places like suburban Montclair, N.J., the case of Mr. Fogle seemed to pose its own curious questions:
What exactly did he expect to accomplish with a shaggy, ill-fitting wig that seemed to fall off his head at the slightest bump? And why would a counterterrorism officer, trained by the Russian special services, need a letter describing how to set up a new Gmail account without revealing personal information?
Perhaps the overarching question was just: Really?
Looking at the details of what Fogle ostensibly had on him, it's hard to take this event seriously at all. The letter in particular is just one or two Nigerian princes away from looking like a spam email.
The other reason it's hard to take the arrest seriously is that it appears that neither was it a sensitive intelligence operation, nor will it affect bilateral relations all that much. If Fogle's endeavor was truly significant, it's doubtful that the FSB would have gone public like this -- instead, it would have strung out the operation as long as possible in an effort to deceive the United States. And Fogle won't be rotting in a Russian prison, as he' has already been expelled. Post-capture, both Russian and U.S. officials are playing down the incident.
More generally, this won't affect the bilateral relationship -- which, at this point, is based on the occasional mutual interest (counterterrorism), the more frequent clashing interest (Syria, energy), Vladimir Putin's calcified state of feeling aggrieved at the hands of the United States, and the Obama administration's conscious decision to not get drawn into petty rhetorical games with the Russian leadership.
No, instead, one must stand back and gape in wonder at how reality breeds fiction, which then breeds reality. As the NYT story referenced, the last public espionage story involving Russia and the United States involved the placement of deep-cover Russian intelligence agents in U.S. suburbs, which didn't produce much in the way of intelligence, though it did lead to at least one lad magazine pictorial. That scandal, in turn, inspired former CIA officer Joe Weisberg to create FX's The Americans, a truly outstanding show about deep-cover Russian agents operating in the United States during the early Reagan years. And while I cannot recommend the show highly enough, one of the few farcical elements of it is the number of wigs that the lead characters used during the first season. Ostensibly, the lead male character, played by Matthew Rhys, has such extraordinary wig work that he's able to woo and marry an American FBI employee!! It makes Fogle's wigs seem pretty crude -- so crude one wonders if they were planted by Russia's FSB.
The closing of the first season of The Americans played one of the best Cold War-tinged songs ever written, Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers." That song was perfect for the closing scene because it matched the emotional heft that the show managed to serve up for all of the main characters. Alas, in comparison this scandal seems to feel far more farcical. Readers are thereby warmly urged to suggest what song should accompany this particular espionage episode. I, for one, would suggest this little ditty.
Am I missing anything? Seriously, am I -- is there anything serious to draw from this case?
Your humble blogger has been busy at the U.S. Army War College's annual conference on The Future of American Landpower ... at which he's heard a lot about cyberattacks. So at the risk of violating one of my own maxims, I want to write one post about this whole cyber business. Because the more I apply my monkey brain to this, the more dubious I get about how it's being talked about, and I want to try to work my way through this.
First, if we're living in a world where the director of national intelligence thinks it's the number-one threat out there ... well, let's face it, then it's not a very scary world, is it? I mean, if industrial espionage has replaced terrorism as the biggest national security threat facing the United States ... meh. I don't want there to be industrial espionage, but let's face it, this ain't the kind of Cold War-level threat that I hear bandied about so frequently.
But, to be fair, I think concerns about "cyber" aren't just about the industrial stuff -- it's attacks on critical infrastructure and so forth. Except now we need to step back and ask under what circumstances such attacks would occur. There are terrorists of course -- which means that this is a old threat in a new domain. There are state actors -- which means that this is an even older threat in a new domain. Terrorists will most likely attempt such attacks when the opportunity arises. State actors presumably would not attempt such actions on a full-bore scale unless there were actual military hostilities. Cases like Stuxnet fall in between ... into espionage and covert action.
So, can international norms about cyberattacks be negotiated? I know NATO is trying something like this with the Tallinn Manual, and I know the United States is insisting that the laws of war apply to cyberdomains. I suspect that this has a chance of working in regulating real world interstate military conflicts, because, with any shadow of the future, most states are prepared to obey most regimes most of the time.
But let's face it -- most of the concerns about cyber aren't about what happens if a war breaks out. The concerns are about regulating such attacks during peacetime, which means this is about regulating intelligence-gathering, espionage, and covert actions. Now, let me just list below the number of international regimes that establish the rules, norms and procedures for regulating these kind of activities:
Nada. Zip. Nothing. Or, as one journal article more delicately put it, "espionage is curiously ill-defined under international law."
That's because espionage can't really be regulated. For any agreement to function, violators have to be detected and punishment has to be enforced. In the world of espionage, however, revealing your ability to detect is in and of itself an intelligence reveal that states are deeply reluctant to do.
So I don't think negotiations will work, and I sure as hell don't think smart sanctions will work either. Most of what concerns us about cyber falls under the espionage and covert action category, and that's never been regulated at the global level.
What am I missing? Seriously, what -- because what I just blogged is highly subject to change.
Despite the fact that the administration appears to have the votes to confirm Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, activist groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) continue to pound away
at a brick wall at Hagel's dovishness towards Iran. In essence, ECI's ads and rhetoric argue forcefully that both Hagel and Obama are not fully committed to defending Israel by revving up for an attack on Iran now.
Don't take my word for it, though -- here's one of ECI's ads:
Now, as I've blogged before, this kind of interest group campaign is a waste of money if the goal is a partisan effort to weaken Obama and bolster the GOP. What if the effort is sincere, however? In other words, if groups like ECI care only about eliminating the Iranian threat as soon as possible, is this their best expenditure of resources?
Based on Sheera Frakel's McClatchy story from yesterday, I'd say the answer is no. Clearly, the greatest threat to a softening Western posture towards Iran comes from... dare I say it... Israel itself!!!
Israeli intelligence officials now estimate that Iran won’t be able to build a nuclear weapon before 2015 or 2016, pushing back by several years previous assessments of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Intelligence briefings given to McClatchy over the last two months have confirmed that various officials across Israel’s military and political echelons now think it’s unrealistic that Iran could develop a nuclear weapons arsenal before 2015. Others pushed the date back even further, to the winter of 2016.
"Previous assessments were built on a set of data that has since shifted," said one Israeli intelligence officer, who spoke to McClatchy only on the condition that he not be identified. He said that in addition to a series of "mishaps" that interrupted work at Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iranian officials appeared to have slowed the program on their own.
Oh. My. God. We already knew that there was a fifth column of Israelis who were pooh-poohing the notion of a pre-emptive strike on Iran. Now, with this intelligence walkback, the credibility of the Israeli national security establishment has taken a pretty serious hit.
If ECI and like-minded groups really think that Iran poses an existential threat and that the time to act is now, then I think they're targeting their resources at the wrong country. Trying to convert Rand Paul to their point of view isn't enough, and opposing Hagel is fruitless at this point. No, only a full-throated ECI campaign in Israel itself will be sufficient to prevent Jerusalem from falling into the appeasement camp. And if they fail to redirect their activities, then I have no choice but to conclude that ECI has gone soft on Iran as well.
Am I missing anything?
You know, as 2013 dawns, there's a brewing debate about whether America is now just a "mediocre" country. As a long-run optimist about the America's future, however, I'm pretty dubious of the mediocrity argument. There are too many areas where the United States excels in to write the country off: high tech, higher education, Hollywood, and so forth.
Of course, these strengths are meaningless in foreign policy terms unless the American government can wisely and adroitly deploy them when necessary. Consider, for example, this story from Yonhap about whether Ri Sol-Ju, the first lady of North Korea, has had a baby:
An apparent loss of weight by Ri Sol-ju, the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, fueled speculation in Seoul Thursday that she may have given birth.
A government source, who declined to be identified, said images on the Korean Central TV Broadcasting Station showed a slimmer Ri watching a live New Year's performance with her husband and other high-ranking dignitaries.
He claimed local experts who saw the footage of the first lady speculated that, judging by the weight loss, she may have given birth recently.
This claim was based on the contrast between the latest images taken on New Year's Day and those released in mid December. Pictures of Ri taken last month showed her face looking puffy and there was a noticeable swelling in her midsection.
Here's the photos related to the story:
All I can say is, I hope that the salient U.S. intelligence agencies -- the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Administration, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, and, of course, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence -- bring in America's leading experts on the "baby bump." And by leading experts, I'm talking about the analysts who populate stories in People, Us Weekly, Star Magazine, Perez Hilton, and the National Enquirer on celebrity baby bumps. Because I will not stand idly by while one of America's greatest strengths -- our unparalleled advantage in celebrity tabloid journalism -- stands on the sidelines when this pressing question about one of the biggest threats to stability in the Pacific Rim persists.
[Really, isn't the U.K. the unparalleled leader in tabloids? I mean, they invented the term "baby bump"!--ed. They've been weakened by internal scandals and distracted by Kate Middleton. It's America's time to shine!!!!]
David Sanger and Eric Schmitt have a story in today's New York Times about... well, as near as I can figure, the purpose of the story is that the intelligence comnunity wants to communicate with the Assad regime in Syria. Here's the opening:
The Syrian military’s movement of chemical weapons in recent days has prompted the United States and several allies to repeat their warning to President Bashar Al-Assad that he would be “held accountable” if his forces used the weapons against the rebels fighting his government.
The warnings, which one European official said were “deliberately vague to keep Assad guessing,” were conveyed through Russia and other intermediaries.
So I guess the New York Times is now one of those "other intermediaries."
Given the expansion of the U.S. intelligence apparatus, this kind of "signaling through the press" function is not going away anytime soon. The problem, of course, is that very often these intelligence officials can't come right out and tell Sanger and Schmitt what they want Assad to know, cause, like, there are other people reading these stories.
So, as a public service, the hardworking staff here at this blog will try to parse out exactly what is being communicated. Let's excerpt every direct quote (bolded below) and run it through the Drezner Intelligence Explainer (D.I.E.: patent pending):
One American official provided the most specific description yet of what has been detected, saying that “the activity we are seeing suggests some potential chemical weapon preparation,”
TRANSLATION: "We're seeing deviations from the status quo ante. We 're not entirely sure what this means, and we don't like that, so we're going to talk about it in the press to see if we can get a rise out of Assad."
“These are desperate times for Assad, and this may simply be another sign of desperation,” one senior American diplomat, who has been deeply involved in the effort to try to dissuade Mr. Assad’s forces from using the chemical weapons, said Sunday.
TRANSLATION: "We're seeing deviations from the status quo ante. We 're not entirely sure what this means, and we don't like that, so we're going to talk about it in the press to see if we can get a rise out of Assad."
“It’s very hard to read Assad,” one senior Israeli official said. “But we are seeing a kind of action that we’ve never seen before,” he said, declining to elaborate.
TRANSLATION: "We're seeing deviations from the status quo ante. We 're not entirely sure what this means, and we don't like that, so we're going to talk about it in the press to see if we can get a rise out of Assad."
“The president has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a red line for the United States,” the [senior administration] official said. “We consistently monitor developments related to Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, and are in regular contact with international partners who share our concern.
“The Assad regime must know that the world is watching, and that they will be held accountable by the United States and the international community if they use chemical weapons or fail to meet their obligations to secure them.”
TRANSLATION: "We're seeing deviations from the status quo ante. We 're not entirely sure what this means, and we don't like that. So forget what Sanger and Schmitt said about 'being vague back in Paragraph 1; we're just gonna reiterate our policy on this so there's no misunderstanding in Damascus."
Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who heads the House Intelligence Committee, declined to comment on the new intelligence reports but said in a statement late Sunday: “We are not doing enough to prepare for the collapse of the Assad regime, and the dangerous vacuum it will create. Use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be an extremely serious escalation that would demand decisive action from the rest of the world."
TRANSLATION: "This is all Obama's fault."
“We’re worried about what the military is doing,” one official said, “but we’re also worried about some of the opposition groups,” including some linked to Hezbollah, which has set up camps near some of the chemical weapons depots.
TRANSLATION: "Our actual Syria policy remains entirely unchanged."
Am I missing anything?
The AP breathlessly reports that Punxatawney Phil saw his shadow today, which means another six weeks of winter. Based on recent data, I'm wondering if Syria's Bashar al-Assad can say the same thing.
Earlier this week the U.S. intelligence heads testified on Syria, and offered some surprising assessments:
Syrian President Bashar al Assad will not be able to maintain his grip on power in the wake of a wave of opposition that has dragged on for almost a year, America’s top intelligence officials told Congress today.
“I personally believe it’s a question of time before Assad falls,” James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. CIA Director David Petraeus added, “I generally subscribe to that as well.”
Clapper said “it could be a long time” before the Assad regime falls because of “the protraction of these demonstrations” and a Syrian opposition that remains fragmented. Despite that, Clapper said “I do not see how long he can sustain his rule of Syria.”
Hey, remember how, a year ago, Clapper got into trouble for being honest about the state of affairs in Libya despite his honesty being a political inconvenience? This is precisely why I find his testimony so credible.
Recent facts on the ground buttress Clapper's assessment -- as does the Financial Times' David Gardner's reportage, which is chock-full of interesting facts about the Assad regime's constrained ability to repress:
The [Assad] regime believed it could crush the uprising, which began in mid-March after revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, by the end of April and then in the summer Ramadan Offensive. It failed.
These operations revealed its reliance on two dependable units -- the 4th Armoured Division and the Republican Guard, made up of Alawites, the heterodox Shia minority that forms the backbone of the regime, and commanded by Mr Assad’s volatile younger brother, Maher. Whenever the Assads deployed units with a rank-and-file reflecting Syria’s 70 per cent Sunni majority -- as they had to if their offensives were to cover more than the hot spots of the moment -- defections ensued.
Even more interesting is Gardner's take on the evolving Russian position:
Russian diplomats…despite their rhetoric, have been talking to Syrian opposition figures and, according to the latter, carefully considering the Arab League proposals. As a veteran U.S. diplomat puts it, “there is a squishiness to where they [the Russians] are now”.
Russia does have a commercial interest in Syria, and arms the regime but the value of this depends on whether it will get paid, by a government running out of cash. It is only six years since Moscow had to write off more than $10bn in unpaid Syrian debts from the Soviet era.
Its real interest is in retaining its base facilities at the port of Tartus, its last naval asset in the Mediterranean. For that it will eventually need to reach an understanding with Syria’s future, not hold on to its past. Tartus is a long-term strategic asset. The Assads are no longer a long-term proposition.
This is new and interesting information, and does appear to track multiple reports that the negotiations in Turtle Bay will lead to an actual Security Council resolution on Syria. If Russia cuts a deal with the opposition and removes its veto from multilateral action, how long can Assad hold out?
What do you think? Will Assad be out of power in Syria inside of six weeks or not?
Last week I received the following news release from the National Research Council:
A new report from the National Research Council recommends that the U.S. intelligence community adopt methods, theories, and findings from the behavioral and social sciences as a way to improve its analyses. To that end, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) should lead a new initiative to make these approaches part of the intelligence community’s analytical work, hiring and training, and collaborations.
The report, which was requested by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, urges the intelligence community to routinely evaluate the performance of its analytical methods. One important step in that direction is to attach whenever possible numeric probabilities with uncertainty estimates for the events that analysts assess and forecast. Without explicit quantifiers, analysts cannot communicate their conclusions clearly or evaluate the accuracy of their analyses over time. Policymakers need to know how confident analysts are and how well they understand the limits to their knowledge, the report emphasizes. It recommends many specific steps that DNI can implement as part of analysts’ everyday work.
"The social and behavioral sciences have long studied topics central to analysts’ work, such as how people evaluate evidence and collaborate on difficult tasks,” said Baruch Fischhoff, chair of the committee that wrote the report and professor of social and decision sciences and of engineering and public policy at
Carnegie Mellon University, . “That research has had some impact on that work. Our report shows how the community can take full advantage of that research – and of its dedicated analysts – by adopting an evidence-based approach to its own analytical methods. We envision a community engaged in continual learning, both absorbing scientific research into the analytical process and evaluating its own performance." Pittsburgh
Now, this all sounds good to this social scientist's ears, but there's one little thing nagging at me. A quick glance at the "Committee on Behavioral and Social Science Research to Improve Intelligence Analysis for National Security" reveals the following membership: four psychology professors, three political scientists, three business professors, and a public policy professor.
Now, no offense, but is it really shocking that a group of social and behavioral scientists conclude that their work should be embraced more by the intelligence community?
None of this is to say that I disagree with the report's findings. I concur that the intelligence community should “ensure that the intelligence community (IC) applies the principles, evidentiary standards, and findings of the behavioral and social sciences.” And I wholeheartedly agree that there should be more "exchange of expertise between the IC and academic research environments." (Based on this survey, by the way, a fair percentage of IR scholars already do paid or unpaid work for the government).
The tools of social sciences are not magic bullets, but they're actually quite useful, and I want analysts to rely on every tool in their cognitive arsenal. To use a baseball metaphor, think of this report as suggesting that sabermetrics would be a useful complement to traditional scouting as a way of analyzing talent..
The thing is, as much as I might want to be viewed as a thoroughly detached and dispassionate expert on these questions, I fear that the rest of the world will view this an exercise in interest group lobbying. The report would have been more persuasive if more "old-school" intelligence analysts had signed off on the report (though Thomas Fingar was one of the signatories).
Yesterday Director of National Intelligence James Clapper provided his sober assessment of the situation on the ground in Libya:
Responding to questions, Mr. Clapper told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that Colonel Qaddafi had a potentially decisive advantage in arms and equipment that would make itself felt as the conflict wore on.
“This is kind of a stalemate back and forth,” he said, “but I think over the longer term that the regime will prevail.”
Mr. Clapper also offered another scenario, one in which the country is split into two or three ministates, reverting to the way it was before Colonel Qaddafi’s rule. “You could end up with a situation where Qaddafi would have Tripoli and its environs, and then Benghazi and its environs could be under another ministate,” he said.
The White House was clearly taken aback by the assessment that Mr. Qaddafi could prevail.
The White House wasn't the only actor that didn't like what Clapper was saying:
Clapper's prediction of defeat for the Libyan opposition prompted a furious Sen.Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to demand that Clapper resign or be fired.
"The situation in Libya remains tenuous and the director's comments today on Gadhafi's 'staying power' are not helpful to our national security interests,'' Graham said in a statement, using a different spelling of the leader's name. "His comments will make the situation more difficult for those opposing Gadhafi ... and undercut our national efforts to bring about the desired result of Libya moving from dictator to democracy.
Yeah, how dare Clapper say things that jibe with open-source analysis of the situation!!
I kinda sorta understand the argument that Clapper shouldn't have said this in public, but not really. To have a quality debate about policy options on Libya, this kind of dispassionate analysis is crucial. Clapper's job description is to provide an assessment of what's actually occurring on the ground, regardless of what people want to happen on the ground. It's then up to policymakers to craft responses to try to alter or reinforce that situation as they see fit. Calling for Clapper's resignation because he provided what appears to be an accurate assessment of the current state of play seriously politicizes the job of intelligence analysis and assessment. Doesn't the past decade suggest that politicized intelligence leads to catastrophic foreign policymaking?
What worries me is not what Clapper said but how the White House responded:
The White House was clearly taken aback by the assessment that Mr. Qaddafi could prevail, and Mr. Donilon, talking to reporters a few hours later, suggested that Mr. Clapper was addressing the question too narrowly.
“If you did a static and one-dimensional assessment of just looking at order of battle and mercenaries,” Mr. Donilon said, one could conclude that the Libyan leader would hang on. But he said that he took a “dynamic” and “multidimensional” view, which he said would lead “to a different conclusion about how this is going to go forward.”
“The lost legitimacy matters,” he said. “Motivation matters. Incentives matter.” He said Colonel Qaddafi’s “resources are being cut off,” and ultimately that would undercut his hold on power.
A senior administration official, driving home the difference in an e-mail on Thursday evening, wrote, “The president does not think that Qaddafi will prevail.”
Hmmm. Over the past week, the Libyan opposition to Qaddafi has been winning on only one dimension -- garnering international support. On the ground in Libya, not so much. And the international support won't affect the situation on the ground anytime soon. Even the tightest financial sanctions don't matter at this point. Qaddafi possesses far more financial reserves than, say, the Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo -- and yet Gbagbo has managed to stay in power for five months. Sanctions should eventually work in the Ivory Coast, but they're not going to work anytime soon in Libya.
Contra Donilon, the only way in which the dynamic changes on the ground in Libya is if international support becomes far more concerted and proactive in support of the Libyan rebels. Based on Mark Landler and Helene Cooper's analysis in the New York Times, however, the Obama administration won't be spearheading that kind of policy shift. For Donilon to suggest that, absent U.S. action, the dynamic is working in favor of Libya's anti-Qaddafi movement smacks of utopian thinking.
Graham and others should criticize the Obama administration's handling of Libya if they want to see a more forceful policy response. Criticizing the DNI for providing an accurate intelligence assessment, on the other hand, is seriously counterproductive.
There are many things that confuse me in life -- Manhattan parking rituals, the proliferation of rotaries in Massachusetts, the appeal of most reality television, and so forth. I think I'm going to have to add the Russian spy ring to this list.
Less than a week after Russian President Dmitri Medevedev's burger date with U.S. President Barack Obama, the U.S. Justice Department has busted eight Russkies in an espionage ring so heinous, they've been charged with.... "conspiracy to act as unregistered agents of a foreign government."
Um.... so, in other words, the Russians are accused of some combination of illegal immigration and impersonating Jack Abramoff?
Seriously, this story is the most bizarre foreign policy/international relations episode I've seen since the Sandy-Berger-let's-stuff--classified-documents-down-my-pants episode.
Here are the list of things that confuse me about this case:
1) What, exactly, were the Russian agents allegedly trying to do? According to the New York Times:
The suspects were directed to gather information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, C.I.A. leadership, Congressional politics and many other topics, prosecutors say. The Russian spies made contact with a former high-ranking American national security official and a nuclear weapons researcher, among others. But the charges did not include espionage, and it was unclear what secrets the suspected spy ring — which included five couples — actually managed to collect.
Let's ask a more basic question -- is there anything that the Russians gathered from this enterprise that a well-trained analyst couldn't have picked up by trolling the interwebs?
2) Why were the arrests made now? Back to the Times:
After years of F.B.I. surveillance, investigators decided to make the arrests last weekend, just days after an upbeat visit to President Obama by the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, one administration official said. Mr. Obama was not happy about the timing, but investigators feared some of their targets might flee, the official said.
Based on the actual charges, there's no justification for the timing -- this is chump change. One is forced to assume that the FBI and DOJ know that other stuff is going on but can't prove it. Which is fine if you're willing to make that assumption.
I normally think the Russians are being paranoid when they start devising conspiracies, but in this case, I have at least some sympathy.
3. Anyone else gonna re-watch No Way Out? Because this sounds like a low-rent, more boring version of that movie.
Seriously, I call on informed readers of this blog to offer some enlightenment on this episode, because it makes almost no sense to me.
SHIRLEY SHEPARD/AFP/Getty Images
I've received a bunch of e-mail queries asking me what I think of the Charles Freeman affair. One could argue that Freeman's actual policy positions got him into trouble. (When a letter to the Wall Street Journal on his behalf allows that "Chas has controversial political views, not all of which we share," it suggests that something is amiss). One could also argue pretty persuasively that the Israel Lobby flexed its muscle (as Freeman himself argues in his missive to FP's Laura Rozen).
In the wake of Freeman's withdrawal, I think everyone is vastly overestimating the influence of outside forces and underestimating the idiosyncracies of Freeman in trying to interpret what the hell happened. I don't mean his positions -- I mean his relative eagerness to get back into the game. Freeman's statements on the matter suggests that he was not all that eager to re-enter government life:
"As those who know me are well aware, I have greatly enjoyed life since retiring from government. Nothing was further from my mind than a return to public service. When Admiral Blair asked me to chair the NIC I responded that I understood he was “asking me to give my freedom of speech, my leisure, the greater part of my income, subject myself to the mental colonoscopy of a polygraph, and resume a daily commute to a job with long working hours and a daily ration of political abuse.” I added that I wondered “whether there wasn’t some sort of downside to this offer.”
Sometimes these statements are boilerplate, but I don't get that sense from Freeman.
To put it another way -- if Hillary Clinton had been in the same situation as Freeman, there's no way in hell that she withdraws her name.
Steve Walt claims that, "this incident reinforces my suspicion that the Democratic Party is in fact a party of wimps." He's got a point, but I'm not sure it's the one he intended to make. Freeman is just one of a longer list of policy wonks -- Wendy Sherman, Caroline Atkinson, Robert Gallucci, etc. -- who have either declined or changed their minds about high-ranking postings. While none of these other names were targeted by the Israel Lobby, they all found the opportunity costs of entering goverment service too onerous.
Question to readers: Has the vetting process in DC become too absurd, or are Obama's subcabinet candidates too thin-skinned?
President-elect Barack Obama is still mulling over whom to appoint to his intelligence cabinet.... Published reports say Obama is considering Adm. Dennis Blair (ret)., for the supervisory post of Director of National Intelligence; As of last week, Blair's nomination was not a fait accompli, although he was still in the running, sources said; some human rights activists have transmitted their disapproval to Obama's team. Intelligence types who don't have transition connections or insider information noted that the name leaked out at the same time as Obama was said to be considering Gen. James Jones (Ret.) for the post of national security adviser and Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State; when those two announcements were formalized, Blair was not introduced as a member of Obama's national security team.... Sources say that Obama's team is having trouble finding a potential CIA director who lacks politically incriminating links to controversial Bush Administration policies and yet commands the respect of the agency's rank and file.Another problem with Blair in particular might be that he's landed on Foreign Policy's "10 Worst Predictions for 2008" list:
“[In] reality the risks to maritime flows of oil are far smaller than is commonly assumed. First, tankers are much less vulnerable than conventional wisdom holds. Second, limited regional conflicts would be unlikely to seriously upset traffic, and terrorist attacks against shipping would have even less of an economic effect. Third, only a naval power of the United States’ strength could seriously disrupt oil shipments.” —Dennis Blair and Kenneth Lieberthal, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2007
On Nov. 15, 2008 a group of Somali pirates in inflatable rafts hijacked a Saudi oil tanker carrying 2 million barrels of crude in the Indian Ocean. The daring raid was part of a rash of attacks by Somali pirates, which have primarily occurred in the Gulf of Aden. Pirates operating in the waterway have hijacked more than 50 ships this year, up from only 13 in all of last year, according to the Piracy Reporting Center. The Gulf of Aden, where nearly 4 percent of the world’s oil demand passes every day, was not on the list of strategic “chokepoints” where oil shipments could potentially be disrupted that Blair and Lieberthal included in their essay, “Smooth Sailing: The World’s Shipping Lanes Are Safe.” Hopefully, Blair will show a bit more foresight if, as some expect, he is selected as Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.