Tag: intelligence

Get Ready to Rumble….. NSA vs. State

OK, so it’s not exactly Ali vs. Frazier, but NSA and the State Department are not happy with each other. From this morning’s Cable at Foreign Policy, Yochi Dreazen reports:

Secretary of State John Kerry touched off the furor when he said some of the NSA’s overseas surveillance efforts — which also included tapping into tens of millions of calls in France and Spain — had been carried out without the Obama administration’s knowledge or explicit approval. The remarks highlighted what appears to the White House’s emerging strategy for dealing with widespread public fury over the programs: blame it on the NSA. Continue reading


Why the US Spies on Its Allies


The Guardian article this week that disclosed the story of U.S. eavesdropping on the leaders of several US allies said that the surveillance  produced “little reportable intelligence.”  This isn’t really a surprise — I can’t really imagine that listening to German Chancellor Merkel’s phone conversations are going to give US analysts and policymakers a whole lot more than they get from open source and normal diplomatic channels. So why does the US do it?  The cheap answer to this question is that it comes from that sinister NSA organization. From this morning’s NYTimes:

In Washington, the reaction has set off a debate over whether it is time to put the brakes on the N.S.A., whose capabilities, Mr. Obama has hinted, have expanded faster than its judgment. There are now two groups looking at the N.S.A.’s activities: one inside the National Security Council, another with outside advisers. The president all but told Ms. Merkel that “we don’t have the balance right,” according to one official.

“Sure, everyone does it, but that’s been an N.S.A. excuse for too long,” one former senior official who talks to Mr. Obama often on intelligence matters said Friday. “Obama has said, publicly and privately, that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. But everyone has moved too slowly in moving that from a slogan to a policy.”

But, is there something more here? Why does the US eavesdrop on its allies?  The problem here isn’t simply the NSA run amok and NSA “excuses.”   Continue reading


Big Brother meets Network Analysis?

A story in the New York Times this morning suggests that the National Security Agency has been analyzing our social networks through email and phone call records, apparently accomplishing “large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata” of American citizens and foreign citizens alike.  This network analysis uses not only contact data but GPS tracking to understand not only how we relate but how we move in relationship to each other.

From the description in the article, the methods that the NSA uses seem to be very similar to those that political science is using, in Michael Ward, Katherine Stovel, and Audrey Sacks’ words, to locate the “holy grail” of  “effectively analyzing the interdependence and flows of influence among individuals, groups, and institutions,” a sea-change in the field.

I’m not arguing that we as political scientists have culpability in this (these methods did not originate in our field by any stretch of the imagination). But I am interested – if network analysis does the cool things it does for our work, what does it do for the work of those whose job is to watch and monitor us?

Continue reading


Global Governance, Big Surveillance, and Intelligence Cooperation

Menwith Hill Radome ECHELONMy very quick search suggests that there’s insufficient work on this subject. I know that Alexander Cooley has turned up some pretty amazing things on older intelligence cooperation, Mark Laffey and Jutta Weldes have done some great work on policing and global governance, and there’s a lot of cognate stuff under the rubric of bio-politics (e.g.) and permanent states of exception, but it seems to me that more direct analysis is called for.  Continue reading


The Challenges of Dissent: A Dissenter’s View

The commentary on Edward Snowden over the past several days and the various discussions on dissent, resignations, and whistleblowing have given me a lot to think about.  I’ll leave discussion of the merits of Snowden’s actions to Dan’s thread below.  Here I want to think about the process and pitfalls of whistleblowing and dissent.  Twenty years ago this summer I had my own moment in the spotlight for resigning from my position at the State Department in protest over American policy in Bosnia. My situation and experiences were quite different — I was a policy dissenter not really a whistleblower. My resignation — along with those of a few colleagues — generated widespread attention, but none of us disclosed government crimes per se and I was never under threat of legal action. Nonetheless, there are a few general observations on dissent and whistleblowing that may be worth some discussion:   dissent and whistleblowing are inevitable, they are unpredictable, and they are also relatively rare (for a much wider range of reasons than some have suggested).  I also am very uncomfortable labeling dissenters or whistleblowers as heroes, but, for reasons that are different from some of the other commentary out there. Continue reading


Can’t stop thinking about tomorrow…

Michael Horowitz and Philip Tetlock have an interesting piece in Foreign Policy that examines the record on long-range forecasting of global events — 15 – 20 years into the future. They acknowledge the inherent difficulties of such a projections, but still wonder:

whether there are not ways of doing a better job — of assigning more explicit, testable, and accurate probabilities to possible futures. Improving batting averages by even small margins means the difference between runner-ups and World Series winners — and improving the accuracy of probability judgments by small margins could significantly contribute to U.S. national security.

Overall, I like the piece, but I do wonder about a couple of the basic premises and their prescription.

1. Would improving the accuracy of probability judgments actually enhance US national security? I’m not convinced. And, unfortunately, Horowitz and Tetlock don’t unpack this claim. They do acknowledge, and I agree, that improving accuracy would be difficult and it would only be improvements on the margins. The world is getting more complex, not less. It is more dynamic, not less. New and more actors in the international system interacting with greater frequency, more intensity, and faster speeds means that there is a constantly changing strategic environment in which actors act and react — and continue to change the strategic environment. In short, minor improvements in accuracy just might do anything because on whole everything is getting more complex.

2. Is accuracy the right metric? Even if we did have a better understanding (or thought we did) of the future, any policy calibrations made today on the basis of what that future might look like, could alter the future in ways that deviate from the accuracy of the long-range forecasting. In this sense, accuracy may well be the wrong metric.

3. Is there a downside in trying to get better? Maybe. Horowitz and Tetlock conclude:

Even if we were 80 percent or 90 percent confident that there is no room for improvement — and the Global Trends reports are doing as good a job as humanly and technically possible at this juncture in history — we would still recommend that the NIC conduct our proposed experiments. When one works within a government that routinely makes multibillion-dollar decisions that often affect hundreds of millions of lives, one does not have to improve the accuracy of probability judgments by much to justify a multimillion-dollar investment in improving accuracy.

Again, I think there is utility in long-range forecasting exercises, I’m just not sure I see any real benefits from improved accuracy on the margins. There may actually be some downsides. First, a “multi-million dollar investment” (they don’t tell us exactly how much) is still money and it may be a waste time and money to throw even more resources at an effort that is principally of interest only to the participants. Do policymakers really get much from projects like Global Trends or other long-range forecasts — and would they get added benefits from marginal improvements in accuracy? They already have their own biases and perceptions of the future — do these exercises have any real influence?

Second, what if we spend more time, money, and other resources to enhance those capabilities such that it alters decision-makers’ perceptions and gives them an unfounded sense of accuracy, i.e, that they come to see long-range forecasting as producing accurate or realistic futures? We may get a whole host of policy reactions that are unnecessary, wrong, and counterproductive based on what are still probabilistic outcomes.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t tweak these exercises to make them better for all involved. I also agree with Horowitz and Tetlock that there is utility in conducting these long-range forecasting efforts. It is helpful to enlist a broad set of academic and government views to assess current and long-term trends. My own sense is that these efforts probably tell us more about the present than they do about the future. They force analysts to articulate their often embedded assumptions and to project into the future the likely consequences of their current assessments. I think we should keep them, I’m just not sure we need to spend too much more time and money on them. Of course, I might be wrong.


Who needs experts to forecast international politics?

 This is a guest post by Michael C. Horowitz, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Who can see the future? For us mere mortals, it’s hard, even for so-called experts. There are so many cognitive biases to take into consideration and even knowing your own weaknesses often does not help. Neither does being smart, apparently. So, what does make for “good judgment” when it comes to forecasting? When, if ever, do experts have advantages in making predictions? And how can we combine expertise and statistical models to produce the best possible predictions? This is not just an academic question, but one relevant for policy makers as well, as Frank Gavin and Jim Steinberg recently pointed out. There are new efforts afoot to try and determine the boundary conditions in which experts- both political scientists and otherwise- can outperform methods such as the wisdom of crowds, prediction markets, and groups of educated readers of the New York Times. At the bottom of this post is information on how to assist in this research. I hope you will consider doing so.
Jacqueline Stevens recently argued in the New York Times that “Political Scientists are Lousy Forecasters.” In her article, which othershavealreadydissected, she discusses Phil Tetlock’s work on expert forecasting. His book, Expert Political Judgment, has become the definitive work on the subject. The postage stamp version she cites is that experts are only slightly better than dart-throwing chimps at predicting the future, if they are better at all.
However, the notion that Tetlock argues that experts are know-nothings when it comes to forecasting is simply wrong, as others have already pointed out. More important, Expert Political Judgment was a first foray into the uncharted domain of building better forecasting models. Several years later, Tetlock is back at it, and this time he has invited me, Richard Herrmann of Ohio State University, and others to join him. The immediate goal this time is to participate in a forecasting “tournament” sponsored by the United States intelligence community. The intelligence community has funded several teams to go out and build the best models possible – however they can – to forecast world events. Each team has to forecast the same events, a list of questions given to the teams by the sponsor, and then submit predictions [note: Tetlock’s team dominated the opposition in year one – so we’ll find out this year whether adding me helps or not. Unfortunately, there’s no place to go but down].

Our team is called the Good Judgment team, and the idea is to not only win the tournament, but also to develop a better understanding of the methods and strategies that lead to better forecasting of political events. There are many facets to this project, but the one I want to focus on today is our effort to figure out when experts such as political scientists might have advantages over the educated reader of the New York Times when it comes to forecasting world events.
One of the main things we are interested in determining is the situations in which experts provide knowledge-added value when it comes to making predictions about the world. Evidence from the first year of the project (year 2 started on Monday, June 18) suggests that, contrary to Stevens’ argument, experts might actually have something useful to say after all. For example, we have some initial evidence on a small number of questions from year 1 suggesting that experts are better at updating faster than educated members of the general public – they are better at determining the full implications of changes in events on the ground and updating their beliefs in response to those events.
Over the course of the year, we will be exploring several topics of interest to the readers – and hopefully authors – of this blog. First, do experts potentially have advantages when it comes to making predictions that are based on process? In other words, does knowing when the next NATO Summit is occurring help you make a more accurate prediction about whether Macedonia will gain entry by 1 April 2013 (one of our open questions at the moment)? Alternatively, could it be that the advantage of experts is that they have a better understanding of world events when a question is asked, but then that advantage fades over time as the educated reader of the New York Times updates in response to world events?
Second, when you inform experts of the predictions derived from prediction markets, the wisdom of groups, or teams of forecasters working together, are they able to use this information to yield more accurate predictions than the markets, the crowd, or teams, or do they make it worse? In theory, we would expect experts to be able to assimilate that information and use it to more accurately determine what will happen in the world. Or, maybe we would expect an expert to be able to recognize when the non-experts are wrong and outperform them. In reality, will this just demonstrate the experts are stubborn – but not in a good way?
Finally, are there types of questions where experts are more or less able to make accurate predictions? Might experts outperform other methods when it comes to election forecasting in Venezuela or the fate of the Eurozone, but prove less capable when it comes to issues involving the use of military force?
We hope to explore these and other issues over the course of the year and think this will raise many questions relevant for this blog. We will report back on how it is going. In the meantime, we need experts who are willing to participate. The workload will be light – promise. If you are interested in participating, expert or not, please contact me at horom (at) sas (dot) upenn (dot) edu and let’s see what you can do.

Politics, Intelligence, and Academic Analysis

Writing in Foreign Policy, Paul Pillar makes the case that most so-called “intelligence failures” stem from bad leadership rather than problems with the US intelligence community. He touches upon a number of cases, but Iraq looms large:

Had Bush read the intelligence community’s report, he would have seen his administration’s case for invasion stood on its head. The intelligence officials concluded that Saddam was unlikely to use any weapons of mass destruction against the United States or give them to terrorists — unless the United States invaded Iraq and tried to overthrow his regime. The intelligence community did not believe, as the president claimed, that the Iraqi regime was an ally of al Qaeda, and it correctly foresaw any attempt to establish democracy in a post-Saddam Iraq as a hard, messy slog.

Pillar’s discussion of proliferation is a little more nuanced. He writes:

The intelligence community was raising no alarms about the subject when the Bush administration came into office; indeed, the 2001 edition of the community’s comprehensive statement on worldwide threats did not even mention the possibility of Iraqi nuclear weapons or any stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons. The administration did not request the (ultimately flawed) October 2002 intelligence estimate on Iraqi unconventional weapons programs that was central to the official case for invasion — Democrats in Congress did, and only six senators and a handful of representatives bothered to look at it before voting on the war, according to staff members who kept custody of the copies. Neither Bush nor Condoleezza Rice, then his national security advisor, read the entire estimate at the time, and in any case the public relations rollout of the war was already under way before the document was written.

I can’t speak to all of these claims, but the evidence seems pretty overwhelming that “intelligence failures” — understood as erroneous conclusions produced by the intelligence community in which Bush administration pressure played no role — cannot be blamed for the catastrophic decision to invade Iraq.

This discussion provides a nice pivot to something that’s bothered me for quite some time. Robert Jervis wrote a scholarly book on intelligence failures that, inter alia, places responsibility for the WMD-debacle on the CIA. In response to a negative review in the New York Review of Books, Jervis wrote:

Powers’s other point is that the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence, Jami Miscik, threatened to resign unless the White House stopped pressuring her. But her complaints were about the CIA’s refusal to affirm links between Saddam and terrorism, not about its WMD findings, which was the topic of my analysis. This is a key point. If politicization explained intelligence assessments, we would find them converging with administration preferences. But on Iraq and terrorism, they never did.

This line of reasoning strikes me as a classic “academic logic” blunder, one that I’m surprised that Jervis, as a former scholar-in-residence at the CIA, would make. Bureaucrats and officials pick their fights; they are much more likely to fall on their swords (or threaten to) over battles they believe they can win than over battles they see as losers. Whatever the truth of the matter, Miscik’s behavior is in no way inconsistent with the claim that politicization drove intelligence analysts to overstate the threat of Iraqi unconventional-weapons proliferation.


Drip, drip, drip

I do not own a copy of the George W. Bush memoirs, but I have been following the bits and pieces that appear in my newspaper. I’m going to try to blog about a few of the most important items, especially as they pertain to my past blogging and/or research interests.

For example, the former President confirms that Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor in September 2002. This has long been a matter of discussion on the Duck.

Even more interesting, Bush says he rejected Israel’s request that the US bomb the facility. Given Bush’s “preemptive” war policy, Israel may have viewed this as a perfectly reasonable favor. Apparently, however, the CIA “had only ‘low confidence’ that Syria had a nuclear weapons program,” though they had “high confidence” that Syria had built the reactor — thanks to North Korea.

What this means is that the Bush Doctrine did have limits after all!

Then again, perhaps it is more accurate to say that Israel simply implemented US policy:

“Prime Minister Olmert’s execution of the strike made up for the confidence I had lost in the Israelis during the Lebanon war,” Bush writes. “The bombing demonstrated Israel’s willingness to act alone. Prime Minister Olmert hadn’t asked for a green light, and I hadn’t given one. He had done what was necessary to protect Israel.”

I’ll try to examine additional tidbits soon.


Three Cheers for Wikileaks

The last few days have seen a fury of debate about Wikileaks’ latest disclosures.   To my mind, Wikileaks’ release of the Iraq and earlier Afghanistan documents is a public service—throwing critical light on the way in which America has pursued its wars at ground level.  

Some have dismissed the documents as nothing “new.”    Of course, it is true that we have had information about the wars, human rights violations, and civilian casualties in everyday stories by the media.  But much of that, among reporters “embedded” by the military, has been carefully screened.  Moreover, what has been written is also of course filtered through the eyes of journalists, with their own biases.  
I think it is extremely useful for the public to have the opportunity to see ordinary soldiers’ day-to-day experience of the wars in any number of incidents that have not in fact received attention.  This in my view makes the information “new”—and clearly worthwhile.   That is why the world’s headlines over the last few days have been full of stories about civilian casualties, torture, and the role of military contractors–based on the Wikileaks disclosures.  
As to the argument that the releases put civilians and soldiers at risk,

I of course believe those risks should be minimized.  It certainly cannot be denied that these documents could put some civilian informants in the two countries “at risk”—or more precisely at greater risk than they have already placed themselves.  And, as Charli Carpenter and others have argued previously, it does seem that Wikileaks might have done more to reduce that risk, particularly in the Afghanistan release.  But it is probably impossible to eliminate the risk of harm—other than not to have released the documents in the first place.  With regard to the actual level of risk from the Afghanistan disclosure, however, we do have some information.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, hardly someone to underestimate the peril, wrote in August that the Pentagon’s “review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by the disclosure.”   Days ago, CNN also reported that “a senior NATO official in Kabul told [the network] there has not been a single case of Afghans needing protection or to be moved because of the leak.” (h/t Vikash Yadav)

Charli’s older idea that Wikileaks should do targeted document releases of potential war crimes may have some merit–but such an approach would essentially turn Wikileaks into a human rights NGO.  Admittedly, the world could use more of them, particularly in war zones.   But I see no value in Wikileaks transforming itself into something it is not, nor do I see anything wrong with Wikileaks’ continuing the mass data releases that it specializes in, albeit with some enhanced protections that it appears to be implementing already. 
Nor do I have a problem with lack of transparency about the organization’s internal operations—or, if you will, a lack of symmetry with its efforts to illuminate government activities.  Wikileaks, as a private entity, is under no obligation to disclose its internal operations, funding, and decisionmaking, beyond that required by law of other private concerns.  As a matter of organizational strategy, I would argue for Wikileaks to tell more—because failing to do so raises legitimate questions about the group.  But I would not dismiss its activities or discount its disclosures for this reason.  Nor would I focus attention on this side issue, rather than the main one–the information’s substance.
By contrast, democratic governments do have an obligation to disclose information to their citizens, except in rare and particular circumstances.  Yet from the U.S. to South Africa, governments’ knee jerk approach, especially when officials solemnly intone the magic word “security,”  is exactly the opposite–with dire costs to citizens who are paying the bills and soldiers who are doing the dying.
In any case, all of the worry about Wikileaks possibly putting civilians and soldiers at risk must be placed in context.  The Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which the U.S. started with so little justification and so little vision, have put millions of civilians and soldiers at actual risk.  Of course, it is far worse than “risk.”  Hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqi civilians have actually died as a result of our wars, with far larger numbers gravely wounded.  Thousands of American soldiers have actually been killed, and tens of thousands have had their lives shattered by injuries.  
The wars have also put our nation as a whole at greater “risk”—although it is critical to realize that the danger to individual Americans and certainly to our “national security” remains small and easily manageable.  Certainly, it does not justify the vast and wasteful expenditures we are making in the “GWOT.”  (This does not even take into account the huge direct and indirect monetary costs of the wars—or the costs in civil liberties eroded.)
A major reason that the Bush administration was able to start these wars was lack of information.  The evidentiary “basis” for them—and certainly against them–was not fully analyzed, the rationale for them not fully debated, and the exit strategies not wisely considered.  In this, many of our key “watchdogs”—journalists, “opposition” politicians, and academics—blindly bought the Bush administration’s line on the “threat.”  More information does not of course mean that misguided politicians will avoid doing stupid things.  Nor does it stop journalists from becoming handmaidens of power. But it probably makes it more difficult for these things to happen.  
In this context, the more information we have today about these misbegotten wars, the better.  In the past, much of what we have had came from government or military sources, with a clear incentive to paint a rosy or incomplete picture.   Journalists often ignored their obligation to be skeptical of officialdom.  A vast “top security” industry has grown up in the wake of these wars, full of private contractors and government employees only too happy to keep information from the public.  Because of the Pentagon’s strategic decision not to report civilian casualties, the human costs to the Iraqi and Afghan people can be found only through third parties.  Through clever accounting practices, the government has been able to hide and postpone payment of the war’s monetary costs.  And because of our volunteer army, the human costs to Americans have been confined to a tiny minority of our population.  
In other words, these wars have been conducted with the American people—who pay their costs and in whose name they were started—very much in the dark.  The mantra from our leaders is, “Trust us.”  And the furious response to the disclosures is to attack Wikileaks and, most pathetically, Julian Assange–for his personal life. 
Wikileaks is fighting against this self-servingly secretive mindset and may help bring these wars to an end sooner.  In that, the group will help our country be stronger, more secure, and more responsible.  I applaud the disclosures! 
I also recommend Steve Walt’s blog and especially Glenn Greenwald’s recent posts which get to the heart of the story:  what Wikileaks is doing; and how it is being attacked by government officials and much of the U.S. (but not foreign) press.

Top Secret America: The Garrison State has arrived

A couple of thoughts on Dana Priest and William Arkin’s series that began in the Washington Post yesterday. First, this is the type of story that is all but non-existent in our non-stop 24-hour news cycles — a two-year investigative report that pulls together thousands of bits and pieces of information and carefully assembles them to tell the bigger story of where we have traveled in the past decade. (I see that the story actually bumped CNN’s coverage of Sara Palin’s last tweet…) (Update: My bad — the Post actually featured Palin’s last tweet above the Top Secret America in the streaming news banner… oh well..)

Second, on the substance, the sheer size of this new intelligence and security system is staggering:

Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

I’m guessing when others take a closer look — we’ll find that Priest and Arkin are either double counting some things or tallying things that are only peripheral to the overall system.

Nonetheless, it is clear the United States is a garrison state. We are a society that lives in fear and we have a set of institutions designed specifically to hide the costs and consequences of our security. Since 9/11, the United States has hovered around 50% of global expenditures on defense, i.e., as much as the rest of the world combined. If we add the amount of spending on domestic security and all of the related state and municipal security and intelligence spending as part of overall security expenditures, that percentage no doubt sky rockets (this doesn’t even begin to consider the qualitative advantage of these capabilities — the US spends somewhere near two-thirds of the global R&D on security technology). Furthermore, the magnitude of the effort across multiple lead departments and agencies makes accountability almost impossible. Think about it: Where can sufficient oversight come from? What kind of institutional structure would be needed to control this system?

Priest and Arkin argue that we need to have a candid discussion about these institutions and whether or not they are worth it. Of course, scholars such as Andrew Bacevich and John Mueller have been making similar arguments — from different perspectives — for several years. But here’s the problem: there are powerful structural forces that entrench and perpetuate this system: private security firms and commercial defense industries with powerful economic motives are coupled with epistemic communities that provide the ideological justifications for the system; personnel systems that encourage/allow tight relationships and/or revolving doors between government agencies and private firms; and, massive bureaucracies that expand and adapt to new roles and missions, etc…. In addition, once the system grows as big as it is, there is a diffusion effect. For example, stimulus money is being used to construct not only new security facilities, but also to construct the infrastructure (roads, communications lines, and other municipal services) to support those facilities. This isn’t just about security, its also about jobs.

Aaron Friedberg argued that the United States was able to avoid becoming a garrison state after World War II largely because of the objections of the anti-statists in the American public –= principally Midwest Conservative Republicans. But where are the domestic constituencies capable of checking the garrison state today? The Eisenhower anti-statists within the Republican party of the 1950s died with the Reagan revolution. Today’s “anti-statists” aren’t really anti-statist — for example, they are farmers who oppose Obama”s “socialism” but demand agricultural subsidies or they are seniors concerned about ObamaCare because of how it might affect Medicare or their Veteran health benefits, etc… No one in the Tea Party movement that loathes the rising deficit is calling for a reduction of American defense or security expenditures.

The left is equally unwilling or incapable of stemming the flow. Progressives mobilized to elect Barak Obama. But, Obama entered office as the most constrained president since Harry Truman — two wars and a global financial meltdown — and much of this security infrastructure was already in place. Obama’s problem-solving pragmatism has ignored the progressive agenda and there don’t appear to be any articulate or strong voices challenging this “Top Secret America” system from within the Democratic Party leadership.

I agree that we need a rational discussion on risks and threat and we need more transparency regarding the institutions that are being designed. I’m just skeptical that we will have one….


Use it or lose it

A recent paper from Brookings, Georgetown and Hoover discusses the international legal aspects of targeted killing. As you would expect, American policy isn’t in sync with the emerging global norm. An idealist might argue that the US is in the wrong (and they have a very strong case under the International Convention on Human Rights); a Realist might argue that the US needs the latitude to kill because it (or somebody–and nobody else is available) has the responsibility to combat enemies of the legal regime that everyone else assumes. The point that I hadn’t thought of before is the conclusion that the US might want to be open about what it is doing and assert–as a legal principle–that this is as it should be.

The ultimate lesson for Congress and the Obama Administration about targeted killings is “Use it or lose it.” This is as true of its legal rationale as it is of the tool itself. Targeted killings conducted from standoff platforms, with improving technologies in surveillance and targeting, are a vital strategic, but also humanitarian, tool in long-term counterterrorism. War will always be important as an option; so will the tools of law enforcement, as well as all the other non-force aspects of intelligence work: diplomacy and coordination with friends and allies. But the long-standing legal authority to use force covertly, as part of the writ of the intelligence community, remains a crucial tool—one the new administration will need and evidently knows it will need. So will administrations beyond it.


The death of Osama bin Laden and his top aides by Predator strike tomorrow would alter national security counterterrorism calculations rather less than we might all hope. As new terrorist enemies emerge, so long as they are “jihadist” in character, we might continue referring to them as “affiliated” with al Qaeda and therefore co-belligerent. But the label will eventually become a mere legalism in order to bring them under the umbrella of an AUMF passed after September 11. Looking even further into the future, terrorism will not always be about something plausibly tied to September 11 or al Qaeda at all. Circumstances alone, in other words, will put enormous pressure on—and ultimately render obsolete—the legal framework we currently employ to justify these operations.

What we can do is to insist on defining armed conflict self-defense broadly enough, and human rights law narrowly enough—as the United States has traditionally done—to avoid exacerbating the problem and making it acute sooner, or even immediately.


We stand at a curious moment in which the strategic trend is toward reliance upon targeted killing; and within broad U.S. political circles even across party lines, a political trend toward legitimization; and yet the international legal trend is also severely and sharply to contain it within a narrow conception of either the law of armed conflict under IHL or human rights and law enforcement, rather than its traditional conception as self-defense in international law and regulation as covert action under domestic intelligence law. Many in the world of ideas and policy have already concluded that targeted killing as a category, even if proffered as self-defense, is unacceptable and indeed all but per se illegal. If the United States wishes to preserve its traditional powers and practices in this area, it had better assert them. Else it will find that as a practical matter they have dissipated through desuetude.

Does the US (or someone) have the right to target individuals? In States where the US is not formally at war? Inside the US?

I suspect that someone has to have the job of playing cop in the international system. I don’t see anyone but the US who is able and willing to do it. A UN force is a possibility, but it still comes down to great power politics and capabilities. On the other hand, I don’t want to give the cops–any cops–the right to target whoever they choose. Even if they start with the best of intentions, that’s a structure that corrupts the cop, alientates the community, and kills the innocent.


Ire of Newt

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has declared war on current speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Why? Well, Gingrich says Pelosi lied when she claimed that the CIA withheld information from her about waterboarding in 2002 briefings.

Here’s Gingrich on Fox News, May 17:

I was really surprised and even stunned by her comments yesterday, where she alleged that the American intelligence agencies routinely lied to the Congress. I know it’s false. I know that it demeans every person who’s working to defend this country….

I think Speaker Pelosi’s in enormous trouble. I think that lying to the country on national security matters and lying to the House is a very, very dangerous thing to have done.

The next day, on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Gingrich called for Pelosi to resign, arguing that “She really disqualified herself to be the speaker.”

“She has a unique responsibility for national security. … She made this allegation that smears everyone who’s trying to defend her.”

Leaving her in her place would be “very dangerous for the country,” Gingrich added.

Other Republicans have piled on as well, including House Minority leader John Boehner who has called for Pelosi to apologize to the CIA. Democrats have defended Pelosi. It all looks fairly partisan.

What’s interesting here is the nature of Gingrich’s attack. He’s saying that the speaker of the House cannot accuse a U.S. foreign policy agency of misdeeds during wartime because that is a threat to national security.

Did he forget his own past? Does anyone else recall Gingrich’s war-time broadside against the State Department? In a July/August 2003 piece for Foreign Policy (read the full article here) entitled “Rogue State Department,” Gingrich argued that “the president should demand a complete overhaul of the State Department.”

In a right-wing on-line publication, Gingrich also wrote in 2003 that State was engaged in “a deliberate and systematic effort to undermine the President’s policies.” That one almost implies treason.

Gingrich added more in yet another interview with Fox News, in April 2003:

“The last seven months have involved six months of diplomatic failure and one month of military success. The first days after military victory indicate the pattern of diplomatic failure is beginning once again and threatens to undo the effects of military victory,” Gingrich told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Much of Gingrich’s rhetoric was aimed at the Near East Bureau of the State Department. Among the complaints, Gingrich blasted [Secretary of State Colin] Powell for planning a trip to Syria, working with Russia, the European Union and the United Nations on a Middle East peace road map, and focusing on prewar weapons inspections rather than regime change.

How embarassing for Gingrich on so many levels. At the time, incidentally, Bush officials said Gingrich had “stepped in it” and his comments were “out of line.”

In 2005, Gingrich accused Joseph Wilson of lying about his visit to Niger in the so-called Valerie Plame affair. Wilson, of course, went to Africa for the CIA.

In 2007, Gingrich called the National Intelligence Estimate about Iran, produced by the intelligence community (including CIA) — “fundamentally dishonest.” In Gingrich’s defense, he seems to think NIEs are produced by the State Department (which is apparently OK to attack at will).

And finally, when did Republicans start to stifle their critique of government? Or, do they only trust national security agencies?

Why do they trust them absolutely?


Israeli threat inflation?

Over the weekend, the AP ran a story based on high-level Israeli sources suggesting that Iran’s nuclear program has “crossed the threshold,” which implied that the program is now militarized:

Iran is now capable of producing atomic weapons, Israel’s top military intelligence officer said Sunday, sounding the highest-level warning that Israel’s archenemy has achieved independent nuclear capability.

At a Cabinet meeting, the chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, did not say Iran already has an atomic bomb, participants said. However, he said, Iran has “crossed the threshold” and has the expertise and materials needed for one.

Meanwhile, American intelligence sources disagree and reported their dissent to a US Senate committee this week. The Post today quoted Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair:

“The overall situation — and the intelligence community agrees on this — [is] that Iran has not decided to press forward . . . to have a nuclear weapon on top of a ballistic missile,” Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Our current estimate is that the minimum time at which Iran could technically produce the amount of highly enriched uranium for a single weapon is 2010 to 2015.”

Readers may remember that I pointed out similar apparently contradictory statements about Iran’s nuclear material recently delivered on weekend TV progams by high-level US officials just last week.

What’s going on?

Iran has demonstrated that it can enrich uranium. So far, none of the uranium has been enriched to weapons-grade, but the technological skill required isn’t all that substantial. This is a huge flaw in the Nonproliferation Treaty and I’ve previously discussed the much-needed Additional Protocol to the NPT, which would improve verification.

Some experts, like Harvard’s Graham Allison, call for an end to nuclear enrichment. The big mistakes were made when Ike promoted Atoms for Peace and the NPT reflected his guarantee allowing non-nuclear states to pursue a wide range of “peaceful” technologies.

As for the moment, Blair notes that the Israelis are engaged in classic worst-case planning:

“The Israelis are far more concerned about it, and they take more of a worst-case approach to these things from their point of view,” he said.

Israel wiped out Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant in 1981 and destroyed something mysterious in Syria in 2007.

Israel has often hinted that it might attack Iran, so this story isn’t over by any means — even if the Obama administration worries more about Pakistan.


Leon comes in from the cold (updated)

Leon Panetta was named to head the CIA today.

Its a surprise move, as no one had Panetta on any lists for a major appointment, and many were looking for someone with “intelligence experience” to head the CIA. While Panetta has never worked in the IC, he was a Congressman, head of OMB, and Chief of Staff to the president. The top thing Panetta seemingly had going for him? His strong stance against torture and the distance he provides from Bush Administration policies. Its now well documented that he wrote in the Washington Monthly that “We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.”

Reaction has ranged from great to terrible to huh? As I mentioned before, Obama is putting together a governing team heavy on legislative experience. I think Panetta has the potential to be a good DCI. He knows Washington. He knows the White House, and he knows how to serve the President, who is the CIA’s main client. Lets not underestimate this kind of experience–most are looking for supply-side, Intel product production experience. Panetta has consumer, client-based experience. He knows what needs to come out of the agency, and can press the agency to produce a higher quality product that is at is useful to for the President. He also knows the budget and the Hill, so he can get the agency the money it needs and build a positive relationship with Congress.

If he stands up for his people, rewards good work, and puts together a good management team, he can do well. Recall that one former DCI, George Bush, had no intel experience when he took over, and he seems to have done quite well for himself, as they named the building after him.

Of course, this remains potential. He doesn’t know the business, he could misjudge what the agency needs to do, and he could just as easily alienate his workforce and decimate their budget, and the Administration might not listen to him anyway.

I think, though, that Panetta is a savvy enough guy to make this gig work and to be a very solid addition to the Administration and an asset to the IC.

Update: After pondering this for a bit, this appointment gets back to the experience issue that has been a leit-motif of the entire Obama campaign. He has no experience. He doesn’t need experience, he has good judgment. Yadda yadda yadda. Here you have a number of people, including the relevant congressional committee chairs requesting someone with “experience.” The Obama people obviously felt that “experience” as they constitute it was a detriment, not an asset. The “experienced” people rumored to have been under consideration, like Brennan or Hayden, certainly knew the CIA, but gained their experience working there under the Bush Administration. Is this the kind of experience you want leading the agency? Obama clearly feels not– he wants to signal a break from torture, Iraq’s WMD, and a host of other high profile failings of the agency and IC. So, you look toward a different kind of experience, experience running a government agency and serving the President’s needs not tainted by the Bush Administration. That pretty much leaves one place to go, a Clinton Administration veteran such as Panetta.

Now, there’s the persistent criticism that this is a return to the Clinton years, but one cannot have it both ways. If you want experience, Democrats really have no place else to go but Clinton officials. If you want a break from the Clinton era, you end up with no experience in key positions.

Indeed, lets take a look at the cabinet nominations. Who among them has experience in the agency they are now slated to lead?
Gates at Defense, as a holdover certainly has experience since he’s already in the job.
Energy, Chu, he directs Lawerence Berkeley Lab, which is a DOE lab.
Justice, Holder, was Deputy AG in the Clinton Administration
Treasury, Geithner, was Undersecretary of Treasury for International Affairs in the Clinton Administration
EPA, Jackson, worked there for 16 years early in her career.
USUN, Rice, was an Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in the Clinton Administration
HUD, Donovan, former Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Clinton Administration
Emanuel, COS, was a deputy COS in the Clinton Administration.

A second list, on which I would include Panetta, shows related and relevant experience, but not direct experience.
Education, Duncan, ran Chicago Schools
Shinseki, VA, Army
Blair, DNI, did a stint at the CIA and ran PACOM
Panetta, former COS
Orszag, OMB, from CBO

And then there’s the Legislative / Governor experience that everyone assumes should translate to a Cabinet appointment, and sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t.
Agriculture, Vilsack
HHS, Daschle
Homeland Security, Napolitano
Interior, Salazar
State, Clinton
Labor, Solis
Transportation, LaHood

Moral of the story–Panetta’s not any better or worse than any other of Obama’s picks.



In the post- 9-11, post Iraq world of Intelligence and policy, the great hue and cry has been that the US needs better Human Intelligence. To that end, the Intelligence Reform act created the National Clandestine Service out of the CIA’s old Directorate of Operations, in an attempt to beef up our human intelligence capability.

Joseph Weisberg, writing in the Washington Post, raises an interesting and provocative argument:

Although we dedicate enormous resources to recruiting “human sources,” there just aren’t many good ones available. The central problem is that the people who actually know the secrets we’d be interested in aren’t recruitable. Officials at the highest reaches of foreign governments have wealth and power and usually no compelling reason to put those at risk. The most knowledgeable members of terrorist groups are ideologically committed and aren’t going to work for the CIA or anyone else.

Those ‘assets’ that the CIA (or other agencies) do manage to recruit, he asserts, are essentially useless:

Intelligence from almost all CIA assets is unreliable for the simple reason that so many of them are double agents, meaning that the CIA recruited them but that they are being controlled by their own countries’ intelligence services. When I worked at CIA headquarters in the early 1990s, I once suggested to a friend who worked in counterintelligence that up to a third of all CIA agents could be doubles. He said the number was probably much higher.

Concrete proof is always scarce in these matters, but from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, most and very likely all Cuban agents on the CIA payroll were doubles. So were a majority of East German agents during the Cold War.

So why even bother? Now, Weisberg is does not want to totally scrap HUMINT, he just feels that the CIA should target more obtainable and useful (and boring) information and get over the myth of the super-spy:

Sympathetic Europeans who work at companies involved in the illicit transfer of nuclear components might help us understand how the underground nuclear supply chain works. Scientists who attend highly specialized conferences might glean valuable insights into foreign capabilities.

What Weisberg’s article made me think about (and this is an example of poor blog writing, as I’m burying the lead, but the nice thing about blogs is that I can write as I think, and this is what I was thinking on Sunday…) is perhaps “secret” information is really not all that valuable. Perhaps this massive expansion of the intelligence community, producing a great number of classified intelligence products is only marginally more useful than a subscription to the Washington Post, Google, and regular reading of Abu Aardvark.

What leads me to this question is not any empirical study– I’ve never read a classified TS document (though once, as a State Department Intern, I did have a Secret clearance to read cables and such, but little that I read then was all that exciting, and what was dealt with operational security, like the plans for a Secretarial trip to Lebanon that was of course public news the minute she landed…). Rather, what gets me here is some of the theoretical work I’ve done on language, building on Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument–you can’t have a private language because to have a meaningful social relations, you must speak in a way others can understand. Red, Pain, Beetle In the Box, that kind of stuff.

Add to this one of the rules of Networks. The bigger the network, the more powerful it is. The original Fax machine wasn’t all that valuable because there wasn’t anyone else to fax to. Only when everyone had a fax machine did it become a valuable thing to have because then you could actually use the fax to communicate and expect people to be able to fax.

Put this together, and perhaps you get to the point where information–intelligence–is only valuable when lots of people know it. Thus, secrecy, classification, and the like are usually more harmful than beneficial. As an illustration, consider the NIE on Iran. The public conclusion has been very powerful and had a tremendous impact on both the domestic political debate on what to do about Iran’s nuclear program, as well as the way Iran views the potential for negotiations with the US about its nuclear program. I don’t know what is in that report, but does it matter?

Now, I can understand two counter-arguments for ‘secrecy’ and classification.
1) OP-SEC: When I was interning at State, Secretary Albright was going to Lebanon. The first visit by a US SecState in several decades. Obviously a difficult security situation, and you don’t want to put her at risk, so the trip details are classified. But, once she got there, it was all public.
2) Sources and Methods: This is no different than the reporters who have anonymous sources–people talk more freely on a not-for-attribution basis. But in this case, what difference is there between a CIA officer and Dana Priest? (she’s a Post Reporter who covers national security). Once, in a chat she was doing, someone asked her the question– who has better info, you or a spy–and she said her. People were more willing to talk to a reporter than a spy for a whole host of reasons. Essentially, being overt was more of an asset than being under cover.

So, I’ve just taken an interesting Post Op-Ed on the problems of HUMINT and turned it into an ontological discussion of secrecy in spying. Not quite sure how I got there (well, actually I am rather sure of how I got there, but not in any way that I could explain in a blog post. Private language and all that…).

But, its going to be a fun long weekend with plenty of time to blog over the next 4-5 days, so a) you have more of this to look forward to and b) i hope this keeps you as entertained as it does me and c) if you’ve read this far, you deserve a medal or a cookie or something. Perhaps go read this Drezner post and decide if its Funny. I am still not sure.


Potentialities and possibilities

By now you’ve probably read about the new NIE saying that Iran almost certainly halted its nuclear weapons program some time in 2003. There are, of course, bound to be people who disagree with this assessment–after all, it is an “estimate”, which is another way of saying “our best guess”. Although the report indicates varying levels of confidence associated with each piece of the report, it’s not like we know for sure. Disagreeing with some parts of the report (or even the entire report) is a legitimate position.

However, I am disappointed that the New York Times would published an op-ed discounting the NIE that is just filled with screaming howlers. Such as:

And why, by the way, does Iran even want a nuclear energy program, when it is sitting on an enormous pool of oil that is now skyrocketing in value?

Someone should send poor Valerie Lincy and Gary Milhollin back to freshman year, so they can take Economics 101 and learn about “opportunity cost”. The main argument that is generally made against the interpretation of a civilian purpose for Iran’s nuclear program is that the economics don’t make sense. Although generating costs for nuclear power are very low, the capital costs are extremely high. The cost of electricity generated with fossil fuels (generally, by the way, natural gas, not oil, though Iran does have substantial natural gas reserves), on the other hand, is driven largely by the cost of fuel, since fossil fuel plants are comparatively cheap to build. Thus, as the cost of fossil fuels goes up (natural gas contracts generally track the price of oil), nuclear power makes more and more economic sense. Whatever Iran doesn’t burn in their generating plants can be sold on the world market for higher and higher prices. If you understand this basic economic fact, it starts to become very plausible that Iran’s nuclear program is best understood as a successful bet on rising energy prices.

The authors of this piece also argue that Tehran’s uranium-enrichment program can’t possibly have a civilian purpose because “all of Iran’s needs for enriched uranium for its energy programs are covered by a contract with Russia.” Here again they get the facts plain wrong. Although Russia and Iran did sign a deal to supply the Bushehr reactor with Russian-produced fuel rods, construction on the Bushehr plant and delivery of the fuel has been long delayed by a dispute between the two parties over payment. Russia claims that Iran is behind on its bills and is declining to deliver the fuel. It is unclear when this dispute will be resolved and when the Bushehr plant will go into operation. Under these circumstances, especially given Russia’s growing interest in using its energy wealth to extend its sphere of influence, it is more than plausible that Iran would continue to develop domestic enrichment capabilities in order to avoid becoming dependent on Russia to maintain its electrical generating capacity.

By no means am I arguing that these factors cited above are proof that Iran’s program is entirely civilian in nature. And surely the Iranians are aware of the usefulness of a civilian program in developing nuclear expertise that could be put to military use at some point in the future. However, Lincy and Milhollin are wrong on so many counts when they claim that military purpose is the only possible explanation.

Note: Edited very slightly for style.

Image Source: https://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/bsp/hi/image_maps/06/1137000000/1137424560/img/iran_nuclear1_416.gif


NIE open thread

I’m curious what our readers make of the newly declassified part of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE): “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities” [pdf]. In particular, its claim that:

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.

It continues:

B. We continue to assess with low confidence that Iran probably has imported at least some weapons-usable fissile material, but still judge with moderate-to-high confidence it has not obtained enough for a nuclear weapon. We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad—or will acquire in the future—a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon. Barring such acquisitions, if Iran wants to have nuclear weapons it would need to produce sufficient amounts of fissile material indigenously—which we judge with high confidence it has not yet done.

I received a link to the New York Times story earlier today with the subject heading “this needs to be the first thing you read.” I’ll say.

Daniel Drezner, as usual, asks a provocative question or three and links to Kevin Drum’s thoughts on the subject.

I don’t have a great deal to add at this point, so I’m hoping for a good discussion in comments.


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