Monday, 30 September 2013

Shuttering the blog

After a lot of thought I've decided its time to shut this blog down and move onto other things. Although its been a lot of fun over the years it has felt increasingly like work to generate new content. So I've decided to draw things to a close.

I've met some great people thought my work on the blog, so a special thank you to them, and I will continue to crop up in odd places from time to time.

I can always be reached on Twitter, Facebook, Gmail etc etc.

All the best, and thanks again to everyone for your support.

Chris
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Monday, 16 September 2013

What do we want our military to be?

Blogger and smart man Adam Elkus pointed to this piece by Robert Goldich, entitled The Brits, Blair, and War, a book review of a text I'm keen to read - British Generals in Blair's Wars.
If you’re a fan of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, you’ll recall the depiction of the waning days of Rivendell, the civilization where nobody dies and the home of Arwyn (Liv Tyler), the love interest of major character Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen).  Director Peter Jackson created an ambience of a civilization in slow, constant, decline by showing autumn leaves always blowing through the outdoor colonnades and walkways of the palace,
This describes my thoughts upon finishing British Generals in Blair’s Wars – a remarkable edited volume with accounts by 26 (mostly) retired British military officers, most of them generals.   There’s a chapter on Northern Ireland, one on Kosovo, and one on Sierra Leone, but justifiably most of the book deals with Iraq and Afghanistan.  Inadequate money, numbers of men, and equipment, and a deep sourness in civil-military relations, are the four dark threads running through every chapter, creating a grim account of contemporary British military history.  It was inevitable that Britain would assume the role of a second-tier power after World War II, but I was struck by the challenges Her Majesty’s Armed Forces have in managing even the tactical level of war, having already been forced by drastic reductions in size to all but abandon the operational level. For example, Brigadier Justin Maciejewski, who was a division operations officer in the invasion of Iraq and led an infantry battalion in Basra in 2006-2007, notes that when the US was considering, and eventually beginning, its Iraq Surge of five brigades, the British Army was able to send only one battalion plus part of another to Iraq – about 1,000 soldiers to reinforce the overmatched  British brigade in southern Iraq. The book also reveals that reasons the British decided not to embed Military Training Teams (MiTTs) with Iraqi forces in its area of operations. Author Colonel Richard Irons, who was the chief British advisor to the Iraqi commander in Basra from December 2007 to November 2008, writes that the reason was that “we were so short of troops we could not provide them dedicated support at the same time as running our operations.” (p. 190) Its officers are clearly competent and experienced, but there is only so much one can do without the necessary resources.  As such, this former second-tier power struggled to simultaneously deploy and support one brigade in Iraq and another in Afghanistan.  If the British Army was, in proportion to its population and economy, the same size as the U.S. Army, it could have easily met much larger commitments in both theaters, but the U.K. government, and the people who elect it, clearly have opted for other national budgetary priorities.
Adam, in response, asked a simple question
How did this happen?
My hypothesis would be that the UK Government has entirely lost track of what it intends for the military to achieve. Since 2000 British Armed forces have been involved in multiple actions, not least Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Kosovo. There is an exciting degree of sabre rattling over Gibraltar, The Falklands and potentially Syria, a conflict David Cameron has repeatedly indicated he would dearly like to pitch in on.

Despite this significant rise in the level of operations since 2000 military spending in the UK has risen only modestly, and forward looking spending is increasingly constrained. This has led to tough and possibly unwise choices being made. The decision to significantly reduce the armed forces was coupled with a commitment to enlarge the Territorial Army, but can any reasonable claim that the Territorial Army can step into the gap?


We desire an expeditionary military, but are only willing to pay for a small force, because British public opinion is not geared towards the "Support our Troops" mindset so prevalent in the USA. Our focus on our armed forces often begins and ends with the yearly Poppy Appeal, which is intended to generate funds for services directed towards service personnel, most famously those injured in combat. Whilst the American mindset is directed towards actively serving troops, ours is more focussed on those who have been killed or injured in combat, with the implicit desire that we should minimise these numbers above all other objectives.

In my (admittedly limited) discussions with politicians and civil servants around the topic of defence, there is a tenancy to wax lyrical about the great threat of the day. Some years ago it was EMP, now it is cyber warfare and the dronification of everything. These fantasy concerns dominate the mindsets of those who have their hands on the purse strings, and stretch still further the requirements of the British Armed Forces, who must prepare for every scenario that Daniel Suarez can dream up. The requirements grow as funding shrinks. We must do everything, and spend nothing.

We lack an strategic narrative to determine how we will use military force, where we will use it, and why we would use it. It is not clear why certain conflicts are worth intervention and others are not, nor is it clear why only American led conflicts are worthy of intervention. The world is full of conflict, and those we involve ourselves in we seem unable to explain our rationale beyond a brief nod to the morality of the situation. 

I have yet to meet a British soldier, of any rank who wasn't capable, intelligent and dedicated. Our political class, and its desire to act as a mini America (without being willing to dedicate nearly 5% of our GDP to the military, British spending sits at about half that) leads us down a dark path.

Money is not the only solution to this problem, we also need clear strategic direction for our armed forces, and our wider foreign policy. Currently this is extremely limited, with foreign policy determined far more by the latest crisis than overarching strategic direction. If we had that, we would be able to identify far more rationally the amount of spending necessary to achieve our goals, and the types of soldier we need.
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Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Memory - On 9/11

This post is intended only to have meaning to me, but I hope it resonates with some of you.

I first heard about the first plane hitting the the World Trade Center as I left school, I distinctly remember overhearing someone talking about it from their spot sitting on a low wall that I had to pass to leave. I don't remember going home, probably because at that moment, what would come next hadn't been revealed. By the time I got home the second tower had been hit, and there was nothing else on the TV.

I didn't watch the TV. It didn't seem real, and the horror of it was overwhelming. My parents did. Later on, I joined them for a while. It didn't seem real.

It still doesn't.

9/11 is, and will be forever, a defining act in the lives of my generation. Its legacy will haunt us until we pass on, hopefully many years from now.

We are not a kind species. Isaac Asimov said “To insult someone we call him "bestial." For deliberate cruelty and nature, "human" might be the greater insult.”

We would have found other excuses to murder and maim, to commit barbarism against each other. But 9/11 decided, and continues to decide, where wars are fought, who the targets of oppression are, and the way our society evolves.

We should not claim that nothing good came as a result of those actions. For some it became a wake up call to be kinder, to reach out further, to try to understand what might drive a human being to such heinous acts. Some people became better for the horror.

I don't know anyone who died in the towers. But I know people who did. They carry scars of loss that will remain etched on their souls forever. A family friend died as a result of a roadside bomb in a country he would likely not have been in but for 9/11. He was not someone I knew well, or in truth as more than a passing acquaintance, but I will remember him as best I am able.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
I stand in quiet awe of friends, colleagues and acquaintances who have served, and given service, not just here but in the USA and elsewhere. Many have done it not just for their country, but with a desire to serve all people, in all places.

We should remember in moments of joy, that there are those who cannot share in them, and who were denied a future.
Forgive him who wrongs you; join him who cuts you off; do good to him who does evil to you, and speak the truth although it be against yourself.
Muhammed - Peace Be Upon Him

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Tuesday, 10 September 2013

More on polling

I stumbled across a rather timely piece on Kings of War entitled Polls, Proles and Plato:
There’s an interesting report out today from the House of Commons Public Affairs Select Committee on engaging the public when defining the ‘national interest’. The actual report is wafer thin, but the YouGov polling is rather interesting. Naturally a report on a poll seeking the value of polling concludes that:
The polling we commissioned demonstrates the value of engaging the public in intelligent conversations about complex national strategic issues. The responses provided to the questions asked are nuanced and subject to subtle shifts depending on the information provided by the pollsters. This shows that such polling can provide a powerful insight into the values and attitudes that underlie the views held by the public on national strategic issues. This insight is a hitherto untapped resource for the Government, and one that could meaningfully be used in the formation of national strategic goals and priorities. We recommend that the Government begin to use iterative polling as a means of supporting the development of National Strategy.
I have a few concerns with the polling beyond its conclusion, namely that one of the desired outputs was (my emphasis):
(2)...we wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to engage the public in a meaningful dialogue about the way in which it perceives the UK’s national interests. We wanted to show the Government that it could use insights gleaned from such a dialogue in order to develop and improve National Strategy.
(3) We wanted our poll to prove that presenting the public with a series of reasoned choices would yield insights that would assist the Government in the formation of a coherent National Strategy that had broad-based and informed public support.
If you go in wanting to prove something with polling, its remarkable how often the polling proves what you want. Desire to prove a point can have unintended side effects, and pressure on researchers to shape questionnaires to develop their methodology in line with the required output.

There are some signs in the questionnaire this may have occured, with subtle emotional prompting around some of the questions. For example:
In your view, how important or unimportant are the following activities in serving the United Kingdom's national interests?
Being a leading voice on the United Nations Security Council, as one of the Big Five Permanent Members (78% important)
Having aircraft carriers to send our Armed Forces anywhere in the world (69% important)
Having our own nuclear weapons (54% important)
Using the phrase "Big Five" includes a prompt that being part of it makes the nations involved "big". A more sensible phrasing would have removed the "Big Five" reference, which is unnecessary to the question. In the second and third "our" invites the respondent to collaborate with the researcher, and could also be implicitly nationalistic, again driving importance. Describing the role of aircraft carriers in the way it is done also makes them sound necessary. If needs be, other tools could be used to transport "our" (again!) armed forces overseas, if sending them overseas is indeed necessary.

Another question suggests that some of the following things are "current or possible future threats to the British way of life."
More countries, such as Iran and North Korea, developing nuclear weapons
Organized crime, including drug- and people trafficking across borders
Weak and broken states, such as Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan
I'm not sure what purpose this question is intended to serve, apart from proving that when promoted some subset of the population will agree that almost anything could be a future threat. Again, an emotive question which doesn't serve to drive any meaningful purpose.

The other problem is that the study introduces no element by which negative outcomes or any sort of costing are introduced. Respondents are not asked to make choices of "you can have X, but if you do you won't get Y". It becomes easy therefore for respondents to say that everything is necessary and desirable.

What also isn't clear is that although the research refers to questions being asked in different ways I can't immediately see a difference in how the question was asked or the supplementary information which was provided. It appears the data contains only that from the final round of fieldwork, which is a shame, considering that the main value of this type of research would be to compare arguments for their effectiveness.

Overall this research as presented doesn't demonstrate what it is intended to demonstrate, but does demonstrate that when research is designed to give a certain output it usually does. 

I recommend Jack McDonald's piece for a wider analysis of some of the interesting figures which emerge from the research. He has some good points to make about the difficult strategic choices which would result if the contradictory information contained in research was used to make choices.

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Monday, 9 September 2013

What value to a poll? Syria edition


You aren't part of the cool crowd at the moment unless you have an opinion on military action against Syria. Left, right, politician, journalist, everyone is trying to get their two cents in. Before I launch into the meat of the symposium, if you are looking for meaningful voices on the Syria debate (and it is a debate), I highly recommend Foreign Policy, which has an outstanding team of journalists dissecting the issues.


In the mainstream media Syria has been a polling issue for some time, and never more so than since it was hinted at that just maybe, we (the US, UK and France mostly) might use some measure of military force to limit Assad's ability to deploy chemical weapons (or possibly creating freedom, depending on what day of the week it is). And with the numbers in, we can say one thing for certain, the public really, really, really don't like the idea:

From CNN:
The CNN/ORC International poll released Monday shows that even though eight in 10 Americans believe that the Bashar al-Assad regime gassed its own people, a strong majority doesn't want Congress to pass a resolution authorizing a military strike against the regime.
More than seven in 10 say such a strike would not achieve significant goals for the U.S. and a similar amount say it's not in the national interest for the U.S. to get involved in Syria's bloody two-year long civil war.
From The Guardian:
The latest polls show 69% of people are opposed to British involvement in strikes against Syria and one in four support US strikes without the support of the UN.
And from The Telegraph, which has a rather nifty graphic that for some reason I can't copy:
The ICM survey for The Sunday Telegraph shows the biggest proportion of voters would not want MPs to stage a second Commons vote on intervention if United Nations weapons inspectors confirm that the August 24 attack on civilians involved chemicals.
The poll also reveals that fewer than one in five voters believes Britain should join the United States in strikes on Syria, with almost half supporting restricting action to providing humanitarian aid to refugees.
The issue, at least for the media, is that politicians really, really seem to want to blow something up in Syria. This presents (or at least so runs the argument) an interesting issue, does the Government have a right to deploy force without the support of its population?

Realistically this is a non issue. We live in a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. Once the votes have been counted at the election, the public doesn't really get a say. So in fact the issue isn't whether the Government has a right, but whether the Party in power can deploy force without eliminating their chance of re-election. An important issue, but not one which threatens democracy.

But does this negate the value of polling like this, in the public or private domain?

Back when Dick Morris was more than a punchline he wrote a book called Behind the Oval Office. Although the book is laced throughout with attempts by Morris to rehabilitate himself, and demonise key members of the Clinton administration (and Clinton himself) it does a solid job describing how polling was used by the Clinton administration.

Polling was used by Clinton not to formulate policy, but to refine and transmit it. In essence it was used in the same way polling would be used in an election, to create the strongest possible way to take an idea and deliver it to the electorate. Where an idea was so unpalatable that it could not be transmitted that was cause for a re-write, but to read Morris's book these occasions were few and far between.

My gut reaction to public opinion on foreign policy is to say that the public, by and large, shouldn't have a voice on it. The average citizen has no meaningful opinion, since they cannot realistically understand the decisions or their rationale, constrained as they are by lack of information. But that said, in a democratic system people are going to have an expectation of discourse with their Government

Politicians should see political opposition to Syrian intervention as an opportunity to transmit a vision for foreign policy. If the vision as it stands cannot be transmitted it must be re-formulated, in whole or in part, and then delivered. Tony Blair, before being sidetracked by 9/11, attempted to do this with the so called "Blair Doctrine", in which he articulated a strategic foreign policy, that was comprehensible to both voters and the international community:
We need to focus in a serious and sustained way on the principles of the doctrine of international community and on the institutions that deliver them. This means:
1.In global finance, a thorough, far-reaching overhaul and reform of the system of international financial regulation. We should begin it at the G7 at Cologne.
2.A new push on free trade in the WTO with the new round beginning in Seattle this autumn.
3.A reconsideration of the role, workings and decision-making process of the UN, and in particular the UN Security Council.
4 For NATO, once Kosovo is successfully concluded, a critical examination of the lessons to be learnt, and the changes we need to make in organisation and structure.
5.In respect of Kyoto and the environment, far closer working between the main industrial nations and the developing world as to how the Kyoto targets can be met and the practical measures necessary to slow down and stop global warming, and
6.A serious examination of the issue of third world debt, again beginning at Cologne.
In addition, the EU and US should prepare to make real step-change in working more closely together. Recent trade disputes have been a bad omen in this regard. We really are failing to see the bigger picture with disputes over the banana regime or hushkits or whatever else. There are huge issues at stake in our co-operation. The EU and the US need each other and need to put that relationship above arguments that are ultimately not fundamental.
Blair's doctrine collapsed because of 9/11 and the movement away from strategic choices and towards tactical reaction in foreign policy. This has remained the status quo since, and Syria is just the latest example.

The question should not be whether the public should support action in Syria, but rather can or should we expect citizens to react positively to actions they cannot understand rationally? Responsibility to Protect is clearly an insufficient justification, when we take no action in the majority of horrendous things happening in the world, so an alternative narrative has to be found.

Somewhere between the desires of the Government, and the desires of citizens, is an approach to a rational and justifiable foreign policy, based on strategic choices. Whenever I read a negative opinion poll, all I see is an opportunity to step back, take stock, reconsider and persuade. Instead the Government continues to vacillate between people pleasing and a desire to take action without public support.

Government must seek to represent people, but at the same time, be responsible for providing leadership.
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Friday, 6 September 2013

Privacy, Trust and the Network

It isn't hyperbole to say that the modern world is entirely dependent on the internet. It has suffused every part of day to day life, with complex digital ecosystems underpinning everything from communications to financial transactions.

Key to these systems is a belief that these systems are, in most cases, secure from outside monitoring or influence. Further trust is placed in the belief that if you want to make something secure you can. Extensive efforts were made in the 1990s to "ban" encryption (in whole or in part), and later the suggestion was made that all (US) electronic communications devices be fitted with a so called "Clipper Chip":
The Clipper Chip is a cryptographic device purportedly intended to protect private communications while at the same time permitting government agents to obtain the "keys" upon presentation of what has been vaguely characterized as "legal authorization." The "keys" are held by two government "escrow agents" and would enable the government to access the encrypted private communication. While Clipper would be used to encrypt voice transmissions, a similar chip known as Capstone would be used to encrypt data.
The underlying cryptographic algorithm, known as Skipjack, was developed by the National Security Agency (NSA), a super-secret military intelligence agency responsible for intercepting foreign government communications and breaking the codes that protect such transmissions. In 1987, Congress passed the Computer Security Act, a law intended to limit NSA's role in developing standards for the civilian communications system. In spite of that legislation, the agency has played a leading role in the Clipper initiative and other civilian security proposals, such as the Digital Signature Standard. NSA has classified the Skipjack algorithm on national security grounds, thus precluding independent evaluation of the system's strength.
The round of the conflict was won by privacy advocates, who understood the need to maintain private communications in the digital space, and now the ability to encode data is a major part of the internet's infrastructure.

Today marks the first time when I have looked at the Snowden "revelations" with anything other than casual interest. It bothers me not a jot that spy agencies are engaged in spying, thats what they do, and although agencies in both the UK and USA have gone further than they should have, their actions do not seem to have been illegal within the confines of the law. Civil servants will always push the boundaries of legislation to maximise their power and effectiveness, expecting otherwise is at best naive.

The New York Times, in its reveal of the latest information hits the nail on the head:
Beginning in 2000, as encryption tools were gradually blanketing the Web, the N.S.A. invested billions of dollars in a clandestine campaign to preserve its ability to eavesdrop. Having lost a public battle in the 1990s to insert its own “back door” in all encryption, it set out to accomplish the same goal by stealth.
The agency, according to the documents and interviews with industry officials, deployed custom-built, superfast computers to break codes, and began collaborating with technology companies in the United States and abroad to build entry points into their products. The documents do not identify which companies have participated.
The N.S.A. hacked into target computers to snare messages before they were encrypted. In some cases, companies say they were coerced by the government into handing over their master encryption keys or building in a back door. And the agency used its influence as the world’s most experienced code maker to covertly introduce weaknesses into the encryption standards followed by hardware and software developers around the world.
“For the past decade, N.S.A. has led an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies,” said a 2010 memo describing a briefing about N.S.A. accomplishments for employees of its British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ. “Cryptanalytic capabilities are now coming online. Vast amounts of encrypted Internet data which have up till now been discarded are now exploitable.”
Although it is possible to view this as "spies being spies" the issue goes far deeper. Breaking into encryption is very different to breaking encryption itself by producing flawed technologies to "help out" Governments.

Encryption which is fundamentally flawed is fundamentally broken, it doesn't do what is advertised. One of my favourite TV shows, Person of Interest, sums this issue up rather neatly:
"...you should remember any exploit is a total exploit. The tiniest crack becomes a flood. If we build the backdoor into this machine and someone else finds out about it, that would be…very bad."
It appears that huge swathes of security technologies now contain exploits, exploits which will in many cases have been identified by "bad actors". With so many hackers operating in collaboration with nation states it is impossible to imagine that many of the exploits so beloved by the NSA haven't made their way into the hands of foreign Governments and their employees. The "flood" of cybercrime in recent years suggests that the cracks are no longer tiny.

In reality this means that Athens Affair level hacks are likely to reoccur. For those not familiar:
The Greek wiretapping case of 2004-2005, also referred to as Greek Watergate, involved the illegal tapping of more than 100 mobile phones on the Vodafone Greece network belonging mostly to members of the Greek government and top-ranking civil servants. The taps began sometime near the beginning of August 2004 and were removed in March 2005 without discovering the identity of the perpetrators.
The phones tapped included those of the Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis and members of his family, the Mayor of Athens, Dora Bakoyannis, most phones of the top officers at the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry for Public Order, members of the ruling party, ranking members of the opposition Panhellenic Socialist Movement party (PASOK), the Hellenic Navy General Staff, the previous Minister of Defense and one phone of a locally hired Greek American employee of the American Embassy. Phones of Athens-based Arab businessmen were also tapped.
What is clear is that even measures previously deemed secure, and necessarily so, are not secure. Their insecurity is not based on the raw power of the NSA to decrypt after interception, which would be reasonable, if uncomfortable, but instead is based on fundamental flaws in the mechanisms of security themselves. This poses a huge challenge for the future
As the ACLU's Chris Soghoian put it today in a statement, "The encryption technologies that the NSA has exploited to enable its secret dragnet surveillance are the same technologies that protect our most sensitive information, including medical records, financial transactions, and commercial secrets. Even as the NSA demands more powers to invade our privacy in the name of cybersecurity, it is making the Internet less secure and exposing us to criminal hacking, foreign espionage, and unlawful surveillance. The NSA's efforts to secretly defeat encryption are recklessly shortsighted and will further erode not only the United States' reputation as a global champion of civil liberties and privacy but the economic competitiveness of its largest companies."
Or as the inimitable Bruce Schiener put it today
By subverting the internet at every level to make it a vast, multi-layered and robust surveillance platform, the NSA has undermined a fundamental social contract. The companies that build and manage our internet infrastructure, the companies that create and sell us our hardware and software, or the companies that host our data: we can no longer trust them to be ethical internet stewards.
Trust in the existence of secure and private spaces online is a requirement of a healthy and useful internet. Are businesses going to trust a system subject to constant US, British, Chinese and Russian (to name but a few) monitoring? Of course not, and why should they? Do they have an alternative? Not for the time being, but those alternatives will arise. Tools like mesh networking, and new encryption concepts will emerge over time, but trust will be slow to return.

As with all policy and Government behaviours we should ask ourselves not "What is being done today" but "What could be done with this tomorrow". History demonstrates time and again that Governments cannot, and should not, be trusted with extreme powers, and there is little more extreme than the elimination of privacy for the citizen and the institution online.

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Thursday, 5 September 2013

Recommended Reading

A few things which have crossed my path this week include:

The Internet’s next victim: Advertising

As the internet continues to remake how we view industry as a concept, it seems like the end of effective advertising could be close.
“Everyone agrees that advertising on the Internet is broken,” says Till Faida, CEO of Adblock Plus, creator of by far the most popular ad-blocking software on the Web.
The soft-spoken German, visiting the San Francisco Bay Area to network and drum up support for his company’s “Acceptable Ads” initiative, sketches out a distressing scenario: Ads aren’t generating enough revenue, so websites are forced to run ever more “aggressive” ads — a maddening deluge of pop-ups, blinking banners, and autoplaying video and audio commercials. But as ads steadily become even more annoying, users click even less, forcing revenues down even further.
“This is creating a vicious circle, which will at some point lead to the whole system collapsing,” says Faida.
Faida believes he can help avoid that apocalyptic scenario. It might seem a little strange to hear that the CEO of a company whose main product is designed to quash ads is dedicated to the goal of saving advertising — certainly, the owners of websites whose revenues are crimped by Adblock Plus users could be excused for looking askance. But Faida believes that he can leverage Adblock Plus’ market power — the company claims 50 million active users — to create market incentives that force online advertisers to behave.
...
Here’s how Adblock Plus’ “Acceptable Ads” program works. The Adblock Plus “community” flags new ads as completely beyond the pale or as acceptable. A group of 200 or so “open source” volunteers then builds Adblock Plus filters designed to block ads that fall into both categories. But for most small websites, blogs or news sites, the “acceptable” ads are “whitelisted” by default. That means, they’ll go right through. They won’t be blocked. (Any Adblock Plus user can flip a switch, says Faida, that blocks all ads, but only about 6 percent of users follow through and do so.)
“Large companies,” says Faida, are held to a different standard. To pay for the cost of operating Adblock Plus for everyone, the company charges such companies a fee to participate in the “Acceptable Ads” program. If they pay the fee, their non-obtrusive, community-acceptable ads go through.
When I first learned of AdBlock Plus’ business model, I wrote a headline calling it a “pay-to-play” scheme. A P.R. person representing Adblock Plus named Mark Addison wrote me an email asking for a correction. I declined, largely because I couldn’t get a clear answer to my direct questions as to what would happen if a company such as Google refused to pay.
Bomb Syria?

First up - Congratulations on the ZenPundit team for getting their millionth pageview. Mark has some smart analysis on Syria and Responsibility to Protect
The driving insider force behind this astrategic call to arms are Susan Rice, Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter, the three Furies of R2P.  Slaughter writes on military intervention in Syria with her usual combination of moral certainty and operational magical thinking here. Rice angrily pontificates here while an unusually muted UN Ambassador Samantha Power just tweeted about it while on vacation from the emergency UN Security Council meeting on, uh, Syria.
The strategic argument about Syria is not about the normative qualities of the Assad regime, which is anti-American, brutal, terrorist supporting and fascistic. Or that the regime is committing atrocities. It is. It is about what political objective, if any, the use of military force against Syria can accomplish at what cost and with what probable outcomes. At a grand strategic level, there are also questions about how military intervention in Syria will impact great power relations and the shaping of international law.
I suspect many R2P advocates like Slaughter, Rice and Power are attracted to the idea of bombing Syria partly to garner a precedent to support doing similar things in the future, whether or not it has any positive effect on the Syrian civil war. That however, if true, is an extremely poor reason for military intervention anywhere. If bombing had some hope of changing the behavior of the Syrian regime or replacing it with something better, I would warm to the prospect but where is the evidence that is a likely outcome?
Working With Innovators From Thomas Edison To Steve Jobs, Corning Finds A Glass Fix

A company which truly understands how to innovate is Corning, the creators of (amongst hundreds of other things) Gorrilla Glass, a key part of most smartphones. The business depends on innovation for innovation's sake, finding a use for products after they've been created, creating need, rather than waiting for it to arise.
Was Gorilla Glass 3, then, discovered by accident? Gesturing at the bags behind him, Dejneka shakes his head. “There are no accidents.”
Those four words could sum up Corning’s 162-year history of continuous reinvention. No concoction is ever deemed an accident or a true failure since Corning believes in “patient capital,” the idea of investing in unproven technologies even if there’s no quick profit. The firm is rife with stories of inventions that sat on the shelves for decades until the right opportunity came along. The weather-resistant borosilicate glass designed for railroad signal lanterns gave rise to Pyrex cookware. The glass-ceramics technology the company invented called Pyro?ceram was used to make CorningWare casserole dishes and missile nose cones. It’s certainly the story of Gorilla Glass, invented in the 1960s and intended for car windshields and prison windows. Now it’s the surface of 1.5 billion smartphones and tablets–and Corning gets $3 for each one of those rectangles.
“We invent all sorts of stuff for weird reasons that then becomes something else,” says Adam Ellison, a Corning corporate research fellow and scientist who helped lead the Gorilla Glass project. Corning is all about “unique materials going through a unique process. That’s our future. That’s how we’re going to be around for another 162 years.”
Unlike so many once-mighty American manufacturers, Corning has survived several near-death experiences and bounced back in spectacular fashion with breakthrough inventions. In so doing it has single-handedly kept its eponymous town in New York, already hit by one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, on reasonably stable economic footing. The latest and worst moment was the dot-com crash of 2001, which wiped out the optical-fiber telecom industry, one of Corning’s biggest markets at the time. Its share price dropped from $113 to $1.10 as revenue fell from $6.9 billion in 2000 to $3.2 billion in 2002. It took a whopping $5.5 billion loss in 2001. Weighed down by $4 billion in debt, Corning cut jobs, started diversifying out of optic fiber and slashed research costs in half by moving most of its scientists back to headquarters to share equipment and ideas. From the array of ongoing projects they fast-tracked those with the greatest potential. Repeating history, they found a savior: a thin, strong glass that was ideal for LCD screens. That business came from nowhere and now accounts for nearly a third of its $7.6 billion in 2012 sales and 78% of its $1.6 billion in profit.
That's all for now, original content to follow later in the week.
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Friday, 30 August 2013

Real journalism on Snowden

There has been an almost total collapse of good journalism around all issues related to Snowden. At this point the majority of outlets are willing to swallow whatever nonsense Glenn Greenwald puts out there, without any fact checking or attempt to reign in his relentless hyperbole. Sadly, Greenwald is a liar and when not lying pushes some amazing exaggerations.

The inimitable Joshua Foust continues to try, valiantly, to push back against some of the nonsense and has produced some excellent accounts of what is actually going on, fact checking things which most mainstream outlets have been publishing verbatim and without criticism. Most notably the idea that Greenwald is anything other than a liar:
What makes any tiff with Greenwald so exhausting is not just the needlessly personal nature of his attacks, but rather his outright lies. That’s correct: Glenn Greenwald is a serial liar. He is pathological about it. And he pretends like people are too dumb to notice. He did this in 2010. On the morning of November 30, 2010, he tweeted this about me:Greenwald2
Notice the familiar slander, that I had undisclosed contracts? It wasn’t true at the time — I even wrote in the New York Times that I worked at a defense contractor! — he “discovered” my “undisclosed” ties by looking at… my LinkedIn profile. But, almost casually, he lied about it just a few hours later.
The problem is that for many Greenwald can do no wrong. Any attempt to criticise him is to represent The Man, and thus become a bad guy. This problem is worsened by the fact that The Guardian, which has done some incredible work over the years doing real journalism and bringing to light some truly awful things, has decided to let Greenwald have absolutely free reign, providing him with a level of legitimacy which isn't really fair.

Bob Cesca has also done some great work attempting to bring a bit of rationality to the debate and push back against the Greenwald line. For example, the ongoing furore around David Miranda's arrest. The fantasy was:
"...the U.K. was attempting to intimidate Greenwald by harassing his innocent spouse who was only detained because of his relationship with Greenwald — a tactic that not even the Mafia uses, Greenwald wrote. They even denied Miranda the use of a lawyer, Greenwald and The Guardian reported, but, like most things orbiting this story, the lawyer thing turned out to be untrue."
It's important to understand that I believe certain powers were misused to arrest Miranda, and most likely he shouldn't have been arrested in the first place, but there was no attempt to report that story. The Guardian went ahead and reported the story they thought would create the biggest splash and most other outlets picked it up.

This was coupled with the rather bizarre claim by The Guardian that they were forced to destroy computers containing sensitive information, with Editor Alan Rusbridger writing:
The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: "You've had your fun. Now we want the stuff back." There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. "You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more." 
During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would move to close down the Guardian's reporting through a legal route – by going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or destruction, this was indeed the government's intention. Prior restraint, near impossible in the US, was now explicitly and imminently on the table in the UK. But my experience over WikiLeaks – the thumb drive and the first amendment – had already prepared me for this moment. I explained to the man from Whitehall about the nature of international collaborations and the way in which, these days, media organisations could take advantage of the most permissive legal environments. Bluntly, we did not have to do our reporting from London. Already most of the NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York. And had it occurred to him that Greenwald lived in Brazil? 
The man was unmoved. And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian's long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian's basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. "We can call off the black helicopters," joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.
The language alone is laughable, my favourite being "shadowy Whitehall figures". Strip away the fluff and ultimately a more fair assessment of events is:
On July 20, 2013, without any photographs or video to document any of it (inside a newsroom no less) three employees under the direction of Rusbridger voluntarily destroyed the computer(s).
Rusbridger took the decision that if the government was determined to stop UK-based reporting on the Snowden files, the best option was destroy the London copy and to continue to edit and report from America and Brazil.
The destruction was overseen by two agents allegedly from the GCHQ, the U.K.’s counterpart to NSA. Three staffers destroyed the computers using “angle grinders and drills.” No, the GCHQ guys didn’t raid The Guardian‘s office. They didn’t force anyone to destroy anything.
Viewed from either side, this was a purely symbolic move since the files could’ve been stashed on any one of dozens of Apple computers seen in a photograph of The Guardian‘s newsroom, not to mention the use of offsite storage. By the way, I’ll overlook the fact that The Guardian article said there was just one copy in England. Clearly, they had multiple copies on various computers.
Even Rusbridger admits in his piece that "destroying" the data is a meaningless term, since it was contained on computers overseas and frankly, could have been put on a memory stick somewhere else in The Guardian's office. The story came even further unstuck later, and I highly recommend reading the full text of Bob Cesca's piece.

The problem for The Guardian is that they need to publish the most exciting story. Unfortunately, too often that story has been unpicked by sharp eyes, damaging their credibility in the eyes of people who matter. Every misleading headline means less time is spent focusing on the real debate, which to my mind is, what right do we have to privacy in the 21st century and how does the intelligence community factor into this?

To allow activists like Greenwald to control the narrative ensures that the narrative will forever be polluted by his personal objectives. That's not to say that Foust and Cesca and others are paragons of virtue, they have their flaws too, as do I, but at least in the cases of Foust and Cesca there is real journalism to be had. The art of taking information received, testing it for credibility, and reporting that which best reflects an objective reality is key to the Snowden story.

We all benefit from good journalism, it inspires a strong debate, based on reality. Long term, we may be able to build a better, more free, more inclusive society where our privacy in most areas most of the time is assured. Poor journalism will drive most people (who are not, sadly for Greenwald, idiots) away from the debate, turning it into a fringe argument which Governments can turn away from, assured that it is not an issue people will be voting on.

Thanks to Snowden we know we have far less privacy than we might have assumed, we have far less control over our personal information, and if the trend continues it is hard to see that in time we would have any privacy, particularly online. Lets focus on that, and decide what impact it has on our lives, and let self aggrandizing publications and individuals fall by the wayside.

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Thursday, 29 August 2013

Leadership vs Management

This post represents what I hope to be a return from my recent hiatus. Life has been a little challenging over the last 3-5 months and thanks to various people who have checked in. As always, I keep my Twitter relatively active when I’m able.

Leadership is a concept which has long fascinated me, since it’s a highly desired quality which seems to be in very limited supply. Definitions of leadership are many and varied, but one I like is this from Kevin Kruse, writing in Forbes:
Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.
He breaks this definition into the following elements:

  1. Leadership stems from social influence, not authority or power
  2. Leadership requires others, and that implies they don’t need to be “direct reports”
  3. No mention of personality traits, attributes, or even a title; there are many styles, many paths, to effective leadership
  4. It includes a goal, not influence with no intended outcome

He also includes the “force multiplier” effect of a good leader in the sense that they maximise the effort (output) of employees, generating what he calls “discretionary effort”, a critical quality in a leader.

So why the scarcity of leadership?

My contention would be that the distinction between leadership and management has broken down (if it ever truly existed) and the emphasis has been on training those who should lead in how best to manage. That is not to denigrate management as a discipline, solid managers are an incredible force for good within an organisation, marshaling resources and ensuring that the process works and does so with the absolute minimum of friction. Managers dispel the fog of war in your day to day work with their knowledge of all facets of a project and how best to resolve issues.

Management however is not a force multiplier, nor does it tend to generate innovation in and of itself. Management functions best as a method for smoothing out and refining an existing process. Leadership fulfills the role of creating new approaches and blazing new trails for managers to further refine.

One reason I like military writers on these topics is that they tend to be able to draw a far clearer distinction between management and leadership. Soldiers, particularly those in high intensity environments like combat, do not expect to be managed, they expect to be led. As such military writers of all stripes are able to clearly distinguish between the two concepts without conflating them.

Tony Carr of John Q. Public has a rather excellent piece up on the topic of leadership which speaks to many of the core values necessary in a leader and is as relevant to a civilian audience as a military one. He offers the following as suggestions on how best to lead an organisation:

  1. Set a vision, unify your people around it, resource them to achieve it, and then do your best to sink into the scenery and let them take ownership.
  2. Identify, invest in, build up, and rely upon your key players. Let them lead the unit day-to-day, intervening less than might be your impulse but enough that your people feel your hand on the reins.
  3. Work hard to make your communications as impactful as possible. Don’t stand silent on things you know your people are talking about. Whatever you do, tell the truth, even if it means you differ from the corporate line — it’s quite alright to differ respectfully while telling everyone to keep rowing.
  4. Care, and make sure — without being too obvious or hackneyed — that your people know you care. Fight for them, even occasionally when you know you will lose … it engenders loyalty, and sometimes you need that to hold them together when the “big” reasons for all they’re giving just aren’t enough.
  5. When the situation calls for it, be tough. Tough as nails. This is part of taking care of your people, and the good ones will appreciate and admire you for it. They’ll fight hard to maintain the standards you set when they see you safeguarding the standards they care about.
  6. Perhaps most important, do your best to deflect the pressures directed at your people from higher, rather than magnifying them. This is a tough thing to do, but if you don’t effectively guard the gate of your organization, external actors will conspire to dominate the time and mission focus of your people.

Please read the whole piece, as a simple summary of these points reduces the granularity and detail Tony has put in.

The most noticeable thing for me is that Tony’s leadership qualities emphasize a light touch, with goal setting, the identification of quality people to carry out those goals and ensuring that those operating under you are protected and well resourced. Efforts are focused on creating a secure “space” within which people can operate freely and effectively.

Something I might add to this as its own distinct point would be the requirement that leaders create a safe space not just to do the right thing, but also one in which mistakes are permitted and where and punitive action is absolutely minimised. In the environment within which I work I think there are two rules:

  1. If the client doesn’t need to know about the mistake then it is something to be treated as a learning experience
  2. The first time something goes wrong it is not a problem, if the same process is leading to repeated failures however, there is a fundamental issue that needs resolving
There is no system which is 100% effective, and attempts to create utopic workplaces where no mistakes are made are doomed to failure and bitterness. Leaders can tell the difference between a meaningful and meaningless mistake, and figure out the best way to adapt and develop so that no mistake is made twice.

UPDATE: I was sent this article which has rather neatly summarized how a leader deals with failure:
Because if you know what you want, and can say “well, that happened, here’s what I need” without the step of “hey, buster, you screwed the pooch on this, right?” people will do almost anything for you. The gratitude a person feels when they do not have to admit wrongdoing is limitless. Embrace it! Having someone say “you were right, I was wrong” is lovely, but it’s fundamentally ego-driven and unnecessary. You’re not wrong to want it, but if you can free youself from demanding it, you can actually get more concrete things than you would if you forced someone over a barrel to say they fucked up. TRY IT. It’s a golden ticket.
We shouldn’t lose track of the fact that both leadership and management can be taught and that both are required. We should not denigrate one while artificially inflating the other. What we should recognise is that one is not the other, and adapt accordingly.
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Friday, 24 May 2013

A Elkus: Leaks, Politics, and Power

Adam Elkus a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University. This was originally posted on Abu Muqawama and I would ask you direct any thoughts/comments to the original post. Adam was kind enough to let me repost this in it's entirety, as I felt it was right on topic and too valuable to just throw up some quotes:

The Obama Administration's aggressive anti-leak campaign has further polarized an already fractious community of national security commentators. On one side, as Joshua Foust noted, DC's national security press corps and many national security commentators see the surveillance and investigation as a threat to the very ability of the press to check a naturally over-secretive mil-intel complex. This has not resonated with many national security professionals who chafe at the idea that the press ought to be arbiter of which classified information can be leaked. There is truth in both stances, but also plenty of misdirection.

The story of how leaking became an integral part of DC’s political economy is the story of modern American politics. Like the proverbial Great American Novel, it's a story that must necessarily invoke a tapestry of both American and world-systemic social, cultural, economic, and political forces. There are no heroes and villains.  Instead, a complex interplay of institutions, processes, and power struggles led to the counterproductive and self-defeating hounding of Fox News reporter James Rosen.

And if TL:DR is your thing, I'm sorry. There's been so much BS on this subject that it needs to be discussed at a Trombly-esque length.

Washington DC is an ecosystem shaped by intense intra-elite competition. In such an environment, distinguished by compartmented and stovepiped access to knowledge concerning the machinery of government, control of information (which includes leaks) offers both political currency and psychological validation.  How it got that way, and how the current dueling narratives of security and press freedom mask such grubby competition, is probably a more fascinating story than the leaks themselves.

The real error inherent in Rosen’s plight is not a story of Nixon 2.0, but rather of national security policy that—as in AfPak and Yemen—suffers from a lack of attention to the larger political context, “human terrain,” and second and third-order effects.

The Pure Science of Politics

Politics is the process that governs the all important question of “who gets what, when, and how.” Classical social thinkers such as Machiavelli, Pareto, and C. Wright Mills have all recognized the centrality of elites to political dynamics---with alternatively praiseworthy and conspiratorial interpretations. A review of political thought, history, and political science shows that the business of politics is neither the conspiracy of fat cats populists imagine or the morality tale of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. It’s just politics. As Truman famously said, “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

The very logic of political life creates a natural base of elites. As the political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita wrote in The Logic of Political Survival, there is inevitably a "winning coalition" in domestic politics that keeps the incumbent in power. However, this coalition must be provided with private goods in order to be kept pliant. Therefore, the coalition must be kept as small as possible.  A small winning coalition is impossible in a democracy, which partially explains the instability of democratic governing coalitions. Furthermore, even in democracies political advantage goes to small, tightly knit networks which do not face collective action problems and are linked by superior social capital. Such networks tend to triumph even in the face of larger—but more disorganized—political opposition.

Beyond the winning coalition, specific kinds of elites also matter. From a historical perspective, several kinds of elites (this is not an exclusive list) recur in American democracy. First, those figures who can understand and mobilize cohesive networks are worth their weight in gold. Abraham Lincoln was so dependent on these political figures that he gave them battlefield commissions during the Civil War. Note how Rahm Emanuel, the consummate political fixer, walked the halls of power with admirals, spies, and cabinet members. The dawn of the industrial age produced another set of elites with power over the massive industrial, scientific, financial, and corporate structure that emerged as a consequence of America's rise to greatness.

As interwar historians note, both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt envisioned an enlightened alliance of these elites with a third elite type--government technocrats--as the key to stabilizing American society that was undergoing dramatic economic, political, and cultural changes.  Government technocrats arose as a consequence of the need to govern an increasingly complex society. They provided technical knowledge and ruled bureaucratic organizations governed by impersonal rules.

One of the many technical arms of government created to cope with both external changes in the international system and a more complex domestic picture was the military-industrial-intelligence complex. While the US continued to develop the military and intelligence backbone capable of exerting power abroad, J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) mobilized at home against both political radicals and heavily armed gangsters.

Technocrats and industrial age elites, both Hoover and FDR reasoned, could together stabilize an increasingly fractious America. The disruptive nature of these domestic and international changes is often glossed over. It was a time in which American government was rocked by corruption more characteristic by "bags of money" Kabul than Andy of Mayberry, roiling class war, massive crime, and divisive sociocultural conflicts. It was no wonder that intellectuals of the time, to put it bluntly, were pretty damn scared of the future.

While Hoover's vision of a small government that facilitated elite cooperation differed from FDR's more activist ideology, elite agreement was key to success for both presidents. The arrangement FDR helped formalize generated what was called the "consensus" era of American history, often remembered with great nostalgia as a time of economic equality, cultural agreement, and political comity. Of course, such a consensus was not good for everyone. The original title and deed to my family home in California explicitly barred Jews from moving into the neighborhood, to say nothing of African-Americans, Chicanos, and Asian-Americans. This was the high point of the era of smoke-filled rooms and popular diatribes about the "Man in the Grey Flannel Suit."

However, the biggest problem inherent in a new and massive bureaucracy is that it provided an ample space for elite competition. Sure, there was the ordinary grappling of social climbers. Factional interests, as organizational theory would predict, soon came to the fore. These natural tendencies are also bolstered by the nature of American democracy’s separation of powers. Ironically, the very discord and bureaucratic buck-passing that we decry is our best insurance against developing a unified “deep state” akin to that of Turkey or the former Communist world.

But bureaucratic factionalism and elite competition makes governance difficult. This problem created a particular demand for those who could impose political direction on the machinery of government. While Graham Allison over-exaggerates the power of bureaucratic "operational codes," it is significant that the lawyer Bobby Kennedy laid down his brother's law during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A Finger in the Fulcrum

What kind of person “fixes” the machine? What kind of knowledge enables mastery over it? The problem with government lies in its vast and complex expanse, tiered and access-restricted compartments, and tendency towards debilitating friction as the mighty gears spin. As the political scientist James C. Scott might say, such an arcane structure creates a problem of legibility. One must first read the machine in order to do something with it.

The power of Big Data lies in the ability of tools like Hadoop to assemble, structure, and exploit large quantities of unstructured and distributed data. The ability to read, structure, understand, and exploit the rough, distributed data of government and convert it into value is the essence of political intelligence. He who can both make sense out of such information and freely access it has power over the machine. In turn, his opponents will seek, like Scott’s semi-mythical Zomians, to render themselves unreadable and amorphous through manipulation and control of information.

Beneath the layer of competing bureaucratic identity lies another type of faction, the trust network. Theorized by the sociologist Charles Tilly, the trust network is a small group of individuals that resist control of more powerful authorities through various strategies of erosion, evasion, and misdirection. Trust networks exist everywhere where large-scale cooperation is difficult. Trust networks certainly have always existed within government, particularly those centered around charismatic personalities that carve out their own domains.

The importance of access to information is why figures within the Bush administration created the Office of Special Plans. With the intelligence community unsympathetic to their political aims, they needed their own channel of raw information to exercise control over Iraq war policy.  However, this practice is far more common than many Bush-bashers realize. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s monopoly over military-intelligence information in the run-up to World War II and his own highly questionable usage of such information dwarfs anything seen in the last ten years. Roosevelt, acting mostly in secret, waged both naval and air proxy war against the Axis and tolerated a massive British strategic influence and spying campaign directed against American citizens.

The rise of a more technically complex government governed by stovepiped, access-controlled information was paralleled by the simultaneous genesis of a science of persuasion.  The communication thinkers of the early 20th century, many of whom had served in World War I propaganda organizations, believed that the citizens of a mass society needed guidance and influence to make a dizzying array of decisions both serious and mundane. The science of public relations and advertising, as Edward Bernays wrote, was about giving guidance to a citizen alone in a dauntingly complex and interlinked world where even the daily experience of urban living assaulted the senses.

This field gave birth to what we know today as the political communications discipline---e.g. lobbyists. Lobbyists combined a knack for moving the gears of government with the scientific knowledge of mass communication developed in the mid-20th century. They were a harbinger of greater changes to come.

Out of Eden

For a variety of both domestic and international political, economic, cultural, and societal reasons too complex to examine in a single blog post, the postwar consensus era could not last. As George Packer argues, this left the elites who had previously agreed on the nature of things scrambling to protect their interests. Second, there was also a shift in the nature of the elites themselves. Peter Turchin, piggybacking on Chris Hayes’ book The Twilight of the Elites, notes that a different explanation may help explain the dysfunction we see today besides the moral turpitude often alleged by establishment critics.

Intensified intra-elite competition for increasingly scarce positions granting access to wealth and influence is also a consequence of an exponential increase in those seeking to become elites. As Hayes observed, a more meritocratic education system would inevitably produce more aspirants than jobs. The erosion of a consensus that mitigated towards cooperation produced greater dysfunction. Turchin, an ecologist by trade, notes that the mathematical Price Equation suggests internal competition can have a deleterious effect on group altruism and cohesion.  Competing trust networks, always a part of political and social life, blossomed throughout fields of importance.

The macrotrends behind the rise of intra-elite competition and the end of consensus accelerated existing lobbying, bureaucratic warfare, and partisan competition into something more characteristic of the “bad old days” prior to the midcentury consensus. However, new tools of mass influence and the exponential increase in the complexity of the governmental sphere upped the stakes. The modern political world, like Wall Street, became a complex ecosystem driven by similar dynamics of bubbles, crashes, and insider information. And just like Wall Street’s dynamics created the rise of advanced technologies and wizards (often falsely) claiming to offer scientific mastery over social process, the intense competition of political life generated political technology and political alchemists that also offered their clients the power to turn electoral lead into gold.

In such an environment, both the national security and domestic political worlds face strikingly similar problems. Bueno de Mesquita’s “winning coalition” in a democracy is both large and must be pacified with private goods. This inherently makes the coalition unstable. Such logic of instability also applies to the governmental sphere. A large amount of men and women must cooperate together to make the machine run. Many require access to valuable information in order to do their jobs. But the incentive to use such information for gain is immense and can overcome even the most tight-knit social and cultural bonds.

Even "quiet professionals" such as special operations soldiers and intelligence operatives blab to the press. Each leak generates more stovepiping and “plumbing,” unintentionally yet inevitably raising the market value of secret information ever higher.  Why? It’s not just about bureaucratic, partisan, or even financial advantage. Hoarding, manipulating, and leaking information also offers psychological validation. I leak, therefore I am.

Take the Wikileaks informant and military intelligence peon Bradley Manning. Unhappy with his personal life and US foreign policy, he began to hoard national security information. Though a gnat within the military-industrial complex, Manning’s information was valuable enough to someone to turn him into a celebrity. Now he elicits attention and sympathy from elites who would otherwise disregard a lowly soldier toiling away in the vast intelligence information database known as JWICS.

Mark Felt’s Children

So what does this all have to do with the misfortune of Fox News reporter James Rosen? The hunt for leakers makes for a debate in which two theologies—the gospel of national security and the gospel of the muckraking press—now clash head-to-head. But holy writ alone does not grant much insight.
No one would deny the importance of operational security. Yet it is still both hoarded and leaked flagrantly to grant power and advantage. Similarly, the closest thing the modern DC press has to an origin myth is the Watergate scandal. The simple version of the myth is that the press serves as a check on abuses of government power, shining a powerful light into the darkness that shrouds the machinery of state. The reality is more complex. Without a means of utilizing their hard-won information, elites within government cannot compete. Bureaucratic warfare cannot be waged without a megaphone.

Such a megaphone must also be discreet. The difference between, say, the bureaucratic warrior Mark Felt (known more popularly as “Deep Throat”) and a troubled soul like Bradley Manning is truly vast. The amateurish Manning poured his soul out to a complete stranger he met on the Internet. A man of Felt’s stature, however, had to protect himself. He needed a conduit to discreetly utilize his information without risk to himself. Blocked from moving up in the hierarchy, Felt’s confidential information could only become valuable outside the government. Enter the Washington Post.
To this day, it is striking how much Felt, for all of his pivotal impact on history, was just another DC bureaucratic leaker. Operating out of a complex mixture of principle, bureaucratic maneuvering, and personal ambition, Felt effectively made the Post his mouthpiece and became a world-historical figure. Felt, in some respects, was also little better than the Nixon officials he denounced. He authorized black-bag jobs against domestic radicals, and was convicted of conspiracy in 1980 when he refused (at least in court) to rat out his superiors. Was he principled or mercenary? No one will ever know. But the CIA, SVR, and Mossad operatives who recruit spies deal every day with Felt-like characters.

For every Watergate, Iran-Contra, or Abu Ghraib there are likely ten to twenty (a conservative and charitable estimate) exercises in puerile partisanship and bureaucratic finger-pointing like Benghazi enabled by the political press. Indeed, some in the press have used their privileged access to elite information to become elites themselves. Journals such as Politico derive their very prominence by a claim to soothsay the pulse of “the town.”  Despite the theology of investigative journalism, the press—like many other DC institutions—is a prominent vehicle for intra-elite competition. Inasmuch as it makes such competition possible, it contributes to the very dysfunction journalists often decry.

Towards Mitigation

Seen in this light, the troubling overreach inherent in the Rosen affair becomes a microcosm of the larger tragedy of American national security. The government, seeking to exercise control over a dysfunctional and fractious bureaucracy, took affirmative action. However, like the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, such a struggle inherently juxtaposed an amorphous yet ambitious strategic aim with limited ways and means. Now we have come to the point where a blunt and dangerous tool like the Espionage Act has been deployed.

Like a Cold War security standoff, the use of special technical means to combat leaks will surely generate a counterintelligence arms race as journalists (some of whom have extensive experience in combat zones) deploy advanced tradecraft to get their scoops. In turn, such new tradecraft could very well provoke more advanced and counterproductive government “plumbing.” The greater stovepiping that inevitably results also harms interagency cooperation and increases the market value of leaks by making such information more rare and valuable.

The endpoint of such a struggle surely does not benefit either national security or freedom of the press. Yet this is where we are---if the Rosen investigation says anything--are headed. Leaking, like many other crimes, will ultimately be managed rather than eradicated. The struggle to eradicate leaks has far-reaching consequences for both the information the government seeks to protect and freedoms beyond the investigative press's undeniable self-interest.

For the government prudent mitigation will be key to both the preservation of operational security and the preservation of press freedom. The government will have to be more skillful and strategic about how it protects its secrets. Difficult intelligence targets such as North Korea and al-Qaeda cannot be penetrated in an environment of rampant leaking. But in the case of Rosen, the cure may be worse than the disease. Leaks are an undeniable scourge. But acting without a plan that considers the political context does not do anyone any favors.

The first step towards progress is realizing that the problem is far bigger than the AP or Fox News alone, and that mythologies and holy gospels do not provide a sound basis for balancing liberty and security. However, at the moment—as with Benghazi, drones, and other contentious subjects—we can’t expect much more out of the “war of ideas” besides preaching to the choir.

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