Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Buzz Out

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates apparently forced out Air Force Chief of Staff General Mike “Buzz” Moseley and Secretary of the Air Force Mike Wynne today.

Initial reports are that lax nuclear weapons security was the “last straw.” Good reason.

There’s also this scandal. Moseley was recently slapped by the Pentagon IG after a two-year investigation involving the FBI showed that he might have helped a friend’s company receive a $50 million contract to provide media support for the Air Force’s Thunderbirds air show. That investigation led Senator Levin and the Armed Services Committee to call for another IG investigation of the Air Force leadership’s possible “ethical violations” in steering contracts. The IG’s initial audit of the units that run the Thunderbirds – Air Combat Command and the 99th Contracting Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada – found several contracting improprieties.

I would like to think that another cause of the firings was the Air Force’s recent use of $80 million in tax dollars to propagandize the public about their role in our defense with an ad campaign called Air Force Above All – a name bizarrely reminiscent of Deutschland über Alles. Sample claim: The Chinese have the world’s biggest Air Force. (True if only you count rusting turboprops and irrelevant to the fact that our Air Force is vastly superior to China’s). But that’s just wishful thinking.

The most important reason for the firings was probably the rift between the Air Force leadership and Robert Gates. Gates has repeatedly criticized the Air Force (rarely by name, but no one was fooled) for what he called “next-war-itis,” the tendency to push for its weapons program over immediate war needs. Gates was annoyed by the Air Force’ s reluctance to go full speed in getting UAVs, particularly Predators, to the field, even while it tried to gain control of all US military UAVs; by its inability to accept stopping F-22 production at 183 and end-runs to Congress to get funding for more; and by its overall lack of team spirit.

This goes to wider schism in the Pentagon and really, in the country. On one side you have people like Gates who want to transform the military to fight counter-insurgencies. On the other side, you have the services’ leadership, especially the Air Force’s, who understand that a military transformed to that end makes them an adjunct in fighting our wars, not its primary instrument. The Air Force’s view essentially is that the US military should not get away from its strengths – technology over manpower, standoff strikes versus population management. Gates would answer that there aren’t enough possible conventional wars to justify the Air Force’s agenda. Military analysts have mostly cheered Gates on this front and will likely support the firings for the same reason.

A pox on both your houses, I say. It’s true that the Air Force and Team Big War ignore the dearth of conventional enemies and want to make China into a vessel for all their procurement dreams. But Team Counter-Insurgency is too eager to use the military to fight a series of unnecessary wars, and they overstate our ability to win them.

One thing Gates should consider is selecting a non-fighter general to run the Air Force. The Air Force has been run by fighter pilots since the late 1970s, more or less, when they wrested control of their organization from bomber pilots. If Gates wants to change the Air Force, he might look for a leader from one of the Air Force’s other sub-communities, who may share his frustrations.

Fusion Centers in Search of a Problem

Via Secrecy News: “There is, more often than not, insufficient purely ‘terrorist’ activity to support a multi-jurisdictional and multi-governmental level fusion center that exclusively processes terrorist activity.” This is from a Naval Postgraduate School master’s thesis entitled: “An Examination of State and Local Fusion Centers and Data Collection Methods.”

Though they arose to counter the terrorism threat, “fusion centers” will seek out other things to do. Programs like these are born of slogans - “connect the dots” - “information sharing” - rather than sound security thinking. In a TechKnowledge piece last year titled, “Fusion Centers: Leave ‘Em to the States,” I juxtaposed the active fusion center in Massachusetts with the hair-on-fire overreaction of the Boston Police to a guerrilla marketing campaign featuring stylized Lite-Brites.

No End In Sight

According to this site, the Iraq correspondent Richard Engel’s book has some pretty startling words from the Commander-in-Chief in it. Try a few of these on for size:

  • “This is the great war of our times. It is going to take forty years,’” [Bush told Engel]. Bush said in forty years the world would know if the war on terrorism, and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, had reduced extremism, helped moderates, and promoted democracy.
  • Bush admits to Engel that going to war was a decision based on his personal instinct and not on any long-range strategy for the Mideast: “I know people are saying we should have left things the way they were, but I changed after 9/11. I had to act. I don’t care if it created more enemies. I had to act.”
  • Bush tells Engel that the election of Hamas was actually a positive development because it pressured Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas to make reforms: “I think the election of Hamas was a good thing. It proved to Abbas he was failing. I told Abbas, ‘You lost the election because you aren’t providing for your people, jobs, education, what people want.’ Now they know they have to compete.”

Looks like there will be lots to chew on in there. And we’ve got at least 35 or so more years to chew on it.

Cyber-Alarm!

Shane Harris’ National Journal cover story on the Chinese “cyber-invasion” is meant to alarm us. The story claims that Chinese hackers doing their government’s bidding are stealing our secrets and maybe felling our power grids. It quotes US officials comparing the consequences of cyber-attacks to those of nuclear weapons. The cover depicts a red dragon crawling on to an American shore. A subtitle sees “a growing threat.”

Don’t burn your wireless card yet though. There may be a US cyber-panic, but the Chinese cyber-threat is overblown.*

The most shocking and least plausible claim in the article is that Chinese hackers caused the massive blackout in 2003 and a recent power outage in Florida. I’m not an expert on cyber-security, so I’ll leave it to Bruce Schneier and Wired blogger Kevin Poulsen to attack this theory.

But anyone can see dodgy sourcing. Harris’ blackout scoop comes from the former president of something called the Cyber Security Industry Alliance who claims that he heard it from intelligence sources. In support of this contractor’s claim, the article quotes a bunch of federal officials paid to combat cyber-threats. They say, essentially, “Yes, it’s possible the Chinese did this, but we can’t say more.” Technical details aren’t included. It’s a secret, we’re told. The article only briefly discusses the very plausible explanations for both blackouts that don’t involve Chinese hackers. In the 2003 case, at least, that multi-causal story is backed by extensive investigations on the public record.

Another problem is the article’s uncritical acceptance of the claim that the Chinese government employs a hacker militia to attack US websites. No evidence is offered beyond the assertions of an intelligence official employed to combat cyber-threats, a security contractor who works for such officials, and one consultant / analyst. No doubt there are lots of Chinese hackers breaking into US networks. After all, there are lots of Chinese. But why should we believe that these hackers are agents of the Chinese state rather than bored teenagers in internet cafés? However malicious its intent, why would the Chinese government want to outsource its espionage to a bunch of underemployed programmers?

The story also reports on several Chinese efforts to steal information from US corporate executives and government officials. These stories are plausible – but two caveats could have been highlighted. First, our military and intelligence agencies almost certainly hack into Chinese networks and steal information. Second, there is no official claim in this story or elsewhere, despite all the sound and fury, that Chinese hackers have broken into classified US networks and gathered useful information.

Finally, the story should have quoted someone pointing out the absurdity of the claim made by Vice Chairman of Joint of Staff Gen. James Cartwright that cyber-attacks are comparable to weapons of mass destruction attacks, which means nuclear explosions, among other things. By most definitions, cyber-attacks have been going on a long time. They have killed either no one or almost no one. Yes, one can imagine scenarios where hackers trigger mass casualties. But equating these outlandish what-ifs to a nuclear weapon is either an assault on the meaning of “mass destruction” or threat inflation of first order. (I say this despite an article/ heroic epic in the same magazine depicting General Cartwright as a kind of cross between Napoleon and Jack Welch.)

I keep reading about the cyber-war we’re supposed to be fighting with China. Reading this story, I don’t see it. There are evidently a lot of Chinese hackers (not necessarily government-sponsored), and a bunch of Chinese electronic espionage (not necessarily successful). That’s a problem, not a war.

For a sober take on these matters, read James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

*I’m usually a fan of the National Journal and Shane Harris’ writing in it, so I chalk this up to an off-week.

Moral Responsibilities

The editors of the New Republic say we have a “moral responsibility” to invade Burma in order to distribute disaster relief. The editors observe that no one taken seriously is seriously advocating doing this and lament:

This is, put simply, an unacceptable abdication of our moral responsibilities. Even though our standing in the world has been severely diminished by Iraq, we should at least be debating intervention in Burma. There are, no doubt, many logistical complications and unintended consequences that would follow from such a policy. But there are also reasons why it should be a live option. The goal of such an intervention need not be regime change; it should simply be to make sure that a vulnerable population receives the supplies it desperately needs. Of course, if violating the sovereignty of a murderous regime happens to undermine that regime’s legitimacy, then that would not be such a terrible result. But this does not necessarily have to be our goal.

One should not, I suppose, be too surprised that this sort of slipshod advocacy still emanates from the epicenter of liberal imperialism, a publication that was as influential as any in urging the Iraq war on the American people. (Neither should the fact that its leadership attempted to make their non-apology apology for Iraq look magnanimous.) The piece’s curtsy at post-Iraq reality is even sort of endearing, in a child-like way.

Note also the focus not on the particular policy of invading and taking responsibility for disaster relief in Burma, but rather on the importance of “debating” such a policy. After all, the New Republic’s writers aren’t going to be the ones to invade the country and deliver the aid. Rather, the important question is whether the political climate will allow for TNR’s writers to churn out tough-minded and uncompromising articles that allow them to stretch their rhetorical legs yet still keep them within the beloved Broderian mainstream of American politics.

But maybe the most disappointing point of that paragraph is that instead of the rote “to be sure” formulation, the editors chose to dodge completely the substance of the policy they’re advocating for by using the more indirect “there are, no doubt, many logistical complications…” phrasing. Write what you know, guys.

In Memory of William Odom, An Appreciation

I was saddened to learn over the weekend that Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, USA (Ret.) – a military assistant to President Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, head of the National Security Agency under President Reagan, and an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq – had passed away from an apparent heart attack. He was 75 years old. His obituary reveals the extent of this man’s service to his country, and hints at his intellect and independence that I had grown to admire.

I did not know Gen. Odom very well, but I valued his wisdom and insight. Whenever I encountered him at meetings or informal receptions around town, I would gravitate toward him. He graciously shared his deep knowledge of defense and foreign policy issues, accumulated over many years in the military and in Washington. He was a terrific storyteller, and always generous with his time.

In recent years, especially, I respected his enormous courage in resisting mainstream opinion with respect to Iraq. He was one of a very few individuals who spoke out against the invasion before it occurred. After Saddam’s government fell, Gen. Odom made a strong case for why an expeditious military withdrawal from the country would serve U.S. interests, while a long-term occupation would undermine them. He made such arguments well before they were politically popular. (Read or listen to his comments at a Cato policy forum last year).

I have a strong suspicion that his outspokenness did not sit him in good stead with many of his one-time friends and benefactors, but he never seemed to care. Indeed, I sensed that he took some pleasure in it. For Bill Odom, being loyal to the truth was more important than being loyal to particular persons or groups.

In that respect, at least, Gen. Odom was a rare breed in Washington. He will be sorely missed.