Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Bulk-Scanning E-mail for Spy Agencies

Reuters dropped a bombshell story Tuesday afternoon, reporting that in 2015 Yahoo agreed to scan all their users’ incoming e-mails on behalf of a U.S. intelligence agency, hunting for a particular “character string” and turning over messages where it found a match to the government. Yet the vagueness of the story—which appears to be based on sources with limited access to the details of the surveillance—leaves a maddening number of unanswered questions.  Yahoo did not greatly help matters with a meticulously worded non-denial, calling the story “misleading” without calling it substantively false, and asserting that the “scanning described in the article does not exist on our systems.” (Obvious follow-up questions: Did it exist in 2015? Does it now exist on some other systems?)  Then, on Wednesday, Charlie Savage and Nicole Perlroth of The New York Times published a follow-up article fleshing out some of the details: The bulk scan was conducted pursuant to an order from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and hunted for a “digital signature” associated with a foreign state-sponsored terror group.

America’s Loose-Cannon Allies

One of the insidious dangers to a major power, even a superpower such as the United States, is the possibility that a security client could entangle its patron in an unwanted, unnecessary conflict.  That is what happened in 1914 when Serbia’s zealous pursuit of a parochial nationalist agenda eventually sparked a disastrous war that consumed its protector, Czarist Russia, as well as other traditional European powers.  A prudent great power must always be wary of such potential “loose-cannon” allies.

As I describe in an article over at the National Interest Online, the United States currently needs to worry about two such security clients in East Asia: Taiwan and the Philippines.  The recent conduct of both countries should raise serious questions about the wisdom of maintaining the U.S. security commitment to their defense.

Taipei has taken a number of actions that further complicate the already delicate situation in the South China Sea.  Even as Washington has repeatedly admonished Beijing not to enhance the islands and reefs that it occupies in that body of water, media reports indicate that Taiwan is pursuing an ambitious agenda of its own.  According to United Press International, relying on reports in China Times and other Taiwanese sources, Taiwan is now building anti-aircraft defenses on Taiping (also known as Itu Aba) Island, the largest island in the disputed Spratly chain claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.  That follows on the heels of the building of an upgraded military airstrip.  To make matters even more ominous, the Taiwanese government apparently asked Google to blur out images of the site to conceal the military construction.  At a minimum, Taipei’s conduct will make Washington’s next lecture to Beijing on maintaining the status quo in the South China Sea considerably more awkward.  At worst, the move substantially increases military tensions in the region and U.S. exposure to those tensions.

But the Taiwanese government looks like the model of diplomatic caution and decorum compared to the Philippines under the rule of President Rodrigo Duterte.  Among the lowlights of his presidency thus far was his labeling of President Obama a “son of a bitch,” which cost him a summit meeting with the leader of his country’s patron and protector.  People in the United States tended to focus on the crudity of the comment rather than the context, but the context was important.  Duterte was emphasizing that he was answerable only to the Philippine people and that Manila’s foreign policy would not necessarily follow Washington’s wishes.  Duterte has since expanded on that theme, asserting that he wishes to forge alliances with both Russia and China. 

At the same time, though, he expects the United States to fully honor its commitment in the bilateral defense treaty and to back Manila’s foreign policy position on contentious issues. One really must ask what America gains by incurring the risks necessary to defend such a self-serving, duplicitous “ally.”

Clinton’s Domestic Surveillance Policy: Duplicitously Neocon As It Ever Was

The Guardian has a story out today outlining–to the extent that the Clinton campaign would do so–what the ex-Secretary of State would do vis a vis national security policy if she becomes the next occupant of the Oval Office. For those concerned with our out-of-control, post-9/11 Surveillance State, these three paragraphs should give you pause:

Domestically, the “principles” of Clinton’s intelligence surge, according to senior campaign advisers, indicate a preference for targeted spying over bulk data collection, expanding local law enforcement’s access to intelligence and enlisting tech companies to aid in thwarting extremism. 

The campaign speaks of “balancing acts” between civil liberties and security, a departure from both liberal and conservative arguments that tend to diminish conflict between the two priorities. Asked to illustrate what Clinton means by “appropriate safeguards” that need to apply to intelligence collection in the US, the campaign holds out a 2015 reform that split the civil liberties community as a model for any new constraints on intelligence authorities. 

The USA Freedom Act, a compromise that constrained but did not entirely end bulk phone records collection, “strikes the right balance”, Rosenberger said. “So those kinds of principles and protections offer something of a guideline for where any new proposals she put forth would be likely to fall.”

Congress Takes on the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

In yesterday’s Washington Post, a headline proclaimed: “Saudi Arabia is Facing Unprecedented Scrutiny from Congress.” The article focused on a recently defeated Senate bill which sought to express disapproval of a pending $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, though the presence of a genuine debate on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia – and the ongoing war in Yemen – is a good sign, Congress has so far been unable to turn this debate into any meaningful action.  

Yesterday’s resolution, proposed by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, would have been primarily symbolic. Indeed, support for the bill wasn’t really about impacting Saudi Arabia’s military capacity. As co-sponsor Sen. Al Franken noted, “the very fact that we are voting on it today sends a very important message to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia that we are watching your actions closely and that the United States is not going to turn a blind eye to the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children.” This message was intended as much for the White House as for the Saudi government, with supporters arguing that the Obama administration should rethink its logistical support for the war in Yemen.

Unfortunately, opponents of the measure carried the day, and the resolution was defeated 71-26. These senators mostly argued that the importance of supporting regional allies outweighed any problems. Yet in doing so, they sought to avoid debate on the many problems in today’s U.S.-Saudi relationship. In addition to the war in Yemen – which is in many ways directly detrimental to U.S. national security interests, destabilizing that country and allowing for the growth of extremist groups there – Saudi Arabia’s actions across the Middle East, and funding of fundamentalism around the world are often at odds with U.S. interests, even as it works closely with the United States on counterterror issues. As a recent New York Times article noted, in the world of violent jihadist extremism, the Saudis are too often “both the arsonists and the firefighters.”

Did The U.S. Lose 2.4 Million Jobs from China Imports?

A major Wall Street Journal article claims, “A group of economists that includes Messrs. Hanson and Autor estimates that Chinese competition was responsible for 2.4 million jobs lost in the U.S. between 1999 and 2011.”  In a recent interview with the Minneapolis Fed, however, David Autor said, “That 2 million number is something of an upper bound, as we stress.” The central estimate was a 10% job loss which works out to 1.2 million jobs in 2011, rather than 2.4 million.  Since 2011, however, the U.S. added 600,000 manufacturing jobs – while imports from China rose by 21% – so both the job loss estimate and its alleged link to trade (rather than recession) need a second look.

“The China Shock,” by David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson examined the effect of manufactured imports from one country (China) on local U.S. labor markets. That is interesting and useful as far as it goes.  But a microeconomic model designed for local “commuting zones” cannot properly be extended to the entire national economy without employing a macroeconomic model.  

For one thing, the authors look only at one side of trade – imports – and only between two countries.  They ignore rising U.S. exports to China - including soaring U.S. service exports to China.  They are at best discussing one side of bilateral trade. And they fail to consider spillover effects of China’s soaring imports from other countries (such as Australia, Hong Kong and Canada) which were then able to use the extra income to buy more U.S. exports. 

Autor, Dorn and Hanson offer a seemingly rough estimate that “had import competition not grown after 1999” then there would have been 10% more U.S. manufacturing jobs in 2011.  In that hypothetical “if-then” sense, they suggest that “direct import competition [could] amount to 10 percent of the realized job loss” from 1999 to 2011. 

Hacking and the Era of Fragile Secrets

Written with Christopher E. Whyte of George Mason University

What would it mean if a country couldn’t keep any secrets? 

The question may not be as outlandish as it seems. The hacks of the National Security Agency and the Democratic National Committee represent only the most recent signposts in our evolution toward a post-secrecy society. The ability of governments, companies, and individuals to keep information secret has been evaporating in lock step with the evolution of digital technologies. For individuals, of course, this development raises serious questions about government surveillance and people’s right to privacy. But more broadly, the inability for governments to keep secrets foreshadows a potential sea change in international politics.

To be sure, the U.S. government still maintains many secrets, but today it seems accurate to describe them as “fragile secrets.” The NSA hack is not the first breach of American computer networks, of course, but the nature of the hack reveals just how illusory is our ability to keep secrets. The Snowden affair made clear that the best defense isn’t proof against insider threats. The Shadow Brokers hack – against the NSA’s own top hacker group – has now shown that the best defense isn’t proof against outsider threats either. Even if the Shadow Brokers hack is a fabrication and the information was taken from the NSA in other ways – a traditional human intelligence operation, for instance, where a man with a USB drive managed to download some files – it seems clear that we’re in an era of informational vulnerability.

And what is true for the federal government is even more clearly true for private organizations like the Democratic National Committee. The theft and release of the DNC’s email traffic – likely carried out by Russian government hackers – illustrates that it’s not just official government information at risk. Past years have made it clear that civil society organizations – both venerable (political parties, interest groups, etc.) and questionable (the Church of Scientology, for instance, was the target of a range of disruptive attacks in 2008-‘09) – are as often the targets of digital intrusion as are government institutions.

At this point, it seems fair to think that there is no government or politically-relevant information that couldn’t, at some point, find its way into the hands of a hacker. From there, it is just a short hop into the public domain.

South Korea’s Preemptive Decapitation Strike Is a Bad Idea

Last week’s nuclear test by North Korea generated a wealth of commentary and analysis about the future of security on the Korean peninsula. The United States and South Korea quickly responded to the test. On September 13, the United States flew two B-1 bombers over South Korea in a show of force, reminiscent of bomber flights conducted after North Korea’s third nuclear test in March 2013. South Korea’s response didn’t feature any displays of military force, but in many respects it was more dangerous due to its implications for crisis stability.

Two days after the nuclear test, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on the Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation (KMPR) operational concept. According to the news report, “[KMPR] is intended to launch pre-emptive bombing attacks on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the country’s military leadership if signs of their impending use of nuclear weapons are detected or in the event of a war.” The strikes would likely be conducted using conventionally-armed ballistic and cruise missiles. Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies summed up the concept, “[South Korea’s] goal is to kill [Kim] so that he can’t shove his fat little finger on the proverbial button.”

A preemptive decapitation strike against North Korean political leadership is a bad idea for a host of reasons.

First, it will be very difficult for South Korea to know with certainty that a nuclear attack is imminent. Based on the press release accompanying the latest nuclear test, North Korea says it will mount nuclear warheads on Hwasong missile units. All the missiles in the Hwasong family are liquid fueled, meaning they take time to fuel before they can launch, but recent test footage indicates that they can be fired from stretches of highway. This presents a very complicated detection problem for South Korea. Moreover, even if Seoul can detect missiles moving into position, these missiles can be armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads further contributing to detection difficulties.

Second, decapitation strikes are very difficult to pull off. In the opening hours of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States tried to kill Saddam Hussein with cruise missiles and bombs from aircraft to no avail. Furthermore, even if the KMPR plan was implemented successfully and Kim Jong-un was killed before he could order a strike, there is no telling what happens next. Kim could simply devolve launch authority to missile units already in the field, telling them to go through with an attack even if he is killed. Or, without its dictator, the North could descend into chaos as various groups and individuals vie for control. Such a scenario is rife with uncertainty, and if armed conflict with South Korea broke out in the wake of a preemptive decapitation it could be more difficult to bring the conflict to a close.