Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security


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.

Is Climate Change the World’s Most Important Problem?

A 2005 review article in Nature on the health impacts of climate change provided an estimate of 166,000 deaths as the annual global death toll “attributable” to climate change. This estimate, based on global vital statistics for the year 2000, was derived from a study sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) that even the study’s authors acknowledge may not “accord with the canons of empirical science” (see here). Let’s, nevertheless, accept this flawed estimate as gospel, for the sake of argument.

Where would this rank climate change in the list of global threats to mortality?

In the year 2000, there were a total of 55.8 million deaths worldwide. Thus, climate change may be responsible for less than 0.3% of all deaths globally (based on data for the year 2000). In fact, it would place climate change no higher than 13th among mortality risk factors related to food, nutrition and environment, as shown in the following table taken from pages 355-356 of the book, The Improving State of the World.

[Notably, all extreme weather events (whether due to climate change or the normally abnormal climatic variability) contribute all of 0.03% of global deaths on average. See Table 2, here.]

Specifically, climate change is easily outranked by threats such as hunger, malnutrition and other nutrition-related problems, lack of access to safe water and sanitation, indoor air pollution, malaria, urban air pollution.

With respect biodiversity and ecosystems, today the greatest threat is what it always has been – the conversion of land and water habitat to human uses, i.e., agriculture, forestry, and human habitation and infrastructure. See,e.g., here.

Climate change, contrary to claims, is clearly not the most important environmental, let alone public health, problem facing the world today.

But is it possible that in the foreseeable future, the impact of climate change on public health could outweigh that of other factors?

I’ll get to this question in subsequent blogs over the next couple of weeks, but for those who can’t wait, the answer can be found here.

Alaska Will Not Implement REAL ID

Passed into law Wednesday:

Section 1. AS 44.99 is amended by adding a new section to article 1 to read:

4 Sec. 44.99.040. Limitation on certain state expenditures. A state agency may not expend funds solely for the purpose of implementing or aiding in the implementation of the requirements of the federal Real ID Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-13, Division B).

Fiscal Responsibility, Bush Style

As we all know, if you just put the word “defense,” or “homeland” or “security” anywhere in the name of a government program, its fiscal impact is immediately zeroed out. But if this mystical transformation didn’t take place, President Bush’s fiscal legacy would be looking darker and darker each day. Noah Shachtman gives us a rundown:

The Pentagon’s internal watchdogs can’t keep up with the explosive growth in military spending. Which means $152 billion’s worth of contracts annually aren’t being reviewed for fraud, abuse and criminal interference by the Defense Department’s Inspector General, according to a newly-unearthed report to Congress. The result: “undetected or inadequately investigated criminal activity and significant financial loss,” as well as “personnel, facilities and assets [that] are more vulnerable to terrorist activities.”

Since fiscal year 2000, the military’s budget has essentially doubled, from less than $300 billion to more than $600 billion. Two wars have begun. But the number of criminal investigators and financial auditors at the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General (DoD IG) has stayed more or less the same. So there are now “gaps in coverage in important areas, such as major weapon systems acquisition, health care fraud, product substitution, and Defense intelligence agencies,” according to the report, obtained by the Project on Government Oversight.


The DOD IG’s office has certainly stayed busy. In just the last few months, the DOD IG caught a Philippine corporation bilking $100 million from the military health care system; nabbed a trio trying to bribe their way into drinking water contracts for troops; busted an Air Force general who tried to steer a $50 million deal to his buddies; and launched investigations into the Pentagon’s propaganda projects and the youthful arms-dealer who sold tens of millions of dollars’ worth of dud ammunition to the government.

Shachtman then observes: “The question is: How much more could they have done, with a bigger staff?” It’s almost like you sink a half a trillion dollars a year into one massive bureaucracy and it’s hard to keep track of it all. President McCain’s going to have to find a lot of earmarks to offset this sort of thing.