Sunday, March 1, 2020

This Blog

Thanks to University of London Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller's kind post about this blog at Opinio Juris (which is a big deal in international law circles), I am getting far more traffic than I had anticipated.  I thought that it might be useful to explain what this blog is all about. This is not my first blog. For years I wrote on faith issues at my "Guy in the Pew" blog,  and was also the "weekend corespondent at the Episcopal Cafe's "The Lead" news blog.  I also had an Office blog when I was the Air Force General Counsel (which sadly folded after I left that office).  While in private practice, however, I did not feel I had time to go back to blogging.  After finding myself doing several long posts on Facebook that were very well received, I thought I should give this blogging thing another try.

My intended audience for this blog is not for other national security practitioners.  There are plenty of existing blogs and websites that already do a good job of reaching that audience.  Instead, this blog will be written for the same audience as my Facebook posts:  people like my friends and family who have never had a national  security job, but are curious about what is happening in the world.  I certainly hope that true experts like Kevin Jon Heller come join the conversation (and correct my inevitable errors), but my blog will be successful if I help explain the often surreal world of national security and foreign policy to the curious folks like my Facebook friends.

I do allow comments, so please join the conversation.

(And by the way, that is me in the back seat of the F-15E you see above--one of the coolest experiences as Air Force General Counsel)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

NATO's Image Rising


Pew Research Center this week just released a very interesting poll that shows that in both the North America and Europe, views of NATO have improved the past year.  this is a bit of a surprise given hostile comments by then Candidate Trump about NATO, and the rise of nationalism in Europe.  My best guess is that rising concerns about Russia account for the increased support of the NATO alliance.  Notably, however, support of NATO by Republicans actually decreased during the past year.  Pew offered this analysis:
In both North America and Europe, views of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have generally improved over the past year. Today, roughly six-in-ten Americans hold a favorable opinion of the security alliance, up from just over half in 2016, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Majority support for NATO has also strengthened in Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland. And after a steep decline a year ago, most French again express a favorable view of the security alliance.
 .  .  .
Behind the overall uptick in favorable views of NATO, there are sharp political and partisan differences in how publics in member countries perceive the alliance. In the U.S., for instance, liberals (81%) are much more supportive of NATO than conservatives (48%). In fact, American liberals’ opinions of the alliance have improved 23 percentage points since 2016. Conservatives’ views are unchanged.
 In several European countries, those on the ideological right are more likely than those on the left to support the alliance. In Spain, the right and left are 27 percentage points apart – 59% vs. 32% respectively. In Sweden the ideological gap is 26 points, in France 14 points, and in Germany 13 points. The share of the French right with positive views of NATO has grown 14 points in just the past year, while the opinion among the German right is up 13 points over the same period.
Read it all here.   The partisan U.S. numbers are especially interesting, and do reflect the 2016 election:


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How Should We Measure Burden Sharing Among NATO Allies

With President Trump attending the NATO meeting tomorrow, we can expect him to push more nations to meet the 2% of GDP target for defense spending by our NATO allies.  While the emerging Russian threat in Europe certainly justifies a renewed focus on other nation's contributions to the NATO alliance, the 2 % target itself is very misleading.  Former Bush official Richard Fontaine explains:
It’s instructive to look at which ally spends the greatest proportion of its GDP on defense. At the top of the list isn’t Britain, which has fought alongside the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and in operations against the Islamic State. Nor is it the Germans, who, with their paltry 1.2 percent, have made the third-highest troop contribution to the counter-Islamic State campaign. The winner is Greece, which allocates 2.4 percent of GDP to defense but can hardly be considered NATO’s vanguard. (It has helped the numbers that, while Athens slashed its defense spending in absolute terms, its GDP has shrunk faster still.) Today, Portugal is closer to the target, percentage-wise, than the Dutch, and Albania is closer to it than Canada. Clearly such budget numbers tell just part of the story at best.
A more accurate evaluation would look to other important criteria. Some allies bring niche capabilities to the fight, such as Dutch, French, and Spanish special operations forces and British maritime assets, while others, like Italy and Turkey, are integrated into America’s extended nuclear deterrent. Still others host American bases or troops on rotation. At times, allies shoulder some of the defense load in certain arenas. France, for example, took charge of counterterrorism operations in Mali, allowing the United States to focus on other areas. When Germany declined to participate in the 2011 NATO operation in Libya, it subsequently picked up other missions, like patrolling the Aegean Sea in 2016 and deploying a battle group to Lithuania this year.
A broader measure would also look at allies’ reliability and their will to stay engaged in grinding fights. According to the latest available statistics, Denmark and Britain have suffered more fatalities per capita in Afghanistan than has the United States, with Estonia and Canada not far behind. Such comparisons can be crude, but they demonstrate one dimension of their willingness to remain in a war engaged by NATO to defend America, rather than the other way around.
Read it all here.  One reason that the budget numbers are so misleading is that some countries (such as Greece) use their military as a jobs program without any significant military capability.  Others, such as the UK, Germany, and Denmark have highly efficient and effective militaries.  All should do more, but we should not focus too much on the budget numbers.

Were NSA Hackers Just Outed by the Russians?

In 2014, the United States indicted five Chinese military hackers by name for their hacking of several U.S. companies.  Earlier this year, the U.S. indicted four Russians (including two officers in Russia's Federal Security Service) for their involvement in the Yahoo breach.

Apparently, what is good for goose is good for the gander, as the Russian affiliated "Shadow Brokers" group appears to have outed the names of several NSA employees--the first necessary step in a reciprocal Russian indictment:
But something went largely unnoticed outside the intelligence community. Buried in the files’ “metadata”—a hidden area that typically lists a file’s creators and editors—were four names. It isn’t clear whether the names were published intentionally or whether the files were doctored. At least one person named in the metadata worked for the NSA, a person familiar with the matter said.

Additionally, the hacking group in April sent several public tweets that seemingly threatened to expose the activities of a fifth person, former NSA employee Jake Williams, who had written a blog post speculating the group has ties to Russia.

For people who work in the intelligence community, having their identities or the work they have done outed is a significant concern, said Robert M. Lee, chief executive of cybersecurity firm Dragos Inc. and a former member of the intelligence community.

Because nation-state hackers might run afoul of other countries’ laws while discharging their duties, they could, if identified, face charges when outside their country. So, to keep their own people safe, governments for decades have abided by a “gentleman’s agreement” that allows government-backed hackers to operate in anonymity, former intelligence officials say.
The Shadow Brokers “made this personal,” Mr. Lee said. He believes the group left names in the metadata either because the group doesn’t care about redacting sensitive information, or because they wanted the names public.
Read it all here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Some Thoughts on Trump Sharing Classified Information With the Russians

The news media is once again ablaze with a "you have got to be kidding" story about President Trump: that he revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador.  The Administration has issued denials.  So what are we to think?  As I explain below, I think that it is abundantly clear that some highly classified information was told to the Russians.  Whether we ought to be outraged by this, however, requires much more information.  We need more information, but I strongly suspect that reckless describes what occurred here.

So what to make of the denials?  In order to put these in context, you need to understand an old Washington trick--the nondenial denial.  The pattern is this:  A news article alleges that some category of activity occurred.  The "nondenial denial" does not categorically deny that something with in that category occurred, but instead denies only that specific types of activity within that category occurred.  By inference, there is an admission (or at least not a denial) that something in that category occurred.

Here, there has not been a categorical denial that classified information was shared.  Instead, we have more specific denials: “At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed, and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.”  From this you can surmise that highly classified information was shared--just not intelligence sources or methods or secret military operations.  From this, I surmise that the Washington Post article accurately reports that Trump "did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering method, but he described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat."  And Trump has since tweeted that he has the right to disclose classified information.

So what are we to think about this disclosure?  It is here that we need more context.  The President has the legal authority to share classified information with a foreign nation.  And we often do--even with countries like Russia--when it is in our interests to do so.  The issue here is whether it was wise--or reckless--to do so.  We need more information, but I strongly suspect that reckless describes what occurred here.

The calculation that needed to be made is whether the risks of disclosure are outweighed by the benefits of disclosure.  Here the downside risks are enormous.  the Washington Post article explains that the source of the information was a foreign intelligence agency that was itself highly classified (and not even disclosed to our allies).  It was "code-word" information, which means that access was tightly controlled even among those with the highest security clearances.   (My friend Jonathan Lee has a great primer on the highly classified nature of this information here.)  The downside risk is that in disclosing both the existence of the plot and the city where the foreign partner detected this information, the Russians could deduce the source of the information and surmise that there is a human agent  or technical means in that City.

The downsides here include the lack of future sharing by the foreign partner and the increased danger of exposure of the source.  As the article explains, "The identification of the location was seen as particularly problematic, officials said, because Russia could use that detail to help identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involved. Officials said the capability could be useful for other purposes, possibly providing intelligence on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow would be keenly interested in identifying that source and perhaps disrupting it."

So when would the risk be worth taking?  If the plot was directed toward Russia, the intelligence might be "actionable" in Russian hands, and therefore worth the downside risks.  If, however, as the article suggests, Trump was merely bragging about what he knew, disclosure looks reckless.

To me the most damning evidence that this was not a calculated disclosure is the fact that the White House only discussed the disclosure with the intelligence community after the meeting.  This suggests that there was not a pro/con vetting of the disclosure by those with knowledge of the situation.

So what should be done?  I think the House and Senate Intelligence Communities are the logical places to get to ground truth.  Sadly, given the highly classified nature of the intelligence here, their conclusions might not be made public.  Still, they might be able to at least give a judgment about whether the benefits here were worth the large risks.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Next Battleground: Space?

It is hard to overstate the dependence of the United States military on its space assets.  We rely on satellites for intelligence, early warning of the launch of enemy missiles, communications and navigation.  For years, our satellite assets were largely invulnerable.  As the Director of National Intelligence testified last week, this may soon no longer be the case:
“We assess that Russia and China perceive a need to offset any U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems and are increasingly considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine,” reads congressional testimony from Daniel Coats, director of National Intelligence on May 11. “Both will continue to pursue a full range of anti- satellite (ASAT) weapons as a means to reduce U.S. military effectiveness.”

.  .  .

Most attacks against U.S. space assets are likely to be non-kinetic, focusing on electronic attacks and cyber-warfare. “Development will very likely focus on jamming capabilities against dedicated military satellite communications (SATCOM), Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imaging satellites, and enhanced capabilities against Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), such as the US Global Positioning System (GPS),” Coats’ testimony reads. “Blending of EW [electronic warfare] and cyber-attack capabilities will likely expand in pursuit of sophisticated means to deny and degrade information networks. Chinese researchers have discussed methods to enhance robust jamming capabilities with new systems to jam commonly used frequencies. Russia intends to modernize its EW forces and field a new generation of EW weapons by 2020.”

However, when electronic warfare and cyber-weapons fail to achieve their desired objectives, the Russian and Chinese are prepared to use kinetic force to physically destroy American space assets. “Some new Russian and Chinese ASAT weapons, including destructive systems, will probably complete development in the next several years,” Coats stated. “Russian military strategists likely view counterspace weapons as an integral part of broader aerospace defense rearmament and are very likely pursuing a diverse suite of capabilities to affect satellites in all orbital regimes.”
Read it all here.  You can read the actual testimony here.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Comey's Firing: A Primer on Pretextual Excuses

Trump fired FBI Director Comey yesterday based on  the Deputy Attorney General's memorandum that discussed at length Comey (mis)handling of the Clinton email investigation.  I agree with the memorandum, and believe that Comey's conduct described in that memorandum would justify terminating Comey, but I nonetheless find the termination of Comey deeply troubling.  How can that be?  Because the memorandum was a mere pretext for more troubling motives.

In employment law there is a well-known doctrine called "pretext."  It states that if you  even terminate an employee for reasonable and plausible reason, you can still be found liable for the violation of the employment laws if your reason was merely a pretext for an improper reason.  the typical case is when a black employee is fired "because she came to work late," when the real reason she was fired was because she was black.

It is stunningly obvious, and the news reporting even by conservative newspapers like the Wall Street Journal supports, that the rationale offered by the Trump Administration was a complete pretext.  Hell, Trump applauded Comey's handling of the Clinton email investigation at the time.  If he had serious concerns about Comey's behavior in the investigation, Comey would have been terminated early in the Administration.  He was not.  Trump's reliance on this explanation is simply laughable.

Well sourced news stories now make clear that Trump had other reasons to dislike Comey--most notably Comey's statement that there was no Obama wiretapping of the Trump campaign, his statement that he felt "nauseous" that he might have influence the election, and Comey's dogged focus on the Russia investigation.

So while the Rubenstein memorandum offers a reasonable basis to terminate Comey, it is clearly a mere pretext for the firing.  As such, the termination of Comey hurts the independence of the FBI and should be troubling to all Americans.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Killer Robots: The Real Challenge to Using Artificial Intelligence in Military Applications


We are undergoing a revolution in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to solve problems, and some of the results are amazing.  For example, a research team at Mount Sinai Hospital applied AI to the hospital's massive patient records, and the resulting program was amazingly effective in predicting disease.  Not surprisingly, many at the Department of Defense are advocating the use of AI to empower autonomous weapons:  weapons that can identify the enemy and make targeting recommendations (if a human is involved) or decisions (if the system is completely autonomous).  The attraction of such autonomous weapons is obvious--the weapons can where human-controlled weapons cannot go (think emerging air defense systems) and can act more quickly to threats than human beings.

Now there are lots of concerns with military AI.  Indeed, there is an active campaign to stop killer robots, and the U.N. is actively considering a ban on these weapons.  The Campaign focuses on a hosts of concerns, but focuses largely on the inability of current technology to comply with the laws of armed conflict.  But even aside from these concerns is an even more fundamental problem: for modern "deep learning" AI programs, the system teaches itself and we really have no idea why the machine is making the decisions that it makes.  As the MIT Technology Review explains, "deep learning" AI does not work by simply following an algorithm.  Instead, modern AI uses a biological model in which the computer essentially teaches itself:
Others felt that intelligence would more easily emerge if machines took inspiration from biology, and learned by observing and experiencing. This meant turning computer programming on its head. Instead of a programmer writing the commands to solve a problem, the program generates its own algorithm based on example data and a desired output. The machine-learning techniques that would later evolve into today’s most powerful AI systems followed the latter path: the machine essentially programs itself
. .  .  .
 You can’t just look inside a deep neural network to see how it works. A network’s reasoning is embedded in the behavior of thousands of simulated neurons, arranged into dozens or even hundreds of intricately interconnected layers. The neurons in the first layer each receive an input, like the intensity of a pixel in an image, and then perform a calculation before outputting a new signal. These outputs are fed, in a complex web, to the neurons in the next layer, and so on, until an overall output is produced. Plus, there is a process known as back-propagation that tweaks the calculations of individual neurons in a way that lets the network learn to produce a desired output.
Now it is unsettling enough that we don't know exactly why the Mount Sinai Hospital program is so effective  in predicting disease, but at least it can still be useful even if we don't understand why it works.  It becomes a non-starter, in my view at least, if we unleash a lethal weapon in the wild if we don't really understand why it is so effective in making targeting decisions.  A failure to understand how a machine makes targeting decisions could lead to surprising, and tragic, errors.

This is an problem with deep learning AI that is getting a lot of focus.  The MIT Tech Review article does a great job of explaining the work that is being done to solve this problem.  But until we know why AI works, I don't see it being useful in autonomous weapons unless a thinking human remains in the decisionmaking process.

You can see what else I have written on the topic of autonomous weapons here, here, and here.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Political Case For the Euro

George Mason Professor Tyler Cowen, my favorite economics blogger (and local  ethnic food blogger as well) has a column in Bloomberg that explains his new view that the Euro as a currency has a better future than he had originally thought.  Cowen, being an economist, focuses on the economic reasons why the Euro's future seems brighter, but he makes a very interesting political point as well:  one unanticipated affect of the Euro is to make nations more committed to the EU:

It’s always worth re-evaluating one’s views, and my latest revision is that the euro currency is better and less vulnerable than I had thought. I still believe its creation and later expansion were mistakes, but I now see them as much smaller mistakes than before. Many of the biggest costs lie in the past, so the euro might be a net plus moving forward.

What’s the new evidence? For one thing, geopolitics seem to be favoring the euro. France, the Netherlands and (soon) Germany are rejecting at the voting booth far right and populist parties that oppose the European project.

One of the original goals of the euro was to tie countries to the European Union and its rules for free trade and free migration. The major EU country that eschewed euro adoption, the U.K., has now voted itself out the union altogether, to its detriment. Estonia and Latvia, which adopted the euro in part for political reasons to tighten their bonds with the EU, still seem secure against potential Russian aggression. The biggest political trouble spots seem to be Hungary and Poland, neither of which are euro members. That may be a coincidence, but it may also reflect a very real psychological tie resulting from the currency adoption.
Read it all here.  Check out his economics blog here, and his ethnic food guide to the DC area here.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Key to Understanding the New Russia: It is Now a Conservative Power


For many of us who grew up during the Cold War (or who simply study 20th Century history), old habits are hard to break.  We remember the Soviet Union, which was a bed rock ally of every left-wing government and movement in the world.  In the right/left dichotomy, the Soviet Union was on the left.

Of course, for most of its history (with the notable exception of  the Soviet period), Russia was a reactionary power.  In the 19th Century, winds of change were causing monarchies to either topple (France) or to cede power to democratic processes (the UK, and to a lesser degree Italy and Germany).  Russia was the exception.  It remained an autocratic monarchy until the end of World War I.  And in social and economic policy, it remained deeply reactionary, with freedom of Russia's serfs not occurring until 1861.

The key to understanding Russia today, in my view, is to recognize that Russia has reverted back to its reactionary roots.  This is true both domestically and in its foreign affairs.  While gay rights are ascendant throughout much of Europe, repression of the LBGT community in Russia is on the rise.  While the rest of Europe has become deeply secular and un-churched, Russia's Orthodox Church is increasingly  powerful in political affairs.

Even apart from efforts by Russia to influence political development worldwide, conservatives across the world have expressed admiration for Putin's Russia.  Right wing Christians in the U.S. like Russia on social policy, and the French traditional conservative  candidate (Fillon) also expressed admiration for Russia based on its conservative social policies.  And, as we now know, Russia has been actively supporting reactionary forces across the world (including LePen in France).

Clearly, Russia has geopolitical reasons to support the right in Europe even aside from ideology.  It wants to disrupt NATO and the EU, and the right is the best vehicle to do so.  (Mush as the Left was the best vehicle to do so during the Cold War).  Nonetheless, I think we miss the big picture here if we don't begin to take into account that Russia is, once again, a reactionary power.