Archive for ‘October, 2012’

Australia and India are emerging great powers that are the core of the Indo-Pacific strategic architecture, yet they do not have as strong bilateral ties as history, culture, politics, common threats and interests would suggest. In this collaborative essay with an Indian journalist, we explore some of the issues involved in their incipient strategic relationship, along with the prospects for closer ties in the near future.

Drones in our future.

datePosted on 14:22, October 18th, 2012 by Pablo

Although I have no technical expertise in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), I have discussed in various fora the military, intelligence, domestic security and political implications of their use now and in the future. The hard fact is that, bad press notwithstanding, UAVs (aka “drones”) are here to stay and will dominate the air space in the years to come. Already the US air force is training more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. Ninety percent of what drones do is non-lethal: reconnaissance; surveillance; search and rescue; maritime patrol; signal, thermal, optic and other forms of technical intelligence gathering; geological exploration and terrain mapping–the applications of these types of platform are many and will continue to grow in the years ahead.

The utility of drones is due to a simple calculation: the three “Ds.” They do jobs that are dangerous and/or dirty, and they do them dispassionately. To this can be added the fact that their operational costs of drones are less than those of manned aircraft and they do not expose pilots to the physical risks of flying. That combination guarantees that policy-makers will look to UAVs as the future of military and law enforcement aviation even if manned aircraft remain the bulk of commercial and private aviation for the foreseeable future.

Lethal drones such as the infamous Predators are constantly being refined so that their acceptable Circular Error Probable (CEP)–the chances that a missile fired from the UAV will fall within 100 feet of the target crosshair center–is now greatly increased. Since they loiter at 15,000 feet for up to 36 hours, US drone pilots (who work in 12 hour shifts and who must have experience flying manned aircraft prior to their assignment as drone pilots) spend hours and days watching a potential target before pulling the trigger. The protocols governing the kill shot are quite tight (for example, no shots at family compounds or while the targeted individual(s) is or are in the vicinity of innocents), which contrary to popular opinion has greatly reduced the collateral damage occasioned by drone strikes when compared to the early days of their use.

In fact, manned aircraft continue to cause the bulk of unintended civilian deaths in Central Asia, which most often is the fault of faulty or misleading tactical intelligence on the ground (the use of misinformation by local informants acting for their own purposes has been a major contributor to the unintended civilian deaths caused by air strikes). As a remedy, special forces teams are increasingly being used to track, spot and verify legitimate targets in conflict zones (to include Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as well as Afghanistan).

Although there have been many protestations about the use of lethal drones (so far the US is the only country to use them in anger), it is interesting to note that Pakistan has never attempted to intercept US drones operating in Pakistani air space even though the latter are slow, not particularly maneuverable and relatively easy to spot by electronic means (the recent downing by Israeli forces of an Iranian drone operated by Hezbollah demonstrates the case).  This is not to say that drone incursions into the sovereign air space of foreign countries are always or even generally  acceptable. What the different responses suggest is that the Pakistanis may not be aggrieved by US drone operations as they claim to be.

To be sure, the US military has tighter protocols governing lethal drones than does the para-military arm of the CIA. That has led to disagreements within the US security apparatus about who should be in control of lethal drones and under what circumstances are they to be used. The president currently has to authorize the CIA strikes, which are mostly directed at suspected jihadis operating in failed states. The military has a bit more latitude in targeting militants or insurgents in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, although all lethal strikes must be authorized by the chain of command. As of yet, that debate about unifying the command and control of lethal drones is unresolved and both the US military and the CIA continue to deploy armed and unarmed drones in foreign theaters using their own set of criteria (which if largely overlapped are not identical).

That is what brings me to the major point of this post: the fact that the legal apparatus governing the employment of drones in the international as well as the domestic arenas is very underdeveloped when compared with the technologies themselves. Already 60 countries employ drones, and domestic security agencies in a host of countries have explored their usage. The US uses them for border control and Coast Guard purposes, and true to form, some police department in Texas is reported to have expressed interest in a lethal version that could also dispense non-lethal crowd control justice from above.

Yet in no case are the legal protocols governing the use of drones in domestic arenas as well developed as are those used by the US military when engaged in foreign conflicts. This is worrying because the potential for abuse is great. UAV technology has outpaced the legislative framing of their fair use not only in undemocratic states but in liberal democracies as well.

New Zealand is not different in this regard. The Army and Navy are exploring drone technologies, as are other non-military government agencies. The Department of Conservation already has deployed a drone for geothermal and geographic research. The police are interested in UAV platforms as a substitute or complement to helicopters and terrestrial patrol vehicles. It is only a matter of time before drones are a regular presence in New Zealand skies, and the Civil Aviation Authority is already being tasked with drafting technical regulations governing their operations.

Even so, the legal structure governing the why, when, how and by who of UAV use in NZ is virtually nonexistent. Parliament appears disinterested in the subject and the agencies who would have the most use for drones have not been particularly proactive in drafting guidelines for their use. It is time that they did.

One reason is because the future of drones is not only in their greater use but in their increasingly varied configurations, to include miniaturization based on developments in nano technology. Consider this gem:

Sent to me by a friend borrowing from an unnamed source, the following blurb came with the photo.

“Is this a mosquito? No. It’s an insect spy drone for urban areas, already in production, funded by the US Government. It can be remotely controlled and is equipped with a camera and a microphone. It can land on you, and it may have the potential to take a DNA sample or leave RFID tracking nanotechnology on your skin. It can fly through an open window, or it can attach to your clothing until you take it in your home. Given their propensity to request macro-sized drones for surveillance, one is left with little doubt that police and military may look into these gadgets next.”

UPDATE: The source for the photo is this: http://www.snopes.com/photos/technology/insectdrone.asp

In light of the implications of developments in UAV technology and the growth in their employment, it seems appropriate that New Zealand confront the legal aspects of said use. New Zealand could, for example, be the first country to prohibit the use of lethal drones either in foreign conflicts or for domestic security (no other country has of yet discounted the use of drones for lethal purposes). Likewise, because there are no regional or international protocols governing their use, New Zealand could try to introduce resolutions in international and regional bodies that would lead to the regulation of UAVs on a broader level. At present the field of UAV operations is basically uncharted, much less regulated, so the opportunity now exists to try to match advances in UAV technology and deployment with advances in the legal architectures governing them.

Since New Zealand has in the past shown initiative and boldness in enacting policy with both domestic and international import, the field of UAV regulation might be another way in with it can demonstrate its fore-sightedness when it comes to areas of universal concern.

Media Link: More on Huawei and the GCSB.

datePosted on 14:25, October 14th, 2012 by Pablo

It must be the season for espionage scandals and potential threats. The NZ media has taken an interest so I get to play talking head.

One thing has become clear after the revelations of multiple New Zealand intelligence agency failures, malfeasance and incompetence over the past few years. That is what happens when there is no effective oversight on, or accountability by those agencies. As things stand the Prime Minster is the sole oversight on New Zealand’s intelligence community. The parliamentary intelligence and security committee is a toothless wonder that gets semi-regular general briefings on intelligence matters (at a rate of less than once a month), and the inspector general (IG) of intelligence–the person who is supposed to independently investigate the actions of the intelligence community–is currently a geriatric former judge who has the equivalent of a .5 full time employee and whose office and resources are provided by the agencies he is supposed to independently assess. His predecessor, another retired judge, resigned under a cloud brought about by the Ahmed Zaoui political asylum  case, where the Security Intelligence Services (SIS)  was shown to have clearly manipulated analysis of intelligence flows derived from foreign partners and the IG demonstrated bias in favor of  the SIS version  of events prior to releasing his findings.

Add to that the fact that the IG has limited powers of investigation and a parliamentary committee that cannot be told about operational matters and has no powers to subpoena or authority to force testimony under oath, and what you have is a recipe for institutional “stretch:” the tendency of institutions to exceed and play loose with the rules, laws and regulations governing their charter in the absence of effective oversight and accountability. That has become glaring apparent in recent weeks.

The problem is somewhat mitigated when the Prime Minister is a hands-on type of manager who is knowledgeable about intelligence matters, to include methods of collection and analysis. Although it raises the possibility of PM misuse of intelligence flows for political purposes, it does have the merit of forcing intelligence officials to be accountable to someone. However, if the PM is disinterested, ignorant or laissez-faire in managerial approach to intelligence matters, then the possibility of intelligence agency institutional stretch becomes quite real, as we have now seen.

Given the revelations about the GCSB and prior instances of SIS “stretch,” the time is now perfect for a reform of the intelligence oversight apparatus. Although the PM can and should remain as the minister for intelligence and security, the parliamentary committee needs to be granted effective and binding oversight authority that includes powers to investigate operational issues and force intelligence agency officials of all ranks  to respond under oath to questions about the how, when and why of specific intelligence matters. Likewise, the Inspector General’s position needs to be expanded into a three person panel that includes a mix of people with experience in handling sensitive information and knowledge of how intelligence collection and analysis works, and who answer to and are resourced by parliament rather than the PM and SIS, respectively.

Unchecked executive oversight of intelligence agencies is prone to what might be called the authoritarian tendency (by which elected executives assume quasi-dictatorial powers of managerial control), and is in fact the mark of many authoritarian regimes. This avoids the system of checks and balances that is not only a hallmark of democratic political systems, but of their institutional component as well. The issue, as the intelligence community well knows, is about triangulation: there needs to be at least three independent (if overlapped) sources of critical institutional scrutiny for information or oversight to be validated (which are manifest in policy or administrative decisions).

That system of institutional checks and balances is what provides oversight and promotes accountability within public bureaucracies as a whole. Such accountability is horizontal–between different public agencies such as the judiciary and security apparatus–as well as vertical (where public agencies answer to political authorities separated into legislative and executive components). The institutionalized oversight aggregate mitigates against public agency stretch and political manipulation.

Having one individual, whatever his or her persuasion with regard to issues of intelligence collection, analysis and political impact (something driven by the political context of the moment, including  the relationship between government and opposition and the  personal and partisan implications of any given decision regarding security and intelligence) is, in a democracy, antithetical. In mature democracies policy decisions are not individualized; they are institutionalized and subject to effective oversight.

This is simply a matter of democratic good practice. Effective, independent oversight not only keeps intelligence agencies honest and prevents institutional stretch. It reassure the voting public that the larger common interest, rather than narrow political, diplomatic or corporate concerns, are served by the intelligence and security agencies charged with defending the commonweal.

More questions about the Dotcom spying case.

datePosted on 12:48, October 4th, 2012 by Pablo

It turns out that the Prime Minister was briefed about the Dotcom surveillance by the GCSB in February 2012, not in September 2012 as Mr. Key has previously asserted. It also turns out that the eavesdropping began before the late 2011 timeframe offered by the government and repeated in Inspector General Paul Neazor’s report on the unlawful nature of the GCSB’s involvement n the Dotcom case. Since 2009, shortly after National assumed government, there have been at least three other cases involving the GCSB that may be of dubious legality. The official story admits that the legal advice given to the Police and the GCSB with regards to Dotcom’s residency status was wrong. Apparently neither the Police or GCSB checked with Immigration, Customs or other agencies about the issue (or if they did, they received either erroneous advice or ignored the correct advice given).

Mr. Key says that the briefing in February 2012 was about the general roles and capabilities of the GCSB, and that Mr. Dotcom’s photo came up as part of a laptop slide show presentation. That is curious. One would assume that Mr. Key would have received such a briefing as part of the transition to and early days of his first government, and that he would consequently have an idea of GCSB functions well before February 2012. It would be astounding if no such briefing took place during his first term as Prime Minister, and it would be only slightly less astounding if he required a remedial or follow-up briefing in February 2012, which just happened to be less than three weeks after the Dotcom raids.

More plausible would be that the briefing in February 2012, as the government returned to business after the summer holidays, was a status report on ongoing GCSB operations. One would presume that the slide show presentation was done to bullet point the main thrust of those operations as well as the targets and methods involved. The Dotcom case would have been one of them.

The question begs as to whether not only is the Prime Minister’s memory faulty, but whether he is competent on matters of security and intelligence. If he needs a remedial general brief about the GCSB role and functions and/or cannot distinguish between an operational status update and a general brief after nearly four years in office, then he clearly is not up to the task of providing effective oversight of the intelligence apparatus. Nor, it would seem, is his cabinet, which presumably would have prepped him on the nature of the visit to the GCSB headquarters in February 2012 and provided him with detailed questions on the operations in question. One of them might have been with regard to Mr. Dotcom’s residency status and the legality of GCSB surveillance in that case.

It would seem that, to paraphrase an observation about Sarah Palin, he has a singular intellectual disinterest in matters of security and intelligence, and that disinterest is shared by his closest advisors. Contrast that with his real interest in tourism (of which he is minister), the foreign film industry (for which his government changed NZ law in order to accommodate the conditions demanded by one foreign investor) and privatization and asset sales schemes of various sorts.

The bottom line is that John Key is to intelligence oversight what the captain of the Costa Concordia is to maritime safety–both asleep or otherwise engaged while in command.

The Dotcom case is the unhappy gift that keeps on giving. The media and the opposition are peeling away the layers of obfuscation that make up the bulk of the government’s version of the story. There is surely more unflattering revelations to come.

Fundamental issues of accountability and oversight have been raised by the Dotcom case, not only with regard to the substance of the charges against him and the way in which the Police, Crown and GCSB conducted themselves, but with regard to the general conduct of New Zealand intelligence agencies (the SIS has had its own share of embarrassments in that respect).

With a parliamentary security and intelligence committee devoid of effective oversight powers, an Inspector General of Intelligence whose independence and authority are tightly circumscribed and a prime minister who is either incompetent or disinterested in security and intelligence matters, or whose managerial style is to allow sensitive government bureaucracies to operate with near total independence wedded to an absence of institutional accountability (which can be vertical or horizontal, with both being needed for effective democratic oversight of intelligence and security agencies), the Dotcom case may only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to state agencies playing loose with the law.

That matters only because adherence to the rule of law is considered to be one fundamental measure of the quality of democracy. The core of that measure is that the State adhere to the law as much if not more than its citizens. Given the revelations in the Dotcom case, which follow on other instances of intelligence agency malfeasance (e.g. the Zaoui beat-up), New Zealand has found itself sorely wanting.