Archive for ‘September, 2020’

Media Link: Nuclear strategy, then and now.

datePosted on 15:46, September 17th, 2020 by Pablo

Although I had the fortune of being a graduate student of some of the foremost US nuclear strategists of the day (1970s) and later rubbed shoulders with Air Force and Naval officers who were entrusted with parts of the US nuclear arsenal, I seldom get to write or speak about the subject nowadays. However, in this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast with Selwyn Manning, we discuss the evolution of nuclear strategy and the impact of technology on logics of deterrence. It is all-too-brief but I think we got to the gist of the matter.

You can find the podcast here.

The Chinese List.

datePosted on 10:41, September 17th, 2020 by Pablo


News that Zhenhua Data, an arm of China Zhenhua Electronics Group, a subsidiary of the military-connected China Electronic Information Industry Group (CETC), maintains a list of 800 New Zealanders on a “Overseas Key Information Database” that contains personal information on more than 2.4 million foreign individuals, has caused some consternation in Kiwi political circles. The list of New Zealanders includes diplomats, politicians, community leaders, senior civil servants, defense and military officials, criminals, corporate figures, judges, B-list celebrities and Max Key. Complete with photos, information on these people is gleaned from public sources, particularly social media accounts, in what is one type of open-source intelligence gathering. Involving twenty “collection sites” around the world (including the US, UK and Australia) the larger global canvass is a broad first cut that extends to family members of prominent figures, upon which subsequent analysis can be conducted in order to whittle down to particular persons of interest in search of vulnerabilities, pressure points, sources of leverage, influence or opportunity across a range of endeavour.

However, there is a context to these efforts because Zhenhua Data is not the first company to compile records on “high value” foreign individuals nor is the People’s Republic of China the first or only State to (directly or indirectly) engage in this type of data collection.

Less than a decade ago, Edward Snowden revealed that US intelligence agencies and their Five Eyes counterparts shared information stored in a vast digital data bank obtained by bulk collection of personal data from US and foreign individuals and groups. Information for actionable intelligence “nuggets” was extracted via data-mining using computer algorithms and, increasingly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies. Although the bulk collection program was later found to be illegal under US law, the practice of data-mining has continued in private and public sectors around the globe. Anyone who uses social media has their personal information stored and analysed by the providers of such platforms, who then sell that data to other firms. For profit-oriented actors, the objective is to tailor product advertising based on consumer preferences and characteristics. For governments the objectives can be security-related or oriented towards more effective public good provision, such as for public health campaigns. The overall intent is to get an actionable read on the subjects of scrutiny.

Added to this is the fact that intelligence agencies have long used network analysis as an intelligence tool, most recently in the fight against violent extremism. The larger purpose of network analysis is to connect dots on a large scale by establishing overt and covert linkages between disparate entities, both individual and collective. There are variations to network analyses, including what are known as “mosaic” and “spiderweb” tracing processes. Uncovering linkages helps futures forecasting because it can identify patterns of connection and behaviour, including funding sources, favours owed, personal ties, foibles and affectations. More recently, bulk collection, data-mining and network analysis have been wedded to facial recognition technologies that provide real-time physical imagery to records compilation efforts. This includes images of people in groups or in public spaces, which can be frame-by-frame analysed in order to help discern hidden or covert interactions between members of suspected networks as well as specific individuals.

None of this is particularly new or particular to the PRC. In fact, it is a routine task for intelligence agencies that is used as a first cut for more targeted scrutiny. Along with the Five Eyes partners, Israel and Russia have been pioneers in this field.

When taken together, open source data-mining coupled with social network analysis using a combination of advanced computer technologies creates a chaff/wheat separation process that allows further specific targeting of individuals for purposes important to the State doing the undertaking. In the case of Zhenhua Data, the list of targets includes those designated as “politically exposed persons” and “special interest persons.” Beyond general knowledge of “high value” individuals, the presumable objective of the exercise is to identify and locate hidden connections and personal/group vulnerabilities that can be leveraged for the benefit of the Chinese State. The application of specific designators provides an early filter in the process, from which more focused signals and human intelligence efforts can be subsequently directed.

Zhenhua Data is not alone in using its private business status as a front for or complement to State intelligence-gathering operations. The US firm Palantir, co-founded by New Zealand citizen Peter Thiel with seed money provided by the CIA venture capital arm In-Q-Tel, specialises in big data analysis, including software-based analytic synergies involving data mining, AI and facial recognition technologies. Palantir has an office near Pipitea House, Headquarters of the GCSB and SIS, and its local clients exclusively reside within the New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC).

The question, therefore, is whether Zhenhua Data is doing anything different or more insidious than what Palantir does on a regular basis? The answer lies in ideology, geopolitics, values and alliances. In New Zealand Palantir works for the Five Eyes network and local intelligence and security agencies. Its relationship with the spies is hand-in-glove, so it has a Western code of business conduct when dealing with confidential and private information and operates within the legal frameworks governing intelligence-gathering activities in Western democracies. Its orientation is Western-centric, meaning that its geopolitical outlook is driven by the strategic concerns and threat assessments of Western government clients. Although it may have a relationship with the New Zealand Police, it presumably is not involved in bulk-scale intelligence-gathering in New Zealand and what foreign data-mining and network analysis it does should serve the purposes of the New Zealand government. But the fact that Palantir and Five Eyes as a whole engage in mass data-mining and social network analysis is incontrovertible.

Zhenhua Data, in contrast, is believed to be a military-directed technology front. It is seen by Western intelligence agencies as an integral component of Chinese “sharp power” projection whereby so-called “influence operations” are directed at the elites and broader society in targeted countries with the purpose of bending their political, economic and social systems in ways favorable to Chinese interests. For the New Zealand security community, which as part of Western-oriented security networks has identified the PRC as a non-friendly actor in Defense White Papers and Intelligence Annual Reports, Zhenhua Data is not a benign entity and its intent is not good. Numerous academic and political commentators concur with this assessment.

The issue seems to boil down to whether data-collection activities are seen as good or bad depending on who does it, under what circumstances, and where one’s loyalties lie.

In other words, how one sees Zhenhua Data’s data-gathering efforts depends on how one feels about the PRC, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), authoritarian rule and China’s move towards achieving Great Power status in world affairs. If one views authoritarians, the PRC, CCP or Chinese foreign policy with suspicion, then the view will be negative. If one perceives them with favour, then the perspective will be positive. Conversely, if one views the activities of the Five Eyes network and partners like Palantir with suspicion, then Zhenhua Data’s list is of little consequence other than as a non-Western equivalent to Palantir and an indicator of possible things to come.

Ultimately that is a matter of values projected onto real world practices. Stripped of the value assessment, Zhenhua Data is doing what it has to do in order for the PRC to achieve its long-term strategic goals. 

Sort of like Palantir, Chinese style.

This essay was originally published in The Spinoff, September 17, 2020.

In the US, the End of Days.

datePosted on 14:56, September 11th, 2020 by Pablo

I am feeling a bit impish today and so for no particular reason I thought I would share this thought, which I first posted over on twitter:

“Hurricanes, wildfires, floods, heatwaves, murder hornets, street protests, armed vigilante militias, a lethal pandemic and a corrupt authoritarian using the federal government for partisan and personal purposes. All that is needed this election year is a plague of locusts for the US to go full End Times.”

Or think of it this way. The US is like the drunk who finds himself waking up in a gutter covered in his own filth. He has reached an epiphany: he has hit rock bottom and can either seek treatment in order to sober up or he can die miserably in the street. Does he go seek treatment or does he continue on the same course? One choice is tough, the other easier. The body (politic) wants to return to the bottle but the mind says that it is time to quit even though delirium and tremors await.

The US political class needs to use this election year as an intervention that leads to the political equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous. The greed, corruption, hyper-partisan hypocrisy, corporate toadying, lobbyist revolving doors, slush funds and PACs–all of that has to go if they are to save the system from themselves. The question is, can they do it?

The problem is that in order for effective political reform to occur in the US the political class needs to understand that they have hit rock bottom. Not just in the person of Donald Trump but in the entire state of affairs involving the political system. It is dysfunctional, sclerotic, permeated with sleeze, deeply penetrated by vested interests and easily manipulated by money. It needs to be overhauled and revitalised.

I am not sure that the US political class understand this to be the case. Certainly not the GOP, which has used the deficiencies of the system to great partisan advantage. Not necessarily the Democratic Party, which has its own closets and skeletons to cleanse. So it remains to be seen if this election year will be the equivalent of a drunk’s epiphany for them.

Then there is US society. Still intoxicated on the myth of American exceptionalism and still addicted to its jingoistic militarism, armchair patriotism and sense of moral-ethical and physical superiority. Still under the spell of populist charlatans and Christian fundamentalist snake oil peddlers. Still profoundly myopic and inbred in its understanding of the larger world in which it exists. It too, must shake off the hangover and come to the realisation that the US is a hollow shell of its former self, a decadent and vulgar great power led by mediocrities now competing with rising powers not for world dominance but for a continuing place at the geostrategic table. It may not be at the point of eating crumbs yet, but the direction in which it is heading is evident.

The rot in US society comes from within. No external power has been able to do to the US what its own divisions and contradictions have done. What external powers have been able to do is exploit those divisions to their advantage in order to further weaken the US. After all, why confront the US while it remains military strong when a longer-term campaign of internal corrosion can undermine its ideological unity and military strength without firing a shot in anger?

Once nationally divided along the lines witnessed in Charlottesville, Portland, Kenosha and elsewhere, the rot born of societal malaise will seep into the US’s war-fighting capability (as it has already with regard to policy disagreements within DoD about the impact of Covid-19 on force readiness). When that occurs, the US can be more readily confronted at a kinetic and diplomatic level.

What is clear is that, even if the Democrats win in November by taking control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, if the US continues on its current path it will not recover. It may get out of the gutter produced by the four year bender that is the Trump years but it will only get as far as the equivalent of a park bench when it comes to political sobriety and societal health.

The ultimate problem is hypocrisy and delusion. No one wants to admit that the US is in decline and no politician will get elected if s/he honestly says so. Yet that admission is exactly what has to happen because it is the social and political equivalent of standing up in a room full of strangers and saying “hi, I am Uncle Sam and I am an alcoholic. I am here to change my life.”

That day may never come. But the End Days will.

Why do they do it? A note on the passing of Robert Barros.

datePosted on 11:14, September 8th, 2020 by Pablo

I recently heard that my old friend Robert “Bob” Barros died of cancer in Buenos Aires last month. Bob was part of my graduate student cohort in Political Science at the University of Chicago in the early 1980s, and we studied under the same group of neo-Gramscian/analytic Marxist “transitologists” who helped redefine and renovate the study of comparative politics world-wide.

Bob wrote a number of influential works, particularly Constitutionalism and Dictatorship, a study of the Pinochet regime’s attempts to provide a legal mantle to its rule (and aftermath); “Personalization and Institutional Constraints,” on the tension between personalist dictators and their attempts to institutionalise their rule; “On the Outside Looking In” and “Secrecy and Dictatorships,” which addressed the methodological and substantive problems in studying (opaque) authoritarian regimes.

Bob’s work received awards and international recognition. Yet rather than seek the material comfort and security of a tenured position at a US university, he chose to follow his love of the Southern Cone by moving to Argentina to work at a small university there. He eventually found a partner and had a daughter with her. The last time I saw him was in 2017 when my family and I visited my childhood and his adopted home town.

Rather than write an obituary for Bob I thought I would share an anecdote about him and how it reflects on intellectual enterprise and scholastic endeavour. It goes like this:

While in graduate school Bob, I and other students of Latin American society would regularly get together over coffees to ruminate about life in general and politics in particular. The students came from a cross section of disciples–history, sociology, anthropology, political science–all connected by the Centre for Latin American Studies. We shared classes together and that became the basis for many personal and professional friendships that continue to this day.

(As an aside, I never saw such gathering after I arrived to teach at a university in New Zealand. Instead, grad students headed to the campus pub for piss-ups and academic staff met for tea and gossiped in the departmental common room, then retreated to their offices and later homes. There was, in the ten years that I lasted in that environment, no sense of intellectual community that I could discern of, at least in what passed for political studies those days. From what I am told, the contrast between my grad student experience and those of today’s grad students at that NZ university remains the same).

During some of those Chicago Kaffeeklatschs we debated whether the Argentine and Chilean juntas kept records on the atrocities they committed–the number, ages and gender of those detained, tortured, and murdered, the ways in which they were hunted down and disposed of, the types of barbarity to which they were subjected to, the children that were removed from them, etc. By the late 1970s and early 1980s when we got together over coffee there was enough information leaking out of both countries to suggest that the abuses were both systematic and wide-scale, which suggested that given the military bureaucracies involved, records might be kept.

We asked these questions because our collective reading under our common mentors had shown that Nazis, Stalinists and assorted others before them kept records that incriminated them clearly and recorded for all posterity their culpability in committing crimes against humanity. But why would they do so? Why would they not just erase all evidence of their crimes rather than leave a probatory trail that could be followed? Knowing that what they were doing was extreme and that the shadow of the future would determine how their actions would be read by subsequent generations, and knowing that such record-keeping would deny them any possibility of plausible deniability down the road in the event that they did not prevail for all time and thereby get to write the historical narrative as they pleased, we wondered about the authoritarian mindset, the pathological and sociopath motivations, collective versus individual madness and assorted other possible sources for meticulous record-keeping by murderous authoritarians. We then speculated if the Southern Cone dictatorships shared these traits.

As it turns out, those conversations provided me with the basis for doing my own field research on “desaparecidos” (disappeared) in Argentina during the 1976-83 dictatorship, where I worked as a part of a group of human rights organisations trying to determine the fate of hundreds of men, women and children who went missing during those years. I knew that there must be records on them, and sure enough there mostly was. Later on, the questions from those conversations provided me with the primary tools for engaging in leadership analysis work for the US security community. For Bob, it turned into a large research project on authoritarian legal frameworks that became the basis of his Ph.D. dissertation that eventually became the book on Constitutionalism and Dictatorship.

What he discovered is that, apart from grossly backwards forms of personalist rule, the majority of authoritarians feel the need to provide a legal mantle around their behaviour. This is both a way of justifying their actions as well as setting both precedent and parameters for future regimes in terms of potential judicial action as well as justifying their own rule. Whether they believe that their actions are legitimate or not, authoritarians want to give them the appearance of legality. That way, should they ever be prosecuted for, say, human rights violations, they can argue that what they did was justified by law and constitutional precept.

This may seem retrospectively obvious to the casual observer, but Bob provided meticulously-research details of the thinking that goes into creating such legal and institutional edifices.

I will not try to further summarise Bob’s richly detailed works or the many implications and avenues of future research opened by them. I simply would urge readers with an interest in how authoritarians try to legitimate and institutionalise their rule to have a look at his writing.

Que descanses en paz, querido amigo!

Media Link: “A View from Afar” podcast, episode 7.

datePosted on 13:19, September 6th, 2020 by Pablo

In the most recent broadcast Selwyn Manning and I talk about the turn (back) towards hard power competition in international affairs. You can find it here.

Thought for the day: On terrorist entities.

datePosted on 14:49, September 3rd, 2020 by Pablo

Now that he has been convicted and sentenced, including on a charge of committing a terrorist act (to which he admitted guilt), the Christchurch killer has been designated a “terrorist entity” by the government, using provisions of the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002. Designating the killer as a terrorist entity means that his assets can be seized, his (online/other) fans can be prosecuted as terrorist supporters and creating funding platforms for his legal appeals or other reasons are now punishable offenses. No GoFundMe pages for him, it seems, and racists will need to think twice and tread carefully when they sing his praises in any forum (which should make certain NZ rightwing blogs a bit more careful when moderating comments)..

This is a smart move on the government’s part. Although the intent of the 2002 legislation was clearly directed at Islamicists and the various fronts and support networks that aided their armed campaigns, the use of the legislation in its first instance–both in successfully charging the killer with a terrorist offence and in designating him as an “entity” so that others could not easily provide support or encouragement to him or other like-minded people–is a well executed step that in principle demonstrates that the law can be applied in a balanced fashion regardless of the ideological cause being espoused.

But the test of this balance remains to be seen. Imagine if Tame Iti and his ragtag assortment of activist friends had been charged and convicted of terrorist offences because of their Urewera shenanigans (which was the original intention of the Clark government). Would they have been designated as “entities” so that others of similar mind could not legally offer them or their various causes emotional and material support? What about environmental or animal rights militants, who are often labeled as “eco-terrorists” by rightwing politicians and media and the commercial outfits that the activists oppose? What about anti-1080 activists, who have shown a penchant for intimidation and violence? Or the Sea Shepard Society, which Japan has designated as a terrorist group (and pirates) because it has used direct action tactics against whalers in the Southern Ocean and elsewhere?

The old saying “one person’s terrorist is another person’s hero” comes to mind here. The label can be applied to anyone who, under the broad definition of “national security” in New Zealand legislation, causes “harm” to the national economy, social order or reputation regardless of whether they used violence in pursuit of their objectives. Accordingly, the use of the term “terrorist” has been stretched by politicians, media mouthpieces and corporate and/or interest groups to cover a variety of non-murderous people agitating for a wide range of causes.

That is why the use of the term “terrorist” and the designation of terrorist entities must be done under strict guidelines and in the most extreme of circumstances. While international designators are helpful–say, in labelling Daesh as a terrorist entity or NZ expats clearly identified as having participated in its genocidal activities as terrorists–it remains for the Crown to rigorously scrutinise the criteria by which people and groups are placed in such categories. That must be objective, factually-based and proportionate to the harm committed. Above all, it must not be left to the government of the day, less partisan opportunism rear its ugly head in the application of justice.

The Christchurch killer made it easy on the Crown–and on the security agencies that allowed him to slip under the radar when planning and preparing the attacks–when he pleaded guilty to all charges. The sentencing was heavy on drama and pathos but the outcome was foretold and inevitable. The post-sentencing designation of the killer as an entity was an adroit touch. But one wonders if that designation should have come from the court at the time of sentencing rather than from the government after the sentence was handed down.

In any event, the first successful application of terrorism charges and terrorist entity designations is a salutary milestone in NZ jurisprudence and security affairs, but it is not without its potentially negative implications in future circumstances. That should be the guiding (or better said, self-limiting) principle in any future consideration of their use.