Archive for ‘Intelligence and Security’ Category

Blog Link: Reorganizing (the) Defense

datePosted on 16:15, May 15th, 2009 by Pablo

The recent announcement that a Defense Review Board has been convened with the charge of issuing a Defense White Paper in 2010 (13 years after the last one) is the subject of this month’s “A Word from Afar” column over at Scoop: . Lets just say that there are some troublesome aspects to the issue.

On the Torture Memos

datePosted on 20:29, April 23rd, 2009 by Pablo

At long last the paper trail authorizing the use of coercive interrogation techniques, to include tortures such as water boarding ( a simulated drowning technique) has been made public. The bottom line is that it reveals that high level Bush administration officials, to include John Ashcroft (Attorney General at the time), John Yoo (Deputy Attorney General), Alberto Gonzalez (White House counsel, later Attorney General) Dick Cheney (Darth Vadar) and Condoleeza Rice (Nurse Ratched), should be indicted for criminal offenses under both US and international law. What is worse, their authorization of criminal acts–no matter how Mr. Yoo’s convoluted legal arguments may wish to paint them as something less than torture and permissible under doctrines of Executive authority anyway–flew in the face of expert opinion that torture is an unreliable method for extracting reliable intelligence and could, in fact, be counter-productive both legally and practically. There are several layers to the story, so I shall briefly run through them.

The techniques used were derived from the SERE school practices. SERE is a program run by the US military to simulate the conditions of a prisoner of war camp in which US aviators and special forces operators might find themselves. It is modeled on 1950s Chinese prison camps. Under controlled conditions, SERE operators subject US personnel to what they admit are “torture techniques” (such as water boarding) in order to teach the US personnel how to resist coercive interrogations. Thus, the Bush White House and Justice department took techniques that were capable of being overcome by determined prisoner resistance and authorized their use, without fully exploring their history or the controlled circumstances of their SERE application, on suspected jihadis whose idea of glory comes in the form of martyrdom. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that is just arse-backwards.

In fact, once SERE camp administrators heard of the (mis) application in 2002 they wrote memos to the Defence Department protesting against the use of SERE techniques. They explicitly warned about the unreliability of the confessions extracted and the risk of accidental death. These memos were ignored by the Rumsfeld cronies who ran the Pentagon at the time and were apparently never passed onto the White House and Justice Department (or if they were, they were ignored). What is important to note is that the people who pushed for the use of these techniques were Republican ideologues who had no actual experience with interrogations. Most interrogators are US military counter-intelligence personnel, who are fully aware of the legal and practical pitfalls of using torture to extract confessions. These include the unreliability of the information extracted, the uselessness of such information for strategic intelligence purposes, the problems of garnering actionable information from atomized cells in a decentralized guerrilla network like al-Qaeda–in other words, the complete disutility of using SERE-type techniques for anything other than immediate tactical purposes (if that). Since these forms of punishment were being meted out in “black sites”  thousands of miles away from the battlefields of Iraq (Abu Ghraib was more of a test case rather than a systematic application of the Yoo doctrine) and Afghanistan (although the prison at Bahgram Air Force Base outside of Kabul is reported to contain a “black site’), or in Guatanamo, even the tactical intelligence obtained was mostly unactionable. Hence, professional interrogators such as Special Forces counter-intelligence officers did not conduct the interrogations, but instead were replaced by CIA operatives or private contractors. The can of worms that opens almost defies belief.

In a nutshell:  the Bush administration authorized unproven and unreliable torture techniques against the advice of those who were best informed about the use and results of those methods, then replaced seasoned interrogators with civilians and private contractors to do the dirty work. Presumably this was to gain some of distance on any potential legal repercussions down the road. When one looks at the results of the Abu Ghraib case, where two enlisted soldiers served short jail sentences, two field officers were reprimanded and demoted and one flag rank officer demoted and  forced to retire, it easy to see how Bush administration officials believed that they would never be held responsible for anything that happened in the “black sites.”

Bush administration defenders claim that the coercive interrogation program obtained results in the form of preventing terrorist attacks but are unable or unwilling to offer a single instance of such a success. They claim that revealing the torture memos jeopardizes current and future intelligence operations and demoralizes the CIA. The answer to these claims (other than to laugh when Dick Cheney makes them), is to say 1) provide a single shred of evidence that an attack was prevented by the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture; 2) prove that any information obtained that was useful could not have been obtained using other (non-torture) techniques. Let us be clear: getting the names of other cell members, or of liaison contacts, or of the early outlines of a terrorist plot is not “actionable” intelligence that could not have been obtained by other means (say, by good human intelligence in the field). Arresting some of the Guantanamo detainees was enough to disrupt the most grandiose of al-Qaeda plots, so once their role was ascertained and their backwards linkages traced, use of torture was just vengeance, not intelligence-gathering. If the claim is going to be made that the use of terror was efficient, i.e., that it actually prevented an imminent attack, then it needs to be supported with proof. After all, the “informants” are not going anywhere so need not fear retribution and whatever intelligence penetration of terrorist networks has occurred should not be vulnerable to exposure if the truth of the matter is revealed (otherwise it is simply shoddy workmanship on the part of US intelligence and its allies).

The best way to verify such claims is to grant immunity to interrogators and lower-level CIA and military officials who oversaw coercive interrogations in  order to find out not only whether the techniques were as necessary as the Bush defenders say there were, as well as their results. More importantly, the main purpose of the grants of immunity is to determine the chain of command responsible for authorizing the use of torture, and on what grounds. The last point is important because as it stands, the Bush administration will hide under the doctrine of “plausible deniability” where subordinates get blamed for the physical acts but no evidentiary link can be conclusively made to the orders of high level officials. That deception can be countered with a “due obedience” approach whereby legal immunity to lower-ranked officials is exchanged for their testimony on who gave the orders and how did they do so (as well as how they tried to conceal those orders).  That is the key to getting indictments of Bush administration officials. John Yoo and his chief lieutenants, in particular (the former now happily ensconced as a Law Professor at UC Berkeley, of all places, the latter now anxiously realizing that private legal practice does not afford them any cover in the face of a federal indictment), need to be held to account because they apparently took an untoward interest in specific techniques and were the keenest to authorize their use. Getting these toadies to turn under the threat of imprisonment could in turn be the key to finding out what exact roles were played by Cheney, Bush and Rice in opening the Pandora’s box embedded in the torture memos.

Of course, being a cautious and pragmatic person, Barack Obama may pull the plug on any prosecutions in the interest of political security (his own and of the Democratic Party). If so, it will be up to the International Criminal Court to seek the truth of the matter, so that even those who rule a seemingly unassailable superpower realise that they too are not above basic standards of human rights and international justice. I shall not hold my breath waiting for either to happen. What is certain is that, until something dramatically different is revealed to counter what is known so far,  from a moral-ethical as well as an efficiency-practical standpoint, the US use of torture in the fight against terrorism has been a failure more than a success.

Blog Link: On Denuclearization.

datePosted on 13:24, April 16th, 2009 by Pablo

In the comments thread on my earlier post about whether the US was in decline, as well as in the comments thread on Obama’s Prague speech over at kiwiblog, and during an interview on Jim Mora’s show, I found myself correcting people with regard to US strategic doctrine. That got me to thinking about Obama’s promise to pursue global denuclearization. I decided to write up my thoughts as this month’s Word from Afar column at Scoop: The bottom line is that there are many reasons to believe that the promise, while apparently sincere, has many obstacles to overcome, and not all of them are located in Iran or North Korea.

Blog Link–Reigning in the Spies

datePosted on 15:23, March 13th, 2009 by Pablo

The new Parliamentary Intelligence and Oversight Committee has been announced, and it has the potential to be a milestone for intelligence oversight in NZ. Tariana Turia and Rodney Hide were appointed by John Key (who chairs the committee), and Russell Norman was chosen by Phil Goff (who also serves on the committee). Turia and Norman lead parties that have had their members spied on by the SIS or Police, and Hide has opposed on libertarian grounds the expansion of security based constraints on civil liberties (he opposed passing of the Terrorism Suppression Act, among other things). Thus three out of the five new members have been critical of the intelligence services, which is in stark contrast to previous members during the Fifth Labour government. Although the possibility of their being coopted cannot  be discounted, there is an equal if not greater possibility that their appointment signals a shared belief by Mr. Key and Mr. Goff that the time has come for a review of the way intelligence operations are conducted in NZ. Lets hope so. There are already signs that moves in that direction are afoot–Mr. Key’s request of the SIS Inspector General to report to him on the domestic spying programme and SIS Director-General Warren Tucker’s apparent commitment to more transparency being two examples–but what is needed is for the committee to undertake a thorough review of the NZ intelligence apparatus, including its legal charter, operational conduct and organizational focus, and its accountability to parliament as well as to the government of the day. In short, rather than the ineffectual government and SIS lapdog that it was during the Fifth Labour government, the committee needs to grow some teeth and bite hard into the meat of the matter–the lack of transparency and accountability traditionally exhibited by important elements of the intelligence community. That requires a re-write of its charter, since it is not a select committee and therefore does not have the independence or authority to demand classified briefs (or any other information) from the agencies it supposedly oversees. A more detailed review of the potential for reform embodied in the new committee is offered in this month’s “Word from Afar” column at Scoop ( For the moment, the new committee should be applauded, yet more importantly, encouraged to undertake its responsibilities in pursuit of a new culture of democratic accountability and transparency in the NZ intelligence services.

`progress’ in Afghanistan

datePosted on 18:12, March 10th, 2009 by Lew


WikiLeaks has published four internal NATO briefing documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan – including the Master Narrative which sets out the operational and strategic and symbolic parameters which guide ISAF’s media posture.

This guidance document is designed to assist all those who play a part in explaining the situation in Afghanistan and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, but especially those who deal with the media.

You can get the documents here. Interesting and revealing stuff but possibly more mundane than you might expect. If I get time over the next few days I’ll post a few observations (and if anyone else wants to do so, be my guest). In an epic security fail, the documents were distributed using Microsoft SharePoint, and protected with the absurd password `progress’.

What significance the image of an ISAF sniper posing with the corpse of an Afghan, you ask? This is the amazingly political choice of image on the WikiLeaks editorial which announced this particular leak – saying it’s misleading doesn’t go far enough, it’s an outrageous association to make. But it’s also the polar opposite of the media agenda which these ISAF documents explicate, and in that regard it’s a crafty bit of work.

(Via Bruce Schneier.)


Pen propaganda

datePosted on 12:22, February 17th, 2009 by Lew

Uniball: your first line of defence.


A cracking example of someone trading on their TV reputation as someone lacking credulity in order to make you more credulous.

(Via Bruce Schneier, who points out that they haven’t even got their facts right, conflating checkwashing with identify theft.)


Follow up on the SIS files and what should be done.

datePosted on 13:26, February 11th, 2009 by Pablo

When I found out that I was mentioned in the SIS files on Keith Locke (apparently in an unflattering letter), I got to thinking further about what can  be done to improve that agency and rid it of an institutional culture that is seemingly unprofessional, unaccountable and biased in its presentation of threats. There is more to the story, which revolves around the window of opportunity presented to the new government by the director-general of the SIS, Warren Tucker,  in opening up the SIS files to public scrutiny. Rather that repeat it here, please see the link below, where I outline the broader picture. I do not mean to be shameless with the link, just synergistic. A full post (on direct action) is forthcoming soon.

The SIS burlesque

datePosted on 00:14, February 3rd, 2009 by Pablo

The decision by SIS Director General Warren Tucker to authorise release of decades-old secret files on activists, unionists and academics is a welcome, albeit small step towards instilling a culture of accountability and transparency in that agency. But the documents released are at best no more than of personal interest to the individuals involved and historians of the Cold War era (as they show the anti-communist paranoia of the times), and at worst a diversion from SIS activities in more recent days. It is all titillation, with the real items of interest left to the imagination. 

For example. We still do not know why indigenous and anti-globalisation activists have been targeted since the 1990s (including the Urewera 17); why the SIS was unaware of the presence in New Zealand of a the Yemeni student pilot (and associate of some of the 9/11 conspirators) until alerted by (of all people) Winston Peters (who got his tip from a flying school manager months after the student pilot began his training); why, even though it is responsible for counter-intelligence matters,  it was unaware of the Israeli contract assets and their sayan (local Jewish liaison) Tony Resnick (who procured the identity of the individual in whose name the fraudulent–but official–passport was to  be issued, and who escaped to Israel before  the SIS was even aware of the operation (which was discovered by a low-ranking Immigration officer who notified the police, who set up a sting on the assumption it was a simple criminal matter)). We do not know why Mr. Tucker’s predecessor decided to concoct a worse-case picture of Ahmed Zaoui in order to justify his detention without charges for nearly two years–a picture that proved to be false and which forced the government to abandon its attempts to prevent Zaoui from settling in NZ after spending millions of dollars on Crown lawyers vainly trying to make the case against him (and then allowed the previous Director General to walk away with a golden handshake and another high level government job). We still do not why, in 2005, the SIS claimed that the greatest threat to NZ came from “local jihadis” akin to those in London and Madrid, but then a year later dropped any mention of local jihadis in favor of the claim that foreign intelligence agencies operating on NZ soil were the primary focus of its attention–this despite the fact that no “jihadi” arrests were made and no plots were disrupted, or the subsequent fact that, in spite of repeated defector claims that Chinese intelligence works with ease in NZ engaging in industrial and political espionage as well as monitoring Chinese expat dissidents, nothing other than computer security upgrades appears to have been done in response (and  no Chinese spies have been arrested, or if they were, were quietly deported in contrast to the Israeli case). We still do not know why the SIS attempted to smear its critics when confronted on issues of policy, politics and threat assessment (the Zaoui case is illustrative), when in fact that criticism is ostensibly a democratic right of all citizens ( a smear campaign that may well have included the deliberate and selective planting of false information in order to subsequently discredit the outlets that published it). In sum, by giving us old news the SIS avoids the hard questions about what it is doing now, or at least more recently.

The point is simple: it is great that Mr. Tucker has started to open up his agency to public scrutiny. On that score he is to be commended and encouraged. But he needs to do more. He needs to shorten the time window before secret files can be made public (say, ten years). He needs to address the SIS’s failures and explain what he proposes to do to remedy them, as well as why its expanded powers and organizational reach is justified (after all, the SIS has seen its budget almost double and its personnel increase by a third since 2001). He does not have to compromise any ongoing operations or past associations should the interest of national security require continued secrecy. But if public confidence in the professional competence of the SIS is to be maintained (or restored), then he needs to come clean on the why and how of the SIS’s spotty track record as well as how it proposes to embrace the intelligence challenges of the next decade. In order to do so, he may need a signal from the government, and for that to happen the government needs to have an understanding of the intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination process. That remains to be seen, no matter what Mr. Tucker’s good intentions may be. After all, good intentions are not enough to change a dysfunctional institutional culture, and that appears to be precisely what Mr. Tucker inherited.

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