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I have had a professional interest in torture since my days doing human rights work in Latin America. As part of that work I talked to victims as well as perpetrators of state terrorism and subsequently wrote professionally about its usage in Argentina. Later on I consorted with members of the US counter-intelligence community who were responsible for interrogations of suspected spies and other bad people. They helped me understand the difference between coercive (as opposed to passive or sympathetic) interrogations and torture. The combination of experiences made clear to me that torture is more about punishment and collective deterrence through fear than it is about timely and sensitive information-gathering.

When the US started using its “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11, descending into the medieval weirdness of Abu Ghraib and camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, I tried to make sense of it.

In recent years the US Congress and the CIA have conducted investigations into the enhanced interrogation program. The bottom line is twofold: enhanced interrogations did not work any better than “normal” interrogations in extracting valuable information from terrorism suspects; and the justifications for using them was specious and deceptive at best. The best way of garnering valuable intelligence, as it turns out, is through a combination of timely signals collections working in concert with old fashion human intelligence gathering on the ground.

Now along comes Donald Trump claiming that not only does torture work but that he would “do worse” to suspects than water boarding in order to extract information from them. By now it should be clear that he is a blithering idiot on foreign relations, military affairs, intelligence operations, and pretty much everything else when it comes to public policy, to say nothing of being a serial liar with the purest case of narcissistic personality disorder seen since Narcissus himself (and were it that he could only suffer the same fate).

Heck, he makes Al Gore’s claim about inventing the internet look like a child’s fib in comparison!

In any event, Trump is dangerously wrong.

In an interview with a NZ business publication, this is what I had to say bout Trump’s remarks.

Media Link: Brussels’ heart of darkness.

datePosted on 19:56, March 23rd, 2016 by Pablo

I wrote a short opinion piece in the Herald outlining some of my thoughts about the Brussels terrorist attacks. Unless the root causes of the problem are addressed, there will be no end to them. Even if they overlap in the form of foreign fighters, those root causes primarily reside in the disaffection and alienation produced by socio-economic and cultural grievances at home rather than in the conflicts of the Middle East. The solution is to be proactive as well as reactive to the threat posed by domestic radicalisation, and that involves social reform as well as better human intelligence collection in the communities from which home-grown jihadists emerge.

The US has asked New Zealand to provide special operations troops to the anti-Daesh coalition. The government has said that it will consider the request but both the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister have qualified the response by stating that they do not think that NZ will increase its contribution beyond the company sized infantry training complement currently deployed at Camp Taji outside of Baghdad.

The Ministers’ caution has more to do with domestic political concerns than the practical or diplomatic necessities of the conflict itself. With a thin majority thanks to Winston Peter’s by-election victory in Northland, National cannot risk parliamentary defeat on the issue. But Opposition leader Andrew Little has signaled that Labour is willing to consider sending SAS troops to the fight, so the ground is clearing for authorization of a new phase of the NZDF mission.

This was predictable from the moment the NZDF first deployed to Iraq last May. It was clear then and it is now that training Iraqi soldiers is not enough to turn the tide against Daesh. The training is good and the troops that graduate have improved professional skills, but according to a report prepared by the US Defense Department immediately before Mr. Key travelled to Taji in October for his meet-and-greet photo op with the troops, they were no better in battle than they were before the training mission began.

The problem lies with the Iraqi Army leadership. Iraqi field rank officers are not included in the training program and are unwilling or unable to demonstrate the type of leadership skills under fire that are required to make best use of the training received by their soldiers from the NZDF and its allies.

That is where special operations troops like the NZSAS are useful. Among many other roles they serve as leadership advisors on the battlefield. Because of their exceptional skills and hardened discipline, SAS teams serve as force multipliers by adding tactical acumen, physical resilience and steadfastness of purpose to the fight. They lead by example.

NZ’s major allies already have special operations troops on the ground in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Although all of the nationally-badged SAS units roam the region, the Australian SAS is heavily involved in Iraq (and is present at Camp Taji). Not only do Australian SAS troops serve as forward spotters for RAAF FA-18s undertaking ground attack missions in Iraq. They have fought alongside Iraqi troops attempting to re-take the city of Ramadi, provincial capital of the Sunni heartland that is Anbar Province (119 kilometers from Camp Taji and 90 kilometres from Baghdad). The Australian role is considered to have been essential in the initial re-occupation of Ramadi, in which NZDF trained Iraqi troops participated. US, UK and Canadian special operators are currently conducting advisory, forward targeting, search and destroy and long-range intelligence missions against Daesh in north and western Iraq in conjunction with Kurdish and Iraqi forces. Russian, Iranian and Turkish special operators are on the ground in Iraq and Syria as well, and the contested spaces in which Western special forces are now actively involved in the Middle East extends to Libya, Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Anglophone special forces are the allies that the NZSAS trains with regularly and works the closest with when on foreign missions. Like its counterparts, NZSAS tend to spend much time in or near overseas conflict zones whether that is publicized or not, usually following the typical military rotation pattern of threes: a third overseas, a third preparing for deployment, and a third on home duty after deployment. It is fair to assume that their attention when overseas has recently been focused on Iraq, Syria and perhaps other conflict zones in the Middle East.

The PM has hinted as much, stating that the NZSAS could be involved in roles other than combat. Since one of its primary missions is long-range patrol and intelligence gathering (rather than active engagement of the enemy), it could well be that the NZSAS is already playing a part in the targeting of Daesh assets.

With around 130 SAS troops in A and B Squadrons (Air, Boat, Mountain), that leaves a minimum of two troops’ or a platoon sized group (30-40 soldiers excluding officers) available for foreign deployment at any given time. Since the NZSAS operates in squads of 3 to 6 men depending on the nature of the mission (4-5 squads per troop), this leaves plenty of room for tactical flexibility, operational decentralization and role diversification.

Reports dating back to early 2015 already put the NZSAS in theater in small numbers, something the government does not deny. They may not be based in Iraq (which gives the government plausible deniability when asked if there are NZSAS troops on the ground in Iraq), but the main focus of their mission certainly is. Given the logistics involved it would be unusual if the NZSAS has not been working behind the scenes for their eventual participation in more active combat roles beyond what it may already be engaged in.

It will be odd if NZ refuses to send its most elite soldiers when asked for them by its major allies in a UN sanctioned multinational military coalition. Troops like the NZSAS need regular combat experience to sharpen and maintain their skills and they cannot do that at home. Since part of their specialness is versatility in a wide range of combat environments, the NZSAS would be keen to test its troops in the mixed urban/desert, conventional and unconventional battlefields of Iraq, Libya and Syria. The kinetic environment in the fight against Daesh is highly complex and multi-faceted so it stands to reason that our elite soldiers would want exposure to it.

Leaving the NZSAS in NZ is akin to leaving a Bugatti in the garage. Much has been invested in their combat readiness. They are trained to fight autonomously and lead others in combat (such as during the anti-terrorist mission in Afghanistan). To keep their specialist skills they need to experience live hostile fire. It would therefore be counterproductive for them to be idling in Papakura when there is a just cause to be fought against real enemies of humanity who commit atrocities and wreak misery on those they subjugate.

Whether one likes it or not, thanks to the Wellington and Washington Agreements NZ is once again a first tier military partner of the US, standing alongside Australia, Canada and the UK in that regard. Most of NZ’s major diplomatic partners are members of the anti-Daesh coalition and some, like Norway and Denmark, have also contributed special operations troops to it. NZ ‘s major trade partners in the Middle East are part of the coalition. As a temporary member of the UN Security Council, NZ has been vocal in its condemnation of Daesh and in calling for a united diplomatic and military response against it. It consequently has no real option but to accede to the request for the NZSAS to join the fight. It may be mission creep but this was mission creep that was foreseeable (and arguably has been planned for and implemented in spite of the government’s obfuscations).

Critics will say that NZ has no dog in this fight, that it is neo-imperialist foreign intervention on behest of corporate interests that only serves to show how subservient governments like National’s are when it comes to pleasing the US. If so, then there are 59 other countries in that category, to which can be added Iran (and its proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon), Russia and the newly formed (if at this stage only on paper) Sunni Muslim anti-terrorism coalition that includes Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan. Critics will also point out that NZ is being selective about when and where it chooses to join foreign military adventures, and they would be right in that regard. But given its military resources, NZ pretty much has to be selective every time that it deploys troops, especially in combat roles. So there is nothing new, unusual or unethical in doing so.

Pacifists will say that the conflict with Daesh cannot be resolved by military means. It is true that military force alone is not sufficient to defeat Daesh, but removing it from the territory it occupies in Iraq, Libya and Syria is essential to that project. Not only is Daesh not prone to negotiating with its adversaries or sitting down with those that it disagrees with in order to settle differences. The very nature of its rule is based on coercion and imposition–of its puritanical values, of its medieval authority, of its rape and sex slave culture and of its harsh discriminatory treatment towards all who are not Sunni Arab men (and even the latter are not immune from its violence). Its removal is therefore justified on humanitarian grounds although disputed opinion polls claim that it enjoys some measure of public support in Anbar Province and Mosul. Yet even if the polls are correct–and that is very much questionable given the environment in which they are conducted–the hard fact is that there is no objective measure to gauge whether Daesh enjoys the informed consent of those that it governs, and until it does its reign is illegitimate because rule without majority consent is tyranny. Add to that the innumerable crimes against humanity Daesh has committed and its exportation and exhortation of terrorism across the globe, and the case against the use of force loses foundation.

Re-taking the ground lost to Daesh removes the main areas in which its leadership is located, from which it profits from oil production and where it trains jihadists from all over the world (some of whom return to commit acts of violence in their home countries). That in turn will lessen its appeal to prospective recruits. Thus the first step in rolling back Daesh as a international irregular warfare actor is to win the war of territorial re-occupation in the greater Levant.

The military objective in Iraq is to push Daesh out of Anbar Province and the Nineveh Governorate in which Mosul is located and force it to retreat back into Syria. At that point it can be subjected to a pincer movement in which the European/Arab/Antipodean/North American anti-Daesh coalition presses from the South and East while Russian, Iranian, Turkish and Syrian forces press from the North and West. The endgame will involve four milestones: first the capture of Ramadi, then the re-taking of Falluja, followed by the freeing of Mosul, and finally the seizure of the northern Syrian city of al-Raqqah, the capital of Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

Arab states will need to contribute more to the fight, including ground forces. Resolving the impasse over what to do with Assad is critical to establishing a united front between his military, Russia’s, Iran’s, Turkey and the anti-Daesh coalition. Both requirements are fraught and need to be the subject of delicate negotiations made all the more complicated by the Saudi-Iranian confrontation occasioned by the Saudi execution of a Shiia cleric. But for the negotiations to advance, much less to succeed, there needs to be battlefield gains against Daesh in Iraq that reverse its march towards Baghdad and which break the strategic stalemate currently in place. Once the prospect of victory over Daesh becomes possible, more countries will feel comfortable putting additional resources into the campaign against it.

There is room to be optimistic in that regard. In 2015 Daesh lost approximately 30-40 percent (+/- 5000 square miles) of the territory that it controlled in Iraq and Syria. Most of these losses were to Kurdish Peshmerga forces working in concert with Western special operations units. Significantly aided by its coalition partners and tribal militias, the Iraq Army has re-taken Tikrit (November) and the oil refinery town of Baiji (October) and is in the process of clearing the last pockets of Daesh resistance in Ramadi. Preparations for the re-taking of Falluja are well underway, and the battle for Mosul–Daesh’s biggest conquest in Iraq–is scheduled to begin within months. Key Daesh supply lines between Iraq and Syria are under near-constant aerial attack. In sum, the tide of Deash victories may not have completely turned but it does appear to have ebbed.

John Key does not do anything out of moral or ethical conviction, much less altruism. Instead he relies on polling and self-interest to drive policy. His polling may be telling him that it is getting politically less difficult to sell the NZSAS deployment to domestic audiences. But even if not, he has in the past ignored public opinion when it suits him (e.g. asset sales and the TPPA). With Labour warming to the idea of an NZSAS deployment, his political risk is reduced considerably regardless of public opinion. It is therefore likely that, weasel words notwithstanding, the train has been set in motion for that to occur.

Once the deployment is announced it is likely that the NZ public will support the decision and wish the troops Godspeed and success in fulfilling their mission. But even if the majority do not, the diplomatic and military pressure to contribute more to the war effort against Daesh will be enough to convince the government that it is in NZ’s best interests to agree to the request. In a non-election year and with Labour support it is also a politically safe thing to do.

What is certain is that the mission will be very dangerous for the troops involved. It will raise NZ’s target profile amongst Islamicists and could invite attack at home. But given the position NZ finds itself in, it is a necessary and ultimately justified thing to do for several reasons, not the least of which is upholding NZ’s reputation as an international actor.

A short version of this essay appears in the New Zealand Herald, January 7, 2016 (the comments are quite entertaining).

The US has a mass murder problem, not a terrorism problem.

datePosted on 15:50, December 6th, 2015 by Pablo

The latest spate of mass murder in the US has again demonstrated the hypocrisy and bigotry of right-wingers on the subject. When the murderers are white Christians such as the Colorado Planned Parenthood assassin or the  Charleston South Carolina church gunman, the Right speaks of them being “unstable” or psychopathic. Yet when Muslims commit acts of mass violence such as that in San Bernadino, it is always considered by the Right to be an act of terrorism.

We need to cut through the BS and see things for what they are: not all mass murders are terroristic in nature. In fact, given the easy access to firearms, mass murder is as American as apple pie and almost as common. In most cases it matters less what drives US perpetrators to murder than it is their unique yet common ability to make a statement by murdering in numbers.

Let’s begin with the definition of “problem.” A problem is something pernicious that is persistent, continual and hard to resolve, counter or ameliorate.

Mass murders can be serial, sequential or simultaneous in nature depending on the perpetrator’s intent and capabilities. Most mass murders are motivated by personal reasons–revenge, alienation, stress, and yes, mental illness. The term “going postal” was coined in the US because of the propensity for workplace conflicts to lead to mass bloodshed. In fewer numbers of mass murder cases the killers express support for or involvement in political or ideological causes, such as the Colorado, San Bernadino and South Carolina events mentioned above.  In a fair number of cases personal and political motivations combine into mass murderous intent. In many cases mentally ill people adopt extremist causes as an interpretation of their plight and justification for their murderous intent. The Sydney cafe siege instigator is a case in point. Whatever the motivation, what all the US killers share is their ability to kill in numbers. Given its frequency, that is a particularly American way of death.

We need to be clear that not all politically motivated killing is terrorism. The murder of US presidents, public officials and political activists of various stripes was and is not terroristic in nature. On the either hand, the murder of blacks and civil rights workers by the Klu Klux Klan was clearly terroristic in nature because it was designed to do much more the physically eliminate the victims. Although they were all politically motivated one can argue that the Charleston killings were not terroristic but the Colorado and San Bernadino murders were. The Boston marathon bombing was terroristic, but was the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh also terroristic in nature or was it just a case of lethal lashing out by a disgruntled loser? What about today’s London tube stabber and the Palestinians who kill Israelis with knives? Are they really terrorists or just lashing out in murderous anger? Could not the same be said for all of the events mentioned here?

Terrorism has a target, subject and object. The target is the immediate victims of an act of politically motivated lethal violence, the subject is the larger body politic, and the object is to influence both the general public and decision makers to bend to the will of the perpetrators. This can be done by getting the latter to desist from doing something (say, joining in a foreign conflict) or by getting them to overreact in order to exacerbate tensions or contradictions within the subject society itself. Not all mass murders extend beyond the target, and even then most are not driven by a desire to shape the will of decision-makers or public at large. If we review the cases mentioned earlier, how many of them properly fall into the category of terrorism?

The currency of terrorism is irrational fear and panic. It has a paralysing or galvanising effect depending on the nature of the subject. But the key to differentiating terrorism is that those who perpetrate it seek to manipulate panic and fear to their advantage. They may not always calculate right and and up losing, but that is their intent.

Taking that criteria, it is clear that the US has a mass murder problem, not a terrorism problem. The answer to that problem lies in effective gun control, to be sure, but also involves backing away from the culture of violence into which US citizens are socialised. That includes reducing the amount of everyday exposure to militarism, jingoism, mindless patriotism and violence glorified in popular culture.

That will be hard to do because violence and the fear that it brings sells, and selling violence and playing on fear makes money for those who know how to manipulate it in order to take advantage of the opportunity. Not only does it sell guns and increases the profits of arms manufacturers big and small. It also sells electronic games, movies, toys (!), television series and any number of other appended industries. It helps further political careers. Violence is exalted, even reified as the preferred method of conflict resolution by a mass media industry fuelled by fear mongering and funded by war-mongerers. There are many vested interests in maintaining a culture of violence in which mass murder thrives. Yet these are not terrorists, by definition.

Rather than confront this thorny issue, the US Right prefer to selectively apply the word “terrorism” to mass murders committed by Muslims whether or not they are inspired or directed by a known irregular warfare group such as Daesh. Daesh knows this and along with al-Qaeda has urged supporters in the US to take advantage of loose gun laws to commit so-called “lone wolf” or small cell attacks on everyday targets. Although it is as much an admission of Daesh and al-Qaeda’s inability to confront established states like the US or France directly, the strategy has the virtue of making the threat of Islamic terrorism in the West seem much bigger than it really is, thereby eliciting the type of response called for by the Right–bans on Muslim immigration, increased surveillance and profiling of Muslims, etc. That serves to increase the alienation between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West, which suits the Daesh narrative about a clash of civilisations to a “T.”

This is not to say that we should disregard the threat of terrorism, Islamic or otherwise. But what it does suggest is that the focus should be on the penchant for mass slaughter in the US regardless of cause. Once that is addressed the real threat of terrorism can be addressed in proper context and without the ideological opportunism that currently drives debates about guns and extremism in the US.

In summary: Mass murders are extraordinarily common in the US when compared to pretty much everywhere else (not just the “developed” world), specifically because US mass murders are carried out by individuals rather than state forces or irregular armed groups or criminal organisations. The overwhelming majority of US mass murders are not motivated by political or ideological beliefs. Of those that are,  few can be properly considered acts of terrorism and should be seen instead as acts of lethal retribution, retaliation, or striking out at society and authority by individuals with personal as well as political grievances.

This does not make them any less dangerous. Yet  it does help clarify the unique US mass murder phenomena in order to more sharply focus the search for preventatives that address root rather than superficial causes as well as strip that search of the normative baggage many pundits, politicians and the general public currently carry into it.

The Daesh Matryoshka doll.

datePosted on 13:06, November 21st, 2015 by Pablo

Much ether and pulp have been expended analysing the Daesh phenomenon and its consequences. The range and acuity of interpretations is broad yet often shallow or incomplete. Since it is a rainy weekend on Auckland’s west coast, I figured that I would alternate playing with the toddler with compiling a brief on the multiple interlocked layers that is the war of Daesh.

I refer to the irregular warfare actor otherwise known as ISIS, ISIL or IS as Deash because the latter is a derogatory term in Arabic and denies the group its claim to legitimacy as a state or caliphate. Plus, Isis is a common Arabic female name so it is insulting to Arab women to use it.

Much like the famed Russian dolls, the conflicts involving Daesh can be seen as a series of embedded pieces or better yet, as a multilevel chess game, with each piece or level interactive with and superimposed on the other. Working from the core outwards, this is what the conflict involving Daesh is about:

First, it is a conflict about the heart and soul of Sunni Islam. Daesh is a Wahabist/Salafist movement that sees Sunni Arab petroligarchies, military nationalist regimes such as those of Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Asaad and Muammar al-Qaddafi, nominally secular regimes like those in Algeria, Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia, and moderate monarchies such as those of Jordan and Morocco as all being degenerate and sold out to Western interests, thereby betraying their faith. The overthrow of these regimes and the prevention of anything moderate (read: non-theocratic) emerging as their political replacement are core objectives for Daesh.

Secondly, Daesh is at the front of a Sunni-Shiia conflict. In significant measure funded by the Arab petroligarchies who opportunistically yet myopically see it as a proxy in the geopolitical competition for regional dominance with Iran and its proxies (such as Hizbollah) and allies (like the Syrian and post-Saddam Iraqi regimes), Daesh has as its second main objective eliminating the Shiia apostates as much as possible. To that can be added removing all ethnic and religious minorities for the Middle East, starting with the Levant. Because Daesh is racist as well as fundamentalist in orientation, it wishes to purge non-Arabs from its domain even if it will use them as cannon fodder in Syria and Iraq and as decentralised autonomous terrorist cells in Europe and elsewhere.

Thirdly, Daesh is engaged in a territorial war of conquest in Iraq and Syria, where it seeks to geographically situate its caliphate. This has allowed it to gain control over important oil processing facilities in Iraq and Syria and use the proceeds from the black-market sale of oil (including to the Assad regime!) to help fund its recruitment and weapons procurement efforts.

Fourth, Daesh is the source of inspiration, encouragement and sometimes training of decentralised, independent and autonomous urban guerrilla cells in Europe and elsewhere that use terrorism as the tactic of choice. The strategy is a variant of Che Guevara’s “foco” theory of guerrilla warfare whereby cadres receive common training in a secure safe haven then return to their home countries in order to exploit their knowledge of the local terrain (cultural, socio-economic, political as well as physical) in order to better carry out terrorist attacks with high symbolic and psychological impact. In this variant Daesh uses social media to great effective to provide ideological guidance and practical instruction to would-be domestic jihadis, thereby obviating the need for all of them to gain combat experience in the Middle East.

Like Lenin and Guevara, Daesh understands that its terrorism will attract the mentally unbalanced and criminally minded seeking a cause to join. Along with disaffected, alienated and angry Muslim youth, these are the new Muslim lumpenproletarians that constitute the recruitment pool for the guerrilla wars it seeks to wage in the Western world. In places like Belgium, France and arguably even Australia, that recruitment pool runs deep.

Fifth, through these activities Daesh hopes to precipitate a clash of civilizations between Muslims and non-Muslims on a global scale.  It sees the current time much as fundamentalist Christians do, as an apocalyptic “end of days” moment. Its strategy is to fight a two-front war to that end, using the territorial war in the Middle East as a base for conventional and unconventional military operations while engaging in irregular war in Europe and elsewhere. The key of their military strategy is to lure Western powers into a broad fight on Muslim lands while getting them to overreact to terrorist attacks on their home soil by scapegoating the Muslim diaspora resident within them.

Daesh may be barbaric but its political and military leadership (made up mostly of Sunni Baathists from Iraq) is not stupid. It has not attacked Israel, knowing full well what the response will be from the Jewish state. In its eyes the confrontation with the Zionists must wait until the pieces of the end game are in place.

A critical component of Daesh’s strategy is the so-called “sucker ploy,” and it is being successful in implementing it. Basically, the sucker ploy is a tactic by which a weaker military actor commits highly symbolic atrocities in order to provoke over-reactions from militarily stronger actors that deepen the alienation from the stronger actor of core prospective constituencies of the weaker actor. That is exactly what has happened in places like the US, where opposition to the acceptance of Syrian refugees has become widespread in conservative political circles. It also is seen in the bans on refugees imposed by the Hungarian and Polish governments, and the clamour to halt refugee flows from conservative-nationalist sectors throughout Europe. We even see it in NZ on rightwing blogs and talkback radio, where the calls are to keep the Syrian refugees out even though no Syrian has ever done politically-motivated harm to a Kiwi (the projected intake is 750).

Sowing disproportionate fear, paranoia and the blind thirst for revenge amongst targeted populations is the bread and butter of the sucker ploy and by all indicators Daesh has done very well in doing so.

There is more to the picture but I shall leave things here and resume my asymmetric campaign versus the toddler.

One final thought. For the anti-Daesh coalition the fight must assume the form of a conventional war of territorial re-conquest in Syria and Iraq, run in parallel with a shadow urban counter-insurgency campaign in the West that is fought irregularly but which is treated judicially as a criminal matter, much like an anti Mafia campaign would be. Eliminating the territorial hold of Daesh in Syria and Iraq will remove their safe haven and training grounds as well as kill many of their fighters and leaders. That will help slow refugee flows and the recruitment of Westerners to the cause and facilitate the domestic counter-insurgency campaigns of Daesh-targeted states. The latter include better human intelligence gathering and intelligence sharing by and among erstwhile allies and adversaries in order to better counter dispersed terrorist plots.

Of course, the long-term solution to Daesh, al-Qaeda and other Islamicist groups is political reform in the Arab world and socio-economic reform in the Western world that respectively treat the root causes of  alienation and resentment within them.  So what is outlined in the previous paragraph is just a short-term solution.

In order for even that to happen, there has to be a tactical alliance between all actors with strategic stakes in the game: Russia, major Western powers, the Sunni Arab states and Turkey, the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, the Kurds, Iran and a host of irregular warfare actors including Hizbollah, the Free Syrian Army and assorted Islamicist groups not beholden to Daesh. It will be a hard coalition to cobble together, but the common threat posed by Daesh could just well force them to temporarily put aside their differences in favour of a workable compromise and military division of labour between them.

Of course, should that all occur and Daesh be defeated, then the old fashioned geopolitical chess game between Russia, the West, the Arabs, Kurds and Iranians can resume in Syria and Iraq. The conditions for that game depend on who emerges strongest from the anti-Daesh struggle.

Somewhere in the Kremlin Vladimir Putin is smiling.

Another dog and pony show.

datePosted on 16:37, October 8th, 2015 by Pablo

Prime Minister John Key did a whirlwind trip to Iraq to confer with its Prime Minister and President and visit the NZDF personnel stationed at Camp Taji, 25 kilometres north of Baghdad. The trip was supposedly secret yet he took an entourage of 40, including selected members of major NZ media outlets. He stayed overnight at Camp Taji in between duststorms, fog, and assorted other travel contretemps that lengthened the journey.

The coverage from the invited media was breathless and fawning. It was mostly about the travel delays. It was a mix of reporter’s lament and “hey I am here!”. Save the protocolar press releases, nothing, as in zero, was reported by the NZ media about John Key’s meetings with the Iraqi government, AKA the people that ostensibly have sovereign control over the land in which the NZDF operates at their formal request. That much was announced by the National government four months after NZ agreed to the military terms of its joining the anti-Daesh coalition.

What passed for reportage about the NZDF mission was basically regurgitated NZDF press releases extolling the virtues of the NZDF trainers, the difference that they made and the successes they were having in training Iraqi troops. PM Key was featured at length in audio and video clips talking about his sense of personal responsibility for the troops and his commitment to their cause.

Taking it all in, my gag reflex was forced into overdrive. If I were vulgar I would label those covering the visit as “useful fools.” If I were nasty I would simply call them “tools.”

Whatever morale boosting the visit may have occasioned amongst the NZDF troops, this was a PR exercise/photo op/sound bite exercise of the first and crassest order. Let me explain why.

“Secret” trips by Western political dignitaries to troops in conflict zones usually do not involve a pack of media figures tailing along. That is because real morale boosting is about the troops, not the dignitary’s image back home. Troops like to be appreciated by their political leaders, and that can be done without media fanfare. In fact, most troops prefer the appreciation to be given in private and not in the glare of cameras (and in fact, NZDF personnel other than Defense Chief Tim Keating were not identified in the reportage of the visit). Bringing media along turns the exercise into a circus side show that is more about the dignitary than the troops. And so it was on this occasion.

The media coverage of the trip was not of the “embedded” type. Embedded journalism, which has many problems associated with it, is the practice of placing journalists for extended periods of time in military units. This was no such instance. Instead, it was a government funded junket for a select few media types.

The coverage was boot-lickingly atrocious. Beyond the vapid commentary about dust storms, aborted plane flights and chopper rides, the description of the NZDF focused on the harsh terrain, nasty weather and the need for security. TV viewers were treated to images of Iraqis running around pointing weapons and kicking doors and were told by Iraqi officers via translators that the trainees were determined to fight for their country and fellow citizens. John Key spoke of how awful the place was and how two years was all that he was prepared to keep the NZDF there (the first rotation of NZDF troops is about to leave Taji and be replaced by a new cadre. The composition of future cadres may not necessarily resemble the first one, where 16 trainers are protected by a couple of platoons of infantry along with medical and intelligence personnel).

Although all of the coverage was vacuous, that of a print reporter from Wellington takes the cake for most ignorantly obsequious. Among other gems, she claimed more than once in her reports that the PM as well as herself where outfitted in “full body armour.”  Photos of the visit suggest otherwise, since Key is seen on base in a flak jacket, shirt, pants and a baseball cap. Most of the military personnel around him were dressed in basic uniforms with no armour or helmets, save Iraqi recruits running drills and his personal protection force (30 “non-deployed” SAS soldiers, which is a bit of overkill when it comes to that sort of thing and makes one wonder from where they were sourced since 30 is a significant chunk of the unit). There is even one photo of Key walking along with some guy in a suit.

According to this particular reporter, her “full body armour” consisted of a flak jacket and a helmet. I reckon that she needs to be briefed on what being fully body armoured entails. And the guy in the suit may want to consider his status if everyone but him in the entourage were given helmets and flak jackets.

The entire gaggle of NZ media regurgitated the line that the NZDF was making a difference and the training was a success. This, after a day at the base and, judging from the tone of their reports, never talking independently with anyone on it (the NZ  media were accompanied by “minders” at all times).

We are told that 2000 Iraqis have been trained and returned to the front lines and that the mission has been a success. My question is how do we know what success is in this context?’ The NZDF states that Iraqi troops are trained in six week blocks in groups of battalion size. Assuming that the figure of 2000 is correct, that means that over the 5 months of NZDF training at Taji there have been 3 light battalions of 500 troops trained and sent to the front, with a fourth group soon to graduate before the original NZDF deployment ends.

It is a pretty admirable task for 16 trainers to accomplish. With a ratio of recruits to trainers of approximately 30:1, that is a lot of contact hours for the trainers. Given that ratio, has there been any burnout amongst the trainers given the cultural differences and widely variant notions of military professionalism between them and the recruits? Have any of the original soldiers sent to Camp Taji in May had to leave, and if so, why? If that is the case, what was the contingency plan?

More broadly, what is “success” when it comes to the training mission? Does success mean that all who entered the training completed the course, or that some significant percentage did? Does it mean that there were no green on blue “incidents?” Does it mean that the recruits came in like rabbits and left like Rambos?

Then there is the issue of post-training success. Has it been confirmed that the troops trained by the NZDF did in fact return to the front and achieve battlefield successes? If so, what were they?

I wonder about that because Mr. Key mentioned that the problem of unreliable Iraqi officers still exists (and those are the officers that presumably will lead the NZDF-trained troops into battle, which begs the question why officer training was not part of the mission). He also admitted that the Iraqi Army has not retaken any of the large towns and cities that Daesh has occupied (like Mosul, Falluja and Ramadi), that the NZDF personnel were restricted to the base because of security concerns and that the road between Taji and Baghdad was impassable by land due to the threat of IEDs and/or Daesh attacks. In light of that, what ARE those freshly trained soldiers doing?

One thing is certain: we will never find out from the press junket crowd because none of them appear to have asked questions to that effect or if they did, they chose not to report the answers. Instead, they seem to have taken the NZDF and Iraqi Army’s word at face value.

I will not comment on the debacle of having the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office publish photos of his meeting with Mr. Key in advance of Key’s secret visit to Taji, in contravention of the security protocols imposed by the NZDF and NZ government. As one wag noted, that was not too bad a security breach so long as Daesh only read the NZ Herald (or presumably watched NZ TV or listened to NZ radio).

In any event what is clear is this. With the complicity of major media outlets, Mr. Key has added troop visits to his pandas and flags repertoire of diversions. In saying so I in no way mean to denigrate the work and sacrifice of the NZDF soldiers at Taji or downplay the difficulty of their mission. Nor do I discount the positive impact his visit has on the NZDF personnel deployed, or the diplomatic and symbolic overtones of it. I simply do not think that the visit was about the troops per se. Instead, I think that the trip was a propaganda exercise that was more about burnishing the PM’s image as well as softening up the NZ public for a possible announcement of future changes to the NZDF mission in Iraq (and Syria).

It is a pity that none of those from the press gallery who were invited to join the PM on his meet-and-greet with the troops thought to wade through the fluff in order to cut to the chase of the matter. On the other hand, perhaps that is precisely why they were chosen.

Imagine if Jon Stephenson had been on that trip. I am willing to bet that not only would his reporting have been very different, but it would have set the tone for the entire group to be a little more serious in their scrutiny of the event. Then again, pigs will fly before such a thing ever happens.

Some questions about the Stephenson case.

datePosted on 13:53, October 3rd, 2015 by Pablo

Although it has been shamefully underreported by major media outlets in NZ, war correspondent Jon Stephenson has won his defamation case against the NZDF by forcing a settlement that involves significant compensation and an admission by the military that its defamatory statements about Mr. Stephenson were indeed untrue. It remains to be seen if the Prime Minister will do the same, since he opined at the time the controversy erupted over Mr. Stephenson’s internationally recognised article “Eyes Wide Shut” in Metro Magazine (May 2011) that Mr. Stephenson was, to paraphrase closely, “unstable” as well as “unreliable.” That has been proven to be false and Mr. Key knew at the time he uttered his comments that they were untrue. Let us be clear: Mr. Stephenson may be driven, but unlike his main accusers when it comes to reporting on the NZDF he is by no means unreliable or a liar.

I wrote the following as a comment over at The Standard but feel that it is worth sharing here:

“I suspect that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the unethical behaviour of the NZDF and political leadership in this affair. Remember that there is a MoD involved and the respective ministers then and now (Coleman and Brownlee). There are more officers involved than retired generals Rhys Jones and Mateparae, some who currently hold senior positions within the NZDF. There is the behaviour of Crown Law to consider. There is the slander on Jon’s character uttered by the PM.

I can only hope that the terms of the settlement do not prevent Jon from publishing more details of his case, including the way in which the legal process unfolded, the obstacles to discovery encountered, and the extra-curriculars surrounding them.

Whatever happens, for once in a long time one of the genuine good guys won. Were it that other members of the press corps (Nicky Hager excepted) had the integrity and courage exhibited by Jon both in the field as well as on the home front.

Kia kaha Jon!”

Beyond what I have written above, there are some other questions that arise from this saga.

For example, in 2013 Nicky Hager revealed that the NZDF electronically spied on Mr. Stephenson in 2012 using NSA, GCSB and SIS assets while he was in Afghanistan. At the same time an internal Defense manual was leaked to the media that identified “certain investigative journalists” as hostile subversion threats requiring counteraction because they might obtain politically sensitive information (one does not have to have much imagination in order to figure out who they are referring to). In parallel, reports emerged that NZDF officials were sharing their views of Mr. Stephenson with Afghan counterparts, referring to him in the same derogatory terms and implying that his work was traitorous or treasonous.

Taken together, both the spying on Mr. Stephenson and the characterisation of him passed on to NZDF Afghan allies can be seen as a means of counteracting his reporting. But if so, what national security threat did he really pose? Is politically sensitive information necessarily a threat to national security or is merely a threat to the political actors being reported on? Is intimidation part of what the NZDF considers to be proper counteraction when it comes to journalists plying their trade in a war zone? And since any counteraction or counter-intelligence operations had to be cleared and authorised by the NZDF and political leadership, were both of the types used against Mr. Stephenson authorised by then NZDF Chief Lieutenant General Richard Rhys Jones and/or Mr. Key? They deny doing so but if that is true, who did and how was it passed down the chain of command to the field commanders in Afghanistan (because, at a minimum, the order to “counter” Mr. Stephenson could be construed as illegal and therefore challengeable–but it never was).

Leaving aside the legitimate role of independent journalism in a democracy in holding policy makers–including military leaders–to account, what does it say about the NZDF that it sees such work as subversive? More alarmingly, if the reports are true, what exactly did the NZDF leadership hope to accomplish by telling Afghans, while Mr. Stephenson was in Afghanistan, that he was a threat to them?

Then there is the issue of the lie. General Rhys Jones claimed that, contrary to what was written in his story, Mr. Stephenson never visited the base in which the Crisis Response Unit (to which NZ SAS were attached) was located and did not talk to its commander. That was a direct challenge to Mr. Stephenson’s journalistic integrity. Mr. Stephenson sued for defamation and during the first trial (which bizarrely ended in a hung jury) the NZDF and Rhys Jones himself admitted that Mr. Stephenson’s version was true.

So why didn’t the trial stop right there? The moment the truth of Mr. Stephenson’s story was admitted by Rhys Jones, it was supposed to be game, set and match to the journalist. But instead the Crown spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars continuing to litigate in that trial and then the follow-up court process that was ended by the recently announced settlement. Why so?

The answer to the last questions seems to be that, like in the Zaoui and Urewera 18 case, the Crown prefers to bleed its adversaries emotionally and financially even when it knows that it can not win. This death by a thousand cuts approach, courtesy of the taxpayers largesse, is as unethical as it is cynical and undermines the belief that justice in New Zealand is blind and universal.

There are many other questions that need to be answered about the treatment of Mr. Stephenson. Is it true that media outlets were pressured to not accept his work on penalty of getting the cold shoulder from the government? Did NZDF officials physically threaten Mr. Stephenson in New Zealand? Did the intelligence services spy on Mr. Stephenson above and beyond what was reported by Mr. Hager, both at home and abroad, and are they doing so now, and on what grounds if so? Did NZDF and/or MoD and/or PMDC and/or Crown Law officials conspire, either solely or together,  to cover up, obstruct, alter, destroy or otherwise impede the release of evidence to Mr. Stephenson’s lawyers at any point in the legal proceedings?

My sincere hope is that the settlement agreed to by Mr. Stephenson and NZDF does not preclude the former from writing about his experiences with the NZDF, both in Afghanistan and during the trials. Hopefully he will be able to answer some of the questions I have posed above. I say this because something stinks about the way this affair has been handled at the highest levels of government, which is not only a stain on the individuals involved but a direct affront to basic tenets of liberal democracy.

Is there a Kiwi word for “mission creep?”

datePosted on 16:51, September 11th, 2015 by Pablo

Well, it was bound to happen. After all the hemming and hawing and the kerfuffle that led to the announcement that New Zealand was sending 143 troops to Iraq as trainers and their force protection, the Prime Minister has now said the he would consider eventually sending to Syria a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) such as those previously deployed in Afghanistan. He said as well that he was open to the idea of deploying NZSAS in Syria as target selectors for anti-Daesh air-strikes. So much for his previous ironclad assurances that the training mission was the extent to which the NZDF would get involved in the anti-Daesh fight.

What is interesting about his statement is that he has the order of engagement reversed. For the PRT (which deploy about the same number of personnel as those currently stationed in Iraq) to be tasked in Syria Daesh will have to be pushed out of it, or at least significant portions of it. Even then, the mission will be difficult as the experience in Bamiyan attests (six of the nine NZDF combat dead came from the Bamiyan PRT, and Bamiyan was considered one of the safer Afghan provinces). However, for an eventual PRT deployment in Syria to happen, the conflict against Daesh will have to be ramped up exponentially, which is something the European members of the coalition and Australia are currently in the process of doing. The UK has started to use lethal drones against Daesh targets (primarily British citizens), and the French and Australians have decided to increase the number of air strikes they will fly against Daesh in Syria as well as Iraq.

Part of the air battle against Daesh in both Iraq and Syria is the use of UK, Australian and US special forces as target finders. US Army special forces are now fighting alongside Kurdish peshmerga in northern Syria, and it is widely believed that UK and Australian SAS are doing a bit more than just finding targets for air strikes, to include nighttime raids on Daesh facilities and troop formations in Iraq as well as Syria.

The New Zealand government denies that the NZSAS is in the conflict theatre, but it would be naive to take that assertion at face value given the close working ties between the NZSAS and the afore-mentioned special operators already there. If for no other reason, that scenario is possible because deploying of SAS assets in Syria in any role requires a fair bit of lead-in time, something that has now grown short as the migrant crisis deepens. There is some urgency to finding a front and back-end solution to the crisis: addressing the refugee flows on the back-end in Europe but upping the ante on the front-end (the Syrian/Iraqi conflict zone) so as to stop the refugee flows from continuing.

That is going to take some doing. The Iraq armed forces are no closer to re-taking Ramadi than they were before the NZDF “advisors” arrived in May. The oil refinery town of Baiji, north of Camp Taji where the NZDF troops are stationed, is still surrounded by Daesh fighters and at risk of falling to them. Mosul remains in Daesh hands. In Syria the Russians have decided to put skin into the game by sending the 1000-strong 810th Marine Brigade to Latakia (where Russia maintains an electronics signals intercept station) while reinforcing its naval base at Tartus. US intelligence has reported hearing Russian voices on Syrian armoured communications, which is not surprising given that Russian crews fought in Syrian tanks in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel.

Russian involvement should be seen as a potentially positive development as it has indicated that it is open to joining the coalition against Daesh. It differs on the question of what to do with Assad, but the hard fact is that no solution to the Syrian civil war will come without Russia at the negotiating table (and Iran, for that matter). Sending combat troops to bolster Assad gives the Russians increased leverage as well as a greater stake than what they already have (which is considerable given that over 100,000 Russian citizens live in Syria and the Assad regime is its closest ally in the Middle East). Most importantly, it takes pressure off the West to solely shoulder the burden of rolling back Daesh. With the Russians and Iranian-backed shiia militias (including Hezbollah) on board in both Syria and Iraq and air strikes on Syria added to the coalition target list, a simultaneous pincer movement on Daesh in Iraq and Daesh in Syria can begin. Cutting off cross-border re-supply routes will be a priority and once that is accomplished, the squeeze can be placed on places like Mosul and Raqqa (the de facto capital of the Islamic State).

There is much more to the scenario and it will inevitably be ugly. Turkey is now involved but spending more time trying to kill Kurdish PKK fighters than those of Daesh (and the PKK obliges the Turks by turning its guns on Turkish targets) That will have to change, or at least Turkey’s security priorities will have to be reversed–Daesh first and then the PKK. Iran and the West will need to find an accommodation with regard to the former’s armed proxies in Iraq and Syria (something that has tacitly occurred in Iraq between Coalition forces and the al-Sadr Brigades). Other European and Middle Eastern nations will have to increase their military contributions to the fight. But it is clear that there is movement in these regards.

It appears that the refugee crisis has been the tipping point for that to occur, which is why the front- and back-end solution set is now being addressed and why John Key is being asked about what NZ proposes to do on both ends. If his recent waffling about the NZDF role is anything to go by, the process of mission creep could soon be underway and may well have started already.

Some thoughts on Syrian refugees.

datePosted on 16:57, September 4th, 2015 by Pablo

I must be getting soft, but the image of the drowned Syrian child haunts me. Perhaps it is because I have a two year old or perhaps I am just getting sentimental and weepy in my advancing age, but it is doing my head in. I am not going to be the same for having seen it.

I say this because I have watched and read the coverage of the crisis for a while now and like so many others have not only wondered why the EU cannot craft a viable humanitarian response, but have also been struck by the nasty attitude of so many commentators here in NZ as well as in Europe, most of them on the Right, when considering the plight of these godforsaken people. So let me outline my thoughts on the matter.

The Syrian civil war is a man-made humanitarian disaster. Had it been a natural disaster with the same human impact, I doubt that the response would be the same as it is today. It no longer matters who started it, who is involved, who is to blame and when it might end. The people who are fleeing the war are non-combatants whose hand has been forced by events beyond their control. Those who say they have a choice to stay or go are either fools or cynics. That is like saying that a person subject to domestic abuse has a choice to stay or go. Or that a person has a choice to stay or go in a fire. Sure, they could stay but is that really an option? Did that Syrian child and his family really have a choice? Did they deserve their fate for having “chosen” to seek refuge in a supposedly safe part of the world? (the mother and two boys, ages 3 and 5 died; the father survived and has returned back to Kobani to bury them).

When people up stakes, leave most of their material possessions behind and bring their children on perilous journeys to foreign lands to which they have no prior ties and which are culturally alien to them, they are not “migrants.” They are refugees fleeing catastrophe. It does not matter if the catastrophe is human or environmental in nature (and in Syria it has been both). The bottom line is that they have undertaken great risk–in fact, they are risking it all–to flee the country of origin because of a calamity that is no fault of their own. They are refugees seeking safe haven wherever they can find it (which means a place that is stable and economically viable), and any attempt to define them otherwise is not only wrong but viciously inhumane.

Many of those leaving are secular Muslims and Christians who have been targeted by either Assad’s forces, Daesh or both. Many are the bulk of the shopkeeping and white collar service classes whose livelihoods have been destroyed by four years of war. The majority are moderate in their beliefs and political orientation, which is why they (or at least the men) have chosen not to fight. Their children have no educational opportunity at home, much less future careers.  They do not seek passage to Europe to establish a caliphate or even Islamise it. To the contrary, they are fleeing exactly that possibility.

For those who say that they should have “chosen” to seek refuge in Gulf or North African Muslim states, be aware of two things: 1) they are refused at the borders; and 2) they are considered undesirables in any event given their relative secularisation and the fact that they are considered second-class Arabs (as are Palestinians) by many Gulf oligarchies (they very same that are funding and arming Daesh). So that possibility simply does not exist.

Refugees do not choose to leave or where to stay. They may have their preferences but they live at the mercy of others. But that is the operative term: mercy. Along with compassion and empathy, that is what distinguishes open societies from closed ones.  And yet Europe has shown itself closed-minded on the issue in spite of the ongoing tragedy unfolding on their beaches and doorsteps.

Unfortunately, in today’s polarised ideological climate those virtues are disappearing in the West. That includes New Zealand, where Islamophobia and the “greed is good” mantras of the so-called neo-liberal elite have combined to encourage xenophobic, “me first”  “f*** them” attitudes in the population. In spite of the fact that as far as I can tell no Syrian has ever done harm to New Zealand (and NZ has a small Syrian expat community), the National Party and its supporters do not want to increase the country’s refugee quota in the face of this humanitarian crisis. It apparently does not matter that NZ’s international reputation as a humane and open society rests in part on its attitude towards refugee issues. Nor does it apparently matter that as part of the UN Security Council, New Zealand has a diplomatic obligation to lead by example. Or that a broad reading of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine suggests that protection be awarded to those fleeing conflict as well as those immediately subject to it.

Say what you will, the Syrian exodus is a true humanitarian crisis. The people fleeing are refugees, not migrants. The world, or at least that part of it that is open and funded on notions of compassion, empathy and mercy, has a duty of care to them. It is therefore imperative, and a matter of pure humanity, for Europe and other open societies to step up and help the refugees as much as possible. We may ask ourselves why China, Russia and other nations do not heed the call of the desperate. But the fact is that it does not matter whether they do or not. The moral imperative is to ourselves as well as to those in need.

That is why it is despicable for the Key-led government to shirk its responsibilities on this matter. We have the room, the facilities and the community to support an increased refugee quota targeted at the displaced Syrians. The people we accept will be vetted and are highly unlikely to be interested in jihad or Islamisizing the country. If we can spend $28 million on a flag referendum and $42 million on a boat race challenge, then surely we can find some (considerably less) money to cover the costs of their assimilation. And who knows, we as well as they might be the better for it.

To not do something is a sorry indictment of what we have become as a society, and for those in the government that refused to act, their collective shame will last long after they have departed. The bottom line is clear: regardless of partisan orientation the time to act is NOW.

Cyberwar comes to New Zealand.

datePosted on 12:23, June 10th, 2015 by Pablo

News that Chinese hackers obtained personal details of 4 million US federal employees dating to 1985, following on the heels of similar attacks on the customer records of private insurance companies and retirement funds as well as the internal email networks of the US State Department and White House, demonstrate that a guerrilla cyber-war is underway. Although it will not replace traditional warfare any time soon, this is the new face of war for several reasons.

First, it does not involve physical conflict using kinetic weapons, which removes direct bloodletting from the equation. Second, it can target critical infrastructure (power grids, water supplies) as well as the command, control, communications, computing and intelligence (C4I) capabilities of adversaries. Third, it can be masked so that perpetrators can claim a measure of plausible deniability or at least intellectual distance from the action. Fourth, it can be used for tactical and strategic purposes and the pursuit of short or long-term objectives.

Much like military drones, cyberwar is here to stay.

The war is not one sided: Russian hackers have penetrated Pentagon email networks and the 5 Eyes signals intelligence alliance has dedicated hacking cells working 24/7 on targets of opportunity. Many other nations also indulge in the practice as far as their technological capabilities allow them. To these can be added a host of non-state actors—Wikileaks, Anonymous, ISIS, among others—who have also developed the capability to engage in electronic espionage, sabotage, data capture and theft.

With the most recent revelations about the hacks on the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) archival records (which include personal details of active and retired federal employees as well as identities of those who have had or hold security clearances, perhaps including myself given my prior employment by the Department of Defense) an evolution in cyber warfare is now evident.

Previously, most state-sanctioned cyber attacks were so-called “front door” attacks on government or corporate mainframes, servers and networks. The interest was in surreptitiously obtaining sensitive data or installing surveillance devices in order to engage in ongoing monitoring of targeted entities. “Back door” probes and attacks were the province of non-state actors, especially criminal organisations, seeking to obtain private information of individuals and groups for fraudulent use. However, the recent attacks have been of the “back door” variety yet purportedly state sanctioned, and the Snowden leaks have revealed that 5 Eyes targets the personal communications of government officials, diplomats, military officials and corporate managers as a matter of course.

The move to state-sponsored “back door” hacks is ominous. Accessing data about current and retired government employees can be used to blackmail those suffering personal liabilities (debt, infidelity) in order to obtain sensitive information about government processes, procedures, protocols and policy. It can target active and former intelligence and military officials and others with access to classified information. It can target former public officials that have moved to the private sector, particularly in fields of strategic or commercial importance. Likewise, obtaining sensitive personal data of employees working in private firms opens the door to similar exploitation for illicit commercial gain.

Advances in consumer telecommunications have made cyber hacking easier. Smart phones and their applications are considered to be the most vulnerable to hacking. Because many people store an enormous amount of personal data on these devices, and because they often mix work and personal business on them, they represent an enticing entry point when targeted. Yet even knowing this millions of consumers continue to pack their lives into electronic devices, treating them more as secure bank vaults rather than as windows on their deepest secrets. Not surprisingly, both state and non-state actors have embarked on concerted efforts to penetrate mobile networks and hand-held devices. Encryption, while a useful defense against less capable hackers, only slows down but does not stop the probes of technologically sophisticated hackers such as those in the employ of a number of states.

The bottom line is this: the smaller the telecommunications market, the easier it is for cyber hackers to successfully place backdoor “bugs” into the network and targets within it, especially if government and corporate resources are directed towards defending against “front door” attacks. On the bright side, it is easier to defend against attacks in a smaller market if governments, firms, service providers and consumers work to provide a common defense against both “front door” and “back door” hacking.

The implications for New Zealand are significant.

In this new battleground physical distance cannot insulate New Zealand from foreign attack because cyber-war knows no territorial boundaries. New Zealand provides an inviting target because not only is an integral and active member of Western espionage networks, it also has proprietary technologies and intellectual property in strategic sectors of its trade-dependent economy (including niche defense-related firms) that are of interest to others. Because New Zealand’s corporate, academic and public service elites are relatively small and the overlap between them quite extensive, hacks on their personal data are a valuable tool of those who wish to use them for untoward purposes.

New Zealand public agencies and private firms have been relatively slow to react to the threat of cyber warfare. The data they hold on their employees, managers, policy elites and general population is an inviting “back door” for determined hackers seeking to exploit vulnerabilities in New Zealand’s cyber networks. Since many Kiwis are lax about separating their work and private electronic correspondence and records, the potential to access sensitive personal information is high.

New Zealand has been the subject of numerous “front door” cyber attacks and probes on public and private agencies, including an attack by Chinese-based hackers on the NIWA supercomputer carried out in concert with a similar attack by the same source on the supercomputer run by the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NIWA’s US counterpart). New Zealanders have been the targets of numerous “back door” intrusions such as phishing and other scams perpetrated by fraudsters and conmen. Yet successive governments have been slow to recognize the new threat advancing towards it in the cyber-sphere, only recently creating dedicated cyber security cells within the intelligence community and just last year amending the GCSB Act to address vulnerabilities in domestic internet security. But it still may not be enough.

Until New Zealand resolves the problem of institutional lag (that is, the time gap between the emergence of a technologically-driven threat and an institutional response on the part of those agencies responsible for defending against it), there is reason to be concerned for the security of private data stored in it. After all, in the age of cyberwar there is no such thing as a benign strategic environment.

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