Posts Tagged ‘Security’

Dissecting North Korean Madness.

datePosted on 17:27, May 23rd, 2010 by Pablo

Forensic evidence examined by three independent experts confirms what was suspected all along: the 1200-ton South Korean frigate Cheonan was sunk on March 26 by a North Korean torpedo while cruising in South Korean waters near their common maritime border, with the loss of  46 lives. Not only were traces of RDX (a military grade explosive whose chemical signature can identify its source) found in the salvaged wreak. Pieces of the torpedo itself have been recovered, including the propeller assembly and housing. The finger of guilt points heavily in Pyongyang’s direction. A secretive commando unit with direct links to Kim Jung-il, unit 586, is suspected of staging the attack using a mini-submarine as the launching platform (since such platforms would be harder to detect using standard anti-submarine detection methods). The fact that Mr. Kim awarded the commander of Unit 586 with his fourth generals’ star in a ceremony held shortly after the attack is seen by some analysts as proof of its involvement as well as Mr. Kim’s direct authorisation of the attack.

The question is why would the North Koreans do such a thing? Admittedly, they have a track record of unprovoked attacks on South Korean targets, including a 1967 attack on a South Korean navy vessel that killed 39 sailors, a 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed 118 people, an attempted assassination of the South Korean president during a state visit to Burma in 1983, plus a series of bloody naval skirmishes dating back to 1999, including an incident last year when a North Korean gunboat was heavily damaged, with loss of life, in a confrontation with South Korean naval forces. Some argue that the torpedoing was simply an act of revenge over this last incident, but it appears that there is much more at play than immediately meets the eye.

The North Korean torpedo attack is alarming because the two Koreas technically remain in a state of war. The 1953 armistice is not a peace treaty, so a state of war continues to exist between the two countries in spite of the episodic thawing in relations between them. That serves as both the justification for the attack as well as a major source of concern. Usually a cross-border raid into a sovereign nation’s territorial waters during peace time that results in an unprovoked attack on a military vessel would be construed as an an act of war deserving of commensurate, if not overwhelming response. But since the two countries are already in a state of war, each is free to pursue aggression as it sees fit. That has resulted in a (mostly one-sided) low intensity conflict between the two states for the last 57 years, and is why US forces are stationed in and around the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that constitutes their common land border (US troops in the DMZ serve as a “trip wire” in which an attack on them will trigger the US security guarantee for the South Koreans, meaning direct US military involvement in the response).  Thus the North Korean torpedo attack is just a continuation of an on-going limited war rather than an outright declaration of war. Even so, it is an outrageous provocation and therefore runs the risk of escalating into something bigger.

South Korean public outrage demands blood in revenge, yet in practice South Korea has few options at its disposal. North Korea has already declared, with its usual bluster, that any military response will be met with “all-out war.” Although North Korea does not have the capability to launch a nuclear strike in spite of its efforts to build an effective nuclear arsenal, it does have ample capability to launch significant missile attacks on Seoul and other parts of South Korea as well as beyond (to include Japan and US bases in Okinawa and the Western Pacific). It also has a Chinese security guarantee to match the American compact with its southern neighbour. That means that a South Korean military response runs the risk of escalation into high intensity conflict that could lead to both security guarantees being invoked, thereby forcing a US-China confrontation. It is not in either power’s interests to see this happen, so pressure is on South Korea to not call North Korea’s bluff and retaliate in kind. Yet, most analysts agree that no response will only embolden the North Koreans and result in further incidents with a greater potential for escalation. Hounded by this dilemma, South Korea has so far limited its response to calling for UN Security Council condemnation of the attack, something that so far has not occurred.

Shadow warriors and covert operations specialists point out that more discrete means of retaliation are available that can make the South Koreans’ point just as effectively. All that is needed is patience and planning in the execution of a discrete mission against a select target. But even this approach needs to factor in the motivations of the North Korean regime in staging the attack, because understanding of its rationale can better inform the response not only of South Korea, but of its allies and the larger international community as well.

It appears that the attack was staged as a result of divisions within the North Korean hierarchy over the issue of leadership succession. It was more than just an “unfortunate incident” resultant from miscommunication or misreading of intent. It is clear that Kim Jung-il is on his last legs after a series of strokes and other ailments. Thus the jockeying for position as heir to the Kim throne is now reaching fever pitch, with hard-liners and soft-liners attempting to out-maneuver each other in the run-up to his death (hard-liners are regime defenders, soft-liners are regime reformers). Some intelligence analysts believe that Mr. Kim authorised the attack in order to to shore up hard-line support for his son, Kim Jong-un. The younger Kim has no power base outside of his father’s closest associates. He has no administrative or military command experience as far as is known. This leaves him vulnerable to the machinations of veteran Communist (i.e., formally named the Workers) Party and military authorities whom may have leadership ambitions of their own. Some of these heavyweights may accept a power-sharing arrangement where the Kim dynastic line is continued more or less along the lines presently operative. Others may prefer that the younger Mr. Kim serve as a figurehead while real power is distributed among a broader array of bureaucratic cadres, thereby decentralising policy-making authority (and power) in a slow process of regime reform. Still others may prefer to dispense with the Kims entirely and assume power directly, in coalition or as part of a small cadre, either as part of a reformist or retrenchment project. All of these factions are hard-line in the views of the world, which means that whatever happens democracy and major liberalisation of the regime will not be on the menu.

On the other hand, there are soft-line factions with the DPRK regime. These are drawn from elements in the Communist party and civilian bureaucracy who have had to wrestle with the deterioration of North Korea’s infrastructure, living standards and health during the last twenty years. These people are well aware that North Korea is an economic basket case that feeds and arms its military at the expense of its people, who have been subject to famine, starvation, an array of diseases, homelessness and unemployment as they eke out what for all purposes is a Dickensian existence. It is these people who know that there are two North Koreas, one for the elites and one for the masses (as a Stalinist version of the “dual society” thesis that has been used to explain comparative underdevelopment), and it is these people who are most acutely aware of how far behind North Korea has fallen behind its ethnic kin to the South under the vainglorious and rigid Kim dictatorship. It is these people who understand that Kim Jung-il’s death provides an opportunity to open up the regime, if not immediately on the political front, then certainly on the economic front.  After all, even after the Russian, Vietnamese and Chinese abandoned communism as the major organising tenet of society, the DPRK dinosaurs cling to it as an insurance policy against threats to their rule. Hence the soft-liners are working to persuade leadership contenders that their support depends on a major opening of the regime, even if still under one party authoritarian aegis. In fact, for the soft-liners, their continued support for one party rule is contingent on economic liberalisation.

That is why the torpedo attack was carried out. It had to do with internal dynamics in the Kim regime rather than the war with South Korea itself, which merely served as an excuse (by hard-liners) to  launch the attack. A tried and true authoritarian method of shoring up elite unity and public support is to stage a militaristic diversion that rallies the public along nationalistic grounds (some might argue that this happens in democratic regimes as well–witness, say, the US and UK attack on Iraq in 2003). The torpedo attack was a sucker ploy designed to incite a South Korean response that would help consolidate the position of one of the North Korean leadership factions. But therein lies the rub, because history also shows that diversionary attacks staged by dictatorships often end in defeat and regime collapse, either immediately or in time. The Greek colonel’s regime collapsed after its defeat in the 1973 Cyprus War, a war that it started at a time when it was facing rising domestic discontent and increased disunity within the armed ranks. The Argentine junta collapsed in 1982 after its defeat in the Malvinas/Falklands campaign, a war that it also started in order to divert public attention from pressing economic problems at a time when, again, political in-fighting amongst military and civilian elites was increasing. The fall of Saddam Hussein had its origins in his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and even if eventual rather than immediate, the end of the Iraqi Ba’ath regime was predictable from that point on.

To this can be added the problem of succession in authoritarian regimes. It is considered the Achilles Heel of authoritarianism, especially in heavily personalised, dynastic or military-dominated regimes (North Korea is all three). Because power is so tightly centralised in such regimes, even where institutionalised under one party aegis, the benefits of leadership are virtually unfettered and unlimited. There are little or no checks and balances or separation of powers in such regimes, so the material and political rewards of leadership are astronomical when compared with even bureaucratic authoritarian regimes such as Singapore or (now) the PRC. Hence the stakes of the succession game in places like North Korea are extremely high for all contenders, and the competition for leadership succession gets, to put it mildly, quite rough.

All of which is to say that the response to the North Korean attack should be subtle rather than overt. Devoid of a militaristic opportunity to engage in jingoistic stirring of popular fervor, the declining Kim regime will be forced to turn back inwards as the leadership succession issue gets more factionalised and hostile. That will likely lead to more attempts to use the military diversion option, perhaps as a desperate last resort by a losing faction in the internecine battles over leadership in the post Kim Jung-il era. But it is only a matter of time before the DPRK regime enters into terminal crisis, which is why it is best to not answer this latest provocation with force. That time may well come, but first the nature and course of the North Korean leadership succession must become apparent.

In the meantime, then, perhaps it is best for the South Koreans to move in shadows rather than in light when countering North Korean aggression.

Thoughts about Key’s Afghan PR Exercise.

datePosted on 01:38, May 6th, 2010 by Pablo

I have seen and read the reports of John Key’s much anticipated “secret” trip to Afghanistan.  I must say that it is one of the more amateurish, cringe worthy attempts at symbolic politics I have seen in a long time–not quite as bad as George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” carrier charade, but of the same ilk. Let me explain why.

First, the good part. I think it was entirely sensible for the National spin-meisters and military brass to tie the Afghan detour to the Gallipoli celebration trip. The unfortunate RNZAF chopper accident on ANZAC day forced a change of plans so that the PM could attend  the funerals of the ill-fated crew, but that only added to his  message of military support and remembrance. As for the greedy economic opportunists who have criticised him for abandoning the arse kissing trade mission to the Arab Gulf Coast, they need to realise that given the circumstances in which the tragedy occurred, Mr. Key had no political option but to return for the funerals. How would it have looked if he choose to continue to brown nose the Arabs while some of the nation’s service people were laid to rest?  The likes of one Mr. Langely may put personal self-interest before recognition of service, but most Kiwis understand that not only was it politically necessary for Mr. Key to return, it was the right thing to do.

But that is about as good as it gets. Contrary to the fawning editorial opinion of the NZ Herald, Key’s tiki tour of Afghanistan showed how out of his league he is on international security affairs.

He started out by mentioning that he was flown by helicopter from his arrival point (presumably Bagram Air Force Base, the site of a notorious US “black” detention centre) to the SAS location. In doing so he managed to convey the message that the most heavily defended areas of Kabul are still too dangerous for Western VIPs to drive through, and that the SAS is not located in Kabul as he claims but is actually based elsewhere. He then pointed out that he used heavily armed motorcades to travel in Bayiman and elsewhere because he and his entourage were “juicy fish” for insurgent targeters.

Well, not quite. In a country that is awash in visits by heavy-hitters from a number of countries, Mr. Key is more like  an anchovy.  Moreover, heavily weighted  Western motorcades involving a half dozen armoured SUVs and armed escort vehicles are not immune to roadside bombs (and I bet he traveled in the third or fourth vehicle). In fact, given that they have to travel on main arteries and disrupt local traffic and pedestrian flows as they do so, convoys such as Mr. Key’s actually make for better targets for opportunistic guerrillas deeply embedded in a resentful local population (especially where well-prepared guerillas can deploy efffective IEDs on five minutes notice). If leaving a light footprint is what hearts and minds are partially about, then his mode of land transport was a tactical failure.

Mr. Key prattled on about how he wanted to experience the conditions in which the NZDF operate in that theater. But he choose to spend his evenings at the British embassy. That is a double insult: first to the UN and ISAF patrons of the NZDF mission, which have their own housing compounds or use heavily guarded hotels for visiting VIPs; and secondly to the NZDF itself. Mr. Key could have stayed in officer quarters in any number of bases including at the PRT in Bayiman or the SAS operations centre (which is likely to be on the Afghan military base where its anti-terrorism Crisis Response Unit is headquartered). But instead he choose to take the poncy route and accept accommodation from the colonial master. How quaint of him, and how much it tells us about his sincerity in wanting to understand the conditions that NZ troops face.

Mr. Key managed to offend the Bayiman locals by trying to shake hands with a girl, a cultural taboo in that region. So much for MFAT and NZDF giving him a head’s up about local customs, to say nothing of his lack on intuition about the context in which he was operating. For him, ignorance on that occasion turned out not to be bliss. For the NZDF PRT team, this could have been ther moment where 6+ years of good civil-military relations became unstuck. The question begs: would Helen Clark have been so, uh, uninformed? >>Note to Red Alert and The Standard–while I appreciate your views you must not use this post to score political points because to my mind you are little better when it comes to partisan  issues such as this>>

In defending their role, Mr. Key  said that the SAS had not fired their weapons. This is laughable to the point of tears. The very nature of their “training” mission, as well as the fact that they have participated in at least two well publicised firefights (even if we accept the argument that they did so in “support” roles, which is ludicrous), requires that the SAS  employ their weapons, even if merely as covering or suppressing fire for their Afghan comrades.

And yet, the supplicant NZ press uncritically lapped up his patent lie while he hid under the doctrine of  plausible deniability (that is, because Mr. Key may have believed the lie to be true because his advisers or the NZDF command told him to take their word at face value and he had no reason to doubt them because he simply does not know better). Here, Mr. Key’s ignorance truly is a measure of political insulation, if not bliss.

Mr. Key told this same press that he was “considering” extending the deployments of the Bayiman PRT and SAS past their respective termination dates in September 2010 and March 2011 respectively. This was a forgone conclusion given that the NZDF wanted to do so and given the government’s obsession with tying a bilateral US-NZ free trade agreement to its military commitment in Afghanistan as well as the recent military-to-military reapprochment between the two countries. Heck, the foreign press was told before the trip that the extension had already been authorised but Mr. Key played cagey with the NZ press. Could that be because he wants to appear to be considerate of opposition voices in parliament when in fact he is not?

Mr. Key did his usual name-dropping act. He met with Karzai and General McCrystal. He met with local leaders. Although he waxed lyrical about what they had to say, he made no mention of what he had to say to them. Did he tell Karzai that his corruption and the drug-running antics of his cronies would not be tolerated? Did he press Karzai on not back-sliding on human rights, especially for wimin and ethnic minorities? Did he query McCrystal on continued civilian casualties at the hands of ISAF forces, and did he make clear to the General what the NZDF understanding of the rules of engagement are?  Nothing of the sort has been mentioned, so for all the NZ public knows he could have been exchanging cricket scores and family photographs with the Big Boys.

And then there was the piece d’resistance: John Key fitted out in a journalist flak jacket and helmet, his blood type outlined like a bulls-eye on his chest, grinning like a kid in a GI Joe costume. Then there were the photos of him acting friendly with the pilots on the RNZAF C-130 and acting pensive on the US Blackhawk ‘copter that did the bulk of his tour transfers. Dang. I have no doubt that he needed the body armour when he was not sipping tea with the Poms, but did his minders really think that a photo op in that outfit would come across as warrior-like and decisive? If so, they are clueless because he just looked goofy, somewhat akin to the infamous photo of Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis sitting in a tank turret wearing a helmet in the 1988 US presidential campaign. In both cases the image spells out L-O-O-O-O-O-S-E-R.  As for the aircraft photos: staged and contrived from the get-go. He looked like he was on one of those Air NZ tourist charters to the Antartic summer solstice. Another photo op FAIL.

Mind you, the NZDF brass as well as the troops on the ground would have appreciated the gesture, albeit for different reasons. So there was symbolic worth in the venture. It was in its execution where the enterprise failed.

Because they are clueless National PR flacks will congratulate themselves on a job well done in getting their message about the PM out to the masses, and the supplicant invited press will play the role of willful lapdogs by writing positive stories based on National PR releases (in part, because they share the government’s contempt for the intelligence of the general population, and in part because they would like to be invited along on other future junkets of this sort). But the cruel truth is that the exercise showed yet again how far out his depth the PM is when confronting the intricacies of even the most rudimentary aspects of foreign affairs. For those with a better sense of judgement, the exercise was embarrassing, not encouraging. Or as Pauly Fuemana would have said, “how bizzare.”

An Armed Crowd is a Polite Crowd.

datePosted on 17:51, April 2nd, 2010 by Pablo

I heard this phrase when living on a ranch on the Arizona-Mexico border in the early 1990s. It was prompted by my asking a bartender at a local saloon if she felt threatened by the crowd of drunken, armed cowboys in the establishment one evening.  In that environment, it made perfect sense (in fact, Arizona has just legislated that a person can carry a concealed firearm without a permit, loosening the laws in force during my time in the state which allowed for the open carrying of firearms without a permit but which required a concealed weapons permit). In fact, on repeated visits to that watering hole I never once saw anyone raise their voice in serious anger.

I mention this because statistics have recently been released that show that the incidence of violent crime in NZ has increased exponentially in the last five years. That has led to the National government talking about “getting tough” on crime along the lines frequently barked by its ACT closet authoritarian partners.

But what does it mean to “get tough” on crime? More incarcerations? Longer sentences? More arrests? More convictions? More confiscations of property? More severe punishments? Reinstitution of the death penalty for heinous crimes? More tasering? Arming the community constables? Expanding the armed offenders squads? Increasing liquor bans in public places?  Having the police using more armed force when dealing with crowd control, gang and other collective disturbances? Increasing youth sentences?

I mention this because “getting tough” on crime, at least when phrased in the above terms, does not address the causal mechanisms behind the upsurge in violent crime (which I agree has increased and now become a serious pathology in NZ civil society). One can seek explanations for causes in many places: exposure to media-provided violence at a young age, dysfunctional familities, bullying culture, the pervasive influence of alcohol, the long-standing tradition of civil disobedience and passive resistance practiced by some communities and individuals, now taken to new extremes, the degeneration of popular and civic culture into venal self-absorption–the list of possible causes is long.  But what does “getting tough” have to do with any of these possible causes? Unless a more draconian criminal system is seen as a deterrent to violent crime (and there is much dispute about the deterrent value of things such as capital punishment), how exactly is “getting tough” on crime going to solve the problem?

I must confess to being of two minds, because as an immigrant from the US I have always felt that punishment for serious offenses was a bit of a joke in NZ and that there are not enough resources dedicated to crime-fighting  (in fact, I still believe that NZ is a country where one can literally get away with murder if cunning and meticulous). But I also know that the “tougher” US approach to crime also has done little to nothing to drive down crime rates (in fact, the “broken windows” approach to petty crime adopted in New York City in the 1990s, and in which worked marvels in lowering the overall crime rate in that city, was focused on early intervention at the lower end of criminality rather than on increased punishment for more serious offenses). Instead, US violent crimes rates, not surprisingly, lowered as the economy expanded in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and, not surprisngly, have increased since the recession began to bite hard in 2008. Which is to say, although the violence of socio and psychopaths is unaffected by economic cycles, much of the residual acts of violence tend to overlap with economic downturns when unmitigated by early intervention or causal prevention schemes.

Which brings back the cause-effect–response syllogism mentioned earlier. There is a reason why that crowd in the border town saloon was armed. At the time there were only 2 sherriff’s deputies avaliable to patrol over 1000 square miles of national forest and ranchland strung along the border and extending some 20-50 miles northward. Besides the various stinging and biting small critters and large predators (bears, big cats) that stalked the Sonoran high plateau and mountain ranges in which our properties were located, there were human dangers emanating from across the border as well as from within Arizona itself (organised crime drug smuggling and survivalist militas, respectively). Absent the protection of the state in such remote locales, people actually practiced the concept of self-defense because to not do so invited serious victimisation, often of a terminal sort. As the saying goes, the best home insurance policy one can have in such a personal threat environment is the sound of a pump action shotgun chambering a buckshot round. The point being, that armed crowd had reason to be so given the causal mechanisms at play in that particular crime environment (which I must say, remains one of the most beautiful landscapes I have had the pleasure to experience first hand). Unfortunately, perhaps, things changed after 9/11 and the region is now swarming with Border Patrol, National Guard, roadblocks, fences, audiovisual sensors and motion detectors as well as increased numbers of north-bound migrants, to the point that many long-term residents have moved away in search of solitude and workable land. It turns out, at least in that regard, I left just in the nick of time.

That brings me back to NZ, my adopted home since 1997 and in which I have seen a steady decline in civility during the last decade that is now confirmed by crime statistics. Not being a criminologist or a social welfare expert, I cannot offer any concrete prescriptions, much less a panacea for the upsurge in criminal violence now afflicting Aotearoa. But what I can say is that it does no good to play the role of chickenhawk or attack poodle by fulminating about getting tough on crime without linking the thirst for punishment to an understanding of what drives violence and insecurity in the first place. In fact, until the latter is identified, addressed and ameloirated, then the former is just another way of pouring salt into a gaping wound.

Blog Link: Spinning the Spy Trade

datePosted on 13:46, March 25th, 2010 by Pablo

As promised the latest “Word from Afar” column at Scoop focuses on the 2008-2009 NZSIS annual report. As I anticipated in an earlier post, there are a few nuggets of information about its work amid all the PR jargon and managerial double speak. Check it out here.

The EAB becomes the NAB.

datePosted on 19:03, March 19th, 2010 by Pablo

 It has recently been announced the the External Assessment Bureau (EAB) has become the National Assessment Bureau (NAB), combining external as well as internal intelligence assessments in the lead up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup (although I believe that the claim that the move was needed to better coordinate threat assessment for the World Cup is a bit specious, especially since the recommendation for an integration of internal and external intelligence assessment came from a report by former Foreign Affairs Secretary Simon Murdoch that was commissioned independently of the World Cup bid). There has long been dissatisfaction with the lack of coordination between New Zealand internal and external intelligence collection and analysis agencies (to say nothing of their professionalism and competence). Although there is a veritable alphabet soup of such agencies, there was until now no single unit that coordinated all of the intelligence flows into one coherent assessment brief for the PM. Some believe that this rendered the EAB ineffectual because it was a duplication of resources (since all of the operational agencies also have analytic branches that formulate their own assessments). Others simply claimed that it was a waste of space because PMs usually dealt directly with the operational agencies themselves (since the PM is also the Minister of Security and Intelligence). Thus the options were to disband the EAB or refocus it. The government has chosen the latter course.

The important thing to note is that the EAB/NAB is an analytic group located in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, and is responsible for providing intelligence assessments for the PM.  It is not an intelligence-gathering (spy) agency even though it handles classified material. Yet, news that it has now assumed an internal focus along with its ongoing external assessment duties has alarmed civil libertarians and elements on the Left. The Greens put out a press release expressing concern over the move, with Keith Locke offering the humorous observation that the only area of growth in the public service seems to be the spy agencies.

Well, not quite. Although I respect Keith Locke’s position, I disagree that giving the revamped NAB an internal focus is a bad thing or that this reform signifies a growth of the spy apparatus. The NAB budget and those of the operational agencies have remained relatively consistent the last five years (after major increases post 9/11), and the NAB is not targeted to increase the number of personnel working within it (which means more responsibilities for the same number of people assigned to it). Hence all that has been done is to give the intelligence assessment unit with the PMs office access to more rounded intelligence streams from both internal and external security agencies so as to be able to better prepare unitary and coherent net security assessments for the PM. Before, the EAB only looked at foreign issues as fed to it by MFAT, the SIS, the GCSB, Customs, Immigration and the NZDF intelligence units. Now it will get streams from the Police, CTAG (Counter Terrorism Assessment Group, which is an inter-agency unit that does both internal and external terrorist assessment) and from the SIS/GCSB and the other mentioned agencies on internal issues of concern. That way the NAB can provide a more comprehensive picture of any given security matter to the PM, since often times threats have what is known as a “glocal” character–a mixture of global and local characteristics. Think organised crime and its potential nexus with terrorism….the “glocal” or “intermestic” overlap is broad and variegated

In a way the change makes the NAB the NZ equivalent of the US National Security Council (NSC)–the primary assessment agency working for the President/PM. It is an assessment unit, not an intelligence collection (operational) unit. It is full of analysts, not spies. With a 3 million dollar budget covering 30 people, it does not have the capacity to do anything other than read and assess what the operational branches provide them. From my perspective, were I to be offered a government job, this would be the best place to be (knowledge being power, etc.).

This is not to say that the announcement is worry-free. The troubling parts are: 1) whether this means that both internal and external intelligence assessments will  now be politicised, much as the Zaoui and Urewera 18 cases were; and 2) no Parliamentary consultation or inputs were done in the build-up to the change. Although the Murdoch report is correct (there was a need to rationalise the flow of intelligence to the PMs office), it might have been more transparent and democratic to run the proposed reform past the country’s elected representatives rather than to just do it by executive fiat. There are also issues of accountability, since the NAB is not required to deliver specific reports to the the Intelligence and Security Committee (such as it is) or Parliament in general (although it does maintain a web site and issues and annual report on the generalities of its mission). The latter is not an insurmountable obstacle, however, because the PM can be made to account for the actions of his cabinet.

Thus, unlike many of my learned counterparts on the Left and in politics, I do not see the revamping of the EAB/NAB as an assault on civil liberties or an expansion of the security apparatus. Instead I see it as an effort to streamline and lend coherency to what the PM receives as informed advice on matters of security and intelligence. Time will tell if I am correct.

Political Idealism trumps the Law.

datePosted on 20:52, March 17th, 2010 by Pablo

The “Waihopai 3” have been acquitted. Their act of civil disobedience, which resulted in damage to one of the domes covering eavesdropping equipment at the Echelon Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) gathering station near Blenheim, was deemed by a jury of their peers to be justified because of their sincerely held beliefs that the listening post contributed to human suffering on a world scale.

This is a remarkable verdict. The Plowshares group clearly trespassed and clearly did damage to the dome (they cut through both a perimeter fence and then the dome in order to access its interior). But their motives clearly outweighed, at least in the minds of the jury, the criminality of their actions (the charge of burglary against them was a grave mistake on the part of the Crown). The defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges of trespass, burglary and criminal damage and left the court as free men and as an inspiration to other direct action activists discontented with the status quo. One wonders if this  decision will establish not only a legal precedent but also encourage others to follow suit in pursuit of anti-status quo objectives.

I must confess to being at a loss for an explanation. As I wrote in “A Brief Comment on Spy Bases and Civil Disobedience” over at Scoop, (, active acts of civil disobedience involving direct action (as opposed to the passive act school of civil disobedience exemplified by Ghandi and followed by his adherents after he was murdered) are most often premised on the perpetrators willingly understanding that their actions are in violation of conventional law, and that their actions will be punished accordingly. More often than not they plead guilty in order to make their political case at sentencing, something that spares the taxpayer the court costs of defending the charges while at the same time providing a courtroom soapbox for dissemination of their claims. Seriously committed activists often/sometimes (depending who is talking) never reach trial because they die trying. None of that occurred in this case.

I am sympathetic to the Plowshares cause although I seriously disagree with their view of the Echelon network. I applaud their willingness to stand up for their beliefs, and their use of unconventional, yet basically peaceful means to make their case. But for the life of me I cannot understand why they were acquitted, and I fear that the verdict has opened a Pandoras Box of unintended and perhaps dangerous consequences. But then again, we are talking about activities that occurred in New Zealand, although to be honest, if this action merited acquittal, what does that say about the case against the Urewera 18, who did not trespass, damage or burglarise anything?

Imagine what the outcome would have been had the Plowshares engaged their direct action in the US, UK or Australia. I reckon the verdict would have been different, and the sentences severe.

Outsourcing Counter-Espionage.

datePosted on 15:46, March 16th, 2010 by Pablo

The SIS recently released its 2008-2009 annual report. I will be analyzing it in further detail in a future “Word from Afar” column over at Scoop. However, I thought I would provide readers with a glimpse of one aspect of its activities that called my attention.

On page 14 (out of 29) of the report, in the section titled “Intelligence and Advice to Government,” under the heading “Counter-Espionage,” the following quote summarizes the SIS approach towards countering foreign espionage activities in NZ: “The Counter-Espionage (CE) efforts identifies and frustrates acts of espionage against New Zealand or New Zealanders. We give advice to internal and external stakeholders and disrupt, where appropriate and usually via a third party, espionage activities prejudicial to New Zealand’s national security” (emphasis mine).

Beyond the fact that the SIS does not mention whether, in fact, any foreign espionage actually occurred during the time period in question (I would assume that it did), much less the precise nature of such activities, two points in that sentence are worth noting. First, the mention of external stakeholders. Who might they be? It is obvious who the internal stakeholders are-the government and other NZ agencies. But who, exactly, are the external stakeholders? Who would have a “stake-holding” interest in foreign espionage activities in or involving NZ: Australia? France? The US? UK? Private agents/ies?

That brings up the second and more interesting point. The SIS claims that it usually disrupts foreign espionage via “third party.” Again, who is this party or parties? We can assume that the SIS uses the Police, the GCSB (for electronic and technical counter-measures), the NZDF and perhaps Customs and other government security agencies as part of this effort (since it would be alarming if it it used just one third party for all of its counter-espionage “disruption” tasks). But does the reference to third parties include foreign governments and/or private or non-governmental agencies such as private security firms? Given that private security agencies have recently spied on environmental activists on behalf of  public and private corporations in NZ, it is not a stretch to wonder if this type of out-sourcing is also used by the SIS. Such a privatization of intelligence operations opens a potential cans of worms with regards to civil rights and the blurring of the lines between proper governmental authority and profit-driven interest. If indeed private agencies are used for counter-intelligence operations, who are they? Does that include foreign firms as well as NZ privateers (such as Xe, the re-branded name for Blackwater, which has its own intelligence and counter-intelligence branches)? Hence, an explanation as to who are these third parties appears to be in order (not that I expect that we will receive one).

Moreover, could it be possible that the SIS also contracts to foreign governments counter-intelligence tasks on NZ soil or on behalf of NZ “interests?” Is that not a violation of sovereignty? Or is it simply expedient to do so given NZ’s lack of capabilities in this field?  Does the public have a right to know about such things? More specifically, does the parliamentary committee on intelligence and security (all 5 members) have knowledge of who these third parties are? If so, are they content with the arrangement, and on what specific grounds (such as oversight and accountability)? Again, the questions raised by this simple mention in the SIS report are both numerous and troubling.

I will leave for the larger essay the implication that the SIS does not have the capability to engage in counter-espionage operations on its own, particularly in its human component. That is worrisome in itself, but also is the reason for the third party outsourcing.

The full report is here:

Blog Link: Why the NZDF is in Afghanistan

datePosted on 13:10, January 26th, 2010 by Pablo

Controversy about the publication of SAS soldiers in action in Kabul last week, and the identification of one of them, has morphed into debate about the reasons why the NZDF is in Afghanistan. I have already outlined my views on the matter in previous posts here at KP, but the furore forced me to reflect again on the issue. That reflection was precipitated by the fact that criticism of the mission comes from both the political Left and the political Right. Some on the Left think that the venture is a US-led occupation driven by neo-imperialist  ambition and corporate greed that violates the Afghans right to self-determination, and that the NZ involvement is a form of sucking up to the US in pursuit of a free trade agreement. Some on the Right believe that NZ has no strategic stake in the conflict and should leave the (enter derogatory term here) alone to sort out their own fate while NZ concentrates on issues closer to home. I believe that both sides have misread the situation. 

To that end I have offered my summary views on the matter as this month’s Word from Afar column over at Scoop.

My first “real” job involved creating a Latin American Studies program for US military and civilian intelligence officers at a military post-graduate institution. One of the factors that contributed to my being hired was that I had familiarity with how Latin American guerrilla organizations fight. When asked at the job interview about how to “counter” them, I noted that the very term “counter-insurgency’ was self-defeating on two levels, one semantic and one practical. That impressed and surprised my  interlocutors, who then allowed me to teach my interpretation of counter-insurgency (COIN) theory to my Latin-America bound students. In return, I got to learn and participate in their business. But that was two decades ago. Since the doctrine of counter-insurgency has resurfaced and been applied in recent years to Afghanistan and Iraq, and is seemingly back in vogue and unchallenged in those settings, I thought I would reprise my argument against its use.

“Insurgency” refers to counter-hegemonic or anti-status quo groups that use armed struggle as the means to the end of political victory. It is not a form of warfare per se, but instead a term used to describe the nature of a particular guerrilla (or irregular or unconventional) group using irregular warfare as the means to their end. Thus one does not “counter” insurgency by fighting, but by ideological means. Hence “counter-insurgency” properly applies to non-coercive measures employed by political status quo regimes to thwart the ideological appeal of (most often nationalist) guerrillas. The term is therefore misused when applied to the kinetic part of asymmetric warfare, which more properly can be termed “counter-guerrilla” or irregular warfare operations.

But even then the practical problem remains: by defining kinetic operations as “counter-guerrilla” or (mistakenly) “counter-insurgency,”  the conventional fighter begins on the back foot. Anyone familiar with guerrilla warfare knows that you do not “counter” it, or merely respond to guerrilla operations. That is because such an approach gives the guerrilla forces the initiative as to how and when to stage their operations. Such a “countering” strategy inevitably allows guerrillas to remain on the offensive and dictate the timing, nature and tempo of armed confrontations. It is, therefore , often a self-defeating strategy doomed from the onset.

In order to be successful, counter-guerrilla operations need to be offensive, irregular and consequently symmetrical to those of the guerrillas themselves. The idea is to fight guerrillas on their own terms but with all of the capabilities afforded to conventional militaries (e.g. air cover, precision-munitions, satellite guidance, signals and technical intelligence). That involves small group operations–such as what the NZSAS is trained to do–acting with excellent and precise tactical intelligence to strike preemptively at guerrilla targets, focusing on leadership and command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) structures. Rather than large group operations that rely on massed force and kinetic friction, the irregular approach emphasizes fluidity and maneuver. In other words, it operates the way guerrillas do.

Therein lies the problem with Western counter-insurgency strategy. It confuses the nature of a guerrilla grievance with a type of irregular warfare, and in doing so legitimizes the grievance in contexts in which the status quo regime is unpopular. In such contexts “insurgents” are awarded popular appeal as symbols of resistance to the unpopular regime and foreign oppressors, thereby undercutting any “hearts and minds” efforts undertaken by the latter. This in turn undermines efforts to obtain precise, reliable and timely intelligence on guerrilla targets, which is a function of the rapport between the civilian population and various armed actors. Instead, the intelligence flow preferably goes to the guerrillas, and what passes for intelligence to the conventional actor is often disinformation.

To that can be added the mindset created by the “countering” posture of irregular operations. Such a strategic posture condemns the countering party to react to the actions of the guerrillas, which although leading to tactical success on occasion, denies the countering side the possibility of strategic victory. So long as guerrillas can avoid confrontations with massed force, they survive to fight another day, another week, and years thereafter. “Countering” strategies also have the drawback of not being fine-tuned to the cultural norms and fighting styles of irregular opponents. Although much has been written about the different approaches to conventional warfare adopted by different nations (such as American, Arab, British, Chinese, Israeli and Russian fighting styles), much less attention has been paid to different unconventional or irregular fighting styles. Not all guerrillas copy the Guevara, Guillen, Marighella or Mao  playbook when undertaking their campaigns, and many hybrid versions of guerrilla warfare exist that are rooted as much in local armed  custom as they are historical examples. A “countering” strategy is less capable of embracing that fact.

I have refrained here from taking a position on the worthiness of the cause (pro or anti-guerrilla) in a given case. Readers can choose sides in any conflict as they deem fit. What I am doing here is briefly explaining why Western counter-insurgency strategy has elementary problems that seriously impede the possibility of success in any context in which its adversaries are well organised and highly motivated, particularly if the latter adopt a guerrilla strategy of fighting prolonged wars of attrition on their home soil against foreign forces that are not as committed to the long-term struggle (or who do not have the support of their home populations to do so).

As the old saying goes, in asymmetric wars, strategic stalemates are victories for the militarily “weaker” side. However, if the militarily “superior” side bases its campaign on erroneous assumptions and faulty strategic logics, then more than a stalemate is within the grasp of the ostensibly “weaker” side. After all, asymmetry in warfare works both ways.


PS: I have updated the post. For those interested, here is a link to US counter-insurgency doctrine. The Spec Ops community understands the problem, but as a minority component of a large conventional military, they ultimately are not determinants of the solutions offered.

The SIS wants us to help do its job.

datePosted on 20:21, November 17th, 2009 by Pablo

The SIS has asked for the cooperation of private industry and academia in reporting potentially suspicious activities that could be related to the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  To that end it sent out a pamphlet to universities and business where potential WMD materials are used outlining how to identify the misuse of said materials along with SIS contact numbers to report to. The main academic union, TEU has protested what it sees as an intrusion into academic freedom, arguing that such requests turn academics into “snitches” and can lead to ethnic profiling. The problem with the TEU position is that the SIS request is akin to the Police asking for community cooperation in reporting suspected criminal activity–it is a request made on citizens as part of their social responsibilities rather than a request to them as academics per se.

What is interesting is that this request comes a bit too late and acutely demonstrates SIS inadequacies in fulfilling its main responsibilities. It also demonstrates how misguided market-driven policies can come back to bite the country in the (security) posterior.

The main reason why the SIS is now asking for public help in locating potential WMD training in NZ is due to the lack of security vetting of business and student visas. Under the 5th Labour government, agreements were signed that allow for the entrance of 1000 Pakistani and 350 Saudi and UAE students to study at NZ universities. The areas of study included chemistry, biochemistry, physics, agronomy, biology, and several engineering subfields (but not political science, surprisingly enough). In none of these agreements are their provisions of security vetting of students either before or after they enroll. Given that Pakistan is jihad central and that Saudi Arabia is the source of the human cannon fodder that carried out 9/11 and numerous other terrorist attacks that is surprising, to say the least, and reckless, dangerous and irresponsible to say the worst. But Labour was intent on making NZ an educational niche market for foreign fees paying students at a time when exactly such security vetting was increasingly being required by other English language countries. Seeing a moment of profit opportunity, and disregarding the glaring security implications of the move, Labour stepped in to fill that niche.

At the time the Pakistani and Middle Eastern student visa agreements were made, I made several public statements and private enquiries of my former employer about the problems of that decision. The Labour government dismissed me as a right wing fear-mongerer and the University ignored my concerns. Now, apparently, the SIS has decided that those concerns had some basis, but lacking in the resources and personnel to monitor every business and lab where potential WMD materials and training can be obtained, have decided to ask the public involved in those industries for help. I applaud the move even though I think that SIS Director Tucker would also be advised to re-orient his troops away from  monitoring domestic environmental, Maori and anti-capitalist activists and concentrate on the very real, state and non-state foreign-connected threats that impact on NZ.

This is not to say that a NZ citizen could not join a university chemistry or physics department out of something more than a love of the discipline. What it does say is that when students, owners or employees display an unhealthy interest in anthax, radioactive and biological waste, medical isotopes, epidemiological causes and morbidity, then it would be socially responsible to advise authorities of that fact. The profiling would not be on the ethnicity of the individual but on his/her behaviour.

Until the NZ government tightens up its visa programme to include security vetting of prospective arrivals, the burden rests on after-entry detection. As it stands, business visas are issued to people with money to invest without questions asked about their past; the same lack of scrutiny is true for students. Thus, mainland Chinese and Taiwanese  students are believed to be a source of triad penetration into NZ. Business visas are believed to be conduits for money laundering from both Asia and the South Pacific. Latin American students are suspected of links with drug traffickers.

Conversely, Middle Eastern and Central Asian students and investors may be completely circumspect and “clean” in their background and intent when arriving on NZ shores. Political refugees from conflict zones like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia and the Sudan may want to start over in an safe place, and from what has been seen so far, most do. But as Ronald Reagan said, it is best to trust, then verify. Since the market-driven logic of the Labour government overshadowed the security logic of most counter-terrorism practitioners, security vetting of visa applicants can not happen before or upon entry (and to be fair, much of that is due to NZ distrust of the reliability of information coming from easily bribed or influenced local security authorities in the countries of origin). It therefore has to be an ex post exercise.

That is what the SIS is asking the public to do, as a form of community service.

The trouble is that the SIS reputation is so throughly tarnished by its past excesses and ineptitude, many if not most Kiwis have no interest in helping it to do its job. That makes for a potential double-bite on the security rear.

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