Posts Tagged ‘Security’

On the Strategic Utility of Terrorism.

datePosted on 20:59, November 13th, 2009 by Pablo

In a previous life I worked in and with the US security apparatus on matter of Latin American regional policy, to include subjects ranging from civil-military relations to counter-insurgency. In the latter capacity I spend a fair bit of time interacting with the Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC) community who are  primarily responsible for US anti-terrorism operations, and who include elements from intelligence agencies and domestic security agencies as well as the military. Politically controlled by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) via the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and headquartered at the Special Operations Command at McDill Air Force base outside of Tampa, the SOLIC community has analytic and operational wings that are regional, issue and event specific. At a tactical level (i.e. in the field) the community deploys assets as part of Joint Task Forces (JTFs), of which there are a number currently working abroad (the precise number is classified but there is more than one in Afghanistan alone).

One of the best pearls of wisdom imparted to me by an old SOLIC hand is that “terrorism is the last desperate gasp of a dying man. The cause is lost, its ideological appeal is on the wane, and thus the zealots respond by desperate acts of wanton mayhem in a last ditch effort to rattle the nerves of the subject and erode his will to continue to push his agenda to completion.” I believe this to be true, and that it applies to Islamic extremists confronted with the inexorable progress of Western (and Eastern) secularism riding the wave of globalisation of production, consumption and exchange. But there is more to the issue than that.

Terrorism is an irregular (or unconventional) warfare tactic. It is not a strategy in and of itself, but is a means employed to a strategic end. As such, terrorism has a subject, an object and a target, and they are not the same. Although it appears to be an offensive strategy and has been used offensively at a tactical level, it is by and large a defensive strategy. The object(ive) is to get the subject to desist in what it is doing that is inimical to the terrorist interest. The subject is dual in nature: the adversary and its popular support base, on the one hand (e.g. the US government and citizenry), and the terrorist support base, on the other (e.g. Islamicists and the larger Muslim community). The target is, of course, the hapless victims of an act of politically motivated violence whose purpose is more symbolic than military. Terrorism is used against highly symbolic targets in order to erode the will of the adversary to pursue a given course of action while steeling the conviction of the terrorist support base. Terrorism can also be used as part of a moderate-militant strategy in order to create space and provide leverage for negotiated compromises. This was seen with the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland and may in fact turn out to be the strategy employed by non-jihadist Taliban in Afghanistan today. In practice, though, the outcome is often the reverse of what is intended; Israel is a case in point, although it must also be noted that it was the PLO military campaign (in which terrorism was an integral component) that eventually brought Israel to recognise it as a legitimate political actor (Israel, for its part, owes its existence to the terror campaign of some of its founding fathers organised in groups such as the Irgun).

Terrorism can occur in two circumstances and comes in three different guises. The circumstances are terrorism during war and terrorism in peacetime. The guises are state terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism (where terrorists act as proxies for militarily inferior states), and non-state terrorism (such as today’s jihadis). If acts of terror are not committed for political purposes, they are not genuine terrorism but criminality taken to extremes (say, Mafia firebombing or assassination campaigns). This may seem like a semantic distinction but it is important because terrorism is effective only in pursuit of an ideological project, in pursuit of an alternative conception of the “proper” social order, as opposed to the more immediate and material objectives of criminals or psychopaths.

Terrorism in warfare is designed to erode the morale of the enemy. It can be used against military targets to erode the morale of the fighting element and to show the steadfastness, resolve and determination of the perpetrator (such as the Kamikaze attacks, or suicide bombings against military targets in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan). Terrorism can also be used in wartime against civilian populations to erode the will of the support base of a given regime. The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden are classic instances in this regard (as were the V2 bombings of London), in which the psychological impact on the subject far outweighed the military-strategic importance of the targets. That brings up an important point in this age of the so-called “war on terrorism:” generally speaking, the state has been the primary terrorist organisation throughout history. In fact, most instances of state terrorism are directed at their own people, in what is known as “enforcement terrorism” whereby the state imposes its ideological project by force on an unwilling citizenry. The reason why state terrorism is so prevalent in history is that it works. Its purpose is to infantilise and atomise the body politic so people feel powerless and unable to control their own destinies (think of a child’s nightmare). Under such conditions the main recourse for the subject population is a retreat into the private sphere, the disruption of horizontal solidarity and resistance networks, and generalised acquiescence to the cruel powers that be. Under such conditions dictatorial regimes can implement their ideological projects free from the interference of civil society: Chile under Pinochet is a case in point, as are the USSR under Stalin or Cambodia under Pol Pot (the examples are many and not limited to either side of the ideological divide).

State-sponsored terrorism is most often directed at the enemy support base. The Lockerbie aircraft bombing is a case in point, as is Iranian sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas  attacks on civilian targets in places as disparate as Lebanon, Israel and Argentina (Iran denies any connection to the military campaigns of Hamas and Hezbollah, and specifically refutes the claim that it was involved in anti-jewish bombings in Argentina in the 1990s. The Argentine government believes otherwise). Reported Pakistan support for Kashmiri separatists and Lashkar- e-Taiba (LET) is another example of state-sponsorship of terrorist organisations. Here the objective is to place enough distance between the sponsor and the perpetrator so as to allow for “plausible deniability” that forces the targeted adversary to either escalate out of proportion to the event or acquiesce (if not respond in kind).

Non-state terrorism has two forms: 1) in its insurrectionary form it is used to advance a group’s political project within a country as part of a counter-hegemonic project (for example, the use of selective terrorism by revolutionary groups seeking to overthrow status quo regimes). Because the group wants to cultivate popular support for its ideological project, the use of terrorism in such instances tends to be more selective and focused on military targets or symbols (and members) of the regime elite. 2) the transnational grievance form is used to thwart homogenising international projects and processes that are deemed inimical to existing social mores and constructions (which can include unwanted immigration from ethnic “others” as well as political or corporate interventions) . Whether secular or ethno-religious, such terrorist groups can be self-identified as anti-imperialist or more localised in scope. The al-Qaeda project is an example of the former, whereas the janjaweed anti-African campaign in Darfur is couched in localised terms (although there is an underlying resource motive clearly at play).

The chances of success of the non-state, transnational grievance form rest not on much on their own capacity to wreak symbolic political violence in pursuit of their objectives but on the nature of the regimes that are the subjects of their activities. Strong authoritarian and democratic regimes, defined as those with majority support and the political will and military-intelligence capability to defeat irregular warfare groups that practice terrorism, will always prevail in such contests. The combination of mass support, military capability and willpower is the decisive part of the asymmetric equation. Russia is a good example of a strong authoritarian regime confronting terrorists; China is(or will be)  another. Strong democracies have similar strengths. Israel again is emblematic, but the UK response to the IRA irregular warfare campaign is also illustrative. In fact, all of Europe and Turkey have the requisite combination of will, capability and support to defeat jihadism in all of its forms (fears about the Islamicisation of Europe notwithstanding).

Conversely, weak authoritarian and democratic regimes are highly susceptible to politically-motivated terrorism, be it state-sponsored or non-state in nature. Weakness is here defined as a lack of majority support and/or leadership will to defeat the terrorist project, whether or not there is a military-intelligence capacity to do so. Under such circumstances even allied assistance may be insufficient to defeat a well-organised terrorist campaign. The will to do so has to come from within, and it must be come from the majority. That is what makes Egypt, Iran, Algeria, a number of Sub-Saharan African states, and perhaps even Saudi Arabia itself more vulnerable to terrorism. The question is not so much one of counter-terrorism capabilities as it is of support and will.

That is the crux of the matter when it comes to judging the strategic utility of terrorism in the contemporary context. Weak regimes like Afghanistan and Pakistan are examples of highly vulnerable subjects of terrorism. To a lesser but still significant degree, weak democracies such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are also vulnerable to destabilisation by a well-organised terrorist campaign. Conversely, virtually all of the East Asian regimes, authoritarian or democratic, have the necessary ingredients to defeat non-state terrorists, be they sponsored or self-organised. They same can be said for the Antipodes, even if Australia and New Zealand differ significantly in their approaches to the current counter-terrorist campaigns. Latin America has also managed to combine the requisites for a successful counter-terrorism strategy (especially if the threat is Islamicist, which is culturally alien to the region), although there remain in the region a small number of indigenous irregular groups that continue to practice isolated acts of terrorism in spite of their lack of popular appeal. Thus, in terms of probabilities of success, terrorists today are confronted with a strategic landscape that, outside of Central Asia and the Middle East, appears to doom them to defeat. That might explain the move to highly decentralised and often individual attacks (such as that at Fort Hood), the increasingly “indiscriminate” nature of attacks in places like Iraq and Pakistan (in which potentially sympathetic elements of the local population are targeted), as well as the increasing success in uncovering plots before they are executed (which is a function of good intelligence in a supportive community).

That raises the question of the US. Given the culture wars and ideological polarisation that divide the country, coupled with popular lack of interest in, or commitment to foreign wars, it is increasingly an open question as to whether the US has the popular staying power and committed political leadership to defeat its irregular adversaries at home and abroad. It is that variable that is the jihadis best hope of long-term success, but it is not only Islamicists who see opportunity in perceived US weakness. That could well be a matter of strategic concern down the road, and is what makes the US approach to counter-terrorism a matter of global import. There lies the rub, because counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency is as much an issue of cultural understanding as it is of will, support and capability.

There is more to the issue but in the confines of a blog post this is enough. Former students might recognise some of the above from the “Revolutions and Insurgencies” courses taught in NZ and the US, although this is an updated brief on those long-gone but still relevant course materials.

Legal Utu in a Colonial Court?

datePosted on 21:30, November 6th, 2009 by Pablo

A little over two years ago the so-called ” anti-terrorism” raids were carried out by the Police against activists in Ruatoki, Wellington and Auckland. The media frenzy that immediately followed focused on reports of “paramilitary” training camps, where, according to Helen Clark, “napalm” bombs were being made, weapons training was ongoing and plots were being hatched against a  variety of political figures, among them George W. Bush. Police affidavits were leaked to the press that detailed the “evidence” collected by covert means, and profiles of the more flamboyant of the defendants were splashed over the tabloids, radio and television. Almost immediately, multiple charges were laid under the Firearms Act 1983, but a few weeks after the raid the Solicitor General decided against laying charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA) because he deemed the TSA to be “unworkable.” This was a blow to the government’s case because much of the surveillance done in the build-up to the raids was authorised under provisions of the TSA. Even so, the government pressed ahead and in the months that followed arrested 3 more people and (a year after the raids) charged five of the original defendants with the additional count of  “participation in a criminal gang” (Tame Iti, Rangi Kemara, Tuhoe Lambert, Emily Bailey and Urs Signer). What all of the defendants have in common is that they are well-known and often outspoken critics of the NZ state, the US and capitalism in general. Beyond that they are a mixture of anarchist, environmental and indigenous sovereignty advocates (and at least one unhinged individual) united by their common disdain of the status quo. For background on the events and immediate response to the raids, see the trilogy I wrote for Scoop in the weeks that followed: here, here, and here.

With no terrorism angle to report on, the media lost interest and the story died. But what has become of the Urewera 18? (2 of the arrested have been discharged without conviction or had charges dismissed). Here I shall provide a brief update and make note of some ironies.

The Urewera 18 are represented by 14 barristers and numerous solicitors, with Rodney Harrison QC (of Zaoui case fame) recognised as lead counsel and Annette Sykes given special status by the Court with respect to the tikanga of Tuhoe and implied license. Proceedings have dragged on for more than two years, and like the Zaoui case, it is likely that they will continue for at least another year (reports are that the first available trial date is in 2011). Given the numbers of defendants and legal counsel involved, this means that the taxpayer bill for the prosecution of the case will dwarf the NZ$2 million spent in the futile attempt to refuse Ahmed Zauoi political refuge. The cost for the defendants, emotional as well as material, is similarly high.

As for the substance of the case against the Urewera 18, let us begin with the charges. Other than the criminal gang accusation and a common charge of possession of restricted weapons (presumably related to incendiary devices), all else fall under the Firearms Act of 1983. After some legal wrangling, the charges have been bundled together as ‘representative’ charges so as to make the number of charges more manageable. In other words, in early depositions each defendant was charged with possession of each gun at each camp, resulting in hundreds of charges. That has now been amended to a single charge for possession at each camp (.i.e. each individual visit to the Ruatoki bush camp resulted in one firearms charge). As an example, when arrested one defendant originally faced 3 charges, then at depositions the number of charges  rose to 13, but now has returned to the original 3 charges. Even so, the number of individual charges is in the dozens.

With regard to bail. Remember that in their original statements the Police were opposed to bail for the accused, citing the imminent threat they posed to the community. That has all changed. The most onerous bail conditions have been lifted and travel restrictions relaxed although not completely removed. It is my understanding that Tame Iti will again travel to Europe this summer to perform more Shakespeare (Iti was allowed to travel abroad earlier this year in order to participate in theatrical productions in Europe) and Urs Singer has been allowed to visit his ailing parents in Europe as well (the irony of Tame Iti doing Shakespeare in European theaters–as a sort of cultural ambassador, if you will–while on trial in NZ is not lost on me, but I shall avoid mentioning that in my summation below simply because there are other ironies worth noting. But it does point to how serious a threat to the security of Aotearoa he is considered to be by the government).

Then there is the issue of the means by which the case was constructed, to wit, the human and electronic surveillance and wiretaps used to monitor the accused. The Solicitor General’s decision to not invoke the TSA proved to be problematic for the government’s case, since much of the means by which the activists were tracked and evidence gathered were only allowable under the TSA. With no TSA charges on the menu, the admissibility of the evidence collected under its provisions was open to legal challenge. That soon came.

In August, applications  were made by the defense that all search warrants, in-person covert surveillance (conducted by the Police Special Tactics Group) and stationary covert cameras were illegal. By and large, the defendants won that part of the argument. In September the presiding judge declared at least 6 of 9 warrants illegal, specifically declaring illegal all in-person covert surveillance and stationary cameras. The latter was deemed illegal because the police trespassed onto private land in order to install the cameras (it is not currently possible to get a warrant for surveillance cameras on private property in NZ). The Police Special Intelligence Group tried to justify its actions by claiming in retrospect that they sought judicial oversight in doing so (presumably with reference to the TSA). In reality, they knew at the time that they couldn’t get warrants for such activity without the TSA, but did so anyway. Now that evidence is inadmissible. Even so, the government won on excluding text messages, and it remains to be seen whether the defense will challenge that ruling in the Court of Appeal. (A good summary of the decision is available here).

 The second stage of this application was heard in September and a decision is still pending. Under Sec 30 of the Evidence Act, in order for evidence to be ruled inadmissable, it must be found to be both illegal and unreasonable. This differs greatly from the US where it follows quite logically that activity which is illegal is by nature unreasonable, but the police in NZ are given a much greater benefit of the doubt on this matter. This is an important distinction, because that means that even if the evidence is deemed to have been illegally obtained, it still can be ruled admissible in a NZ Court if it is deemed “reasonable.” QC Harrison has consequently made submissions about why inclusion of this evidence was unreasonable. The main thrust of his argument is that the police’s trespass was sustained, deliberate and knowing. It happened over a period of nearly a year on land that was clearly private property. The judgement is still pending on this part of the defense motion. Whoever loses is very likely to appeal because the case could well hinge on the disputed evidence.

In the last weeks  the defense has making an application for a stay of the proceedings based on pre-trial publicity. In essence, that the case has been so prejudiced that the Urewera 18 cannot get a fair trial. Interestingly, the most recent  precedent for such an application was made by the same two lawyers on behalf of the two suspected Mossad agents who
were arrested for attempting to procure false passports in 2005.

The defendants are next due to appear in court in Auckland in mid-December. For those interested, the hearings are open to the public but those attending should expect increased security measures and the possibility of Crown objections to their presence if it is considered injurious to their case (the Crown has already objected to filming of the hearings for documentary purposes).

So what are the ironies of the case so far? Well, for starters there is the parallel with the Zaoui case. In both instances the government began by throwing out unfounded accusations of “terrorism,” only to see their case for it crumble under legal scrutiny.  For all the talk of terrorism, it was the Police Special Tactics Group, not the counter-terrorism component of the NZSAS or the specifically-trained Counter Terrorism Tactical Assault Group (CTTAG) who conducted the surveillance and led the raids (which indicates that the government did not take the threat of terrorism seriously enough to justify use of the forces designated for that role). The money spent on the prosecution and legal defense of both cases is also on a par, if not more in the latter instance.

Another irony is that the arms dealer who (allegedly) supplied information to some of the defendants about how to construct silencers, on how to modify a starter’s pistol into a real weapon, and who allegedly provided instruction on how to convert flare grenade launchers into the real thing, has not been charged with a single offense (reportedly due to his being a Police informant).

For its part, rather than strengthen criminal law to deal with politically-motivated criminal conspiracies in light of the “unworkability” of the TSA (thereby avoiding the authoritarian penchant to create a different category of “political” crimes labeled as “terroristic”), National has re-introduced a Search and Surveillance Bill first proposed by Labour last year in which powers of search and surveillance would be expanded dramatically (to include warrantless searches, eavesdropping and tapping of computers and phones) by a broader range of government agencies–including local administrative authorities! The irony is that, rather than use the Urewera case as an example of how NOT to conduct a criminal investigation against political dissidents, the government has instead moved to relax legal restrictions governing covert monitoring of suspects, including on private property (i.e., the exact practices that were deemed illegal in September by the presiding judge in this case).

But the ultimate irony may be this. According to defendant Omar Hamed, “October 15 was a reminder that the state is not our friend. It is a violent, colonial, racist institution that serves the interests of the corporations and the ruling class. Well organised, anti-statist, defiant communities pose a threat to the state and colonial capitalism…” (taken from a passage included in the exhibition catalogue for the Arts auction “Explosive Expression” held to raise funds for the Urewera 18 on October 16, 2009 in Wellington). And yet it is this purported colonial, racist and corporate justice system that has allowed the Urewera 18 to formulate and fund a defense that has successfully challenged the case against them so far. It would seem that, at least in this case, utu  (as both justice and revenge) does in fact come in colonial garb.

My view is that by the end of the process a majority of the defendants will be acquitted and only a handful will be convicted of minor firearms violations. It will be left for the NZ public to decide whether the entire affair was worth the effort, and whether indeed, if ever, there were the makings of a terrorist plot percolating in the Ureweras.

PS: I have some inquiries out at the moment that might allow me to update the status of the case. If so, I shall do so post haste and append a notification at the end of this post.

PPS: This post has been updated to reflect my remembering of another irony regarding the government response to its failures in this case (see irony #3 above) as well some fine points regarding the charges.

On resuming intelligence sharing with the US.

datePosted on 19:52, October 9th, 2009 by Pablo

I must confess that this one has me stumped. In her joint press conference with Murray McCully today, Hillary Clinton said that the US would resume intelligence-sharing with NZ as a sign of the strengthened security ties between the two countries.  It might have been a slip of the tongue, but McCully seemed unfazed and the comment was made as part of her prepared remarks, so it appears that the mention was deliberate. But what does it really mean? The US and NZ already share signal intelligence streams via the Echelon network, which has two collection stations on NZ soil. The NZSAS has a least one officer seconded to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia (as well as NZSAS liaison officers designated to  MI-6 in the UK, ASIO in Canberra, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the French DGSE).  The CIA more than likely has a station officer in Wellington (most likely a political (affairs) officer). These connections presumably are already involved in intelligence sharing. So what gives?

Since I am not privy to the decision-making involved, let me just speculate on what this announcement may mean. A few weeks back word slipped out that NZ had intelligence operatives in Afghanistan. Then the NZSAS were deployed there (to Kabul, as it turns out, in a counter-terrorism and CT training role rather than their previous long range patrol and reconnaissance role, which is an interesting story in itself). Putting these two lines together, I suspect that what Mrs. Clinton was alluding to was a resumption of tactical intelligence sharing between US and NZ forces in theater (rather than first report back to their respective superiors at home and allow the bosses to determine what gets shared). This would obviously be of priority in Afghanistan, but frees up US and NZ intelligence collectors to share information throughout areas of mutual interest such as the Western Pacific Rim. On the latter, subjects of mutual interest could include Chinese intelligence and military activities in the region (as alluded to in the Scoop series I linked to last month), money laundering and arms trafficking, organised crime activities (which would also be shared with INTERPOL), as well as leadership analysis and political and  economic trend forecasts.

More broadly, what this means is that NZ is returning to the US fold on security matters. If Australia is the US sheriffs deputy in the Southern Hemisphere, NZ under National is positioning to become the deputy’s adjunct. What is different is not just the extent of the bilateral cooperation involved, but the fact that the Ozzies make no bones about their belief that their middle power aspirations are tied to the US mantle, whereas NZ has carefully cultivated an image of being a neutral and honest broker in international affairs. With this revelation, that image is bound to be altered, and it remains to be seen if the benefits of closer security relations with the US (which I do not necessarily object to based on the principle of necessity) may translate into to a loss of mana, reputation and prestige in the eyes of the larger international community. Perhaps the diplomatic community is jaded enough to understand that pragmatism requires that NZ play all sides of the fence, that “it has to do what it has to do,”and that its rhetorical lip service is a mere cover to its real, pro-US orientation (I touched on this in the previous post titled “John Key Rides the Fence”). However, I wonder how the Chinese, Malaysians, Iranians and Arab trading partners will feel about this revelation, to say nothing of European partners who have trusted NZ to speak to truth to power on issues as varied as non-proliferation and environmental sustainability. Although Mrs. Clinton was at pains to laud NZ’s role on the latter two subjects, it remains to be seen what (negative or positive) spill-over effects may occur as a result of this closer bilateral security relationship, or, as National will undoubtably argue, whether the issue of intelligence sharing is safely “compartmentalized” and thereby insulated from the broader foreign policy direction of the National government. In three years we should know, but by then the consequences, good or bad, will be inescapable.

Is Iran a Menace?

datePosted on 19:13, October 6th, 2009 by Pablo

Concerns about the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme have escalated in recent weeks with 1) the revelation of a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility outside of Qum (although the claim that the facility was a secret and unknown to Western intelligence is a bit dubious), 2) reports of Russian weapons scientists involvement in the Iranian nuclear programme and 3) Iranian test firing of medium range missiles that extend their potential target perimeter to 2500 kilometers. Since enriched uranium is by definition a dual use material (i.e. it can be used as fuel or as bomb material), Iranian enrichment efforts are, protestations of peaceful intent notwithstanding, for all intents a weapons material production line as well. This is what lies at the heart of international efforts to curtail its ambitions by persuasion, sanction or force.

But is a nuclear armed Iran really a threat to international peace and stability? Here I pose some pros and cons.

First of all it must be understood that from a strategic standpoint, nuclear weapons are considered to be deterrent weapons foremost and defensive weapons secondly. The general line is that a country with one nuclear weapon forces larger (even nuclear armed) adversaries to pause and seriously consider the consequences of launching an attack on a nuclear rival. This is the rationale behind the French force de frappe, Indian nuclear programme (which is oriented towards China) and the Pakistani nuclear programme (which is oriented towards India). It is the logic behind the North Korean quest for nukes (given that there has never been a formal declaration of the end of hostilities with the US and South Korea), and it is the premise behind the undeclared Israeli nuclear deterrent. Given that a nuclear first strike on another state would entail a response in kind from that state or its allies, the Iranian programme could well be based upon the rationale underpinning the approach of the existing nuclear armed crowd: to deter rather than attack. Since its western border neighbour was invaded and occupied for seemingly spurious reasons by a nuclear state precisely because it did not have a nuclear deterrent (lies to the contrary notwithstanding), perhaps Iran is doing what a least nine other states have done, for the same reasons, and without ulterior motives beyond robust deterrence. There has never been a nuclear attack launched while this logic has prevailed, so why should it be assumed that the Iranians would prefer otherwise?

The Iranians may have valid reasons to feel defensive. Remember that the US installed and supported the despotic regime of Reza Shah, who forcibly imposed a secular modernist project on an unwilling population that resulted in thousands of politically-motivated deaths at the hands of the dreaded secret police known as SAVAK. Note that Iran has not waged an aggressive war against anyone during the tenure of the revolutionary regime, and that it has US troops in large numbers in bordering countries to the East and West. Moreover, Iran was invaded by Iraq in the 1980s with US support, has a history of maritime border confrontations with the US and other states (including the shoot down of an Iranian passenger jet by a US guided missile cruiser in the 1990s), and is a regular target of US and Israeli war-gaming. Closer to the subject, dozens of Iranian nuclear scientists have died in very mysterious circumstances both at home and abroad (plane wrecks, accidental poisonings, etc.). As the saying goes, perhaps they have reason to be paranoid, which is why they want to seek a nuclear deterrent.

On the other hand, Iranian actions and pronouncements are bound to cause controversy if not concern. The storming of the US embassy during the 1979 revolution and taking of diplomatic hostages for over a year; the oft-repeated claim that it desires to “wipe the Zioinist entity (Israel) off the map”, the denial of the Holocaust, the hosting of anti-Zionist conferences that are more confabs of anti-semites rather than serious discussion of Zionism, the use of armed irregular proxies such as Hezzbolah, the logistical supply to Hamas in Gaza and  the Mahdi Army and other  Shiia militias in Iraq, its alleged involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s, its repeated appeals to Shiia irredentism in the Sunni Arab world–these are the types of actions that cause the international community to wonder about the sanity and intentions of the Iranian theocratic leadership. It is against this backdrop that concerns over potential Iranian nukes are voiced.

It should be noted that plenty of countries used armed proxies to do their surrogate work while denying direct involvement in politically sticky contexts; many political leaders say stunningly crazy things (remember Ronald Reagan and W. Bush, to say nothing of Silvio Berlusconi and Kim Jong-il); many countries have deep cultural/religious/ethnic enmities with their neighbours that do not result in war, much less nuclear war. The Sunni Arab world are deeply afraid of the consequences of a Shiia nuclear capability (since an Iranian nuclear missile can be aimed as much at Riyadh or Cairo as at Tel Aviv), and argue that they will have to respond in kind to what they believe is an existential threat (which is also the Israeli view). But this may be more due to the deeply rooted divisions between Shiia and Sunni over correct Islamic interpretations rather than due to a reasoned appraisal of Iranian motives. As for the Israelis, I recall a conversation I had a few years back with a senior Mossad officer, who when asked about the purported Ahmadinejad quote about erasing Israel from the face of the earth, responded that “that is for domestic consumption rather than a real statement of intent. Should it turn to the latter, Israel will deal to it as required.”

Thus I am left with a quandary. The Iranians often act seemingly irrationally and their obfuscations about their nuclear intentions appear to demonstrate bad faith if not bad intent. On the other hand, Iran has no history of significant international aggression and has been subjected to significant hostility, when not attack by larger powers. Thus it appears that the matter of whether or not Iran would be a nuclear armed menace remains an open question.  So why is it that it has been labeled an imminent threat to world peace should it acquire a nuclear capability? Is it the (elected) authoritarian nature of the regime (if so, why is it that authoritarian regimes like those of China and Russia are not branded the same)? Is their specific brand of religion? Is it just that Ahmadinejad appears to be nuts, and it is assumed that all of the mullahs are as well?

Readers are invited to ponder the issue. Should you wish to respond, please note than any anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic rants will be proactively expunged. The idea is to have a reasoned debate about the pros and cons of construing Iran as a threat. Until I resolve that question in my own mind, I shall recommend (gasp!) that old Ronald Reagan dictum: “trust but verify.”

On the possible merger of NZ spy agencies.

datePosted on 23:43, September 8th, 2009 by Pablo

I originally posted this as a comment on Kiwiblog, but it is worth elaboration. I am not so much interested as why  sensitive documents somehow managed to be dropped on a public street into the path of a journalist, which, if interesting, is inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. The real issue is the proposed, or at least potential merger of NZ intelligence agencies. From a democratic standpoint, I believe that centralising all intelligence-gathering and analysis in one agency is a recipe for disaster, or at least political manipulation. A core tenet of democracy is the decentralisation of power, evident in a system of checks and balances, particularly in its security component. I fear that NZ has lost sight of this tenet. In that light, here is my brief (excerpted)  thought on the matter of NZ intelligence agency mergers:

(With regard to the potential merger of the GCSB and NZSIS) I shall limit myself to pointing out two problems, one external and one internal to the intelligence agencies involved. Externally, the GCSB manages the Echelon stations in NZ and passes along foreign derived signals intelligence (SIGINT) to the SIS and Police where necessary, as well as monitor NZ signals traffic where required (this is a minor part of its operation). It is therefore more of a foreign-oriented intelligence collection agency rather than a NZ-oriented one. That spells potential conflicts of interest with larger intelligence liaison partners in the event that it is subsumed under or within the SIS. NZ intelligence requirements do not always run in concert with those of its larger partners, although it gains a measure of insurance and protection for providing its soil for the eavesdropping stations (another reason why NZ will never be invaded without a fight, since the stations are extremely valuable to the Echelon partners).

Internally, the SIS already has to handle external and domestic espionage and intelligence analysis along with counter-intelligence duties. This with a total complement of less than 200 people, a quarter of whom are clerical staff. That means that all of the human intelligence that gives NZ primary source or primary-derived information, plus the analysis of intelligence derived from the GSCB, NZDF, NZ Police, contract assets and liaison partners, has to be done by 150+/- people. It is a tall task already, and adding the SIGINT duties to it can complicate the management of intelligence flows and result in turf battles between the SIGINT and HUMINT branches and their respective analytic units (to say nothing of the fact that foreign nationals are heavily involved in the operation of the Echelon stations and therefore answer first to their foreign masters. Allowing them into the SIS could therefore compromise NZ national security even if they are erstwhile allies).

It is also generally believed that in a democracy it is best to separate domestic from foreign intelligence gathering, and SIGINT from HUMINT so as to avoid the monopolisation of intelligence flows and advice in any one agency, which could be politicised to deliver “intelligence” that is more politically-motivated spin than actual fact (as occurred with the Zaoui case under the previous SIS Director). Unified intelligence agencies can operate in democratic systems (such as in Canada), but that requires strong parliamentary oversight authority, something that does not exist in NZ.

The EAB is an intelligence client that undertakes foreign-oriented assessments rather than a collection agency, so a move to merge simplifies the intel streams coming its way. The same goes for the Police and the NZDF (which have their own collection branches), Treasury, other Ministries as well as the Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG). But one of the good points of having different sources of intelligence collection and analysis is that it avoids “group think” (and mistakes) by getting independent vetting of sources, methods and interpretation. Under the merger plan intelligence will be reduced but not completely centralised, although the question remains as to whether a merged agency can competently handle all of the responsibilities that entails.

All of which is to say that the merger idea may be economical but it may not be efficient.

 I read with interest that the SIS keeps a file on Jane Kelsey, apparently dating back almost 20 years. I am not a close friend of Jane but  know both her academic and activist work as well as some of her arguments with the SIS and Privacy Commission about her file (which will not be released to her, even in redacted form). Jane apparently came to the attention of the SIS because she was part of a Filipino solidarity group in the early 1990s and later because of her anti-APEC and anti-neoliberal activities (both of which have subsequently been vindicated in fact). I admire Jane because she is a person of conviction, and because she is staunch in the face of official intimidation. Deborah Manning is another such person. Were that there be many others of such character in New Zealand, but alas, especially amongst the male population, there are comparatively few in my estimation.

Putting aside the gender implications of Kiwi bullying and cowardice, the bottom line is as follows: the SIS is either lying or stonewalling on what Jane Kelsey’s file contains, and the so-called Privacy Commissioner is either an SIS toady or hopelessly ignorant of the issues at stake. Either way, this is another blow against Kiwi democracy. Truth be told,  the demolition of Kiwi civil liberties–particularly the right to privacy–was accentuated rather than diminished under  the Fifth Labour government, something the Key regime has happily continued.

If Jane Kelsey is a national security threat than I am Osama bin Laden, Anita is Ayman al-Zawahiri and Lew is, well…Lew.  We are all accomplices in critiquing the way NZ governments’ operate. If Jane has a file, then anyone who has voiced a public opinion against the government  could have a file. That is because for the last decade or so, dissent has been incrementally criminalised, and the definition of criminality is left to the government of the moment and its sycophants in the security bureaucracy. Hence anything oppositional can be grounds for snooping. That is how the SIS justifies its existence. Just ask Tame Iti or Valerie Morse.

Remember this small fact: being a pain in the rear of the security apparatus because of one’s vocal criticism of government policy, or being a critic of the SIS or the Police itself, does not constitute a threat to national security per se. If it does, that is all the more reason for the SIS or Police to release the evidence justifying claims that is the case. In Jane Kelsey’s case, her requests for release of her file have been met with bureaucratic obfuscation rather than transparency even though the SIS has all but admitted that nothing she has done constitutes a threat to national security. So, one might ask, why the obstruction on “national security grounds?” Although I have an idea why the SIS and Privacy Commissioner are hiding behind the skirt of “national security,” there are broader issues for civil liberties at stake that are worth considering here.

With that in mind I urge any reader who has expressed a dissonant, much  less dissident voice with regards to the way the NZ government and its security agencies operate, to make an official request for  your files. That is because it turns out the the extent of domestic espionage is far beyond what most Kiwis expect to be reasonable, and the SIS is utterly unaccountable for doing so. By this I mean that any dissident, right or left wing, is a potential target of covert monitoring and thus has a probable reason to make an OIA claim. I do not mean just the fringes of the Left-Right continuum, but anything in between: if you piss off the government of the moment or attack the SIS /Police on ethical or practical grounds, you can well be subject to “investigation” on the grounds that you constitute a threat to national security. It is all justified by the empowering legislation that was passed in  the last 15 years, including clauses that justify spying on New Zealand citizens who constitute “threats to  economic security” (which means that anyone opposed to governmental macroeconomic policy might as well be Osama in the opinion of the SIS). So, because she opposes neoliberalism and the APEC “free trade” doctrine, Jane Kelsey is the economic equivalent of a jihadi as far as the SIS is concerned.

That having been said, ask and you shall not receive. If Jane’s campaign is any indication, these  taxpayer-funded security bludgers feel no need to answer the silly requests of the people who pay their salaries. But should you insist, the SIS can be contacted www.nzsis.govt.nz.

Remember that you have to make an OIA (Official Information Act) request, and you should be as precise as possible when specifying the activities that you consider would have “warranted” SIS opening a file on you (of course, even asking that question could “warrant” the SIS opening a file on you).

Please ask Director Warren Tucker for a personal response in your OIA, and tell him that “Pablo” sent you. He knows who I am.

PS: The post has been updated twice to correct typos and clarify some sentences.

A Two Level Game In Afghanistan

datePosted on 19:26, July 29th, 2009 by Pablo

News of the NZSAS’s imminent departure to Afghanistan, on its fourth deployment since 2001 but first since 2005, has occasioned a fair bit of commentary in the media. A Herald poll shows public opinion evenly divided on the issue. A broad swathe of Right and Left wing isolationists and pacifists oppose the move. Many believe it is just a sop thrown to US imperialism in order to curry favour. Others think it is about gas pipelines and Halliburton profits. The rationale for sending troops to Afghanistan has become muddled by American pronouncements that NZ should do so as a type of insurance in the event it is attacked, or as a down payment on an eventual bilateral FTA. John Key has not helped matters by stating that he does not want the SAS to undertake so-called “mentoring” roles for the Afghan Army because it is too dangerous (as if what they otherwise would be doing is not), and that he would like to withdraw the NZDF Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamiyan province because it costs too much to maintain (this in spite of its widely recognised success as a “hearts and minds” operation that is the essence of international peace-keeping and nation-building missions such as the ISAF mission in Afghanistan).  He further clouds the issue by invoking the Jakarta and Mumbai bombings as reasons for the NZSAS deployment, even if the bombings had zero connection to events on the ground in Afghanistan (although I admit the possibility that some of those involved in the bombings may have attended Taleban protected al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan or the Pakistani tribal regions in the last decade or so). In making these utterances Mr. Key displays an apparent lack of understanding of what is really at stake in this dangerous game.

I have already posted here on the subject (see the Archive, especially here and here), and in recent days have tried to explicate further in the dedicated comments threads in places like Tumeke and Kiwiblog. Yet the rationale for why I believe that sending the NZSAS to and keeping the PRT in Afghanistan is justified appears to be lost in the general discussion. So let me phrase things in a different way, for purposes of clarification: what is going on in Afghanistan is a two-level game.

One one level there is the original ISAF mission. That mission was and is to deny al-Qaeda cadres and militant Taleban safe havens inside Afghanistan so that they do not pose a threat to the local population and cannot use Afghan territory to stage cross-border assaults on Pakistan and other neighbouring Central Asian republics. The concern with the militant Taleban, as opposed to their more “moderate” counterparts (read: nationalist or tribal), is that they have greater ambitions than re-gaining political control of Afghanistan. Instead, the militant Taleban and their al-Qaeda allies seeks to establish a Caliphate throughout Central Asia and beyond. They particularly want to gain control of nuclear-armed Pakistan, but even that is just a short-to-medium term goal. They have, in other words, imperialist ambitions of their own. These ambitions are not only opposed by the US, UN, and NATO. They are opposed by China, Russia, India and all Asian states that see the ripple effect extending towards them. In fact, they are opposed by virtually all of the international community with the exception of failed states such as Somailia and the Sudan (which have now become the new locus of al-Qaeda activity).

Worried about the repercussive effects that a Taleban victory in Afghanistan would have throughout Central Asia, the NATO-led, UN sanctioned ISAF mission has been successful at eliminating al-Qaeda as a military threat in the country, and is essentially now engaged in a grand scale pincer movement along with the Pakistani military that is designed to push Taleban on both sides of the common border into geographically defined kill zones from which they cannot escape. In parallel, ISAF and UN-led civilian assistance groups are attempting to engage moderate Taleban elements in order to establish a durable cease-fire that will permit the second level of the game to be played.

The second level game is oriented towards establishing a moderate Islamic regime with centralised authority over Afghanistan, one that will balance secular rights with religious freedoms and traditional privileges in accordance with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This a minimalist construction of the game; that is, it pretends to go no further than what is stated. It does not imply that the objective is to establish a secular democracy in the country. It does not pretend that centralised authority will mean central government monopoly of organised violence in the tribal hinterlands. It does not propose the blanket elimination of traditional forms of authority or social mores. Instead, it merely seeks to create the structural and political conditions for the establishment of peace, a peace that in turn will deny Islamic extremists the fertile territory for recruitment and sanctuary. It involves promoting electoral forms of political contestation, but more importantly, it pursues infrastructural development, to include educational, health and nutritional programs as well as the civil-military engineering projects required for their implementation and expansion.

To be sure, endemic corruption, the Karzai regime’s limited legitimacy outside of Kabul, the persistence of the opium trade, the ongoing presence of warlord-dominated fiefdoms, and the abject primitivism of many parts of the country make the second game seemingly impossible to achieve, and greatly complicate the achievement of the first game. Yet just because other foreign incursions have been defeated does not necessarily mean that this one is inevitably doomed to fail. For one thing, this is an international effort, not the expansionist project of a single imperial state. For another, because of its developmental and humanitarian focus, it does have a fair bit of internal support as well as that of neighbouring countries, factors that did not obtain in previous instances of occupation.

These two games are now being played out simultaneously, in overlapped fashion. The first is needed for the second to be successful (i.e., the combat work of such as the NZSAS is needed for PRTs to be successful). Yet the second is needed for the first to advance sufficiently so that an “exit strategy” is feasible. That will take a long time, at a minimum at least another five years and probably more. Any upgrade or renewal of the NZDF commitment to Afghanistan must take account of this fact.

Thus, when considering the “why” of NZ’s deployment of troops to Afghanistan, the debate should focus on the two levels of the ISAF “game,” and whether NZ has a stake in either. I have already stated that I believe that there are moral and practical reasons why NZ should, as an international citizen, contribute to the ISAF mission on both levels. Others disagree on either or both counts.  The main point, however, is that Mr. Key and his advisors in the MoD and MFAT develop a clear and comprehensible rationale for why NZ should put its soldiers at risk in Afghanistan, which in turn is as much a function of informed public interest as it is of diplomatic necessity.

What is (or should be) NZ’s international role?

datePosted on 22:32, July 20th, 2009 by Pablo

News that the National government has in principle accepted the US request to deploy the NZSAS in Afghanistan once again raises questions as to whether NZ has a dog in that fight, and if so, why it got there. I am already on record in this forum and elsewhere as believing that the NZDF presence in Afghanistan is just on both moral and practical grounds. But many others disagree. That brings up the larger point, which is what, exactly, is (or should be) NZ’s international role? The paradigm shifts and dislocations that followed the Cold War stripped NZ of many of its traditional foreign policy referents, some of which were already being eroded prior to 1990 by the nuclear-free declaration and embrace of market-driven macroeconomic principles. As Lew mentioned in a previous post, trade now appears to be the basis for most contemporary NZ foreign policy, particularly under National governments. I have argued at various times that NZ foreign policy is a mixture of principle and pragmatism, but as of late I am not so sure that the former obtains in any significant measure.

Thus the questions begs: in a fluid international environment such as that which exists today, in which traditional alliance structures and security partnerships have been replaced or overlapped by new trade networks and the emergence of a raft of non-traditional security concerns and policy issues, what role does NZ play? Does it remain a committed multilateral institutionalist? Or is more of a junior partner to a variety of larger countries on a range of selected issues? Should it take the lead in pursuing matters of international principle like the pursuit of non-intervention, disarmanent, non-proliferation, climate change and human rights, or should it wise up and curry favour by getting with the bigger player’s projects, be they Chinese, American or Australian? Does realism or idealism drive NZ foreign policy, and if it is a mixture of the two perspectives, which should dominate given current and near future conditions?

There is a strong isolationist streak in NZ that spans the spectrum from Left to Right, one that sees nonintervention in foreign affairs to be the preferred standard when approaching the international community. In contrast, the trade liberalizers in both major parties and the foreign party bureaucracy speak of trade openings as the end-all, be-all of NZ growth and thus a reason for ongoing and deeper engagement with a multitude of partners. But what happened to principle in all of this, particularly the notion that as a good international citizen NZ has a duty and obligation to support with its active involvement actions that are sanctioned by the UN and other international agencies (the principle that I just happen to believe in when it comes to the foreign policy behaviour of small democratic states)? The ISAF mission in Afghanistan is just one such action, but there are a multitude of others that are seldom mentioned, much less discussed by the NZ political elite or public.

Given the hard economic times of the moment and the folly of recent great power interventions in international affairs, what exactly is or should be NZ’s response to recent international trends, and thus its role in the international environment? Should it lead, follow, be neutral, selective or withdraw when considering its potential range of international commitments?  What should be the criteria for foreign engagement, and to what extent or degree? Should certain existing international commitments be dropped and new ones adopted? Should the traditional pro-Western foreign policy perspective shift to a more Eastern view?

I post this simply as a general reminder that the role of NZ as an international actor gets far too little play in the public discourse, yet is one that it absolutely crucial not only to its international reputation and stature, but also to its continued well-being as a small, vulnerable and dependent nation-state. The question must therefore be repeated: what role should that preferably be?

Blog Link: Reorganizing (the) Defense

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

The recent announcement that a Defense Review Board has been convened with the charge of issuing a Defense White Paper in 2010 (13 years after the last one) is the subject of this month’s “A Word from Afar” column over at Scoop: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0905/S00152.htm . Lets just say that there are some troublesome aspects to the issue.

Blog Link–Reigning in the Spies

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

The new Parliamentary Intelligence and Oversight Committee has been announced, and it has the potential to be a milestone for intelligence oversight in NZ. Tariana Turia and Rodney Hide were appointed by John Key (who chairs the committee), and Russell Norman was chosen by Phil Goff (who also serves on the committee). Turia and Norman lead parties that have had their members spied on by the SIS or Police, and Hide has opposed on libertarian grounds the expansion of security based constraints on civil liberties (he opposed passing of the Terrorism Suppression Act, among other things). Thus three out of the five new members have been critical of the intelligence services, which is in stark contrast to previous members during the Fifth Labour government. Although the possibility of their being coopted cannot  be discounted, there is an equal if not greater possibility that their appointment signals a shared belief by Mr. Key and Mr. Goff that the time has come for a review of the way intelligence operations are conducted in NZ. Lets hope so. There are already signs that moves in that direction are afoot–Mr. Key’s request of the SIS Inspector General to report to him on the domestic spying programme and SIS Director-General Warren Tucker’s apparent commitment to more transparency being two examples–but what is needed is for the committee to undertake a thorough review of the NZ intelligence apparatus, including its legal charter, operational conduct and organizational focus, and its accountability to parliament as well as to the government of the day. In short, rather than the ineffectual government and SIS lapdog that it was during the Fifth Labour government, the committee needs to grow some teeth and bite hard into the meat of the matter–the lack of transparency and accountability traditionally exhibited by important elements of the intelligence community. That requires a re-write of its charter, since it is not a select committee and therefore does not have the independence or authority to demand classified briefs (or any other information) from the agencies it supposedly oversees. A more detailed review of the potential for reform embodied in the new committee is offered in this month’s “Word from Afar” column at Scoop (http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0903/S00147.htm). For the moment, the new committee should be applauded, yet more importantly, encouraged to undertake its responsibilities in pursuit of a new culture of democratic accountability and transparency in the NZ intelligence services.

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