Snowden, 多谢 多谢

Snowden is the gift that keeps on giving — to the Chinese government.

The latest revelation has it that the NSA compromised Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications and networking equipment maker. The agency had two objectives, according to The New York Times: first operation “Shotgiant” attempted to find links between Huawei and the People’s Liberation Army, according to a 2010 document. The NSA was concerned, not without justification, that “Huawei’s widespread infrastructure will provide the PRC with SIGINT capabilities.” The second objective is more creative: the NSA compromised Huawei because, as one document said, “many of our targets communicate over Huawei produced products, we want to make sure that we know how to exploit these products.”

How successful was the NSA in both respects?

Regarding the first, we don’t know for sure, but it seems unsuccessful. Shotgiant was remarkably high-profile: it involved the White House intelligence coordinator as well as the FBI. The operation started already in 2007. But a 2012 House Intelligence Committee report on Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese company, found no evidence confirming the suspicions links to the PLA (or at least it didn’t make anything public).

How about the second goal, exploiting Huawei themselves? We also don’t know. The New York Times and Der Spiegel articles so far aren’t very precise on the technical details (there’s more to come, says Der Spiegel). It appears the NSA got access to the source code of individual products. But it is unclear what kind of products. It is also unclear if the products were actually compromised for exfiltration to the NSA without Huawei noticing this (this isn’t trivial from an engineering perspective). And it is unclear if the NSA actually exploited targets this way.

But we do know something. Four points leap out at me:

First, there is now more publicly available evidence that the NSA exploited Huawei than there is public evidence that shows the PLA or other Chinese agencies did so. That is remarkable.

Second: if the US government has evidence that they didn’t publish in the 2012 report, they should do so now. If they don’t publish evidence, then Huawei’s case, that its products are not compromised by the Chinese government, will gain credibility. Huawei’s argument that they are clean always made complete sense from a business perspective. Their incentive to offer trustworthy products is the same as, say, Google’s incentive to offer trustworthy products to all its customers. (But then there is, of course, the possibility that the Chinese government has compromised Huawei without their acquiescence, sounds familiar?)

Third: if Huawei so far resisted pressure from the Chinese government to be exploited for intelligence collection, then it will become a good deal harder to continue to resist that pressure in the future. Because now the PLA has a great new trump card up its sleeve: if their modified code would ever get caught, say by the UK cell that evaluates Huawei products, they could simply say, “Well, that was the NSA, didn’t you read about that in The New York Times?” If that argument makes technical sense is difficult to say on the basis of what we know — but that rarely stopped people in the past.

And finally: many users seem to trust companies and equipment makers based on their national background. Think Schengen-routing or Norwegian email providers. That argument never made much sense. If the US can exploit Chinese products, why should Russia not be able to compromise German products? The idea that a re-nationalisation of products, services, and networks would increase security is simply laughable.

What matters is the quality of products, the quality of encryption, users’ security setups, and whether you live in an open democracy or not.

Screenshot 2014-03-04 16.56.38


A play by KCL students, performed on 14/15/16 March, 7pm.

I’m your enemy; I’m also your friend. I’m a danger to mankind; I’m also your guest. I’m a particle; I’m also a wave.

In the first production from the School of Natural and Mathematical Sciences at King’s College London, memory, guilt and nuclear physics are thrown together in an explosive play about the uncertain nature of the universe – and of our own minds.

1924:   Two physicists, Niels Bohr and his soon-to-be protégé Wernher Heisenberg, come together at a conference. They go on to lay the groundwork for a second Enlightenment, the foundation of modern physics.

1941:  With Copenhagen under German occupation, Heisenberg – now chief scientist on the Nazi atomic research programme – visits his old friend Bohr, and Bohr’s wife Margrethe.  What was said remains unknown, but the conversation ended the closest friendship in physics and nobody, not even those who were present, has ever been able to answer the question: Why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen?

In an afterlife where the three characters can move freely through their pasts, Michael Frayn’s play delves into that question, and in doing so explores collaboration and complicity, self-knowledge and self-deception, and how we distort our own motives and memories. Who is to blame for the atomic bomb – for bringing a beleaguered world to the precipice of annihilation? What is right in times of war, when your life, the lives of your loved ones, hang in the balance?

Thanks to Peter McBurney for the heads-up.

Screenshot 2014-03-03 09.01.39


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But we know you need your fix. So a link to every post will now get pushed out to KoW on Google+ (that’s new), to Facebook (relaunched), and to Twitter (now automatically).

The above is a detail from Marcia Nolte’s Corpus 2.1.


Snowden, Edward Snowden

The view is common: the leaks have vastly damaged the NSA and GCHQ. The Snowdens and Greenwalds think they are out to sabotage the state’s darker forces, and that they’re good at it. Spy chiefs of course disagree on most counts, but they share the damage assessment: the leaks are the “most catastrophic loss to British intelligence ever,” said Sir David Omand, former head of GCHQ, now here at King’s. The NSA is “infinitely weaker” as a result, said Michael Hayden, its former director.

But is that assessment correct? It’s not wrong. But it’s only half the picture.

Snowden — to provoke for good effect — may be to GCHQ what James Bond is to MI6.

“The more I know the more I think: NSA and other intelligence agencies are very capable — better than can be imaged,” observed Jarno Limnéll this morning, a cyber security boffin at Intel Security. He expressed a widespread view, and that is remarkable. The wider public, including very well informed people, see the NSA and GCHQ as vastly efficient, all-powerful, well-oiled machines filled with creative if overambitious geniuses — that is because of the leaks, not despite of them. The public criticism is almost entirely one-directional: they’re doing too much; they’re too efficient, too innovative — precisely the opposite of what people usually associate with a government agencies: passivity, inefficiency, lack of imagination.

This means at least four things.

First: Eddie is probably not such a bad recruitment poster for the intelligence community. You want to play with the biggest data out there, do some really exciting stuff, and serve your country? Exit Silicon Roundabout, enter The Doughnut.

Then the other guy is getting nervous. Last November I was in Beijing to speak about some of these questions with Chinese officials and think tankers. After the conversations had warmed up, I usually asked the question that I was perhaps most curious about. What does Snowden mean for China? The one wide-eyed answer that I heard several times: “It demonstrated a capability gap.” We could not have done most of that. The people I met in Beijing, like our publics, were perhaps most impressed by the creative potential in these agencies. GCHQ seems to be one big Q branch, Q-shaped.

Third: the credibility of Sigint got a short in the arm. If Keith Alexander, for instance, says it is “probable” that Sunni Arab states would seek enrichment if Iran gets a deal, he’s got all the credibility. He’s not just reading their mail, he’s reading their mind. With all this big data crunching, the NSA probably knows what the sheikhs are thinking before they do so themselves. Even if that’s not the case, a good number of important people think it is the case.

And finally: there’s probably a deterrent effect. If you think the world’s most advanced Sigint agencies will see everything — certainly if they really focus their allmighty stare — you probably wonder if you can get away with a high-profile cyber attack, or whatever you’re trying to hide. Yes, that’s really hard to measure. But all deterrence is hard to measure. Hello 3PLA, no more hiding behind the attribution problem.

You take that stirred or shaken?


Running out of steam?

It’s been days now without a breaking news NSA story. That just feels as if something’s wrong. So I thought to myself, yesterday evening. Did I miss something? Next I went to check out The Intercept, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s much-awaited news site, two weeks after its launch. “Fearless, adversarial journalism” is what I expected.

An epic rant on the United Kingdom is what I found. Glenn Greenwald appeared to be disappointed that a lower British court had upheld the legality of David Miranda’s detention last year, his partner. Here’s the punchline:

Grown adults who have been elected or appointed to nothing run around with a straight face insisting that they be called “Lord” and “Baroness” and other grandiose hereditary titles of the landed gentry. They bow and curtsey to a “Queen”, who lives in a “palace”, and they call her sons “Prince”.

Granted, that’s rather amusing. Reading The Intercept was far more fun than expected. Especially for somebody who didn’t grow up in this “adolescent medieval fantasy game,” as Greenwald calls London. This was like Hello! Magazine, without the irony. Just fearless, adversarial journalism.

But that raises an actually interesting question: what happened to the newsworthy, high quality journalism on intelligence matters? Sorry, did I write ‘high quality’?

Last December Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, told the HASC that only 1 percent of all of the Snowden material has been published. Strange, then, that The Intercept didn’t find a more exciting story for its opening salvo on 10 February. That story was on the NSA’s role in targeting for drone strikes, on how metadata may be used for targeted killings. That in itself wasn’t new. It contained a few new tidbits, yes. But no Quantum Insert story, no Prism or Co-traveler. And nothing that exciting since.

Except Trevor Paglen’s pictures of American office buildings at night. Not adversarial and fearless. But they look good. And thanks for placing them in the public domain without restrictions.



KoW is back

Blogging has undergone something of a transformation since we started in September 2007. Social media brought the first big change. The rise of Twitter and Facebook sucked energy out of blogging. At least out of the kind of blogging that was the most fun to read.

Strangely, at the same time, more and more blogs sprung up. Newspapers started blogs where journalists dumped stuff they couldn’t get printed. Universities started blogs where academics published things they couldn’t place elsewhere. Companies started blogs to publish things that they previously put in reports. Some even thought blogs could replace magazines. Yes, there were exceptions. But too often blogs are featuring boring, rambling, second-rate output.

This is a momentous time for national security, strategy, and international relations: authoritarianism is back, the West in retreat, the Middle East in shambles, intelligence leaks gushing, armies shrinking, drones circling above. Several debates are in dire need for well-informed, first-rate commentary — and the sort of raw and sharp slants that have no place on the op-ed pages of serious news outlets. That is what we think Kings of War does best. That’s why we’re back in a new, simplified, sleek format.

KoW is a group blog, with no central editorial line. Authors write in their own voice, on the subjects that interest, excite, or annoy them. Some of our pieces are long; some are short. Some are historical; some are speculative about the future. Some concentrate on war; some take a wider ambit. All to the good, we feel. We hope you enjoy the diversity that is KoW.

Above all, KoW is about punchy content, unencumbered by silly counters of ‘likes’ or ‘views’ littered across the page. As always, we appreciate our readers’ thoughts. Get involved in the conversation: challenge our points of view and add your own. Comments all come with a static link (the date). The best will be shared via @kingsofwar.

It’s good to be back.


The Ticking Time Bomb in Zero Dark Thirty

Editor’s note: the author works at the Berlin-based Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik.

A Story Based on Facts

A Story Based on Real Events

Now that Zero Dark Thirty is hitting cinemas in Europe viewers can finally form their own opinion about the debate that has swept over here from the United States for the past month.

The story about “the greatest manhunt in history” traces the steps of the intelligence effort in finding Osama bin Laden, from the first interrogations of captured terrorists in 2002 to the 2011 raid by American special forces on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  At the center of the plot is Maya, a young and ambitious CIA official. While researching the script, director Kathryn Bigelow and screen writer Mark Boal had access to some high level officials within the CIA and the Defense Department for background interviews. Bigelow has advertised the fact that they used almost journalistic approach to piece together what happened. Since much of the information about the real life events depicted in the movie are still classified and publications about the hunt have been few, part of the film’s appeal is the promise to provide movie goers with new insights.

Most of the controversy the film generated has focused on the first half hour, in which Maya and her CIA colleague Dan interrogate a terror suspect named Ammar. They employ a number of brutal methods, including stress positions, sleep deprivation, starvation, waterboarding and confinement in a box barely larger than the detainee himself. At first Maya is somewhat repulsed by the violence, but she quickly adjusts and is prepared to do whatever it takes to get the detainee to talk. A number of commentators have pointed out that the plot wrongly implies that the use of torture was integral to finding bin Laden.

The sequence of events does indeed seem to suggest that the interrogation of Ammar provided a first clue that set the CIA on the right track. According to Senator John McCain former CIA director Leon Panetta has disputed  this version of events. McCain and two of his Senate colleagues on the Intelligence Committee, chair Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin,  have written a letter to acting CIA director Michael Morell asking for clarification what kind of information CIA officials hat provided to the filmmakers. In the letter, they state that a classified study on the detention and interrogation program by committee staff based on internal CIA records has shown that the decisive information that led to bin Laden had not been gained through coercive techniques.

In this context one dramaturgical decision by the filmmakers that so far has received little attention deserves mentioning. While generally not much except Maya’s immediate surrounding is shown, terrorist attacks are part of the plot at regular intervals. After opening with a sound montage of 9/11 itself, the movie shows an attack on a Saudi oil installation in Khobar in 2004; the London bus bombings of 7/7/2005; the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott hotel in 2008 (Maya is eating there with a colleague and barely survives); the suicide bombing that wiped out almost an entire CIA unit at the US military base Camp Chapman near the Afghan town Khost (Maya loses a close colleague); even the failed attempt to set of a car bomb on Times Square in New York in 2010. As Karen Greenberg has noted, these attacks provide a constant backdrop of fear. But they do more than that. They provide the ticking time bomb scenario that is indispensable to anyone who wants to defend the use of torture. Even advocates of torture only ever justify it as a means of stopping an imminent attack and saving the lives of innocent people. However, in the real world ticking time bomb scenarios rarely if ever happen. The many attacks shown in the film provide an effective substitute. They are not presented as separate events, carried out by local operatives and each with its own particular circumstances, but rather as a steady continuous onslaught of strikes masterminded by the leadership of Al Qaeda. By making this choice the filmmakers turn the hunt for bin Laden into a race against time.

If one wants to legitimize enhanced interrogation, claiming that torture led to bin Laden by itself is not enough. The overwhelming focus of the debate on the role of torture in locating bin Laden neglects an important point. Even in the opinions of advocates of coercion and even in the case of in Laden, bringing a terrorist to justice for acts committed in the past does not justify its use. It is also necessary to make the case that bin Laden is still a danger. If he were an old man hiding out with little communication to the outside world and without much influence on the actions of a lose network of terrorists who increasingly act independent from Al Qaedas leadership, it would be hard to argue that torturing potential informants would be anything but revenge. However, if he is still the central figure continuously plotting attacks from the Middle East to Manhattan…

The point is made explicit in a little-noticed exchange between Maya and her superior. After the failed Times Square bombing Maya presses Joseph Bradley, the CIA station chief in Pakistan, for more ressources to find bin Laden. Bradley tells her that he doesn’t care about bin Laden and that Maya should be more concerned with protecting the homeland. Maya then lectures him about how bin Laden provides the inspiration for all these attacks. She stops just short of saying that if they get him, the attacks will end. Needless to say, in this scene Maya is the one the viewer identifies with. As usual Bradley is just one more obstacle to her doing her job. And the hunt for bin Laden is one great attempt to protect the homeland against further attacks and save the lives of innocent Americans.

This is not to say that the late bin Laden’s had no role whatsoever. He was not hiding in a cave completely cut off from civilization, but lived in a city and was able to communicate through his messenger. But it is questionable how much control he had over the operational activities that led to the diverse terrorist attacks so prominently emphasized throughout the plot. The point is this: There are different ways to tell the story, and, whether intentionally or not, the makers of Zero Dark Thirty consistently tell it in a way that makes the strongest possible case for torture.

There is an interesting divide between the response of people who have been studying the interrogation program critically and traditional film critics. The former point out that it is not possible to remain neutral and that what is left out is as important as what is shown. Not part of the narrative, for example, is the fact that the CIA and the military have detained hundreds if not thousands of innocents; that as many as 100 people or more have died in CIA and military custody; that CIA interrogation have led to false information that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq; and that even within the CIA the enhanced interrogation program was highly controversial. Regular film critics are much more likely to buy the filmmakers’ defense  that depiction of torture does not mean endorsement and that the film doesn’t judge, but lets the viewer fill in the blanks. Perhaps this positive response stems from the fact that by the standards of Hollywood the use of manipulative stylistic devices is restrained. The pathos in the dialogue is kept to a minimum, music is used sparingly. But as Matt Taibbi  vividly describes the film will hardly leave most spectators ambivalent about the events depicted. Maya, the protagonist, is no anti-hero. The viewer identifies with her throughout her struggles and setbacks until the final triumph. And Maya is not ambivalent about torture. Rather than using artistic gimmics, the films judgement is integrated in the plot itself, in the sequence events are presented, and indeed by what is included as well as what is left out.

Why is this so important? After all, Hollywood is known to take its liberties with dramatizations based on real events. As we know from the experience with the popular TV show “24”, depictions of the good guy torturing on screen can be quite influential. Among those who referred to “24” in discussions about enhanced interrogation techniques were Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and John Yoo who during his tenure in the Office of the Legal Council in George W. Bush’s Justice Department authored of some of the infamous “torture memos.” The show was so popular with members of the military that the Pentagon sent a representative to try to convince the producers of 24 to tone down the torture scenes. The military leadership feared that Jack Bauer could have negative consequence on the behavior of the troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“24” was quite obviously a work of fiction. Still its many instances of ticking time bombs proved irresistable to those who wanted to argue in favor of the use of coercive interrogation techiques. For many viewers, Zero Dark Thirty may appear to be an authoritative if unofficial record of how the US got bin Laden. Imagine how much ammunition that provides to those who want to justify the CIA interrogation program.


Morsi the Moderate?

Can Egypt under an Islamist president still be a force of stability in the Middle East?

Since a presidential decree granted Egyptian President Morsi new powers that put his judgment beyond judicial review, Egypt has witnessed increased tensions and growing violence which eventually resulted in several dead and hundreds of injured.

Despite the concerns about the ups and downs that are characterizing the transition to democracy in Egypt, the Obama administration seems to have made a distinction between the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups such as the Salafists or Al-Qaeda, and has appeared relatively comfortable in recognizing President Morsi as a legitimate interlocutor. Other political actors in Washington, particularly in the US Congress, do not share the administration’s conviction. They argue that the Islamists are a threat to US interests in the Middle East. Supporters of the latter view have often singled out the security of Israel and the stability of the region as two major compelling reasons for not trusting Islamist organizations.

Is this mistrust toward President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood well-placed? What has been President Morsi’s record in foreign policy so far?

In August 2012, thirty-five unidentified gunmen stormed an Egyptian military post near the border with Gaza, killed sixteen Egyptian soldier, seized at least one armored vehicle and headed toward Israel where they were blocked by Israeli security forces. The attack was a dramatic warning of the increased lawlessness and instability in the Sinai region and of the possible security threats to Egypt and Israel emanating from such an uncertain situation. As a response, President Morsi reportedly intensified talks with the United States about stepping up US-Egyptian cooperation to restore security in Sinai. US assistance would include electronic and aerial surveillance, border police training and military equipment.

Regarding the ongoing uprising in Syria, the Egyptian government has put its weight firmly behind the Syrian opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime, thereby, supporting the broad coalition comprising the United States, Saudi Arabia and many other Western and Arab countries. Although, contrary to the United States, Egypt has been trying to include Iran in the diplomatic effort to stop the crisis, Mr. Morsi is cooperating again with the West and is showing to be a moderate international player. As a telling sign of its sincere commitment to the Syrian rebels’ cause, Egypt recently decided to host the headquarters of the newly established National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

Last but by no means least, the most significant show of political pragmatism by President Morsi to date was probably the role he played in negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. On November 15, a violent military conflict erupted in Gaza between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas militants. After days of intense negotiations Egypt, in close cooperation with the United States, brokered an agreement between the fighting parties that most likely averted a full-scale Israeli ground invasion of Gaza and the bloodshed this might have entailed. According to news outlets, Morsi and Obama spoke by telephone at least six times during the crisis.

Critics of the Islamist Egyptian president would point out that Mr. Morsi was the first Egyptian head of state to visit Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution (although on that occasion Morsi unequivocally criticized the Syrian government, and indirectly Iran as Syria’s principal backer, about the handling of its uprising). Critics would also recall the September 11, 2012 attack by an angry mob against the US embassy in Cairo and President Morsi’s belated condemnation of such an attack (although Egyptian security forces coordinated with US officials to clear the area without escalating the tensions). Finally, criticisms could derive from the Egyptian government’s public statements of strong support for Hamas during the recent confrontation with Israel (although Egypt worked hard to broker the eventual ceasefire).

Most of Morsi’s ambivalent behavior can be explained by the sometimes conflicting needs to balance Egypt’s ties with the United States and the West on the one hand and with the domestic public opinion on the other. How this difficult balancing effort will evolve in the future, it is hard to say. However, the evidence provided in this article should suggest that the first Egyptian Islamist president may end up being not as a bad news for the United States and the Middle East as some people originally feared.

The author is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies


The End of Deterrence?

The situation in Gaza and Israel seems set for temporary escalation. Again. And as almost always when Israel resorts to the use of military force, a chief justification is to “restore” deterrence. But what does that mean?

Our predominant view of deterrence is still strongly influenced by the Cold War. Using force, especially nuclear weapons, would have meant a total breakdown of deterrence. A major military operation, therefore, can only mean a failure of deterrence. Using force, by definition, cannot be deterrence.

Well, that’s different in the Israeli experience — and, it turns out, also in our own experience, if one sheds these highly naïve views about deterrence that became the norm during the Cold War. The Cold War is over. Time to refurbish the idea of deterrence.

Ethan Bronner has an excellent article in today’s New York Times that touches this problem. But it only begins to scratch the surface. Earlier this year I published an article on this very question, “Deterrence Beyond the State. The Israeli Experience” (pdf) in Contemporary Security Policy.

In my view this is a truly important subject. Current events in the region should make this abundantly clear. But unfortunately it seems to be far less attractive than talking about the nonsensical “Twitter War” (that’s what too many journalists seem to consider a sexy subject).

So let’s make this a bit easier and approach the wicked problem of deterrence from a more populist angle:

That rather odd exchange epitomizes the misunderstanding I’m talking about.

If you want to get to the bottom of it, read the article.


Second Thoughts About Defensive Means

Editor’s note (TR): This is a guest post by Ron Tira. Ron is a lieutenant colonel, former fighter pilot in the IAF, and author of the book The Nature of War. He is currently a businessman and a reservist at the Israeli Air Force’s Campaign Planning Department. He sends the following reflection with a picture of an incoming missile, taken in front of his house this morning.

The Israel Defence Forces have it in their DNA that wars are won based on offensive means. Defence seems like a waste of time and a waste of resources.

This is why I was never very keen on anti-missile defence systems. They are of course a “nice to have” thing, or so I thought, but as in the real world resources are always insufficient and you can’t have it all, hence offensive means should always take priority. Israel’s anti-missile defence system seemed to be not much more than a multi-billion dollar pacifier for infants, metaphorically speaking. (In the case of critical national infrastructure, such as power stations, and critical military hubs, like airfields, C3I etc, the defensive calculus would of course be different. These targets should be defended to enable the offense.)

The problems with situations like the current one is that the enemy choses to fire from amongst its own civilians at our civilians, without showing up for major battles that can be won.

Lets look at the figures of the current engagement — so far.

Hamas so far fired  500+ rockets. Iron Dome is a selective system, defending only populated areas. It will not defend open fields, orchards, or the sea. Even in populated areas it is selective: it will not defend city parks, and will defends schools and shopping centers at midday but not at midnight, etc. So far, the manufacturer provided the IAF with only four Iron Dome batteries. The fifth will be supplied tomorrow night. Iron Dome’s footprint is therefore still limited, and it cannot yet defend the entire threatened area. For this reason, the batteries are being moved around and their location kept secret, in an attempt not to hint where the cracks in the defence are.

Iron Dome could and chose to engage about 150 incoming threats. The kill rate amongst those is close to 100%. Only 26 incoming rockets actually fell in populated areas. Most of them in cracks between the Iron Dome batteries. Almost no rocket fell on a populated area which is within the current footprint of Iron Dome. The impact on Israel so far is driven by only 26 rockets that actually fell on populated areas. Had the other 150 fell on populated areas, the picture might have been very different.