Academia’s ‘Crypto Moment’

Like many, I am saddened to hear that Tajikistan is charging a researcher from Exeter University with treason. I am saddened, but not shocked. Authoritarian regimes are prone to detaining people that they perceive as threats, or, in the case of Egypt, jailing journalists on pathetic charges. In the specific instance of Tajikistan, the outcome is uncertain, though like (I imagine) most people, I hope for Alexander Sodiqov’s release. Even if Sodiqov is released tomorrow, the incident is likely to have a chilling effect on academic research involving field work in authoritarian states. Research Ethics Committees are, by and large, considered to be risk-averse entities, and they are likely to become even more averse to approving research where an academic is at risk of detainment by an authoritarian government. This is a problem, not least because to understand political violence and separatist disputes, the best data comes from the people involved, who invariably live in places where Big Brother tends to throw its weight around. If we want to know more about the world, that means academics going to dangerous places. The alternative is that we let ethics committees decide for us that the world is too dangerous, and the field of inquiry closes to political violence close at hand, such as homegrown radicalisation and Northern Ireland. Both of these are important areas of inquiry, but in a globalised world, its necessary to go outside and talk, otherwise the horizons become awfully limited, awfully fast. Continue reading

Jarama_gravestone copy

War Pilgrims

As a thought experiment: consider the position of a British Shia muslim contemplating Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call to arms to defend Iraq and Shia holy sites. Sistani’s call was directed at Iraqi citizens to defend the country against ISIS‘s recent military advances, who threaten places such as Samarra, a holy place for Shia, and one with a recent history of desecration by Sunni muslims. In such a thought experiment, we might conclude that, yes, on the balance of available evidence, that sacred religious sites were in danger of being desecrated. Furthermore, we might consider that given their relative significance, a reasonably devout Shiite might feel quite upset at the prospect of this occurring. On what basis, therefore, should our imagined British citizen be prevented from travelling to Iraq to join a state-sanctioned militia whose express purpose is the defeat of a reviled group of terrorists/insurgents?

The reason for this thought experiment is that the UK government has now kicked into high gear about preventing British passport holders from travelling to Syria and Iraq to participate in the wars there. The constant refrain is that returning jihadis will pose a threat to British national security ‘for years to come.’ I am inclined to both agree and disagree to this notion. On one hand, I think that some people will come back from Syria intending to kill people in Britain, and I think that it’s quite probable that some of them will succeed. On the other hand, like Simon Jenkins, I don’t think that this threatens the state itself. The government’s policy response is to prevent people from travelling to Syria, and to delete material that might ‘brainwash’ them from the internet. Both of these are profoundly illiberal policies, and, I think, unwittingly place a secular/Christian state on one side of a religious civil war as a by-product. Returning to our thought experiment, a British Shia could, quite rightly, claim that they had no intention of joining a terrorist group, but helping a state which is confronted by very well armed and trained terrorists. Furthermore, fighting to defend religious sites from desecration is quite different from fighting to establish a Caliphate.

I have long held to a laissez-faire attitude towards foreign fighters. That is, if a British citizen wishes to go to Syria to step on landmines, then let them. At the same time, I can see that the movement of foreign fighters no doubt causes issues for states facing them. ISIS, I think, is the best example of why my attitude might be wrong. Does the British state have a responsibility to entomb its angry ‘radicalised’ youth within our borders? The government appears to think so. Football fans who (unlike me) follow football when the World Cup isn’t on will see echoes of this policy in Football Banning Orders, except in the case of Syria/Iraq, the test appears much less stringent. The problem, I think, is that the British government is afraid to grasp the twin nettles of public post-conflict monitoring, and in-conflict abandonment. We’re all too happy to reduce civil liberties, restrict travel and freedom of speech, but don’t, for heaven’s sakes, mention watch lists, surveillance and other measures that the security service could implement to track these people afterwards.

Here’s a second iteration of a laissez-faire policy towards ISIS devotees, and anyone else who might want to run off to war in a foreign country: The UK Government declares that participation in an armed conflict (of whatever kind) halfway around the world which the UK does not involve itself in means that any British passport holder who willingly involves themselves in it has to accept the consequences. No crocodile tears or exceptional diplomatic efforts if you wind up captured by the Syrians, ISIS, or the Iraqi government. This should, I think, be an open declaration or standing policy. It is also better, I think, than unilaterally stripping a citizen of their passport prior to the Americans dropping a bomb on their head, or other Janus-faced hijinx to stay within the limit of the law.

Combined with this, there should be an open-source watch-list, with emphasis on openness. The government should collate a public list of citizens who are identified as having participated in a given armed conflict of concern to the British security services. If someone wishes to contest their participation, for example, they merely wanted to take a battlefield tour, or happen to be a journalist or NGO worker, then they can do so, in some public manner (requiring the submission of a statement/evidence). There are plenty of journalists and academics identifying people in an ad-hoc fashion, but let’s make it official. The key point is that if you have no ‘good reason’ to be in a warzone (helping people, reporting, etc), then, I think, it’s reasonable for the government to state that you were there. I suspect some might disagree with this. But such surveillance should be as public as possible, the reasons for it transparent to all prior to people taking decisions that might place them at risk of being placed on such a list, and to the greatest extent possible, a person should be able to challenge their position on a given watch list. Otherwise we end up like the Americans with a kafka-esque ‘no fly list’.

I can think of problems with the above. For example, the point that publishing a watch list would allow people to see who has slipped through the net. But the point is that a public list of people known to have travelled to an armed conflict is different from the kind of watch lists that the security services use (and need to use) in secret. Someone on the public list would not know whether they are being investigated, nor would someone not on the public list be able to verify whether they haven’t been detected in secret. More to the point, someone who finds themselves on the public list and doesn’t care wouldn’t have to take any action at all. Returning to the thought experiment, the British Shiite considering going to holy war in a foreign land might think twice, which, I think, is the point of the government’s bluster. After all, if someone believes in a cause enough to die for it, this fact places a limit on what any government can do to prevent their death. If someone goes to war and gets themselves killed, then that’s their own fault. If the British government wants to prevent death and destruction in the middle east, then it needs to pursue diplomatic solutions that end wars. Stopping a couple of people at the UK’s border is, in the context of Syria/Iraq, of less use than a band-aid at the Somme.

The Star Chamber, a secret tribunal so worthwhile that Parliament banned it in 1640.

How Terrorists Win

Today the UK government is beginning a full court press to legitimise secret trials for people suspected of terrorist offences. Chris Grayling MP, the justice secretary, went on Radio 4 to defend the need for secret trials in ‘very, very rare’ circumstances. We can trust the government in this matter, because ‘very, very rare’ circumstances are likely to stay ‘very, very rare’ when political circumstances change. Take, for example, depriving UK citizens of their British citizenship. As recent reporting by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism demonstrates, we have nothing to worry about. Between the 2002 Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act, and 2010, when the Labour Government was kicked out of office, the extraordinary step of stripping a dual national of British citizenship was used at least three times: once against Abu Hamza, once to strip David Hicks of his UK citizenship after he had already been to court to get it, and lastly Hilal al-Jedda, a man made stateless by then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. Since the ascent of Cameron and Clegg, the UK Government has stripped at least fifty people of British citizenship. Law designed with Hamza in mind now allows the Home Secretary to wash the UK’s hands of anyone the government deems undesirable, and in doing so, frees the government from pesky human rights obligations owed to British citizens. Some of those citizens end up dead, by American hands, shortly after such citizenship-stripping has taken place.

Let’s not kid ourselves: some of the people deprived of UK citizenship are (or were) probably very dangerous individuals, as are many people taken to court on terrorism-related offences. But are these measures to ‘combat’ terrorism worth the damage that they do to British society? I can see the need for changing particular laws to take account of new threats to society (people willing to blow themselves up, people willing to conduct mass casualty attacks), but I can’t, for the life of me, see how two men warrant the sacrifice of a basic principle of English law. Secret trials make sense when one views the legal system in terms of ‘output’ and ‘efficiency’ and ‘performance’, but make no sense at all when one considers the values of accountability and democracy that are meant to underpin them. In war time, most states adopt some form of emergency measures for security, but the British government is studious in stating that ‘we’ are not at war with terrorists, no matter how much they consider themselves to be at war with us. That makes the introduction of secret trials for terrorist suspects all the more dangerous, because it will become the new ‘normal’ in short order. After all, if this is done on the government’s say-so, and there is no-one else allowed to observe the case or proceedings, then who will be able to argue against it? This, I think, is how the terrorists win: they make British society so afraid of two people that we’re willing to sacrifice the basic principles of justice in the UK in order to lock them away for a while. These men are so scary, in fact, that the government can’t tell us anything about them, for our own good.


(Edited to correct error over the date of the 2010 election)


After Crimea, It’s (Still) Good to Talk

(Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Heather Williams, a War Studies PhD candidate. Header image is copyright Maksymenko Oleksandr issued under a creative commons attribution license)

Oscar Jonsson’s post posed the question, what would be the benefit for the West of a negotiated solution with Russia? At first I thought this was either rhetorical or designed to stir the pot. Seeing that it was not the former, I will assume it was the latter and provide the spoon for said pot stirring.

First, why is the West in talks with Russia over Ukraine? Jonsson notes that the West ‘came running’ to negotiate with Putin and it’s ‘in the bone marrow.’ To quote the second most cliché of security studies phrases (Clausewitz obviously gets the first), ‘it is better to jaw jaw than to war war.’ Now before you cry out ‘Sudetanland’ or fall victim to the Godwin’s law, let’s not discard the notion of negotiation altogether. Generally speaking, the goal of negotiation is to communicate interest, identify areas of discord, and, hopefully, settle on areas of agreement. Negotiations also offer an opportunity for building personal contacts, relaying concerns in a private setting, and building trust, however limited that might be. Negotiations entail risk, to be sure, and there comes a time when it is best to walk away from the negotiating table. Has the West really reached that point with Russia, though?

This doesn’t mean the West and Russia will be braiding each other’s hair on the weekends whilst watching Hunt for Red October. But any alternatives to dialogue point in the direction of misperception, miscommunication, and potential escalation. Taking a closer look at Western interests in negotiations reveal why this isn’t a massive waste of time.

  1. Stop Russian advances. In the midst of our ongoing analyses, we often forget the impact of these events on the ground, on people and families living with the stress of corrupt leaders, a collapsed government, and, now, a decapitated state. Keeping this in mind, the first priority must be to promote security within Ukraine, which means stopping Russian advances and facilitating a stable environment in which the Ukrainian people can rebuild. With that said, talking to the Russians is a much more desirable option than remaining silent or military escalation. Negotiation does not mean the West will concede to Russian positions, however. For example, the West will not recognize Crimea as part of Russia. As Jonsson points out, this would undermine the post-WWII system. But why should the West or Russia insist on this point in practice? Any negotiations towards federalization would have to be put to the Ukrainian people for a vote. Given all the fuss the West raised about the illegality of the referendum in Crimea, it would be blatantly hypocritical to then apply the same principles to the rest of Ukraine and undercut its attempts to rebuild a government. This is not Iraq circa 2003.
  2. Uphold principles of sovereignty as much as possible. Yes, this will be limited and recent history is riddled with exceptions, but this remains the foundation of the international system and a keystone to stability. To ignore Russian incursions altogether and deflect invitations to talk would suggest complacency and a Western disinterest.
  3. Reassure NATO allies. There is a chorus coming from Talinn, Riga, Vilnius, and Warsaw: ‘I told you so!’ The West needs to show that it will not stand by quietly while Putin eats away at respect for boundaries in Eastern Europe and creeps towards the NATO border.
  4. Maintain a working relationship with Russia in Europe. Russia is a necessary partner in energy (Germany), trade (France), and investment (United Kingdom), as has been discussed thoroughly elsewhere. Russia may not be the most trustworthy or consistent partner, but for the time being it is chained to Europe. Over the long-term, however, and as discussed below in greater detail, this may not be the case.
  5. Maintain a working relationship with Russia globally. Russia isn’t just an important international player because of its oil, gas, and oily (and possibly gassy) oligarchs. Russia is currently a key player in negotiations with Iran and Syria. And despite the current spat, Russia continues to participate in arms control verification with the United States under the New START Treaty. Turning Russia into a pariah will further isolate it and undermine progress in other areas. This is not to suggest the West should acquiesce to Russian demands and actions, but rather keep open the lines of communication. As Kennan said, ‘the best policy with Russia is always keeping the door open for them when they finally do decide to come in.

What leverage does the West have in negotiations with Russia? At least two. First, Russia needs European energy markets given that 80% of its exports are in natural resources. As Professor Andrew Lambert mentioned in a recent War Studies podcast, following the 2008 invasion of Ukraine, not to mention Russia’s erratic record as a supplier throughout the 2000s, the West is already looking for alternatives to Russian energy and Russia is feeling the pressure. Additional geopolitical demerits are taking an economic toll.

And second- now to the meat of the issue- events in Ukraine both directly and indirectly affect domestic stability within Russia. Domestic issues have always been the primary security concern for Russia. Its most recent Military Doctrines and Foreign Policy Concepts disproportionately focus on internal security and security on its borders. I would dispute the characterization of Russia’s interest in federalization as ‘bonkers’ given its attitude towards Ukraine and the ‘near abroad’ more generally. Federalization is the best vehicle for Russia to draw other parts of Ukraine into its orbit without the risks or messiness of further military incursions.

As Professor Lambert also notes, what Putin did was ‘inevitable, fairly predictable’ because Putin couldn’t allow Ukraine to drift towards Europe which could undermine his own power base at home. Putin’s grasp on power in Russia seems shaky at times, and is dependent on economic growth and stability, thus energy exports and political support. As highlighted by Andrew Nagorski, Putin’s use of Ukraine as a rallying cry for Russian nationalism is fake and the ‘real motive for his behavior since the downfall of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych is his recognition of the example this could set for his own people.’ And as I recently discussed in a review of Limits of Partnership, quoting the author, Angela Stent, ‘For Putin, events in Ukraine are an albatross, “After all, if Ukrainians could take to the streets and overthrow their governments, so could Russians.”’

Putin needs to demonstrate his nationalism and firm approach to internal dissent, and the West needs to condemn his tactics. But Russia also needs the West to buy its energy just as much as the West needs Russia to respect borders. It isn’t an ideal balance, but it is mutually beneficial for the time being.


Louis CK Does the SDSR

Yesterday saw some good pieces expressing discontent at budgets presented as strategy documents both here at home (in both senses of the word!) and in America, over at War on the Rocks. In national security terms, democracies seem to have lumped for a security/freedom balance which involves the secret conduct of military operations, backed by public strategy documents to give the public an inkling of what is going on in terms of defence planning. We (the public) don’t get to know the ins and outs of military affairs, but it is expected that the government tells us what is going on, what it is planning for, and, perhaps, a reason for shelling out mind-bending sums of money on aircraft carriers, next generation planes and so on. Unfortunately, as both articles point out, we now get budget documents dressed up as strategy documents. Time after time, the public is proffered a list of threats, and then ‘sold’ defence reforms as means of preparing for those threats, when in reality, the disconnect between the ‘strategy’ and the ‘solution’ is clear for most to see.

Last night I also happened to re-watch Louis CK’s most recent set, Oh My God, which I was lucky enough to see in person at the O2 a year or two back (you can purchase a copy for $5 direct from the man himself here). For those unwilling to watch the full thing, let’s cut to the chase, Louie’s “of course, but maybe…” skit. You can watch the full clip here, but some might consider the later bits offensive, so let’s stick to the, uh, least offensive piece of comedy gold:

Everybody has a competition in their brain of good thoughts and bad thoughts. Hopefully, the good thoughts win. For me, I always have both. I have like, the thing, I believe the good thing, that’s the thing I believe and than there is this thing. And I don’t believe it, but it is there. It’s always this thing and then this thing. It’s become a category in my brain that I call “of course but maybe”.

I’ll give you an example, okay? Like of course, of course, children who have nut allergies need to be protected, of course. We have to segregate their food from nuts, have their medication available at all times, and anybody who manufactures or serves food needs to be aware of deadly nut allergies, of course, but maybe.

Maybe if touching a nut kills you, you’re supposed to die.

So that had me thinking about the “of course but maybe” of public strategy documents:

Of course governments need to tell the public about the threats that they face. Of course. In any democracy accountable to its people it would be fundamentally wrong for a government to make plans about life and death without giving the public an outline of what is threatening them. War is such a terrible thing that it would be fundamentally wrong for a democratic government to plan for it in secret, of course, that is so plain it doesn’t need explanation. And of course, the government needs to explain why it is spending money on tanks, planes and ships instead of hospitals. In an open society the public deserves to be spoon fed information at every step of this process, of course, but maybe.

Maybe if governments can’t admit their weaknesses in public, they should admit that, and do strategy in private. Maybe the spectacle of Western governments publishing report after report of half-squared circles is a sign of weakness to people that still treat international politics as a zero-sum game. Maybe if all the above is untenable, governments should make a stock front cover for future defence reforms: “The best we can afford, given current market conditions.”


After Utøya

Prior to disappearing up a mountain to write a book (and thus completely missing the invasion of Crimea) I stopped into Oslo’s town hall, where they were exhibiting the final round of entries to remember those killed by Anders Breivik on the 22nd of July, 2011. Two aspects of the competition stuck out in my mind. First the actions of Breivik created a problem, where a large number of the dead were far from a major population centre. This isn’t a new issue, for example, the Flight 93 memorial is located at the crash site of the fourth plane in the 9/11 attacks. This did, however, create the requirement for two memorials: one near Utøya, and another in Oslo. The problem is that Utøya is a divisive issue in itself – some want to return to the island to re-use it, others want to leave it as a permanent memorial to the dead. The official Utøya memorial site is located near to the island, with a clear view of it. What I find interesting is that the artist selected for the final memorial, Jonas Dahlberg, had a radically different interpretation of what the memorial should entail from his fellow competitors. Whereas the other artists and architects, for better or worse, considered the memorial as culminating in a view of Utøya from the land, Dahlberg instead designed a memorial with the rather audacious concept of slicing through the land itself to create an artificial ‘wound’ in the landscape. Dahlberg intends to connect the two memorials by using the rock taken from this site to build the memorial in Oslo.

This leads to the second interesting point, which is that the Oslo memorial is intended to be two stages – a temporary memorial and a permanent one – reflecting the fact that the government quarter in Oslo is currently undergoing major renovation. Artistic responses to this requirement were interesting, for example, Olav Jenssen’s entry stated quite plainly that the ‘temporary’ memorial should be permanent. Personally, I thought that Paul Murdoch’s permanent entry was the most interesting, as it created something of a private world for a memorial space in the middle of a capital city. Even so, one of the key points that I think the competition showed was that it is possible to negotiate between the need for a permanent memorial and the (utilitarian) needs of contemporary cities in a way that avoids the unseemly recriminations over the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site. One of the reasons that I think this issue is important is that it reflects how ‘we’ let terrorists dictate our future. The need for permanent, unchanging, memorial sites to commemorate mass casualty attacks will always impede the growth and expansion of cities. Finding a way to incorporate public memorials into the ongoing development of a society in a way that allows it to continue growing is important. Even though I might not like the winner on aesthetic grounds (it isn’t my place to say who ‘should’ have won), the competition as a whole reflects a mature attitude towards the place of public memory in society.


The Rebirth of the ‘Great British War Film’?

Is the British ‘war film’ dead, and if so, should it be resurrected? Kajaki, an indie British war film, couldn’t get funding via the usual industry routes, and its makers have turned to crowdfunding in order to get the film made. As part of that, Tom Williams penned an article for The Daily Mail decrying the lack of funding for such films. As part of that piece, he points out that:

Such films [The Dam Busters, The Bridge On The River Kwai, Cockleshell Heroes, The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare or The Guns Of Navarone], mostly made in the Fifties and Sixties, brilliantly showcase the nobility, the camaraderie, the black humour, and the raw courage often displayed by the British Armed Forces in the most perilous of situations.

But then look at that list again. They’re all films set in World War II and were made nearly half a century ago. Have our forces stopped fighting wars since then? Of course not. So why aren’t the stories being told?

Part of the problem is British military history since 1945. Unfortunately, Her Majesty’s Government hasn’t given us a war against a clear-cut ‘evil empire’ since World War 2. Apart from the Korean War and the Falklands, the cold war era is thin pickings for those wishing to depict an implacable evil foe on par with the Nazis, unless you’re the type of person who refers to Rhodesia in the present tense. While I’m sure many, many acts of individual or group heroism occurred in our withdrawal from empire, fighting rearguard actions against Communist or nationalist guerrillas doesn’t have quite the same jingoistic tone as defending the free world against the Third Reich. Nor does teaming up with the French to embarrass ourselves over Suez. Northern Ireland will always be a touchy subject, but even for those who supported the military presence there, it’s quite difficult to fashion that heroic narrative required of British war films for a conflict that no-one has really come to terms with, yet. I’m sure that a major effort to do so would do wonders for the peace process, too. The great British war films that we use to celebrate WW2 every Christmas feature that national significance as an integral part of the genre. Without it, they wouldn’t work as films.

Kajaki appears to consciously reject that national significance, in its rejection of the context of British involvement in Helmand. It’s about ‘the boys’ and ‘our heroes’ because we can’t celebrate the War in Afghanistan as a country in the same way that we can collectively drink cheap beer cheer on Clint Eastwood offing the Gestapo. It is an attempt to resurrect the ‘British war film’ as a celebration of ‘heroes’ independent of their overarching purpose. In doing so it taps into the national mood to celebrate ‘our heroes’ which gives us a collective escape route from considering who is responsible for putting ‘our heroes’ in harm’s way in the first place. I don’t think all soldiers are heroes, but I do think that they should be respected for their role in society, and part of that respect involves some form of responsibility for their deployment. While Kajaki might recognise the individual courage of troops, such a film hurts them as a profession because it contributes to the atmosphere in which the country will accept them being sent abroad to be maimed and killed, while distancing itself from any responsibility for those inevitable outcomes of war and armed conflict. It is somehow acceptable to abnegate such responsibility for the young men and women sent to hostile places, so long as we properly recognise them as heroes while doing so. In this regard it is somewhat apt that Kajaki is selling itself as a charitable endeavour to support the charities that provide the services for soldiers that the country as a whole should be providing.

Stripping ‘the politics’ from what occurred at the Kajaki dam makes it easier to tell a story about individual courage, but harder to tell a story about war. Without ‘the politics’, war becomes meaningless and absurd and most war films would depict patently absurd behaviour. In essence, is the point that modern war films like Three Kings and Jarhead were making. The prima facie problem with telling a story like Kajaki is that it appears to be a disaster movie that wants to be a war film. In a disaster film there is some uncaring natural event that tests the protagonists. In a war film, there’s an evil or an opponent who must be vanquished, usually with guns, grit and snappy one-liners. I don’t know how the film makers intend to turn an unthinking minefield into such an opponent. For all its flaws, The Hurt Locker made improvised explosive devices ‘work’ as a symbol of malign intent. I don’t know how one turns the 25 year old lethal remnants of the Soviet war in Afghanistan into such an opponent. At the end of the day, Great British War Films had evil empires, dastardly enemies and heroic deeds. Kajaki appears to have one of the three, in order to tell a story which reiterates the courage of individual British soldiers. Whatever conclusions one might draw from post-WW2 British military history, such courage, I think, was never in question.


Tomahawk Signaling in Syria

Unless President Obama blinks/”bottles it”/pays attention to r/Politics somewhere over the next couple of days, America plus others are likely to begin openly bombing something in Syria. Who or what they’ll hit, no-one can say. The internet is alive with competing theories of what’s good, what’s bad, and what it would be plain stupid for America to destroy. The (immediate) “why” is somewhat clearer: most evidence points to Assad’s government doing another hop, skip and jump over the “don’t use chemical weapons” red line that is encoded in customary and treaty international law, as well as being verbally pointed out just over a year ago by Obama himself. The pictures are somewhat shocking, as is the somewhat flagrant disregard for international opinion by the embattled Syrian government. Yet the prospect of America bombing a fourth (mostly) muslim country halfway around the world since 9/11 is worrisome. As is the prospect of America being drawn into Syria’s civil war, with its myriad factions and little prospect of a quick ending. The American public appears unconvinced at the talk from their politicians, with just 9% supporting intervention.

Within the melee of hypothetical commentary, I’ve been engaged in quite a good back-and-forth debate with Rex Brynen and Tom Wein over what American goals should be. Personally, I see a “win” for America as a demonstration of force against something the regime values, which can be separated from the civil war as much as possible, so that Russia doesn’t take offence, and the regime can’t use the (inevitable) continuation of the civil war as evidence that it didn’t affect them. For that reason, my hypothetical target of choice would be the Syrian navy, since destroying an entire arm of the military would be a good deterrent to other states thinking of using chemical weapons use, plus it would be pretty clear that it isn’t intended to affect the course of the civil war, unless the Free Syrian Army was thinking of floating a navy at some point. Rex disagreed, pointing out that any attack would naturally be associated with overarching goals in Syria (the civil war ending in some form of regime change) and the US might as well take the opportunity to affect the course of the war. It should be noted that I think both myself and Rex see “win” in the relative sense that America is at the point where it’s using $0.5-1.5 million missiles to achieve something. When events get to that point, there is no “good” scenario, as the Guardian handily pointed out in cartoon form. Either way, it’s pretty clear that limited air strikes will not stop the civil war from continuing so the signal-value of military action is likely to be important.

I’m still mulling over the two takes. Personally I see signalling to other states not to use chemical weapons as more important than engaging with the civil war, since I think it’s difficult to do the latter “well” in any sense of the word, without getting involved in a politically unsustainable military engagement. It raises good questions of strategic communication – my take on the issue relies on the rest of the world seeing the strikes as unrelated to the war. Is it possible to do that? On a wider level, would a Syrian ‘Desert Fox’ be anything other than a prelude to a larger military engagement by America? The last question that keeps bouncing around my head is why people like Obama refuse to use the language of coercion and reprisal, when this is what such acts clearly entail. Tony Blair  has once more waded into the arena that nobody (including, I think, the people itching to detonate missiles in Syria) invited him into with precisely the same language that raises red flags after Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s somewhat odd that what (I think) would serve Obama and America is the message – “We will send cruise missiles at anyone that uses chemical weapons on civilians.”  - yet they can’t even think of using language like that. I’m sure Tecumseh Sherman would be turning in his grave at the quasi-humanitarian excuses for killing. Any KoW readers that wish to wade in, feel free. I’m sure the topic will stay current for weeks.


The Ghraib Escape

Prisoner of War escapes have been in the news quite a bit over the last week or so. First up, hundred of inmates escaped from the infamous Abu Ghraib jail, including (apparently) lots of senior al-Qaeda members. To perhaps compound the headaches of American counter-terrorist policy types, 250 Taliban were liberated from a Pakistani jail yesterday. All in all, it’s been a bad week to be a prison guard. But those weren’t the only escapes in the news. The passing of Colonel Bud Day, who endured torture at the hands of North Vietnamese captors, made quite a bit of the fact that he was awarded a medal of honor for escaping capture. Here in Britain, we re-run World War 2 POW breakouts by watching The Great Escape on telly every Christmas, even if Steve McQueen’s bike jump never actually happened. If you happen to live in London, the V&A’s Museum of Childhood is currently running an exhibit on War Games where you can see how we turned the escape attempts from Colditz into a board game.

It’s a curious, but I think perfectly reasonable, position to take that we deplore ‘their’ breakouts and celebrate ‘our’ own ones. But after all, if our culture celebrates continued resistance to ‘the enemy’, why should we expect ‘them’ to be any different? The Abu Ghraib breakout now makes Guantanamo closure political suicide, even as the prisoners are adding to Obama’s failure to make good on his campaign promise to do so by hunger striking in protest. One argument says that the military just aren’t cut out to run extended detention. Another might be that even though the legal character of POWs hasn’t changed, the concept and practise definitely has. Maybe recognising the inherent contradiction in our attitudes towards ‘theirs’ and ‘ours’ might help us work on the latter two issues.

Anyway, I’ll leave this with John McCain’s remarks on the death of his friend, Colonel Bud Day:

Those who knew Bud after the war could see how tough he was. But, my God, to have known him in prison – confronting our enemies day-in and day-out; never, ever yielding – defying men who had the power of life and death over us; to witness him sing the national anthem in response to having a rifle pointed at his face – well, that was something to behold.


The Ingression Engine?

One of the aspects of the Prism-related discussions that hasn’t sat well in my mind is the use of the term “surveillance” as well as “spying”. That’s not to say that the American government hasn’t been infringing on privacy, but I don’t think those terms adequately described what large-scale metadata collection entails. After all, the image conjured by the use of those terms is active investigation, whereas from what I understand of the programmes, most of the metadata collection isn’t actually used, ever. The government doesn’t care about most of us.

This evening, I’ve been re-reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer and a line popped out at me, which I think relates to the unease I feel about the use of surveillance as a term in relation to the metadata debate. It is, I admit, a discussion between a drugged up hacker, Case, and an artificial-intelligence called Wintermute, but bear with me:

“Bullshit. Can you read my mind, Finn?” He grimaced. “Wintermute, I mean.”

“Minds aren’t read. See, you’ve got the paradigms print gave you, and you’re barely print-literate. I can access your memory, but that’s not the same as your mind.”

Governments are undoubtedly using mass data collection as a means of identifying and surveilling individuals and groups. But the act of mass data collection isn’t the same as the act of surveillance. Rather, I think the word we’re looking for is access, or ingress – the act or right of entering our private lives. In many ways, I think this is rather worse for the ‘privacy’ of the average citizen than active surveillance. After all, traditional surveillance works best from the moment it begins – it is far easier for a state or a company to acquire information about your present and into your future than it is to acquire a similar volume or quality of data about your past. Your past is protected by the inability of others to access data that has long since been deleted or forgotten, or went untracked.

Representing this idea in a cheap Excel graph, the sum total of data available to an entity trying to surveil me at the point in time indicated by the black line looks like this:

In other words, if someone gets interested in me, then they can surveil quite a lot, but it’s the decision to take an interest that determines how much they get to see. In terms of privacy, quite a lot of what I have done is private and hidden from them, by dint of it being in the past. Conversely, the mass collection of metadata makes the point in time that an entity starts to actively surveil me irrelevant – all that data is preserved in a huge serverfarm somewhere in America.

Cue shoddy Excel graph 2:


The point I’m trying to make is that under the second set of circumstances, the amount of information available to a potential ‘snooper’ is independent of the timing of the act of surveillance. A kid born today, where intelligence agencies hoover up this kind of info lives forever to the right of the “Metadata collection begins” point on the graph. Governments aren’t necessarily surveilling everyone, but they’re building the datasets required to ingress into anyone’s history, back to the earliest point of metadata collection, whenever they are interested. How does one control this? The common option is tied to the use of “surveillance” as a concept: stop the government from collecting any data. That’s quite unlikely, I think. What interests me is that we have no control over the temporal limits of metadata collection (how far back records go), nor do we have any control (realistically) over deletion of metadata. We only have trust. I trust Google (perhaps stupidly) to delete data when I ask them to, but who trusts an intelligence agency to do the same?