groundhog day

Gulf War III

The new gulf war will be an amazing thing.

It won’t be like the previous two in any way.

This time there will be a clear strategy from the start: to kill the bad people.

And the range of activities to be performed will be tightly bounded: we won’t go into ground operations unless all the air operations turn out to be not quite as effective as we thought. Then we’ll vacillate about whether we meant we weren’t going to go in on the ground, agonize about whether we have the correct authorities to do so, and then under resource it. To make it interesting.

We know exactly that this is the thing that the enemy least wants: the people cutting off heads and making videos of it precisely don’t want us to attack them. That’s the thing they’re most seeking to avoid. Because if we don’t attack them they’ll be able to find cohesion amongst Middle Eastern populations to widen the caliphate. It’s either that or it’s precisely what they want. Bit like AQ and the death by a thousand cuts that bin Laden predicted for Gulf War II.

We won’t turn a blind eye to who is – predominantly – funding these groups, and we will certainly make stiff representations to them: unless they have lot of money. In which case we’ll pretend the root cause is something else. Because that’s less inconvenient.

We will give our armed forces the %GDP funding and capabilities to deal with these endless interventions: or, alternatively, we’ll keep forgetting that we said we’d stop intervening, cut the funding and wonder why it’s all a bit touch and go. God forbid we actually and seriously engage in drumming out duplication in Europe to make sure that our buck is delivering a bang not a sizzle. (Sorry, I realise I went far too far there….)

This time when we break the china in the shop, we’ll own the shop. Definitely. We won’t cut and run with the shop still broken and a big sign saying ‘easy thieving opportunities here’ placed in the window. No sir. Unless we get bored of the people not being able to stop killing each other.  Which is, afterall, very tedious.

So, off to war we go.

But it would be nicer to have an exit strategy from the start, and a range of things that looked like an understanding of what success in this space is.

Most importantly, I wonder whether Chilcot will manage to report before Gulf War IV?

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Mitrokhin & lessons learned

Two thousand pages of Mitrokhin’s notebooks have been cleared by the vetters and released into Churchill College for all to see.

The FBI described Mitrokhin’s files as the most complete set of intelligence ever gifted to them from a single source, and there was much that was compelling within them. There were particular revelations that shook the various institutions they touched. But I was asked by a journalist-friend to provide a comment about what these files taught us about ‘the Russian playbook’, and how to deal with Russia now. And I provided an answer that partly skirted the issue, because I think it’s a misreading of the utility of the files and how we should understand intelligence agencies in general.

The Mitrokhin files tell us that intelligence agencies operate in a slightly different way to common public perception’s understanding. These government bodies operate mostly as agents of influence – very rarely do they directly recruit high value operatives (and Mitrokhin is scathing about the Cambridge spy ring’s actual abilities) but they mostly establish low-level relationships in which the party being used has very little understanding of their role. That’s partly because of the transaction costs (in terms of time, opportunity and risk) of recruiting high-value targets (and presumably the low success rate) and partly because the role of an intelligence agency is as a norm entrepreneur, not just a collector and assessor of raw information. A wider net is more useful for these purposes, and just as in business is likely to throw up unexpected bonuses.

I also think that a lesson from the files is that the European security system has changed. If we take the UK as a snap-shot of a post-Cold War security state – the relief at the end of the nuclear confrontation has allowed foreign adversaries to hold large financial positions in London – which has, for example, undermined the Prime Minister’s ambitions to leverage sanctions recently – and to allow what could uncharitably be called influence operations to be conducted against educational establishments, think-tanks and the like.* Most European governments have focused their security attentions away from their traditional adversaries (who have not gone away) and onto newer threats in the Middle East and neighbouring regions whilst simultaneously trying to make financial savings or efficiency gains.

So, I think it’s a mistake to think of this as only a Russia issue or a Russia problem. The logic of security competition means that all states with active intelligence capabilities enthusiastically engage in these activities. The lesson to be learned is not a country specific one… it’s to embrace the notion that hyper-competition involves influence and the constraining of autonomy across intellectual, financial and infrastructural lines. Mitrokhin provides a rich, but limited case study of one nation’s efforts in this regard. The pattern of behaviour is somewhat more ubiquitous though. 

 

*Be cautious, also, of over-reading the impact of these target groups: it was well-known in Russian security circles that over-reading these groups cheered up the Politburo, but little else.

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Reservists and the NAO

(You wait or dread a long time for a Dover post, and then two come along in half an hour.. hardly seems right, does it?)

The government got a thorough drubbing from the NAO about the plan to have in place 30,000 reservists, whilst dialing down the number of regulars to 82,000 (a historically low figure). The NAO concluded that the government was going to fall well short of the required figure of 30,000 by 2018. There was also criticism of yet another government IT project that looks like it can just be added to the litany of computer system gaffs that all governments seem acutely prone…

General Sir Peter was quoted in the media yesterday as saying that the army should not face any further reorganisation or redundancy until after SDSR 2015 – this has to be palpably correct. The thousand redundancy notices poised to be sent to serving members of the army should be shredded until such time as it makes some/any sense to issue them. If the reservists cannot be recruited why go through the self-defeating exercise of expelling regulars.

The NAO were critical of the MoD in saying that the policy had not been rigorously tested. To be fair to the MoD it’s difficult to pre-test a radical departure, there is a sense in which one has to live these things to discover whether they work or not, and whilst many people did highlight the many difficulties with the policy it isn’t right to say it was obviously fatally flawed from the start. I thought and wrote here that it was going to be difficult to persuade regulars made redundant to come back in via the reservists (there is nuance here around statutory compulsion to that effect anyway, but the essence is right) because rightly or wrongly it is seen as a less good contractual basis. I argued that the military covenant was simply not strong nor effective enough to deliver the guarantees to service personnel they needed, nor were the provisions in place for compensating civilian workplaces for reservists going on tour strong enough: they relied (in part, I thought) on a kind of patriotic sense of duty for the employer, that is simply misplaced in this economy.

It is easy to sit back and say that what is really required is another thought about fundamental strategy (that’s right, but the message is out there) and unless I’ve missed something fundamental SDSR 2015 is moving along quietly and without really taking up the time of anyone other than the usual academic suspects. But that’s not to write it off a year and a bit out from when it will be published. Needless to say, it strikes me that the intellectually sound fix to these issues is to appropriately position the UK in the world etc and then to work out how much security one can buy. My friend and colleague Tim Edmunds uses a risk methodology for this equation, and whilst this has its own flaws, one can see that evidence-based joy of it.

Anyhow, the view before breakfast is halt the redundancies, pause, reflect, and wait for SDSR 2015.

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Isis and the strange wisdom of Vlad?

When I was a student in Nottingham (which is now a scary amount of time ago).. there was a dubious nightclub called ISIS. It was only dubious because of the calibre of us students frequenting it, mostly on a Wednesday night. It had seemingly changed its name from Black Orchid to get away from the connotations of ‘BO’ and the athletics union night that it so famously hosted at that time, although it never got away from the sticky floor it had whatever time of day or night one went in. But on the plus side it wasn’t into world domination, mass beheadings or any of the other nasties that the group that has taken inspiration from its name are clearly into… so that’s a plus.

There are many things to be perturbed about regarding the sudden rush of ISIS through key parts of Iraq. Why was there not the intelligence in place to identify this in advance (and if there was why was the response so poor?), why did 800 armed militants scare of two divisions of Iraqi army.. just how flaky is the Iraqi army? And – worst of all (I jest) – was Putin correct in supporting Assad?

This is a theme I have touched on before on these pages… The simple logic of my enemy’s enemy is my friend, the challenge to it, and the notion that containment of an enemy like Hussein, like Assad is far more effective that toppling or attempting to topple.

Is the chemical weapons using Assad better or worse for our interests, for regional stability than ISIS? An ISIS now using the American supplied equipment that the Iraqi army dropped when it turned on its heel and ran crying a couple of days ago? Well, given that I’d rather containment than rash acts (and cards on the table, I was ghoulishly excited by rash acts in 2003…)  my hunch is that once again we’ve not only dropped a plate, we’ve hurled the plate into the wall and then realised we’re not at a cliched and improbable Greek wedding (I’ve not been to one where anyone has wanted to break stuff… shoot into the air, yes. Curiously. But not break stuff). Putin supported Assad’s Syria because it was one of the last mainstays of Russian support in the Middle East (so, self interest), he also said to us he supported it because the alternative was worse (and he appears to be very correct about that), and because he noted that our ‘civilising mission’ in the Middle East had been differently successful (given the whole running away thing, that’s also pretty correct).

So, we’re in a pickle. And for anyone who follows @SoVeryBritish we are thankful for the definition of this which is: ”A bit of a pickle – Translation: A catastrophically bad situation with potentially fatal consequences.” We actually require Assad to survive. Because we actually cannot have ISIS conducting a cross-border insurgency in Iraq and Syria in which two non-functioning states are (un)created. As a friend whimsically put it yesterday, ‘at least Iraq no longer has WMD’.

ISIS appear to be well-organised (not just because of the recent victories), are very ambitious, and having been disavowed by AQ, present a strong risk to our key interests in the Middle East and nearer to home (mostly because their membership is said to have a large European contingent).

I’m not sure it’s the time to say Vlad was right, but it might be the time to start doing things that could be misinterpreted in that way. Getting Assad somewhere back into the fold and contained is – it would seem – the lesser of two evils and the bastard you know is better than the bastard you don’t…

 

 

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Fascist Summer? Or, European elections are fun really.

The European elections are often derided, and definitely often ignored… after all just a third of us in the UK bothered to go to vote.

Can you name your MEP?

For the next couple of hours, I can. Bill Newton-Dunn. Former Tory, now Lib-Dem. But my best guess would be that I’ll have to learn a new name as the Lib-Dems are quite likely to have no MEPs by the time we get to tomorrow morning.

Newly empowered by the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament is in the slightly strange position (soon to be very strange) of having considerable Treaty-based powers, a democratic vote and yet very low levels of connectivity with the people it serves. This will transition to the weirder position of having a considerable number of its Members devotedly campaigning to see their Parliament scrapped. Indeed, taking its money to argue it should shut. Nice gig if you can get it.

For those negotiating the TTIP with the US, they’ll now be faced with a European Parliament in which there will likely be a natural majority against the negotiations. Whilst the strategic pivot means that the US has the focus of its eye elsewhere, the cementing of the Atlantic bridge is important. The current failure in the EU-Canadian CETA has a similar quality to it. And the TTIP will stand or fall in the European Parliament, not just in a vote of the whole Parliament but in the crucial work of the highly professionalised committees structure.  The flavour of these is, of course, colored by the Members who sit on them.

But this is not an attempt to convince you of the importance of the EP…I have only finite optimism.

There is a lot of talk of ‘protest votes’, a kick in the teeth to mainstream governments. Semantic point: there is no such thing as a ‘protest vote’, there’s a vote. Which is equal to any other vote, counted in any other way. The hallucinogenic joy of our system of democracy is that Farage could, one day, be Prime Minister.  It is of course also possible that Newton was wrong about gravity.

But there is a lot of talk of protests that imply that there are normal votes, and strange votes. And this election will be considered strange, because how could a party of government (albeit the smaller party in a governing coalition) lose every single one of their MEPs? Well, they probably have… because less people voted for them than voted for other parties. The bigger problem is the assumption that the public will continue voting for the same sort of consensus building middle-of-the-road parties when all the evidence from 2008 onwards is that the good old voting public feel like there is a very stark them and us dimension to the relationship between them and the political classes. Populist parties have always been very good at reflecting back the concerns of the public, and doing so in a way that makes them sound human. On Radio4 the other day, Eddie Mair asked the four parties’ contributors to have a go at being human..  not a high proportion of them over-achieved in trying to meet this request.

So, whilst I expect the UK and France to have voted for anti-EU parties in their droves, the populist or anti-those-in-power motif  has (according to controversial exit polls reported in the US etc) caused the Dutch to vote for one of the strongest Europhile parties in Europe. So, the political bent of the beneficiaries is not universal, but the underlying pattern is. It’s easy to say these results will be a flash in the pan, or over-read, but equally it would be a mistake for those parties who think of themselves as established to ignore the fact that publics  across a large swath of western Europe have come out to not vote for them (in their frame of reference) but to vote for someone else.

For students of foreign policy or transatlantic power politics, such developments offer the potential of four years of choppy European relations on a number of issues that will touch upon the core business of the Atlantic area…And for the UK it’ll provide a serious test for two of the party’s leaders and endless speculation about the beginnings of four party politics..hint: Farage will need to find some talented people to join him at the top of his party for this speculation to be anything other than hot air, the nabbing of the 1990s LibDem strategy of bridgehead constituencies is very astute though.

 

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Army 2020 – 20:20 vision or 15:3 myopia?

The UK Defence Select Committee today released its considered opinion on Army 2020 (the plan the MoD published in 2012). So this is a very considered consideration. It is fair to say that the Committee were not overly impressed with what they had read or heard of the government’s plans. Echoing the thoughts of Mark Phythian and I at the time, the MPs concluded that the SDSR aimed to “fit a financial envelope [with]…serious implications for national security”. But that’s not news, and nor is the other significant conclusion one can draw from the critique, which of course relates to ongoing issues in the Ukraine, Syria and any other strategic shock queuing up in the wings.. which is that we are no longer equipped to deal with a shock of any magnitude. Even a Russian military that has suffered the transitional pains of the last twenty years looks across at what Europe (in general) has to offer, and Britain specifically (I would have thought) and will no doubt have concluded that they’re more scared about losing places at top British public schools via targeted sanctions than they are of the prospect of Cameron waving a military stick.

That should be a salutary conclusion for us. We are not yet reconciled to being a soft-power actor. And dare one even think about mentioning Milward’s ‘European Rescue of the Nation State’ thesis as a possible clue to the most sensible direction for the UK to travel if it is going to persist in neutering its military?

The reduction in the size of the army to 82,000 (from the 102,000 it currently stands at) is to be notionally offset by an uplift in reservists from 19,000 to 30,000, with a retention strategy for those being made redundant off the regulars. That particular proposal has come in for lots of Parliamentary criticism and the struggle to reach recruiting targets is probably the biggest of the threats to the Army 2020 plans. The current number is around 22,000. The Select Committee seem particularly vexed by the MoD’s ability to hit recruitment targets.

The issue I always felt with the plans for the Reserve was around the need to encourage or incentivise employers (particularly those with micro- or SMEs) to be flexible enough to accommodate active service, and post-service, in general terms and for those who might return with specific post-conflict needs. I think it’s a difficult ask regardless of the legislative framework, good employer practice or patriotic duty, and this may be coming through in the numbers. The Shadow Defence team is probably right to ask that the planned redundancies from the regulars are now halted whilst the reservists have such a critical short-fall.

The MoD have countered some of the conclusions of the MPs by saying that defence and security are reorienting to new threats, such as the ever-frightening threat of cyber-attack. For an alternative view of how frightening or not this is, check out our newly Professored Thomas Rid’s excellent book on the same. But if we were to accept that cyber warfare is existentially frightening or concerning the fact that defence and security resources are being seen in this zero-sum game is worrying, and unrelated to what we can see on the ground. The increase in cyber threats does not appear at a time (clearly) when traditional military threats are receding. Infact, there is a persuasive thesis to be made that those traditional threats are homing back into view: a well-crafted series of arguments has been made recently around China and Taiwan in the medium term, the same was made (shockingly in terms of its prescience) around Russia and Ukraine by Sarah Palin: it may just have been coincidental, however.

So, it’s stuck record time at Main Building, I think. Are we an interventionist medium sized interventionist power with a force structure to suit, or are we a soft-power actor, with a good level of military capability if premised around a soft-power disposition?

It seems nearly tedious to be asking such a question… when the same question can and has been asked since (pick the date of your choice, Sandys, Healey, Nott, Options for Change, SDR etc etc etc). Might be nice to answer it though, eh?

(Or perhaps we could answer a different question around what is the optimum security we can achieve with sub-2% GDP, which might lead to all sorts of different conclusions and further questions.)

 

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Ukrainian miscalculations

So, the Crimean peninsula is gone. Write that one off. Move on.

To secure wider positions, you sometimes have to make a sacrifice, particularly when the blood/treasure equation is stark or problematic. So, farewell Crimea.

Allowing the annexation of Crimea does then open up a better playing field to deal with the larger problem of the rest of Ukraine. And from a Russian perspective, they probably think that Khrushchev was silly for giving it away (even under the assumption of USSR forever).

The Russians have ‘a’ point when they moan about the west’s evocation of democracy. They are – afterall – hosting the elected President in nice surrounds in Moscow. And making a claim – as both Hague and Obama did – of let the Ukrainian people speak is fine, but will only produce (in truth) a cacophony of differing positions. There’s no clear path through, no unifying opposition. So, the Russians can – with ‘some’ justification say they’re securing the democratic mandate. However problematic that is.

It is interesting (although that’s probably the wrong word) that Russia feels the need for a Cold War style buffer zone, but it clearly does. And it plays to popular sentiment at home (particularly if you listen to the World Service coverage of Russian radio yesterday). And meeting or addressing their unmet needs on this is also key to a resolution.

So, miscalculations here abound:

To me, Putin clearly thinks that Obama and allies don’t have the mettle* for this fight. He’s known to be a whites of the eyes man. And I’m guessing he thinks they’re without gumption. But if they surprise him, that’s going to be messy.

There are multiple miscalculations to be made around respective military strengths – just read the commentary around it.

Energy blackmail – for Europe (bar the UK) this is a real problem. And a solution will need to give Russia its cheap way back in again, and let’s not discuss the bilateral agreements it has with European states.

Democracy – there is no clear democratic option here. Containment is key, and democracy might need to take a back seat in the short-term.

British miscalculations regarding defence spending and the strength of the armed forces – many commentators correctly pointed out that we were no longer properly equipped for strategic shocks. Hopefully the size of this shock is relatively small, because collectively European defence and security forces are under-equipped and under-resourced. This is also bound to feature in Russian thinking, despite their own state of preparedness.

The counterintelligence problematic of a war with Russia – nothing particularly sophisticated here, merely that those countries that span the old Iron Curtain divide are better integrated than we’d like to admit.

Syria.. no, not a miscalculation… but no-one is talking about it. A huge fog of convenience has just descended for the Syrian government to play in(?).

The path of good intentions is paved with massive and fragile egos, making miscalculations…

(*many thanks to the commentator below for pointing out my typo)

 

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Putting the Steele into intelligence reform

Robert Steele is one of the more interesting writers on intelligence. Based in the US, and a former practitioner he has brought an enormous amount of energy to the questions around intelligence effectiveness and intelligence reform, and can rightly be thought of as a grandfather of the open source intelligence movement, and more recently the expanded “Open Source Everything” meme. I should insert the health warning that he has appeared in the Companion guide that Mike Goodman, Claudia Hillebrand and I edited, so I am not entirely impartial on this, but I would place myself as a ‘critical friend’ of his work.[i]

He has recently published a semi-manifesto piece about US intelligence and it can be found on this link. I have distilled the following key points from it, that I want to write around briefly here, but the original piece is where his take on these issues sit, obviously: 1) intelligence should be about decision support; 2) intelligence is currently being justified along the lines of the quantity of secrets it produces the Executive without regard to the total government need; 3) there is a dominant discourse that only secret intelligence agencies are equipped to ‘do’ intelligence; 4) Parliament and politicians in general desperately need intelligence qua decision-support, sense-making applied to all information secret and open that applies to their functional domains; and 5) the public desperately needs intelligence, again in the form of decision support.  Recently the public has become the object – Americans would say the target – of intelligence agencies, which is quite the opposite of the public being a virtual intelligence network in being, contributing to national and public security more effectively by leveraging the creative commons approach to information, what some call collective or co-intelligence.[ii]

I actually think Steele’s argument needs to be run in reverse chronological order to take on the compelling edge he desires. When I spoke to him a few years ago he was extolling the virtues of connecting up the mobile telephony and tablet computing of the developing world, up to and including equipping them at no cost to themselves, on the grounds that the information they would bring and pool would be invaluable to understanding the politics, security and economics of countries and regions we take best guesses at. He embraced the concepts of, among others, C. K. Prahalad (The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid) and Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks) along with the ideas coming out of Brazil from Puerto Alegre, on participatory budgeting and pedagogies of freedom. The recent and ongoing revelations about mass surveillance (and I would strongly urge anyone reading this to access the European Parliament debates on this – the Guardian published an early synopsis of this work yesterday) obviously opens an alternative reading to the wirelessly wiring up of the developing world. But if we stick with the creative commons notion, it is likely to be the case that we could achieve most intelligence objectives – Steele cites at around 95% – without needing to recourse to covert means. Anyhow, the public has become the object of intelligence agencies, rather than the people they serve. That is a clumsy and sweeping summary, but readers of KoW will know that I think this is becoming the dominant discourse around which the public in particular understand the role of intelligence agencies: their usurping master and virtual enemy rather than a legitimate public service. Readers will also know that I think it would be useful to try and reposition this understanding. I think that Steele is correct that insecurity often flows from a lack of education or understanding at all levels from elite to base – and this in turns comes from failures or fractures in the availability of information and skills and techniques to deal with this information. The meta-analysis he presents here feels right to me – insecurity can be addressed in ways that do not require the secret community, but the devil is always in the detail. Is this actually utopianism, or can something workable be generated?

Steele’s point that the key risks and threats to modern society actually sit in policy areas in which secrecy clearly does not help – eg poverty and health, I think is absolutely correct. Those well worn, and indeed hackneyed debates around ‘securitization’ play exactly into this space – by classifying poverty as ‘security’ do we actually remove it from the sort of intellectual terrain in which we could make progress on it? And by extension, therefore, it might be a useful and efficacious thing to do, to narrow the remit of security to issues and areas that actually benefit from the skills, tools etc of the secret world. Intellectually that does not seem contentious to me, and yet politically – and with the industrial scale of security analysis and expansive tendencies – that is likely to be a controversial and rejected thought.  So, Steele argues that Congress (and for this post Parliament) do need intelligence – decision support – and rather urgently, only now applied to all policy questions across all Cabinet domains. The British Parliament barely receives intelligence (either product nor oversight) as it is, so it’s difficult to see that unless Parliament drags intelligence closer to its ambit that this sentiment applies here, but we might be able to reapply it or reframe it as Parliament would benefit from improving its open source and analytical function (which are already pretty good) and to deal more widely with an open source gathering and analytical function. There are some Parliamentarians for whom this already makes a great deal of sense. That raises the question: if intelligence is decision support, who should do it, at what of confidence, and with whom should the results be shared? Steele argues that secrecy is inherently a decapitation function in conflict with the mission of decision-support, and that the best intelligence is that which can be shared broadly, eg with the media, the public, and all other stakeholders such as the EU.

I think Steele is correct in his first three points: intelligence as decision support, in being justified as quantity of intelligence, and that the craft of intelligence as decision support resides right now, albeit severely impoverished, solely within the secret world. The textbook account of UK intelligence (and this may be a question of scale) is that its function was mostly to provide decision support and not to just warehouse data. Recent technological advances may have slanted that a little, but I think we can hold to that textbook line, and so it might be that we hold a distinction between the US and the UK on this. But I did wonder, having thought about Steele’s piece more, whether the number of policy areas or issues requiring the full machinery of secret government could usefully (and for efficacy reasons) be dramatically reduced to a strong core. An open source fusion centre or similar providing challenge, or working on its own terms might be the first step to making that judgment properly. Indeed, Steele has proposed an Open Source Agency for the USA, a Multinational Decision Support Centre for NATO/EU, and a United Nations Open Source Decision Support Information Network for the world at large.


[i] His chapter, “The Evolving Craft of Intelligence” is free online at his website, by agreement with the publisher.

[ii] Stewart Brand started the meme with the Co-Evolution Quarterly that evolved into the Whole Earth Review. Tom Atlee is the father of the co-intelligence meme, and founded The Co-Intelligence Institute.

This post was originally written in January and is posted with delay because of KoW’s redesign.

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Lone Wolves, Black Swans, and a Surveillance Llama

So, yesterday two murderers who murdered someone in plain view of video cameras, CCTV and a good number of shocked passers-by were convicted of having done just that. British law showed itself to not be a banana. But the commentary that immediately followed this most open-and-shut case focused upon (as always) whether the policing and security agencies had somehow missed a trick; just as they did around the Norwegian lone-wolf atrocity too.

Our zero tolerance for attacks is of course founded on our individual desire not to be caught up in such an event, and the way that we secure this is to make sure that it doesn’t happen to others either. All of that seems perfectly rational to me.

But in this seasonal time of gift giving (and the Snowden / NSA story is the gift that refuses to stop giving) are the problems of identifying, containing and rolling back lone wolves and surveillance connected? Or are lone wolves the stuff of Taleb’s black swans?

The immediate commentariat last night pointed out the following (and it will only be in time that we know if this is accurate or not, more precisely whether there is an evidential underpinning for these assertions):

Only one text message was exchanged between the two assailants, so not a developed pattern of signals to intercept.

That radicalisation occurred over a long period – some 10years or so – and thus if one was looking to a pattern from these two it was not towards the sudden cachophony of violence that then came forth. As one of my students quite wisely put it, perhaps the choice we make is about where we set the bar for more intrusive levels of interaction – speech acts might be enough, so long as we’re happy to resource it. Peter Neumann (of this KCL parish) made the very good point on Channel 4 news that there is no formula for this radicalisation. The 7/7 bombers also had 10year pre-event histories, whilst others might go live in a matter of months. The precise mechanism or transition from radicalisation to violence is simply not known, or not well enough known.

That they were known associates of known radical voices – so, again a targeted widening of the net, with all the resource implications that come with it.

That one of them had mental health problems, from adolescence, whilst the other had a long history of gang membership and low-level but reasonably intensive violence in their day to day lives. But it’s an easy and slippery narrative to say ‘ah, they were just mentally ill and maladjusted’ because the consequences of those thoughts and those actions are disproportionate. This would have a poor public policy outcome.

So, the radicalised lone wolf is a tricky character. If these two had avoided being arrested overseas they would have been loud and radical voices in a crowd. That would make them difficult to priortise – certainly from an outside perspective. But the dovetail into the NSA surveillance stories, is that one of the utilities of these techniques (which have also now run into legal problems via the 4th Amendment) is that they both highlight relationship details within degrees of separation, which would have been relevant here, and that they are capable of tracking worrying/dangerous narratives (eg narratives that lead to actual violence). So, that they did not work in this instance does not mean that they do not work. The transparency called for in the open letter from the internet giants (see here) should be around whether this kind of mass data approach is effective in picking up actively dangerous radicals (eg those capable of inflicting physical harm). Because that’s a risk assessment dialogue that the public and the relevant governments have not had.

Governments have assumed that the public is entirely intolerant of intelligence failure (which has become synomyised with attacks taking place), and that the technology was available to tackle some of these issues. Running alongside this is that the technology was ‘usefully’ outstripping the pace of the legal and political frameworks in place.

So tying it all up is the need, I think, to discuss the range of threats or problems being tackled. Is it all about physical violence or upheaval, or is it also around managing the message. The limitations of the dragnet – eg on lone wolves – is also important to acknowledge. Yesterday saw a final piece of the jigsaw put in place around the murder of a decent family man and soldier. It also opened a tension between the perception of the all-seeing eye and the analogue threat of lone-wolves with easy to acquire weaponry.

Yesterday was a rare day of no winners and no clear positives.

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The devil is in the devilly detail

On June 10th, the Foreign Secretary said this in Parliament:

“It has been suggested GCHQ uses our partnership with the United States to get around UK law, obtaining information that they cannot legally obtain in the UK. I wish to be absolutely clear that this accusation is baseless. Any data obtained by us from the US involving UK nationals is subject to proper UK statutory controls and safeguards.”

Which was all fine and good. There are not many ‘right thinking people’ who would try to suggest that modern democracies should be free from the ability to use intelligence mechanisms etc to protect their publics and core interests, but with appropriate safeguarding.

But I am left perturbed by how the June statement (both in its literal translation and the spirit of it) tallies with the story in today’s Guardian titled: ‘US and UK struck secret deal to allow NSA to ‘unmask’ Britons’ personal data’.

If anyone is intellectually fleet of foot enough to square these two things away convincingly, answers on a postcard to the normal address.

(Whilst it’s easy to call for public inquiries… I do think this whole topic is lending itself to one. And one in which the questions aren’t necessarily notified in advance… The need for a public dialogue about where the activities sit with public expectation is certainly worthy of exploration. )

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