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.



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.)



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)



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.


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.


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. )


UK intelligence chiefs go to Parliament

Not the title of a good, nor bad Enid Blighton book, but what happened yesterday in Parliament. Unprecedented no less. And in the context of the process of avowal yes it was a significant moment. Only twenty years ago there was no statutory footing for these agencies, nor was their presence formally recognised (although they were widely known).

So, there is a huge amount of media commentary this morning about this evidence and I don’t see a utility in merely playing back to these commentators what is already there. So, some off the cuff political science responses:

A technological hinterland: 

Two realities: the first is that every successive generation will say that the technologies and techniques that exist now are superior to those which existed a year ago, or a generation ago. And that must and will always be true. You’d have to run some interesting scenarios to get to a point where ‘it was more sophisticated a generation ago’. And the second is that the level of technology now is so sophisticated and gives such good eyes that – and this is an important caveat – the technology exists to maintain a ‘totalitarian, dictatorial’ system of control over the citizenry. The obstacles? Cash, and political will. Or cash, and the control measures in place. Depends on how you view the essential political/genetic make-up of those engaged in intelligence work, I suppose.

I’m happy to think that these are incontrovertible truths. And thus we must then observe that there is a tension in pacing between the range and scope of technological and technical advances and the legislation and oversight. As a lawmaker I might set up a raft of very precise legal measures (and this is the form of the UK Parliament) but without a general anti-abuse measure, and a question of enforceability, I am always playing catch up to the realities on the ground.

Again, I don’t think this is controversial.

But where it drives me to is a structural point – which again is basic political science – of where you sit determines what you see. For the three men giving evidence to Parliament they know they are decent folk in charge of decent folk doing a decent job. Yes, just like the military, their armaments are formidable but they are accountable and legally proscribed. For the Parliamentarians, they think they’re part of the intelligence community club (they’re not, but they want to be and they’re made to feel welcome etc, but they’re not and that is a problem for oversight… try criticising someone you’re very attracted to.. difficult, isn’t it? Try criticising someone who might make your life very difficult and who has the means to do so? Yeah, you’d rather not). So, tortured syntax aside, Parliamentarians are unlikely to currently be in a place to say ‘we need stronger powers’. They were frankly just pleased the three came to play. And then for those outside the intelligence community, who can see the technical ability and who might assess that it’s a capability which could cause major political problems I think it’s only right that they would want further scrutiny, checks, balances etc. All of these positions are logically consistent with the structural positioning. That’s not controversial, right?

So, why all the tension? Well, because the media – and really we’re talking about the quality press here – feel like they’ve got, via Snowden, the agencies on the run. They think they’ve found them with their knickers down being naughty. The essential line is ‘if you thought they lied in 2002, that’s got nothing on what they’re up to now’ and add in a bit of rendition history too. So, the three have a credibility problem or issue that is partly a product of what they do (we all are wowed and perturbed by intelligence activity), and because the very recent history is one which appears to be cases on the edge of legal acceptability and more recently of activities that diverged from public (and political) understandings of what the agencies were meant to be doing.

I wonder if Parliamentary appearances are aimed at the public, and if they are whether they are the correct forum for instilling public trust?

The other aspect causing tension – but it is unlikely to be on the public mind – is the agencies as political or norm entrepreneurs. The Guardian (yes, them) published material that demonstrated that European agencies were helping each other mitigate the political and legal sphere for these activities: ‘we did this way, you could do x, and y to see yourselves clear’, that kind of thing. This sort of cooperation always goes on across Europe, but often in less sensitive policy areas: no-one really objects to it occuring in labour market relations, or compliance on the number of hours someone is permitted to sit on a tractor. When it applies to the intrusiveness of surveillance across a mass population, it certainly ‘feels’ different.

As someone who has studied this area for just over a decade I am struck by the increased coverage of intelligence, and not just because of Guardian revelations. Unless the media coverage dissipates markedly it feels to me like this divergence of public view and official disposition does have some political dangers attached to it. If the core messaging of ‘we keep you safe’ has lost its traction, and it certainly appears to have, then a new compact or public understanding is required. Is that a fair playing independent set of eyes on this usage or activity? I have wondered for a while how close to the 1% doctrine (with the caveat of limited cash) the UK establishment is. Public pronouncements by people I like and trust on this subject made me wonder whether we’d moved to a 5% doctrine, perhaps 2005 is sufficiently long ag0 that the public are highlighting their own privacy over the security umbrella. But no-one wants a successful attack to prove the point.

Other opinions are available to this wrap-up thought: we British have always been quite comfortable about our security structures doing things to those people over there (and there have been many markers for what we meant by ‘them’), and decidedly dischuffed about them doing things to us. This is the golden rule of Britishness that seems to have been lost by the establishment, or they haven’t messaged that they understand it clearly enough… Reworking that compact, and moving away from a core message of ‘trust us, because we know stuff, and we protect you’ is the key transforming this current political-public impasse.



The ghost of Iraq past and Syria present

I don’t think David Cameron is a bad egg. His family policies (or those of his Chancellor) have caused me to agree with the Daily Mail on numerous occasions, which is not very usual to be honest… but by the by. I believed him yesterday when he said he wanted to be open and transparent and not to repeat the foul-ups of 2003. And so his surprise defeat was, I think, more about Iraq and domestic politics than it was about Syria.

So, why did he lose the vote?


According to opinion polls, and Lord Ashcroft’s tweets and website are actually becoming a good barometer (in the same way eurobarometer is for the EU) have strongly shown ‘the public’ to be opposed. MPs seemed genuinely reticent themselves, but had a clearer eye on a public who wouldn’t stand for 2003 again. So, no matter that a strong and clear document is published from the JIC, based on very strong JIO analysis, it didn’t have 100% tags on it (and it couldn’t have.. it was intelligence assessment), and so it wasn’t good enough for the post-Iraq public. Cameron isn’t Blair, but he got treated as if he was.

Bringing back Parliament to anoint action: 

Under prerogative powers Cameron didn’t need to ask Parliament, but he wanted approval. It’s difficult to gauge whether the ‘I’m seeking a rubber stamp’ urked Members or not. Either way, it was a self-inflicted wound, but it is inconceivable for Parliament not to have been involved in some form, even though the action contemplated seems to have been very small. There was also unease about the language used by the Foreign Secretary and luminaries like Malcolm Rifkind that we didn’t need a UN mandate – technically, not, but difficult to manage the political fall-out.

Pottery Barn rules: 

You break it, you own it. After Iraq and Afghanistan I don’t think there’s a huge appetite to be involved in longer conflicts or reconstruction. I don’t think the PM’s position that we wouldn’t be involved into the medium to long term was particularly tenable. I think MPs agreed.


The problem of blowback was addressed in the JIC report. They assessed it very differently to me (and I’m always happy to concede), but there are lingering concerns about radicalising new sections of the community here, and abroad.


The public have a higher regard for Cameron than his own back-benchers, who seem to variously see him as too Hawkish, too Dovish and/or just not quite right. A Thatcher in full cry wouldn’t have lost this vote. It’s a terrible slight on his political authority. Michael Gove might have been cursing rebels, but it provides him with a chance to topple Cameron before the election.

As many colleagues have pointed out though, this was not a reason to vote the measures down…


It’s difficult to see the UK as being isolationist when it gives so much money away in aid… but that’s how people like Lord Ashdown painted it. I think it’s the East of Suez debate, without the debate. Sensible spheres of influence, engagement where it makes sense. Ultimately, action will occur because President Obama set down a red line, and Syria crossed it. There has to be a response  or the authority of the US is questioned. Luckily for the Prime Minister the American administration don’t seem to have taken the news too badly, which means that their military response is likely to be limited and speedy.

None of this does anything to help the people of Syria, of course – not intervening, nor not intervening. It’s time – for once – for the UN to actually step up.

Whilst I didn’t agree with military action in this case, as per my previous posting, I don’t think Mr Cameron lost his vote for the ‘right reasons’, and it sets the decision to go to war now firmly with Parliament, where it –  perhaps-  should always have been.


Syria and the Parliamentary recall

The UK shouldn’t be involved in military action against Syria, no matter how horrific the original use of chemicals was. And here’s for why:

  • The responsibility to protect is not the responsibility to punish. Leave that to the ICC. The war crimes commission can act in due course. That’s of course unless the government wish to give the Russian and Chinese government the press release that says ‘the west doesn’t give a monkeys about international process’.  The same should be the case for the need to secure UN resolutions.
  • The unintended consequence of action is to alienate those within the regime who might have been sought out to negotiate. Or who might have been alienated by the use of the chemicals in the first place. All action solidifies the resolve of the regime.
  • You might hit Russian advisors. That would be ill-advised.
  • You might get dragged into something expensive and difficult (and let’s not forget that the Syrians have decent kit). There’s no will of the people to engage. The Iraq legacy persists. Scepticism about evidence and nice rhetoric also persists.
  • You shouldn’t want anything other than a stalemate here. The analysis done on the ‘rebels’ doesn’t make them look particularly friendly/acceptable to the west. So, don’t do anything to radically tip the balance, and remember Egypt just went bad. Syria will be way worse and less containable.
  • Our military is no longer geared for this. The SDSR did not provide for us to Libya (not really) and it certainly does not provide for this. Put the battle charts down, warm the diplomats up and leave it to someone else.
  • Attacking Assad is likely to have consequences for the UK. Let’s not invite on consequences. Instead, let’s read Baroness Manningham-Bullers’ evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry and conclude that she was a wise sage, with transferable advice.

On the less edifying end of the scale:

  • We’re just coming out of recession. Don’t rock the international oil boat. Don’t spend money we don’t have. It’s bad enough giving huge quantities of international aid money away, when the food bank in my local church is over-subscribed. When people cannot get the treatment for health problems that is a clinical need because there’s no money and when the schools have to beg for contributions from parents.. Our national security is currently not found in Syria. Don’t invent connections when there aren’t any.
  • We are no longer a global policeman. We are no longer a medium sized power. We are a key component of a European security community. Let it be for others to lead.

So, on Thursday, when Parliament is recalled, I hope they put the battle maps and the war drums away. Patience, influence and other tools are required here.

Of course, they will do the complete opposite.. and then there will be a cottage industry in writing and broadcasting about why it was such a complete cluster….. plus ca change?


Prism and the making of our idiocracy.

This is not the time for cliché or sound bite, but to paraphrase Tony Blair, I feel the hand of history (or the all-seeing electronic eye) just to the right of this keyboard. And your keyboard actually. And your webcam. Oh, and your telephone. Indeed, if your toaster has acquired the ability to engage in two-way communications, the all-seeing electronic eye probably knows how you like your toast. And your crumpets.  It has probably told its all-seeing master (or mistress). And they have made a micro-judgment about the fact that your toast is underdone (an unsound choice unless matched with slightly underdone bacon) and that your crumpets are ever so slightly rubbery.

If outed by a former contractor with an overdeveloped sense of global citizenry and a keenness to stop enjoying the liberties of a free man, the all-seeing electronic eye’s master (or mistress) would tell you that you had nothing to worry about if you are merely going about your business in a law abiding way. Afterall, a small detail about your toast (and crumpets) going to the all-seeing electronic eye is a small price to pay for all this security you are enjoying. And you are enjoying it, right? And you might hopefully respond to the representative of the all-seeing electronic eye that they were talking total rot. Because this is only in small part about being law-abiding, it’s mostly about creating and enforcing obedience and compliance.

It is the beigest political paint that dries the quickest, and Prism is set for maximum beige.

Its effect on politics is so beiging it might have been painted on the panels of a British made car of the 70s

Being a useful idiot…

Of all the things to be miffed about with Prism one of the most random (and least important) is that nearly all of the IR scholars who write through the ‘inspiration’ and, er, prism of Foucault are probably right. And this is not good. Because I’ve only ever met several ‘Foucauldians’ who haven’t been eminently irritating, and painfully certain that they have seen the one-true light of a bald French bloke who was good at re-historicisation. In their world the rest of us are pre-Foucault. If only we had seen that one true light too. (I exaggerate slightly for effect: I know a few Foucauldians who I strongly admire, and who live far enough away now to make it a really large effort to beat me about the head). Anyhow, necessary caveats in place… these buggers are right. The dead-hand of the state is not dead at all. It’s alive and desperate to create passive political bodies. The frightening tone of Richard Aldrich’s brilliant book on GCHG has been transformed in my mind from a frightening dystopia into underplay of the agenda at hand. But people like me are useful idiots because we tend to see the strengths in bureaucratic, political and judicial oversight mechanisms (and lecture about these strengths in glowing tones), and in assuming that just as the ordinary soldier sees themself as a reflection in their enemy, then security officials see themselves in those they serve. And if they do, it’s a poor reflection of the Biblical maxim do unto others what you’d have done to yourself. (I can feel the tautology of ‘if you’re law abiding’ coming on again… tell that to the select many who ran into certain British police forces during the 70s and 80s.. but by the by).   There’s also an endless amount to be said about the quantity of data we voluntarily contribute to that mystical place ‘the internet’, which has evidently contributed to our own surveillance…. But that’s also by the by.

 The myth of absolute security:

So, how did we get here?

External stimulus (but not one more dramatic than the Cold War, cue post-colonial thinkers to explain this missing gap) + defence of budgetary territory + technical capacity + functional creep – politicians without the wit to say no = the myth of absolute security and all that goes with it.

So, 9/11 and 7/7 in the UK were seen as ‘wake-up’ calls, and were immediately labelled as intelligence failures. But this was unfair. Intelligence agencies had never said that they offered blanket protection, and why should they: they can’t. But it was quite clear that the press (and however you read the reflect><lead function of the media) and a large part of the public assumed that they indirectly paid into this national security slot machine, the security wheels whizz round, and as regular as clock-work security comes flying out in a clattering din of happy contentedness. But in the real world of real people, intelligence and security is a clever system of processes and people that gets lucky more often than it gets unlucky: ‘we only have to be lucky once, you have to be lucky every time’ as one of the Brighton bombers was quoted as saying.

So, the myth of security began with a massive public misunderstanding of what intelligence is and does. It was then compounded by weak politicians who either misunderstood it themselves or decided it would be mighty funny and/or convenient to confirm this myth and avoid some issues that are firmly parked in the ‘too difficult’ box. Political science point: how, narratively, do we now row back from this misunderstanding? No-one who wants to get elected again is going to point out that the security-slot-machine is a game of chance, and you might lose your money. Time and time again.

The agency response appears to have been many-fold, but we can tell a two-fold story: 1) a desire to avoid being tarred as having failed to meet up to (unreasonable) expectations, 2) a desire to expand budgets and political turf at a permissive moment. These have dovetailed with the ease and speed with which ELINT/SIGINT/SOCMINT can be collected and stored.

So, whilst we can all see why such a response is rational, or at least explicable, it maintains a critical bind, which can be illustrated via part of the response to the disgraceful attack on the soldier Lee Rigby. Investigative journalism then suggested that the accused had been known to intelligence, some even suggested that one of them had been recently approached to spy on Jihadists.  The security slot machine appeared to have stopped spitting out security coins, instead it looked like in some circumstances like it didn’t know when it had three of a kind showing. Again, this is unfair, but the narrative exists, and does so because it is useful and helpful in some respects.

The European rescue of the all-seeing-electronic eye

No, I don’t actually think there’s a European rescue, but there will almost certainly be a lot of European resistance and friction to what we have learned about Prism. When I wrote a paper and gave evidence to the European Parliament in 2010 about the Passenger Name Record issue, there was a great deal of anxiety about how this information would treated, stored and used. And more widely and philosophically about the merits of a foreign power having such a wide array of EU citizen’s data. But let’s be clear: PNR is the smallest sprat in the sea compared to the revelations about Prism. In the light of Prism, the debate we had about PNR was so pointless it almost wasn’t worth the trip to Madrid to discuss it (cough). And it will have no doubt amused the Russian government to see that the response to their request for PNR data (which mirrors the arrangement the EU has with the US) was laughed out of the room (and I am sure the Russian government were not disappointed nor surprised by this) whilst the news of Prism loomed large on the horizon. Whilst such views are not popular in these parts, the EU underplays the strength it has in big-data, and the ability it would have to act as its own security bloc, if only it could line up in something of the same direction.

Where do we go from here?

Well, nothing will change. So forget any notion that this seismic event will generate change. It will generate a lot of political hot air, and a lot of protests. But no-one will dare challenge the myth of absolute security, and it is on that premise that the whole system sits.

Security is created by economic growth, and the access to the benefits of and means by which economies grow. There will always be those who want a fight. No matter how good life is. We should pay these people negative attention. But we won’t need to worry about the mass of population if we know that there is an absence of grievance. And economic growth cures most grievances. Just as in COIN, the aim should be to reduce the fighting core to the smallest number, not to label the largest number of people as combatants. The best thing the politicians of the US, UK and the rest of Europe could do in response to this crisis is get their economies motoring again.

Leave the toasters to do their business in peace….