Government and secrecy

With increasingly credible revelations about illegal surveillance within the United States, the general concern I’ve felt for years about the present administration is becoming progressively more acute. To be fiscally reckless and socially crusading is one thing. To authorize actions that blatantly violate international law (in the case of torture, rendition, and the indefinite detention of noncombatants) as well as domestic law (by disregarding constitutional safeguards and checks on power) an administration shifts from being simply unappealing to actually being criminal. You can’t just throw away the presumption of innocence and probable cause while maintaining the fiction that the foundational rules upon which a lawful society is based are not being discarded.

Perhaps the most worrisome of all the recent developments are the actions and statements being made against the press. I don’t know if there is any truth to the claim that the phones of ABC reporters are being tapped in hopes of identifying confidential sources, but the general argument that wide-ranging governmental activities must be kept secret for the sake of security is terrifying. If history and the examination of the contemporary world reveal anything, it is that protection from government is at least as important as protection from outside threats. As I wrote in the NASCA report (PDF):

Protection of the individual from unreasonable or arbitrary power – in the hands of government and its agents – is a crucial part of the individual security of all citizens in democratic states. While terrorists have shown themselves to be capable of causing enormous harm with modest resources, the very enormity state power means that it can do great harm through errors or by failing to create and maintain proper checks on authority.

Harm to citizens needn’t occur as the result of malice; the combination of intense secrecy and the inevitability of mistakes ensure that such harm will result. Anyone who doubts the capability of the American government and administration to make mistakes need only think of their own explanations for the Hurricane Katrina response, Abu Ghraib, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and all the rest.

Three of the NASCA report’s recommendations speak to the issue of secrecy and accountability specifically:

  • Security measures that are put in place should, wherever possible, require public justification and debate.
  • The perspective of security as a trade-off should be pro-actively presented to the public through outreach that emphasizes transparency.
  • With regards to domestic defence planning, military practice reliant upon secrecy should always be subsidiary to civil and legal oversight.

People both inside and outside the United States would be safer if such guidelines were followed. When even Fox News is opening articles with statements such as the one that follows, something has gone badly wrong.

The government has abruptly ended an inquiry into the warrantless eavesdropping program because the National Security Agency refused to grant Justice Department lawyers the necessary security clearance to probe the matter.

A legitimate government cannot operate under a general principle of secrecy. While there are certainly cases where secrecy serves a justifiable purpose – such as concealing the identity of the victim of some forms of crime, or the exact location of certain kinds of military facilities – a democratic government cannot retreat from accountability by its citizens by claiming that oversight creates vulnerability. The lack of oversight creates a much more worrisome vulnerability: worrisome for America, and worrisome for everyone who has faith in the fundamental values of democracy and justice upon which it is ostensibly founded.

NASCA and the BPG

As Fernando pointed out to me, the final report of the Bi-National Planning Group (PDF), with whom we met while on the NORAD trip, has specifically endorsed some recommendations from the report (PDF) that I wrote on behalf of our group.

[The fifth] BPG recommendation supports key recommendations identified by the North American Security Cooperation Assessment (NASCA): “The United States and Canada should increase the transparency of the process by which they engage in bi-lateral defence negotiations, policy development, and operations; This process should include a focus on public understanding and involvement; Projects undertaken by academic institutions, and other civilian research organizations should be supported, particularly as means of generating transparency in, and awareness about, the defence planning process.The NASCA report was prepared by members of the University of British Columbia (UBC) International Relations Students Association (IRSA) in 2005, and their observations were compiled by Milan Ilnyckyj-obtained from (51)

It’s your classic self-interested academic appeal for more research to be done – especially by people like the person doing the suggesting – but it’s still good to be mentioned. I shall have to read the entirety of their report once we finish cleaning up the flat from the party last night.

Iran, international law, and the bomb

While reading about US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explaining why Iranian nuclear enrichment should be referred to the UN Security Council, I immediately began wondering why such enrichment is a breach of international law. The United States has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), creating certain legal obligations, as has Iran. India, Pakistan, and Israel are non-signatory nuclear powers. For Iran to actually develop nuclear weapons would be a violation of the NPT, but the process of enrichment – even at an industrial scale that could produce enough uranium-235 for bomb making – does not seem to be, in and of itself. Indeed, the NPT explicitly affirms the right of members to develop civilian nuclear technologies, including uranium enrichment.

The much publicized announcement of Iranian enrichment of uranium was about material enriched to the level of about 3.5% uranium-235: the variety necessary for fission bombs. Such bombs require a much higher concentration of uranium-235, in the vicinity of 90%. Without guessing about the ultimate purpose of the program, the present enrichment activity seems to be in keeping with the requirements of nuclear power, rather than nuclear weapons.

When it comes to the United States and their obligations under the NPT, the present scorecard definitely doesn’t look so hot. The nuclear deal with India that President Bush approved and is now seeking Congressional approval for is one such violation, since it includes the provision of nuclear fuel to a state without appropriate controls in place. Likewise, the push to develop new kinds of nuclear weapons is a definite violation of the spirit – if not the precise letter – of the treaty, which stresses the obligation of states to seek disarmament and the reduction of nuclear arsenals.

Maybe it is in the strategic interests of America to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but they shouldn’t try to cloak that as being an enforcement of international law when it is not. More broadly, the United States should realize that using the United Nations at the times where it seems plausible that it might serve their interests, while ignoring it otherwise, seriously diminishes the credibility of their supposed commitment to multilateralism and international law.

All that said, it is certainly possible that Iran is conducting nuclear research with an aim to developing nuclear weapons. If so, evidence of that breach needs to be presented in an open and verifiable way.

Attempt to spark discussion

Relatively good news this week: The American armed forces have said that they will close the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Of course, with Guantanamo Bay and less well known detention centres in operation, this may be more of an exercise in public relations management than a demonstration of a genuine commitment to human rights.

Relatively bad news: President Bush struck a nuclear deal with India, largely sweeping away the restrictions put in place following its testing of nuclear weapons. The deal is evidence that the period of condemnation following the development of nuclear weapons is relatively short and likely to be truncated for short-term political reasons. Also, like the failure to pursue the reduction of existing weapons stock and experimentation on new designs, the provision of nuclear materials to India violates America’s commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

South Dakota passed a law criminalizing all forms of abortion in which the life of the mother is not at risk. Through the inevitable series of court challenges, the issue will once again be presented to the Supreme Court, where a danger exists that the legally questionable but highly important precedent of Roe v. Wade will be overturned.

For no particularly good reason, the bid of DP World, a firm from the United Arab Emirates, to buy P&O Ports, owner of six major ports in the United States, has been withdrawn due to political opposition. The Dubai-based company would have been subject to the same security requirements as American firms. This outcome seems to be a reflection of the kind of generalized hostility towards the Muslim world that exists in the Western liberal democracies, despite the efforts of leaders to stress that their objection is to terrorism, not to Islam.

Canada and Ballistic Missile Defence

Apparently, under the Harper government, there is new talk about Canada joining the American missile defence system. I believe that doing so would be unwise for a number of reasons, with the only real advantage of participation being the possibility of improved relations with the US.

Technically infeasible

The first reason to doubt the plan is that there is no reason to believe it will work. Past efforts at both theatre missile defence, the attempt to protect specific assets in a narrow geographical area, and umbrella missile defence have been failures. During the first Gulf War, the much lauded Patriot missile batteries never actually shot down a Scud – though they did shoot down two British planes by mistake. The Scud is essentially a modified V2: not exactly a modern missile.

Shooting down an ICBM is even more difficult. Lasers are infeasible given the difficulty of tracking the missile with such precision and the potential of reflective coatings and accelerated missile rotation mitigating their destructive effects. This reality is reflected in the new focus on kinetic kill systems, where a missile is meant to be used to knock the first missile apart. Of course, this risks showering the area below with radioactive fallout. Better than having a city hit, perhaps, but certainly not a good option.

There are three major stages in the flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or its submarine launched equivalent (SLBM). There is a boost phase, where the missile is launched from its silo or missile tube. It is the infrared emission from the launch, as well as the appearance on radar screens, that would first alert the United States to the fact that the missile is in the air. Barring the extensive deployment of space-based weapons, it is impossible to destroy the missile at this stage. The current missile defence plans do not attempt to do so.

The midcourse stage of the missile flight is suborbital, and takes place at an altitude of 1200km. During this phase, the missile can employ a large number of possible countermeasures: electronic signal jamming; the use of decoy warheads, chaff, and flares; and the deployment of metallic balloons that interfere with radar. It would either be at this stage or during the re-entry phase – when the warhead is travelling about 4km per second or about Mach 12 – that the kinetic kill would need to take place.

Even rigged tests that have taken place so far, where the missile trajectory is known in advance, no countermeasures are used, and a beacon is actually fitted in the warhead, have not resulted in success.

Strategic error I

The supposed contemporary enemies of the United States are not ICBM type entities. Intercontinental ballistic missiles are highly sophisticated pieces of hardware. Expensive and technically demanding to produce, they also require an extensive launch infrastructure. While they seem to be increasingly within the reach of states like North Korea and Pakistan, they are definitely not available to any terrorist group.

Moreover, if the United States went to the extreme expense of building an effective missile defence system, it would remain possible to deliver a small number of nuclear weapons by other means. They could be smuggled onto fishing boats or into storage containers. Maintaining a strategic focus on stopping potential missiles with a hypothetical system only tangentially addresses the problem of nuclear proliferation.

Strategic error II

The two hostile states that do have large numbers of ICBMs are Russia and China. Russia has so many, along with SLBMs, that it needn’t be concerned about the kind of missile defence system that is being proposed. That said, it could be used as an excuse to upgrade and modernize existing nuclear forces – especially if the United States resumes the development of its own nuclear weapons, as has been proposed by this administration.

The bigger concern is China. While the exact numbers are secret, it’s probable that China has about 20 missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the United States. The CIA apparently thinks that North Korea could have around five nuclear weapons. It’s hard to imagine a system that would be likely to stop five missiles, but that wouldn’t concern another state with only a small multiple of that number. Deploying missile defence might encourage China to build more missiles, begin putting missiles on submarines, begin fitting multiple independently-guided warheads upon missiles, or developing and deploying more effective countermeasures. It may, in any case, send entirely the wrong message to a state that is emerging as a larger military and industrial power.

Reasons for deployment

From the American position, there are two major reasons to deploy missile defence.

Firstly, it makes it look as though you are doing something to combat a threat almost universally regarded as very serious. This needn’t be an entirely cynical calculation. Given the incredible faith in technological progress within both the American public and the government and military, there is a belief that with enough brains and dollars, the thing can be made to work. It’s a mindset that goes along well with the notions of transformation that keep coming out of Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon.

Secondly, developing and building such a system will put billions of dollars into the hands of military contractors. Boeing, Lockheed-Matin, Raytheon, and the rest of them all stand to gain enormously. That has political relevance for the representatives of states where they employ a large section of the population – think of Colorado. It also has importance in a political system largely driven by multi-million dollar campaign contributions. Also, increasingly extensive direct connections exist between the military and military contractors. As such, disentangling their agendas is becoming increasingly difficult.

Potentially, some of the above could apply to Canada. If we were to join on, some contracts would doubtless flow to Canadian firms. I do not, however, think this would be a net benefit to Canada. Spending on defence industries – even if largely paid for by the United States – really doesn’t boost national welfare, at the same time as it would increase national insecurity.

The Canadian military does seem to broadly support missile defence. I can think of seven different reasons for which either the military specifically or the Canadian government generally might back the plan:

  1. The American armed forces are putting pressure on them to support Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) plans. In some sense, this is almost certainly true. It’s worth remembering the extent to which things like a lack of strategic airlift capability make the Canadian Forces (CF) heavily dependent upon our allies, and especially the United States, in order to be able to deploy. We are also highly reliant upon their military intelligence capabilities.
  2. They are concerned that a future terrorist attack could take place through Canada. If that happened, it was seriously sour relations between the two countries, or at least risk doing so. By participating in American initiatives like missile defence, Canada could stress how we have been doing everything possible to counter terrorist threats. Support for BMD could therefore be a kind of pre-emptive damage control.
  3. The shared military culture of the United States and Canada means that both sets of armed forces are working from similar premises and using logic familiar to each. One issue here is that of non-proliferation. The Bush administration clearly doesn’t have much faith in treaty based mechanisms like the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (a point made in the 5th report of the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence). Do members of the CF see BMD as unlikely to undermine non-proliferation efforts?
  4. The CF sees participation in BMD as a way of maintaining or enlarging the Canadian role in North American security cooperation decision making. Given how much the Americans want to do this, we could get a lot of capital out of it for little cost. It’s worth a lot to the US just to have things look non-unilateral (think of the Iraq coalition).
  5. Strategic considerations are getting trumped by trade. Backing the Americans on missile defence is a way to keep trucks and containers flowing across the border with less trouble and suspicion. Also, Canadian defence firms with BMD related contracts in mind could have lobbied the CF to support the project.
  6. The Americans are going to set up a BMD system anyways. By participating, we at least get the illusion of sovereignty. At best, we might be able to restrain them from doing things that we really don’t want to see happen.
  7. The length of time this has been worked on has generated such a force of bureaucratic momentum that BMD was supported by default. Since the Second World War and, especially since the Cold War, military strategists have increasingly seen North America as a bloc to be defended all together. From that perspective, BMD might look obvious.

Admittedly, some of these are good reasons – at least potentially. Overall, however, I think the concept of dealing with the danger of proliferation by hiding behind a technical shield is profoundly misguided. It leaves the rest of NATO out in the cold, it encourages the development of further nuclear technology by states already so armed, and it contributes to a military-industrial complex that is already hugely expensive and influential.

On balance, I think Canada would be far better off for continuing to decline. While it might be a diplomatic faux pas, it may also be worth publicly pointing out why.

Elliot Cohen and the Canadian Forces

After the today’s core seminar, I went to a Changing Character of War presentation given by Professor Elliot Cohen. Focused on examining the American military, especially with regards to counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, if offered a familiar but well expressed perspective. All the standard big issues came up: public opinion, the differences between the branches of the military with regards to the conflict, current controversies, military relations with allies, private military firms, and the rest. I asked him afterwards about the perspective he has seen on the Canadian armed forces, among those serving in the United States. His response was a typical one: that they are good people profoundly hamstrung and sapped by a lack of financial and material support. The operational tempo of the Canadian Forces has never been higher relative to its capabilities. As Allen Sens so effectively conveys in his Canadian Foreign Policy lectures at UBC: by almost any measure, both long-term procurement and short-term funding are grossly inadequate.

Right now, Canada has about 62,300 active forces personnel (the 60th largest army in the world) and it is funded at the level of $12.9 billion per year. That is 1.1% of Canadian GDP. We have 114 tanks (obsolete, in Germany), about 300 infantry fighting vehicles, and about 1000 armoured personnel carriers. The Maritime Command has four Victoria Class submarines (diesel, obsolete), three Iroquois Class destroyers, and 12 Halifax Class frigates (the backbone of the navy) – all hampered by completely inadequate helicopter support. We also has 12 Kingston Class coastal patrol vessels, used for things like search and rescue and fisheries enforcement. That is one boat per 16,840km of coastline: the equivalent of 2.38 boats to patrol the entire circumference of the earth.

In terms of airlift capability, the best we have is 32 CC-130 Lockheed ‘Hercules’ combat transports. Stripped of all other cargo, they can carry two Light Support Vehicles (ie. jeeps). We entitled the 2005 International Policy Statement: A Role of Pride and Influence in the World, but when we sent the Disaster Assistance Response Team to Asia after the tsunami, we had to rely primarily on private chartered airlift to deliver the bulk of their equipment to the theatre of operations. We do have five CC-150 Polaris aircraft, but they are incapable of carrying large equipment and lack any defensive capability. One of the five was converted into a VIP transport during the 1990s and two more are slated to be converted into air-to-air refuelling vehicles.

At present, more than 1400 Canadians are deployed overseas: more than 1000 of them in Afghanistan as part of Operation Archer. To field a force of that size, about another 8000 individuals need to be in the process of preparing for deployment or returning from one. The next largest commitment is 190 troops serving in the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights. The next largest operations are 32 people each in the Sinai and Sudan. Of the 15 missions ongoing, five involve ten or fewer people. Eleven involve fewer than 20, according to the Canadian Forces webpage. We may have opted to put Canadian peacekeepers onto some of the new pieces of currency, but we haven’t opted to put terrible many out there in the world. In those places we have, they are often equipped at an inadequate level: the lack of armoured jeeps in Afghanistan being a notorious example.

Canada likes to maintain an international image as a helpful fixer and a leader in peacekeeping. We expect to be treated as an equal by our allies and generally considered a contributing member of the internatioal community. We take pride in backing things like the worldwide land mines ban through the Ottawa Process and the concept of the Responsibility to Protect. If that’s a role we want to play – or at least an image we want to maintain – we’re going to need to commit the necessary resources.

While it’s not particularly clear that any of the political parties running in the present electoral campaign is serious about making that commitment, it’s something that Canadians should be asking about. Whether you support the military or not, whether you support peacekeeping and other forms of international military engagement or not, it seems clear that trying to do these things on the cheap is the worst of all strategies. It endangers the lives of those serving while not producing the security which is the object of the mission. Looking at the numbers above certainly makes Stephen Harper’s plan to militarize the Arctic seem particularly wasteful of scarce resources.

The Lesson of the Tallinn Occupation Museum

Prison cell door

One lesson you cannot help taking away from the Occupation Museum in Tallinn is that the protection of individuals from government is one of the most essential kinds of security. This is a point that is being completely missed in a wide variety of circumstances, especially as it relates to the so-called “War on Terror.” The question is not whether the government can protect citizens from terrorism, but what the ultimate balance of risks should be. Perhaps giving powers for increased surveillance or ease of detention decreases the likelihood of suffering a terrorist attack, though that is by no means proven. What it certainly does is increase the danger of the arbitrary and unjust use of force against civilians.

Given the enormous power and resources of government, the danger that it is capable of posing to citizens is extraordinary. That is why governmental accountability is absolutely essential. All power entrusted to government simply must be granted in conditional fashion: subject to revocation should it be abused. In turn, the only way we can be aware of the presence or absence of abuse is through public, civilian oversight. Government cannot be trusted to regulate itself, because to do so it to instantly accept a kind of de facto tyranny. Without knowing what is being done, supposedly on our behalf, we run the risk of being subjected to unjustified and difficult to reverse power grabs. There is almost incontrovertible evidence that this has taken place, in almost every developed country, since September 11th. Once again, this point is largely being lost in political debate in the west. As I wrote in the the NASCA Report (PDF), submitted to the Canadian Department of National Defence:

Maintaining openness about the measures being put in place, as well as allowing independent examination and discussion of both threats and responses, is a crucial mechanism for ensuring that an appropriate balance is being struck on matters of security. It is worth recalling that security is always a trade-off: with costs of various kinds rising to greater or lesser degrees as safeguards are created. For those safeguards to be a justified and legitimate part of a democratic society, they must be subject to public awareness and scrutiny. (21)Protection of the individual from unreasonable or arbitrary power – in the hands of government and its agents – is a crucial part of the individual security of all citizens in democratic states. While terrorists have shown themselves to be capable of causing enormous harm with modest resources, the very enormity state power means that it can do great harm through errors or by failing to create and maintain proper checks on authority. (25)

While it’s personally satisfying to have presented a document including such sections to policy makers, I have no way of knowing whether it will ever be taken seriously.

Looking at the photographs above, affixed on the inside of one of a whole line of doors from secret prisons formerly operating in Estonia, drives home the the point of human vulnerability contrasted with the facelessness of power. It’s an image that should stick in our minds when we are choosing to confer legitimacy upon governments, or seeking to withdraw it.

Public service announcement

Windows users should be aware that several companies are now making music CDs that actively sabotage your computer: both by preventing it from being able to make mp3s and by installing trojan horse software that monitors and manipulates what you can do. Sony Music is among those companies. Luckily, you can get around most of it by disabling the autorun feature in Windows XP.

During the next few years, in all kinds of areas, we need to deal with the issue of intellectual property. We need to decide when countries can violate the patents of drug firms, either due to short term emergencies like an avian flu or long term ones like AIDS, We need to decide what fair use means, with regards to copyrighted materials, in an age where copying and distribution has become so much easier. We need to decide what to do about patents, which have the serious potential to be exploited and hamper both innovation and the public welfare, while confering underserved monopolies on those who hold them.

Whatever the answers to these questions are, and some of them are really very tricky, I don’t think they can legitimately involve the kind of backhanded dealing described in the first paragraph here. I don’t buy music from the iTunes music store, for the simple reason that I have no reason to believe I will still be able to use that music five years from now, or on a different computer or device. The nature of ownership, when it comes to things like software and music, is becoming ephemeral and uncertain – except for those people who have illegal copies that evade these feeble protections anyhow. I remember how, with my legitimately bought copy of Half Life 2, I needed to muck around for hours with registration, web updates, and a little Steam applet that seriously restricts how and when you can use the software which you bought. My friends who downloaded it from one or another peer-to-peer service just played.