Information: Part Two

In many ways the September 11th attacks marked a dramatic shift in the nature of conflict, and did so in two very important ways:

1) For the first time in history, the primary threat to U.S. national security is not a nation-state. Rather, it is a network of people unified around a radical interpretation of Islam and who have the goal of creating a pan-Arabic state and destroying nations whose ideologies run counter to their own. Keep in mind, they are at war with the PEOPLE of the West and not the States themselves; this is why they seek to target citizens.
2) The globalized world has enabled Al Qaeda to operate pretty much anywhere. In order for a network of people to operate globally, they must communicate with each other. Thus, a major front in this conflict is cyberspace.

And so begins the next installment of my series on information. Undoubtedly, Al Qaeda is in the process of planning an attack on the United States. Since they have been allowed to reestablish themselves in the tribal areas of Pakistan, they can spend more time operating their network and less time running from the US Military. Indeed, they operate largely with impunity in these extremely remote areas of the world.

Knowing this, there is a premium on having the ability to gather intelligence on their operations, both signals intelligence (the interception of phone calls, e-mails, etc.) and human intelligence (having operatives working on the inside of the network). The more intelligence we are able to gather, the more effective we will be at stopping whatever plans they might have. For example, wouldn't it be nice to know if Al Qaeda is planning to set off a nuclear weapon in, say, Los Angeles? Preferably, we would want to know this well in advance so we can stop it.

Information is now the most important tool the U.S. has in fighting the War on Terror. After September 11th, the Bush administration ordered the National Security Agency (NSA) to illegally wiretap American citizens in the United States. Without question, this is unconstitutional and a gross violation of our privacy rights. We have a strong tradition of protecting the privacy of our citizens and it's a bad deal when our president orders actions which completely undermines such a fundamental civil right.

I'm not fully aware of the legal arrangements which have been made since September 11th with respect to intelligence gathering. I do know that there is a process where, if it can be demonstrated that someone in the US has connections to a foreign terrorist network, it is legal to spy on them. Apparently obtaining the warrant required to do so can take a long time, more than 200 man hours on average.

I could go on about this for a long time, but I really wanted to emphasize the importance of intelligence in the context of the threats the US (and the West) are facing from organizations like Al Qaeda. Fortunately, congress (and Republicans in particular) have been very good at making sure that privacy rights continue to be guaranteed.

For anyone who's read 1984, the dangers of a government spying on its own people are clear. While I seriously doubt that something like that would actually happen, it remains an important consideration. My hope is that the Obama administration will place an emphasis on protecting the rights of US citizens, in contrast to the Bush administration. Since President Obama is an expert on constitutional law, I'm pretty optimistic that civil liberties will be preserved in the tradition of our nation.



On of the most distinct differences between the policy of the Obama administration and that of the Bush administration is the policy on torture. President Obama has made it clear that the US government will not conduct torture under any circumstance. This is an issue I've struggled with for some time; there are compelling arguments on both sides of the debate and I'd like to take a brief look at them.

There have been many questions asked of the Bush Administration's torture and rendition policies. The CIA was given authority to abduct people considered threats to national security, transport them to secret facility, and torture them in order to extract information. Consequently, there are numerous legal issues which have arisen due to these practices:

1) It is a violation of US law to transport any person to any location for the purpose of torture;
2) It is a violation of the UN Convention against Torture, which began in June 1987;
3) A vast expanse of "gray area" with respect to US and international law.

The reality is that the "War on Terror" is a conflict between various states (US, UK, etc.) and a transnational network of individuals who have designs to inflict harm upon civilians. Essentially, Al Qaeda and related networks are not subject to any kind of constitution, domestic law, or even international law. This means that they do not have to play by any certain set of rules, whereas we do.

This is where you saw the emergence of vague legal terms like "illegal combatant" emerge from the Bush administration, as it tried to establish some semblance of legal framework to deal with members of various terror networks. This is also part of the challenge of closing Guantanamo Bay: the creation of a legal framework to deal with an unprecedented scenario.

Anyhow, back to the question at hand. Let us suppose that you're the President of the United States and one of your advisors comes to you and says "we have detained someone whom we strongly believe to be involved in the successful transport of a nuclear device to the United States and we believe he knows where this device is." Your job as President is to protect the people of the United States, but it is also to uphold the law of the land. WHAT DO YOU DO!?

Do you violate US law and torture the guy? You're not certain he knows what you want to know and you're also not certain that anything he tells you is going to be factually correct. Torture is supposedly quite unreliable, although I am no expert.

You could try cutting a deal with the guy, offering him a pardon and extradition to another country if the information he gives you leads to the capture of the nuclear device. This doesn't seem likely because odds are that the dude is willing to die for his cause.

Finally, you could choose not to torture the guy and hope that your intelligence agencies will be able to locate and prevent the detonation of the nuclear device.

This is perhaps a more extreme scenario, since tens of thousands of American lives are at stake in the immediate future. But what about less-pressing cases? What if you're torturing a guy because you think he knows something that might be useful in the future?

There was a time, not long ago, when I believed that torture was a necessary evil when fighting an enemy such as Al Qaeda. How can you justify placing American lives in danger in order to protect one guy whom is your enemy? Ultimately I came to the same conclusion that President Obama has: our moral high ground is more important in the long run. What it all comes down to is whether or not we will lower ourselves to the level of the enemy. The true test of moral standing comes when you adhere to your principles, even in the difficult times.

Personally, I would like to see the international community establish a legal framework for dealing with the combatants of non-state actors like Al Qaeda. The globalized world has brought with it new challenges and global terror networks are one of them. My hope for the Obama administration is that it leads the charge in coming up with an acceptable, just, and effective means of dealing with issues in this vast expanse of legal and moral gray area.


Information: Part One

This is the first part in a series (of unknown length) on the role of information in the 21st century. Obviously this is a very broad topic, and it is likely that I will go off on tangents from time to time, but it is one that I've been giving some thought to of late. So please bear with me and forgive the loosely-structured nature of this discussion.

Many members of Western societies take the flow of information for granted. We have unfettered access to the internet, 24-hour news networks, and YouTube. In the US, we have the freedom of speech guaranteed to us in the 1st Amendment. However, a huge portion of the world lives without the flow of information we enjoy. I would like to spend some time on how a state which constricts its citizens' access to information can alter the future of a society, and indeed the world.

Imagine living in a society where you have NO access to the internet, NO news channels, and NO phone lines. Further, imagine living under the rule of a government which actively seeks to cut of all ties to the outside world. There is no rule of law, no access to education, and pervasive fear that expressing one's opinion could result in execution. This was life for the Afghan people for generations, living under one repressive regime after another, largely the result of the Russian and British Empires battling for control over Central Asia in what is known as The Great Game. In fact, the state of Afghanistan was CREATED by the British and ruled through puppet governments for quite some time.

The result of this history is a population who have had little to no exposure to the outside world and whom have been victim of one repressive regime after another. When the Taliban emerged with control of the country following the Soviet withdrawal, it used Islam as a means to control the Afghan people. Of course, this version of Islam was so extreme and so far from the mainstream that it could barely be identified as the same religion practiced by over a billion people in the world. In some capacity or another, Islam was used as a political tool to gain power and create a population of people who were utterly resistant to outside influence.

Now, you might be thinking that it is impossible for the restriction of information and the teaching of extremist ideology by a government to have that much of an influence on a population. A good example is in some former Soviet states in the region - Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan - the Soviet union was so successful at erasing the history of these societies, that people living today cannot tell you an accurate history of their past because all recorded knowledge has been purged, and all first-hand information went away as previous generations passed on. This was all part of the USSR's plans to "Sovietize" the Central Asia region.

When the movie Titanic illegally made its way into Afghanistan (3-4 years after it came out), many Afghan men began styling a haircut they referred to as "The Leo," obviously after Leonardo DiCaprio's haircut from the movie. The Taliban immediately BANNED this haircut because it represented an outside influence to Afghan society. The Taliban was so repressive that people were actually put in jail if they were seen sporting this haircut!

So, why should we care about all of this? The short answer is what happened on September 11th. It is no secret that the biggest cause of terrorism is NOT a hatred for the West or free societies. Rather, it is the product of extremely repressed, extremely poor people who have in essence been brainwashed as a result of their living conditions. It is easy to generate hatred for America when the people who supposedly hate us hear only the information their government wants them to hear.

Al Qaeda will not succeed in their goal simply because more and more people are gaining access to information about the outside world and are being exposed to the real America. We did not win the Cold War because of tanks, machine guns, or the existence of a nuclear arsenal capable of cracking our planet in half. Rather, we won because our country won the ideological battle in the eyes of the world. Communism failed as an ideology because the people living under the Soviet regime saw the freedom and prosperity enjoyed by the average American.

I have always been a proponent of the "lead by example" approach; it is what ultimately won the Cold War and it is why we will ultimately win the ideological battle with extreme Islam. Indeed, the strongest asset we have as a nation is our ability to set an example and generate respect among people of the world. It is therefore absolutely CRUCIAL that we maintain this asset as we move into the future. We must ensure that the "American dream" is alive and well; that EVERY person in this country has the opportunity to make a better life for themselves.


Technical Difficulties: Hopefully Resolved

I've installed some 3rd party comment software which is hopefully better than that which was supplied with the blogger platform. Hopefully this means people's comments will actually make it up on the comment area. Thanks for your patience.

Now that this is out of the way with, I can get back to putting up actual content.

Technical Difficulties

It has come to my attention that there have been some problems with comments not getting posted properly. I'm looking in to this and it should be working shortly.


On Gaza

I am deeply troubled by what's happened in Gaza since Israel launched its invasion the last week of December, 2008. Obviously, this is a very complex issue which is a touchy subject for a lot of people, so I will tread lightly.

Any sovereign nation has the right and indeed, the obligation, to protect itself from external security threats. The rocket attacks by Hamas and related groups clearly warrants a response of some kind, as Israeli civilians are under duress. I don't think anyone will argue that Israel did not have the right to respond. However, the nature of the response is what is most troublesome, particularly because of the proportionality of the response. The dust has settled due to the cease-fire and accurate casualty figures are still elusive; most media outlets report the number of Palestinian deaths to be anywhere from 900-1300, with roughly a third being children. (BBC News, "Counting Casualties of Gaza's War," 1/28/09)

Israeli casualties, both civilian and military, number less than two-dozen. International law dictates that an armed conflict must be both proportional and show distinction. That is, the punishment must fit the crime and the combatants must distinguish between civilians and non-combatants and the enemy's armed forces. With respect to Gaza, a densely-populated area where civilians have little opportunity to escape the conflict due to its closed borders, civilian casualties become inevitable.

Unfortunately, despite all of these circumstances, it is hard to argue that Israel showed much discretion in its attacks. The most-publicized incident is where Israeli forces shelled UN school sheltering civilians, resulting the death of approximately 40 civilians. Israel has claimed that they were being fired upon by Hamas mortars next to the school and they responded. Now, how does it make sense to launch an artillery barrage into the front yard of a UN school (of which Israel was quite aware) to kill three or four attackers who undoubtedly have terrible aim in the first place?! This defies international convention because it is unacceptable to kill 40 civilians in an attempt to kill three combatants.

This incident is not surprising considering Israel's general urban warfare strategy used in Gaza, which went something like this: whenever Israeli forces moved into a neighborhood, they would first shell it with artillery and roll in their tanks, firing at pretty much everything. They obviously KNEW there were far more civilians in these areas than there were Hamas combatants, yet still chose this method of assault. Now, I am not an expert on any of this stuff, but when ONE attack on a mortar unit results in more civilian deaths than the entirety of Israeli deaths for the duration of the conflict, something is definitely wrong here. I suppose that is why the international community has largely condemned Israel's actions. Indeed, just this past weekend, Israel's PM stated that Israel would respond "disproportionally" to the rocket attacks launched since the cease-fire. I'm going to go out on a limb here, but isn't that basically giving the Geneva convention a giant middle finger?

Lastly, I want to talk about how this affects US foreign policy. In the eyes of the world, we are intimately associated with Israel because we are its primary (and sometimes only) supporter. When the primary security challenge to our country is Islamic extremism, Israel's actions set back our own foreign policy objectives; how far back and to what extent remains to be seen. Fortunately, President Obama will seek to return to US to the role of "honest broker," with the hope of regaining credibility among Arab nations and the world in general. The Bush administration often sought absolutist positions which were largely counter-productive. Hopefully this administration will handle the Middle East region with some sensibility and respect for its people, with an understanding that blind support of Israel is counter-productive.

I would like to close by saying that I, without question, support the right of Israel to exist. However, I also believe the Palestinian people deserve their own state as well and I genuinely believe it's in everyone's best interest to seek a two-state solution. Hopefully a solution like this will emerge sooner rather than later.