Stop! Or We’ll…Do Nothing

In late September the ferocious “Group of Eight” nations or G-8 issued this ultimatum to Iran: Stop enriching uranium by the end of the year, or else we’ll impose sanctions on you.

Well, the end of the year has come and gone. And it seems as though the G-8 grizzly bear has come and gone as well. Or maybe it’s just still hibernating. Because now that the deadline has passed, I can’t find anything about any new sanctions.

But we’ll keep any eye open, in case the G-8 is just getting off to a late start.


A Happy Milestone in Iraq

December marked the first time since the 2003 invasion that there were no U.S. deaths from hostile action in Iraq during a given month. And during the past half year, hostile-action deaths averaged only about three per month.

Considering those numbers were anywhere from 40 to 150 a few years ago, that’s a lot to be thankful for. Give credit to President Bush for going forward with the surge, despite resistance from some of his top advisors.

Compared with the dark days of 2006 and 2007, civilian deaths are way down in Iraq, too. But of course, terrorist attacks still happen. And it’s too still early to declare victory for the U.S. in Iraq – give it another five years or so.

That country is such a mish-mash of religious sects and ethnic groups that things could fall apart again. It was only the terrorizing hand of Saddam Hussein that held things together before.

My hypothesis is that during his reign the various sects became interspersed with each other, living among each other – and refraining from attacking each other out of fear of what Saddam Hussein would do to them. Then when the Hussein lid was lifted, they let loose their pent-up rage on their neighbors of different sects, much like what happened in Yugoslavia after Tito and the Soviet Union were gone.

During the post-Hussein sectarian strife, there was substantial movement of people out of mixed regions and neighborhoods and into homogeneous ones.

A similar thing happened in Yugoslavia, as well as in Lebanon during that country’s civil war in the1970s and 1980s. The war died down after the sects got “unmixed”.

Hypothesis: in Iraq, the populations have gotten unmixed enough that things are a lot more stable now than they were five or so years ago. However, there’s still a patchwork of enclaves throughout Baghdad and the country. Though each enclave is mostly homogeneous, this state of affairs still doesn’t bode well for long-term stability. U.S. troops are now acting as peacekeepers. If they pull out, then things are likely to descend into chaos again.

(I say hypothesis because I haven’t found the time to research the situation enough to feel confident enough to put my rubber stamp on the above. If you can point me to any literature that either confirms or refutes the mixing/unmixing hypothesis, then please contact me.)

For long-term stability, each sect would need its separate administrative district. The Kurds pretty much already have that, but not the Sunnis and Shiites. A few years ago Joe Biden actually put forth a good proposal to reorganize Iraq along ethnic-religious lines. There would be three autonomous regions corresponding to the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites.

Maybe now that he’s VP, he should bring that up with the boss.

Bring Back Human Intelligence

(A previous version of this article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor. TIDES World Press Update placed it under its “Articles of Significant Import” heading. TIDES stands for the Translingual Information Detection, Extraction and Summarization program, a U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – DARPA – research effort.)

The democratization of technology is generally a wonderful thing. The Internet, powerful computers, cellular phones and other such devices, which were once available only to governments or a select few, are now available to almost anyone. But with this comes the nagging thought that deadly technologies are also widely available. One no longer needs a standing army to carry out mass destruction; individuals or small groups of bad guys can generate untold suffering, be it through the use of conventional or unconventional weapons.

Such groups thrive on guerrilla warfare tactics. They blend in with the civilian population and launch surprise attacks, as happened on September 11, 2001.

Given this reality, the role of intelligence gathering in uncovering terrorist plots has taken on a dramatic new significance. The CIA, FBI, and other agencies that employ human intelligence – or HUMINT, in the feds’ parlance – are our first line of defense against the new enemy. They arguably have become the most important function of the U.S. government.

The key to busting up terrorist plots is by infiltrating the groups with real-live humans; satellite photos and other electronic gizmos are not nearly enough.

But America’s HUMINT capabilities weakened significantly during the past few decades, accelerating in the 1990s and suffering a further blow in 2009 with the Obama administration’s decision to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate CIA interrogators.

It started with the Church Committee investigation in the 1970s, which was an effort to expose and correct some of the CIA’s excesses during the Cold War. But in view of the enemy we are up against now, the changes went too far.

In the aftermath of the Church Committee investigation, scores of Middle East case officers were laid off or forced to retire. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 imposed strict rules on intelligence gathering, and created large bureaucratic hoops that CIA and FBI officers had to go through before they could wiretap suspected terrorists. In fact, FISA-related obstacles were largely responsible for the FBI’s decision not to search the computer and apartment of Zacarias Moussaoui (the alleged “20th hijacker”) prior to September 11.

In the mid-1990s the intelligence agencies’ hands became even more tied. The Aldridge Ames spy case resulted in a purge at the CIA, making the remaining case officers reluctant to get to know foreigners out of fear of becoming a suspect, according to Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer and author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism.

Aggravating the situation were 1995 CIA guidelines associated with the practice of gleaning information from foreigners with questionable human rights backgrounds, leading to multiple layers of bureaucracy whenever a case officer wanted to recruit an asset. A new Director of Operations in 1995 fired all “access agents” – foreigners who have access to potential intelligence sources – according to Baer. By 1995, HUMINT reports on many Islamic terrorist groups slowed to a trickle.

The culture of political correctness affected the intelligence community as well. Especially at the FBI, agents were reluctant to conduct surveillance on ethnic Arabs out of fear of being accused of racial profiling.

A U.S. News and World Report article carried the disturbing revelation that in the months prior to September 11, the bin Laden unit at FBI headquarters turned down a request from one of its field offices to send a confidential informant to participate in an Al Qaeda training camp. There is no word from the FBI on why the request was rejected, but the incident is not surprising in light of the atmosphere within the intelligence community at the time.

Though collecting HUMINT is supposed to be the CIA’s chief function, fewer than 10 percent of its employees work outside of the United States, according to the book The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture by Ishmael Jones.

And now its job is even harder. The majority of its HUMINT reports since 9/11 reportedly have come from prisoner interrogations. In addition to the negative impact on CIA morale, the Obama administration decision likely will result in less information and/or less valuable information gleaned from interrogations.

Bureaucracies are susceptible to sclerosis over the course of their lifetimes – a gradual weakening of their original mission amid a steady accumulation of rules, regulations, politics, political correctness, lawsuits, careerism, and administration (much of it imposed by Congress). Our intelligence agencies are not immune.

Obviously, the shock of September 11 prompted the hiring of a lot more Arabic-speakers. And fortunately, the 1995 CIA guidelines on recruiting foreign agents have been significantly loosened, according to an Agency spokesman. FISA has been loosened as well, but not nearly enough. U.S. intelligence operations are still subject to a labyrinth of rules and regulations deriving from Congress and the executive branch. Considering the extreme danger the country is facing, policymakers have a lot more to do to facilitate the gathering of HUMINT.

Patrick Chisholm is editor of PolicyDynamics.

Protect Our Electronics Against EMP Attack

(A previous version of this article appeared in USA Today.)

The saturation of society with modern electronics, while certainly a good thing overall, gives us an Achilles heel. The more dependent we become on such electronics, the more vulnerable we are to societal chaos if a substantial portion of them fail simultaneously. It is said that an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, could cause such a failure.

An EMP is generated by a nuclear explosion, or by a smaller-scale “e-bomb.” If a terrorist or rogue nation detonated a nuclear bomb a few hundred miles above the United States, the resulting shock wave could damage or disrupt electronic components throughout the country. The consequences could be catastrophic. Our life-sustaining critical infrastructure such as communications networks, energy networks, and food and water distribution networks could all break down.

EMP was a prominent concern during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. That concern is rearing its head again, now that it appears we are headed toward cold wars with Iran, North Korea, and other third-world regimes bent on acquiring nuclear weapons such as Venezuela. The possibility of terrorist groups getting a hold of nuclear missiles adds to the danger.

Some of the literature on EMP gives the impression that such an event would fry every computer in the country, that planes would fall out of the sky, and that society would be thrust back into 19th century technological backwardness. Such claims may be far fetched, but EMP is nevertheless a deadly serious issue.

Fortunately, protecting electronics and critical infrastructure against EMP is doable. It involves enclosing every electronic component with a metallic cage that blocks out electromagnetic waves.

Sound impossible? Actually, electronic components already enjoy some form of shielding against electromagnetic interference. Federal Communications Commission standards require it. Such shielding is designed to prevent everyday electromagnetic radiation from entering and/or exiting the device. Your computer contains this shielding, from metal housings down to the little metal coverings soldered to your motherboard, to electrically conductive gaskets that seal openings. There even are housings the size of rooms or buildings that protect sensitive equipment inside. Without electromagnetic shielding, many electronic devices would not work properly.

However, most existing shielding may not be enough to protect against EMP. While U.S. military standards often require electronic components to be protected against EMP, commercial standards do not. And while our power grid is shielded against things such as lighting strikes, it is not tested for protection against EMP.

Upgrading to shield against EMP would entail using more robust shielding materials, especially for the cords, cables and/or wires that connect devices to external entities such as power supplies or networks. Cables and wires act as antennas through which an EMP travels directly into a device.

To what extent would an EMP destroy electronics in their current configurations? Certainly not 100 percent. Not all electronics are connected to cables or wires. And many of those that are connected may only temporarily be disrupted or not be disrupted at all, thanks to the existing shielding against electromagnetic interference. But an EMP that is powerful enough or that is close enough could ruin many electronic devices such as computers.

Unlike what was depicted in the 1983 movie The Day After, automobiles may keep functioning after an EMP attack. The electronics within automobiles enjoy robust shielding because of the harsh electromagnetic environment on existing roadways. Aircraft have even stronger electromagnetic shielding, so they likely would not fall out of the sky. “Some of the (aircraft’s) equipment may not work, but the propulsion and control system usually is pretty robust,” said Dr. William A. Radasky, president of Metatech Corp.

Radasky, one of the world’s few experts on protecting electronics against EMP, thinks that most electronics would undergo only a temporary disruption in the event of EMP. “You may just have to restart the computer and everything would be fine,” said Radasky. But a temporary shutdown of a control system for a critical infrastructure system, he said, would be “troublesome.” And if just 1 percent of all electronics failed, havoc could ensue. “Just think about the power outage in August of ’03 when a couple of wires hit a tree,” observed Radasky. “That was a single failure, propagated over a huge area. Now imagine, at the speed of light every place in the United States, some portion of electronics failing. Now you have a very widespread problem.”

The only way to know the extent to which an EMP would knock out electronics is to conduct testing with EMP simulators.

Unfortunately, since the end of the Cold War, most EMP simulators in the United States have been closed, according to Radasky. And the few that remain open are for military use, not civilian use.

The Department of Homeland Security should set up civilian EMP simulators, and encourage – or require – those in charge of our critical infrastructure to upgrade their facilities and conduct tests to assess EMP vulnerability.

It would be wise to follow Switzerland’s lead. According to Radasky, that country during the Cold War hardened some of its critical infrastructure against EMP, such as water works. “They felt that if there was high-altitude burst over Europe, they were going to be affected whether they were a combatant or not.”

It is a thorny question as to whether the FCC should revise its standards to require electronics manufacturers to build in EMP protection. This could be prohibitively expensive for the manufacture of individual components. But businesses and government agencies should install EMP protection at the system level. (This also would provide protection against other electromagnetic disturbances such as lightning.)

One positive development is the increasing use of fiber optic cables. Most of them do not contain metal, so they are invulnerable to EMP, according to Radasky. The more common they become, the less exposed systems are to EMP.

But the Achilles heel remains. Our dependence on electronics grows larger as a new era of nuclear cold war draws closer. It behooves us to protect our electronics against EMP.

Patrick Chisholm is editor of PolicyDynamics.