My Take on Snowden’s Revelations

data scanningEarlier this month, I was interviewed by KNBC’s Scott McGrew regarding Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying. The clip is eight and a half minutes long, and here are some of the main points I made:

A lot of what are now seen as NSA’s abuses were authorized by the Patriot Act, which was passed and renewed by large margins by our elected representatives. When it was first passed in October 2001,  only one senator, Russ Feingold, voted against it. How did we reward him? By kicking him out of the Senate  in the 2010 election . If there’s someone to blame, perhaps we should look in the mirror.

Right after 9/11 I was shaken enough to say that I wanted my government to be more intrusive in my life, and I got what I asked for. In hindsight, I over-reacted. But, given that we now have the Patriot Act, we need much better oversight. For example, it’s dangerous that all FISA court judges are appointed by just one person: Chief Justice John Roberts.

As a nation, we want absolute privacy against government intrusion, absolute security against  terrorists, and the right to use our military anytime and anywhere we think it is appropriate. We need to recognize that there’s a tradeoff, and we can’t have all three, at least at the level we’ve been demanding them.

Our civil liberties have become collateral damage to our many wars. If we want want less domestic surveillance and improved personal security against terrorism, we’re going to have to be less intrusive in the world. We’re going to have to kill fewer people, who then might want to come and kill us.

If we become less militarily adventuresome, it would reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons in  two ways. First, terrorists would be less interested in doing us harm, including via nuclear terrorism. Second, our toppling governments as often as we have feeds dangerous paranoia in Russia and China, which increases the risk of a nuclear confrontation. A prominent Russian international relations expert made a reasonable case that his nation should be fearful of us. Here’s how the Washington Post covered his remarks:

I’m skeptical that anyone outside of the Kremlin could diagnose its view of American foreign policy with real certainty, but Fyodor Lukyanov is probably about as close as an outside observer can get. …

According to Lukyanov’s latest article in Al-Monitor, an assessment of the lessons that he believes Russia drew from the Iraq war that began 10 years ago, President Vladimir Putin and his government are convinced that U.S. foreign policy is basically running on madness at this point. … “Everything that’s happened since — including flirting with Islamists during the Arab Spring, U.S. policies in Libya and its current policies in Syria — serve as evidence of strategic insanity that has taken over the last remaining superpower.” …

Moscow is certain that if continued crushing of secular authoritarian regimes is allowed because America and the West support “democracy,” it will lead to such destabilization that will overwhelm all, including Russia. [emphasis added]

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Martin Hellman is a professor at Stanford University, best known for the invention of public key cryptography — the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, his primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.

The post My Take on Snowden’s Revelations appears on ScienceWonk, FAS’s blog for opinions from guest experts and leaders.

Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 9: Iraq

Powell-anthrax-vialThe two reasons given for invading Iraq in 2003 were baseless: Saddam Hussein’s WMDs were illusory, as were his connections to al Qaeda. While this needless war is often attributed to an intelligence failure, we all are at fault. Our elected officials failed to ask the questions they should have before going to war. So did our media. And so did we, the citizens who hold the ultimate power of the ballot box. The drumbeat to war hypnotized the nation, overcame rationality, and led to disaster.

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, has called Powell’s February 2003 speech to the UN Security Council – on which Wilkerson played a significant role – “a hoax on the American people.” While he and Colin Powell were misled by CIA Director George Tenet and others, both of them had significant doubts about the CIA’s findings which they put aside, presumably because doing otherwise would have constituted political suicide. Wilkerson regrets not having done what was difficult but right:

My participation in that presentation at the UN constitutes the lowest point in my professional life. I participated in a hoax on the American people, the international community and the United Nations Security Council. How do you think that makes me feel? Thirty-one years in the United States Army and I more or less end my career with that kind of a blot on my record? That’s not a very comforting thing.

In the 2007 video documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, Wilkerson explains part of what happened, when Ibn al Shaykh al Libi was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001:

The moment al Libi was water-boarded, he started blurting things out. Well, rather than questioning what he was saying and going into it in detail to see if what he was saying could be corroborated, they immediately stopped and ran off to report what al Libi had said – and ended the torture. And, bang, it gets up to the highest decision-makers.

And all of a sudden Colin Powell is told, “Hey, you don’t have to worry about your doubts anymore, because we’ve just gotten confirmation that there were contacts between al Qaeda and Baghdad.” [1:25:30-1:26:03 on the DVD; also available in text form in an online transcript]

But, as often happens with information obtained by torture, al Libi was telling his captors whatever he thought they wanted to hear, in order to stop the torture. And a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda is what the Bush administration wanted to hear as can be seen from the events related below.

Within hours of the 9/11 attacks, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was looking to:

Hit Saddam Hussein at the same time – not only Osama bin Laden … go massive. Sweep it all up, things related and not.

Those words, including the underlining, were in notes taken by Stephen Cambone, then the Director for Program Analysis and Evaluation within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, at a meeting with Rumsfeld. While they’re hard to read, I’ve attached a complete copy of Cambone’s redacted notes so you can see where those words came from. My excerpt above starts on line 5, “S.H.” stands for Saddam Hussein, and “UBL” for Osama (Usama) bin Laden.

010911 Rumsfeld Plans Attack

David Frum, who was the chief architect of  the “axis of evil” concept in President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address describes how it came about:

It was late December 2001, and Mike Gerson was parceling out the components of the forthcoming State of the Union speech. His request to me could not have been simpler: I was to provide a justification for a war. … Bush needed something to assert, something that made clear that September 11 and Saddam Hussein were linked. [1]

A week before the invasion of Iraq, the Christian Science Monitor noted how President Bush continually linked Saddam Hussein with September 11:

In his prime-time press conference last week, which focused almost solely on Iraq, President Bush mentioned Sept. 11 eight times. He referred to Saddam Hussein many more times than that, often in the same breath with Sept. 11.

Bush never pinned blame for the attacks directly on the Iraqi president. Still, the overall effect was to reinforce an impression that persists among much of the American public: that the Iraqi dictator did play a direct role in the attacks. A New York Times/CBS poll this week shows that 45 percent of Americans believe Mr. Hussein was “personally involved” in Sept. 11 …

Sources knowledgeable about US intelligence say there is no evidence that Hussein played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks, nor that he has been or is currently aiding Al Qaeda. Yet the White House appears to be encouraging this false impression, as it seeks to maintain American support for a possible war against Iraq …

Polling data show that right after Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans were asked open-ended questions about who was behind the attacks, only 3 percent mentioned Iraq or Hussein. But by January of this year, attitudes had been transformed. In a Knight Ridder poll, 44 percent of Americans reported that either “most” or “some” of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi citizens. The answer is zero.

Just prior to his invasion of Iraq, President Bush formally linked Saddam Hussein with 9/11 when he confirmed to Congress that attacking Iraq was consistent with “continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” That wording comes from the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.

In spite of this repeated linking, in 2006, when President Bush was asked by Ken Herman of Cox News, “What did Iraq have to do with … the attack on the World Trade Center,” he replied:

Nothing. … nobody has suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. … the lesson of September 11th is take threats before they fully materialize, Ken. Nobody’s ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq.

In 2009, former Vice President Dick Cheney similarly declared, “I do not believe, and I have never seen any evidence, that he [Saddam Hussein] was involved in 9/11.” That article notes, however, that “Still, Cheney said a longstanding relationship existed between Hussein and terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, that justified the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.”

While the Christian Science Monitor and a few others raised questions about going to war, most of the media joined the drumbeat to war. Bill Moyers’ Buying the War video (also available as a transcript) documents this abdication of responsibility by the press. For example, Phil Donahue says on camera that he was instructed to have two supporters of the war on his show for every person raising questions:

You could have the supporters of the President alone [on my TV show]. And they would say why this war is important. [But] You couldn’t have a dissenter alone. Our producers were instructed to feature two conservatives for every liberal.

In spite of that rule, Donahue’s show was canceled several weeks before the invasion. While NBC denied a connection between the cancellation and Donahue’s raising questions about the war, Moyers cites a leaked, internal network memo which stated, “Donahue presents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. At the same time our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

Moyers’ documentary also has February 2003 clips of Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly creating an atmosphere designed to repress any questions about going to war:

Anyone who hurts this country in a time like this. Well let’s just say you will be spotlighted. … I will call those who publicly criticize their country in a time of military crisis, which this is, bad Americans.

In the documentary, journalist Eric Beohlert notes that when Senator Ted Kennedy gave an impassioned speech questioning the war:

[The] Washington Post gave that speech one sentence. 36 words. I calculated in 2002, the Washington Post probably published 1,000 articles and columns about Iraq. Probably one million words, in excess of one million words. And one of the most famous democrats in the country raised questions about the war, the Washington Post set aside 36 words.

The connection between the Iraq War and defusing the nuclear threat – the goal of this blog – can be seen in a March 2013 Russian article, headlined “What Russia Learned From the Iraq War.” The article was written by Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of Russia in Global Affairs, published with the participation of the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs. Here are some excerpts from that article, which led Lukyanov to conclude that US foreign policy is governed by “strategic insanity” (emphasis added):

The conclusions drawn by Putin from the situation surrounding Iraq were [that] …  the strong do what they want: they don’t contemplate international law, global reality or the costs incurred by themselves and others. The only rational way of behaving in such a world is to increase one’s own power and capabilities, so that one can fight back and exert pressure, if necessary. …

In the 10 years since the Iraq war, Putin’s worldview has only strengthened and expanded. Now he believes that the strong not only do what they want, but also fail to understand what they do. … Everything that’s happened since — including flirting with Islamists during the Arab Spring, U.S. policies in Libya and its current policies in Syria — serve as evidence of strategic insanity that has taken over the last remaining superpower.

… Moscow is certain that if continued crushing of secular authoritarian regimes is allowed because America and the West support “democracy,” it will lead to such destabilization that will overwhelm all, including Russia.

Martin Hellman

[1] David Frum, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush, Random House, New York, 2003, pages 224 and 233.

The post Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 9: Iraq appears on ScienceWonk, FAS’s blog for opinions from guest experts and leaders.

Why Russia Resists a UN Resolution on Syria

United Nations Security CouncilThe mainstream media has largely failed to mention one of the main reasons Russia has been resisting a UN Security Council Resolution which would allow the use of force if the US believes that Syria has failed to meet its obligations. Back in March 2011, Russia allowed UNSC Resolution 1973 which authorized “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians. The West then used that resolution as the basis for air attacks leading to regime change and Gaddafi’s murder — an interpretation of the resolution with which Russia strongly disagrees.

The Russians are afraid that any mention of the use of force in a new UN Security Council Resolution on Syria will be similarly misused for regime change. Russia’s fears are reinforced by the Obama administration  repeatedly saying that “Assad must go,” and its patience was tried when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “despicable” for maintaining its concerns.

Helping to overthrow Gaddafi (as opposed to protecting civilians) also hurt our reputation as a trustworthy partner because, when Gaddafi gave up his WMD programs in 2003,President Bush promised that his good behavior would be rewarded:

Today in Tripoli, the leader of Libya, Colonel Moammar al-Ghadafi, publicly confirmed his commitment to disclose and dismantle all weapons of mass destruction programs in his country. … And another message should be equally clear: leaders who abandon the pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them, will find an open path to better relations with the United States and other free nations. … As the Libyan government takes these essential steps and demonstrates its seriousness, its good faith will be returned. Libya can regain a secure and respected place among the nations, and over time, achieve far better relations with the United States. … old hostilities do not need to go on forever. And I hope that other leaders will find an example in Libya’s announcement today.

The following excerpts from a March 2011 North Korean press release convey an idea of how Russia, China, Iran and other nations with which we have disputes see us as a result of our helping to overthrow Gaddafi after giving such assurances:

The present Libyan crisis teaches the international community a serious lesson. It was fully exposed before the world that “Libya′s nuclear dismantlement” much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as “guarantee of security” and “improvement of relations” to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force.

It proved once again the truth of history that peace can be preserved only when one builds up one’s own strength as long as high-handed and arbitrary practices go on in the world. The DPRK was quite just when it took the path of Songun [“Military First”] and the military capacity for self-defence built up in this course serves as a very valuable deterrent for averting a war and defending peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

We are right to deplore the human tragedy in Syria and to seek ways to reduce the suffering. But we need to more carefully consider the consequences of our actions, both for the Syrian people and in terms of our reputation as a trustworthy negotiating partner.  Diplomacy can work only if all involved parties have a reasonable track record of adhering to their earlier commitments. And without diplomacy, there will almost surely be war.

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About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography — the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.

The post Why Russia Resists a UN Resolution on Syria appears on ScienceWonk, FAS’s blog for opinions from guest experts and leaders.

Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 8: Syria

belle syriaThere are strong indications that President Obama will take military action against Syria,  even though several key questions have not been answered.

First, what good will an American attack do? Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey recently told Congress, “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. … It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”

Second, what harm will an American attack do? There is evidence that keeping this civil war going will increase the fighting strength of al Qaeda. In addition to threatening our own nation, that also increases the risk of chaos in the Russian Federation, particularly its Chechen Republic. Unrest in a nation with thousands of nuclear weapons – especially when pointed at us – is a threat to our national security. And, as the Boston Marathon bombing shows, Chechen jihadists are not solely a threat to Russia, but to us as well.

Third, how certain are we about who is responsible for the recent chemical weapons attacks? Today, George Kenney has an excellent article on the Huffington Post, which notes:

… it remains far from clear who did it. None of the many insurgent groups are saints; to be honest, with the fighting going against the insurgency in recent months there would be far greater incentives on their side to use chemical weapons, in the hope of triggering western intervention, than there would be on the part of Syrian government forces. …

During the Bosnian civil war the Bosnian Muslims skillfully leveraged the propaganda value of various massacres to catalyze western intervention. Yet in many cases the identity of the perpetrators was in doubt. From my own several stays in the besieged city of Sarajevo during the war, my own inspection of alleged mortar impact sites (from the “flower” a mortar/bomb impact leaves in pavement an expert can estimate direction and angle of attack), and my conversations both with very senior, serving U.S. officers (one major general, for example, told me if it had always been the Serbs he only wished the U.S. Army had a few mortar squads with that ability to make impossible shots) and with senior UN military officers on the scene, I concluded that some of the more sensational attacks, such as the Markale massacre, were carried out by Bosnian Muslim forces against their own civilians. A few seasoned western reporters concluded the same. To be fair, the evidence was never absolutely definitive and a rancorous debate continues to this day. Shocking, but such is the nature of war.

Fourth, do we have any options other than doing nothing or attacking Assad? Most accounts assume those are our only two options, but as George Kenney’s article concludes:

If the U.S. government feels that it has to do something, the best thing and, to be honest, the only thing — at the moment — is to provide assistance to the millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced, and redouble our efforts at diplomacy.

A diplomatic solution would be the best of all possible worlds, but will never happen so long as our bottom line is “Assad must go.” Given the fate of some other deposed Middle East rulers – Gaddafi was killed and Mubarak was thrown in jail – there is no way Assad will negotiate on those terms.

Given our painful experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, isn’t it time we thought things through more carefully before pulling the trigger on military action yet again?

Martin Hellman

Links to all posts in this series on Avoiding Needless Wars: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8.

Additional Reference: After I wrote this post, a highly relevant interview came to my attention in today’s Christian Science Monitor. The headline gives the gist, “In an interview, Hans Blix (chief UN arms inspector for Iraq from 2000-2003) says: If US military action in Syria is all about ‘punishing’ Bashar al-Assad to satisfy public and media opinion without even hearing the UN inspectors report, it will be a sad day for international legality.” Blix makes a number of important points which warrant our attention before taking military action.

The post Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 8: Syria appears on ScienceWonk, FAS’s blog for opinions from guest experts and leaders.