Sunday, December 16, 2007

Irresponsible fearmongering at the NSB

As if the build-up to the presidential election next year were not chaotic enough, National Security Bureau (NSB) chief Shi Hwei-yow (許惠祐) revealed last week that the bureau had become aware of a “threat” against Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). In and of itself, there was nothing wrong with the revelation — except that it was altogether irresponsible of the NSB to make the information public before it had completed an assessment of the credibility of the threat by so-called “radical elements.”

Intelligence services the world over prepare what are formally known as “threat assessments” — reports, based on intelligence collected from various sources, that address threats to, among others, the security of the nation, its citizens at home and abroad, critical infrastructure, the economy, visiting foreign diplomats and the domestic political leadership.

Part of the responsibilities of analysts involved in the preparation of threat assessments is to sift through the daunting quantity of material that comes their way, from undigested, or “raw,” intelligence to assessments provided by agencies both domestic and foreign. The secluded world in which these analysts operate — after all, their very purpose of the unit is to think of threats — makes the task of telling signal from noise an onerous one at best.

This is why dependable threat assessments are based on “threat matrices,” which take both “threat” and “risk” into consideration, as well as whether the information regarding the threat is “single thread” — from one source alone — or has been corroborated by other means, such as human sources, signals intelligence and intercepts. The reliability of the source(s) is factored into the final evaluation, which, under their different guises, usually provide a “threat level” (e.g., a scale of one to 10, or “low,” “medium,” “high”) or an assessment of probability.

As a responsible and professional intelligence service, we can expect that the NSB goes through a similar process before it delivers a threat assessment to its customers in government. But in this instance, to openly discuss a threat in such a way that it becomes public — the news appeared in newspapers the very next day — before all the necessary steps involved in the production of a threat assessment have been made (“We are evaluating whether [the threats] are real,” Shi said on Monday) is either the result of gross incompetence or the willful utilization of fear to exacerbate tensions in an already charged political environment.

Government transparency is welcome and there should be more of it. But sensitive information such as a possible threat to assassinate a political figure should be handled with caution and should never be shared before its veracity has been ascertained. After all, threat assessment units receive, on a daily basis, dozens if not hundreds of leads, most of which turn out to be groundless, noise, and thus duly discarded.

But such malpractice is not without its precedents. For some time after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, global intelligence agencies, in their renewed sense of siege, tended to seize on every threat and to report them before their credibility had been assessed. That practice eventually tapered off as the credibility of the Cassandras broadcasting the threats to both government and the public came under question. Facing the very real risk of numbing clients to the possibility of credible threats in future, those agencies had no choice but to become a little more discerning in what they would share.

We can perhaps forgive the NSB and other security agencies for being in a heightened sense of awareness as the elections approach, but if they want to retain their utility and avoid needlessly draining finite resources, they must refrain from feeding noise to the government and the public and not cry wolf before the semblance of a howl has been heard.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The NSB wasn't at fault over '101gate'

Although security at Taipei 101 may have been put to shame by Austrian base jumper Felix Baumgartner's successful — albeit uninvited — spectacular* on Tuesday, people and the media have made too much of the event. After all, no one was hurt, Toyota received more publicity than it could ever have hoped for when it placed its circular ads on the tower, and everybody has had a good laugh. Except, perhaps, the National Security Bureau (NSB), which has been accused of failing to catch the man before he could flee the country on a flight to Hong Kong. "If the NSB can't put its fingers on an individual who commits such an ostentatious act, how can it ever unmask the much more secretive spies Beijing has dispatched to Taiwan?" they ask.

At face value, the argument would seem to be a sensible one, were it not for the fact that it bespeaks a total lack of understanding of how security intelligence actually works.

First of all, about two hours after he jumped off Taipei 101, Baumgartner was boarding an aircraft for Hong Kong. As the stunt was unannounced, the authorities had no a priori knowledge and could not possibly have mobilized their forces in time to intercept him at the airport. Like any other government institution, the NSB is not meant to react quickly to events; in other words, before it can commit to a course of action, a long and slow process of decision-making involving a number of people of different ranks has to be completed. (This may seem counterintuitive, but all the red tape is there to prevent rash decisions and provide the necessary paper trail should something go wrong during an operation.)

Following upon that is the fact that — again like any other government institution — the NSB has a finite budget and limited resources, which means that to maximize performance it must prioritize. The belief that intelligence services "see and know everything" is nothing but a myth perpetuated by US genre movies. In reality, they can be surprisingly blind when it comes to "threats" that emanate from outside their pre-selected areas of focus. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, sadly, were a deadly demonstration of that.

Now, given the regional context, it shouldn't be too difficult to imagine what the NSB's priorities would be: Chinese espionage and, perhaps, various proliferation-related issues involving North Korea and Iran. As such, a great proportion of its resources, both human and electronic, would be aimed at serving those needs.

What the NSB probably isn't looking at, however, are Austrians, who pose no threat whatsoever to the security of Taiwan — even less so the type that seeks nothing other than to wow the public and get an adrenaline rush in the process.

In light of this — a "target" of no priority and a slow chain of command inherent to government institutions — it is perfectly understandable for Baumgartner to have managed to slip through the fingers of the authorities once he had committed his stunt.

The NSB and police authorities can be faulted for a number of things, but on this one, they certainly don't deserve the criticism they have received and the nation would be in much greater danger if they did, indeed, target the Baumgartners of this world, however irresponsible their deeds might be.

* Baumgartner managed to smuggle a parachute past Taipei 101 security and jumped off the building.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The many whys behind the ‘Kitty Hawk’ incident

In “The method in Beijing’s madness,” an article I published today in the Taipei Times, I explore the number of reasons why Beijing may have decided last month to deny entry into Hong Kong harbor to a series of US sea vessels. While most of the analysis to date has either focused on Beijing seeking to send the US “a message” regarding its displeasure with Washington selling Taipei military equipment or on the leadership being somehow “irrational,” I propose that rather than the latter, Beijing’s decision was based on Realist calculations of balance of power with the ultimate aim — one it has stated repeatedly in recent years — of forcing the US out of the region.

There is no small irony in the fact that on this incident defense analysts and political pundits, all raised on Kissingerian Realism, have mostly failed to make that point in their assessments.

Readers can access the full article by clicking here

(Note: References to Taro Aso in the article should instead have read former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. My apologies for the error.)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

“A blow below the belt”

The issuance on Monday of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a consensus document involving the 16 intelligence agencies in the US, arguing that, based on evidence, Tehran had very likely ended its nuclear weapon program in 2003 came as a bit of a surprise. More so, it gave one hope that the US intelligence community hasn’t entirely become politicized.

But for those who are now crossing their fingers and hoping the document will prevent sanctions or military action against Iran, cautious skepticism might be in order. Not 24 hours after its release, Israeli officials and the press were attacking the report, calling it “a blow below the belt.” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak even said that despite the findings (but providing no evidence whatsoever), Iran “has probably since revived it [its nuclear weapons program].” As deplorable was US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley’s almost immediate public interpretation of the NIE, which with Orwellian skill he managed to portray as meaning that Tehran must continue to be pressured, isolated and threatened, thus leaving the door open for further sanctions and even military action, although for the moment it would be more difficult to argue for the latter.

In an op-ed piece titled The Iranian test of possibility on Wednesday, Ha’aretz demonstrated Israel’s irrational streak whenever Iran is concerned by, among other things, dissecting the difference between the terms “high certainty” and “moderate confidence” used in the NIE and arguing that a 10 percent chance that Iran would develop an atomic weapon by 2009 may not mean much to the bigger and distant US but makes a world of a difference for smaller and more proximate Israel. The article then puts the entire US intelligence community into doubt by hinting that it once again has been deceived by Iranian “pranks.” The author uses a number of examples, including failure by the US to punish Iran for the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, to make this point. Ironically, by using this example the author underscores his own politicization of intelligence, as it has never been proven with “high certainty” that Tehran had anything to do with the bombing, which in fact intelligence organizations (including Israel's) have, depending on political needs of the time, also blamed on the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Saudi Hezbollah (not connected to the former) and al-Qaeda. It would seem that when it comes to defending oneself against accusations, Ha’aretz will lower its standards and just cannot be bothered with distinctions between “high certainty” and “moderate confidence.”

The op-ed then commends Bush for his commitment to “preventive action” and not “passive[ly] waiting for the enemy to give in.” In other words, Bush, the article says, will likely continue on his mission to isolate Iran despite the shackles of intelligence, and moreover he will receive all the help (and pressure) he needs from Israel. That pressure, in turn, will result in part from Israel’s own failure to distinguish between “threat” and “risk” assessment and to fashion its policies accordingly.

During my years at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), I had a “chance” to read many reports by the Israeli Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS) and Israel's domestic agencies. In every case, the failure to weigh “threat” against “risk” always struck me. The documents would be marred by a lack of criticism that turned what should have been an apolitical product (the very nature of intelligence) into a policy statement. In other words, rather than provide the raw data upon which CSIS could make its own assessment, Mossad was prescribing action and doing so in a way that prevented critical thinking. We can expect that in the wake of the NIE, US and intelligence services worldwide will soon be bombarded by “intelligence” from Israel, which in and of itself constitutes a political statement. For those of us who have already forgotten, this is exactly what Israel did when US interest in striking Iraq prior to 2003 was perceived to be flagging; the Israel lobby shifted into high gear and the intelligence started pouring in. Immediately after the Saddam Hussein regime had fallen, Jerusalem embarked on a relentless program to pressure the US and its allies into taking action against Tehran.

By focusing on the “threat” and ignoring the diminished risk, no matter what Tehran does (or is said to have done, as the NIE just did), Jerusalem will always cry foul. If this leads to further sanctions and isolation of Tehran — or, though less likely, in independent Israeli military strikes in Iran — good behavior, rather than be encouraged by engagement and reciprocity, will instead lead to punitive action, which in the long run can only but create a self-fulfilling prophecy and compel Tehran to go down the nuclear path. No good can come out of a “damned if you don’t, damned if you do” treatment of Iran.

Monday, December 03, 2007

On condition of anonymity

In an article published in the Taipei Times today, I look at the factors behind the growing presence of "anonymous sources" in today's news — a trend that, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, is now threatening the very foundations of newsmaking.

Tracing its origins to the Vietnam War, I find two principal themes that could explain this new phenomenon — new in the sense that its use is now customary — (a) lack of protection for government dissidents and corporate whistleblowers; and (b) a growing reliance by governments on secrecy and deniability.

I conclude by arguing that the use of secrecy, of which anonymous sources are but a new expression, is adding distance between governments and the people and making it more difficult for people to make their own informed judgments about events.

Readers can access the full article by clicking here.