Tag Archives: Noah Shachtman

A Saber Rattle Called An Ambassador

Jeff Neumann at Gawker:

Ahmadinejad unveiled his new jet-powered giant dildo bomber one day after Iran began fueling its first nuclear power reactor. The Ambassador of Death has a range of 620 miles and can carry four cruise missiles to “keep the enemy paralyzed in its bases.” Ahmadinejad spoke about his new toy’s dual purpose: “The jet, as well as being an ambassador of death for the enemies of humanity, has a main message of peace and friendship.” How cute!

Israel Matzav:

Hmmm. That ought to make ‘our friends the Saudis’ feel real secure.

Scott Lucas at Enduring America

Weasel Zippers:

Ahmahomo Introduces the “Ambassador of Death”…

Isn’t that the “prophet” Mohammed’s role?…

Keith Thomson at Huffington Post:

Depending on the mission, according to the Iranian Defense Ministry, the 13-foot-long, remotely-piloted aircraft can deliver either a pair of 250-pound bombs, a single 450-pound laser-guided bomb, or a quartet of cruise missiles. The UAV travels 560 miles per hour with 620-mile range. It should be noted that past Iranian defense claims have made fish stories seem reliable, and, among other red flags waving today, cruise missile capability would extend the Ambassador of Death’s range well past 620 miles. But taking the specs at face value, here’s how Ahmadinejad’s new saber measures up:

The poster child of UAVs, the 27-foot-long Predator has a cruise speed of 84 mph and a range of 454 miles. Originally developed for reconnaissance by the U.S. Department of Defense in the mid-1990s, Predators were fitted with a pair of Hellfire missiles after an American general remarked, “I can see the tank. Now I’d like to see it blown up.”

When that worked, the Department of Defense commenced development of the Reaper UAV. In operation since 2006, the 36-foot-long Reaper boasts a cruise speed of around 230 mph, a 3,682-mile range, and a relative arsenal including Hellfires, Sidewinder missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs–a potent enough package overall that the Air Force subsequently decided to train more pilots to fly aircraft from ground operations centers than from cockpits.

Two years later, Israel unveiled the Heron UAV, 43 feet long with a wingspan of 85 feet, or about that of a Boeing 737. Its range is 5,000 miles–or deep into Iran and back twice. The Karrar’s stated range would leave it nearly 500 miles shy of Israel. The Heron’s weapons payload, meanwhile, can be 4,000 pounds, or about eight times that of Iran’s new aircraft.

This April brought the introduction a jet-powered version of the Predator, the Avenger, with a top speed of close to 500 mph and, more importantly, a good deal of infrared and radar-proof stealth design–without stealth, the Ambassador of Death may find itself the jet-powered version of a sitting duck.

James Jewell, President of UAV MarketSpace and one of America’s top unmanned aerial systems experts, speculated that Iran’s new offering is “nothing special,” adding of today’s announcement, “I suspect it has an element of hyperbole since it comes so close to the nuclear reactor fueling announcement.”

Jewell also noted several other countries with UAV systems comparable or superior to Iran’s, notably France, Italy, and South Africa (for a fairly extensive international UAV roster, see Wikipedia’s unmanned aerial vehicle page).

The Ambassador of Death, however, has the scariest name.

Noah Shachtman at Wired:

According to the official word from Tehran, the 13-foot Karrar (’striker”) drone is capable of carrying four cruise missiles. That’s really unlikely. Even smaller-sized cruise missiles, like the Russian Kh-135s, weigh a more than a thousand pounds and are about nine feet long; it’s tough to imagine a relative pipsqueak like the Karrar lugging such a hefty package. [Update: As Pirouz notes in the comments, Iran calls its anti-ship missiles, like the Chinese C-701, “cruise missiles.” Those are compact enough for drone duty.] State television later claimed that the Karrar could carry a pair of 250-pound bombs or a single 500-pounder. That’s more believable (although the single bomb the drone is carrying in the video above looks more like a 250-pound model to me).

Iran has been making its own drones for a while; the U.S. even shot one down over Iraq last year. Since 2004, a small number of those unmanned aerial vehicles have made their way into Hezbollah’s hands. This, however, would be Iran’s first armed robo-plane. In so doing, state television crows, “Iran broke the military advantage of America” — and prepped the country for the looming days of all-robot warfare. That should arrive around 2020, the Iranian Defense Ministry guesstimates.

Tehran’s scientists went “500,000 hours without sleep and eating” while designing the drone, according the state TV report. That figure sounds about as authentic as Iran’s 2007 pronouncement that it had fired off a space-ready missile (which turned out to be nothing more than a modified Scud), or July 2008’s picture of a missile barrage (most of which were Photoshopped dummies).

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“Top Secret America” Burning Up The Tubes

Dana Priest and William Arkin at WaPo:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

These are some of the findings of a two-year investigation by The Washington Post that discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

The investigation’s other findings include:

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.

* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

These are not academic issues; lack of focus, not lack of resources, was at the heart of the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead, as well as the Christmas Day bomb attempt thwarted not by the thousands of analysts employed to find lone terrorists but by an alert airline passenger who saw smoke coming from his seatmate.

They are also issues that greatly concern some of the people in charge of the nation’s security.

“There has been so much growth since 9/11 that getting your arms around that – not just for the DNI [Director of National Intelligence], but for any individual, for the director of the CIA, for the secretary of defense – is a challenge,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview with The Post last week.

In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials – called Super Users – have the ability to even know about all the department’s activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated in interviews, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation’s most sensitive work.

Andrew Sullivan has a round-up

Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman at Danger Room at Wired:

Figuring out exactly who’s cashing in on the post-9/11 boom in secret programs just got a whole lot easier.

U.S. spy agencies, the State Department and the White House had a collective panic attack Friday over a new Washington Post exposé on the intelligence-industrial complex. Reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin let it drop Monday morning.

It includes a searchable database cataloging what an estimated 854,000 employees and legions of contractors are apparently up to. Users can now to see just how much money these government agencies are spending and where those top secret contractors are located.

Check out the Post’s nine-page list of agencies and contractors involved in air and satellite observations, for instance. No wonder it scares the crap out of official Washington: It’s bound to provoke all sorts of questions — both from taxpayers wondering where their money goes and from U.S. adversaries looking to penetrate America’s spy complex.

But this piece is about much more than dollars. It’s about what used to be called the Garrison State — the impact on society of a praetorian class of war-focused elites. Priest and Arkin call it “Top Secret America,” and it’s so big and grown so fast, that it’s replicated the problem of disconnection within the intelligence agencies that facilitated America’s vulnerability to a terrorist attack.

With too many analysts and too many capabilities documenting too much, with too few filters in place to sort out the useful stuff or discover hidden connections, the information overload has become its own information blackout. “We consequently can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe,” a retired Army three-star general who recently assessed the system tells the reporters.

Julian Sanchez at Cato:

Intel-watchers have been waiting with bated breath for the launch of the Washington Post’s investigative series “Top Secret America,” the first installment of which appeared today, along with a searchable database showing the network of contractors doing top-secret work for the intelligence community. Despite the inevitable breathless warnings that the Post’s reporting would somehow compromise national security, there’s nothing online as yet to justify such fears, as even the Weekly Standard notes: The information was vetted by intel officials before being posted, and a good portion of it was already in the public domain, if not necessarily collated in such a convenient form.  Indeed, writers like Tim Shorrock, author of the invaluable Spies for Hire, have been reporting on the explosion of intelligence contracting for some time now—and in some instances the information you’ll find in Shorrock’s own contractor database is more usefully detailed than what the Post provides. None of this, to be clear, should at all diminish the enormous achievement of Dana Priest and William Arkin here: The real threat of their damning exposé should be to the job security of intelligence officials and contractors.  They paint a portrait of a sprawling intelligence-industrial complex drowning in data they’re unable to effectively process, and choked by redundancy

Gabriel Schoenfeld at The Weekly Standard:

The first installment of the Washington Post blockbuster, “Top Secret America,” by Dana Priest and William Arkin, two years in the making, is finally out today. It paints a surprisingly unsurprising picture of duplication and triplication in the intelligence world.

The story had provoked alarm among officials, and in some conservative quarters, that vital secrets would be spilled. “Is Wash Post harming intelligence work?” asked the Washington Times on Friday.  For its part, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence even put out a preemptive memo:  “We will want to minimize damage caused by unauthorized disclosure of sensitive and classified information. “

[…]

Indeed, it is hard to spot anything particularly damaging in the story. Its massive database and accompanying map of top-secret facilities in the United States, available on the Web, have been compiled from open-source material.

Leaks of highly classified information can pose a serious threat to our security. But in foreign policy reporting, leaks are also the coin of the realm.  Some of them pose no danger at all. Indeed, they are a principal channel by which the public is informed, which is why the  subject is so contentious.  In this particular instance, there does not even appear to have been a leak.  There is nothing top secret about “Top Secret America” (at least in its first installment). In this respect it is a case of false—and very smart—advertising.

Carol Platt Liebau at Townhall:

Priest intends the article to be scary, and to a certain degree, it certainly is. It’s a searing reminder of how much a “big government” is out of the control even of those who purport to run it.   Although the tone of the piece seems to intend the criticism to be directed toward “Top Secret America” (i.e., the post 9/11 security complex) — any thinking person will realize what the nub of the problem is, and that’s this: Government grows — always, always, always — because that’s the nature of government unless citizens are fortunate enough to have leaders who actually care about restraining it.

Peter Huessy at Big Government:

The Washington Post has published massive amounts of secret intelligence material in the interests, they say, of improving US national security. The two authors, Dana Priest and William Arkin, complain about a national security enterprise that has grown by leaps and bounds since 9/11. The reveal in detail the firms working for the US intelligence community including their location, contracts, and work subjects, whether border security, cyber-security or counter proliferation.

There are two common explanations for the story. First, it is juicy story. It has lots of secret information. And for two reporters, pursuing a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, well isn’t this what reporters do? The second explanation: their view is that the national security establishment represented by the $75 billion intelligence community and its network of firms, organizations and contractors is not serving the American people, that it is bloated, redundant and need of serious downsizing. But all, mind you, to make our security better.

There may be a third explanation. It may be they think little if any of this intelligence work is necessary. Nearly a decade ago, on October 12, 2002, William Arkin, the co-author of the article, spoke at the Naval War College. One key part of his talk is nearly identical to the thesis of the Post article.  He said: “More than 30 billion of our tax dollars each year go towards government generated intelligence information. We had, and have, a CIA and an intelligence community that has a fantastic history of failure, that is mostly blind to what is going on in the world, that seems to know nothing and at the same time is so bombarded and overwhelmed with stimuli from its millions of receptors it can hardly sense what is happening.”

Arkin goes on in his 2002 speech to blame America for the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  He says our military prowess forced our adversaries to use attacks against our vulnerable infrastructure, such as airplanes or trains because they could not successfully fight our military. And he says our support for Gulf autocracies and stationing troops there gave cause for the attacks of 9/11. The implied solution is very simple: stop supporting harsh regimes, withdraw our forces from the Gulf and terrorism disappears.

This underlying view of what we are supposedly facing permeates the Post story as well. They describe what they think this vast intelligence enterprise is trying to do: “defeating transnational violent extremists,” “fortify domestic defenses and to launch a global offensive against al-Qaeda,” and find “clues that lead to individuals and groups trying to harm the United States.”

I have one small quibble, however, which is with the “redundancy and waste” argument about multiple agencies doing the same work.  This is a standard argument in favor of rationalization, and it’s not always wrong.  It should be noted, however, that some redundancy is actually a good thing, particularly on an issue like counter-terrorism.

Say a single bureaucracy is tasked with intelligence gathering about threat X.  Let’s say this bureaucracy represents the best of the best of the best — the A-Team.  The A-Team does it’s job and catches 95% of the emergent threats from X.  That’s still 5% that is missed.

Now say you have another independent bureaucracy with a similar remit.  This agency is staffed by different people with their own set of blind spots.  Let’s even stipulate that we’re talking about the B-team here, and they’ll only catch 80% of the emergent threats from X.

If thesr two bureaucracies are working independently — and this is an important if — then the odds that a threat would go unobserved by both bureaucracies is .05*.2 = .01 = 1%.  So, by adding another bureaucracy, even a less competent one, the chances of an undetected threat getting through are cut from 5% to 1%.  That ain’t nothing.

Glenn Greenwald:

What’s most noteworthy about all of this is that the objective endlessly invoked for why we must acquiesce to all of this — National Security — is not only unfulfilled by “Top Secret America,” but actively subverted by it.  During the FISA debate of 2008 — when Democrats and Republicans joined together to legalize the Bush/Cheney warrantless eavesdropping program and vastly expand the NSA’s authority to spy on the communications of Americans without judicial oversight — it was constantly claimed that the Government must have greater domestic surveillance powers in order to Keep Us Safe.  Thus, anyone who opposed the new spying law was accused of excessively valuing privacy and civil liberties at the expense of what, we are always told, matters most:  Staying Safe.

But as I wrote many times back then — often by interviewing and otherwise citing House Intelligence Committee member Rush Holt, who has been making this point repeatedly — the more secret surveillance powers we vest in the Government, the more we allow the unchecked Surveillance State to grow, the more unsafe we become.  That’s because the public-private axis that is the Surveillance State already collects so much information about us, our activities and our communications — so indiscriminately and on such a vast scale — that it cannot possibly detect any actual national security threats.  NSA whistle blower Adrienne Kinne, when exposing NSA eavesdropping abuses, warned of what ABC News described as “the waste of time spent listening to innocent Americans, instead of looking for the terrorist needle in the haystack.”  As Kinne put it:

By casting the net so wide and continuing to collect on Americans and aid organizations, it’s almost like they’re making the haystack bigger and it’s harder to find that piece of information that might actually be useful to somebody.  You’re actually hurting our ability to effectively protect our national security.

The Government did not fail to detect the 9/11 attacks because it was unable to collect information relating to the plot.  It did collect exactly that, but because it surveilled so much information, it was incapable of recognizing what it possessed (“connecting the dots”).  Despite that, we have since then continuously expanded the Government’s surveillance powers.  Virtually every time the political class reveals some Scary New Event, it demands and obtains greater spying authorities (and, of course, more and more money).  And each time that happens, its ability to detect actually relevant threats diminishes.  As Priest and Arkin write:

The NSA sorts a fraction of those [1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of daily collected communications] into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.

The article details how ample information regarding alleged Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hassan and attempted Christmas Day bomber Umar Abdulmutallab was collected but simply went unrecognized.  As a result, our vaunted Surveillance State failed to stop the former attack and it was only an alert airplane passenger who thwarted the latter.  So it isn’t that we keep sacrificing our privacy to an always-growing National Security State in exchange for greater security.  The opposite is true:  we keep sacrificing our privacy to the always-growing National Security State in exchange for less security.

Matthew Yglesias:

Beyond this, my main reaction is to think Glenn Greenwald draws too sharp a dichotomy between the view that Priest and Arkin are detailing a story of too much waste and inefficiency and the view that Priest and Arkin are detailing a story of “an out-of-control, privacy-destroying Surveillance State.” The point, as I see it, is that the one necessarily leads to the other. A surveillance state that sucks in everything creates an unmanageable flow of information. Pervasive secrecy makes coordination impossible. The scope and covert nature of the enterprise destroys accountability. In fact, it’s so unaccountable that even the people to whom it’s supposed to be accountable have no idea what’s going on:

In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials – called Super Users – have the ability to even know about all the department’s activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated in interviews, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation’s most sensitive work.

“I’m not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything” was how one Super User put it. The other recounted that for his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ”Stop!” in frustration.

You can’t possibly run an effective organization along these lines, and the idea that pouring even more hazily defined powers to surveil and torture people is going to improve things is daft. The potential for abuses in this system is tremendous, and the odds of overlooking whatever it is that’s important are overwhelming. Meanwhile, though it’s hardly the key point I note that for all the vast sums of resources poured into the national security state since 9/11, the US government’s foreign language capabilities remain absurdly limited. But it seems to me that just being able to talk to people (and read the newspaper, watch the news, etc.) in their native tongue would produce much more in the way of useful information than all the wiretapping in the world.

UPDATE: Henry Farrell and Daniel Drezner at Bloggingheads

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Those Burgers Obama And Medvedev Were Chomping Down On? Made Of Moose And Squirrel

David Knowles at Politics Daily:

After an FBI investigation spanning several years, ten people were taken into custody on Sunday across the northeastern United States and have been charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. Attorney, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a press release.

According to the D.O.J., eight of the accused were involved in what it termed as “long-term, deep-cover assignments” for the Russian government. Two of the defendants were arrested for participating in the covert Russian operation. Nine of those picked up were charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering.

The defendants, some of whom may go by and assumed alias, include: “Richard Murphy” and “Cynthia Murphy” of Montclair, N.J., Vicky Plaez and “Juan Lazaro” of Yonkers, N.Y. Anna Chapman of New York City, “Michael Zottoli,” “Patricia Mills,” and Mikhail Smenko of Arlington, Va., and “Tracey Lee Ann Foley” and “Donald Howard Heathfield” of Boston, Ma.

“Christopher R. Mestos” remains at large, the D.O.J. said.

Daniel Foster at The Corner:

This on the heels of President Obama’s happy-go-lucky meeting with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in D.C.

[…]

Five years for conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government? What’s going on here — Mr. McCarthy?

The Jawa Report:

The details are still a little fuzzy. It’s not clear if these are Americans who were recruited by the Russians, or if these were Russians living in America, or a mixture of both.

The story seems to indicate that at least some of them were Russian. This may explain why all those hot Russian chicks willing to marry dumpy, balding, middle-aged American men. They’re all Russian spies!

As some of you know, I spent a year studying in Russia under the theory that the Cold War would be back, and when it does — job security, baby! Is it time for Rusty to break out the old resume?

Marc Ambinder:

When it comes to human intelligence, the Russian Federation has a leg up on the U.S. in terms of the vestiges of the Cold War great game. The arrest today of 10 Russians for spying is a case in point: none of them were diplomats or had official cover. All of them were what the old Soviet Union used to call “illegals” — regular folks living and doing regular jobs, but serving as cutouts and go-betweens for other case officers and agents.

The CIA still spies on Russia, but/and I’m not exactly revealing secrets here, most of them have some sort of official cover — usually, the more bland sounding title in the embassy, the better.

Russian counterintelligence services have known this for decades. And for decades, the CIA has made efforts to field its version of illegals — NOCs — spies operating under “non official cover,” but fewer than one in ten of its case officers are NOCs, according to current and former officials. This makes the job of a case officer difficult. It’s even more difficult to establish a NOC — a cover story must be provided — a “legend” — that is trackable and verifiable. These days, it’s easy to Google someone and discover whether they are who they say they are, so if a Mr. Leonard Panerta were to become a teacher in Moscow, the Russian FSB, which does counteintelligence, can check pretty quickly.
What type of information is valuable to Russia these days? It’s no longer nuclear weapons information, really, or war plans: it’s proprietary information, trade secrets, technical specifications of satellite and ballistic missile technology…also political intelligence and economic intelligence. The FBI still has squads of counterintelligence (CI) agents that follow Russian embassy officials in Washington, but it does much less CI work than it did before the age of terrorism. The US has much better signals intelligence capabilities than the Russians, but Russia also quietly outsources some of its spying to other countries, including countries that are ostensibly friendly to the U.S.

Noah Shachtman at Dangerroom at Wired:

Moscow communicated with a ring of alleged spies in America by encoding instructions in otherwise innocent-looking images on public websites. It’s a process called steganography. And it’s one of a slew of high-tech and time-tested methods that the deep-cover agents and their Russian handlers used to pass information — from private Wi-Fi networks to buried paper bags.

Steganography is simultaneously one of the oldest methods for secret communications, and one of the more advanced. The process dates back to the fifth century B.C., when the Greek tyrant Histiaeus shaved the head of one of his servants, tattooed a message on his head, and waited for his hair to grow back before sending the messenger out. When the courier arrived, his head was shaved and the missive was read, giving information about upcoming Persian attacks. Later on, secret inks were used on couriers’ backs. Morse code messages were woven into a sweater that was worn by a courier.

As information went digital, steganography changed. Messages could be hidden in the 1s and 0s of electronic files — pictures, audio, video, executables, whatever. The hidden communications could even be slowly dribbled into the torrent of IP traffic. Compression schemes — like JPEG for images or MP3 for audio — introduce errors into the files, making a message even easier to hide. New colors or tones can be subtly added or removed, to cover up for the changes. According to the FBI, the image above contains a hidden map of the Burlington, Vermont, airport.

Both before and after Sept. 11, there were rumors in the media that al-Qaida had begun hiding messages in digital porn. That speculation was never confirmed, as far as I can tell.

The accused Russian spy network started using steganography as early as 2005, according to the Justice Department’s criminal complaint against the conspirators, unsealed yesterday in Manhattan. In 2005, law enforcement agents raided the home of one of the alleged spies. There, they found a set of password-protected disks and a piece of paper, marked with “alt,” “control,” “e,” and a string of 27 characters. When they used that as a password, the G-Men found a program that allowed the spies “to encrypt data, and then clandestinely to embed the data in images on publicly available websites.”

The G-Men also found a hard drive. On it was an address book with website URLs, as well as the user’s web traffic history. “These addresses, in turn, had links to other websites,” the complaint notes. “Law-enforcement agents visited some of the referenced websites, and many others as well, and have downloaded images from them. These images appear wholly unremarkable to the naked eye. But these images (and others) have been analyzed using the Steganography Program. As a result of this analysis, some of the images have been revealed as containing readable text files.”

These messages were used to arrange meetings, cash drops, deliveries of laptops and further information exchanges. One of the steganographically hidden messages also directed the conspirators to use radiograms — a decades-old method to pass information, long discredited in spooky circles.

Jen Doll at Village Voice:

The FBI obtained the following decrypted message from Russia’s intelligence headquarters in Moscow:

Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. — all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels to the Moscow center.

CBS News reports that agents would have been highly trained in “foreign languages; agent-to-agent communications, including the use of brush-passes (covert hand-offs of secret information); short-wave radio operation and invisible writing; the use of codes and ciphers, including the use of encrypted Morse code messages; the creation and use of a cover profession; counter-surveillance measures” and more.

This is creepy, but we’re suddenly less afraid of spies because we knew they did all of that stuff already! Really, short-wave radio? Invisible writing? Morse Code? Guys, that went out with magic decoder rings and camera cigarette lighters. Come on, even China is onto the hacking game.

Still, maybe in some small way, it’s nice to hear that Russia still considers us worthy of being spied on. And it’s good to know the FBI is on this shit. Let’s not go getting all Cold War or anything.

John Hinderaker at Powerline:

News accounts don’t make clear when Russia first placed these agents. But from today’s perspective we can say: what a waste! The Russians thought they needed spies with “ties in policymaking circles” to gain intelligence about American policy, or, best case, possibly even influence it in a direction adverse to American interests. Those were the good old days. In today’s America, our “policymaking circles” are as antipathetic to American interests as the Russians could possibly have hoped to make them through spycraft.

Jim Newell at Gawker:

Hooray, the Cold War is back and awesome.

Daniel Drezner:

There are many things that confuse me in life — Manhattan parking rituals, the proliferation of rotaries in Massachusetts, the appeal of most reality television, and so forth.  I think I’m going to have to add the Russian spy ring to this list.

Less than a week after Russian President Dmitri Medevedev’s burger date with U.S. President Barack Obama, the U.S. Justice Department has busted eight Russkies in an espionage ring so heinous, they’ve been charged with….  “conspiracy to act as unregistered agents of a foreign government.”

Um…. so, in other words, the Russians are accused of some combination of illegal immigration and impersonating Jack Abramoff?

Seriously, this story is the most bizarre foreign policy/international relations episode I’ve seen since the Sandy-Berger-let’s-stuff–classified-documents-down-my-pants episode.

UPDATE: Daniel Drezner and Megan McArdle at Bloggingheads

UPDATE #2: Marc Ambinder

Benjamin Weiser, Colin Moynihan and Ellen Barry at NYT

UPDATE #3: Bruce Bartlett

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A Weapons System Not Yet Out Of Short Pants

Robert Farley at Lawyers Guns and Money:

I’ll have an article about the NPR coming out tomorrow at TAP, but suffice to say that I’m not particularly impressed with the Obama NPR. Every policy document requires compromise, and this is particularly true of a document focusing on nuclear weapons. A multitude of different agencies and vested interests have fingers in the pie, and each demands to be part of the decision-making process. In this case, the administration has managed to achieve a caveated-to-death no first use pledge at the cost of two apparent compromises; missile defense, and prompt global strike. Josh Rogin takes a look at the missile defense bit here; I raised some questions about the presence of prompt-global strike language back in the QDR, and suffice it to say that the NPR does not assuage my concerns. Prompt global strike is mentioned a several points in the NPR as a replacement for first strike nuclear capabilities and a large nuclear stockpile. While prompt global strike doesn’t necessarily mean conventionally armed SLBMs and ICBMs, nothing in the language of the NPR excludes such options. Prompt global strike sounds, on the surface, like a good idea; an Ohio class submarine could deliver a conventional warhead in half and hour to almost any target in the world. The devil is in the details; intel is rarely good enough to require such speed, and the possibility of conventional SLBMs being regularly launched from submerged subs would freak the hell out of the Chinese and the Russians. In other words, not such a good idea. Perhaps the thinking is that rhetorical support of the program now won’t necessarily mean appropriation for it later. If that’s true, I’m not sure that the history of the missile defense program is terribly comforting.

Noah Shachtman at Danger Room at Wired:

Over and over again, the Bush administration tried to push the idea of these conventional ICBMs. Over and over again, Congress refused to provide the funds for it. The reason was pretty simple: those anti-terror missiles look and fly exactly like the nuclear missiles we’d launch at Russia or China, in the event of Armageddon. “For many minutes during their flight patterns, these missiles might appear to be headed towards targets in these nations,” a congressional study notes. That could have world-changing consequences. “The launch of such a missile,” then-Russian president Vladimir Putin said in a state of the nation address after the announcement of the Bush-era plan, “could provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces.”

The Pentagon mumbled all kinds of assurances that Beijing or Moscow would never, ever, never misinterpret one kind of ICBM for the other. But the core of their argument essentially came down to this: Trust us, Vlad Putin! That ballistic missile we just launched in your direction isn’t nuclear. We swear!

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld couldn’t even muster that coherent of a defense.

“Everyone in the world would know that [the missile] was conventional,” he said in a press conference, “after it hit within 30 minutes.”

The new “Prompt Global Strike” plan is a little different from the old one. It relies on land-based missiles, instead of sub-based ones. The idea is that these conventional missiles sites would be open to Russian inspection, and wouldn’t accidentally drop debris on a superpower.

But Moscow doesn’t exactly seem soothed by this new plan. “World states will hardly accept a situation in which nuclear weapons disappear, but weapons that are no less destabilizing emerge in the hands of certain members of the international community,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier this month.

When the idea of Prompt Global Strike was first proposed, the goal was to hit anywhere on the planet in under an hour. Old-school weapons had proved ineffective at catch terrorists on the move. Newer, quicker arms might be able to do the job, instead. Flight tests for some of those weapons — like a hypersonic cruise missile — are just getting underway. Until then, relying on conventional ICBMs to do the job, and risking a nuclear showdown, is just plain crazy.

Yeah, I’m really not sure that changing to an atmospheric quasi-ballistic missile from SLBMs really helps. For one, the shift would somewhat reduce the promptness of the global strike (although probably not by much). More importantly, it doesn’t really solve the dilemma. If Putin/Medvedev/Hu/Whomever are inclined to worry that a detected launch was the prelude to an all-out nuclear attack, they’ll likely not be reassured by the news that it comes from some “special” location in the US. If the US decided to launch a preventive nuclear assault on Russia or China, wouldn’t we initiate the attack in the most deceptive way possible?

This isn’t to say that we should eschew research of any weapon that can decrease the time between order and KABOOM.
Questions of strategic stability, however, need to be taken very seriously. How willing would we be to use these weapons in a war over the Taiwan Straits? In response to another Russia-Georgia War? Or, perhaps even more disconcerting, what if we decided we needed to kill Osama Bin Laden with 30 minutes notice during the midst of a Russia-Georgia War that we were otherwise uninterested in?

Spencer Ackerman at The Washington Independent:

It’s an immature weapons system, barely in development, that looks for the moment like it was imagined by Wile E. Coyote. And the Nuclear Posture Review basically held it out as the conventional alternative to nuclear weapons.

Partly because elements of the technology behind Prompt Global Strike are “not yet even invented,” it’s hard to say what the system will ultimately cost or when it can be deployed. The New START accord with the Russians even had to limit its development because once launched from an intercontinental ballistic missile, it would be hard for Russia or any other power to determine with confidence that such a missile didn’t carry a nuclear payload.

Relatedly, here’s something that should warm Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) New START-opponent heart but surely won’t: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a NATO forum that the U.S. won’t withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe until there’s a follow-on treaty with Russia ensuring the Russians will do the same.

Kevin Drum:

Even if the Russians and Chinese and Indians and Pakistanis are provided with some reliable way of identifying non-nuclear ICBM launches, they could never be sure that the United States hadn’t figured out some way to fool them. So they’d always be on a short fuse. And do we really want to make that particular fuse even shorter than it already is?

Sometimes bad ideas are just bad ideas. This really seems like one of them.

Matthew Yglesias:

The deeper issue, I would say, is that the pursuit of whiz-bang air power capabilities is often done with no thought as to the strategic implications. Every time we develop new offensive weapons designed to let us attack anywhere around the world with impunity, the more we’re incentivizing other countries to develop WMD capabilities to counter us. The mentality inside the Air Force is a sort of autopilot pursuit of better and better equipment that’s detached from any realistic vision of what we’re trying to achieve as a nation.

Tom Maguire:

The basic problem is that land-based missiles are vulnerable to a first strike attack by incoming missiles.  Consequently, anyone with land-based missiles, such as Russia or China, faces a “Use it or lose it” dilemma when their screen lights up with missiles launched from the US – do they wait to see what lands and goes “Boom”, or do they launch their own missiles while they still can?  This is not a new issue – people have been talking about first-strike weapons from the dawn of the nuclear age (It’s why we have hotlines).

Mitigating Russian concerns to some extent would be the number of missiles they actually see launched.   One or two missiles would not take out their entire land-based capability, so if (IF!) they could be confident of maintaining their command and control structure, they might be persuaded to sit back and await developments.

However!  All of that is covered by the Times.  What the Times utterly ignores, or overlooks, is the problem a weapon such as this would cause for Iran, North Korea or any other small crazy country with a much smaller nuclear arsenal.  The US weapon could be deployed around 2020.  Will North Korea or Iran have a missile or two capable of reaching the US by then?  If so, they will be stuck with the “Use it or lose it” problem, and may feel obliged to launch on warning.

Now, maybe the plan is that North Korea won’t develop the surveillance capability by 2020 to know whether we have launched our own missiles.  That’s reassuring!  Or maybe we can count on crazy countries not to do something crazy.  But this is a weapon that should not be built until these problems have been hashed through.

Legal Insurrection:

According to the article in The Times, the Russians and Chinese have a concern that these weapons could have a destabilizing effect because it would not be known if they carried a nuclear or conventional weapon, so if it is deployed, steps would need to be taken to make clear that they were non-nuclear.

That is all well and good. Verification with the Russians and Chinese to prevent a destabilizing effect is one thing. Counting conventional weapons the same as nuclear weapons, however, is nonsensical.

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