Tagged: foreign policy

Mathis Lohaus

Links: Dick Cheney; Press Freedom; Publication Bias; Thesis Writing

In the New York Review of Books, Mark Danner has a captivating article on Dick Cheney’s legacy: First, the “war on terror” has changed the United States; human rights are ignored and the “dark side” of military and intelligence operations has been vastly expanded. Second, the decisions after 9/11 have changed the face of the world, and not in a good way. Danner then goes on and paints a picture of the man himself that will send chills down your spine:

[T]here is a kind of stark amoral grandeur to this answer that takes one’s breath away. Just as he was likely the most important and influential American official in making the decision to withhold the protection of the Geneva Conventions from detainees, Cheney was likely the most important and influential American when it came to imposing an official government policy of torture. It is quite clear he simply cannot, or will not, acknowledge that such a policy raises any serious moral or legal questions at all.

Reporters Without Borders - World Press Freedom 2014
Reporters Without Borders – World Press Freedom 2014

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have published their 2014 World Press Freedom Index. As they have done in earlier years, the NGO called out the United States: “Countries that pride themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law have not set an example, far from it.”

Traditionally, RSF rankings are more strongly influenced by individual cases and physical security than the report prepared by Freedom House (FH). Their “Freedom of the Press” is usually updated in May.

The 2014 version of FH’s “Freedom in the World” report (on political rights and civil liberties), however, has just been published.

Jishnu Das and Quy-Toan Do diagnose a geographical bias in top economics journals:

Mathis Lohaus

“Tailored Access Operations” are exactly what I want the NSA to do

Happy New Year everyone! We’re back from our winter break. (Actually, some members of the IR Blog editorial board are still enjoying their time off, but I guess they will return to their desks eventually.)

At the 2013 Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg, Jacob Applebaum gave a talk that summarized what is known about the NSA’s “Tailored Access Operations” unit. You can watch the video above. Basically, “tailored access” means that these are high-tech “hackers” that acquire intelligence on high-profile targets. Their arsenal includes tiny wireless chips inserted into hardware that is intercepted on the way to customers (!) as well as a special kind of bug that can be accessed by radar waves. Given that the information is from 2009, they probably have even more sophisticated tools now.

The related SPIEGEL story is here (in English). Bruce Schneier has collected a couple of links on the topic, and currently presents one of the exploits every day.

In the Guardian, Matt Blaze makes a very important point: “The NSA’s Tailored Access Operations show there’s a way to be safe and get good intelligence without mass surveillance”. The crucial difference is that between (A) civil-rights-abusing mass surveillance (as currently discussed, again, in the German cabinet) and (B) targeted surveillance of people that were chosen based on meaningful criteria. As Blaze puts it:

TAO is retail rather than wholesale.

That is, as well as TAO works (and it appears to work quite well indeed), they can’t deploy it against all of us – or even most of us. They must be installed on each individual target’s own equipment, sometimes remotely but sometimes through “supply chain interdiction” or “black bag jobs”. By their nature, targeted exploits must be used selectively. Of course, “selectively” at the scale of NSA might still be quite large, but it is still a tiny fraction of what they collect through mass collection.

For over a decade now, the NSA has been drowning in a sea of irrelevant data collected almost entirely about innocent people who would never be selected as targets or comprise part of any useful analysis. The implicit assumption has been that spying on everyone is the price we pay to be able to spy on the real bad guys. But the success of TAO demonstrates a viable alternative. And if the NSA has any legitimate role in intelligence gathering, targeted operations like TAO have the significant advantage that they leave the rest of us – and the systems we rely on – alone.

When I wrote earlier that “we are genuinely shocked by the extent to which our friends feel the need to spy on us and don’t think twice about it”, I was mainly referring to mass surveillance. Wiretapping chancellor Merkel is disrespectful, but I expect her to expect this kind of thing as an occupational hazard. What I find unacceptable, on the other hand, is that systematically eroding the integrity of communications networks and the meaning of “privacy” should be the new normal.

In other words: I’m far more comfortable with the idea that U.S. operatives secretly plant a bug in some suspected terrorist’s computer in Berlin than with the fact that all kinds of “metadata” on German (and other) citizens are being collected non-stop.

Putting a stop to individual-level surveillance seems implausible to me, and also impossible seeing that U.S. legislators would have to decide to shut down pretty much all of what intellifence agencies are about. But is it really that far-fetched (or naive) to hope for some consensus in favor of civil rights? Even if you don’t care about somewhat lofty and abstract pro-privacy arguments, U.S. and European business is being hurt by the NSA’s horrible reputation, and then there’s always the risk that backdoors may be used by more than one party…

“Tailored access” is exactly what I want the NSA to do. But please leave my telecoms provider alone and stop tracking my mobile phone “just in case”.

Mathis Lohaus

Links: Drones; Forecasting; Ranking Researchers; Surveillance Logic

A combat drone, via Wikimedia commons
A combat drone, because that’s the most photogenic of all topics covered here today… (Wikimedia commons)

I hope you’re having a great week so far! My fellow bloggers have other obligations, so you’ll have to tolerate my incoherent link lists for the time being…

At the Duck of Minerva, Charli Carpenter makes a crucial point regarding the debate on military drones (emphasis added):

In my view, all these arguments have some merit but the most important thing to focus on is the issue of extrajudicial killing, rather than the means used to do it, for two reasons. First, if the US ended its targeted killings policy this would effectively stop the use of weaponized drones in the war on terror, whereas the opposite is not the case; and it would effectively remove the CIA from involvement with drones. It would thus limit weaponized drones to use in regular armed conflicts that might arise in the future, and only at the hands of trained military personnel. If Holewinski and Lewis are right, this will drastically reduce civilian casualties from drones.

I’d like to recommend a couple of links on attempts to forecast political events. First, the always excellent Jay Ulfelder has put together some links on prediction markets, including a long story in the Pacific Standard on the now defunct platform Intrade. Ulfelder also comments on “why it is important to quantify our beliefs”.

Second (also via Ulfelder), I highly recommend the Predictive Heuristics blog, which is run by the Ward Lab at Duke University. Their most recent post covers a dataset on political conflict called ICEWS and its use in the Good Judgment Project, a forecasting tournament that I have covered here on the blog as well. (#4 of my series should follow soon-ish.)

A post by Daniel Sgroi at VoxEU suggests a way for panelists in the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) to judge the quality of research output. Apparently, there is a huge effort underway to rank scholars based on their output (i.e., publications) — and the judges have been explicitly told not to consider the journals in which articles were published. Sgroi doesn’t think that’s a good idea:

Of course, economists are experts at decision-making under uncertainty, so we are uniquely well-placed to handle this. However, there is a roadblock that has been thrown up that makes that task a bit harder – the REF guidelines insist that the panel cannot make use of journal impact factors or any hierarchy of journals as part of the assessment process. It seems perplexing that any information should be ignored in this process, especially when it seems so pertinent. Here I will argue that journal quality is important and should be used, but only in combination with other relevant data. Since we teach our own students a particular method (courtesy of the Reverend Thomas Bayes) for making such decisions, why not practise what we preach?

This resonates with earlier debates here and elsewhere on how to assess academic work. There’s a slippery slope if you rely on publications: in the end, are you just going to count the number of peer-reviewed articles in a CV without ever reading any of them? However, Sgroi is probably right to point out that it’s absurd to disregard entirely the most important mechanism of quality control this profession has to offer, despite all its flaws.

Next week, the Körber-Stiftung will hold the 3rd Berlin Foreign Policy Forum. One of the panels deals with transatlantic relations. I’m wonder if any interesting news on the spying scandal will pop up in time. Meanwhile, this talk by Dan Geer on “tradeoffs in cyber security” illustrates the self-reinforcing logic of surveillance (via Bruce Schneier):

Unless you fully instrument your data handling, it is not possible for you to say what did not happen. With total surveillance, and total surveillance alone, it is possible to treat the absence of evidence as the evidence of absence. Only when you know everything that *did* happen with your data can you say what did *not* happen with your data.

Mathis Lohaus

Syria, Chemical Weapons & Civil War: Is A Bad Plan Better Than No Plan?


Yesterday, the United Nations published their report on the use of chemical weapons (CW) in Syria on August 21. You can read the conclusions above. Bottom line: Sarin has been used, but the report doesn’t explicitly blame either the Syrian regime or the rebels.

A few days earlier, on September 14, the Syrian government has officially requested to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). This is a reaction to the U.S. threat to launch an attack, paired with new diplomatic efforts by Russia (and others?). The UN has received all necessary documents now and the accession will be effective in mid-October.

So instead of witnessing yet another U.S. military campaign to punish a dictator, now we’re all warm and fuzzy about international law? It’s almost as if they are following Richard Price’s guide in Foreign Affairs step-by-step. German critics of an intervention (please note the great series of posts at Sicherheitspolitik-Blog) should be happy, too.

In addition, it looks like the UN Security Council – after months of paralysis and a grand total of one single press release mentioning Syria in 2013 – might actually pass a resolution soon. So Russia and the U.S. seem to have agreed on … something. To me, it is not entirely clear what to expect – but it seems to be focused on taking CW out of the picture.

Continue reading

Mathis Lohaus and Sören Stapel

German Foreign Policy Bingo


On Sunday, September 1st, all major TV channels in Germany will broadcast the first (and only) “duel” between Angela Merkel and her challenger in the upcoming federal elections, Peer Steinbrück. As we have criticized in a previous post, both are not exactly known for their visionary positions on foreign policy.

Nonetheless, we will make sure to watch the show. In particular, we’ll pay close attention to any mentions of foreign policy and international affairs.

And to make things more interesting, we suggest you gather a group of friends for a round of “German foreign policy bingo”! We’ve come up with 24 topics that could be featured in Sunday’s debate and created a set of randomized bingo sheets. Please download, print, and share them with your friends:

German Foreign Policy Bingo [PDF with 12 sheets]

PS. For added fun, turn this into a drinking game! Take a shot for every topic that is mentioned, and prepare a bottle of champagne for the lucky winner (in case the candidates actually talk about foreign policy enough to fill a row on the card).

PPS. Think we missed an important topic? Just create your own version (and share it in the comments if you like)! Our word list for convenient copy & paste: Continue reading

Mathis Lohaus

Steinbrück’s Missed Opportunity

Peer Steinbrück at FU Berlin
Peer Steinbrück at FU Berlin – June 4, 2013

Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic challenger to chancellor Angela Merkel in the upcoming election, gave a speech at Freie Universität Berlin on Tuesday. You can watch it online (in German). This was not meant to be a typical campaign talk, but a speech on the “guidelines of social democratic foreign and security policy”.

The speech was disappointing. For people familiar with the issue area, in particular the first half of the speech seemed very much rooted in the general wisdom, or rather, the commonly shared worries about the state of the world. Steinbrück failed to clearly distinguish his position from vague and all too familiar boilerplate statements. Europe is important for Germany and a historic achievement that should be cherished. International law and the UN Security Council must be considered in decisions about employing the German army. Drones that kill people are undesirable. Oh my, who would have thought?

Steinbrück was unable to clarify how and why his positions represent social democracy, let alone an alternative to Merkel-style realpolitik. His dismissive response when asked about this weakness: “If a social democrat gives a speech, than this a speech about social democratic positions.” Well, what might these positions be? Continue reading