Archive for the ‘Israel’ Tag

WikiLeaks might make America safer

[Updates to this post, through Monday Dec. 13, follow below.]

When the “Afghan war logs” became public earlier this year, I focused on WikiLeaks from the standpoint of its huge impact on the media. The ongoing release of a quarter million State Department cables has since unleashed a torrent of hot debate about government secrecy and whether Julian Assange’s organization is a force for good or evil.

Like many others, I’ve marinated myself in related articles and commentary over the last week but remain ambivalent about some of the complex moral issues involved. I’ve also been pondering a question that seems noticeably absent from the discussion: Could it be that WikiLeaks is actually the best thing in a long time to afflict U.S. national security?

The cacophonous phenomenon on the world’s front pages has been a grand wake-up call — the rise of cyberwar is no longer a matter of theory. It’s here whether you believe Assange is an enemy or a hero. If it proves true that a low-level Army analyst was able to get his hands on such a colossal amount of sensitive documents, what does that say about Pentagon preparedness for the security challenges of the proliferating information age?

So far some contents of “cablegate” itself have informed our view of just how serious an issue this is. As the Times reported on Sunday, “repeated and often successful hacking attacks from China on the United States government, private enterprises and Western allies” have been taking place since as far back as 2002. One previously unreported attack “yielded more than 50 megabytes of e-mails and a complete list of user names and passwords from an American government agency.”

The China cables also show the fire with which WikiLeaks plays; you get the sense that if some of the redacted names were revealed, it could potentially be disastrous, both to individuals involved and to U.S. intelligence gathering.

It’s noteworthy that the Obama administration’s assessment of the damage from WikiLeaks has consistently been inconsistent. The latest round has Attorney General Eric Holder saying that “national security of the United States has been put at risk,” while Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that concerns about potential harm are “significantly overwrought” and that the disclosures will have a “fairly modest” impact on foreign policy. The mixed message would seem to suggest that the U.S. government yet lacks a coherent approach to safeguarding the nation’s information infrastructure.

In the later years of the Bush administration, the federal government began to prioritize cyberwar, a focus continued by the Obama administration. But today there are the troubling, all too familiar signs of unpreparedness, agency turf wars and legal muddle. The Pentagon’s Cyber Command seeks to expand its powers aggressively and is, not coincidentally, publicizing that fact now. According to the Washington Post, its general in charge recently testified to Congress that he could not adequately defend the country against cyber-attack because it “is not my mission to defend today the entire nation.” If an adversary attacked power grids, he said, a defensive effort would “rely heavily on commercial industry.” Former national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair warned, “This infuriating business about who’s in charge and who gets to call the shots is just making us muscle-bound.”

By some accounts the world hasn’t seen anything yet in terms of the looming dangers of cyberwar. An attack could cripple America, argues former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, striking everything from train routes and electrical grids to bank data and medical records.

WikiLeaks over the last few months, then, may have exposed U.S. government vulnerability in an alarmingly useful way, if one not much in line with Assange’s ideas about undermining state power. You can bet it has lit a serious fire under officials involved with the nation’s cybersecurity, who now must be working that much more intensively to plug any leaks in the ship of state and build up defenses against future attacks. They are, of course, likely toiling in secrecy. For now, anyway.

UPDATE: On the eve of his arrest in London, Assange publishes an article in The Australian: “Don’t shoot messenger for revealing uncomfortable truths.” He opens with a quote from Rupert Murdoch: “In the race between secrecy and truth, it seems inevitable that truth will always win.”

UPDATE 12/8/10: Hackers sympathetic to Assange and WikiLeaks have launched a series of cyberattacks in recent days, targeting MasterCard, PayPal and a Swiss bank. (Could Twitter be next?) The Guardian looks into the “shadowy group” allegedly behind the attacks:

A 22-year-old spokesman, who wished to be known only as “Coldblood”, told the Guardian that the group – which is about a thousand strong – is “quite a loose band of people who share the same kind of ideals” and wish to be a force for “chaotic good”.

There is no real command structure in the group, the London-based spokesman said, while most of its members are teenagers who are “trying to make an impact on what happens with the limited knowledge they have”. But others are parents, IT professionals and people who happen to have time – and resources – on their hands.

It’s really too bad that Stieg Larsson isn’t still around to witness all this.

Also: Some incisive comments at the cross-posted version of my piece on MoJo from Matthew Rotando on the implications of escalating cyberwar.

And: A great primer on WikiLeaks and roundup of coverage from Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic.

UPDATE 12/13/10: The WikiLeaks saga itself continues to ratchet up the potential for cyberwar. With a secret grand jury in Virginia reportedly now considering criminal charges against Assange, a headline in today’s Daily Mail raises the specter of retribution for Assange’s potential extradition: “Britain on cyber warfare alert as Whitehall prepares for WikiLeaks revenge attacks on Government website, it reads. Apparently “bank details of taxpayers and benefits claimants” could be at risk.

Stateside, meanwhile, the Times’ Scott Shane reports movement on the cyberwar front: “Whether or not the Obama administration tries to prosecute those who disseminated the information, it is determined to use technology to preserve its secrets. The Defense Department is scaling back information sharing, which its leaders believe went too far after information hoarding was blamed for the failure to detect the Sept. 11 plot. The department has also stripped CD and DVD recorders from its computers; it is redesigning security systems to require two people, not one, to move large amounts of information from a classified computer to an unclassified one; and it is installing software to detect downloads of unusual size.”

Brevity, brainpower… and Obama’s beer hour

If attention spans these days are indeed being digitally obliterated, you may not get very far past this sentence. But if you’re looking for a few good places where you might actually go a little deeper (besides this blog, of course!), here are a few recommended links — a quick rundown of What Else I’ve Been Reading Lately.

Benedict Carey continues an engrossing series about the human brain, with the latest installment looking into the science of gut feelings. What is it that might give some U.S. soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan exceptional ability to detect roadside bombs? It could be that cognitive abilities matter most — whether innate or gained potentially through training.

NPR has a look at how Bryant Neal Vinas, a 26-year-old aspiring jihadi from Long Island, made his way pretty darn close to Osama bin Laden. According to terrorism expert Sam Rascoff, “Vinas’ experience tends to undermine the story we’ve been telling about what it takes to get inside the hard-core al-Qaida.”

In “The Kill Company,” Raffi Khatchadourian further investigates the dark side of U.S. military action in Iraq. In the fog of this long war, where is the line between killing and murder on the battlefield?

With a thought-provoking Op-Ed in the Times, Haaretz’s Aluf Benn suggests Barack Obama has blown it by not talking to Israelis, while just about everyone else in the world has been hearing directly from the Diplomat in Chief. “This policy of ignoring Israel carries a price,” Benn says, especially with respect to the incendiary issue of the settlements.

After spending a chunk of time back in June writing about the election upheaval in Iran, it was inspiring to read this high-quality exchange between bloggers Ethan Zuckerman and Robert Mackey about the challenges of covering events in Iran. Would that this kind of open discussion, at the nexus of technology, politics and journalism, be much more commonplace.

RedStripeBeerAnd last but not least… Gates-gate. Since you made it this far, I’ll go a tad deeper here. Obviously, a bunch of media folks have no choice but to waste a bunch of time obsessing about and over-analyzing what brands will be consumed during the imminent beer summit at the White House. (How revealing that the black Harvard professor is going for a Red Stripe! Etc.) It’s not as if there’s an array of daunting issues in the world on which to focus. Nonetheless, CNN’s “Situation Room” today has been featuring a “beer chat” countdown clock onscreen, along with graphic deconstructions of where the gathering will take place in the White House rose garden, and with Wolf Blitzer practically beside himself teasing the event every 60 seconds. (Jon Stewart no doubt is hailing the cable news gods ahead of tonight’s sendup.)

In the end, I think Obama “acted stupidly” himself by getting so directly involved in this whole kerfuffle. He has done wonders to help push America forward on intractable issues of race. (His March 2008 speech in Philadelphia on race was perhaps the high-water mark of his tidal wave of a presidential campaign.) But I agree with Glenn Loury that Obama spent his political capital poorly on this — even if, as Charles M. Blow recounted quite poignantly, America still has a long way to go.

SamAdamsUPDATE: An important twist in the paramount beer summit story: It turns out that Gates recalculated and went with a Sam Adams instead. We can only ponder the significance… also see Michael Scherer, on how the White House press corps got played on this one.

On unsettling ground in Israel

Even after working for years with several deeply knowledgeable, insightful writers to cover the morass known as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, perhaps the only thing that’s really clear to me right now is this: It is ever atop the list of the world’s most daunting problems. And while no problem is more fraught with righteousness and political posturing (on all sides), at the heart of it is the long-running battle over facts on the ground. Sometimes that battle is more open, sometimes it is more clandestine — but always the struggle for the land, that seemingly tiny yet politically enormous sliver of it.

Despite my strong desire to see the region for myself, I’ve not yet had a chance to visit. And that’s one reason why Eric Orner’s recent piece, “The Land Grab out My Front Door: A Memoir of Jerusalem in Pictures,” grabbed my attention.

land grab - orner

In a subject realm where anger and outrage are the norm, Orner’s work is an understated and intimate account of what’s happening on the ground in Jerusalem’s Abu Tor neighborhood, where Orner has been living.

“Israelis call Abu Tor ‘mixed’, meaning both Arabs & Jews live here,” he writes. “This doesn’t really capture the reality of the place, though. Well-off Jewish American ex-pats live in fancy condos at the top of the hill… while Arab families live further down the street as it makes a twisty descent towards the valley floor…”

He goes on to depict what appear to be dubious actions by Israeli authorities to demolish an Arab community that apparently stands in the way of developing “an archeological theme park” in a coveted part of Old Jerusalem. Such a development, Orner notes, is likely to draw lots more “Euro-Yankee tourist Shequels.” (Not to mention what it would add in terms of Israel-favorable facts on the ground.)

land grab2


land grab3

Check out the whole piece (at the above link), both visually engaging and eye-opening.

Meantime, while there seem to be some hopeful signs of progress for Palestinians in the West Bank these days, according to a report from the Times’ Isabel Kershner, few people believe that the right-wing government of Bibi Netanyahu is sincere when it comes to the Israeli prime minister’s recent talk of peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has been under pressure from the Obama administration, particularly on the issue of Israeli settlements.

But as Kershner reports, “even senior officials and prominent figures of his conservative Likud Party have been busy explaining, privately and publicly, why they think there is not likely to be a Palestinian state any time soon, in ways that raise even more questions about the current government’s commitment to reaching a final peace accord. And Mr. Netanyahu’s diplomatic turnaround was greeted by a notable silence among the Likud firebrands and hawks, widely interpreted here as a sign that they feel they have nothing to fear.”

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Netanyahu claimed this week that Jerusalem is an “open city” that permits all its inhabitants, Jewish and Palestinian, to purchase homes in both its eastern and western parts. “An examination by Haaretz, however, presented a rather different situation on the ground,” reports the paper, under the headline “Most Arabs can’t buy most homes in West Jerusalem.”

Haaretz also reports: “Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said Tuesday that Israel had an ‘indisputable’ right to build anywhere in Jerusalem, including East Jerusalem, following international calls on Israel to halt construction in the disputed area.”

The political picture apparently has grown tense enough that a senior aide to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — whose country usually displays staunch support for Israel — commented in a German publication that if the settlement building does not stop, Israel is running the risk of “gradually committing suicide as a democratic state.”

Postcard from Wyoming

Did Joe Biden just give Israel the green light to attack Iran? Is Sarah Palin completely cuckoo? Have we reached the saturation point on Michael Jackson yet?

Apologies, dear readers, but I don’t have a lot to say about current affairs at the moment. (Anyway, Palin’s baffling resignation speech more than speaks for itself.) What I do have are a few photos I took during recent travels with friends in the great state of Wyoming. Enjoy…

*

July 4th festivities in the town of Saratoga:
Saratogaparade1

Saratogaparade2

Saratogaparade3

At the bar inside the Hotel Wolf:
HotelWolfbar

Twilight commemoration involving ignition:
sparklers1

sparklers2

sparklers3

Thunderstorm approaching over Laramie:
TstormLaramie

At the base of Medicine Bow peak:
MedicineBow1

MedicineBow2

Obama’s next epic crisis on the horizon

Sure, the Dow is hitting new lows and the economic meltdown is looking pretty damn frightening. (If the recent flood of headlines hasn’t made you want to hide in a hole, just read Paul Krugman’s mostly despairing analysis today.) But for the new president the trouble is only just beginning, as dark clouds gather to the east. Iran, it seems, is accelerating down a path toward nuclear weapons. That’s troubling in its own right — but far more so when adding to the mix a new right-wing government in Israel, the possibility of which looks imminent as hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu gains an edge in the country’s close election.

In late 2007, my friend and fellow journalist Gregory Levey took an in-depth look at Netanyahu’s political resurgence and the regional conflict that potentially could be unleashed if he returned to power. (This would be his second time as prime minister, having served from 1996-1999.) For anyone in the Israel peace camp, it would be an understatement to say that the prospect did not bode well. And now Iran may be even closer to being perceived truly as an immediate and existential threat. So while President Obama, admirably, has been signaling interest in a new era of diplomacy with the Iranians, he soon may be facing a much more dangerous brew in the Middle East.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.