Focal Points Blog

In Today’s Open-Source World, Low-Tech Attacks by “Other Guys” Rule

I woke up thinking about caltrops. Remember caltrops – those handy little devices scattered around by Roman cavalry to cover their retreat? Equally effective against infantry, cavalry and war elephants, caltrops are nothing more than two or more sharp nails or spines fastened together so that one of them always points upward when it lands. These 2,000-year-old ‘no tech’ weapons are thoroughly modern, too – make those spines hollow and they also work on pneumatic tires.

Now imagine a group of fun loving ‘Other Guys’ [gangs, drug cartels, insurgents, terrorist groups] with a few vans and a few thousand caltrops they knocked out over a batch of brewskis while watching Monday Night Football on the big screen.

These OGs, pissed off, perhaps, by petty resentments such as their jobs being offshored, their retirement being stolen through a hedge fund scam, or their team once again making a lousy draft choice, set off for some payback. They hit the freeways at rush hour, and liberally (though they would never use the term!) scatter their carefully crafted caltrops around Greater Metropolitan Anywhere.

Within minutes, it’s gridlock. The entire region is at a standstill. Economic damage runs into the tens (or hundreds) of millions through lost wages, lost time, lost production, tire repairs and replacement, body work and insurance claims, road crew and law enforcement / emergency crew overtime, etc., etc., etc. Collateral damage includes several dozen DOAs because medic rigs couldn’t reach victims or hospitals, shootouts resulted from super-sized road rage, and the sheer frustration and stress of it all triggered a wave of heart attacks and CVAs.

Cost to the OGs – a couple cases of Coors, 100 pounds of 16 penny nails or stout tubing, a couple of torches and a few gallons of gas.

Talk about Return on Investment.

Or . . . let’s say you’re really bad with tools and hate football, but are handy with a mouse and social networks. A techie friend points out that you don’t have to be a code poet to mount a DDoS attack on some corporate or .gov evildoer. (PayPal and the US State Department come to mind for some reason.)

You only need a few hundred or thousand friends to simultaneously log on to the targeted site and continuously hit ‘refresh’ to clog the server and crash the site. You can coordinate through tweets, texts and Facebook, and all pass ‘Go!’ at the same moment. You can hang out for hours, chatting, texting and virtually goofing together the whole time. Like, it’s community, dude.

The bottom line is, in ‘industrialized’ and well as ‘developing’ nations, people are tired of being lied to, ripped off and abused by the system. They’re threatened, angry and resentful. And while they may not be willing or capable of building an IED or flying a Cessna into a building, they can weld up a caltrop, click on a mouse, or squeeze a little Krazy Glue into the locks of the local bank that’s foreclosing on them or their neighbors.

In each case, the result is the personal satisfaction of fighting back, and disruption ranging from minimal to massive. ROI – economic and emotional – is massive in every case. (Cost of a tube of Krazy Glue: $4. Cost of a locksmith for an hour and new hardware and keys: $300. Cost of lost business and angry customers: pick a number. Watching it all while burning a couple dubes across the street in the park. Priceless.)

Now consider angry, idle, disenfranchised folks with access to modern arms, a garage ‘fab lab’, or a DNA sequencer purchased on EBay . . .

If there is to be a future for humankind that is not ‘nasty, brutish and short’, it will be based on a concept of Mutually Assured Security. (Exactly the opposite of the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction that ‘guided’ US foreign policy for so long.) Our world is just too big, too fast, too interconnected, and too well armed and capable for some of us to be secure if others are in peril.

Until we recognize that ‘we’ cannot be secure unless ‘they’ are also secure, and begin to design and bring forward what John Robb of Global Guerillas calls ‘mutually beneficial templates for success’, humanity is on a fast track to the ultimate undoing.

Bigger bombs, more troops and better surveillance will not reverse this trend – they will accelerate it.

As this week’s events around WikiLeaks and the various actions, reactions and counteractions demonstrate, we’re not in Kansas any more. And that’s just the orchestra tuning. We haven’t gotten to the overture yet, much less the symphony.

Like it or not, we live in an open source world, where small groups and even individuals can successfully take on institutions and nation states with a reasonable chance of winning. ROI is on their side. They can bleed the beast until it either implodes, or lashes out, inflicts collateral damage, and draws in new opponents who can do it greater harm. In an environment like this, as the nuclear command and control computer learned in the classic 1984 movie War Games, ‘The only way to win is not to play.’

Governments around the world had better figure that out and begin to deliver genuine security, justice and prosperity for all, or leaked memos and a thumping at the ballot box will be the least of their worries.

WikiLeaks XVIII: What About Bob? (Woodward, That Is)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the eighteenth in the series.

Stephen Walt has yet another excellent piece at Foreign Policy taking stock of a double-standard being ignored in discussions of the WikiLeaks scandal, namely that

Given how frequently government officials leak classified information in order to make themselves look good, box in their bureaucratic rivals, or tie the President’s hands, it seems a little disingenuous of them to be so upset by Assange’s activities.

Walt goes on to examine the uberjournalism of Bob Woodward, the insider par excellence of White House politics.

Consider the case of the most famous of all “insider” journalists: Bob Woodward. Over the past several decades, he’s built a highly-lucrative career on his ability to get Washington insiders to talk to him. Less charitably, you could say he’s gotten rich giving politicos a vehicle to make their case in print. Just think about how many insiders spill their guts to Woodward, and even provide him with key memos, which are sometimes published as appendices in his opuses. It is apparently entirely acceptable for Woodward to publish remarkably detailed stuff on the most sensitive deliberations of the U.S. government, including the nasty things our officials say about one another and about foreign officials. This well-established practice warrants no adverse comment whatsoever; instead, the usual result is a front page review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and a #1 position on the best-seller list.

Walt asks if anyone has

proposed arresting Bob Woodward? Has anyone looked into applying the 1917 Espionage Act to his revelations of the most secret deliberations of the national security establishment? Is the State Department telling employees not to buy or read his books, the same way they are telling employees not to look at any of the Wikileaks materials? And remember: Woodward isn’t writing about minor issues or even the trivialities of diplomacy; his books deal directly with core issues of war and peace. One could argue that what Woodward digs up and displays — information drawn from the highest and innermost counsels of the U.S. government — is more important and more potentially damaging than zillions of often-trivial memcons by mid-level bureaucrats in overseas embassies. How can these leaks be more sensitive or troublesome than a detailed, blow-by-blow account of Obama’s secret Afghanistan decision-making?

The piece sums up the case neatly, with Walt offering the observation that

I suspect it mostly comes down to this. Elites like the idea of being in charge, and they don’t really trust “the people” in whose name they govern, even though it is the latter that pays their salaries, and fights their wars. Elites like the sense of power and status that being “on the inside” conveys: it’s a turn-on to know things that other people don’t, and it can be so darn inconvenient when the public gets wind of what the current “best and brightest” are actually doing. The idea that ruling elites are in fact “public servants” who serve at our behest is not a big part of their mental make-up, except that some of them do have to get re-elected every few years, and not every seat is safe.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already caught it, take a moment to read Marcy Wheeler’s account of sitting on a roundtable discussion of the Scooter Libby case, where similar issues of government-media relations came to the surface. While Wheeler concludes that some observers, in this case Jay Rosen, seem “optimistic [that] Wikileaks will make some difference here,” she remains “skeptical that the Bill of Rights will win out over the culture of secrecy.” This is certainly the concern. But I’m not clear that we should discount the staying power of freedom of expression just yet. With major voices from all points along the political spectrum—from Ron Paul and George W. Bush lawyer Jack Goldsmith on the right, to Brazil’s Lula on the left—the political terrain on which this battle is fought is shifting rapidly. And the elite media emperors, busy scrambling to put on their clothes, are losing ground by the day.

Torture and the Ticking Time Bomb (Read: Nuclear) Scenario

When the subject of torture in the abstract is broached, the conversation tends to wend its way toward the terrorist and the ticking time-bomb scenario. You know how it goes: a terrorist group announces that a nuclear bomb it’s planted in a major American city will be detonated unless its demands are met. One of its members is captured. Time to take off the shackles on torture and let ‘er rip, right?

However, when a scenario hinges on not only the ultimate weapon, but one set to go off at a time that’s both predetermined and rapidly approaching, it’s no longer a test case for torture. Instead the debate slips down a peg in hierarchy to one about torture under highly specific circumstances. The option often poised in counterpoint to torture — becoming intimate with the subject and winning his or her trust over repeated interrogation sessions — is removed because of the time constraints. The scenario, in other words, becomes tantamount to the plot device of a movie.

In fact, such a movie, was made by Australian director Gregor Jordan, but, apparently deemed unfit for theatrical release, it went straight to video. One viewer wrote of The Unthinkable: “Glib, pretentious and cynical, this is both unpleasant and insufferable.” But this viewer found it thought-provoking.

The film’s plot differs from the shopworn scenario in that the perpetrators are fewer: one man — an Anglo former member of special operations forces with nuclear knowledge turned radical Islamist. But the number of bombs is greater: three, says Yusuf, aka Stephen Arthur Younger. To back up his threat if his as yet unspecified demands aren’t met, he films himself with what he claims to be a nuclear bomb, complete with a timer that has been set.

Younger, played by Welsh actor Michael Sheen, soon allows himself to be captured in Los Angeles, presumably to enhance the platform from which he will attempt to get his demands met. Brought to what appears to be an evacuated school, he’s handed over to black ops torturer Henry Humphries. Known as “H,” he’s played by Samuel Jackson, compelling as always and, in fact, underplaying what could be easily be an over-the-top role. H’s foil is Helen Brody, played by Carrie-Ann Moss, of the FBI, which prides itself on getting results without torture.

The phrase “torture porn” has been invoked to describe The Unthinkable. True, it features plenty of tasering and, as well, severed fingertips are shown. But when it comes to atrocity exhibitions, it’s not in the same league as, say (the author imagines without actually seeing), the Hostel series.

One scene, though, shocks, but — handled without gore — only because it’s unexpected. Without revealing its nature (because — spoiler alert, as they say — I’m about to give away the rest of the movie), I’ll note that, to the discerning viewer, it supplants the question of torture momentarily. But torture returns to the foreground when the meaning of the movie’s title, The Unthinkable, reveals itself.

Try to imagine torture at its most degraded and demented. Dental drilling a la The Marathon Man? Bringing harm to the sexual organs? No, think who, not what. When Younger, with his special forces training, proves impervious to torture on his person, H calls for his children to be brought to the site.

H believes that Younger has foreseen every contingency. In fact, Younger had expected his family to be out of harm’s way on a plane to Saudi Arabia, but his Muslim wife and children were denied visas. (Small flaw in the plot: The last thing Saudi Arabia, particularly in light of recent efforts to root out al Qaeda in its midst, would want is to welcome the family of a nuclear terrorist in its midst. It would likely have extradited Younger’s family to the United States — or what remained of it after the nuclear explosions. Younger should have known this.)

When his children are escorted into the interrogation room, Younger becomes distraught and gives up the locations of a bomb in Los Angeles, as well as in New York City. (Authorities had already located one in Dallas.) The officials at the interrogation site allow themselves to hope that the threat is winding down. However, H remains suspicious that, even in his reduced state, Younger has something up his sleeve. Then H realizes that not all the missing enriched uranium from Russia that Younger used to make his bombs hasn’t been accounted for in the three known bombs. Enough remains for Younger to have manufactured a fourth bomb. (Another flaw in the plot: authorities just might have noticed that little detail.)

When Brody refuses to return the children to the interrogation room, H, apparently grandstanding, unstraps Younger and informs him that he’s free. But Younger manages to get hold of a sidearm and skills himself. FBI agent Brody leads Younger’s children out of the site and the film ends. It seems anti-climactic and an alternate ending for the movie was created, providing, from the account I read, no more satisfaction on the surface. But was it necessary to depict the last bomb detonating most likely in middle America?

Aside from ending the torture and eliminating the risk that he might crack and give up the last bomb, what did Younger achieve by shooting himself? In fact, by giving up the location of the Los Angeles bomb, he removed his children from harm’s way. Also, because he’s dead, information can’t be extracted from him by torturing his children.

After the movie ends, you make an accounting: who was right — those pro or those against torture? Let’s do the math. The FBI discovered one bomb (25% of the threat), torture produced two bombs (50%), and one fell through the cracks. The argument, however, can be made that if Younger were still alive he’d be even more likely to give up that last bomb to ensure the safety of his children. Let’s then rate torture 75% successful.

True, it’s insidious that watching The Unthinkable left this viewer more interested in calculating a score for torture than debating whether it was justified. To reiterate, the sui generis-ness of the scenario seems to make approving torture in this situation as free of ethical concerns as killing zombies. Or am I just making an excuse for myself?

This question was explored in 2006 and again in 2008 by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explored this question. First, though, its disclaimer:

It is important to stress here that the kind of scenario under discussion remains that of the one-off case of torture in an emergency situation; what is not under consideration in this section is legalised, or otherwise institutionalised, torture.

The treatise proper begins:

. . . The central claim of the proponents of “practical moral absolutes” seems to be [that] ticking bomb scenarios, such as our above-described terrorist case — and other relevant one-off emergencies in which torture seems to be justified — have not, and will not, happen. . . . [But] it is not simply a philosopher’s fanciful example.

To outline the justification:

(1) The police reasonably believe that torturing the terrorist will probably save thousands of innocent lives; (2) the police know that there is no other way to save those lives; (3) the threat to life is imminent; (4) the thousands about to be murdered are innocent — the terrorist has no good, let alone decisive, justificatory moral reason for murdering them [as if one could possibly exist -- RW].

Furthermore:

. . . the terrorist is in the process of completing his . . . action of murdering thousands of innocent people. . . . the terrorist is more akin to someone in the process of murdering an innocent person, and refusing to refrain from doing so. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, another individual in the act of murder might be shot by the police. Still:

. . . someone might hold that killing is an absolute moral wrong, i.e., killing anyone — no matter how guilty — is never morally justified. This view is consistent with holding that torture is an absolute moral wrong, i.e. torturing anyone — no matter how guilty — is never morally justified. However, the price of consistency is very high.

Moral absolutism takes consistency to its extreme like, say, nuclear weapons takes killing to its extreme. Both push past the point of absurdity. In the end:

. . . it is difficult to see how torturing (but not killing) the guilty terrorist and saving the lives of thousands could be morally worse than refraining from torturing him and allowing him to murder thousands.

To repeat, the scenario may be too unique to have practical value.

In a postscript, The Unthinkable features a moment that has all the trappings of an inside joke. The demands that Younger finally reveals require the president to announce a cessation of support for what he calls puppet governments in Middle Eastern countries and a withdrawal of American troops from the Middle East. The president’s man responds to Brody and H that that he can’t report the demands to the president since it’s a declared policy of the United States to refuse to negotiate with terrorist. This viewer’s response? Go Younger!

In fact, the sympathy director Jordan invokes in us for a nuclear terrorist is even more insidious than making it easy for us to accept torture.

Do Arab States Really Want the U.S. to Attack Iran?

[The] cables reveal how Iran’s ascent has unified Israel and many longtime Arab adversaries — notably the Saudis — in a common cause. Publicly, these Arab states held their tongues, for fear of a domestic uproar and the retributions of a powerful neighbor. Privately, they clamored for strong action — by someone else.

. . . wrote a David Sanger-led team at the New York Times on November 29 as part of its coverage of the lastest WikiLeaks dump. For example, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia supposedly called for the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” of Iran. Also, from the Los Angeles Times via Michael Bush at Focal Points:

In a May 2005 meeting, Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed, deputy supreme commander of the United Arab Emirates armed forces, urged a U.S. general to use “ground forces” against Iran. . . . A February 2010 document attributes Bin Zayed’s “near-obsessive” arms buildup to his fears about Iran.

Apparently this didn’t jibe with what Gareth Porter and Jim Lobe of IPS News knew of Arab attitudes toward Iran. They took it upon themselves to scrutinize the cables in question. Here’s an excerpt from what they learned.

The notion that these leaders, like Israel, favour a military solution to Iran’s nuclear programme has become widely accepted by the news media in the past week. . . . for example, the Washington Post Monday asserted that the Wikileaks disclosure “show[ed] that Persian Gulf leaders have pressed for a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities…”

But a careful reading of all the diplomatic cables reporting the views of Saudi and other Gulf Arab regimes on Iran shows that the [New York] Times’ account seriously distorted the content — and in the case of the Saudis, ignored the context — of the cables. . . . The original Times story, headlined “From Arabs and Israelis, Sharp Distress Over a Nuclear Iran”, referred to “a largely silent front of Arab states whose position on sanctions and force looked much like the Israelis”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his U.S. neo- conservative backers immediately seized on the story as confirmation of what Israel has been saying all along.

In fact . . .

. . . the cables show that most Gulf Arab regimes including Saudi Arabia itself — have been seriously concerned about the consequences of a strike against Iran for their own security, in sharp contrast to Israel’s open advocacy of such a strike.

Also:

The [NY Times] story asserted that the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, had recalled the king’s “frequent exhortations to the U.S. to attack Iran” during an April 2008 meeting with Gen. David Petraeus. . . . The implication was that al-Jubeir had made that statement during the Petraeus-Abdullah meeting. But the reporting cable makes clear that [it was] two days later, in a conversation with the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission in Riyadh, Michael Gfoeller.

In his meeting with Petraeus, in fact, Abdullah had not spoken about Iran’s nuclear programme but focused instead on the importance of “resisting and rolling back Iranian influence and subversion in Iraq”, according to the cable. [Meanwhile] the foreign minister “called instead for much more severe U.S. and international sanctions on Iran, including a travel ban and further restrictions on bank lending.”

Furthermore:

Even if Abdullah had in fact offered explicit support for a military attack against Iran in the meeting with Petraeus . . . that would not be a reliable indicator of Saudi policy toward the issue, according to Chas Freeman, a veteran diplomat who served as Washington’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992 and maintains contact with top Saudi officials. Freeman told IPS that such a statement would “fit a pattern of communication with the United States of ingratiating themselves with their protector”.

In their hearts of hearts, Arab leaders might long to turn their friendship with the United States to their advantage and beat back Iran. But they know that trying to make use of U.S. military power is as likely to evoke blowback as when the United States thought they were clever and armed the mujahideen in their struggle against the Soviets.

Rio Rumbles

FavelasThere are some reasonably high intensity clashes between govs and Other Guys [gangs, drug cartels, insurgents, terrorist groups -- RW] going on in Rio and Michoacán right now. Be interesting to see how they play out over time.

My guess is one of two primary ‘possible futures’ emerge in these and similar situations that I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the near future.

One, the gov stays, actually deals with the disenfranchisement of the local citizens, and the OGs are history. (In that environment – successful OGs will relocate and reinvent themselves.)

Two, the gov doesn’t stay (or doesn’t sufficiently address residents’ Maslovian realities) and the OGs will be back running the favelas / state. May be the same crews, may be different. (I’d guess the latter in Rio, because the present crop has pretty well demonstrated their non-adaptiveness, and are seen by the people as parasitic. La Familia has been more adaptive and community serving, but has lost some senior leadership of late.) But in either case, they’ll have to adapt, reinvent and offer themselves as social benefit orgs, providing a reasonable level of security / stability / livelihood, or they’ll go away again.

I suspect in Brazil, the gov will stay, and Dilma (channeling Lula) will see this as a must win and reallocate resources to pull it off. If not, the loss of face and cred will undermine her and the gov in round 2.

My guess would be the opposite in Mexico, however, especially since Calderon seems mostly to channel the DEA, and gets only the fighting part, not the services bit, which is the key one. Michoacán is his home state, however, so that could influence the outcome.

How do Focal Points readers see it? Let us know in the comments section.

“Tory scum! Off with their heads!”

Britain’s coalition government survived the most serious challenge yet to its austerity plans on Thursday when Parliament narrowly approved a sharp increase in college fees. But violent student protests in central London, including an attack on a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, to the theater, provided a stark measure of growing public resistance.

A photograph of the couple, in formal evening dress, showed them registering shock as protesters beat on the side of their armored, chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce with sticks and bottles, smashing a side window, denting a rear panel and splashing the car with white paint. A Jaguar tailing the car and carrying a palace security detail was so battered that the police ended up using its doors as shields.

. . . reports the New York Times. Just how sharp is that increase?

Under the new fees, which are to take effect in 2012, many students are expected to accumulate loans of as much as £40,000, about $63,000, during a three-year degree course. Part of what has stoked anger over the increases is that Britain’s universities traditionally charged no tuition fees, with tuition costs met out of taxpayer grants to colleges or endowment funds.

Would Focal Points readers like to see some — if not all — of that moxie in American students also saddled with outrageous fees and debt? Let us know in the comments section.

WikiLeaks XVII: Nigerian Extortion Butts Up Against Pfizer Blackmail

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the seventeenth in the series.

A brief, but interesting, cable released by WikiLeaks on Thursday offers some insight into how international pharamaceutical company Pfizer conducts itself in legal business overseas. The embassy dispatch from the Nigerian capital Abuja describes a meeting between US diplomats, two Pfizer lawyers, Joe Petrosinelli and Atiba Adams, and the company’s country director Enrico Liggeri.

The meeting had been arranged to discuss the condition of a lawsuit that had been brought against the drug giant by the Nigerian government. At issue were the allegedly harmful results of medical tests conducted by the company on Nigerian children living in the state of Kano during a meningitis outbreak in 1996. The company had administered an antibiotic, Trovan, to children throughout the state during the epidemic, a drug authorities claim produced adverse effects in those to whom it had been given

According to the cable, the pharma reps met with American officials on April 2 of last year where the lawyer Petrosinelli reported that

Pfizer has agreed to the Kano State Attorney General’s (AG) settlement offer of $75 million, including a $10 million payment for legal fees, $30 million to the Kano State government, and $35 million for the participants and families.

The Pfizer officials presented their concerns to the American embassy that they were unwilling to issue damage payments in lump sums to Nigerian authorities for fear that the money would be lost through corrupt channels. The cable reports that

Pfizer is concerned with transparency issues and is pushing for a $35 million trust fund for the participants to be administered by a neutral third party and the remaining $30 million to be used for improving health care in Kano state. Pfizer underscored that the Nigerian representatives were pushing for lump sum checks and Pfizer will not agree to that. Pfizer is considering rebuilding Kano’s Infectious Disease Hospital where the trial was conducted and working with health care nongovernmental organizations. Adams suggested that the trust fund for participants be administered by a neutral third party because he expects “additional” participants to come forward after they hear about the settlement. The Ambassador suggested Pfizer work with NGOs already working in Kano State and for Pfizer to consider working with local NGO implementing partners that the USG has used because of their transparency record.

Given Nigeria’s less than sterling record on issues of transparency, the concern seems entirely warranted. But as the dispatch develops, it soon becomes apparent that Pfizer isn’t exactly acting out of good faith itself. In fact, the cable discusses the company’s efforts to blackmail Kona’s attorney general, Michael Aondoakaa, in order to pressure him to drop the case.

Liggeri said Pfizer was not happy settling the case, but had come to the conclusion that the $75 million figure was reasonable because the suits had been ongoing for many years costing Pfizer more than $15 million a year in legal and investigative fees. According to Liggeri, Pfizer had hired investigators to uncover corruption links to Federal Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa to expose him and put pressure on him to drop the federal cases. He said Pfizer’s investigators were passing this information to local media, XXXXXXXXXXXX. A series of damaging articles detailing Aondoakaa’s “alleged” corruption ties were published in February and March. Liggeri contended that Pfizer had much more damaging information on Aondoakaa and that Aondoakaa’s cronies were pressuring him to drop the suit for fear of further negative articles.

The Guardian contacted both Aondoakaa and Pfizer for comment. For its part, Pfizer stuck to its guns, issuing a very lawyerly comment:

The Trovan cases brought by both the federal government of Nigeria and Kano state were resolved in 2009 by mutual agreement. Pfizer negotiated the settlement with the federal government of Nigeria in good faith and its conduct in reaching that agreement was proper. Although Pfizer has not seen any documents from the US embassy in Nigeria regarding the federal government cases, the statements purportedly contained in such documents are completely false.

As previously disclosed in Pfizer’s 10-Q filing in November 2009, per the agreement with the federal government, Nigeria dismissed its civil and criminal actions against the company. Pfizer denied any wrongdoing or liability in connection with the 1996 study. The company agreed to pay the legal fees and expenses incurred by the federal government associated with the Trovan litigation. Pursuant to the settlement, payment was made to the federal government’s counsel of record in the case, and there was no payment made to the federal government of Nigeria itself. As is common practice, the agreement was covered by a standard confidentiality clause agreed to by both parties.

Aondoakaa, on the other hand, responded with shock. He noted that he couldn’t fathom the possibility that Pfizer would resort to such underhanded tactics in its legal wrangling with Nigeria, but pointed out that “For them to have done that is a very serious thing. I became a target of a multinational: you are supposed to have sympathy with me … If it is true, maybe I will take legal action.” Hmmmm. It will be interesting to see just what legal action Aondoakaa might take, seeing as he was removed from his post earlier this year by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

There’s Light at the End of the Tunnel — or, It’s Deja Vu All Over Again

“We have now cleared and held a great deal of insurgent-held territory that the insurgents have never lost in.”
– Col. Art Kandarian, a brigade commander with the 101st Airborne Division

So . . . let me get this straight. The new metric for success in a COIN environment is to clear and hold ground?

Gosh, what’s next? Strategic hamlets? The Maginot Line? Pikes and crossbows?

And this is what secdef describes as progress that has exceeded his expectations?

A friend of mine has a T shirt I love. It says

Southeast Asia War Games
1959 – 1975

SECOND PLACE

Drop ‘east’, change the date, and you have a franchise.

Anybody got a screen printer I can borrow?

Fireground Rules, Part 2: A Scheme is Not a Vision

Wildfire Israel(Pictured, wildfire reaches a main road in Ein Hod, Israel on December 4.)

Someone asked me after an earlier FPIF post (Fireground Rules, Part 1) why I use so many firefighting analogies to explore foreign policy / security issues. The answer is simple.

It was wildland firefighting that started me studying complexity science. Because other than global weather (and bipedal hominid groups!) I think wildfire is the most complex natural phenomenon around. Like Mongol cavalry, it’s fast, mobile, dynamic and fierce. The interplay of dozens of factors, and millions of variations in each, can generate manifestly different outcomes.

Also, to a fire, you and your crew are just another fuel type. It’s not personal, but given the opportunity, it will kill you. So dancing with it calls for some serious agility and adaptiveness, and a different way of thinking – which I would hope someday to see in US foreign policy.

Long before David Petraeus and the FM 3-24 COIN manual called for teaching warfighters how to think, rather than what to think, fireground commanders were developing algorithms to keep their crews alive while taking down the beast. To be effective, they had to be relatively simple, allow wide latitude in behaviors and responses of leadership and crews, and continuously update.

Here’s another example. We called it the ICG – Incident Commander’s Guidelines. It’s a simple decision tree that works in a variety of emergency response situations, whether wildland, structure, mass casualty, hazmat or rescue. In my experience, it works pretty well in non-emergency situations, too, not least organizational leadership.

  1. Visualize Desired Future State
  2. Gather Companions (no ‘freelancing’– you always go as a team!)
  3. Identify Objectives
  4. Prioritize Objectives
  5. Base Assignments on Priorities
  6. Allocate Resources based on Assignments
  7. Ensure Communications
  8. Follow Up

Now, in the fire biz, some of this is pretty simple. The vision is typically not much more complex than, ‘No one gets hurt and the fire goes out with minimal damage to the environment.’ But it does drive all the other decisions on down the line.

So when we wonder how, for example, Iraq or Afghanistan got to be the total clusters they are, the fireground analysis is pretty simple – No one knew what the desired future state was! And if you don’t know what it is, you can’t bring it forward. Or as songwriter Bruce Cockburn put it so well, ‘In the absence of a vision there are nightmares.’

The rest of the list is simply a handy way to prosecute the effort of achieving that desired outcome / future state. But do you notice any other major gaps when it’s applied to IrAfPak? I would argue pretty much all of them.

Because the US didn’t know – and so couldn’t articulate – what it envisioned, it couldn’t

  • gain the wholehearted participation and support of allies
  • determine or prioritize intelligent, achievable objectives
  • commit appropriate force levels
  • allocate personnel properly
  • provide adequate equipment
  • get all the appropriate people talking to each other
  • or even decide if what they were doing was working

That, sports fans, is how you get ‘burned over’.

If the US hopes to accomplish anything positive with its foreign (and domestic) policy, it needs to start every proposed endeavor at Number 1 on the ICG, and genuinely answer that question – what do we envision as our Desired Future State?

If the answer is a good one – such as liberty and justice for all – it won’t have trouble selling the idea to congress, the American people, and even those citizens at the receiving end.

If the answer is a bad one – such as greater hegemony or another Halliburton contract – don’t even start. It’s gonna end ugly.

And thanks to singer / songwriter Leonard Cohen for the line, ‘A scheme is not a vision.’

WikiLeaks XVI: Cancun — From a Combustible Regional Summit to a Lacklustre Climate Conference

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the sixteenth in the series.

Reading through the Latin American cache of recently released WikiLeaks dispatches, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Mexican president Felipe Calderon. Not only are things looking grim on the home front, according to a cable dating from earlier in the year, the Mexican government can’t even get it together to host a conference of regional leaders that doesn’t break down into failure.

In February, Calderon gathered Latin American heads of state in Cancun to hammer out a regional initiative to promote greater unity among the neighboring countries. But instead of harmony, Calderon nearly got a fistfight between Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

According to the cable, things were doomed from the jump:

Notwithstanding President Calderon’s best intentions to create a more practical regional forum for regionally dealing with Latin American priorities (ref A), Mexico’s Latin American Unity summit in the tourist resort of Cancun (22-23 February) was poorly conceived, inadequately managed, and badly executed.

Already at the ceremonial opening on Monday (22 February) it was clear that things were not going well… The low point of the meeting was the verbal exchange between Uribe and Chavez at the opening day official lunch. Uribe raised Venezuela’s economic embargo on Colombia, terming it unhelpful and inconsistent with the region’s economic interest and at odds with Venezuela’s strong criticism of the U.S. Embargo on Cuba. Colombia’s Ambassador in Mexico, Luis Camilo Osorio, told the polmincouns [politicians, ministers, counselors? -- RW] that, contrary to press accounts, Uribe raised the issue in a non-confrontational way. According to Osorio and press accounts, Chavez reacted emotionally accusing Colombia of having sent assassination squads to kill him and ended a verbal and physical tirade with “You can go to hell; I am leaving (the lunch).” Uribe responded, “Don’t be a coward and leave just to insult me from a distance.” Verbal and body language continued to escalate, until Raul Castro stepped in to urge civilized discussion. Outside of the dining room, Venezuelan security officials were scuffling with Mexican security guards in an attempt to assist their President.

Needless to say, American observers weren’t alone in thinking the forum a failure. Osorio shared his quick analysis of the gathering, referring to it as the “worst expression of Banana Republic discourse that blames all of the regions problems on others without any practical solutions of their own.”

Of course, the Colombian ambassador to Mexico was quick to make clear that his country was not part of the problem, but instead had only tried to provide solutions.

Osorio said the Colombians had proposed working jointly on a concrete agenda during Calderon’s recent visit to Colombia. The Mexicans, he said, were not interested, confident that they had everything under control. Osorio opined that “Calderon had simply put a bunch of the worst types together in a room, expecting to outsmart them. Instead, Brazil outplayed him completely, and Venezuela outplayed Brazil.” There was no practical planning, there was no management of the agenda, and there was none of the legwork that would have been needed to yield a practical and useful outcome.

The cable sums things up by noting that

Notwithstanding President Calderon’s best intentions to create a more practical regional forum for regionally dealing with Latin American priorities (ref A), Mexico’s Latin American Unity summit in the tourist resort of Cancun (22-23 February) was poorly conceived, inadequately managed, and badly executed.

Worse still,

The Cancun Latin American Unity Summit was not an example of a new and bold step into the future but rather a reminder of Mexico’s at times conflicting message on how it sees the future of the region and Mexico’s role as one of its leaders.

Not exactly inspiring news, especially in light of another, far more important set of negotiations currently underway in Cancun. This week, high-level governmental representatives are arriving in the resort city to salvage a climate deal from the wreckage of last winter’s disastrous negotiations in Copenhagen. It won’t be easy.

According to the Economist, the Cancun gathering will be

much less dramatic, less heated and less pressured than the ill-tempered snowy confusion of Copenhagen. Which is exactly what the Mexicans, as hosts of the conference, have been aiming for and what most of the assembled countries want. The idea is to show that progress within the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is still possible.

The problem is that it may not be. Copenhagen, judged a failure in many ways, was a success in its fudging of a particularly thorny issue: the future of the Kyoto protocol, which commits most developed countries to specific reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions.

Beyond that, there are other difficulties as well. “Other potentially irresolvable arguments” include the fact that

America wants its pledges to be written down in the same language as those made by China, while China wants America to make commitments that are more binding than its own. But most of these arguments could be kicked down the road a bit. An agreement on making commitments binding in the future, in ways as yet to be fully resolved, might serve as offering a sufficient sense of progress. But the battle lines on Kyoto seem sufficiently stark to make such an approach very hard on this particular disagreement.

At the same time, however, there’s a bit of good news. The summit’s hosts have delegated responsibility for herding the various cats on this issue to more effectively positioned negotiators. Reports The Economist,

The Mexican foreign minister, Patricia Espinosa, who is president of the conference, has asked Brazil’s environment minister, Izabella Teixeira, and Britain’s secretary of state for energy and climate change, Chris Huhne, to talk to the various major players and look for a solution.

But while Britain and Brazil may keep another brawl from breaking out in Cancun, it’s far less clear that they’ll convince countries like China and the United States their short-term policy interests are far less important than saving succeeding generations from the scourge of environmental destruction.

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