Focal Points Blog

NorK “Coup-Proofed” From Both Within and Without

Kim Jong il North KoreaThe Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School issued a useful policy brief on North Korea by Daniel Byman and Jennifer Lynd titled Keeping Kim: How North Korea’s Regime Stays in Power. The authors write:

“Predictions of the Kim regime’s demise have been widespread for many years, particularly in the 1990s. … Decisionmakers and analysts, however, often underestimate the power of tyranny. Like other dictatorships, the Kim regime relies on numerous tools of authoritarian control to stay in power.”

Along with cult of personality, juche (an ideology of the state and people relying on themselves), and use of force, the tool box includes Kim Jong-il’s use of . . .

“. . . perks and rewards to co-opt military and political elites. … Kim Jong-il has co-opted the military by bestowing on it policy influence and prestige, as well as a large share—perhaps 25 percent—of the national budget. … Nuclear weapons provide another tool for cultivating the military’s support. They bring prestige to an institution whose morale has been challenged by hunger [Hunger will do that. -- RW] and by its relative inferiority to South Korea’s military forces.”

Meanwhile, coining an alliterative term (see where emphasized), the authors write that . . .

“. . . the Kim regime has coup-proofed North Korean institutions in ways that deter, detect, and thwart anti-regime activity among these elites. North Korean military leaders are chosen for their political loyalty rather than military competence. Key positions are granted to individuals with family or other close ties.”

Anyone familiar with North Korea knows that states like China and South Korea resist destabilizing North Korea out of fear of war and/or an influx of refugees. The timidity, inertia, indecision, or restraint — call it what you will — may be even more paralyzing than with Iran and constitute another form of coup-proofing. Anyway, Kim has his tools. What tools then are available to those who would seek to moderate North Korea’s policies? Byman and Lind:

“Sanctions aimed at weakening North Korea’s broader economy are unlikely to exert much coercive pressure on Pyongyang; Kim Jong-il (like Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and many other dictators) protects his elite core while shifting the burden of sanctions to the people. A more effective economic lever with which to move the regime would be to directly threaten its access to hard currency and luxury goods, which it needs to bribe elites. Policies such as freezing North Korean assets overseas and embargoing luxury items are thus the most promising options.”

In other words, targeted sanctions, but with pinpoint accuracy. Kim Jong-il is noted for enjoying American movies. Let’s start by canceling his Netflix account and see what shakes out.

At Local Level, Secrecy Industry Puts a Damper on Neighborliness

In an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun, Focal Pointers Bonnie Bricker and Adil Shamoo wrote about the Dana Priest and William Arkin’s Washington Post series on the exponential growth of the U.S. intelligence industry. They approached it from a perspective with which you may not be familiar, especially if there’s no intelligence complex near you (though that would be fewer and fewer of us, it seems).

“Marylanders in Odenton, Annapolis, Frederick and our home town of Columbia had their suspicions answered last week when The Washington Post published a three-part series about our unchecked, out-of-control expansion of the defense and intelligence operations that have grown since 2001. The expansion of this influential sector has been evident to us, as it has to Americans all around the country living near other defense and intelligence contractors and federal intelligence agencies. … How does the presence of almost a million individuals with top-secret clearances shape our society? How will our culture be changed when the possibility of government surveillance of citizens seems commonplace?”

The authors give us some idea.

“Living in an area populated by the workforce for these agencies and contractors, the presence of many people with various levels of security clearances . . . affects how neighbors and friends relate to one another. Talk about work life is virtually eliminated. Neighbors are interviewed about any possible suspicious activities of the intelligence employee on a regular basis. We watch some of the children of the neighborhood, once animated and engaging, grow up into silent adults as they gain coveted employment with these agencies and contractors. They are afraid of interacting with foreign-born neighbors from “target” countries. …

“The millions of Americans with varying levels of security clearances may shy away from a more participatory citizenship because of the need to protect their jobs. How does this affect our democracy? Will the ever-expanding breadth of this intelligence behemoth eventually create a silent citizenry?”

An even more silent citizenry, I might add. More and more, we seem to be living under the thumb of a kind of Stasi Light, with its attendant chilling effects on assembly and interpersonal communication. Read the op-ed in its entirety at the Sun.

The WikiLeaks Documents Are NOT the Pentagon Papers 2.0

Sunday’s WikiLeak deluge and the official response to it have reaffirmed my axiom for the digital age: too much information, not enough knowledge.

After the flood of more than 90,000 low-level classified documents splashed onto the front-pages of the Western world’s three leading newspapers, the U.S. government delivered a tongue-lashing to WikiLeaks, mainstream media wrote ominously of repercussions for Obama’s ability to secure Congressional war funding, and bloggers plunged into the data headfirst in the search for scintillating information.

And while a few morsels have surfaced here and there, what, on balance, have we learned? What has really changed? As it turns out, very little.

It comes as no surprise that the war is going badly, that civilian casualties have been downplayed, or that Pakistani intelligence maintains ties to militants operating in Afghanistan.

Former soldier and Center for a New American Security analyst Andrew Exum writes, “I have seen nothing in the documents that has either surprised me or told me anything of significance,” and calls comparisons to the Pentagon Papers “ridiculous.”

As for the stern lectures about the leak’s potential to cost lives or compromise national security, a Pentagon review of the documents “has so far found no evidence that the disclosure harmed U.S. national security or endangered American troops in the field.”

So much for that.

Glenn Greenwald, one of the sharpest progressive bloggers, linked to what he called “a very perceptive analysis” by the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson that explains “how and why [the leaks] reveal clear official deception about the war.” But I found nothing of the sort in Davidson’s brief post, nor does she herself claim to have offered such an explanation.

One story, had the U.S. media evinced any interest in pursuing it, might have been the suppression of reports on civilian casualties and possible war crimes. But such pedestrian concerns carry little currency here, as blogger Sahar Habib Ghazi pointed out in a post that appeared in Pakistan’s major daily, Dawn:

“[I]nstead of focusing on the many war crimes, cover-ups and evidence of an occupation mentality in Afghanistan, most American news networks and publications have seized the opportunity to either berate WikiLeaks for divulging secret information or to point fingers at Pakistan…”

One reason the leak will not become Pentagon Papers 2.0 is that the contents tend to confirm, rather than contradict, the general trend of the news about the war in Afghanistan for anyone who has been paying attention.

But there is also another reason: we live in America 2.0. We are far removed from the era of social and cultural tumult that accompanied the Vietnam War. We have decided to shift the burden of our war-fighting from conscripted young men to a smaller, leaner, and better-trained all-volunteer force, which we have equipped with deadlier and more automated technology. Most Americans are more connected to their iPads than American soldiers or foreign civilians, the news of whose deaths briefly flash on the gadgets’ screens now and then.

So while we’re ceaselessly drenched in new information—leaks, Rolling Stone features, official reports, policy studies, investigations, blogs, up-to-the-minute news—we (collectively speaking) have no hard incentive to enhance our knowledge.

And as we’ve been repeating the same mistakes for the past ten years, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world, it certainly shows.

Conceding Failure of Pentagon Papers Critical to WikiLeaks’ Success Ending War

Almost as soon as the WikiLeaks story broke on Sunday, officials and commentators were making comparisons between these 91,000 documents and the Pentagon Papers, the 4,000 page classified study on Vietnam leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971. The White House and other critics were quick to reject the analogy. Even supporters of WikiLeaks’ decision to release the documents are hesitant to put this event in the same league as the Pentagon Papers, which have come to hold such an important place in progressive history.

There are important differences between WikiLeaks’ potential influence on the war in Afghanistan and the Pentagon Papers’ actual influence on the war in Vietnam. But, contrary to the heroic story of the Pentagon Papers, these differences reveal the actual shortcomings of what happened in 1971. For all of their accomplishments, the Pentagon Papers were in key respects, a failure. Understanding the limits as well as the achievements of the Pentagon Papers is an important step in maximizing the potential influence of the WikiLeaks documents. This is one of those cases where the negative lessons of history are as valuable as the positive ones.

First, there is the claim that the Pentagon Papers actually revealed high-level secrets about the Vietnam War, while WikiLeaks hasn’t revealed anything that wasn’t already known to the public. In truth, however, aside from the details of what officials knew and when they knew it, there was not much in the Pentagon Papers that surprised ardent critics of the war. In many ways, the documents merely confirmed previous revelations of the war made by incisive and intrepid journalists. By 1971, David Halberstam and Seymour Hersh had already written books and articles that opened a window onto virtually every level of the war—from the National Security Council meetings of the Kennedy administration to the massacres at My Lai. These and other heavy-hitting journalists were concerned not only with the specific details of Vietnam, but also with challenging the Cold War consensus that fueled it.

By 1971, while the anti-war movement had severely weakened that consensus, it had not altogether broken it. In fact, in response to Nixon’s curtailment of the draft and initiation of troop withdrawals from Vietnam, opposition to the war actually subsided in the year that Ellsberg photocopied the classified documents and gave them to the New York Times and Washington Post. Contrary to the image of an America galvanized against the war, the Pentagon Papers were released in a time of relative apathy about Vietnam.

In addition to the lull in the antiwar movement, the influence of the Pentagon Papers was paradoxically limited by the scandal that their publication prompted. Almost from the beginning, the story of the war was marginalized by accounts of the government’s injunction against the newspapers. At a press conference on June 21, 1971, just one week after the Pentagon Papers were published, a reporter exclaimed, “We want to emphasize the issue is not the one of the Vietnam War but rather why didn’t management support freedom of the press.”

The landmark judgment on behalf of the newspapers was a major victory for the cause of a free press. However, it did little to further Ellsberg’s original intention—to end the war in Vietnam. Ellsberg himself has lamented this much in The Most Dangerous Man, the recent film in which he tells his story. The central failure of the Pentagon Papers is that they did not end the war in Vietnam, which continued for another four years.

For Nixon, of course, the Pentagon Papers were nothing less than fateful. Despite the fact that the documents covered events in Vietnam only up to 1968, before he took office, Nixon reacted to them as though he had been personally attacked. It was the leak of the Pentagon Papers that prompted the infamous Plumbers Unit whose first task was to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. This would be good practice for the break-in of the Watergate hotel the following year. As Ellsberg notes, the biggest accomplishment of the Pentagon Papers was indirect. By sparking Watergate, it helped bring about an end to Nixon’s reign.

There are at least two ways to interpret the implications of this story for WikiLeaks. One is to conclude that, like the Pentagon Papers and Vietnam, WikiLeaks will not have a major impact on the war in Afghanistan. The American populace remains largely disconnected from the war, which is being fought by a post-Vietnam volunteer army. It is easy to envision how, in the coming days and weeks, the reporting and commentaries will shift the focus away from the war itself to follow the drama of WikiLeaks and the fate of suspected leaker, Bradley Manning.

But there are some signs that, in reporting on the WikiLeaks story, the press, at least, is breaking with the legacy of the Pentagon Papers. The lead story in the New York Times on Sunday night focused on the Pakistan intelligence agency and not the leak itself.

Subsequent coverage on the paper’s website has continued to highlight the content of the documents, even as it features stories about Assange and Manning.

Those who oppose the war in Afghanistan should keep the momentum going and use this disclosure to continue pressing the points about Pakistan’s cross-purposes, about corruption in the Afghan government and security forces, and about the real extent of civilian casualties. Only in this way can WikiLeaks help end the war, and in so doing, accomplish what Ellsberg could not.

Holding Israel’s Hand While It Attacks Iran

Republicans in the House of Representatives have introduced H. Res. 1553, which states, as the National Iranian American Council explains, “that Congress supports Israel’s use of ‘all means necessary’ against Iran ‘including the use of military force’. … Nearly a third of House Republicans have signed onto the resolution . . . circulated by its lead sponsor, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX).”

As usual with a resolution, once it dispenses with the “whereas’s,” it gets to the “resolved” part.

“That the House of Representatives –
(1) condemns the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran for its threats of ‘annihilating’ the United States and the State of Israel . …
(2) supports using all means of persuading the Government of Iran to stop building and acquiring nuclear weapons;
(3) reaffirms the United States bond with Israel and . . . expresses support for Israel’s right to use all means necessary to confront and eliminate nuclear threats posed by Iran, defend Israeli sovereignty, and protect the lives and safety of the Israeli people, including the use of military force if no other peaceful solution can be found within a reasonable time.”

NIAC adds:

“Hawkish former Bush Administration official John Bolton recently laid out the game plan to prod Israel into attacking Iran . . . by framing it as an issue of Israel’s right to self defense. … Congress can ‘make it clear’ that it supports [preemptive] strikes and that ‘having visible congressional support in place at the outset will reassure the Israeli government, which is legitimately concerned about Mr. Obama’s likely negative reaction to such an attack.’”

Yeah, we don’t want Israel’s feelings hurt if the attack incurs the anger of the Obama administration. In fact, it’s up to the U.S. Congress to hold its hand throughout the attack.

NIAC composed a letter to House Republican leader John Bohener denouncing the resolution and calling on him, as NIAC writes, to “make clear whether a vote for House Republicans” in 2012 “is a vote for another disastrous war in the Middle East.” In the letter, the council addresses points that hawks seem to forget:

“The dangers of war. … would put so much at risk:
The lives of innocent Americans, Israelis, and Iranians
The Pro-Democracy Movement in Iran
U.S. National Security and the stability of Iraq and Afghanistan
The global economy, which relies on oil flowing through the Persian Gulf”

But you know how hawks and neocons think: The deaths of a few Americans and Israelis, not to mention a crashing world economy pale beside a nuclear attack by Iran. Besides, only the wimpy liberal-left worries about that stuff.

Consider taking a moment to sign NIAC’s letter:
Don’t Let Congress Green-Light Attack on Iran

The Wikileaks Release: Smile, You’re on YouTube!

The only amazing thing about the release by Wikileaks of 92,000 plus classified documents related to the Afghan war is that anyone would think it’s amazing.

What the story really tells us is how far out of touch US policymakers are with the world in which they purport to operate. Failure to understand strategic and operational environments is a fatal error in warfare, and failure to recognize that media is a strategic front is an example of just that kind of failure. As revelations of incompetence and stupidity in Afghanistan surge, it’s increasingly obvious that the ‘fog of war’ is largely between the ears of those in charge.

What these ‘best and brightest’ have failed to recognize is that we live in an open source world in which every person is a unique media channel. Where the bandwidth of each individual used to be constrained by geography and number of personal connections — like how many people are in your gossip circle at the local market — now it’s potentially everyone with a cell phone, iPad and / or internet access. The only question is when individual ethics, sensitivities or pathologies will trigger release of sensitive information over those networks.

We also live in the most documented era ever, and it’s only getting more so. For a variety of reasons, not least covering one’s butt when things go sideways, virtually everything is recorded. Everyone — whether cops beating suspects, politicians making ‘off microphone’ comments, CEO’s making shady deals or four star generals unloading in a bar — has to expect that anything shared or stored digitally may reemerge at some inconvenient time.

Finally, just about everything — at least in broad strokes — is already in the public domain if we want to look hard enough. This is why the recently revealed Russian spy ring didn’t need access to classified material — only a rigorous trawl-and-collate system for open source materials. As Stewart Brand said way back in 1984, ‘Information wants to be free.’ Only lotus eaters and politicians believe they can contain it indefinitely.

The hard reality is, if policymakers want to avoid the kind of blowback that occurs when inept, criminal or just plain stupid actions are revealed, it’s best not to undertake inept, criminal or just plain stupid actions in the first place.

Dinosaurs Can’t Dance: The Impending Extinction of the Nation-State

Nation-state extinct like dinosaursWhen I was a young philosophy student, my Marxists fellows discussed the ‘withering away of the state’ with an almost rapture-like awe. We would all, they assured me, be hunters in the morning, fishers in the afternoon, and poets in the evening.

Today, the nation state is clearly withering. But where Marx saw this as the logical result of a workers’ utopia and the perfection of humankind, it is precisely the failure to manifest that utopia and perfection that is both a primary driver, and a primary symptom, of the state’s demise.

This withering has profound implications for foreign policy. Counterinsurgency and nation building doctrines are based on enhancing the legitimacy of the state. If the state as a functional structure is circling the drain, then so are these policies – which might help us understand why nothing seems to work in Afghanistan. The basic assumption of creating a viable state is itself nonviable.

Complexity science heads don’t do – or even believe in – prediction. The world is too fluid and emergent for that. But we do track behaviors over time and play with scenarios, probabilities and trajectories. So let me climb out on my favorite limb with my trusty chainsaw and suggest that the nation state, as we know it, will go extinct over the next few decades.

There are several reasons for this. Most important is that the world is just too big, too fast and too interconnected / interdependent for states to effectively respond to emergent events. Their timelines are too long. They have to recognize the issue, consider the political benefits and pitfalls, decide on a course of action, draft and argue out legislation, fight over appropriations, determine the spin, brief the players . . . Meantime, the world has moved on and new crises have appeared, perhaps driven by the actions or inactions of the state(s) in question.

States also suffer terribly from ‘over prescribed’ structure. They have literally millions of rules, regulations, check and balances, as well as parallel layers of administration that often compete with and obstruct each other. Multiplied together, this induces paralysis.

Meanwhile, the world is continuously manifesting ‘butterfly effects’ – events that trigger something, which then triggers something else, which then triggers a whole cascade of effects. It’s iterative and emergent, and bureaucrats can do little but run in circles screaming and tearing their hair, while trying desperately to blame someone / something else for the fallout.

Another key factor is that states no longer have a monopoly on violence. We live in an open source world, and states can neither exclusively apply, nor effectively contain, violence as a policy tool. The loss of that control equates to a loss of prestige, which also means a loss of deterrence.

As state structures dissipate, they will be replaced by a variety of ‘post national’ entities. In the near term, these may be primarily parasitic – such as hybridized gangs, militias and crime syndicates – profiteering on the chaos of a governance vacuum. In the longer term, however, these emergent entities will likely become the new centers of innovation that define, design, prototype and ‘infect’ through their success the future shape of civilization.

There is no agreed upon language for this kind of emerging entity. I like the term, ‘Other Guys’ (OGs). They’re not government, not an NGO, not a political party. They’re just self-organizing networks of . . . other guys.

OGs stand outside the dominant system, even as they navigate and exploit it. They follow Bucky Fuller’s advice not to fight the existing reality – except as necessary to maintain freedom of action – but to build new models that make the old ones obsolete.

As state breakdowns become more obvious – whether military failures, bungled relief efforts, endemic corruption or unresolved financial and social crises – we can begin to see what the triggers are. How that varies by culture or region or GDP. Over what time period it plays out. And what emerges in its place.

That last is especially important, but so far, the answer is . . . a lot of different answers. Rather like William Gibson’s observation that, ‘The future has already arrived; it’s just not evenly distributed yet.’

There are, however, some basic organizing principles and common threads.

First, these emerging entities operate along ‘organic’ pathways. As with natural selection, multiple groups try multiple avenues, sometimes competing and sometimes collaborating. OGs arise to fill niches in the cultural ecosystem created when states vacate social space. Those that do the best job filling the voids in people’s lives – especially around security, livelihood, development and infrastructure – also fill the governance void.

The most successful OGs function as ‘constructive networks’, continually adapting and reconfiguring in response to changing conditions. They learn, unlearn and relearn, and continually co-evolve with their social / economic / ecological landscapes.

‘Positional’ or hierarchical leadership – think president, maximum leader or grand poobah – is displaced by group intelligence and open space / open source models. Titular leaders may remain, but the most effective will be more facilitators than commanders.

And while ‘isms’ may provide an initial rallying point, successful OGs are more likely to be entrepreneurial than ideological because, as Stafford Beer put it so beautifully, ‘Ideology is a very poor variety attenuator.’ It tends to make orgs non-adaptive – too often acting out of dogma rather than objective realities.

There are several OGs we can study to see how these variables play out.

Hezbollah may be the most visible example of a ‘first generation’ OG org. And – as a militia, political party, social welfare provider and upholder of the faith – perhaps the most diversified. The Hezbollah model, however, may not be replicable or scalable. Emergent outcomes are the result of complex interactions among initial conditions, rules and relationships, and Hezbollah has enjoyed some very fortuitous initial conditions and relationships.

Not least are a coherent narrative, a homogeneous population, an enemy to rally against, and allies with relatively complimentary goals and deep pockets. What it lacks is a true source of livelihood, which I’d argue is the one absolute essential. If you’ve got the gig, you can create the rest. Hezbollah is vulnerable due to its economic dependence on Iran and Syria.

Perhaps a better example is the La Familia Cartel in Michoacán. They produce and distribute methamphetamine, smuggle people, pirate DVDs and run a strong arm debt-collection service. (Their fulfillment rate is reputed to be near 100%. They kidnap defaulters.) They also collect ‘taxes’ for protection and buy politicians.

In exchange, the cartel provides drug treatment to mitigate the impact of their products within their territory, supports schools and clinics, keeps order and even does micro lending. (Word is their rates are lower than banks and turnaround time from application to funding is under 72 hours.) This is all wrapped in a quasi evangelical ideology and a Robin Hood aura, supported by social networking capabilities, and all underwritten by a solid gig.

Mara Salvatrucha – MS-13 – is an example of a geographically distributed model. It has a powerful Identity and primary loyalty. Members have their tats, Uzis and homies to demonstrate belonging. And they have drugs, theft, protection and smuggling as a gig.

There are two primary weaknesses to that model, however. Where it arose primarily to protect Salvadorians from other immigrant gangs, MS – 13 is purely parasitic today, so lacks the kind of popular support Hezbollah and La Familia enjoy. And it hasn’t decoupled from the larger system, so when that system goes into crisis, it has no ‘crumple zones’ to absorb the impact of a crash. The gang’s cash is still tied up in the global system, and they can’t eat it. MS 13 lacks deep resilience.

That lack of deep resilience is common to most of the current crop of OGs, and it’s often multiplied by a lack ‘requisite variety’.

The greater the diversity within a system – the greater the number of perspectives it can see and possibilities it can imagine – the more effective it is, and the more resilient it is to perturbations. But the composition and Identity of most OGs today are too narrow to support genuine resilience. Their goals are too small – even too personal – and don’t benefit the larger community, which will ultimately come to see them as the parasites they are. (Think Taliban.)

The fact is, if most of today’s OGs were decoupled from legitimate social and political grievance, they would be seen as simply criminal, and deserving of eradication. Since they are often able to mask themselves as crusaders against oppression – or simply as those who succeed in a system crafted to suppress them (Super Fly Syndrome) – they are often viewed as heroes. Admiration without remuneration, however, is not sustainable. OGs that don’t give back will go away.

Potentially more durable models are beginning to emerge in more affluent regions and neighborhoods. Not because the people there are smarter or more ambitious, but because it’s a lot easier to pursue transformation in a relatively stable environment where you have a significant degree of safety, and the necessary economic resources.

These new models are hyper local, scaling down to city block size or smaller. They feature components like local energy production and grids, with surplus power as an export product. Water capture and reclamation. Food production, including permanent production edible landscapes. Security is provided through self policing – whether through internal patrols or contract providers – with social governance enforced by ‘tribal’ models such as shunning and banishment.

These ‘urban village’ models create local institutions to capture and locally recirculate the big outflows of a typical community – interest, insurance, energy and food – and underwrite community livelihood. In so doing, they decouple from the global system and create the crumple zones that will allow them to weather external system shocks. (Citi goes, bust? Oh well. Our assets are in local infrastructure, local financial institutions, local currencies, seed banks, time banks, root cellars . . .)

In an OG world, the metrics for success are local, democratic and entrepreneurial, with a significant degree of insulation from external fluctuations. Self sufficient, self protective and self healing. Successful OGs will generate not only livelihood, but also safety, Identity, community and fun.

That’s what security means in the 21st century, and that’s what nation states can’t provide.

Which is why they’re heading for the dustbin of history.

Will Wikileaker SPC. Bradley Manning Be Redeemeed?

By now, you’ve heard about Wikileaks’s Pentagon Papers-esque document leal. Rather than add a few snowflakes to the media blizzard today, we’ll direct you to some of the best coverage. We’ve been following it at the Guardian, one of three outlets, along with the New York Times and Der Spiegel, on which Wikileaks dumped the documents. It’s hard to imagine the latter two improving on the Guardian, which sprang out of the blocks in fine form.

Here’s the Guardian’s home page for itscoverage: Afghanistan: the War Logs

And, to keep from overwhelming you’ll, we’ll just send you to three blogs for today. First, Siun at FireDogLake: Wikileaks’ Release of Secret Afghan War Archives

Next, Steve Hynd at Newshoggers: The War Logs: The Largest Pentagon Leak Ever

Finally, Glenn Greenwald at Salon: The WikiLeaks Afghanistan leak (Big “sic” to Salon for capitalizing the “L” in Wikileaks, not to mention repeating the word “leak” — just signs of how much everyone is rushing to jump on this story.)

Bear in mind that the man who transferred the documents to Wikileaks, SPC. Bradley manning, was taken into custody by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division in early June. Kevin Poulsen and Kim Zetter at Wired’s Threat Level report:

“When Manning told [infamous hacker and also a Wikileaker Adrian] Lamo that he leaked a quarter-million classified embassy cables, Lamo contacted the Army, and then met with Army CID investigators and the FBI at a Starbucks near his house in Carmichael, California, where he passed the agents a copy of the chat logs. At their second meeting with Lamo on May 27, FBI agents from the Oakland Field Office told the hacker that Manning had been arrested the day before in Iraq by Army CID investigators.

“Lamo has contributed funds to Wikileaks in the past, and says he agonized over the decision to expose Manning — he says he’s frequently contacted by hackers who want to talk about their adventures, and he has never considered reporting anyone before. The supposed diplomatic cable leak, however, made him believe Manning’s actions were genuinely dangerous to U.S. national security.”

In fact, whatever SPC. Manning’s motivations, they may be eclipsed by those of Lamo, whose credibility is considerably more questionable than Manning’s will ever be. (Most of that information I received “on background.”) Will Manning eventually be seen as the second coming of Daniel Ellsberg?

In the meantime, please include Focal Points among the sites you follow for analysis of the leak that is to leaks as Deepwater Horizon is to oil spills.

The Long Knives Close in On “Caesar” Silvio

Berlusconi protestIn spite of all his billions and his control of Italy’s media, there is a growing sense that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi—the one-time cruise ship crooner— is finally headed for a fall. Two of his ministers and a senior treasury official were forced to resign over corruption charges, and the investigation may soon engulf Berlusconi himself.

The corruption investigation netted three of his closest associates, including the Neapolitan politician and Treasury undersecretary Nicola Cosentino; banker Denis Verdini, a major figure in the Prime Minister’s People of Liberty Party; and Senator Marcello Del’Utri, a former executive in Berlusconi’s media empire.

The three are accused of setting up a cabal of politicians and wealthy businessmen aimed at influencing judges to reverse the Oct. 7, 2009 ruling by the Constitutional Court that a law passed by the Berlusconi-dominated legislature, immunizing the PM, the president, and the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament from criminal charges, violated the principle that all Italians are equal before the law. The court ruling means Berlusconi faces charges of tax fraud, bribing judges, and paying his English lawyer to lie in court.

A wiretap caught the three men talking about the scheme and referring to someone at the center of the conspiracy by the code name “Caesar.” Berlusconi denies he is the “Caesar.”

Right. This is the Prime Minister who fancies himself a reincarnation of ancient emperors, holds rallies near Rome’s huge coliseum, throws lavish parties filled with prostitutes, under-age girls, and naked people a-la Nero, and has the most to gain from a reversal of the ruling by the court. Silvio “Caesar”? Perish the thought.

Actually “Benito” is probably a better moniker. Berlusconi has praised the fascist leader Benito Mussolini on more than one occasion, and his People of Liberty Party was formed by merging his Forza Italia Party with the neo-fascist National Alliance Party (NAP). The NAP’s leader, Gianfranco Fini, currently speaker of the house, used to give the stiff-armed fascist salute at party rallies. Berlusconi’s other ally is Umberto Bossi’s Northern League, an openly racist party that provides the winning margin for Berlusconi in the upper house.

There is a strong odor of the Mafia around all this. Dell’Utri, the senator from Naples, was convicted of “associating” with the Mafia, a conviction recently upheld on appeal. Indeed the press is calling the “gang of three” nailed by the wire taps, “P3” after the 1980s P2 scandal that linked Masonic lodges to fascist groups, the Mafia, and Italy’s military intelligence agency, the SID.

Up to now Berlusconi’s wealth from his $6.5 billion holding company Fininvest, and his domination of the media—he controls Italy’s three most watched television channels (sports, soaps and cleavage), plus the public channel RAI though his command of the government—has protected him and his friends. But no longer.

In fact, the current crisis feels much like the early ’90s when “tangentopoli” (“bribesville”) tanked the First Republic. The current P3 scandal could well bring down the Second Republic.

Most observers think that Berlusconi will call a snap election this next spring, because, while his popularity is dropping, he still gets favorable ratings from many Italians. But his troubles are not all of the legal variety. Italy’s economy is in serious trouble and growth has been less than 1 percent a year since 2000. Of the G7 countries, only Japan has seen a greater loss of Gross Domestic Product. Factories are idled and unemployment hovers at around 8.6 percent, though that figure is much higher in the poorer south.

Referring to the “gang of three” resignations, Ezio Mauro, editor of the left-leaning newspaper Repubblica, told the Financial Times, “The ghost ship of the Berlusconi government is throwing corpses into the sea to survive.” But it is not clear that the Left can take advantage of the situation. It is fractious and has yet to put forth a unified program.

Berlusconi announced July 16 that he was canceling his plans for a summer vacation in order to work on reorganizing his People for Justice Party. But as investigators continue to burrow into the charges of tax evasion and bribery, and the corpses of his associates pile up around him, the three-time Prime Minister may soon find himself on permanent holiday.

Visit Conn’s blog, Dispatches from the Edge.

South Korea Odd Man Out in Cheonan Outcome

Many of us suspect that, given the lack of proof, the light South Korean warship the Cheonan wasn’t sunk by a North Korean missile. But, whatever we think occurred, North Korean culpability is, by consensus, the premise from which the United States and China have proceeded. Peter Lee explains at Asia Times Online.

As United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates this week met in Seoul with their Republic of Korea (ROK) counterparts . . . the Cheonan sinking in March, the defining crisis that was supposed to highlight . . . their relationship, instead cast an ugly shadow over the event. The United States failed to organize a vigorous international backlash against North Korea [and] the United Nations Security Council failed to condemn [North Korea]. Joint US-ROK naval exercises, designed to build on UN condemnation with a massive show of united force and resolve, have instead turned into an embarrassing fizzle.

Initial plans for the exercises targeted the Yellow Sea between China and the Korean Peninsula and promised the intimidating presence of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. The reports aroused a barrage of official criticism and popular anger inside China. In response, the expected location began to drift eastward. … The most recent report is that the US will . . . split the difference . . . with the George Washington and three destroyers in the east and a face-saving smaller exercise in the west.

China, which as recently as two weeks ago looked to be facing an intransigent united front of the US, South Korea and Japan, received an unexpected gift thanks to this American muddling: an alliance showing distinct signs of dismay, demoralization and division.

An alternate scenario courtesy of the author (emphasis added):

If the Barack Obama administration had a modulated policy combining recognition of core Chinese interests and pushback against Chinese opportunism . . . concessions on the . . . US-ROK drills might have been viewed as a welcome sign that [everyone's] mutual interest [was being respected].

However, in the context of an Obama administration foreign policy that appears to frame Asian affairs as a zero-sum game of global norms . . . vs Chinese [parochialism] it is difficult to view the saga of the wandering naval exercise as anything other than a defeat. [Meanwhile] South Korea, which for a time expected to ride the Cheonan crisis to . . recognition as the key US security partner in Asia . . . instead found itself shunted to the side as the two superpowers, China and the United States, once again dispose of the affairs of the Korean Peninsula between them.

South Korea, if you really did accuse North Korea of sinking the Cheonan when you knew that, in truth, it ran aground, freed itself, and collided with another ship . . . well, how’s that working out for you?

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