Thursday, November 29, 2012

"Acquisition Malpractice"

Problems with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are the subject of a front-page article in today's New York Times. The Times, drawing from a June Government Accountability Office study of the F-35 that focused on "affordability risks," reports that total program costs could reach $396 billion if the Pentagon purchases 2,443 of the planes by the late 2030s as is currently planned. That would make the program the costliest weapons program in history by close to a factor of four. The cost per plane has risen from $69 million in 2001 to $137 million today. Frank Kendall, who has directed the Pentagon's weapons-purchasing operations since May, describes the decision to begin production of the F-35 before flight testing had even started as "acquisition malpractice."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Terrestrial Locomotion

Quadrotors have hit the ground running.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Considering the CRPD

The United States Senate today voted to proceed to Executive Session in order to consider the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Debate on a resolution of advice and consent to ratification is scheduled to begin tomorrow.

The Convention, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 13, 2006, and opened for signature on March 30, 2007, is intended to ensure that states protect the human rights and guarantee the full legal equality of persons with disabilities. It entered into force on May 3, 2008, and currently has 126 parties. Another 28 states, including the United States, have signed but not ratified.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported the CRPD favorably on July 31, 2012, with three reservations, eight understandings, and two declarations. The three reservations pertain to federalism issues (preserving in some instances state laws that would provide less protection for the rights of the disabled than required by the Convention), private conduct (allowing federal law to retain some provisions that allow for discrimination against the disabled as a matter of private conduct), and torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment (duplicating existing U.S. reservations regarding torture to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment). The eight understandings are generally intended to ensure that the Convention's terms will be interpreted in a manner consistent with existing U.S. law.

The motion to proceed to Executive Session was passed today by a 61-36 vote. Sixty-seven votes will be necessary to adopt the resolution of advice and consent to ratification if all 100 members of the Senate are present and voting. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), who has a disabled daughter, and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), a Tea Party favorite, appeared together today to announce their opposition to the CRPD. It is unclear whether the Convention can gain the two-thirds majority required to give the Senate's consent to ratification during the current lame-duck session. In September, 36 Republicans--more than a third of the Senate's membership--signed a letter opposing any action on treaties in the session following the election.

Obstructing the majority while alienating whole sectors of the population continues to be the Republicans' strategy in Congress. If successful this time, it will deal another blow to the credibility of U.S. leadership on human rights.

Sovereignty and Atrocity

Human Rights Watch is reporting today that eleven children were killed over the weekend when a Syrian MiG-23 dropped cluster bombs on the town of Deir al-'Assafeer. An indiscriminate attack of any kind on noncombatants violates international humanitarian law, but the focus in HRW's account of what happened is on the use of cluster munitions, and for good reasons.

Cluster bombs, first, are used primarily as antipersonnel weapons. When noncombatants die in an attack employing conventional bombs or artillery shells, a plausible claim can sometimes be made that the deaths were unintended collateral damage incidental to an attack on a legitimate target. On the other hand, when civilians--and only civilians--are killed by cluster bombs, there is a strong case to be made that a war crime has been committed.

Second, cluster munitions tend to leave behind a deadly legacy of what are sometimes rather bureaucratically referred to as explosive remnants of war (ERW). Everywhere they have been employed, unexploded submunitions--bomblets--continue to pose a threat to civilians (poor farmers more often than not) long after the conflict ends. Disposing of unexploded submunitions is very hazardous, requiring both resources and political will that post-conflict societies often find to be in short supply. According to HRW, video footage of the attack on Deir al-'Assafeer and its aftermath shows at least fifty unexploded bomblets around the site.

Human Rights Watch maintains that cluster munitions "are subject to a ban under international law due to the harm they cause to civilians," in the words of Mary Wareham, the organization's arms division advocacy director. The ban to which Wareham refers is articulated in the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which entered into force on August 1, 2010. The Convention today has 111 signatories, 77 of which have ratified the agreement. Syria is not a party to the agreement, however, which means the ban does not apply to it in the absence of a determination that the ban is part of customary international law (a claim that has not, to my knowledge, been pressed by HRW).

There is no question that the use of cluster munitions to deliberately target noncombatants is illegal. The deaths of eleven children in the bombing of Deir al-'Assafeer should be added to the long list of crimes for which the Assad regime ultimately should be held accountable. But it is not clear--in fact, it is almost certainly wrong to say--that international law makes it illegal for Syria to use cluster munitions under any conditions. While I would prefer to side with Wareham and Human Rights Watch on this issue, the fact that Syria is not a party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions is significant. It has opted out of the obligations imposed on states parties by the Convention, as has the United States. The right to do so, however unfortunate in this particular case, is inherent in the notion of sovereignty. Sovereignty shields states--including bad ones like Syria--from the imposition of law, including laws banning cluster munitions, by outsiders. But only up to a point.

Wareham states that "all governments, including Syria’s allies, should condemn Syria’s continued use of cluster bombs," and there is good reason for this, even if Syria is not legally subject to the ban imposed by the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The condemnation of other governments can erode the protection that sovereignty provides for the use of cluster munitions by states that have not ratified the Convention. While sovereignty ensures that states bear primary responsibility for their own laws and their own actions (at least insofar as their actions are confined to their own territories), international law as a means of limiting the freedom of states pushes back against sovereignty where customary international law and, more importantly, peremptory norms (jus cogens) are involved. If cluster munitions are to be "subject to a ban under international law," it will come from universal ratification of the Convention on Cluster Munitions or, more likely, from a sufficiently widespread acceptance of the Convention and broad-based condemnation of holdouts that, in combination, generates a customary international law norm against possession or use of the weapons. Human Rights Watch may have jumped the gun in suggesting that a ban on cluster munitions currently exists, but it is hastening the day when that will be true by publicizing what the Syrian government is doing with these weapons.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Passwords and Cybercrime

This recent Wired article--"Kill the Password: Why a String of Characters Can't Protect Us Anymore by Mat Honan--should be required reading for anyone who owns--or even borrows--a computer or mobile device. The bottom line is that a strong password isn't enough to protect your data (including the data you have stored in online accounts) from hackers, some of whom are simply malicious teenagers eager to erase every digital photo you've ever taken just for fun. It's not clear whether kids hacking for the thrill of it are better or worse than the professionals who are in it for the money. According to Honan, "In 2011 Russian-speaking hackers alone took in roughly $4.5 billion from cybercrime."

The Campaign to Ban Autonomous Killer Robots

Last week, Human Rights Watch, joined by the Nobel Women's Initiative, launched a campaign to develop an international ban on autonomous killer robots. A 50-page report, Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots, published jointly by HRW and Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic, was released on Monday.

According to the report, the U.S. Department of Defense is spending roughly $6 billion per year on unmanned systems, a figure projected to grow quickly given the military's avowed interest in procuring more robotic weapons with expanding capabilities. A number of other countries are also investing in military robotics with increasing degrees of autonomy. The most newsworthy example in recent days has been Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system. At present, the Iron Dome system puts a human operator in the loop, but it is clearly a system for which fully autonomous operations would be possible.

The report opposes the deployment of lethal autonomous robots on three grounds: (1) such robots would not conform to the rules of international humanitarian law as they relate to noncombatant immunity, proportionality, and military necessity; (2) they would not be subject to extra-legal protections for civilians such as those predicated on human compassion and empathy, thus making them suitable for use by repressive governments against their own populations; and (3) they would make it difficult to establish accountability for war crimes given the elimination of direct human agency. The report concludes with a recommendation that those involved in the development of robotic weapons generate a code of conduct governing work that might lead to the creation of fully autonomous systems.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


On Monday, the 18th Conference of Parties (COP18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 8th Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol will begin in Doha, Qatar. (The agenda is available here.) COP18 has a number of objectives, but the most important involves negotiations toward a climate change treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. Under the Durban Platform agreed to at COP17 in Durban, South Africa last year, a new "legal outcome" is to be developed by 2015.

Nathan Hultman, a Brookings Institution fellow, provides an excellent summary of the road to Doha in this post. And, via Andrew C. Revkin's Dot Earth blog at the New York Times, there's this brief--but insightful--video on twenty years of climate change negotiations.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi Welcomes President Obama

Sometimes a pictures is worth a thousand words.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tanks, Rockets, Tweets, and Hacks

As the conflict between Israel and Hamas escalates with rocket attacks aimed at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on the one hand and air strikes on government offices in Gaza on the other, various cyber dimensions of the conflict are becoming increasingly noteworthy. On the Israeli side, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), in an effort to control the conflict's narrative, are using Twitter and Facebook with a level of intensity last seen in the Obama campaign. But reviews of the IDF's social media offensive are mixed at best. Michael Koplow's article for Foreign Policy on the IDF Twitter campaign is titled "How Not to Wage War on the Internet." The ability of visitors to an IDF site to earn badges for viewing pages and sharing them on Facebook or other social media sites has prompted some to question whether Israel is "gamifying" war. (Allison Kaplan Sommer helpfully gathers some of the reaction to Israel's social media campaign in a blog post for Haaretz.)

On the other side (in support of, but not initiated by, Hamas), a campaign of cyber attacks against Israeli websites began on Thursday. The loosely organized Internet group Anonymous initiated its effort to deface or take down both government and private websites in Israel in response to the Israeli government's threat to cut off Internet and other telecommunications links between Gaza and the outside world. The Bank of Jerusalem was forced offline for a while and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website reportedly was compromised. At one point, Anonymous claimed to have taken down over six hundred websites in Israel.

It would be a mistake to try to press these two stories into the same analytical framework just because the Internet and cyberspace are central to both. They bear roughly the same relationship to one another that the use of radio addresses by Roosevelt and Churchill and the development of radar during World War II did. But we can see, nonetheless, that the two stories are important for their own, independent, reasons.

In the case of Israel's efforts to ensure that its narrative about the conflict with Hamas reaches as wide an audience as possible, we can see the application of what media analysts and political campaign strategists have been telling us for years about the movement from old media to new media. Older people--especially males--still sometimes watch network news on TV; if they miss the evening newscasts, they may read about what they missed in the next morning's newspaper (a print edition, of course). Younger people, however, are more likely to get news in small doses throughout the day (and night) via social media and online news outlets. A press conference with reporters and cameras may be the best way to reach the former group while a tweet or a Facebook post (provided it gets retweeted or reposted) will work better for the latter group. (Richard Parker examines some of these differences and breaks down the way the Obama campaign leveraged social media to its benefit here on the New York Times "Campaign Stops" blog.) Thus it seems that perhaps the so-called "CNN effect" was short-lived. Now we get war news (and revolution news and disaster news, etc., etc.) from the people who are involved--not through the lens of a television camera but through the lens of an iPhone or via tweets and Facebook updates. The army (or police force or government ministry) that wants to control the narrative today can't be content with limiting the access of reporters to a conflict zone or a protest site. It must either impose an Internet blackout--and face the wrath of those affected, other governments, and, apparently, a global community of hacktivists--or attempt to keep pace with citizen reporters by offering its own stream of compelling online information. But the information it provides cannot be too compelling. A video of grief-stricken mothers posted by those on the side of the victims looks very different from the same video posted by those who caused the grief in the first place.

Turning to the Anonymous attacks on Israeli websites, these suggest a future in which the strategic calculus involved in going to war (or suppressing protests) must include the possible responses of unseen third parties. After flexing its muscles--successfully, some might suggest--against Scientologists, opponents of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, and now Israel--Anonymous may find it increasingly attractive to weigh in on geopolitical matters. And, given the enormity of cyberspace, there are likely to be other groups developing in other chat rooms around other causes but with the same desire to influence big events in the world. In addition to the loose associations of hacktivists represented by Anonymous, transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) may find ways to use cyber attacks to profit from violent political conflicts while remaining in the shadows. And if states can use cyber attacks to influence the outcome of a rival state's conflict without revealing their involvement, they almost certainly will do so.

If it continues to be more and more difficult for states to control the narrative in conflict and if states continue to face more and more hidden adversaries when they go to war or move to suppress dissent, then the historical advantage that states--and especially the wealthiest and most powerfully armed states--have wielded in the use of force may be eroded to the point where the calculus that leads to armed conflict may be dramatically altered. And that might be a good thing.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Ransomware Rising

It's bad when your computer becomes sluggish because some botmaster in Moldova has installed malware on it that turns it into a zombie sending spam to everyone you've ever emailed. It's worse when your computer crashes because the hackers are more interested in the cyber equivalent of vandalism than in "borrowing" your unused computing capacity. The worst, though, may be having your computer lock up and display a message indicating that the hackers will unlock it after you send them money--in other words, online extortion using what is called "ransomware."

The computer security firm Symantec reports that ransomware is spreading and that cyber criminals are finding new and better ways to profit from it. What began about six years ago as a scam targeting computer users in Russia and Eastern Europe has become more sophisticated and has spread to Western Europe and North America.

The malware works like this: A computer user clicks on an infected site--perhaps an ad--that appears legitimate but actually redirects the browser to a hidden website that downloads malware to the user's computer. When the malicious file runs, it locks up the infected computer by preventing essential programs from executing. It then displays a message on the computer's screen demanding that the user pay a "fine," often by using a prepaid electronic payment system or calling a pay-per-call phone number. In some versions, the displayed message is superimposed on a pornographic image and indicates that the "fine" is for having browsed illegal websites. In other versions, the displayed message appears to be from the FBI or another law enforcement agency; it also includes a message alleging illegal activities.

Symantec estimates that up to 3 percent of victims have paid the "fines" of $200 or more, resulting in a haul for cyber criminals of at least $5 million. Payment, incidentally, does not unlock the computer as promised. It is still necessary to remove the malware by running anti-virus software.

For more on ransomware, see this story in ComputerWorld or this CNET story. (Or watch this three-minute video from Symantec.) And for more on protecting your computer, just make sure your anti-virus software is up to date.

Monday, November 12, 2012

McMahan on Just War Theory

Jeff McMahan examines just war theory today and tomorrow on the New York Times' Opinionator blog. Part I, published today, describes the theory, its origins, and contemporary challenges to it. Part II will consider the revisionist critique of just war theory.

Command and Control

One of the most important principles underlying American democracy is civilian control of the military. This principle has been undercut, however, by our society's growing tendency to defer uncritically to the judgment of military leaders and, worse, to regard any questioning of that judgment as unwise or even unpatriotic. This point is supported by U.S. Naval Academy professor Aaron B. O'Connell's op-ed that I noted last week. It is further bolstered by an op-ed  in today's New York Times by military writer Thomas E. Ricks.

Ricks notes that during "an unnecessary war in Iraq and an unnecessarily long one in Afghanistan," civilian leaders have been criticized but "our uniformed leaders have escaped almost any scrutiny from the public"--even though they "bear much of the blame for the mistakes in the wars." Congress fails to exercise oversight, for fear of being seen as "criticizing our troops," and the military itself seems uninterested in self-examination.

The failure of civilian leaders to subject the American military to serious scrutiny has not only allowed poor military decisions in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to go unpunished (a point that Ricks makes), it has also resulted in a bloated defense budget at a time when the nation can ill afford it. The fault, of course, lies not just with civilian leaders but with citizens--voters--who seem to believe the military can do no wrong. Perhaps General David Petraeus, as he leaves the CIA, can remind us that even the best and brightest of our military officers can, like the rest of us, suffer lapses of judgment.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Climate and Social Stress

In a report commissioned by the U.S. intelligence community, the National Research Council has concluded that the acceleration of climate change means "disruptive environmental events" will occur with increasing frequency and growing impact on national and global security. The study, titled Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis, was prepared by a team led by John Steinbruner, director of the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies.

The study's summary states:
     Anthropogenic climate change can reasonably be expected to increase the frequency and intensity of a variety of potentially disruptive environmental events--slowly at first, but then more quickly. Some of this change is already discern- ible. Many of these events will stress communities, societies, governments, and the globally integrated systems that support human well-being. Science is unlikely ever to be able to predict the timing, magnitude, and precise location of these events a decade in advance, but much is already known that can inform security analysis, including details about the character of events that are becoming more likely and about the general trajectory of increasing risk.
The New York Times summarizes the report and includes comments from Steinbruner in an article here.

Thursday, November 08, 2012


Fabian Nsue Nguema, the Equatorial Guinean human rights attorney who was incarcerated in Malabo's notorious Black Beach Prison on October 22 while visiting a client, has been released. Nsue told Agence France Presse that he was released on October 30 following nine days in solitary confinement without having been charged with a crime.

Monday, November 05, 2012

A New "Third Rail"

For those unfamiliar with the term, "third rail" is a phrase that entered the American political lexicon in the early 1980s to describe an issue--Social Security reform was the particular issue at that time--so politically charged that touching it means certain death at the polls. The term is, of course, derived from the rail of a subway line that carries high-voltage electrical current to run the trains. William Safire traces the metaphorical use of the term back to Kirk O'Donnell, an aide to Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill.

Over the years other issues, including Medicare reform, gun control, and criticism of Israel have been called the third rail of American politics. Health care is said to be the third rail of Canadian politics. Now, Aaron B. O'Connell, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, makes a strong case that criticism of the military has become a new third rail in the American political system.

O'Connell takes as his starting points President Dwight D. Eisenhower's well-known farewell address in which he warned against "the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." While O'Connell believes that the military-industrial complex has not influenced foreign policy or distorted the economy in the ways that Eisenhower feared, he argues that the American culture has been militarized by the permanent war preparations against which he warned. "Support the troops" has come to mean the military should never be questioned and its spending should never be cut. "Today," O'Connell writes, "there are just a select few in public life who are willing to question the military or its spending, and those who do--from the libertarian Ron Paul to the leftist Dennis J. Kucinich--are dismissed as unrealistic." 

The real problem, as O'Connell describes it, is this: "That which is left unexamined eventually becomes invisible, and as a result, few Americans today are giving sufficient consideration to the full range of violent activities the government undertakes in their names."

In the aftermath of the election, it would be good if the military-industrial complex--and the level of defense spending in a time of budgetary constraints--could be examined critically by members of both political parties. There is a way that they could do this without committing political suicide. After Democrats and Republicans in 1983 came together in support of the Greenspan Commission's recommendations on Social Security reform, Kirk O'Donnell told Tom Oliphant that the political third rail differs from the one in the subway in this respect: "If a Republican foot and a Democratic foot touch it simultaneously, nothing happens."