A Panel Discussion: The Coming Asian Arms Race?

This morning, the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center of International Security hosted a discussion on the increased military budgets of Asian states and how the United States must react in this ever-more connected world. Barry Pavel, the Director of the Center, moderated the panel, which included Ely Ratner, Randall Schriver and Kurt Amend. Ratner, the Deputy Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, opened the discussion by warning about the limitations of looking exclusively at the defense budgets of Asian countries.

“Defense spending on its own tells us little about the regional security direction in Asia,” he said. “Diplomatic and political context is absolutely vital.” He added that it’s important to take into account the increasing connectivity of security issues in Asian states.

Schriver, the President of the Project 2049 Institute and a long-time promoter of US-Taiwan relations, stressed the importance of continued U.S. support to Taiwan, whose defense spending has decreased since 2007, in the face of continued military buildup by China. He called proposals to reduce arms sales with Taiwan “naive,” arguing that the sales act as a necessary deterrent to China and also have facilitated breakthroughs in the China-Taiwan relationship in the past. Like Ratner, Schriver emphasized that the context of China’s buildup in the face of Taiwanese disarmament is a vital consideration in planning U.S. policy in the region.

Yet, Schriver expressed skepticism that the Obama Administration is showing the same enthusiasm and committment for the rebalance of resources to the Asia-Pacific as it did in Obama’s first term.

“I’m hard-pressed to know who is the go-to position in Asia right now,” he said. It’s the first time in 20 years that Schriver said he couldn’t name a director or deputy in the U.S. government focused on Asia.

Ratner shared Schriver’s concerns.

The USS Freedom departed for the Asia-Pacific in the spring.

The USS Freedom departed for the Asia-Pacific in the spring.

“Going forward, it needs to be clear that high level officials in the State and Defense Departments are interested in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region,” he said. He agreed with Schriver that there was no need or potential for forming a multilateral alliance in the area, noting that it would be unfair and harmful to Asian nations to force them to choose between a regional security alliance with the United States and their economic dependence with China.

One concern that many officials have is that U.S. committment to supporting their allies in the ASEAN region will lead those countries to become more provocative towards China. Ratner said those worries were overblown and that the U.S.’s increased presence in the region has not led to increased hostility with China. For those reasons, it’s vital that the U.S. continue to show similar levels of support to its Asian allies.

“The more secure that countries in the region feel standing up to China, the more stable the region will be,” he said. “Weakness, not strength, invites instability.”

Instead, Schriver stressed the need for the United States to develop security mechanisms that the U.S. has confidence in.

“We need to have an infrastructure of confidence building measures that actually work in the case of a crisis or an accident,” he said.

The potential for a miscalculation that causes an international incident was a theme throughout the discussion. All three panelists agreed that such an accident was one of the biggest threats to regional stability. In particular, Ratner feared the potential of a maritime accident while Schriver lamented the risk of increased corruption within the Chinese military.

Nevertheless, the panelists agreed that the increased interconnectedness between Asian nations had just as much potential to end in diplomatic agreement as it does in military conflict. Ratner stressed this fact repeatedly, emphasizing that military cooperation on defense issues and space weaponization could increase stability in the region. In either case, the U.S. must stay committed to its allies and not let other international hot spots distract it from the region, Schriver said. “The variable that is mot important and where there is the most uncertainty is the United States.”

President Obama shouldn’t forget that.


Photos: Pardon Bradley Manning Rally

I stopped by the rally for Bradley Manning that happened around 8PM last night in front of the White House. There were a few dozen protesters there, with plenty of signs and whistles to go along. After different people took turns at the mic, the rally moved on and marched towards DuPont Circle. The speeches were what you’d expect. Lots of anger at Manning’s 35 year sentence while the perpetrators of the crimes he revealed go unpunished. In addition to the Free Bradley Manning chants, the protesters also shouted Pardon Bradley Manning, referring to the petition that Manning submitted yesterday afternoon asking President Obama to pardon his sentence. Don’t get your hopes up for that.

Anyways, here are some photos from the rally:

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Should We Trust the NSA?

I haven’t posted on Edward Snowden’s leaks on the National Security Agency (NSA), because in general, I’m conflicted over them. I’m very sympathetic to the view that this mass data collection helps protect our national security and has already stopped dozens of terrorist attacks. The fact that we are the center of the digital world and can collect a vast amount of data on foreign citizens is a huge advantage that we’d be insane not to take advantage of. However, with such mass data collection comes the need for very strict rules and strong oversight. We currently have neither.

In particular, the lack of oversight has shocked me. Congressmen who should have been watching carefully over the program didn’t even know about it (the fact that just 47 of a 100 Senators showed up to a classified briefing on the NSA’s surveillance programs AFTER Snowden’s leaks came out is outrageous). The courts rubber stamped warrants without really examining them. This amount of data in the government’s hands has potential for abuse and we don’t have the right protocol in place to ensure that that doesn’t happen.

That’s why today’s story in the Los Angeles Times that Edward Snowden had shown previous signs of disdain towards the NSA and the government’s surveillance scare me. Here’s the important part of the piece:

On the surface, at least, Edward Snowden was hardly unusual at America’s largest and most powerful intelligence agency. A self-taught computer whiz who wanted to travel the world, Snowden seemed a perfect fit for a secretive organization that spies on communications from foreign terrorism suspects.

But in hundreds of online postings dating back a decade, Snowden also denounced “pervasive government secrecy” and criticized America’s “unquestioning obedience towards spooky types.”

At least online, Snowden seemed sardonic, affably geeky and supremely self-assured. In 2006, someone posted to Ars Technica, a website popular with technophiles, about an odd clicking in an Xbox video game console. A response came from “TheTrueHOOHA,” Snowden’s pen name: “NSA’s new surveillance program. That’s the sound of freedom, citizen!”

This is the exact type of person the NSA needs to be careful about hiring. The agency has 30,000 employees and vetting everyone to make sure none would disseminate government secrets is a difficult task, but failure isn’t an option. It can’t relax its standards because it needs more people. If it can’t find enough capable workers that pass background and security checks, then it must find other ways to secure our homeland without them. The NSA must balance hiring an extra analyst who has expressed doubt in America’s power in his past with the risk that that doubt may manifest itself into a larger problem. What are the odds that the extra analyst will save lives versus turning on the NSA and divulging state secrets?

That’s why this article scares me. Snowden clearly demonstrated anti-surveillance and anti-NSA characteristics before joining the agency. He should’ve been flagged as someone at risk of leaking secrets. Maybe the NSA was wary of him – I haven’t seen anything on this though. Maybe it was Booz Allen Hamilton that didn’t vet him properly. Either way, he got through the system and that means we have a problem. If the LA Times can dig up these message board postings in just a few weeks, I expect the US government found them as well. If they did and deemed him worthy of high-level security clearance, why?

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland.

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland.

Did the NSA or Booz lower its standards because they were in need of workers? Is this a common characteristic among analysts they hire? Did Snowden offer other evidence that those were past views and he was now committed to the NSA? I’m not sure any answer to those questions will be entirely satisfying, because in the end, he got through the system and leaked the program.

And if the NSA didn’t even know about those online postings, then we need to entirely rethink our security system. If the agency can’t find background information as simple as message board postings, then it undoubtedly missed important evidence regarding the security clearance of dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of other NSA employees. That’s a much scarier proposition.

All of this just reinforces the need for strict hiring standards, tight protocols and thorough oversight over these programs and over the entire agency. Without them, the potential for abuse and leakage is high. We can’t risk that.

*It’s also why I’m in favor of prosecuting Snowden. As much as his leaks have demonstrated flaws in our surveillance system, we also cannot incentivize future potential leakers to do the same. Snowden made a judgment call that releasing these classified documents would reveal a program that had flaws and deserved to be out in the open while not putting national security at risk. Given that the Guardian and Washington Post only published four of the 41 slides that he gave them, his judgment does not seem to have been good enough. We don’t know what’s in those other 37 slides, but it may be information related to national security that neither organization felt comfortable releasing. It just goes to show the huge risk involved in leaking. What if either the Guardian or the Post had published the other slides and harmed national security? If we do not prosecute Snowden, we are telling future leakers that it is acceptable for them to make that judgment call. That puts a huge amount of responsibility on the leaker – responsibility that I’m nowhere near comfortable giving him.

(h/t Kevin Drum)