Friday, November 15, 2013

90% of life is showing up.

As trumpeted across the media, the four day meeting of the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party has ended, and China's leaders announced that among the decisions were an "easing of" its one-child family policy and the abolition of its "re-education through labor" camps. As much as these policy changes are being trumpeted as evidence of how far China has come, they really are a reminder of how far China and its leaders have to go.

In the wake of the shutdown of the federal government last month, Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping took the opportunity to remind the world of the failings of the American political system. Year after year, as China's foreign exchange reserves have piled up, the leaders of the regime have gone to great pains to critique America for its profligacy and political instability, among myriad other failings. China's much heralded rise, and its ambitions to supplant American leadership, reflect not just its growing economic and military power, but the values of frugality, stability and conservatism Chinese leaders eagerly contrast with the chaos and moral decay of the west.

Little is ever said amidst these frequent rebukes of the role that America has played in enabling the resuscitation of the Chinese people, to say nothing of the Chinese Communist Party itself, from the depths of economic calcification reached in the 1970s. Much is made of the success of the market reforms instituted under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping beginning in 1978, and indeed the growth trajectory of China's GDP has been extraordinary. But the success of China's economic transformation could not have happened absent the free trade policies of the United States, and to a lesser extent western Europe, that enabled that growth.

Under American global leadership since the end of World War II, international trade policies have uplifted the Asian continent out of severe poverty. Japan led the way, in the wake of the devastation of WWII, building a manufacturing juggernaut enabled by American business insight and market access. The Japanese model of export driven economic growth and development then became the model for the Asian tiger nations of Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea, which like Japan have risen from abject poverty a half-century ago to among the highest levels of per capita income in the world.

That was the American half-century. As we opened our markets, our share of global GDP steadily declined. Our trade policies actively supported the rise of Asia out of poverty and the globalization of our leading corporations. That real middle class incomes stagnated at home should have come as no surprise. It was simple economics.

But the Asian Tigers, and even Japan, were relatively small countries, who as trading partners were able to build their domestic economies around export trade with America without destroying the host upon which they fed. Through that economic period, there were unintended consequences that exacerbated the challenges we now face. The combined reinvestment of Asian nation trade surpluses in US dollars--and the similar practice embraced by OPEC nations selling us oil--led to relative stability in the US dollar and enabled steady increases in US borrowing without the increases in US interest rates or declines the value of dollar assets that would otherwise have undermined Asian growth.

But it was trade in goods and services with China and India, respectively, that ultimately showed the limit of the export driven model, as the damage to the US economy and middle class has now become too extreme to ignore. The challenges we now face--underinvestment in infrastructure, chronic deficit spending, and socially debilitating inequality--have conspired to contribute to the fraught domestic politics that President Xi now trumpets as the rationale for the world to turn to China for future leadership. China's gleaming new cityscapes--and the Chinese dream of Xi's rhetoric--are being built not upon the ingenuity of the Chinese system, but instead upon the hollowing out of the American economy.

The policy changes Xi and his colleagues announced this week only draw attention to the depravity that remains central to the Chinese system. Even as there is a rising wealthy population within the Chinese elite and urban cores, economic growth within China remains dependent upon the Foxconn-style factory model that is one step short of a slave economy. The Communist Party social and economic policies continue to drive Chinese peasants from their land while securing billions of dollars in stolen wealth for Party members. Dissent and banned religious practice remains punishable by prison and the Orwellian "re-education" that is to be moderated, but not eliminated, under recently announced Party reforms.

The Party plans to modify the decades old one-child policy is perhaps the most shocking reminder of the starkly immoral nature of Communist Party control over the most intimate aspects of Chinese personal life. Unauthorized pregnancies continue to be aborted by force up until birth, and children found to have been born in violation of the law remain at risk of being "confiscated" by police. The proposed may relax the rules surrounding who is to be allowed more than one child, but does nothing to curtail this most fundamental power of State control over the population.

This week, the US aircraft carrier George Washington arrived in the Philippines from Hawaii. The stories were so familiar from other disasters in recent years. The helicopters arriving over the horizon, coming to the aid of the population devastated by Typhoon Haiyan needing not just food and water, but the most basic help from building and securing aid distribution capacity, to recovering, identifying and burying the dead. The carrier and accompanying ships brought aid, logistics and people trained and capable of responding to the need on the ground.

Nine years ago, in the days following the 2004 tsunami, it was the US carrier Abraham Lincoln and the Navy hospital ship Mercy that steamed from the Persian Gulf to Banda Aceh, that city on the northern tip of Sumatra that had born the brunt of the tsunami and seen tens of thousands of its residents die. Like Banda Aceh, the Philippines are located close to the Chinese mainland--just 700 miles from Hong Kong--yet once again it was an American flotilla that steamed over 5,000 miles to bring critical aid, while the Chinese sat on their hands.

Last month, President Xi trumpeted China's rising essential role in the region at the Asia-Pacific meetings that President Obama chose not to attend due to turmoil in Washington. Yet just a few weeks later, he was nowhere to be seen as the people of the Philippines faced their crisis. The Chinese government committed just $100,000 to the Philippines relief effort after the typhoon struck.

President Xi has a long way to go to build the credibility of China as a modern state to be looked to by the world for leadership. Just the name of its recent meeting, the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party, is a reminder that while much in the world has changed over the past quarter century--from the fall of the Berlin wall to the Arab spring--China remains a throwback the Cold War era. As much as Xi would like to show the world the face of a man whose time in Iowa left him an admirer of American freedoms, the pronouncements from his first plenum are a stark reminder of the deep corruption and cruelty that lie at the heart of the Chinese system, and of the ghosts of Tiananmen that still haunt the Chinese leadership.

But it is the response to Typhoon Haiyan that has demonstrated how far China has to go before it will be embraced as a global leader. Leadership is not just about words at meetings of world leaders, or reserves held bank vaults, but about conduct in the world. It is not about what you do to build up your own country, but what you do to uplift others. President Xi and his colleagues disappeared this week when their neighbors across the water were crying in pain, and their inaction spoke volumes. Because, at the end of the day, leadership is not about ideology or rhetoric, it is about showing up.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Secrecy and intelligence in a free society.

Twenty years ago, an article entitled Secrecy and Intelligence in a Free Society was written by the Center for the Study of Intelligence that explored the challenges of intelligence and secrecy within a free society. The summation of the CIA document could have been penned this week:

"Free society needs intelligence. It needs secrecy. But there has been a loss of proportion, a loss of confidence and trust, and a lack of understanding on all sides. These must be overcome because the free society needs to make wise use of the capabilities at its command — and I include covert capabilities in this. It is high time that a mending took place." 

The article was part of a self-study within the CIA which came twenty years after the Church Commission review of intelligence oversight which was formed in the wake of Watergate-era abuses, and twenty years before our current crisis of intelligence. The The recurring need to review the conduct of intelligence activities speaks to the continuing tension surrounding the role of intelligence and secrecy within our government and society.

Yet the fundamental expectations of Americans are that the nation's intelligence apparatus will continue to be employed effectively to keep Americans safe, whatever scorn and derision may be cast upon those agencies from time to time for whatever abuses of power may occur. This was demonstrated dramatically with the criticism directed toward intelligence services for failing to disrupt the plans of the Tsarnaev brothers whose bombs in Boston were constructed from cookware that can be purchased at Amazon.com and explosive material readily obtainable from fireworks stores and gun shops in many states. 

It has been remarkable to me in recent days to encounter three vastly different reactions to the events and testimony surrounding the National Security Agency disclosures of the range of its electronic eavesdropping activities.

For his part, NSA Director James Clapper has seen little if anything to apologize for in the conduct of the NSA surveillance programs. He has not been insensitive to criticism, but rather confronted clearly the notion that gathering intelligence is the central charge of the NSA and serves an essential purpose: "Leadership intentions is kind of a basic tenet of what we collect and analyze."

The dilemma of intelligence and the perspective of the intelligence operative was dramatically presented in the movie Three Days of the Condor, which presents the dilemma of intelligence gathering impinging on liberty in a free society. At the end of the movie, Robert Redford's character has taken the stance of Edward Snowden, and delivered information on CIA intelligence gathering methods to the New York Times, convinced of the outrage that will ensue. Redford's CIA counterpart challenges his idealistic belief that Americans would readily sacrifice their comfort for their idealism and principles.

"Ask them [the American People] when they're running out [of oil]. When it's cold at home and the engines stop and people who aren't used to hunger ... go hungry! They won't want us to ask [for their permission] ... They'll want us to get it for them."

In contrast to James Clapper's sanguine stance, the NSA's tapping of Angela Merkel's phone sparked the demand by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein that the NSA cease the "collection of intelligence on leaders of US allies – including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany." Yet, rhetoric aside, Feinstein's stance, particularly as Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, is untenable. For example, Mexico is certainly an ally, but it is also a country rife with the corruption of public officials. It would be irresponsible for our intelligence services not to assess the extent to which the President of Mexico is being influenced by--to say nothing of personally corrupted by--the leaders of the drug cartels.

It is unarguable, along the same vein, that Saudi Arabia--widely proclaimed to be one of our strongest allies--is responsible for the funding of radical Islamic groups, including many no doubt who are at war with us. Certainly Senator Feinstein is not suggesting that the US intelligence services--particularly the least invasive electronic intelligence programs of the NSA--cease the use of all means available to us to understand the lay of the land in the volatile and evolving Middle East. Or perhaps her stance is that it is OK to surveil the leaders of Arab or Muslim states with whom we are allied, but not European states. And what about Israel, who has famously spied on us? Does our president not want the best possible intelligence to divine which of Benjamin Netanyahu's words are--like Feinstein's--rhetoric to appease a domestic audience and which mark true lines in the sand?

In contrast to Senator Feinstein, whose public comments certainly cannot reflect her stance in the closed confines of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I was surprised this week by the comments of a friend at Google. He suggested that people within Google are just beginning to recover from the realization that the federal government has been using its resources to monitor private Internet communications.

My friend explained the shock on the part of the tech community by suggesting that it would have taken a massive amount of computing power to hack into the encrypted communications backbone, unless it had a backdoor. He readily accepted the notion that the NSA had the computing muscle to do it, and reluctantly acknowledged that as an infrastructure funded early on with military research money, it was not inconceivable that there were backdoors into the system. Backdoors, as one hacker scolded another in the movie WarGames thirty years ago, are not secret.

My friend commented that the disdain within the tech community for government was validated by the HealthCare.gov fiasco, and no doubt that disdain contributed to the shock of learning that the same government that could not launch an effective e-commerce website after three years of planning had nonetheless successfully hacked into areas of the Internet infrastructure presumed to be unassailable. For my friend and his colleagues at Google, it has been a rude awakening. Like the early stages of grief, it is not apparent that people in the tech world have get fathomed the implications of their new understanding of the world around them.

The NSA issue revolves around the nature of secrets, and the security infrastructure that undergirds a free society. The NSA is charged with giving the President of the United States the best possible intelligence, and given that charge it is unlikely to foreswear an effective means of gathering intelligence, absent a clear and compelling--to say nothing of urgent--rationale.

The NSA surveillance activities constitute violations of privacy, not the murder or suborning of foreign leaders, after all. If it meant that the NSA was able to advice President Obama that it believed that Angela Merkel would ultimately support keeping Greece in the Euro, that was worthwhile intelligence that contributed to global economic stability at a fragile time. If it meant that the NSA has been able to suggest that Vladimir Putin would support a middle ground on Syria, or to suggest how far Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is inclined to support Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, so much the better. Perhaps it is even useful if those adversaries are not sure how much we know.

At the end of the day, NSA Director James Clapper's testimony rang true. He appeared to be neither lying nor disingenuous. And for my friend at Google, this has been an awakening. Alone among the three, Senator Feinstein's remarks evinced dissembling and calculating disingenuousness. The film analogy for her, of course, is Claude Raines, in Casablanca. Senator Feinstein, Chair of the United States Senate Intelligence Committee was shocked, shocked to hear what the National Security Agency was doing on behalf of the American people.

The Senator cannot have it both ways. If it is true that she is shocked, and that she believes that the NSA should not be gathering the best intelligence it can about the President of Mexico, then she should resign her position, because it suggests that she is not serious about defending the interests of the nation she is sworn to serve. If, on the other hand, she is not really shocked, but understands that there is a delicate balance--as the CIA study above noted--in managing the role of intelligence services in a free society, then she owes us not her feigned outrage, but her leadership in helping Americans understand that balance.

Through his revelations, Edward Snowden is forcing us to recognize what our intelligence services do on our behalf. This is not a movie with clearly defined good and evil characters, it is the real world and the answers are not simple. Perhaps it is time that we confront it honestly rather than just recoil in horror or feigned outrage. It is our government: We, the people. It is time we owned it and learned how to have a real discussion about the very real issues and choices surrounding secrecy and intelligence in a free society.