House Rules Rule

March 27, 2014– News that Hasbro, the game company, has asked players of its classic Monopoly to write in with their favorite “House Rules” in hopes some of them may be formally included in new editions of the boardgame opens up a vein for discussion. (Personally, my favorites are “Free Parking” gets $500 plus all the fee and fine money; and the one where, if you land directly on “Go,” you double your income.) Media attention has centered on the supposition that Hasbro is updating the game, as they did last year by pulling the Shoe token, holding a poll, and then substituting a Cat. But I think there’s a more interesting question regarding House Rules.

People acquire all kinds of products–including games– which they adapt to their personal preferences. Zero in on boardgames specifically and you’ll find that one of the most frequent adaptations is the adoption of House Rules. For those who’ve never delved into this juicy subject, House Rules are changes you make in the specific rules of a game when you play it at your place (your friend may have different ones at his). Like when you play Poker (five-card draw) and declare that Aces, Deuces, and One-Eyed Jacks will be wild cards, or when a National League team plays at an American League ballpark (and vice versa).

The recent coverage of Monopoly has included some discussion of specific House Rules that seem to be common, like the ones mentioned earlier. What struck me is that so many of the House Rules I saw cited are ones I’m familiar with, either having used myself or played with someone else who utilized them. Coincidence? I think not.

Game rules are littered with ambiguities and questions that may require interpretation. The popular “family”-style games, which skimp on rules to the maximum extent possible in order to bring in the players, are especially prone to this. The more complex games and simulations, as the wargames strive to be, also have ambiguities, plus more perplexing contradictions where the designer or developer changed one aspect of the game without accounting for all the ways that rule interacts with some other. The bottom line is that ambiguities and contradictions can be minimized but never completely eliminated.

My advice has always been to go for it. The game won’t be perfect but it can be what you want it to be. If a House Rule makes the boardgame work better, play faster, or make better sense, by all means use it.

Meanwhile the Monopoly example shows something else very interesting about House Rules–that different players, from a wide variety of backgrounds, in different places, have all come up with the same or similar solutions to game issues. There were only one or two of the House Rules mentioned for that game which I’d not heard of. That was amazing. And amusing. Great minds and all that. So go for it–and keep on gaming!

NSA Eavesdropping Scandal: The Dam Cracks

March 25, 2014– The ground has begun to shift under the dam that has so far protected the National Security Agency in its dragnet metadata program, much as appears to be happening for its sister three-letter agency across the Potomac. Yesterday in Amsterdam, tastefully posed in front of the Rembrandt painting “The Night Watch,” President Barack Obama put his first nail into the coffin of NSA domestic spying. So far we have only sparse details of the Obama scheme and there will be more to say about it once the picture focuses, but the change in the president’s tone and the general direction of his proposals is already clear. This is about showing that the White House is in charge.

It seems the impact of broad public criticism, the weight of the accumulating pile of blue-ribbon panel reviews and court findings that find the NSA dragnet illegal, and, most particularly, the vocal opposition of the high technology corporations whose bottom lines are being clobbered by the NSA’s stubborn resistance to changing its intrusive spying, have had an effect. Historians may one day tell us this was inevitable–and sharp analysts have seen it coming all along. James Clapper and Keith Alexander, the spy mavens who tried to plug the dike with their fingers (was Obama sending a message by staging his Rembrandt scene?) way overplayed their hand, relying on the secrecy card to protect eavesdropping that skirted close to the precipice of the law and could not be justified on its merits.

This was inevitable because it is inherently political. To preserve their presidents’ freedom of action, White House staffs work to show movement and responsiveness. The present situation tracks very well with the events of 1975, the “Year of Intelligence,” the time of the Family Jewels.

Mr. Obama reacted to the Snowden leaks by setting up a presidential review panel, which surprised him by delivering a negative judgment on the NSA eavesdropping. He tried to protect the program, which became steadily more controversial. Against mounting pressure, in January the president gave a speech promising reforms, and invited the hi tech corporate heads in advance to outline his proposed remedies. Those reforms were essentially cosmetic. He invited Clapper and Alexander to a White House state dinner to denote his continuing support. Evidence of the spies’ extravagance continued to mount. The president had said he would deliver details toward the end of March and he did so, yesterday, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. That Mr. Obama chose a foreign locale to articulate his detailed proposals is significant–European, Latin, and other nations have been among the most strident critics of the NSA dragnet. This time, like the last, Obama had the tech chieftains to the White House in advance to unveil his design and solicit their comments.

During the “Year of Intelligence,” the White House moved swiftly to show activity when evidence of abuses emerged. President Gerald R. Ford created a blue-ribbon commission, headed by Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller, to examine the allegations. It was unable to deliver a clean bill of health because the abuses were real. Investigative committees formed in both houses of Congress. White House staff crafted a plan to defend the intelligence agencies, carefully vetting every document they permitted to be given to the congressional investigators. More abuses were revealed. The White House then set out to demonstrate its responsiveness by drafting an executive order that President Ford would issue which established the first detailed charter for U.S. intelligence activities. Mr. Ford could then take the credit for action.

Sound familiar?

What is different between 1975 and 2013-2014 is that during the Year of Intelligence the CIA chief, then William E. Colby, realized that the intelligence agencies had to respond to allegations. In the present crisis Jim Clapper and his colleagues at NSA and CIA tried to stifle criticism by stonewalling, evoking false visions of threat, and making phony claims of achievement. That strategy, weak on the face of it, is now revealed as bankrupt. As I have said in this space before, Clapper should go.

What is the same is the evolution of the situations. There is a pattern to Family Jewels crises. It is time to create a mechanism to avoid them.

What do You Say About a Country like Ruthenia?

March 24, 2014– Remember Ruthenia? I thought not. How about Carpatho-Ukraine? Transylvania? Bessarabia? Bukhovina? Danzig? The Curzon Line? Maybe Sudentenland. I’ve no time today for anything very ambitious–and my pardons to the songwriters of The Sound of Music–but I just wanted to put one disturbing issue on the table. All those (Central European) places have in common that they were subjects of claims and counterclaims based on national preferences and/or ethnicities in the period between the two world wars of the 20th Century. Some of them were even awarded from one nation to another, or made into free state enclaves during various diplomatic parlays of the time.

Here’s the issue: the latest rumblings to emerge from the Crimean crisis are mentioning a Russian interest in Transnistria (never heard of that either?–not surprised). It’s a piece of land in between Ukraine and what is now Moldova. I mention these places–you could pick any continent and find similar examples–because the current problems in Eastern Europe increasingly seem to be opening the door to assorted territorial claims. There used to be a word for this. In the 1919-1939 period it was called “irredentism” and considered by some to be a cause of World War II.

The Balkan wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s show very clearly the dangers and insanity of the use or threat of force to impose border and nationality changes based on claims of national preference or ethnicity, real or imagined. At the moment this is being driven by Russia, which ought to have learned better from Chechnya. Regardless of the border change there is always a significant minority population, suddenly oppressed, to become restive and resentful. The better solution to changing borders is to eliminate them by fostering political inclusiveness within and among states. Someone should stop a minute and think this through. The world has enough problems already.

Panzerkrieg in Play

Pictures which show the post-Kursk alternate history scenario of the game being played

Pictures which show the post-Kursk alternate history scenario of the game being played

March 22, 2014–A session of the boardgame Panzerkrieg in progress, this general illustration shows the board overall. Once we master the posting problem there will be some close-ups that illustrate the Kharkov and Mius sectors as well. The picture appears, and the set will eventually be posted as a product in “Downloadable.” Enjoy!

Spy Scandals Update

March 20, 2014–Don’t think for a moment that the Spy Scandals involving the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) have gone away. Today there are several relevant items to report.

A week ago I argued in this space (“The Family Jewels Crisis,” March 12, 2014) that presidents circle their wagons when controversy that arises from the intelligence agencies rises to a certain level. In my book The Family Jewels I showed how that works. Now we have more evidence that that is happening. You’ll recall that the CIA filed a criminal notice to the Department of Justice alleging that investigators from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence broke the law in obtaining a document demonstrating the CIA’s response to the Senate torture report is disingenuous. Now Attorney General Eric Holder has commented. In his first public remarks on the matter Holder says that the Justice Department receives many criminal referrals and often declines to investigate or to prosecute.

That sounds suspiciously like an intention to cut the CIA loose and leave it flapping in the wind. You can be sure there will be more on this.

Meanwhile there’s also a fresh development in the NSA eavesdropping scandal. National Security Agency officials showed up yesterday to testify at PCLOB, the awkwardly named Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which continues to be quite alarmed at the agency’s dragnet eavesdropping (see “Funny Name, Serious Business,” January 23, 2014; “”Independent Agency Trashes NSA Claims,” January 24, 2014). Appearing at PCLOB’s latest hearing were the Director of National Intelligence’s top lawyer, Robert S. Litt, plus NSA general counsel Rajesh De. Their testimony ought to raise eyebrows.

Robert Litt here added to his growing reputation as an apparatchik. Referring to PCLOB’s recommendation in its January report that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) be required to approve each NSA use of its dragnet-gathered data, Mr. Litt did two things. First, he admitted that the number of NSA uses of the data was far greater than previously thought. Second, he asserted that “the operational burden” of requiring the FISC to make those judgments would be excessive. The judges, Litt declared, “would be extremely unhappy if they were required to approve every such query.”

Translation: the system should operate for the convenience of the judges (and of the NSA) rather than for the protection of the public’s civil and privacy rights, which, of course, was the purpose for which the Court was created.

The arrogance here is breathtaking.

As for Mr. De, he told PCLOB that an NSA rule previously touted as protecting Americans–that agency personnel must be at least 51 percent confident their target is a foreigner–is a myth. It does not exist. Rather, determinations are made based upon the “totality” of the circumstances. In effect this means that the NSA, which is dealing with anonymous phone numbers, is freed from employing any objective criteria whatever.

No doubt there will be more here too.

The Mission: Crimea, Dien Bien Phu

March 20, 2014–Sixty years ago today it was foggy in Long Island Sound—much like it was in Washington this morning–as the trans-Atlantic flight lined up on its approach to Idlewild Airport (today Kennedy). The plane bore a top French general on an emergency mission. He was General Paul Ely, the chairman of the French Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the mission was to beg for all kinds of U.S. military aid. In Indochina the French garrison in the mountain fortress of Dien Bien Phu had come under attack and suddenly all the old assumptions were in question. The Ely mission was a desperate gamble to secure U.S. help. General Ely went in thinking merely of planes, guns, and ships. But while he was in Washington the question of an American intervention was put on the table by U.S. officials.

You can read all about the Ely mission here. But my purpose today is more immediate. The Dien Bien Phu crisis of 1954 bears useful comparison with the maneuvering today over the Crimea. Russian president Vladimir Putin is using his military forces to annex the Crimea, which used to be Russian but became part of the Ukraine until this past weekend. Ukrainian forces are weak, no match for the military power Russia can bring to bear. Leaders in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, are as desperate for American help as the French at Dien Bien Phu.

The two crises are different in any number of ways. In the Crimean crisis we are talking regular troops, not a guerrilla army versus a Western one. The present crisis is a matter of state power, not revolution. But what is similar is the structure of the two situations from the point of view of the American president.

Indeed, there is a mission involved here too–Vice-President Joseph Biden’s sudden trip to Poland and Lithuania, lands abutting Russia (the former the Ukraine as well) who are alarmed at the events unfolding. Biden’s reassurances to concerned leaders mirror those American officials gave France in 1954.

Like Dwight D. Eisenhower then, Barack Obama would like to sustain the Ukraine and preserve its territorial integrity. (We’ll leave aside the question of the respective Russian and Ukrainian claims on the Crimea.) But from Washington’s perspective the question must be one of deployable military force. In 1954 President Eisenhower had plentiful naval and air power with which to intervene. Officials who opposed that course argued that those kinds of forces would prove insufficient and that ground troops would be necessary to make an intervention work. Eisenhower took measures to signal his intentions while his top advisers dickered over their course.

Obama is acting in the same fashion. The Biden mission is one signal, as is an invitation to the Ukrainian prime minister to visit Washington. Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighters have been sent to Poland and Lithuania to betoken U.S. capabilities to act. Just a week ago the main strength of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, the task force built around the nuclear aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush, made a port visit to Turkey, at the entrance to the Black Sea, where lies the Crimea and the littoral nations of Russia and Ukraine. One warship from that force, the guided missile destroyer Truxton, went on into the Black Sea, where it visited a port in Rumania and conducted exercises with the Rumanian and Bulgarian navies. Authorities in Washington say the naval moves are all long-planned actions but their function as signals is still clear.

Washington’s problem today, just as in 1954, is the mismatch between U.S. capabilities and the measures that would be required to obtain the outcome it prefers. A guided missile destroyer and a few fighter-bombers are not going to stop the Russian army. The whole Sixth Fleet also lacks the necessary capacity. Boots on the ground would be required. Most American boots are in Afghanistan or in the process of returning to the United States and being reconstituted. The only nearby available U.S. ground force is the reinforced battalion combat group that is the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Mediterranean, which recently participated in maneuvers in Greece.

If anything, in 1954 Dwight Eisenhower possessed greater capacity to act in the local situation–but there it did not work either. In the current situation, if the signals are too many or too forceful there is a danger of inadvertent escalation. Mr. Obama will need considerable diplomatic dexterity to get out of this situation without harming relations with either the Ukraine or Russia (the latter being already bad enough).

Meanwhile Kiev is sending its own signal–instructing Ukrainian military forces to evacuate from the Crimea. Mr. Putin may have succeeded in his annexation. Let us hope that this crisis does not sharpen any further. But some attention to historical precedents like Dien Bien Phu might help officials to clarify their thinking.

Games: On to France ’40

March 17, 2014–Time to leap ahead a century and more. I just wanted to put in a word about the next project for you gamers out there. Some of you will know that Against the Odds Magazine is setting up to do one of its “Four Roads” projects in which four different designers present their alternative visions of the same subject, in this case Germany’s 1940 invasion of France and the Low Countries. I’m among that group. Here are my preliminary thoughts.

It seems to me that the challenge in this subject, from a design point of view, arises not so much from the events of the German invasion as from the time preceding it, an epoch the French know as “the Hollow Years.” So what I am going to try and accomplish is to meld a pre-war arms race and military buildup, which will include an intelligence element, with a simple but classical simulation of the war itself.

Players will have military budgets and be able to spend them on the forces they most desire to build. Certain capabilities will become available only with the passage of time. Budget levels will be based on the historical but influenced by events and intelligence developments. In addition to forces, players will accumulate “Command” and “Intelligence” points they will be able to use when the time comes. The timescale will shift as the sides draw closer to war, and as they enter the war force building will stop and the players will have to utilize what forces they have. In this fashion the players will do the best they can within their available resources to optimize forces for the coming conflict. These mechanics will also ensure that every game develops differently.

Unit representation will be at the Army and Corps level. The combat system will be simple and classical, somewhat akin to what I used in Bodyguard/Overlord but with some wonderful new elements. This system dispenses with the usual combat results table in favor of a dice-based mechanism.

The board will take in France down to Paris and west to the Channel Coast, the Low Countries, and the eastern part of Germany. As in Leipzig it will be an area map with terrain features.

Bear with me while I put this game through design testing.

Yesterday as Today: Comment on Hot Documents on CIA and the Church Committee

March 15, 2014–Today I’m posting a set of documents from 1975, the time of the first great congressional investigations of U.S. intelligence. In today’s swirling arguments over access to CIA records by Dianne Feinstein’s Senate committee the unseen issue is what were the CIA-Senate access arrangements and who approved them. In 1975 access to CIA records for the committee led by Senator Frank Church posed the same dangers during the presidency of Gerald R. Ford. The documents show that, far from keeping hands off the Senate-CIA dispute, the White House held center stage. The same circumstances applied during the Iran-Contra Affair, starting in 1986. Although we still do not know the truth it is a high order probability that the Obama White House has taken a similar approach.

The specific papers in this selection show that White House officials laid out the issues for President Ford, that they devised restrictions to limit what congressional investigators would be permitted to see, that they held meetings with agency officials to hammer out the details, that Senator Church tried to set out his own investigative terrain, and that the CIA prepared a final set of restrictions. These it sent to the White House, where they were sent for approval to the deputy assistant to the president, Richard Cheney.

The Hot Documents are available as an item in the “Downloadable” section of this website. Follow the instructions there. The item appears under several categories in Downloadable.

Reflections on Dien Bien Phu

March 13, 2014–Sixty years ago today the Viet Minh opened their siege of Dien Bien Phu. A revolutionary movement, mostly communists but with some nationalists too, the Viet Minh were fighting for their independence from France, which had held the three states of Indochina as a French colony since the nineteenth century. The siege of Dien Bien Phu, a French entrenched camp in the northern Vietnamese mountains would go on for nearly two months, the biggest battle of the Franco-Vietnamese war, and it would mark the end of the era of French dominance in Vietnam.

I was just a kid then and had no idea of these events, much less that they would impact my life. But fast forward a decade and more and America’s Vietnam war forced everyone of my generation to take a position, to deal with a conflict that had embroiled the United States. For me that meant trying to understand how and where the Vietnam war came from and that meant starting with the French. My first serious book project–never completed–was to fashion a history of the French war in Vietnam. I chose a college I knew would afford me access to new sources on French Indochina. I learned a lot about the epochal battle of Dien Bien Phu. One of my earliest boardgame projects similarly modeled the French war. A later game, also never published, specifically centered on the battle. America had a large and mostly hidden role in the events surrounding Dien Bien Phu and I made that the subject of my second book, which I have brought back and completely updated for this occasion.

As this anniversary unfolds I shall post occasional pieces on the events of that time and some of their consequences. One of the items in my “Downloadable” section, “The Working Class Hero,” concerns one of the French military heroes of Dien Bien Phu, Marcel Bigeard, who went on to controversy in the Algerian war and ultimately rose to become chief of staff of the French army. There may be more of these pieces as well. The French honor their fallen and mark the tragic end of their Indochina adventure. Americans largely ignore “Operation Vulture” and our almost-war of that time. The Vietnamese celebrate their independence and venerate their own heroes. At a certain level Dien Bien Phu represents a last stand of the imperial powers on the road to the end of colonialism. The lessons of that time still need to be appreciated.

CIA: On the Hook

March 13, 2014–“We want this behind us.” Thus said CIA director John O. Brennan during the question and answer session following his Council on Foreign Relations speech on Tuesday. He also said, “We are not in any way, shape, or form trying to thwart this report’s progression, release.” Which begs the question, why hasn’t the CIA declassified the document?

In 2010 the agency shifted blame to the White House, alleging that Obama’s staff had ordered it to remove documents from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) computers used in the investigation which produced this report (the president’s top lawyer denied that). This time White House cover is not available. The president’s spokesman has said the White House wants the report out too. The Senate intelligence committee certainly does also.

So where is the report?

Returning to the agency after that speech, Director Brennan issued a message to CIA employees. He told them that the agency “tried to work as collaboratively as possible with the committee,” and cited his extensive meetings (arguments–Brennan himself characterized the contacts as “spirited and even sporty”) with SSCI leaders as evidence of that.

Of course, we already know that the CIA had a monitoring team charged with going over every document made available to the investigators, multiple times. Several thousand documents were denied at that level. McClatchy News reports today that 9,400 documents were denied during the early period on executive privilege grounds. It is not clear whether this report refers to the same set of documents the CIA previously admitted removing. If it is, that’s not very good either–it would mean the agency was misrepresenting by two-thirds the amount of material actually extracted. If these are separate reports they indicate the withholding was even more extensive than previously represented. And note–this was separate and independent from the two actions in 2010 when over nine hundred additional documents (or pages) that had already been handed over were removed from the cache that was available to investigators. The CIA’s eventual response to the SSCI investigation would state, “We disagree with the Study’s contention that limiting access is tantamount to impeding oversight.”

The dispute over the 2009 Panetta review document (see “Senator Feinstein Comes Out of the Closet,” March 11, 2014) sheds more light: the CIA has denied this document to its own congressional overseers. Two arguments have ben used to justify that action. One, the pretention this paper was “pre-decisional” and therefore exempt, I dealt with yesterday (“The Family Jewels Crisis,” March 12, 2014). The other is that because the Panetta Review was compiled in 2009 it fell outside the scope of the SSCI inquiry, which was dealing with events up until 2006. This is disingenuous for two reasons. First, the congressional committees have an absolute right to review any CIA document for any reason to do with their oversight function. That Langley makes an issue of “scope” merely demonstrates it is relying upon precise literal interpretations of prior arrangements–which is the antithesis of Brennan’s claim to be working collaboratively. Second, the Panetta review was compiled as a summary of the same documents that were within the purview of the SSCI inquiry. Thus they are derivative of those materials and a legitimate argument can be made that the review should be accessible even within the agreed scope.

Contrast this denial with Brennan’s own actions. In a statement undoubtedly intended to shore up agency morale, the director told his employees “we also owe it to the women and men who faithfully did their duty in executing this program to try and make sure any historical account of it is balanced and accurate.” Director Brennan then proceeded to release to the entire CIA workforce the private letter he had written on January 27 to Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of the SSCI, disputing the Senate committee’s demand for the Panetta review, claiming “significant Executive branch confidentiality interests” in the document, and alleging a classification breach had occurred.

(Parenthetically, the security marking on this letter is “Unclassified/For Official Use Only,” a grading which in recent years has repeatedly been construed as conveying a degree of secrecy protection, but which Brennan ignored in his release of it, not to mention its status as a private communication. The release of this document had to be for the purpose of providing ammunition to critics of the SSCI inquiry.)

“Balanced and accurate” history? Sounds like Fox News. Let’s take up the matter of the notorious CIA refutation of the Senate’s investigative report, which is also at the center of this dispute. Former CIA general counsel Stephen W. Preston was grilled about this rebuttal in August 2013. These facts came to the surface in Preston’s questions for the record: The CIA response was commissioned by Michael J. Morrell, then the acting director, who had been the second in command of the operations directorate when the rendition and black prison project was initiated. It was Morrell, according to his chief lawyer, who “deemed it impractical to respond on a line-by-line basis.” So the twenty conclusions in the Senate report’s executive summary were farmed out among a response team for a “deep dive.” Each analyst took his subject, reviewed what the SSCI concluded about it, and may have consulted either or both the underlying detailed text and the documents on which the Senate committee had based their conclusions. In other words, in compiling its rebuttal no one at the CIA even read the entire SSCI report.  Preston admitted, “the agency’s response does not constitute an encyclopedic treatment of the SSCI study.”

The reasons the CIA is on the hook today is that it is losing White House support while still being unable to countenance the surfacing of an awesome body of evidence demonstrating its misbehavior–not in the abusive torture program alone but also in the details it furnished the Justice Department for those outrageous torture “opinions,” and in the information it provided to Congress. National security is not the reason Langley won’t release the Senate torture report or its response. This is about Family Jewels.