Russia’s Crimea

March 5, 2014– Vladimir Putin is at it again. I’ve seen some analysts out there questioning his sanity. No matter. A better way to look at the present Crimean crisis is in terms of Russian history, in which the Crimea has been an on-again, off-again item of the agenda for centuries–since Peter the Great if memory serves me right. In the 19th Century Russia fought two wars with Turkey in which the Crimea figured, including one that featured British and French participation and the famously wrongheaded “Charge of the Light Brigade.” In the 20th Century Stalin deported Crimean ethnics to secure a more homogeneous population there. Crimea (Sevastopol) was the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the Soviets’ only warm water port.

That remained the case when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. A lengthy and pernicious negotiation followed in which Ukraine obtained recognition of its sovereignty over the land in exchange for a sort of “Imperial China” arrangement–the Russians keeping certain extraterritorial rights and getting  a Guantanamo Bay-like 50-year lease on the naval base.

The present crisis has all the earmarks of a maneuver from the naval base. The so-called “pro-Russian militia” are armed and equipped in such fashion that there is an overwhelming probability they are Russian naval infantry. A few days ago I told a friend that we should expect to see a Russian sea- and airlift of additional forces into Crimea and that appears to be underway as I write this. Russian naval vessels, we are told, have blocked off both sides of the Kerch straits–the only place where Russian territory abuts directly on the Crimea–and the logical point from which to send in heavy equipment. Numbers of Russian troops on the peninsula were quoted at 6,000 in the press a couple of days ago, consistent with the strength of naval infantry with the Black Sea Fleet, and 15,000 today, which suggests the buildup underway. (Under the lease agreement Russian weapons at Sevastopol were limited, which is why there needs to be a buildup for the “militia” to acquire tanks and artillery.) If you see pictures of Russian tanks and artillery in the Crimea you can be confident that this reinforcement is, in fact, taking place.

What distinguishes the current crisis from a Russian Bay of Pigs–the 1961 U.S. incursion into Cuba–is that Moscow can play on the sentiments of a large population of pro-Russian Ukrainians. Combined with the paucity of practical measures the West could take to sustain a Ukrainian resistance, that makes a Putin power move not insane but logical– if you postulate that Russia harbors real fears as to its security in the Ukraine, or if you assess that Moscow seeks to regain its former territories.

Secretary of state John Kerry is right to say Moscow’s move amounts to an antiquated–“19th Century” was the phrase he used–exercise in gunboat diplomacy.

It is a fair guess that Vladimir Putin considers the 1992 deal on the Ukraine a giveaway. The successor state to the Soviet Union was weak, the democratic forces strong across the entire former union. Since then Russia has regenerated much of its strength while the Ukraine remains marginal. As Moscow showed in Georgia a few years ago, it is quite willing to take military actions in the former socialist republics. But as in Georgia–and as Kerry seemed to allude with his remark–the era of high imperialism is over. Russia ultimately had to withdraw from Georgia. Whether Putin can sustain his Ukraine intervention remains an open question. But for my money the way forward is to reassure Moscow as to the security of its interests in the Crimea while helping the Ukrainian republic to regain its footing.

Tone-Deaf CIA Lawyer

March 1, 2014– Midway through his gossipy, score-settling memoir, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) acting general counsel John A. Rizzo drops the line that his boss of the mid-90s, director of central intelligence John Deutch, used to make remarkably tone-deaf public comments. It’s a charge you might very well want to apply to Rizzo himself. I wrote about the CIA lawyer at some length in my book The Family Jewels.

Back in the Deutch era, when the CIA was caught misleading Congress by failing to reporting that agents in its employ had had a hand in torture and murder–including of American citizens in Guatemala–the CIA boss ordered a review of agency assets for others with blood on their hands. Among others, the Counterterrorist Center’s best spy had been involved in an attack in which Americans had been wounded (the intent had been to kill). CIA hired him later, when remorse led the man to change sides and supply them intel. The agency had never reported the man’s past to the Justice Department–as it is obliged to do–or to the congressional oversight committees. When it got around to doing so after the Guatemala affair this information promptly leaked to the New York Times. Agency officers warned the spy he might be outed and the man disappeared, never to be heard from again. Rizzo seems to want to say, and half-implies, that the spy’s former comrades did away with him. The CIA lawyer then condemns Times reporter Tim Weiner for going ahead with most of this story, and after that trounces him for not mentioning the affair in the book Weiner wrote later about the CIA. (Just parenthetically, Weiner’s CIA history basically stops much earlier than this 1990s episode.)

Fast forward to the drone war of today. John Rizzo was the CIA lawyer at the center of the agency’s “kill list” of people to be taken out by drones. Rizzo essentially bragged about his role to Newsweek reporters for a feature article that magazine published in February 2011. But when nominated for CIA general counsel, at Rizzo’s confirmation hearing he was much less forthcoming to the congressional overseers. And in his memoir Rizzo does not mention his role, or deal with the drone war at all–except to express the antiseptic opinion that he thinks drones are here to stay. Looks just like the offense of which he accuses the journalist.

This is a guy who wore a flaming pink polo shirt on a field visit to a CIA black prison, who finds nothing objectionable about the Justice Department “torture memos”–which he, in fact, solicited–and who shellacks the Bush White House for getting cold feet mid-course. The polo shirt incident led his CIA security man to ask sarcastically why he didn’t just paint a bull’s eye on his back. So who is tone-deaf here?

There is at least one CIA excess which Rizzo does find outrageous. That is agency operations chief Jose Rodriguez’s gambit in November 2005 to destroy videotapes documenting CIA torture at the black prisons. Rizzo recounts that he had never felt as upset and betrayed as he did the morning he found out about it. But Rodriguez’s maneuver was of a piece with countless things that John Rizzo spent a thirty-four year career justifying, and at times contriving.

Hot Document: The NSA’s Been Here Before

February 27, 2014–  Today I’m posting an extract from the White House paperwork on the last go-round in NSA surveillance scandals. That occurred in 1975, when it was revealed that the agency had been conducting warrantless wiretaps and, for decades, taking in all the cables sent abroad by the international communications carriers–yesterday’s equivalent of the cell phone traffic. It was the first time the National Security Agency had ever been required to testify before Congress. President Gerald R. Ford insisted that his staff go through the proposed testimony with a fine-tooth comb. The NSA’s director, at that time Air Force General Lew Allen, complied.

This “Hot Document” is available under “Products” in the “Downloadable” section of the website. The page you will see is the NSA’s proposed answer to the objection that it was conducting dragnet eavesdropping (in 1975 they called it “vacuum cleaner” surveillance). Note that the wording is pretty much identical to what you’ve been hearing from U.S. intelligence officials for nearly a year now. In three-and-a-half decades the NSA’s answer has not changed, nor has its dragnet eavesdropping. It’s also not different that government has maneuvered to minimize objections and controls. The thing that is different is that there is now a law that is supposed to prohibit this, which the Bush and Obama administrations have worked to neutralize.

PANZERKRIEG FOG OF WAR

February 23, 2014– And now for something completely different. Looking over the new, Six Angles edition of the game Panzerkrieg it came to me that we can use the components to craft a fresh game variant. Masahiro Yamazaki has added “Objective” pieces to the countermix. Fans of the game will know that most of its scenarios postulate one of the players “To Win,” and to do so by means of capturing a number of named objective hexes. Mas has made this more visual with the Objective counters.

But the same pieces can be purposed differently. I’ve compiled a variant that inserts Intelligence Deception. Players designate their Objectives as before– but some of the Objectives can be phony ones! This way the opponent may work to defend cities the player is not really interested in.

The Panzerkrieg variant is a product among those in the “Downloadable” section of this website. Hop over there and check it out!

The Wargame Laboratory

February 17, 2014– Several years ago, for my book Normandy Crucible  I chose to make use of a boardgame as a kind of historical laboratory. I took an existing game on the Normandy campaign, SPI’s Cobra, done by Brad Hessel many years back, to generate virtual data on the actual campaign. (I’ll say something in a moment about how that went.) The other day, while researching a topic from World War II in the Pacific, I was delighted to encounter another instance of someone who’d done the same thing. This was an honors thesis in history done at Ohio State nearly a decade ago. There’s not enough to call this a trend, but clearly the notion is out there, so I thought I would say something about best practices.

A little more detail on the Normandy Crucible experiment: I set out to explore the contours of the German defense of the hedgerow country following the D-Day invasion in June 1944. I wanted to see if a different combination of German strategic approach and/or defensive tactics might have worked better and, in particular, how these factors impacted on the size of the force the Germans would succeed in withdrawing from Normandy once they began their retreat. To accomplish this I first took the Cobra game and brought it up to date. When it was published in the late 70s we knew very little of the Allied intelligence advantages with ULTRA, the design itself had certain awkward elements, and now we have much better historical data on German replacements and reinforcements. All these things were factored into the game.

To effectuate the laboratory schema, I chose a set of parameters–some strategies, some tactics, some were terrain-based defense emphases. Each of these became a scenario. Then the game was played numerous times with extensive data recorded, ending with the number of German troops who escaped the debacle. The game was played solitaire and with various opponents.  Every scenario was played multiple times. I ended up with a very interesting collection of insights.

In our other example, in 2005 Mark Gribbell at Ohio State used the 1992 editions of the Avalon Hill games Midway and Guadalcanal and modified them to replay the battles of the Philippine Sea (June 1944) and Leyte Gulf (October 1944). Gribbell asked the question of whether the Japanese, had they had better pilots at that time in the Pacific war, could have done better at these decisive naval battles. We don’t know enough about his assumptions or data to judge his actual scenarios, but his conclusions were that the outcomes would still have been Japanese defeats although the Americans would have suffered somewhat higher losses. To judge from the honors thesis, the battles were replayed just a few times.

So, best practices? In my view the first key element is to ensure that the simulation platform actually has the capacity to answer the questions posed. In both of these examples an original boardgame (or games) were modified to accommodate the experiment. There is not sufficient information to describe the actual modifications made in the Pacific war laboratory, but in the Normandy case I am confident the game update provided exactly the platform required.

The second key element is to ensure the questions are the right ones. For Normandy, the ability of German forces to withdraw was directly measurable by the game. Secondary questions, such as the effect of commencing the retreat at different moments in the history, was also observable. In the Pacific war case, losses were a surrogate measure for the impact of pilot quality, but there the connection is less clear. For example, what about the effect of better Japanese aircraft, along with or apart from, pilots? Gribbell himself suggests something of this with a related conclusion he draws–that the American use of the F-6F “Hellcat” aircraft was a key factor in Japanese losses.

Finally, it is very important to ensure that there are enough iterations of the scenario to collect a broad range of data. This takes better account of the effect of different player strategies and tactics, as well as for the element of chance.

In my case one other lesson of this exercise was that some readers and historians are not yet ready to accept the simulation as a valid tool for historical analysis. In the text of Normandy Crucible I made some use of the simulation laboratory results, but I had originally done more. Comments from readers and editors encouraged me to extract most of this material and move it to an appendix, and some items I had to drop altogether. The simulation laboratory has yet to come into its own.

Two Flavors of International Law

February 12, 2014–Director James Clapper is at it again, this time declaiming his gospel of hysteria to the Senate Armed Services Committee. But that’s for another time. Today I want to focus on law, a little bit domestic, mostly international. In the United States the Founders–those who hammered out the Constitution, most of whom had participated in the American Revolution–and their successors–giants of political philosophy, politics, and law–were fond of saying that America would be a land of individuals under law. There have been various elaborations on this theme–that no one is exempt from the law, that everyone is equal under the law, that the rights of minorities are protected by the law, that laws restrain both the actions of a despotic majority or of an overweening executive power, etc. Officials, from the president to the very spooks who have been of such concern recently, to the soldiers, to the lowest of federal magistrates, swear an oath to uphold the Constitution–the law–not the powers of their agencies, their bosses, or any other leader, including the president.

United States law acts in tandem with international law, and has done so from the very early days of this republic. The U.S. fought a quasi-war with France in the 1790s, and a real one with Britain from 1812 to 1814–which bicentenary the country is fitfully observing right now–to establish norms of international law. At the end of World War II the international trials of defeated enemy leaders and military commanders at Nuremberg, Tokyo and elsewhere were explicitly intended to enforce international norms against the conduct of aggressive war, conspiracy against peace, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, including the use of certain weapons.

International strictures include customary law and treaty law. Around that same time the International Court of Justice, created by Article 93 of the United Nations Charter, was established to enforce the law. Under the United States Constitution treaty law forms part of the law of the land and American officials have a legal obligation to enforce it. The ICJ has since been supplemented by juridical panels specifically intended to prosecute offenses in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, and a globe-ranging International Criminal Court for Nuremberg-type offenses. One of the most creative legal initiatives of recent years has been the increasing willingness of national courts, for example Chilean courts (against Augusto Pinochet, then in the United Kingdom) or Spanish courts (against a variety of human rights abusers) to move toward enforcement measures that may require action across borders.

At the same time it appears that the Great Powers have increasingly been moving in the opposite direction. The United States denied the jurisdiction of the ICJ in 1984, when Nicaragua sued the U.S. over the CIA-directed mining of its harbors. This was despite the fact the United States numbered among the original founders and supporters of the ICJ and the international law movement. The U.S. has since then resisted ratification of the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, which would have jurisdiction over such things as American unleashing of an aggressive war against Iraq or–dare we say it–conducting a drone war that kills numbers of individuals in countries with which no state of belligerency exists. When Italian and German courts indict CIA officers for criminal acts, Washington also acts as if it has no legal obligations. When the president of Ecuador was returning to his country following a state visit to Russia, the U.S. violated international conventions on diplomacy and air transit to make sure the Ecuadoran leader was not secretly harboring whistleblower Edward Snowden on his aircraft.

Meanwhile the United States relies on international law when it files suits, for example, with the World Trade Organization, over tariff discrimination, perceived unfair preference on exports or imports; the extradition of individuals for trail. Washington has denied foreign efforts to evade legal judgments, notably in the Pan Am 107 case, where an indemnity was levied against Libya. And the U.S. has passed laws that permit American authorities to pursue wanted suspects into foreign lands–in much the same fashion as Chilean or Spanish courts extending their tentacles across borders, except that in the U.S. case the federal government actually has capabilities to act. “Renditions” as we know them today began with actions to apprehend suspects abroad back in the 1990s.

To reframe the picture, the net result is that a Great Power insists on international law when this seems to its advantage and denies its application when this might work against it. This is not just the case with the United States. The latest example is the People’s Republic of China, which is demanding that Spain nullify the judgments of Spanish courts that have voted arrest warrants against former Chinese leaders for China’s actions in Tibet. If nations can be considered people–as we deem corporations to be people–then all people are not equal under the law.

This double standard ought not to be tolerated. Not only does it disadvantage lesser nations, it poses a threat to the progress of international norms in general. The most significant development in international law in the past three decades is the progressive enactment of laws securing human rights and their expansion in terms of coverage. Solidification of an international double standard on the application of norms can potentially halt or even reverse that evolution. The interests of peoples–and nations–everywhere (including the Great Powers themselves) lies in making sure that does not happen. Powers rise and decline. Today’s Great Power may tomorrow be just one of the pack. They will then wish there was a single standard for international law.

 

Panzerkrieg Rules Arrive!

February 8, 2014– Masahiro Yamazaki has just sent his translation of the rules and scenario sheets for Panzerkrieg. I’ll be checking them against the originals for any discrepancies, but if there are any you’ll easily be able to download updated versions later. In the meantime you can play the game in its new edition.

At this point English versions of the charts and tables are still outstanding but they’ll be coming along soon. Those of you with earlier editions can simply use the currently existing versions during this interval.

The new material looks very nice and has already given me an idea for a game variant rule that will put some strategic intelligence flavor into the game.

Enjoy!

The Working Class General

 

February 7, 2014– In connection with publication of my new book on the battle of Dien Bien Phu I’m adding a new article to the “Downloadable” list on the website. This piece focuses on one character in that story, the French officer Marcel Bigeard, who led a parachute battalion in Indochina. Of working class origins, he was colorful enough to feature in the movie The Lost Command, played by actor Anthony Quinn and modeled on the character “Pierre Raspeguy” in the Jean Larteguy novels The Centurions and The Praetorians. In the Algerian war Bigeard’s role became controversial in the Battle of Algiers and afterwards, with charges that he had had prisoners tortured, a subject that reverberates in America today as a result of CIA actions during the 9/11 era. Bigeard also fought in World War II, ending his military career as chief of staff of the French army, after which he entered politics and became a deputy in the French National Assembly. Marcel Bigeard is a fascinating character, worth more attention than I could afford to give him in Operation Vulture.

U.S. Intelligence Turned Inside Out

 

February 5, 2014– Is all this really happening? Maybe I should pinch my arm and try to wake up. But it’s not a dream–it’s a nightmare. United States foreign intelligence turning on Americans. This NSA eavesdropping scandal has created such distortions that, at some point, you begin to wonder whether the entire system is compromised. Government responses to the scandal have gone so over the top that one suspects the foundations of the intelligence community may be cracking.

Let’s begin with the fundamental mission. As officials have reiterated ad infinitum since the Snowden revelations began, the purpose of U.S. intelligence is to discover and track foreign enemies. All the powers the NSA, CIA, and other agencies exercise are supposed to be aimed at that goal. The agencies operate in secrecy, on the dark side. But there moments when, for a brief time, they come into focus. The most important of these is the annual “threat assessment” hearings. Every year around this time the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the agency chiefs appear before the congressional intelligence committees to give the public a glimpse of their world view. The spy chiefs talk to the legislators but at the same time speak to the American people. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) are fora in which our agency bosses expounded on the Soviet threat, in the day; efforts to develop ballistic missiles around the world, nuclear proliferation, including the misguided and mistaken claims for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction; drug cartels and international crime syndicates, whatever the issues that have their hair on fire. Since 9/11 our intelligence chiefs have consistently represented the top threat as terrorism. Only last year did it drop to second place, with the threat of cyberwar given the pride of place. Now, suddenly, the NSA eavesdropping scandal has changed that.

Last week the DNI, General James R. Clapper, and his assembled brass, presented their annual threat assessment to the Senate committee. They did the same at the HPSCI yesterday. The two appearances cast a pall on the American intelligence enterprise. Our so-called experts now believe the leading threat is not foreign at all.

General Clapper told the Senate intelligence committee that a leading threat to the United States comes from whistleblowers. (Cue Edward Snowden.) Let’s parse that for a moment: Whistleblowers are employees of U.S. intelligence who become so concerned about the U.S. intelligence programs they see around them that they decide to destroy their careers by leaking to the public the abuses which exercise them. How to cope with that threat? You clamp down on U.S. intelligence. The snake eats its own tail. This is more than a security measure. The NSA, CIA and other agencies depend on smart analysts and operators, willing to go out on a limb to make sense of the welter of obscure and often contradictory information out there, and argue theses which bosses might think fanciful. Nothing could be better calculated to destroy the morale of the intelligence community than to represent its own officers, individually and collectively, as the main enemy.

I’ve written here repeatedly, as have others, on the chilling effect of eavesdropping on the public. Consider how chilling it must be for intelligence officers to be told they are a threat too.

There it is. Just to keep the ball in view, Clapper’s biggest threat this year remains cyberwar. But terrorism–the stated rationale for all that intrusive NSA eavesdropping–has fallen to fourth. Whistleblowers are a bigger threat to American security than terrorists. Of course, the reason whistleblowers pose a threat is the impact their disclosures may have on the powers of the intelligence community. Director Clapper and his minions are substituting the private, parochial interests of their agencies for the national security of the United States.

On the theme of flimsy congressional oversight, featured here several times, we can add that Senator Dianne Feinstein sat still for all this in her Senate committee. At HPSCI yesterday, Representative Mike Rogers did Feinstein one better. Clapper hardly needed to advance his dubious threat analysis. Rogers reached past him, trying to lead FBI director James B. Comey into an assertion that journalists who report the abuses revealed by whistleblowers are “fencing” stolen goods. What congressional oversight is even possible in this climate?

Rogers has, without evidence, accused Snowden repeatedly of being a Russian or Chinese spy, and last fall at a media gabfest with former spook Michael V. Hayden the two bantered about their desire to throttle the leaker. Edward Snowden got the message. Recently he told a German interviewer, in all seriousness, that he could not return to the United States because people want to kill him.

All this gives new meaning to aphorisms–always presented as an error–about shooting the messenger. Do not lose sight of the fact–and it is a fact–that the problem resides in the substance of U.S. intelligence programs, not in what Edward Snowden or anyone else says about them. That intrusive eavesdropping is revealed in the NSA’s own documents. Not only can the evidence not be disputed, it has been further confirmed in the additional documentation the U.S. government has declassified in the course of this controversy.

Overheard on Amtrak: A Gaming Story

February 4, 2014– If you’re a boardgamer who looks askance at the first-person-shooter variety of videogames, here’s some grist for your mill. Of course lots of folks love videogames, and the first-person-shooter variety is a strong category in that field, so if that’s your passion please excuse this. My take is that of a longtime boardgame designer who was there when computer games first got started, solicited our help, then left us in the dust.

Anyway the story is this: a few years ago I was on my way to take care of chores in New York. I prefer Amtrak for these periodic business trips. The train is more comfortable, you can walk around, and it leaves you in the heart of The City, ready to go wherever you need to. So I’m on a Northeast Regional bound for a city I love, where I lived a long time. I read a book as the train barreled along. Sitting there I became conscious of the conversation from the twin-seat ahead of me. Two men were engaged in avid debate. I heard the words “axe” and “sword.” That got my attention pretty well.

Some nefarious plot? I worried briefly but it quickly became clear the two men were game designers, and their purpose was to figure out what weapons to put into the first-person-shooter they were crafting. The conversation was quite interesting. Heft of the axe and sword, length and edge-type of the latter, single- or double-bit for the axe, type of metal, weight–all were things they considered. What struck me in particular was their focus on the visual impact of the various weapons configurations. They were clearly concentrating on a game design issue.

The purloined conversation got me to thinking. Plenty of gamers have asked me over the years why I did not move into computer games. Actually a few of my designs–Third Reich and Kanev are two–have appeared in computerized versions, though the games (and even the computer platforms which ran them) no longer exist. But I never made the crossover myself. At first I thought I would, but that I needed to wait–the early platforms were very restricted in terms of core memory. For a long time the memory requirements for representing a mapboard effectively consumed the machine’s capacity leaving little for the game itself. As a designer my preference has always been to innovate systems that mimic large-scale processes in the real world, requiring pretty sophisticated code. But I anticipated that CPU memory capacities would someday reach the level required for both board and design, plus, of course, pieces. In any case, focusing my design efforts on image (as my Amtrak friends were doing) rather than content, as in the modeling of processes, was not something I wanted to do.

That evolution of computers happened–but so did something else. The early electronic games were very much like the boardgames. But as computers improved, the action game, granddaddy of the first-person-shooter, eclipsed the old-style game. The charm of putting the person into the game–as character (in role-playing), as ball player, as shooter, as action figure–was irresistible. The personal element made computer games the behemoth they are today. Even large-scale games today, as in the massive online game, are permutations of single person action. My two friends on Amtrak were onto something.

But I did–and still do–prefer to model processes, not individual action, whether cumulative or not. I’ve been pleased that old-style electronic games have survived, even as a niche in the computerized milieu, and also that computers have come around far enough to develop game-assist programs (like VASSAL) that improve the practicality of boardgames. And developing trends may be moving in the direction of  a more central role for boardgame-like computer games. Sales of first-person-shooter designs peaked in 2011 and have diminished since. Though these games still account for nearly a fourth of all electronic game sales, their dollar volume has decreased by more than a third. This suggests there is space developing for electronic wargames of the traditional kind, now in an environment when the platforms are fully capable of handling a sophisticated boardgame. Some of my old designer colleagues–Eric Lee Smith is an example–have chosen to go straight to electronics with new game companies. And games are being formatted to work on I-pads and I-phones. We may be witnessing the dawn of a new age. Let a hundred flowers bloom!