Argument

Lawyers, Guns, and Money

Why is the Obama administration giving the odious Sudanese regime's lobbyists a polite hearing instead of running them out of town?

As the Obama administration's Sudan policy review drags on, the Sudanese government, led by a wanted war criminal, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, clearly looks to Washington and dreams of normalizing relations. So how has Bashir tried to work his way back into the good graces of the United States? Well, there has been a recent spate of government attacks in Darfur, and a recent Small Arms Survey report suggests that most of the new and heavier weaponry appearing in militia clashes in South Sudan likely comes from government stockpiles. Certainly, the government has not given the slightest suggestion that it will hand Bashir over to the International Criminal Court to face charges. Khartoum has not been on a charm offensive.

Instead of actually changing its behavior, Sudan's ruling National Congress Party wants to return to favor in Washington the old-fashioned way: by swamping a bunch of high-powered lobbyists in a sea of money to make its case. Thanks to two excellent recent articles by the Washington Post's Dan Eggen, we have gained a much clearer window into the behind-the-scenes machinations of the National Congress Party and the greedy inside-the-Beltway types lining up to do the party's bidding. In the process, we have also gained some alarming insight into how the administration is dealing with this mess. As actress Lily Tomlin once said, "No matter how cynical you get, you just can't keep up."

The first bombshell dropped when former U.S. National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane of Iran-Contra fame was outed by the Post as having accepted $1.3 million, passed through the government of Qatar, to represent the Sudanese government as it tried to warm relations with Washington. McFarlane somehow forgot that this kind of representation usually requires registering as a lobbyist on behalf of a foreign government, something he did not do for either Qatar or Sudan. Making matters worse, Sudan is still on the state sponsors of terrorism list. But the niceties of paperwork never appear to have been McFarlane's strong suit.

So what did the Sudanese get for their $1.3 million? According to the White House, current National Security Advisor James L. Jones and the special envoy for Sudan, retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, had "conversations" with McFarlane to discuss "the urgent need to improve the security situation in Sudan and the need for development in southern Sudan." It does not pass the laugh test to believe that the Sudanese government was spending more than a million dollars to express its concerns, via McFarlane, about development prospects for South Sudan given that the ruling party views the South as a mortal enemy. On one level, you can certainly understand how Jones and Gration got mousetrapped into taking the meeting with McFarlane; he is a former national security advisor after all. But Jones has also failed to detail whether he has held any other meetings with outsiders on Sudan, leaving as a real likelihood that the only outsider he has consulted on Sudan policy is a disgraced former national security advisor on the take from Khartoum.

The second shoe fell with Eggen's article revealing that Robert B. Crowe, a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough (and a prominent fundraiser for the Democratic Party), has been working behind the scenes to lock down a lobbying contract with the Sudanese government. Crowe, who might be every bit as ethically challenged as McFarlane, at least had the good sense to try and garner support from Gration and Sen. John Kerry, with whom he reportedly has good ties, to ensure that he could get legal approval to sign a lobbying contract. And because truth is invariably stranger than fiction in this business, celebrity television doctor Bob Arnot also appears mixed up in all of this. To quote the article:

The lobbying proposal arose out of discussions this year between aides to Kerry, who led a congressional delegation to Khartoum in April, and Bob Arnot, a physician and television personality active in humanitarian causes, according to several of those involved in the debate. Arnot then approached Crowe with the idea, leading to an application this summer with the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which must approve any U.S. firm doing business with Sudan.

A State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said OFAC rejected the initial application on Gration's recommendation. That led to further talks between Crowe, Gration and other administration officials. "It was our understanding that Nelson Mullins was going to work on getting support from key members of Congress about the work they wanted to pursue in Sudan," the official said.

This passage may shed light on a curious exchange Gration had when testifying before Kerry in July. At that hearing, when discussing Sudan, Gration declared, "At some point we're going to have to unwind some of these sanctions." Many were baffled by Gration's comments at the time because exemptions already exist for humanitarian relief and South Sudan has argued strongly that sanctions against the government should stay in place. What Gration might actually have been doing, with a wink and a nod, was offering the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee assurance that his favored lobbyist would also be eligible for a piece of Khartoum's pie.

None of these stories looks very good for an administration that promised to take a very tough line with Khartoum upon entering office. Perhaps a shorter response from the administration would be more appropriate when addressing those who seek to lobby on Khartoum's behalf at a time when almost 3 million Darfuris remain displaced: Get lost. As for the lobbyists themselves, with health-care reform, energy legislation, and a hundred other issues working through Congress right now, are times really so hard that the only work they can find is representing war criminals?

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Strictly Confidential

Why professors and analysts are our best secret weapon.

Everyone says an open, transparent government is the hallmark of a healthy democracy. But most reasonable people would agree that there must be limits to how transparent government can be. After all, no one wants sensitive national security secrets to fall into the wrong hands. When information shared in the name of good governance can be exploited by terrorists, many would argue the public's right to know pales in comparison to the public’s need for protection.

But are openness and security really opposing values? When government officials curb access to information, they cut themselves off from the brain power and analytical skills of a huge community of scientists, engineers, and security experts who are often far better at identifying threats, weaknesses, and solutions than any government agency. The effort to cordon off experts from sensitive information has been dramatic, especially in the United States. An executive order signed by President George W. Bush in 2003 permitted -- some say encouraged -- the U.S. government to classify mountains of information. For the first time, basic infrastructure information was designated as a category of classifiable information. The increase in secrecy has been staggering: In 1996, 5.8 million documents were classified by the U.S. government. In 2005, that figure nearly tripled, to 14.2 million documents stamped "secret" or "confidential." Even more information has been kept from the public by an increase in the use of "sensitive but unclassified" markings, which operate without the legal constraints of the traditional classification system. In 2006 alone, just the number of categories under which a document might be labeled "sensitive" increased by 20 percent. But this added secrecy hasn't made anyone safer. In truth, it is leaving everyone more vulnerable to emerging threats.

Consider the efforts of Lawrence Wein, a Stanford University business professor, and his then graduate student, Manas Baveja. In research published in 2005, Wein and Baveja analyzed the effectiveness of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, a fingerprint identification program designed to prevent known terrorists from entering the United States. Using information on fingerprint readers from the Web site of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the federal agency that tracks the United States' technology infrastructure, they found that terrorists could take advantage of the system by reducing the image quality of their fingerprints. (Simply rubbing one's fingers with sandpaper would do the trick.) They also found an easy solution: Require people to present more fingers if their prints were poor. The fix made the program more effective even though terrorists knew exactly how the system worked. Immigration officials quickly adopted a version of Wein and Baveja's idea. But NIST responded by removing the information Wein and Baveja used for their analysis from its Web site.

Or, take graduate student Sean Gorman's 2003 dissertation at George Mason University. Gorman used public information to map the fiber-optic network of the United States, identifying critical choke points in the country's telecommunications infrastructure. Under pressure from government officials, Gorman ultimately agreed to redact many of his most sensitive findings. Today, parts of his research remain classified, and much of the information Gorman used is no longer publicly available. But this reaction misses what was so valuable about his study. In identifying dangerous vulnerabilities, Gorman found efficient ways to remove them. Putting information behind lock and key does not make targets safe from attack. It leaves security analysts unable to find solutions to other weaknesses in the future. It also leaves government and industry less motivated to find safeguards of their own.

Harvard University’s Efraim Benmelech and the RAND Corp.'s Claude Berrebi took up research on a project with unmistakable relevance to everyone’s national security. Using publicly available data from the Israeli Security Agency, they found that not only are older, better-educated suicide bombers assigned to more important targets but that these bombers are deadlier in their attacks. Their analysis depended critically on having access to data about failed attacks, information that most other governments restrict out of fear that it can prove useful to terrorists. But understanding how terrorist groups assign operatives to missions does more to combat terrorism than the Israeli government’s openness did to abet it.

Governments must do a better job of assessing when the benefits to sharing information will exceed the costs. The question should not be, "Can this information help terrorists at all?" It should be, "Will sharing this information do more to protect society than it will to help those who wish us harm?" In determining the trade-offs, common sense is the most natural guide. When governments don't fully understand a system’s vulnerabilities, information should be shared so that analysts can find solutions before terrorists identify weaknesses. Similarly, information about known vulnerabilities should be shared when terrorists can easily identify the target.

The thinking capacity of a huge network of universities and research centers should be considered a national security strength, not a threat or nuisance that needs to be kept at arm’s length. The academy’s powers to analyze dangers and recommend safe, efficient solutions are stronger than that of the government, and infinitely stronger than that of any terrorist organization. When governments consider everyone a potential terrorist, they are insulating themselves from the brain power that should be our first line of defense.