False Fronts

How the biggest intelligence community scandal in modern memory and Washington's infamous Twitter troll expose the real D.C.

They say Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, but in some areas we have Tinseltown beat. For example, false fronts are much bigger and more common here than in all the plastic surgery mills of L.A. combined, and veneers are more common inside the Beltway than in every cosmetic dentistry office in that city added up.

Of the veneers, the most prevalent are the smarmy and the insincere ones that we associate with members of Congress, whether they are of the bright orange variety or the clueless Texas senatorial variety or the "shocked, shocked" Dems who would be doing their worst to undercut a GOP president were the shoe on the other foot.

But in the foreign-policy world, we have our own set of poses, postures, and conceits in which we cloak our true selves. After all, most of the guys talking tough about projecting force and taking out terrorists spent their formative years as hopeless nerds getting sand kicked in their face; the closest they ever got to real combat was a vigorous game of Battleship with some pimply cousin on whom they had an inappropriate crush. In fact, few things are more laughable than listening to these Urkels grow all grave and knowing over throw-weights and the acronym du jour if you happen to have seen them coming of age or have ever, well, talked to them at a barbecue. (And believe me, among the peace-loving, development specialists I have known who spend their lives working for a Kumbayatopia are some of the most ruthlessly self-interested bureaucratic knife fighters in town.)

The contrast between the false fronts and the underlying underdevelopment of the people or the ideas they espouse has been illustrated recently in two ways -- one amusing but trivial, one far more serious and troubling. The first has to do with the recent news of the unmasking of a D-list Twitterverse troublemaker as a White House national security official who obviously made up for in hubris what he lacked in intelligence. The second has to do with the attitude that has produced the biggest intelligence community scandal and crisis in modern memory.

The Twitterverse comeuppance is the story of a previously more or less faceless National Security Council (NSC) staffer named Jofi Joseph who, having failed to make a name for himself through his policy work, began to do so under the social media nom de snark @NatSecWonk. Behind this mask he mixed it up with the inside-the-Beltway crowd and, despite his White House job, regularly took nasty shots (even for Washington) at both opposition voices on the Hill and even members of Barack Obama's cabinet (see this FP story by Gordon Lubold for details). Worse still, this reckless nitwit is now suspected of also operating under another handle, @DCHobbyist, via which he tipped his hand that he may have had a taste for escort services and other forms of conduct unbecoming a wonk.

I would say more about this particular form of millennial pseudo-bravery that involves hiding behind a fake name and the distance provided by the Internet, but I think I summed it up best in a tweet I sent this character, now being investigated by the Justice Department, way back in August 2012.

The fall of @NatSecWonk should serve as a cautionary tale to others who find that logging on to their Twitter and Facebook accounts offers as reliable a source of false courage as a couple of stiff drinks did for their parents. Hopefully, it will also lead his supervisors at the NSC to ask where they went wrong in their own messaging and management to allow such a dumbass misstep to occur. But in terms of long-term impact, it doesn't hold a candle to the posturing of the other NatSecWonks out there whom I have encountered on Twitter and in real life who have become the faux-knowing, world-weary apologists for the administration's National Security Agency (NSA) fiasco.

With this week's revelations of the NSA listening in on the cell-phone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, not to mention scooping up the emails of 70 million Frenchmen (and women) as well as those of the president of Mexico and his closest aides, we have seen again the collective eye-rolls of these national security insider types who just couldn't be more perplexed as to what all the fuss is about. Echoing the White House's sadly lame (and diplomatically tone-deaf) "everybody spies" non-defense, these insiders, who no doubt sleep in their trench coats and are risking their marriages with a steady stream of critiques of the inaccuracies in Homeland and Covert Affairs, have once again argued that spies are paid to listen in on people and that includes our friends and always has.

Were they (and the White House) a little more intellectually honest in their analyses, of course, they would find that, in the first instance, not everyone spies and that, in the second, those who do spy do so to differing degrees via differing approaches and within differing guidelines. Furthermore, the types of spying that are currently gaining much of the criticism have either been controversial within the intelligence community in the past (economic spying and spying on friends) or are so new that they are not well understood in terms of operational security risks or other implications (warehousing data hoovered out of the Internet).

To be more specific about these points, when the White House met with Brazil's justice minister regarding the revelations that the United States had listened in on that country's president as well as on some of its leading businesses, like national oil company Petrobras, and responded with the "everybody spies" line, the Brazilian said, "We don't." Some countries feel it's not worth the resources. Some don't do it or don't do much because of other reasons -- such as scruples or having come to the conclusion that it doesn't help that much.

But assume that many countries do spy. (Because they do.) Assume many use nasty techniques against us (including our friends). That still doesn't mean that we should use every means or method available to us. Because some are too high risk to warrant it -- not because our spies will necessarily be outed or captured or killed, but because our spying might be discovered and diplomatic, political, or economic blowback will result. For proof, see Brazil's recent moves to create its own secure email systems, its efforts that are making life harder for U.S. tech companies that cooperated with the NSA, its conversations with India, Russia, and China about creating a separate Internet backbone, its cancellation of its state visit to the United States, etc. Watch closely as the NSA scandal accelerates the pace of cyber-nationalism and more countries start setting rules for the Internet within their borders that undercut the promise of free Internet and the political and economic benefits to the United States that might bring.

More revelations and more blowback will follow. Each will produce shrugs from these apologists for intelligence community groupthink to go along with the defenses of the intelligence and policy community types who approved the programs and thus have self-interests to protect. They will complain it is all the fault of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. They will decry their "treachery." And in so doing they will miss the point. In the first instance, whether Snowden broke the law or not, at this point it cannot be denied that he did the world an enormous service by calling out excesses and abuses that should be stopped, framing issues of privacy and sovereignty in the Internet age that demand discussion, and hopefully causing us to think twice about what we do next. But more importantly, even the most perfunctory risk analysis has to conclude that in any system where 500,000 people have top-secret clearance, some secrets will not be kept. (It's ludicrous to think that anything shared beyond a handful of people will be kept secret in such a "system.") And so when any espionage operation is undertaken, the question has to be asked: What if we are discovered? What if we can't keep the secrets we want to keep?

That in turn frames a question that I heard asked often when I was in Bill Clinton's administration and have heard not infrequently subsequently: Is the intelligence we might be gathering worth the risks entailed by getting it? I acutely remember a very uncomfortable meeting with a number of very senior-level officials in which this question was raised about economic intelligence in particular. The conclusion of the intelligence official in attendance was that it was not. We have now started to see similar questions raised about the benefits of this latest wave of spying on friendly governments. (See this recent Washington Post article.)

Yes, many governments spy. But so too do all countries have armies, police forces, and tax codes. In each instance, the question is not whether to pursue the activity -- it is how to do it, how to limit it, and what values should underpin it. Our spying has overreached. We took risks we shouldn't have for rewards that were too limited. Even when there were perceived threats that seemed to warrant these activities (and that cannot be the case in some of the recent examples we have encountered of spying against friends and companies), many of those threats may themselves not have been so great to warrant the risks associated with spying. What if the NSA scandals result in a more fragmented global Internet? What if they are used as an excuse by repressive regimes to violate their own citizens' privacy? What if they are used as an excuse to deny U.S. companies access to their markets? What if they are used as an excuse to justify similar actions against the United States?

Those aren't arbitrary questions. All those things not only might happen -- they will. They are the direct result of America's intelligence overreach, of mistakes in judgment by senior White House and intelligence community decision-makers ... and of the enabling atmosphere provided by the pliant, arch, unquestioning attitudes of the faux-hard-boiled wonks who to this day are helping to impede the kind of real reassessment of priorities, methods, and means the U.S. intelligence community so urgently needs.  

Win McNamee/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Sisyphus at the State Department

From Iran to Syria to Israel, can the United States keep pushing boulders up a hill?

Given that he was a mythical character, it is probably not true that Sisyphus was the Middle East's first negotiator. But certainly the poor old king who had to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it tumble back to the bottom each time he neared the peak would find ready commiseration from the diplomats who have over the years engaged in the exercises in futility that are so common in Middle Eastern diplomacy.

"We were so close," they would say. "So was I," he would retort. And it is with this in mind that we view the positive stories currently trickling out of the Middle East with a bit of trepidation to go along with our requisite portions of hope.

For example, the rumblings out of Geneva are encouraging. The talks with the Iranians over their nuclear program are producing good buzz among the corridor stalkers reading the body language (and the leaks) of participants.

The progress on removing chemical weapons from Syria has been excellent, surprising to old hands in its speed and tangible gains.

The peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry were recently called by one senior regional leader "the most promising I have seen in my professional lifetime."

Say what you will about the setbacks and confusion that have been the hallmarks of recent U.S. Mideast policy, but there are some potential successes on the horizon that would upend conventional wisdom and astonish the cynical. That said, the Obama team's political victory in the recent U.S. budget showdown here in D.C. drives home an important message with international implications: Be careful what you wish for.

As with the U.S. budget battles, what is defined as success in each case -- and even substantial progress -- is likely to result in subsequent challenges that may well be harder to manage than the problem initially being tackled. In fact, in the case of Syria, Iran, and even the Israel-Palestine talks, the president and his secretary of state may end up feeling like more like Sisyphus than any other of history's great peacemakers before their term in office is over. Because as Sisyphus knew, it is just when you near your goal that you often have to be most careful, just when you are on a roll that you may have to get ready to start all over again.

In the case of Syria, getting rid of the government's chemical weapons is a great stride forward. Indeed, getting rid of any government's chemical weapons is progress toward their ultimate, welcomed elimination. But by requiring the government's cooperation to do this, it ensures the position of Bashar al-Assad's regime for some time to come. Paradoxically, even though this initiative has also helped the Damascus government look somewhat more reasonable (despite having started this whole process by using weapons of mass destructions against its own citizens), every day that passes is a day the Islamist opposition grows stronger.

The strengthening of the opposition will become a bigger problem when the negotiations for a political solution pick up steam. There is probably a deal to be done that creates a power-sharing arrangement of some sort between the representatives of the Free Syrian Army and the Alawites and other current allies of Assad who are closest to the Russians and Iranians and form a buffer to the north and west impeding the flow of Sunni insurgents. The Russians, it needs to be remembered, view this as a local problem and worry about the ambitions of Islamists with a caliphate on their mind that might extend to Chechnya or Dagestan. They, like the Iranians, have signaled they might be willing to throw Assad under the bus provided the successor regime protects their equities. But it is hard to see where either of these groups can come to terms with the extremists, and conversely, it is hard to see why the extremists who benefit from disorder in the country have any great incentive to cut a deal -- especially if they are growing stronger with every passing day.

Furthermore, the appetite of the United States and the West to throw their weight around anywhere other than the negotiating table has been proved to be zero. This creates a particularly acute problem because a peace deal, were it to be reached, will require years and years of funding for rebuilding, resettlement of refugees, and, very likely, armed peacekeeping.

The ultimate result could be that even with the chemical weapons completely gone, Syria will remain the most dangerous country in a dangerous region, festering for years to come and infecting its neighbors with a steady stream of refugees, terrorists, and other carriers of unrest.

A deal with Iran on nuclear weapons, despite the warm and fuzzy talk of recent days, is still a long way off and carries similar problems. If the Iranians maintain at some level ambitions of building nuclear weapons or acquiring the capability to build them, then anything that buys them time is in their interest -- whether it be long negotiations or even short negotiations and then a period of apparent stasis or rolling back of their programs. That's because long, drawn-out negotiations allow them time to advance their research and development efforts. Or it is because they would only consider an "acceptable" deal as one that would provide them with relief from sanctions which in turn would provide an economic lift. This might then be salve enough to warrant a postponement of their nuclear ambitions, but to the degree to which their economy recovers, they also gain the ability to withstand future sanctions should they come again and to fund new research efforts. And for those who don't trust the Iranians' intentions, these problems are just the tip of the iceberg.

An Iran without a nuclear weapons program (and thus one without sanctions) would be in a stronger position to continue supporting the mischief and mayhem sowed by its client terrorist entity, Hezbollah, and related enterprises in the Middle East, like Hamas. The Iranians also would be seen by their close neighbors, notably the Saudis and other Gulf states, with great distrust both because of the history of the region and because of the deep cultural divide that separates the Sunni and Shiite worlds. Their growing influence in Iraq, the likelihood they maintain influence with the next Syrian government, their influence in Lebanon and Gaza, and the possibility they gain more traction in western Afghanistan after the U.S. departure are all reasons that Iran will be seen as a regional hegemon and threat whether or not it has a nuclear program. (After all, the country has been seen that way for decades and has not had a nuclear capability at any time during that period.)

Finally, while an Israeli-Palestinian deal is the longest shot of the three initiatives, even if it were to come it would ultimately produce a number of serious complications even beyond the implementation of such a deal which seems well beyond the capabilities or inclinations of any of the parties right now. First, it requires cohesion among the divided Palestinians that has yet to effectively manifest itself in the post-Arafat era. Next, it requires that other actors in the region don't seek to sabotage the process because of its symbolic value. Finally, on a related and more important point, success on this front would quickly dispel one of the region's most enduring myths: that fixing the Israel-Palestine problem would help resolve many of the region's other ills, including its animosity toward Israel.

Further, if an Iranian deal takes place and an Israel-Palestine deal takes place, it is only likely to accelerate the disconnect of the United States and Western powers from the region. Indeed, the Gulf states and the Israelis, looking at what is going on between the United States and Iran and correctly sensing President Barack Obama's deep appetite for a deal and his country's growing allergy to getting drawn into foreign problems, are starting to spread their bets around, wondering who will be supportive of them in a Mideast without as active a role as they have come to expect from the United States. China is already hearing (and enjoying) the sweet music of their entreaties, and there is almost no scenario for the region going forward in which China doesn't play a greater role given its need for resources for which the Middle East is best known. The simple fact of the balance of international power shifting in this part of the world -- as it is inevitably doing -- may be as big a challenge for U.S. policymakers in the years ahead as any of the other issues cited above.

In a city like Washington where you are considered a visionary if you can see beyond the current news cycle and where strategy is thinking one-and-a-half moves ahead, this kind of analysis is likely to fall on deaf ears. In part, that's for a good reason. These are all initiatives that should be undertaken, and frankly, the Obama administration deserves great credit for getting each of them to where it is today. But, when punting economic catastrophe three months down the road is considered a great victory, it should come as no surprise that many of the concerns raised here are unlikely to be addressed until they step into the one category of issue that the leaders of the most powerful nation on Earth regularly devote themselves to: the crisis du jour.