Is Iraq Headed for Another Civil War?

So named is the front page link to the CNN article, Iraqi battle for Mosul prompts fears of more sectarian violence.

If this were the only reason for a civil war, it might be sufficient. But such a civil war would  tend  to be contained within the the territories of contention. There is another issue, as inevitable as death itself, that will make it geopolitical in the large sense.

This is the advanced age and delicate health of Iraq’s senior cleric, Ali al-Sistani. Compared to Iran’s ample religious establishment, Iraq’s is relatively spare.  Sistani is  relatively progressive, what we would want an ayatollah to be if we had to have one. That Iraq has any independent religious establishment at all is due to his seniority. Sistani has been protective of Iraq as an independent political entity, a concern not shared by the infiltrative power brokers of Qom.

Sistani was treated for undescribed heart problems in 2004, sufficiently serious to require treatment in London. How long he will live is a very relevant question. When he passes, absorption of Iraq’s religious establishment by Qom will begin in earnest. The limited ability of the secular government to restrain the militias will vanish. Iran’s military presence, already overt, will expand. The south of Iraq   will be conjoined with Iran, even at the expense of a greater unity.

There has been speculation that the incoming administration contemplates a greater U.S. military role in Iraq. Perhaps this speculation arises from the reappearance of some of the neoconservatives responsible for the 2003 invasion. I have no opinion as to what they are thinking. But  a general question can be phrased for all  military operations mounted with less than overwhelming force.

The question is whether the environment is “permissive.” For example, if an airstrike were contemplated against a target, the question would be whether the air defenses of the target could be sufficiently degraded to permit the airstrike to be carried out with acceptable losses.

The Shiite Iraq that follows the passing of Sistani will not be a permissive setting for American operations. Other parts of it, such as the Kurdish area, might be. But the kinds of cultural shift and political combinations that would make a viable rump state are prohibited by the strange-to-us cultural animosities.  Iran, a unified and disciplined state, would  steamroller it.

Now, with the reprise of the neoconservatives, we can only watch and wonder.

U.S. Election; United States Going Forward, Part 2

 U.S. Election; United States Going Forward, Part 1, contains a broad brush enumeration of the totality of challenges that face the United States in the near to midterm future. Looming just beyond public comprehension is the Technological Singularity, with the hazard of concentration of inhuman power in the successors to biological life.

Please prove me wrong. To do so, you have your wits, and some time, at your disposal, hopefully focusing on the broad brush issues. Should you decide to accept this assignment, your obstacles are national myths, traditions, and about half  the electorate.

You’re busy biting your fingernails this election night, so I’ll keep it short. One of the easiest simplifications is to divvy part of the problem into different types of “capital.”

  • Economic capital is the traditional sense of the word.
  • Human capital is potentiation of human potential to facilitate, among other things, creation of more capital.
  • National capital consists of hard and soft power. Hint: U.S. soft power is eroding rapidly.
  • National myths can be helpful or hurtful. Sadly, there is no arguing with the true believer, the person who has swallowed the myth whole, and finds it inseparable from reality.

Spiritual values, of  which I particularly  cherish those of the Declaration of Independence, can conflict with the above. In a very real way, they exist partly inside and partly outside the question of optimizing a society for capital creation.

It wouldn’t be helpful to be more specific. I’ll permit myself one exception: Students in  public school systems should be paid for academic performance. I find it a particularly interesting idea, since adults I try it on frequently respond with a smirk.


Janet Reno, Ethicist

In The FBI/ Director Comey/ Clinton Email Imbroglio, I cut the pie by distinguishing authoritarian and “ethicist” viewpoints.  It is probably impossible to define the ethicist, because the choices of the ethicist never narrow to alternatives of belief. Janet Reno exemplifies this.

In (CNN) Janet Reno, first female US attorney general, dies at 78, Eric Holder is quoted:

At a ceremony to honor Reno in 2009, then-Attorney General Eric Holder praised his predecessor for her tenacity and tireless work ethic during her eight years in the job.

“I don’t know how many times she said to me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?'” Holder said. “It was never what’s the easy thing, what’s the political thing, or the expedient thing to do.”

What’s the right thing to do? It’s the ethicist’s eternal question.


The FBI/ Director Comey/ Clinton Email Imbroglio

The Comey disclosures are marginal to the focus of this blog. Nevertheless, how I think about it might interest the reader, insofar as I was a “superpredictor” in the Forecasting World Events research project. It appears to me that the impact of Comey’s disclosure will be increasingly discounted by the electorate.

I’ve done a little sampling of the psychology of the American voter. A description in terms of two poles, be it  party identification, or something else, is always attractive. The selection of the poles has considerable latitude. Where the first cut on the pie is made is partly, though not completely, arbitrary.

In this particular case, a cut to the pie can be made so that “authoritarian” lies on one side, and “ethicist” on the other. That this may be an optimal way to cut the pie lies in the observation that the membership of each group implied by the names seems oblivious to the concerns of the other.

To an authoritarian, the fact that Clinton broke government regulations in the disposition of classified data, even though there is no evidence of damage, is paramount. This relates to the experience of the American blue collar worker at the hands of typical management. The theme of the work experience is that you follow company rules, or you get canned by your supervisor. There is no appeal, except with violations of civil rights laws. It’s an eight-hour a day way of life, and it’s not surprising that the demands made of the blue collar worker should be reflected in his single civic choice. To the voter of this stripe, concerns about the personal behavior of the super-rich, and their world in general, are disjoint from everyday existence. Interest in the Second Amendment is the side effect of a small stage of life. With such a small stage, the right to bear arms is one more thing you can do.

The ethicist, regardless of work background, has concerns that go beyond this. The ethicist’s world view is either expansive beyond the workplace, or in conflict with it.  The ethicist’s interpretation of the law is flexible. It might be correct to obey the law; it might be right to protest, or disobey. All lawyers know that the law is a blunt instrument, but the ethicist takes this into the practice of life.

Hilliary Clinton is not the first person to grapple with and bypass the machinery of the State Department. The State Department has a “cable” system, an automated distribution network named for the days when undersea Telex networks linked the embassies with D.C. As Henry Kissinger explains it, the automated nature of the system meant that a confidential communication could easily be routed by accident to many more desks than intended. Kissinger’s solution was to bypass it, and most of the State Department, for a diplomacy based in the White House. Clinton’s private server doubtless had a similar motivation.

To an “ethicist” like myself, the Clinton server is a tempest in a teapot.  But I can’t imagine a man who gropes women as president. That this is a voter’s choice indicates a very serious political disease that must be addressed in the next four years, or it will reoccur.

In Portrait of a Spaceman; Predictions for 2016, I predicted a Clinton win. The prediction stands. In the 2012 election, there was doubt that younger voters would turn out again for Obama. But their lack of polled enthusiasm turned out to be passive-aggression. They turned out on Election Day. And Comey’s disclosure is increasingly discounted, as the visceral offense of the other choice becomes starkly personal.




Reuters Opinion: Did Russia Hack the Clinton emails?

James Bamford writes (Reuters), “Commentary: Don’t be so sure Russia hacked the Clinton emails”.

Long  ago, I wrote one of the first three or so computer viruses. It had two parts, an injector, and a persistent payload. It had a good, helpful purpose, to extend the capability of a primitive operating system, in a time before “add-ons.” Amusingly, I was regarded as a wizard for about three weeks. Invoking mystery, it preceded what is now commonplace. Some of my other contributions may yet be floating around DoD, They will best remain nameless and unattributed.

I could write a profiling tool of the type used by the NSA, perhaps even a good one. At the most advanced level, it’s a black mathematical art. Without any compromise to national security, refer to a published Wikipedia article on entropy encoding, with this relevant paragraph:

Besides using entropy encoding as a way to compress digital data, an entropy encoder can also be used to measure the amount of similarity between streams of data and already existing classes of data. This is done by generating an entropy coder/compressor for each class of data; unknown data is then classified by feeding the uncompressed data to each compressor and seeing which compressor yields the highest compression. The coder with the best compression is probably the coder trained on the data that was most similar to the unknown data.

James Bamford probably does not have the mathematical background to understand the above. The finest legal education does not prepare for it. And it’s merely a pinch from the bag of NSA technology. It’s all secret. To disclose it is to lose it. Bamford’s rebuttal could be, I don’t need to understand it. Does he?

It’s not worth writing an article to denigrate James Bamford. The op-ed pages are inevitably populated by people whose writing is better than their thinking. And Bamford is a pretty decent thinker, which makes his article a suitable example for the educational mission of this blog. Really bad thinkers offer no educational examples.

Bamford’s article exemplifies a “thought system”-centric way of thinking. It’s as if  the article contains a hidden inclusion, a “my-thought-framework.h” header file, that brings in all the macro definitions (beliefs) and code libraries (schools of thought), without being explicit about it. Writers do not customarily precede their pieces with explicit declarations, but perhaps they should, with:

  • “I’m going to talk to you as a politician”
  • “I’m going to talk to you like a lawyer.”
  • “I’m going to talk to you as a law enforcement official.”
  • “I’m from the intelligence community, and this is what we’ve discovered as truthful from our perspective.

The only customary qualifiers are the disclaimer, as in, “I have no business interest/relationship…”, and the CV, the purpose of which is to make you more credulous than would the words by themselves.

Bamford’s education is legal. The legal perspective is crucially important to the national debate about surveillance and civil liberties. But with cyber warfare he encounters the problems of  patent litigation. How can a jury, or even a judge, grasp the technological intricacies of modern civilization, at a time when complexity  is running away from us? Technology creates knowledge inscrutable except to the specialist at ever-increasing rate. Change is speeding up. Our minds are not.

So the first points of meta-analysis are:

  • Inevitably, there are things in Bamford’s article that he does not understand.
  • The lack of understanding is disguised, probably unintentionally, by adherence to the habits of thought acquired in two activities. One of these is law school, which promotes rigor according to the frameworks of common law and statutory law.
  • The other activity is investigative journalism and documentary, with its own ethos. Dig. Dig with a shovel if you have one, with your hands if you don’t. Don’t stay within your intellectual comfort zone.
  • All documentaries have points of view. They are deliberately tendentious. If they are viewed with critical faculty, it’s good. If swallowed whole, it’s bad.

Quoting Bamford’s article,

On October 7, Clapper issued a statement: “The U.S. Intelligence community is confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations.” Notably, however, the FBI declined to join the chorus, according to reports by the New York Times and CNBC.

We now have three points of view, DNI (the intelligence community), FBI (legal), and Bamford’s which is investigative. Now we can do a little triangulation.

The FBI has a very good record with cases brought and convictions resulting. To the FBI, a case that does not result in conviction is an error, damaging to their reputation. This results from a fine appreciation of the elements that result in conviction:

  • An impeccable chain of evidence.
  • An understanding of how “beyond reasonable doubt” plays out in the minds of the judge and jury.
  • The interaction of English common law, the living tradition of law, with the above.

Distilled to the  essence,  the FBI’s demurral results from the unfamiliarity of the legal system with profiling tools. Every new form of evidence becomes accepted by common law by first use and expert testimony. Fingerprints entered the canon on December 21, 1911. Colin Pitchfork was convicted of murder via DNA evidence in 1987.

Since the NSA’s profiling tools have not been inducted into common law by expert testimony at trial with resulting conviction, they cannot be used to bring a case in the U.S. legal system. And to put these tools, in all their individuality, under the public microscope of the courts, would be to lose them.

The rest of the article has the clarity of a window soaped on Mischief Night. It portrays something one might call the overall picture, with the insinuation that it is more important than the NSA’s profiling tools. The picture is portrayed as murky, confusing, contradictory, and uncertain.

It results from the mindset of human-oriented investigative journalism. Abuses of power, in law enforcement and politics, tend to have broad patterns,  miniature cultures, that muckraking can break wide open. It’s one of the most important traditions of the free world.  But it can’t uncover the games of dueling mathematicians/hackers.

It’s well written, entertaining, and inspires suspicion, in this case, of the critical judgment of authority figures. It’s the tendentious persuasion of the documentarian. It’s  digging, mainly with the hands.

The reader has a difficult choice of conclusions. One is James Clapper’s statement on October 7 of Russian culpability,  based on secret technology:

“The U.S. Intelligence community is confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations.”

The other choice is Bamford’s scooping, palm by palm, forming a qualitative picture, heaping it by the side of the FBI demurral. This is conflation, the commingling of different types of reasoning. The demurral of the FBI, rooted in our legal system, has nothing to do with Bamford’s qualitative picture.

Bamford’s article has a headline question. In his attempt to suggest an answer, he paints a soapy window picture, with a suggested interpretation. Declining to accept, we’ve dissected the logic of the article. Let’s ask another question: Why did he write it?

  • Bamford has figured importantly in the national debate about surveillance. I would expect his articles on the subject to be of high quality.
  • His mindset is a combination of the legal and the  human-oriented, derived from the traditional tools of the political muckraker.
  • His  title question is the Question of the Moment. But in proper consideration, Russian culpability is a completely technical question. Would you be interested in Bamford’s opinion as to why the SpaceX rocket blew up?
  • The article inspires fear of rash action, which does a disservice to our (current) leadership. Have you noticed the Obama administration overreacting to anything?

The conclusion is that Bamford wanted to write another article. Every writer has the urge to publish. He recycled his tools, attitudes, and frameworks to attack a problem just outside his domain of expertise. He is  well attuned to the political process, but not to the guts of cyber warfare.

This is not a good article. I look forward to Bamford’s future contributions on the politics of surveillance, when he does his best work.