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The two sisters from the Our Lady of Angels convent had driven down from Pennsylvania with a message for their Congressman: Say no to Star Wars. It was proving a tough sell.

A baccalaureate should be an occasion to celebrate the present and express optimism about the future, but I must come to you today with very bad news about Russia, my subject of study, and therefore with great alarm about the future. If America's post-cold war triumphalism has led you to believe we are now safer than we were before, I recommend an adage Russians use only partly in jest: "An optimist is an uninformed pessimist."

The bad news is this: Because of what has happened in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union ten years ago, you are graduating into a world more dangerous than ever before. For the first time in history, a fully nuclearized nation is in a process of collapse. The result is potentially catastrophic.

Most of Russia's essential infrastructures--economic, social, technological--are in various stages of disintegration. The state is virtually bankrupt, unable to reinvest in those foundations or even regularly pay the wages and pensions of its own people. The country has been asset-stripped, impoverished and left on the verge of a "demographic apocalypse," as a Moscow newspaper recently termed it. Technology is breaking down everywhere, from electricity and heating to satellites.

In these and other ways, Russia has been plunging back into the nineteenth century. And, as a result, it has entered the twenty-first century with its twentieth-century systems of nuclear maintenance and control also in a state of disintegration.

What does this mean? No one knows fully because nothing like this has ever happened before in a nuclear country. But one thing is certain: Because of it, we now live in a nuclear era much less secure than was the case even during the long cold war. Indeed, there are at least four grave nuclear threats in Russia today:

§ There is, of course, the threat of proliferation, the only one generally acknowledged by our politicians and media--the danger that Russia's vast stores of nuclear material and know-how will fall into reckless hands.

§ But, second, scores of ill-maintained Russian reactors on land and on decommissioned submarines--with the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons--are explosions waiting to happen.

§ Third, also for the first time in history, there is a civil war in a nuclear land--in the Russian territory of Chechnya, where fanatics on both sides have threatened to resort to nuclear warfare.

§ And most immediate and potentially catastrophic, there is Russia's decrepit early-warning system. It is supposed to alert Moscow if US nuclear missiles have been launched at Russia, enabling the Kremlin to retaliate immediately with its own warheads, which like ours remain even today on hairtrigger alert. The leadership has perhaps ten to twenty minutes to evaluate the information and make a decision. That doomsday warning system has nearly collapsed--in May, a fire rendered inoperable four more of its already depleted satellite components--and become a form of Russian nuclear roulette, a constant danger of false alarms and accidental launches against the United States.

How serious are these threats? In the lifetime of this graduating class, the bell has already tolled at least four times. In 1983 a Soviet Russian satellite mistook the sun's reflection on a cloud for an incoming US missile. A massive retaliatory launch was only barely averted. In 1986 the worst nuclear reactor explosion in history occurred at the Soviet power station at Chernobyl. In 1995 Russia's early-warning system mistook a Norwegian research rocket for an American missile, and again a nuclear attack on the United States was narrowly averted. And just last summer, Russia's most modern nuclear submarine, the Kursk, exploded at sea.

Think of these tollings as chimes on a clock of nuclear catastrophe ticking inside Russia. We do not know what time it is. It may be only dawn or noon. But it may already be dusk or almost midnight.

The only way to stop that clock is for Washington and Moscow to acknowledge their overriding mutual security priority and cooperate fully in restoring Russia's economic and nuclear infrastructures, most urgently its early-warning system. Meanwhile, all warheads on both sides have to be taken off high-alert, providing days instead of minutes to verify false alarms. And absolutely nothing must be done to cause Moscow to rely more heavily than it already does on its fragile nuclear controls.

These solutions seem very far from today's political possibilities. US-Russian relations are worse than they have been since the mid-1980s. The Bush Administration is threatening to expand NATO to Russia's borders and to abrogate existing strategic arms agreements by creating a forbidden missile defense system. Moscow threatens to build more nuclear weapons in response.

Hope lies in recognizing that there are always alternatives in history and politics--roads taken and not taken. Little more than a decade ago, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, along with President Ronald Reagan and the first President George Bush, took a historic road toward ending the forty-year cold war and reducing the nuclear dangers it left behind. But their successors, in Washington and Moscow, have taken different roads, ones now littered with missed opportunities.

If the current generation of leaders turns out to lack the wisdom or courage, and if there is still time, it may fall to your generation to choose the right road. Such leaders, or people to inform their vision and rally public support, may even be in this graduating class.

Whatever the case, when the bell warning of impending nuclear catastrophe tolls again in Russia, as it will, know that it is tolling for you, too. And ask yourselves in the determined words attributed to Gorbachev, which remarkably echoed the Jewish philosopher Hillel, "If not now, when? If not us, who?"

The bombing of a Tel Aviv disco, in which twenty Israelis, many of them teenagers, were killed, was an atrocity of such horror that it seemed to shock both sides into taking steps toward installing a very tentative, precarious cease-fire. In the aftermath Secretary of State Colin Powell ritually urged Yasir Arafat to "take every action necessary to bring those responsible to justice" and continued to defend the Administration's refusal to become directly involved. This posture (barely modified by the dispatch of George Tenet to the region in response to growing international pressure) betrays an ongoing, willful and dangerous blindness to the consequences of US actions and inaction.

As events accelerated to what Powell called "the edge of a very deep hole," Secretary Powell has seemed almost eerily disengaged, intoning with bureaucratic punctilio when asked if he had requested Prime Minister Ariel Sharon not to retaliate, "I have not given that direct comment to the Israeli government." After telling Sharon a month ago to pull his troops out of their brief reoccupation of a sliver of Gaza, he ducked behind Bush's campaign-rhetoric Mideast policy of "Clinton not"--hands off until conditions ripen on their own to create a greater likelihood of an Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement. Yet it is Sharon--whose ruthlessness has been well demonstrated and who is a champion of the Israeli expansionism that's at the root of the Palestinian despair that drives more desperate acts--who should be curbed from using the senseless bombing as a pretext for drastic military reprisal intended to wipe out the Palestinian Authority's institutions.

And so, with no moral leadership being voiced by officials of either party in Washington and a press that is locked in a pro-Israel tilt, the American public casts a plague on both houses.

Of course, the image of the United States as a low-profile "honest broker" is false. The Bush Administration has been following the Clinton Administration's blindly pro-Israel policy since it took office. Last month, it failed to raise the issue of Sharon's deployment of American-made F-16s in a retaliatory strike. In January it increased military aid to Israel; in February it cleared the way for the sale of nine Apache attack helicopters to Israel; in March, it vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for an unarmed observer force.

What the Administration should be talking about is a new policy: putting pressure on Israel, not just the Palestinians. That could mean suspending military help or at least threatening to withhold the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid that goes indirectly into supporting and expanding the settlements. (Bush Senior issued such a threat, and the pressure helped move then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to the negotiating table.) It should be calling not only for Palestinians to clamp down on terrorist operations but for Israel's adoption of the Mitchell report's proposed freeze on settlements, including no more expansion to accommodate "natural" growth of population, and withdrawal of its troops to pre-September 28, 2000, positions.

Ultimately, US policy must be predicated on the goal of creating a viable, contiguous Palestinian state and, to that end, the abandonment of all the Israeli settlements. This is the only solution that can insure Israel's security as well as the Palestinians' right to self-determination. As Richard Falk, a member of the Nation's editorial board who traveled to the region with a UN mission in February, recently revealed, conditions in the Palestinian territories have badly deteriorated. The mission found that Israeli policies of settlement expansion and bypass roads, destruction of Palestinian houses, commandeering of their land and water, random assassinations of their leadership and denial of access to education, jobs and healthcare have become intolerable. The mission concluded that Israel's use of force against the intifada has been excessive and that its conduct as occupying power and its callous treatment of Palestinian refugees have entailed numerous violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The mission called for an international protective presence in the territories, along with implementation of longstanding UN resolutions and the Geneva Convention.

If these things are not done, and if the Palestinians fail to see that terrorism is not just immoral but increasingly counterproductive, the consequences will be deeper immiseration of the Palestinians and demoralization of Israeli society. Americans should demand action by their government to halt a growing tragedy.

Policies are more confused than at any time since the weapons were invented.

What sticks in my mind more than any particular accomplishment of the supersecret National Security Agency is its mammoth size. Only a few miles from my home, I now know, exists a secret Orwellian town where tens of thousands of people live and work. It is surrounded by barbed-wire fences, massive boulders and thick cement barriers, all hidden by tall earthen berms and thick forests. Armed police patrol the boundaries of Crypto City, as this restricted area near the sleepy hamlet of Annapolis Junction, Maryland, is called. Telephoto surveillance cameras peer down. Heavily armed commandos dressed in black and wearing special headgear are on standby in case of trouble.

Beyond lies a forbidden city unlike any other on earth. Its main business is global eavesdropping; its mission is to obtain secrets about foreign enemies and friends alike, and to identify terrorist threats, drug trades, illegal arms sales and so on, all by intercepting voice, phone and radio communications. Using math, cryptology, statistical and other techniques, the NSA can break any code or cipher. The raw material is collected by its spyplanes, ships, satellites and through various other technical means, then is processed by the largest, most powerful electronic brain on earth.

More exact details of this forbidden city remain secret. County officials say they have no idea how many people work there, and no one will tell them. But James Bamford, in his Body of Secrets, offers some clues. The city's post office distributes 70,000 pieces of mail a day; there are more than 37,000 cars registered there. The local police have more than 700 uniformed officers and their own SWAT team. The city's consumption of electricity--to power six acres of computers, twenty-five tons of air-conditioning equipment and more than a half-million lightbulbs--costs nearly $2 million per month. In case of power outages, its own power-generating plant can quickly produce enough wattage for a community of more than 3,500 homes. It has its own fire department as well as twenty-three separate alarm systems and 402 miles of sprinklers, feeding 210,000 sprinkler heads. There are theaters, a bank, kindergartens, fitness centers, gas stations, clubs (even its own Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual Employees--"GLOBE"--club). Religious services are held in an unbuggable room, where priest and minister have security clearance far above Top Secret.

At the heart of this community is the NSA headquarters; with 3 million square feet of floor space, it could accommodate the entire US Capitol building four times over. The headquarters building almost metaphorically represents the NSA as well: From the outside, it looks like a stylish modern office building of dark one-way glass. But the real building is hidden under this reflective glass and is protected by a skin of orange-colored copper and unique windows--a thick outer pane, five inches of sound-deadening space, a thin copper screen and an inner pane. The protective shielding is designed to keep all sounds--and indeed any type of electromagnetic radiation--from getting out. It is used throughout much of the city to keep what is said to be the largest body of secrets ever compiled.

Created at the height of the cold war, the NSA was to be the eyes and ears of the Central Intelligence Agency after the Communists drew an impenetrable "iron curtain" around their borders and effectively put human spies out of action. Its very existence has been so highly classified that few people outside the top echelons of government knew much about it. Until, that is, Bamford's first book, The Puzzle Palace, was published in 1982.

Body of Secrets is more than an update of Bamford's previous effort. It includes an engaging and informed history of signals intelligence during World War II, chronicling the breaking of Japan's ciphers and Britain's success in cracking Germany's code. After the war's end, the United States insisted on hosting the opening session of the United Nations in San Francisco to enable it to "eavesdrop on its guests," Bamford says. "Like cheats in a poker game they [the Americans] were peeking at their opponents' hands." For a few years after 1945, the United States also read encrypted Soviet communications. But one Friday in 1948--it is still known as Black Friday among intelligence watchers--all Soviet ciphers went dark. Just as the Americans had successfully penetrated secret Soviet networks, so the Russians had penetrated the Army Security Agency. After that, Washington apparently knew little about Communist intentions. In 1950, when the North Koreans invaded the South, Washington was caught by surprise. Ditto on China's entry into the war. With the Russians having just exploded a hydrogen bomb, the situation was getting more perilous. The loss of effective intelligence work prompted the Director of Central Intelligence, Walter Bedell Smith, to tell the National Security Council that he was "gravely concerned" by "ineffective" intelligence operations. President Truman, on Election Day 1952, scrapped the Pentagon-run operation and created in its place a new agency to be largely hidden from Congress, the public and the world.

Bamford, an accomplished journalist, weaves a narrative about the NSA that includes sympathetic portraits of key players and detailed accounts of such highly publicized events as the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War and the capture of the spy ship Pueblo by North Korea. There are many heretofore undisclosed tidbits of information. President Eisenhower, for example, was personally micromanaging each U-2 high-altitude surveillance flight over Russia but refused to admit it after Francis Gary Powers was shot down in 1960. Further, Eisenhower instructed his Cabinet officers to lie about it while testifying under oath. The famous Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which officially plunged the United States into the Vietnam War, was passed by Congress on the strength of Robert McNamara's "unequivocal proof" of a North Vietnamese attack on a US ship; that "unequivocal proof" turned out to be a "major blunder by NSA, and the 'hard evidence' on which many [in Congress] based their votes for the war never really existed."

Beyond this there is Bamford's somewhat speculative account of an Israeli assault on the US spy ship Liberty during the 1967 Middle East war. Bamford argues that it was a coldblooded action by Israel but offers no evidence of the culpability of the Israeli political leadership. The attack may well have been sanctioned by an Israeli military commander, but it is hard to imagine the top Israeli politicians signing off on such a risky venture, which carried enormous potential dangers for their state.

The NSA is only one component of the US intelligence community, and for a good deal of its existence it has been subservient to the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Its business was to collect raw information that was then analyzed by other agencies. The Director of Central Intelligence--head of the CIA--supervised the whole process. All along there has been, to be sure, a good deal of institutional and bureaucratic rivalry among the agencies, which is presented by Bamford in readable and dramatic fashion. Underlying these rivalries is a doctrinal issue: the conflict between old-fashioned, cloak-and-dagger human intelligence (humint) versus high-tech signals intelligence (sigint). The NSA, which spends the lion's share of the $30 billion annual intelligence budget, reflects America's predilection for gadgetry and high tech.

If there is a serious shortcoming in this massive book, it is the failure to provide a critical assessment of the mission for which the NSA was founded: to provide Washington with accurate information on the political, military and economic state of the Soviet Union. For most of the second half of the twentieth century, the NSA had one singular objective: "to break the stubborn Russian cipher system and eavesdrop on that nation's most secret communications," Bamford writes. But there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the NSA ever cracked a single high-level Russian cipher system. That being the case, what are the nation's most precious secrets that Bamford keeps mentioning are held in a fantastic system capable of storing 5 trillion pages of text--a stack of papers 150 miles high--allowing for almost instant retrieval of any piece of information? What is there to be retrieved?

Not much, I suspect. From personal experience I know that whenever the NSA did successfully accomplish something--it managed to decrypt Russian voice communications in the early 1970s and for a long time eavesdropped on the phone conversations of Soviet leaders talking in their limousines--word of its success filtered out. Washington, apart from its almost bottomless appetite for "intelligence," is also a town where anything worth knowing is quickly disclosed by gossiping officials eager to show that they are in the loop. One such official told me in early 1973 about a car accident involving Soviet Premier, Alexei Kosygin. He knew exactly when it happened and where, but nothing more. As a young reporter, I rushed breathlessly to my office, already envisioning it on the front page of the Post the next morning. I had no idea how this information had been obtained; now I know that we would have blown an important intelligence operation had we published the story. But executive editor Ben Bradlee knew it was sensitive enough to require consultations with the Post's legal counsel Joseph Califano and Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms. After protracted haggling the story was scrapped, but not because of Helms's talk about dire consequences: Only if Kosygin was hurt and a leadership change was imminent, Bradlee said, would he run the story.

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, US intelligence stood accused of having failed in its primary mission. Since few people knew much about the NSA, blame naturally fell on the CIA; critics said it had overestimated the Soviet military threat and not foreseen the economic and political demise of our prime adversary. Stansfield Turner, Director of Central Intelligence from 1977 to 1981, talked about the "enormity of failure" in a 1991 article in Foreign Affairs, in which he alleged that "I have never heard a suggestion from the CIA, or the intelligence arms of the departments of defense or state, that numerous Soviets recognized a growing systemic economic problem." William Odom, NSA director from 1985 to 1988, argued in 1994 that the CIA was superfluous and should be disbanded. "The only serious issue here is whether you want to continue to pay all these people.... I consider...their analytical effort a welfare transfer package," he stated at the Harvard Intelligence and Policy Project, conducted by professors Ernest May and Philip Zelikow.

How did US policy-makers get into such a state of ignorance? Solid though the product of an intelligence service may be, it is only as good as the uses to which it is put. Governments--all governments--gather, conceal, suppress and manipulate "intelligence." American leaders have frequently done so to serve their political objectives. Richard Nixon, under the rubric of "national security," tried to use the intelligence community to hide his involvement in the Watergate scandal; he also used the NSA to secretly target antiwar protesters. In the late 1970s Congress outlawed wholesale, warrantless acquisition of raw telegrams and arbitrary watch lists containing the names of Americans, but the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act did not cover Americans living abroad.

The product, by the late 1970s, was no longer solid. Internal bureaucratic struggles consumed the community. Once an unwanted stepchild of the CIA--the NSA director was initially denied a seat on the Intelligence Advisory Committee--the NSA had in fact grown large and powerful. Its original mandate was to collect intelligence, not analyze it, but by the late 1970s the NSA began hoarding its information. The material it distributed was sanitized, according to then-Director of Central Intelligence Turner, who charged it with "deliberate withholding of raw information from the true analytic agencies. NSA wants to get credit for the scoop."

Under Ronald Reagan, arguably the most zealous cold war President, the intelligence community regained its footing to become once again the chief tool of US foreign policy. Its anti-Soviet activism led to the criminal excesses of the Iran/contra scandal. The chief strategist of malfeasance was William Casey, the first Director of Central Intelligence to be a member of the Cabinet as well. Casey chose as his deputy Robert Gates, a hard-line anti-Soviet analyst. Odom was their soulmate, "an arch-conservative military hard-liner" who wanted the NSA to assume a greater analytical role.

Throughout the 1980s the intelligence community provided Congress and the public with exaggerated accounts of Soviet military and economic prowess. The slick annual Pentagon review called "Soviet Military Power" showed the Russians developing and deploying ever-more dangerous weaponry. America was facing a "window of vulnerability"--a time when the Soviet Union, an indestructible colossus, could start a nuclear war. Paul Nitze and his Committee on the Present Danger speculated that the Russians could win such a war, owing to their extensive civil defense network and capacity to absorb a US retaliatory strike but deliver the final nuclear blow. As late as October 1988, top CIA analyst Robert Gates warned that "the dictatorship of the Communist Party remains untouched and untouchable. A long competitive struggle with the Soviet Union lies before us." When the Senate intelligence panel asked Gates earlier what the intelligence community was doing to prepare American policy-makers for the consequences of Gorbachev's reforms, Gates replied: "Quite frankly, without any hint that such fundamental change is going on, my resources do not permit me the luxury of sort of just idly speculating on what a different Soviet Union might look like."

Yet we all know that in 1989 the Soviet empire was dismantled; in 1991 the Soviet Union itself collapsed, and American leaders were clueless. What went wrong?

Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz, who says in his memoirs that he was "misled, lied to" by the CIA, reveals that Casey had effectively usurped the prerogatives of the Secretary of State and had run an alternative foreign policy. Casey could do so because he controlled the analytical process, the estimates, covert action and counterintelligence. Casey's views, Shultz writes, "were so strong and so ideological that they inevitably colored his selection and assessments of materials. I could not rely on what he said, nor could I accept without question the objectivity of 'intelligence' that he put out, especially in policy sensitive areas."

Gorbachev was initially described as "just talk, just another Soviet attempt to deceive us," Shultz says. "When it became evident that the Soviet Union was, in fact, changing, the CIA line was that the changes wouldn't really make a difference."

Casey and Gates systematically ignored their own specialists and overstated the "evidence" of Soviet arms procurement programs, and the state of the Soviet economy in general, to buttress their argument. Douglas MacEachin, director of the CIA's Office of Soviet Analysis from 1984 to 1989, has testified that the pattern of self-deception was promoted by an Administration eager to rebuild US military power. The intelligence community aided the effort by inflating projections of Soviet military strength.

"Never mind that the Soviet Union never in ten years, from the late 1970s through the entire 1980s, ever lived up to the projections that were made," MacEachin said. "We projected these huge forces, then used those projections as a rationale for our [military] spending, and they never lived up to those projections." Richard Kerr, deputy director for intelligence, took a memo to that effect from MacEachin before the National Foreign Intelligence Board--but it wasn't mentioned, even as a footnote, in the final documents.

The problem here was not one of honest people with strong views having honest disagreements. Rather, it was a blatant politicization of intelligence. Hawks were in charge; those who disagreed were singled out for being "soft" on communism. Robert Blackwell, a high-level CIA official, talked of palpable tension at Langley. "Whether anything was being twisted or reordered upstairs or not, people felt that they were under extra burdens to somehow be very careful about how things were said." MacEachin said the Reagan Administration "thought of us as the enemy." The implication was, he added, "that part of the national threat was that the CIA undercut our ability to rebuild our national forces."

MacEachin's successor, George Kolt, had set up in September 1989 a supersecret contingency planning group "looking at the possibility of the collapse of the Soviet Union and what we do." This was rejected by the higher-ups, however. Robert Gates's views on Russia had not changed. A month before the collapse of the Berlin wall, Vice President Dan Quayle publicly referred to Gorbachev as a "master of public relations" and called perestroika a "form of Leninism."

Gates was consistent to the end. When on August 19, 1991, Kremlin hard-liners mounted a coup attempt against Gorbachev, Kolt called President Bush's National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, saying the coup might not succeed and implicitly suggesting that the White House condemn the coup leaders. Gates saw no reason to hope the coup would fail, and President Bush's initial pronouncements were noncommittal. As Gates explained later, "Based on all prior experience in Russian and Soviet history, when you know at the outset that you've got the KGB and the army and the party all together in a coup attempt, the chances of it not succeeding...are near zero."

Something is obviously wrong with what Bamford calls the largest, best-funded, and "most advanced spy organization on the planet." The entire intelligence community has grown lazy and fat over the years. In the case of the NSA, there is a cozy relationship between it and parts of private industry: Former top NSA officials often end up working for TRW, Honeywell, E-Systems or Booz-Allen & Hamilton. Eavesdropping equipment alone is a $2 billion-a-year market.

Is our money being spent wisely? A former intelligence analyst, Robert Steel, who now runs a private intelligence firm called Open Source Solutions, recently demonstrated to the Presidential Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board that he could produce more usable information more quickly by using open sources and the Internet than the intelligence community could get from its secret work (his demonstration included satellite photography and military orders of battle).

I'm not suggesting outsourcing here. But what is the point of having a powerful spy agency in the sky--eavesdropping on friend and foe alike--when we are caught by surprise by India's nuclear tests in 1998? Or when, as during the Gulf War, we are unable to locate Saddam Hussein's Scuds?

Not so long ago, the United States declared war on terrorism. Yet there are only two references to Osama bin Laden in this book (one of them being that the NSA, "to impress cleared visitors," occasionally plays audiotapes of bin Laden talking to his mom), and other well-known groups suspected of international terrorism are not even mentioned. Perhaps there is a great deal of information about them in 50-100 million documents that the NSA classifies each year--more than all other agencies of the US government combined. But I wonder who reads these documents and evaluates their content. As someone who is bilingual, I seriously question the quality of work of the NSA computers said to translate up to 750 pages of Russian text per hour. NSA language training itself sounds pretty skimpy: Chinese and Japanese take "two years," Bamford reports, but this reads as more than presumptuous to anyone even remotely familiar with Chinese (a literate Chinese uses between 20,000 and 40,000 individual characters, which take many years to learn). Michael Hayden, the current NSA director, does assure us that "There is a whole other addition there [in training] to turn someone who has working knowledge of the popular language into a cryptolingist." Good Lord! Is Hayden kidding us or does he believe this? I hope it is the former.

"That NSA has the technical capability to intercept and store enough information to wallpaper much of the planet is unquestionable," Bamford writes. "What is in doubt, however, is the agency's ability to make sense of most of it."

In the acknowledgments to Body of Secrets, Hayden is the first person on the author's list of thank-yous. Which is an important clue. The NSA is an agency in search of a new mission. Some of its work remains invaluable, especially tactical intelligence needed by the Pentagon. But sigint now has far less strategic value. Moreover, digital communications, fiber-optic cables and powerful encryption software make it nearly impossible for the NSA to dominate the ether the way it did a decade ago. There is also a growing realization in Congress that something is wrong. In 1998 the House Intelligence Committee threatened to withhold funding unless the agency made "very large changes" in its "culture and methods of operation." For several years auditors found that the NSA had ignored laws and regulations, that its financial statements were not in order and that it had mismanaged its expensive high-tech systems. Hayden's attempt at candor may be a way to rally support.

Judging by the book's last chapter, NSA leaders hope that new scientific breakthroughs--fabricating computing devices out of biological entities, using biological processes to manufacture nonbiological devices--will solve their problems. The computer of the future, we are told, is going to be constructed from both mechanical and living parts. It will be 100 billion times faster than the fastest PC today. What that means when it comes to problems of terrorism, international organized crime, arms proliferation, narcotics trafficking, illicit trade and such issues is a mystery.

Just think, though, how impressive it will be!

For ten days in mid-May, I lectured in Italy promoting the translated version of my recent book, The Story of American Freedom. Among other things, the book relates how in the past generation US conservatives have "captured" the idea of freedom, identifying it ever more closely with low taxes, limited government and the ability to choose among a cornucopia of goods in an unregulated global marketplace. Little did I anticipate that on the day I arrived, Silvio Berlusconi's coalition of right-wing parties, calling itself La Casa delle Libert (the House of Freedoms), would triumph in Italy's national elections.

Berlusconi's victory was good for me in that it inspired a flurry of interest in the history of the idea of freedom and larger-than-expected audiences for my talks. But it is very bad for Italy. Berlusconi is one of Europe's richest men, with a history of corruption, conflicts of interest and alliance with some of the most retrograde elements in Italian life. For the first time since World War II the country's governing coalition will include parties that consider themselves the heirs of Fascism. But to Americans, what may be most striking is how his campaign's program, tactics and imagery were consciously borrowed from this side of the Atlantic.

Like Ronald Reagan, Berlusconi described himself as a "great communicator" and promised to "revolutionize" Italy by liberating the power of free enterprise. Like Newt Gingrich, he announced with much fanfare a Contract With Italians, which boiled down his campaign to a few simple points, including tax cuts, privatizing state enterprises and law and order (a thinly veiled appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment). And like George W. Bush, he portrayed himself as a compassionate conservative. Berlusconi's contract, unlike Gingrich's, promised to raise state pensions and combat unemployment through highway construction and other public works.

Berlusconi "Americanized" Italian politics in other ways as well. He poured his personal fortune into the campaign, outspending the incumbent center-left Olive Tree coalition ten to one. He mailed a brief autobiography to every family in Italy (some 12 million copies in all). Titled An Italian Story, it was a quintessentially American rags-to-riches tale. Every Italian, he insisted, could follow in his footsteps; his wealth should be an inspiration to others, not a source of concern. But more than specific programs and electoral tactics, Berlusconi brought to Italy the moral-political outlook of American populist conservatism, something quite different from the traditional European right oriented toward state, church and social hierarchy. Like Reagan, Berlusconi rooted his appeal in broadly shared images and values derived from the mass media and consumer capitalism.

It is significant that Berlusconi's wealth rests in large part on ownership of television networks, shopping malls and a major soccer team. For his is a politics that identifies freedom with the private realm of personal wish fulfillment without any sense of public participation or collective empowerment. Far better than his opponents, Berlusconi understands the political dynamics of a society knit together not by traditional organizations like unions and churches rooted in local communities but the dream world of mass culture and mass consumption.

If the Italian right has emulated America, the left in this country might well learn from the problems of its Italian counterpart. Since the end of the cold war, the European left has been almost obsessively concerned to demonstrate its legitimacy and respectability. It has become suspicious of idealism of any kind, considering it naïve, old-fashioned and politically dangerous. In response to Berlusconi's utopia of private freedom, the Olive Tree coalition offered little more than an image of competent, corruption-free administration. The left's aura of managerial competence appealed to middle-class voters in Italy's prosperous northwest, and the Olive Tree did well in the old (and aging) communist strongholds of central Italy. But Berlusconi swept the less economically developed south and did especially well among young voters, who found his vision of a new, privatized Italy more appealing than the left's promise of good government. Young Berlusconi supporters interviewed by the newspaper La Repubblica described the left as old, even "geriatric," and Berlusconi as young and dynamic. "He's one of us," declared an unemployed youth, of Italy's richest man.

As in the United States, the defeated coalition has directed much recrimination toward a small group of independent voters, in this case the Refounded Communists, which remained outside the Olive Tree umbrella and whose 5 percent of the vote exceeded Berlusconi's margin of victory. But in both countries, it is far easier to blame a tiny cadre of voters for the defeat than to look candidly at the weaknesses of campaigns characterized by an absence of courage, vision and idealism or to think creatively about how to regain the political initiative. A good place to start would be to try to recapture the language of freedom--linking it, as it has been in the past, with ideals of participatory democracy, social justice and the willingness to combat the depredations of the unregulated capitalist market. The idea of freedom is too important to be surrendered to the Berlusconis of the world.

Thefts from other countries pale in relation to the looting of Russia, with
the indispensable assistance of the "Offshornaya Zona." The 1995 "loans for
shares" scheme transferred state ownership of privatized industries worth
billions of dollars to companies whose offshore registrations hid true owners.
More billions were stolen around the time of the August 1998 crash.

Insider banks knew about the coming devaluation and shipped billions in
assets as "loans" to offshore companies. The banks' statements show that their
loan portfolios grew after the date when they got loans from the Russian
Central Bank, which were supposed to stave off default. After the crash, it was
revealed that the top borrowers in all the big bankrupt banks were offshore.
For example, the five largest creditors of Rossiisky Credit were shell
companies registered in Nauru and in the Caribbean. As the debtors' ownerships
were secret, they could easily "disappear." Stuck with "uncollectable" loans
and "no assets," the banks announced their own bankruptcies. Swiss officials
are investigating leads that some of the $4.8 billion International Monetary
Fund tranche to Russia was moved by banks to accounts offshore before the 1998
crash.

The biggest current scam is being effected by a secretly owned Russian
company called Itera, which is using offshore shells in Curaçao and
elsewhere to gobble up the assets of Gazprom, the national gas company, which
is 38 percent owned by the government. Itera's owners are widely believed to be
Gazprom managers, their relatives and Viktor Chernomyrdin, former chairman of
Gazprom's board of directors and prime minister during much of the
privatization. Gazprom, which projected nearly $16 billion in revenues for
2000, uses Itera as its marketing agent and has been selling it gas fields at
cut-rate prices. Its 1999 annual report did not account for sales of 13 percent
of production. As its taxes supply a quarter of government revenues, this is a
devastating loss. Itera has a Florida office, which has been used to register
other Florida companies, making it a vehicle for investment in the US economy.

On April 26, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin announced the creation of a memorial for the soldiers who died during France's bloody war against the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), which ended in humiliating defeat and the loss of the empire's most prized possession. It was among the most savage of colonial wars: Of the 1.7 million French soldiers who served in Algeria from 1954 to 1962, 30,000 never returned; between 300,000 and a million Algerians were killed, and hundreds of thousands were placed in concentration camps, where torture was routine. Until two years ago, when it finally acknowledged having fought a war in Algeria, the French government referred to the conflict as les événements--the events.

In case there were any doubts as to what these young men died defending, there was Paul Aussaresses, an 83-year-old general wearing an eye patch and the cross of the Legion of Honor. In an interview with Le Monde last November, Aussaresses confessed, without a note of remorse, to torturing and executing Algerian militants. Even so, no one, certainly not Jospin, was prepared for the incendiary memoir that Aussaresses was to publish ten days later.

The book, Special Services, Algeria 1955-1957, has riveted the French, stirring long-suppressed memories of the "war without a name" and generating calls for an official declaration of repentance and judicial action against its author. It is a remarkable document, both for what it reveals of France's crimes in Algeria and for what it reveals of the miscarriage of justice that took place after the war.

When Aussaresses arrived in Algeria in 1955, he was a hero, having carried out a series of daring intelligence missions across enemy lines for de Gaulle's Free French forces. In Algeria, he quickly acquired a mastery of the very tactics that he had feared would be applied to him had he been caught by the Gestapo. Electrodes to the eyes and testicles, half-drownings, beatings--he stopped at nothing in his efforts to get his suspects to crack. After torturing and killing his first Arab, he writes with a disturbing detachment that calls to mind Camus's Mersault: "I thought of nothing. I had no regrets over his death--if I had any regrets, it was because he did not talk."

Aussaresses's book sheds light on some of the most important unresolved mysteries of the war, notably the deaths of Larbi Ben M'Hidi, an FLN leader, and of Ali Boumendjel, a prominent Algerian attorney. The French have always maintained that both men committed suicide. In fact, Aussaresses meticulously arranged their deaths--and, one suspects, many others--to look as if they were suicides. Boumendjel, he reports, was thrown from a rooftop after having been tortured for forty-three days. Aussaresses drove Ben M'Hidi to a farm outside Algiers, where the prisoner was strangled to death.

The historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, an early opponent of the war, told Le Monde, "One must take this book for what it is, the memoirs of an assassin." True enough. But Aussaresses was not alone. He was no more a rogue agent than the Vichy collaborators Maurice Papon and René Bousquet were--or than Bob Kerrey and his men were in the jungle of Vietnam. Aussaresses is well aware of this fact. In torturing and executing suspects, he says he was simply employing the "special powers" that he had been granted in 1956 by the government of Socialist Prime Minister Guy Mollet, with the support of the Communist Party. According to Aussaresses, François Mitterrand, Mollet's justice minister, had "an emissary...in the person of the judge Jean Berard, who covered for us.... I had the best possible relationship with him and I never hid anything from him."

Aussaresses's book has inspired widespread revulsion; 56 percent of the French have expressed support for an official apology and legal action against officers who ordered torture. Prime Minister Jospin, who insists that torture was "an aberration," has firmly rejected the idea of a parliamentary inquiry, proposing further "scientific research" by historians. President Jacques Chirac, who served in Algeria and says he is "horrified" by the book, has initiated proceedings to strip the general of his uniform.

Unfortunately, nothing more is likely to come of the indignation roused by Aussaresses's book. There is a ten-year statute of limitations on war crimes in France, and the broader definition of "crimes against humanity" applies only to abuses committed since 1994. The generals of Algeria also enjoy the protection of amnesties granted in 1962 and 1968. In mid-May, a French court threw out a suit against Aussaresses for "crimes against humanity" by the International Federation for Human Rights. The general's actions, the court opined, are "in all likelihood covered by the amnesty of July 31, 1968." It will require extraordinary audacity for any French politician to challenge these legal obstacles. Meanwhile, Paul Aussaresses can talk about his crimes, which are also France's crimes, without fear of punishment. His freedom is a grim reminder that when nations fail to settle their accounts with torture, it is torturers who have the last laugh.

"Democracy without dividends." That's the phrase you're likely to hear from many Nigerians asked to assess the country's democratic experience under President Olusegun Obasanjo. Two years into civil democracy, Nigeria is once again an accepted member of the international community. But Obasanjo, who portrayed himself as a political messiah, has so far failed to redeem his promises to Nigerians of a better life.

When Obasanjo took the oath of office as Nigeria's elected President on May 29, 1999, after the country had endured fifteen years of adventurism and brigandage under military rule, it was regarded as a turning point in its political history. And indeed, there were many early positive developments. The media and the civil population regained their freedom, investor confidence was restored and international financial institutions like the IMF were willing to discuss the rescheduling of Nigeria's debt. The Obasanjo administration also won plaudits for passing an anticorruption act that prescribes stringent punishments for corrupt officeholders and for forcing the retirement of more than 120 military officers whose careers were judged to be tainted by politics. A government-sponsored panel investigated human rights violations during the period of military rule based on thousands of petitions, thereby achieving, to some extent, a national catharsis.

But more recent developments are far less encouraging. The economy remains nearly comatose, with imports accounting for more than 80 percent of manufactured goods consumed. The value of the national currency has gone from 100 to 135 naira to the dollar in the past four months. The collapse of the social infrastructure remains unaddressed, as do crime and the battered education system. The imposition of Sharia (Muslim law) in the northern states has upset many southerners and Christians.

Perhaps the biggest problems Obasanjo has failed to solve involve Nigeria's lifeline, oil. The conflict between the oil-producing communities of the Niger Delta and the oil multinationals has assumed the status of low-intensity warfare, with the government on the side of the oil giants. The government provides police protection for oil companies' installations and applies military force against protesting communities. Last year Obasanjo ordered an attack on Odi, a sleepy village with immense oil and gas reserves; the soldiers razed the entire village in order to put down an uprising. Recently the governors from the oil states demanded control of the resources in their domain, citing the Nigerian constitution. The international character of the struggle has intensified with a ruling in October by a US Circuit Court of Appeals that the Ogoni community could bring a class-action suit against Royal Dutch/Shell.

Gas lines--which briefly disappeared after the Obasanjo administration blocked some of the loopholes in the supply and distribution system, carried out refinery maintenance and embarked on a well-supervised massive importation of fuel--have returned. The country's three main refineries are near collapse, and the government no longer has enough funds to subsidize imported fuel. Ironically, the world's sixth-largest oil producer is unable to make fuel available to its people. Obasanjo has now decided to end government subsidies, which will mean price increases of 200 to 300 percent. That threatens to bring about a massive national strike and possible economic shutdown.

There are palpable fears that Obasanjo's seeming inability to find ways of resolving these problems may provide a justification for a military takeover. The past two years have witnessed worsening living conditions, and many Nigerians argue that it was never this bad, even under the military. Retired generals openly attack the government for its woeful performance, while forced retirements cause restlessness in the barracks. In April three service chiefs were suddenly retired based on intelligence reports questioning their loyalty. Meanwhile, agitation for a national conference to renegotiate Nigeria's federalism, to which the government is opposed, has won more converts. And opponents are already looking toward the next presidential election, in 2003.

Obasanjo must take bold and pragmatic actions toward resolving these seemingly intractable problems and bringing about genuine reconciliation among Nigeria's tribes if he is to avoid the risk that the country will disintegrate. Obasanjo understands this but is confronted by powerful forces. Recently while on a visit to the United States, he was asked to name the major achievement of his administration. After a deep breath, he answered, "Nigeria is still united." To force change, Obasanjo must stop dispensing patronage, send home the aged brigade of ministers recycled through several administrations and recruit young technocrats who better understand the nuances of the new economy. Corruption and inefficiency must be rooted out. Obasanjo must also involve Nigerians more in decision-making rather than acting unilaterally, as has been his practice. If he falters, the club of retired military officers, with their civilian collaborators, is prepared to seize any opportunity to take power.

Over the past two years, it has become commonplace to read that the casualties among Kosovo Albanians were not sufficiently high to warrant the NATO intervention that put an end--at some remove--to the rule of Slobodan Milosevic. Without saying so explicitly, many liberal and "left" types, and many conservatives and isolationists, have implied that the Kosovars did not suffer quite enough to deserve their deliverance. The dispute revolves around two things; the alleged massacre at Racak (which may or may not have been a firefight provoked by the Kosovo Liberation Army) and the relative emptiness of certain identifiable "mass grave" sites.

As to Racak, it might be argued that Western policy-makers seized too fast on the evidence of a Bosnian-style bloodbath, but--in view of what had been overlooked or tolerated for so long in Bosnia--it would be tough to argue that a "wait and see" policy would have been morally or politically superior. Wait for what? Wait to see what? And, since most of those who cast doubt on Racak were opposed on principle in any case to any intervention, as they had been in Bosnia, the force of their objection does not really depend on the body count, or on the issue of who shot first. For those of us who supported the intervention, with whatever misgivings, it was plain enough that Milosevic wanted the territory of Kosovo without the native population, and that a plan of mass expulsion, preceded by some exemplary killings, was in train. The level of casualties would depend on the extent of resistance that the execution of the plan would encounter.

The bulk of the European and American right had announced in advance that the cleansing of Kosovo by Milosevic was not a big enough deal to justify military action; this seems to remain their view. It was also, according to former NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark in his new memoir, the institutional view of the Pentagon. It would therefore have been the right's view, whatever happened or did not happen at Racak. It would presumably also have been their view even if the United Nations had passed a resolution authorizing the operation, over the entrenched objections of Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin. (The Genocide Convention, which mandates action by signatory powers whenever the destruction of a people in whole or in part is being committed, takes precedence in the view of some.)

So we'll never know if another Rwanda was prevented or not, since another Rwanda did not in fact take place. However, on the issue of the mass graves there is now, as a result of the implosion of the Milosevic regime, more forensic evidence to go on.

At the time of the war itself I received a letter from a Serbian student of mine, a political foe of Milosevic but by no means a NATO fan. He told me that his family in Serbia had a friend, a long-distance truck driver whom they trusted. This man had told them of entering Kosovo with his refrigerated vehicle, picking up Albanian corpses under military orders and driving them across the "Yugoslav" border as far as the formerly autonomous province of Voivodina, where they were hastily unloaded. He'd made several such runs. At the time, I decided not to publish this letter because although it appeared to be offered in good faith it also seemed somewhat weird and fanciful, and because rumors of exactly this sort do tend to circulate in times of war and censorship.

In early May of this year, the Belgrade daily newspaper Blic, now freed from the constraints of censorship, published a report about a freezer truck, loaded with Albanian cadavers and bearing Kosovo license plates, that had been pulled from the river Danube in April 1999. The location was the town of Kladovo, about 150 miles east of Belgrade. Local gravediggers told of being hastily mobilized to load the bodies onto another truck, and to keep their mouths shut. The man who found the truck, Zivojin Djordjevic, was interviewed on Belgrade Radio B92. "It was a Mercedes lorry--the name of the meat-processing company from Pec was written in Albanian on the cabin. The license plates were from Pec.... When the lorry was pulled out and the doors of the freezer opened, corpses started sliding out. There were many bodies of women, children and old people. Some women had Turkish trousers, some children and old people were naked."

To this macabre tale, identifiable people have put their names. The director of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, Natasha Kandic, has been collecting information about comparable incidents in the period between late March and mid-June 1999, with piles of corpses removed from cemeteries or graves in Kosovo and either reburied secretly or incinerated. This is not improvised wartime atrocity propaganda; it is the careful finding of patient human rights investigators after the fact.

One cannot yet say the same about another story, which concerns the mass burning of bodies in the blast furnaces of the Trepca steel plant. The eyewitnesses here are, so far, only a driver named "Branko" and a Serbian "special forces" officer named "Dusko." They suggest that, in that terrible spring, as many as 1,500 murdered Albanian civilians were fed into the mills and furnaces of the steel complex. It would be premature to credit such unconfirmed and lurid reports, even though investigators from the Hague tribunal have already spoken about evidence being destroyed at the nearby Trepca mines. And at first, I didn't quite believe the freezer-truck tale either.

In the relatively new atmosphere of post-Milosevic Serbia, the armed forces have charged some 183 soldiers for crimes committed in Kosovo. This might be part of an "isolated incident" strategy, or it might be the beginning of a real investigation. If the reports now in circulation prove to be true, it would mean (given the complicity of border guards, steelworks managers, traffic cops and cemetery authorities) there was a state design both to the original murders and the secret interments. Such a discovery would help constitute the emancipation of Serbia as well as of Kosovo. But it would owe very little to those who described the belated Western intervention as an exercise in imperialism based upon false reporting. We shall see.

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