Archive for December, 2010

Shock! NATO is secretly reviewing its plans to defend the Baltic states and Poland in the event of a war with Russia, a Wikileaked cable reveals. Interestingly enough, the details of this are already public – Gazeta Wyborcza published them on the 5th of November, appropriately enough, detailing that the NATO Response Force would be first in followed by up to 9 divisions from NATO states with the biggest contributions from the US, the UK, and Germany, using Gdynia and Swinoujscie as the main reinforcement ports and, of course, the NATO navies to clear the troops’ way across the seas. On the 11th of November (again, pretty damn appropriate) Jean-Dominique Merchet’s Secret Défense covered the story at its new home. All the leak really adds is that the planning exercise was in large part motivated by the need to get the new NATO members on side with the “reset” of US-Russia relations.

In my continuing fit of doom about Korea, this isn’t helping – a US Military Sealift Command reserve freighter full of Maritime Prepositioning System kit is practising offloading it all in a Korean port. Supposedly, when they’re finished they’ll put it all back aboard and sail away. If you believe that, though…

The MPS is the US military’s way of saving time shipping stuff around; they basically keep all the gear for an Army or Marine brigade packed in a ship somewhere strategic. Instant force, just add soldiers, who can come by air. This has a nasty logistics sound to it. Meanwhile, there is a real danger of war, says a Korean strategist from CSIS. Serious politicians are saying things like “reunification is drawing near” and that the Japanese military might be sent to look for people abducted by North Korea. That last one, from the Japanese prime minister, has an even nastier propaganda sound to it.

The Chinese envoy has been to Pyongyang, while the Foreign Ministry has had a pop at the US commander in chief in the Pacific, Admiral Mullen. This could be good news in the sense that Chinese engagement might warn off anyone from doing anything dangerous. The US Deputy Secretary of State is going to Beijing soon with a delegation, followed by Robert Gates next month.

And if you want to know what a joint US-Japanese carrier fleet looks like

Image number four here has a certain additional spice, doesn’t it? What a week. As well as WikiLeaks being the website they couldn’t hang, 4chan became a geopolitical actor, thus fulfilling my prediction that in the future, trolls would be considered a strategic resource like oil. The BBC interviewed a builder from Leeds thinking he was a Liberal MP, but as it turned out, it didn’t matter – the real MP did exactly what the fake one said. And of course there was the case of James Naughtie, demonstrating that the BBC really is the voice of the nation. Speak for England! Prince Charles got a nasty surprise from the students, which startled the mainstream media into actually covering the demonstrators’ main grievance for once.

A lot has been written about how Wikileaks is staying online and I don’t propose to add to it – this piece on CNET and this one from Renesys should tell you all you need. If you’re looking for mirrors the list is currently here and there’s a mirror of the mirror list here.

However, there are a couple of good technical points to be made here that I’ve not seen elsewhere.

First of all, Wikileaks is a website designed to be easily cloned. If you look at it, each page is a self-contained file with a flat URI – there are no signs of a query string, and each cable released has a unique ID within the same directory. This is important because it means that the process of creating a mirror is just to copy all the files into the /public_html/ directory of another web server. On a Unix-like system, it could be a one-liner command (the site doesn’t actually let you do this the quickest way) – the utility wget is capable not only of traversing the directory and downloading all files, but also of changing links within them to point to the same filename in the target directory. The -m or –mirror option activates the options -N -r -l inf –no-remove-listing, which will in order ensure you only download material you haven’t already loaded, that wget will get everything in the target directory or directories, and that any directory listings will be preserved. -p requires that everything needed to make up a page, such as a photo of Julian Assange, will be retrieved. -k turns on link conversion.

It might be enough to do: wget -N -p -k wikileaks.wherever /home/you/public_html/

So it’s easy to create a mirror, and it’s trivial to keep it up to date – you could just run your script as a cron job to grab whatever gets released every day. Anyone thinking of a really controversial Internet project should, IMHO, consider design-for-cloning to be a useful pattern. The clone count is now in the thousands.

Second technical point: what a horrible idea Mastercard SecureCode (and its pal Verified by Visa) is. I already hated it before this – it’s a password, that should be a strong password because it’s financial, but that I don’t use that often and therefore can’t remember, and it trains you to accept the idea of typing confidential information into a random web site you didn’t ask for. Essentially all phishing requires you to type your bank details into something that you didn’t ask for. Forcing the public to type their bank details into some random website they didn’t ask for is howling insane. Right?

Also, the failure case is horrible – you get to reset the password by disclosing a whole lot of confidential information into the same random website you didn’t ask for, so an attacker who managed to inject a frame into the original merchant’s website could fake a failed payment and harvest all the information they would need to empty your bank account. And the service support when they imposed it on me was dire, especially as the SecureCode web site went down part way through the process.

But it’s worse than that. An important part of the way card payments are accepted on the Web is that, as is also true in shops, you interact with the merchant, whose bank interacts with the wider infrastructure. So you should know who you’re dealing with. Further, the bank should at least have some idea who its merchants are – they are customers after all – and restrict access to the system to them. And there’s more than one bank that provides merchant service, so there are no single points of failure.

The SecureCode (and its Visa twin) websites, though, are customer-facing, so they have to accept traffic from the whole of the Internet. And all the Mastercard payments from the Web have to go via the SecureCode website. So you have a critical operational function, that is a single point of failure, and that is exposed to every last dog on the Internet. It’s only surprising that somebody didn’t bring it down earlier, especially when things like Bees with machine guns! are available.

not the Thursday music link

It’s not Thursday, so it must be time for a not-Thursday music link. Special “one hand washes the other” edition.

Admin notice: Wikileaks

Need to know how to reach Wikileaks data? All the mirrors, alternative URIs, IP addresses, instructions, etc you could want are here. You might want to grab a local copy of the page itself, from this URI.

not about the Americans

The key fact to remember about the Wikileaks cable dump is this: it’s not about the Americans. There’s not been much in there that says something huge about US policy, which is why con-wissy types are so happy to deny it any significance. What there has been is something for everybody – a major purpose of diplomacy is to get political information, and leaking a ton of US diplomatic cables provides something for every host country to enjoy.

Here’s Italy’s delivery, for example. Not that anything about Berlusconi is shocking any more, but it’s certainly interesting that he has a very personal special relationship with Russia. That throws an interesting light on the era of the “3Bs”, Bush, Blair, and Berlusconi. Modern thinkers all, they also all thought they had special access to Russia.

Here’s important confirmation that the Saudis are a major force pushing for military dictatorship in Pakistan, and probably in so far as they support Nawaz Sharif they are only using him as a pretext for military rule. This also tends to confirm that the Saudi influence sphere is a real factor in Afghanistan still.

Here’s something for Belgium.

Here’s something for us; Mervyn King was a key actor in insisting on cuts and a Con-Dem coalition, and specifically in terrorising Nick Clegg with “it’s worse than we thought” stories.

Here’s something else for us: there was a major ruck in the intelligence special relationship about the disclosure of imagery gathered by U2s operating from Akrotiri to the Lebanese, Israeli, and Turkish governments. It seems that the Brown government was trying to impose serious conditions on operations from Akrotiri.

Something for the Americans: Robert Gates is a major barrier to starting more wars.

This is interesting, although you’ve probably already read it.

And of course there’s going to be a bank sometime in the near future.

Statistics efforts are coalescing here.

Leave your favourite leak in the comments.

Update: The Grauniad metadata file claims to contain the date, source, tags, and destination of each cable but the destinations are missing.

I’m beginning to worry seriously about Korea. There’s the wikileaked cable suggesting that Chinese tolerance is running out. There’s more recent confirmation. This after the initial non-reaction. Even if Peter Foster is right that the Chinese position hasn’t changed that much, it still looks like something has changed in the deterrent balance.

On the other side, Joint STARS has been deployed. You know to start worrying when the ugly grey kit comes out. The US Navy has put 2 carriers and their reinforced task groups off Korea, including a ballistic-missile defence destroyer (USS Paul Hamilton) and four Ticonderoga class cruisers. In all there are something over 900 vertical launch missile tubes on surface ships alone, as well as 70 or so F/A-18s. The Jimmy Carter is in the area, but we don’t know which other submarines are, or what percentage of the cruisers’ VLS tubes are full of Tomahawks as opposed to SM-3 air defence missiles, Harpoon ship-to-ship missiles, or ASROC antisubmarine ones. And the US Navy has chosen this moment to send 30,000 tonnes of jet fuel to Korea. They do move this stuff around, but it’s surely an odd moment to move the jet fuel if you weren’t preparing for war. There are also two Marine groups in the area, so chuck in 16 Harriers and a bit shy of a brigade of Marines.

Unlike, say, Iran in 2007, US carrier availability is currently high. They have more ships to send if required.

The South Koreans have been as good as promising to retaliate hugely if there is another attack. They’ve sacked the defence minister and replaced him with a serving general. People are throwing D’Annunzio-style demonstrations for war. General upcranking is going on. So you can probably see why I’m worried. The whole Japanese navy is at sea, probably in part to get their Aegis missile destroyers deployed on their anti-missile radar picket patrol line early. And there’s that unexpected uranium enrichment.

So it’s probably high time to worry. Here’s more worry: an excellent piece in the Small Wars Journal by US Army Colonel David S. Maxwell, on the problems of either occupying North Korea or just coping with the upshot of a collapse. I hadn’t been aware of the degree to which the state ideology is based on the anti-Japanese guerrilla years. In comments, Maxwell says that what worries him more than the prospect of guerrilla war in post-North Korea is a warlord scenario, more Afghanistan than Iraq. Rather, it would be more like the worse-case scenarios for the end of the Soviet Union, given some of the kit that would available.

Maxwell’s policy recommendation is to start at once with a propaganda drive to persuade the middle levels of the North Korean state not to go guerrilla and not to sell any highly enriched uranium they may have hanging around, and to come up with a plan for reunification led by Koreans and secured by all-party talks. That’s all very sane, but it’s not going to be of much help if someone fires artillery into Seoul tomorrow night. So from a British point of view, the best advice I could give would be “get on a plane and go and do an Attlee”.

There are also PowerPoint slides to go with that. Hence the title – it could almost be a motto for the blog.

In this thread at Charlie Stross’s, it occurred to me that social outrage is a constant, but that its content is infinitely variable. You could almost call it the principle of the conservation of outrage – outrage can neither be created nor destroyed, but only transferred from one object to another. Addiction to drugs or drink has transitioned from being a sin to being a medical condition. Mental illness is doing something similar. Sexuality, for several whole generations, is a ship that has sailed.

But you’d be a fool to imagine that the outrage has gone anywhere. It worries me that, for example, the revival of what Paul Krugman calls New Austerian economics is really explained by the need to be outraged at somebody – the surplus of outrage has been directed at the victims of financial misfortune, who are always in ready supply. Of course, the fact that it went that way is interesting in itself and tells us something about the functions the pool of available outrage performs.

So someone’s trying to raise $150,000 to buy a satellite from the bankruptcy of TerreStar, in order to “Connect Everyone”. I admire the aim, but I’m concerned that this is going to be a round of forgetting that a lot of perfectly good GSM operators are doing just that. Also, I can’t find any reference to what they intend to use for the customer-premises equipment except that “we’re building an open source low cost modem”, which would be better if it came with a link to the source repo, right, or at least some requirements documentation? I’m also a little concerned that the team includes this guy:

Fabian is a NYC based Swiss wanna-be-entrepreneur who spends all his time trying to make meaningful connections between ourselves and business.

(and I chose charitably) but not anyone whose potted bio mentions being an RF engineer.

Actually, I think that it would be more worthwhile to start off with the low-cost open source satellite radio, as this may be the difficult bit and would be highly reuseable in other projects. A lot of Indian or African GSM people would find a cheap satellite radio very useful for their backhaul requirements. Depending on the spec it could be used with things like the amateur radio AMSATs, the transponders on the ISS, and the spare US Navy FLTSATCOMs. USRP is way too expensive at the moment (they cost more than a cheap netbook) so that one’s out.

I think most of my readers also read Patrick Lang’s blog, but I think this guest post is the best thing yet written on the Taliban/SIS/McChrystal/Petraeus fake sheikh affair. Really, there’s a great movie to be made here – the multiplicity of motives, the ironic contrast between the absurd story and the deadly serious interests and emotions that drive it forward, the eternal ambiguity of the relationship between the manipulator and the manipulated.

The ISI comes out of it as being dastardly clever, but in a deeply futile way. They succeed in preventing a dangerous outbreak of peace and sanity, but what have they gained? The wars grind on, the butcher’s bill ticks up, the fantasy of a Pakistani empire of trucks and pipes across the Hindu Kush is as far away as ever, the Indians continue with their industrialisation across the other border.

The Americans come out of it as being well-meaning but naive. After all, they only get into this story because they want peace. So does the real Taliban leader. They both share a sort of big, stupid nobility.

The British do almost as badly as the ISI; not only do they end up being the dupes of the piece, they do so without the saving grace of having good intentions. They’re as naive as the Americans but more underhanded. SIS gets involved purely as a way of sucking up to the Americans and putting one over its real enemies, GCHQ, Her Majesty’s Forces, MI5, and the main-line Foreign Office diplomats. The Government is desperately keen on the project for similarly base reasons – to suck up to the Americans, to grab at an opportunity to solve its problem in Afghanistan, and of course to embarrass the Labour Party. Of course, it would have been a brilliant political fix had it come off – but the master manipulator is not Bismarck but William Hague.

The fake sheikh, meanwhile, is a classic example of the Pinocchio/Hauptmann von Kopenick theme – the puppet of bigger forces who becomes a power in his own right. Without his successful performance, of course, none of the many expectations curling around the tale have a hope of happening. His agency is real, and his character expands to fill the role. The fact that the whole project is an exercise in theatre is interesting in itself – a film within the film. The actors in the film are, of course, puppets of the script and the direction, and it is a work of fiction. The enduring purpose of the theatre and the cinema, however, is that works of fiction have real influence on their audiences. Like the fake sheikh.

After all, the grocer of Quetta (not a bad title) is the only character in the drama who successfully pursues his interests. He gets some interesting time off away from his bazaar stall, and even gets rich. You could play this as the ordinary man who succeeds in making fools of the powerful who insist on involving him in their schemes, or perhaps as a microcosm of all the people who are getting rich off the continued war, Mother Courage rather than Kopenick. Alternatively he could be killed off, casting the whole thing as an utterly bleak tragedy. However, arguably the classic in this vein is The Third Man and that sticks with the tragicomic.