Monday, July 8, 2013

Egypt Coup Was Necessary to Preserve Democracy

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 8 July 2013.

Mohamed Morsi has been removed as the elected President of Egypt following a military coup d'etat widely supported by the Egyptian public. Violent clashes continue between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, as Egyptians — and not America or the West — are control their own fate. Independence and stability must come before democracy can take root.

The military takeover has given rise to cries from some among the media intelligentsia. For example, The Independent's Robert Fisk blames President Barack Obama for not denouncing the coup, and claims it shows Egypt is not on the path to democracy (as claimed). Whether called a coup or not, history shows that the road to democracy begins with such violent events, and the military may be the only stable national institution to turn to in times of crisis.

The history of every major democracy in the world starts with a violent war or revolution or even several of them. From Britain's Magna Carta to the American and French revolutions, it has become a rule of history that those asked to give up absolute power won't give it up without a fight. It is wrong to think things are any different in the 21st century. This is a lesson of America and Britain's misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan —democracy doesn't grow on trees.

Though the West claims to believe in democracy above all else, the truth is that democracy doesn't work overnight or on its own. The proper groundwork must be laid. This includes, among others, the trust and confidence of the people, rule of law, freedom of speech and press, a stable economic system and a system safeguarding the physical security and order of the citizenry.

Egypt under President Morsi had none of these things. His refusal to negotiate, failure to commit to improving the economy and assertion that his policy was supreme law brought the people into the streets, eventually leading the military to depose him. In Morsi's defense, he was only in office for a year. But we should expect the people of Egypt, hungry for change after Mubarak, to keep coming back to the streets until someone gets it right. It will be violent and bloody.

The French Revolution would have sent Morsi and his Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to the guillotine — fortunately the Egyptian military has only arrested them, giving several days advanced warning. It may take years of struggles before Egypt stabilizes. America struggled with violent uprisings throughout the first years of its independence. The struggle for sustainable democracy will take longer. Britain's oft-violent struggle for democracy took place over centuries and the UK still has no written constitution. Just because we have 24-hour television and Twitter coverage of the events today doesn't mean that things are any different.

It is a mistake to categorically reject this Egyptian coup as an assertion of military rule and a rejection of democracy. It is a misunderstanding of how revolutions often work. There are many recent historical precedents, particularly in Southwest Asia, which show that the military can act as a national safeguard, providing stability until civilian institutions can get it right in the eyes of the people.

Throughout the modern history of Turkey, the military has acted as a national safeguard. In 1960, 1971 and again in 1980, the Turkish military deposed the civil government. In each case the country had been gripped with economic, social and political turmoil and in each case the military quickly returned the country to civilian rule. Ethnic and political strife has made Pakistan hard for anyone to rule, leading it to be called a "compromise state." The Pakistani military has been the only institution with the strength to rule, supporting coups in 1958, 1977 and 1999, though it has not always been as quick to return to civil rule. The military has also played a vital role in the stability of Thailand, stepping in when the government was deadlocked, most recently in 2006 over the allegedly corrupt rule of millionaire Thaksin Shinawatra.

One only need look at the conduct of the Egyptian military itself during the initial stages of the uprising against the Mubarak government. While the military was brutally suppressing protests in other regional states such as Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen, Egyptian troops generally remained calm observers. Though there were complaints following the fall of Mubarak, rule was quickly returned to civil hands. Now, again following the deposition of President Morsi, the country is nominally in the hands of a civilian interim government, headed by Supreme Court judge Adly Mansour and international diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei.

To denounce this coup as an attack on democracy in Egypt paints a false picture, as does depicting it as a return to military dictatorship. The fact that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians support the action should not be brushed aside. States in turmoil often turn to stable institutions such as the military to safeguard the national interest in times of crisis. The Egyptian military is already taking steps to turn the country back over to civil, democratic rule. Those who are sending up cries of foul had better return to their history books and look at events on the ground. Independence and stability first—then comes democracy.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Contracting Out U.S. National Security

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 2 July 2013.

Despite the cheers and jeers at leakers such as Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden over the last few years, it would seem access to such information is less protected than ever. Serving intelligence officers are allowed to sell their skills to corporations. High-level intelligence work, once closely guarded, is farmed out to contractors, who leak information like a sieve.

The Obama White House has conducted more leak investigations than any previous administration, now including the leak of a cyber-warfare campaign against Iran by a top US army general, James Cartwright. We are selling our national security in an effort to save a buck – and we will continue to pay for it in other ways.

In 2010, Eamon Javers reported on CIA's controversial "moonlighting" policy, which allowed active intelligence officers to seek permission to work in the private sector on the side if they made full disclosure and it did not conflict with their duties. Generally, the same standard applies to all federal employees who are not political appointees.

But not all federal employees are CIA officers. No statistics of how many took advantage of the policy were forthcoming, but the policy itself was disturbing enough to lead to questions before Congress.

Why is this allowed? Defenders hold it is important to stop the "brain drain", where the best and brightest depart the agency for better pay. Supporters argue the level of compensation at CIA doesn't stack up against other federal or private-sector employment. This "discrepancy" leads talented employees to look elsewhere – for roles in which their skills fetch better prices. The CIA thus finds itself in competition with the private sector to keep personnel on whom it has expended a great deal of money and effort in training.

Demand for intelligence work has ballooned since 9/11, though government belt-tightening in recent years has had an effect. Washington has decided, rather than expanding intelligence services in a permanent sense, to farm out the increased workload to private contractors. This has advantages, as for any business seeking to outsource operations. When the need for the work reduces, it is easier to allow a contract to expire than it is to lay off excess federal employees or to keep them on, under-employed.

But there are drawbacks as well. Rather than paying solely for the service, the price also reflects the contractor's own costs – their HR, finance, management and marketing departments' wages, office costs, even redundancies. It is questionable if contracting saves anything at all. One doesn't have to look hard to find stories of wasted costs, foul-ups or even corruption in security contracting.

Just last week, USIS, the contractor responsible for performing background checks for security clearances – including Edward Snowden's – was accused of misleading the government as to the thoroughness of their investigations. Lawmakers have been told that thousands of background checks may have been improperly conducted. (The firm has made no comment, but issued a statement saying it was co-operating with an investigation.)

Private intelligence contractors look to hire employees who already have active clearances and intelligence experience – requirements not easily obtained elsewhere than an intelligence agency. The problem becomes circular. Farming out intelligence work to contractors creates its own demand. Agency employees leave for jobs with higher pay because the government itself has created a market for them, creating the very "brain drain" it seeks to stem. This is because bean-counters are worried about the effect on the budget – namely, of salary, benefits and pension obligations to employees. In the CIA's defence, these decisions are made in Washington, DC, not Langley, Virginia.

A second argument is that no harm is being done and these individuals have dedicated years to the country and are entitled to "feather their nests". However, the US military shares the same commitment to the country – yet service personnel get paid even less, and veterans are coming home to high unemployment rates.

While the job has its risks, most CIA employees still have desk jobs. The more academic nature of the job does not automatically entitle analysts to higher pay. There are also brainy folks at the Department of Interior or Forest Service who are overworked and underpaid. Many other less fortunate Americans would be happy to have such pay and benefits as CIA officers enjoy.

That our national security apparatus feels it must compete with the private sector to attract the best talent now means attracting the wrong kind of talent. Those who work in such a vital role should not do so for the salary, even if that is a great recruitment tool. One recruit who signs up for the right reasons is worth five who sign up for others. This should be familiar to US intelligence officers from the CIA's chief architect, Allen Dulles, who believed the most dependable sources are those not in it for pay.

The net effect on security is that it has become impossible for America to keep secrets. Security information is being handled by private companies poaching the intelligence community's talent and selling it back to the government, who paid to develop it in the first place. Government budget cuts and a failure to invest in intelligence infrastructure have created this problem.

National security challenges do not simply go away because we are having budget fights. If we are not willing to pay for this now, we'll pay for it later – in another, more sinister sense. Some things are worth paying for; our national security is one of them.