What to make of India’s surgical strike?

India’s punitive strike across the Line of Control could set a new norm

Whatever might be the consequences, it is clear that the Indian Army’s operation across the Line of Control in retaliation to a militant attack on its Uri camp is a landmark development. Now, it is common knowledge that both the Indian and Pakistani armies cross the LoC for tactical operations, and have been doing so for a long time.

Such operations, usually, have three characteristics: limitations in the depth of incursion, the extent of damage they cause and the level at which they are officially admitted. While we do not have all the details as of now, last night’s operation appears to have been deeper and more damaging. What distinguishes it from other tactical incursions along the LoC is the level at which they have been admitted: perhaps for the first time, New Delhi has officially announced that Indian troops carried out an attack authorised by the highest political authority.

This is significant because it changes the norm to one where India will use military force across its frontiers to respond to aggression by Pakistan’s proxies. Depending on the Pakistani reaction, the act might vindicate the arguments made by some strategists that India does have space for such punitive operations, within the escalation framework. If so, an important Pakistani bluff — that nuclear weapons will shield its terrorist proxies — will be called. [Related: See this detailed analysis of the India-Pakistan conflict escalation framework]

This, however, is only the story so far. The ball now is in Pakistan’s court. If the Pakistani military establishment continues to hold the position that there was no ‘surgical strike’ at all, and just the usual cross-border firing, then New Delhi would have succeeded in setting a new norm. However, if the Pakistani army decides that it cannot let this insult go unpunished, and responds tit-for-tat — operationally and in public posturing — then it will be up to the Modi government whether it wants to up the ante. There are good reasons for either course of action.

The Pakistani army’s initial reaction is what it is, an initial reaction. It could be used to obfuscate matters to cover a retaliatory attack. Or it could be a signal of not wanting to escalate the situation. At this time, therefore, it would be prudent for the Indian government and media to hold off excessive triumphalism.

The immorality of leaking private information indiscriminately

The Hindu shouldn’t be collaborating in this unethical enterprise

When Wikileaks indiscriminately leaked diplomatic correspondence it had the fig leaf of claiming it was exposing wrongdoing by governments. Never mind that it put the lives and safety of informants in authoritarian countries at risk while only revealing details of how international diplomacy is conducted. Those details might have surprised ordinary people who were unfamiliar with the workings of their foreign ministries and embassies, they didn’t achieve any lofty public purpose. As I argued then, they might have conversely caused governments to tighten up their information silos to the detriment of the public interest.

Now, when Wikileaks has indiscriminately leaked the email archives of a private firm, Stratfor, there is no fig leaf of any kind left. Stratfor is a private intelligence company that collects and sells geopolitical analysis to private and government buyers. The nature of its business requires it to seek out informants, negotiate with them and pay them. It might procure leads from US government agencies and sell them information. All this is in the nature of its business.

Some people might be appalled that other people do this kind of business, but it is a legitimate business. Stratfor didn’t claim to be the Red Cross or a humanitarian organisation. It claims to be “a subscription-based provider of geopolitical analysis…(using) a unique, intelligence-based approach to gathering information via rigorous open-source monitoring and a global network of human sources.” It is what it says it is. It operates legally.

If Julian Assange or anyone else knows of specific instances of wrongdoing or illegal activity by Stratfor or its employees, the right thing to do is register a complaint with the relevant law-enforcement authorities. If Mr Assange has evidence of illegality, the only ethical thing for him to do is to hand it over to the authorities. Wholesale, indiscriminate leaking of private information—because you dislike Stratfor’s business or suspect illegality—is neither ethical nor moral. It is quite likely illegal.

From what we know of Julian Assange, he lacks the moral compass to make these fairly obvious ethical judgements. The Hindu, though, does (or, perhaps, used to). I often disagree with the newspaper’s editorial line. However, until the Indian newspaper’s dalliance with Wikileaks, I did not have reason to complain about its basic ethics. No longer. It is unclear just how a reputed institution like The Hindu could be a willing collaborator with Mr Assange on the violation of the privacy of a private company.

If the editors of The Hindu believe that invading Stratfor’s privacy is somehow acceptable then they ought to start by opening up their own corporate email systems to the public. Make every email and phone call public. Surely the public has a right to know the names of the informants who talk to the newspaper’s journalists? Surely the public must know what the journalists tell each other and to their editors? So what if the informants are honest whistleblowers risking their lives or crafty officials manipulating public opinion? Let’s have it. Let the people decide!

If The Hindu’s editors think that their own emails are private information, why then are they denying that right to Stratfor?


Update: In an editorial note published on February 28th, the newspaper justifies its collaboration with Wikileaks on two premises. First, that “confidentiality and privacy cannot be invoked as a cover for wrongdoing or unethical behavior”; and second, “the unusual nature of Stratfor’s business — in essence, providing intelligence to clients who include governments and large corporations, some embroiled in serious controversies, like Dow Chemical — means that there is a compelling public interest in studying the e-mails to see if they cast light on corporate or governmental wrong-doing.”

This is sophistry. The ethical question here is how can we know a priori that there is wrongdoing? Is it ethical for individuals and newspapers to steal private property (or deal with thieves) merely on suspicion? Even the police can’t search without warrant. So if I suspect The Hindu of being on the payroll of the Chinese Communist Party, it it acceptable for me to hack into their email systems, or ransack their offices, to look for evidence of “wrongdoing or unethical behavior”? Clearly not.

And surely the “unusual nature of StratFor’s business” is not that unusual. For instance, “the unusual nature of The Hindu’s business – in essence providing information to clients who include governments, large corporations, rapists, convicts and enemies of India, some embroiled in serious controversies like the 2G scam and the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka — means that there is a compelling public interest in studying the emails to see if they cast light on corporate or governmental wrong-doing.”

So let The Hindu open up its email archives to me. I will be ‘acutely aware that my use of this material imposes special obligations upon me, in particular to respect the privacy of the legitimate business activities and private correspondence of The Hindu, its staff and those they may have corresponded with. In my reportage, I shall do my utmost to respect this obligation, by only publishing material if it clearly points to corporate or government wrong-doing or unethical behaviour, and thus meets the test of compelling public interest.’

If this proposal strikes you as preposterous, it is because it is. Strangely, and unfortunately, The Hindu’s editors are doing just this to someone else.

The return of information silos

Wikileaks will have long term consequences on how government’s share information

What Julian Assange and Wikileaks have done with privileged US government is plain wrong. Arrogant and self-righteous, the indiscriminate publication of internal discussions, assessments and correspondence cannot be justified on grounds of freedom of information. To suggest that all information must be made public, regardless of time, place, and context—ostensibly the grounds which Wikileaks uses to justify its anarchism—is to condemn government officials to life in a Panopticon. If everything a government official says and writes is liable to become public the next moment, you will only have self-censorship, political correctness and worse, a greater tendency to avoid putting debates and decisions on record. A government that can’t deliberate in private will be paralysed or ineffective, mostly both. The legality of Mr Assange’s actions is still under debate. The sensibility is not in question. It is senseless.

This time, it is also interesting.

In the cables released yesterday, there are few things that we didn’t know or suspect: Saudi Arabia and Israel both want someone to stop Iran’s nuclear programme; the Saudis detest the Iranians they see as ‘Persian’; King Abdullah is not well disposed towards Asif Zardari or that China facilitated the transfer of North Korean ballistic missile technology to Iran. It is the details make the cables interesting. Not least from a voyeur’s perspective.

It’s unclear whether the Wikileaks will have major consequences in world affairs beyond creating embarrassment for the people and governments involved. It’s not as if the people in the Middle East didn’t know what their leaders were up to, and what US officials thought of them. It’s not as if China is about to stop its game as the world’s worst proliferator of weapons of mass destruction just because it has been fingered in some cables. Politicians, in any case, have thick skins.

What might happen is that brakes will be applied in the trend towards sharing of information within government and across departmental silos. A process that began as a result of the US intelligence community’s failure to piece together data that could have led to the uncovering of the 9/11 plot—and was adopted by governments across the world, including in India—might come to an end with abuse of technological power by Wikileaks. ‘Information fusion’ within governments is likely to be the first casualty of Mr Assange’s war on responsibility.

Update: Well, here we are:

In addition to vowing to hold WikiLeaks to account, the administration also instituted new measures to try to prevent leaks.

Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob J. Lew instructed government departments and agencies to ensure that users of classified information networks do not have broader access than is necessary to do their jobs, and to restrict the use of removable media such as CDs or flash drives on such networks.

OMB, the federal Information Security Oversight Office and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence will evaluate aid the agencies in their efforts to strengthen classified information security, Lew said.

The White House move in turn comes a day after the Pentagon announced similar steps to bolster network security following a review ordered by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in August. [WP]

Which voice came from the mouthpiece?

As long as China controls its information landscape, it will be responsible for being misunderstood

How seriously should you take vitriolic—or soothing—opinion that comes out of China over the internet? Ananth Krishnan warns against the tendency to assume every voice is that of a government mouthpiece.

News reports also claimed the write-up could not have been published without the permission of the Chinese authorities — another dubious claim tied to the simplistic notion that the Chinese government vets every opinion expressed on all of China’s hundreds of political websites. The Chinese government blocks and censors numerous websites that are politically sensitive, discussing subjects like the Tiananmen Square protests or the Falun Gong. But suggesting that the government controls and moderates debates and political opinions in blogs and newspapers is a stretch.

It also belies a lack of understanding of the changing nature of China’s information landscape. China has 338 million Internet users and more than 100 million blogs and websites, such as the one where this post first appeared. It only takes a quick glance through half a dozen such sites—even “influential” ones—to look at the divergence of opinions and vibrancy of debates, with many voices even strongly criticising the Communist Party and its government. Yet the simplistic perception still endures in India that in authoritarian China, every analyst or writer must surely speak in the same voice.

Interpreting information from these four avenues is further complicated by the fact that they are sometimes inter-linked. For instance, the Chinese government sometimes uses influential think-tanks to hint at changes in policy. Views and opinions from mainstream Chinese newspapers and think-tanks must indeed be taken seriously in India. But at the same time, a more nuanced understanding of China’s information landscape is needed to avoid shrill hyper-reactions to anonymous bloggers and irrelevant fringe groups.

This is crucial to creating a level of discourse in India that allows for a deeper, more meaningful engagement with China’s opportunities and threats. [The Hindu]

That is a very sensible conclusion. What it does not state explicitly is that much of the reason why China is misunderstood to the extent that it is, is because of China itself. The lack of transparency in public discourse, the overbearing role of the state in permitting some views while going to great lengths to proscribe others, and the deliberately unclear linkages among the party, government, academia and media often results in people assuming the worst.

A relatively harmless result of this is the demonisation of China in societies that deal with it. More dangerous is the mistaking of noise for signal—it’s bad for everyone if the fulminations of an “angry youth” run the risk of being confused with tacit but deliberate military threats issued by a key senior official. If China doesn’t want to be misunderstood, it should do its part first.

South Asia Analysis Group, at a new location

New internet coordinates, same good stuff

The South Asia Analysis Group has informed us that they have a new URL — http://www.southasiaanalysis.org. They had to switch domain names due to an unauthorised transfer of their old domain. Please update your bookmarks, inform your neighbours and tell the postman.