Other asymmetric conflicts: ontology in asymmetric war

Today: two pieces of news – one old, one new – that speak to the myopic nature of the debate about drones and targeted killing.

Liberals are applauding the arrival of the public debate about the legality of drone warfare. David Carr at the NYT proudly hails last week’s events (see here and here) as a moment of enlightenment: finally we’re ‘Debating drones in the open‘. But as this debate finally begins to open it is worth thinking about what its paramaters are. What kind of debate do we want to have, and on what and whose terms?

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Leafing through my bookmarks over the weekend I (re)found a report by the U.S. Government  Information Security Oversight Office (ISSO). It is an annual report – this one is 2011 – which provides an overview of information classification and disclosures across the whole U.S. government. The numbers are simply extraordinary and they point to a vast  and burgeoning archive of secrecy, one that has grown under the Obama administration. The report differentiates between ‘original classification’ (documents classified for the first time) and ‘derivative classification’ (documents that are re-classified). The distinction appears important but the lines between the two are blurry. For example, the report defines derivative classification as “the act of incorporating, paraphrasing, restating, or generating in new form information that is already classified.” The classification rules are rather complicated (the bureaucracy must be vast beyond imagination), but it is the raw data that is interesting:

“Executive branch agencies reported 92,064,862 derivative classification decisions; a 20 percent increase from FY 2010″

The number of original classification decisions was significantly lower at 127,072. But while total classifications increased, the authorities which approved those classifications – ‘Original Classification Authorities’ (or OCA) – actually decreased between 2010 and 2011 from  2,378 to 2,362. But whichever way one reads these numbers, we are talking about a lot of documents and a lot of agencies. These classifications are made up of three tiers – 0r levels – of secrecy as this graph illustrates:

Original Classification Activity, FY 2011
Original Classification Activity, FY 2011

I’m most interested in those documents which pertain to military or military-related issues, but I quickly learnt that multiple agencies – and not just the Department of Defense (DoD) classify documents which might also be relevant to military affairs. A case in point is the Department of Justice legal memo released last week, but this would clearly be just the tip of the iceberg when considered against this table which shows classification according to individual agencies.

Derivative Classification Activity, FY 1996 – FY 2011
Derivative Classification Activity, FY 1996 – FY 2011

Most perplexing and interesting, however, is the following graph which shows an exponential increase in derivative classification over the last 4 years. In this space of time the number of classification decisions has gone from just about 20 million to over 90 million. I’m not sure how this jump can be accounted for if – as is claimed – derivative classification is the reclassification of already classified documents: it simply makes no sense. Interestingly, the report puts it down to methods of communication, but it would be more accurate to say that the classification regime has moved from analog methods to digitization:

Methods for communicating classified information electronically have expanded significantly to include classified web pages, blogs, wikis, bulletin boards, instant messaging, etc. In FY 2009, ISOO issued new guidance that asked agencies to focus on counting classification decisions in the electronic environment. This has resulted in significant annual growth in the number of derivative decisions reported.

In any case, the claim that these 92 million are re-counts of old classified data seems doubtful given this move toward classifying electronic data. In any case , this gives new meaning to the idea that the various departments, not least the military, must indeed be swimming in sensors and drowning in data.

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The Guardian’s Paul Harris picked up on the report at the time and last year pointed to the growing level of secrecy in government under Obama. He quotes Elizabeth Goitein, a national security expert at the Brennan Centre for Justice who observed:

“We are seeing the reversal of the proper flow of information between the government and the governed. It is probably the fundamental civil liberties issue of our time […] The national security establishment is getting bigger and bigger.”

Goitein’s words resonate today with the leaked announcement of Rayethon’s social-media tracking software – the second piece of news. RIOT, or Rapid Information Overlay Technology is a extreme-scale analytics” system created the world’s fifth largest defence contractor: in lay terms a very powerful software that can gather vast amounts of information about anybody from all kind of online sources including websites, Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. Quite how this technology works is beyond my computational skills, but  thinking of it as a ‘Google for spies’, as Ryan Gallager reports, is obviously over simplistic, not least because it draws what seems to be a false dichotomy between Google and spies: we’re all spies now in the age of Google and Facebook!  Raytheon’s “principal investigator” Brian Urch explains the software and talks us through what he calls a ‘cyber tracking investigation’ – and trust me, its more terrifying than it sounds:

I’m no technophobe, but when considered against the mass secretization  of U.S. Government agencies outlined above, it is difficult not to be provoked into thinking that there is something asymmetric going on here. Now it is important to note that the developers of this enterprise are a private company – and not the U.S. government, but what that means formally is much more than what it means in practice because as Rayathon admit:

“The technology was shared with US government and industry as part of a joint research and development effort, in 2010, to help build a national security system capable of analysing “trillions of entities” from cyberspace.

“According to records published by the US government’s trade controls department, the technology has been designated an “EAR99” item under export regulations, which means it “can be shipped without a licence to most destinations under most circumstances”.

Much to be said here, of course, about the military-industrial-complex, but perhaps much less to say than has already been said by the brilliant James Der Derian (and specifically his book Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network). I want to make a different point, however, about the scale of the asymmetry of knowledge between the government and the governed; in-fact it is not only a quantitative asymmetry but  a qualitative one. That which can be known by RIOT is of a personal and intimate nature; in military speak it can know our ‘patterns of life’ which means not only the pattern of our daily life, but also the micro movements of bodily behaviour: body language, sexual preference, anxieties and even thought. Little that is radically new here, perhaps, but weighed against the secrecy doctrine it would seem that cyber warfare now has a strong domestic inflection. Cyperwar is no longer , if it ever was, about attacking Iran or preparing for an international or transnational attack: it is about detecting the enemy within: the “homegrown terrorists”, the Al-Awlaki’s who never made it out of the Homeland. And I do not think it is a stretch to think about these issues as calling forth both the metaphor and reality of war.

It is an ontological war over the conditions of our understanding, of what we can know about those upon whom war is waged in our name.

Before we celebrate the coming of the drone debate, and before we ask the necessary and important normative questions about what kind of debate we – as publics – want and desire, it is perhaps first sensible to ask what kind of debate is possible in the age of asymmetric knowledge and asymmetric warfare. If the answer proves inadequate, or if the asymmetry is to great to breach then what is required is nothing less than a wholesale rethinking of what it means to “debate”, and with what consequences. National security considerations are real, as is the need for some secrets, but I think we have reason to worry that the states secrets privilege is one that can – and is – easily be abused. Too often ‘military necessity’ and ‘national security’ are used as trump cards  which preclude debate and honest conversation; the critic and the cynic are merely supposed to acquiesce and trust the lawyers and officials who once drafted the torture memos. Today  the IDF spokerperson called me to tell me that their staff could not participate in my study, and reminded me – honestly – that ‘knowledge is power’.

I was once inspired by the following observation by Judith Butler (in her Frames of War) because it contains within it conditions of hope and resistance, but in light of the above I am haunted by the gravity of the task ahead and by the need to acquire the means and modes of information and representational production in this age of so called asymmetric war.

“There is no way to separate, under present historical conditions, the material reality of war from those representational regimes through which it operates and which rationalize its own operation.’”

The asymmetries of knowledge mirror the asymmetries of war (and are perhaps as old): the war on information is a war of information through information which is at the same time the real war that is being fought over the skies of an increasingly global battlefield.  There’s lots to learn, and I didn’t even mention Wikileaks…


Add yours →

  1. best posting yet, jones! so much interesting stuff to chew on here. we have to talk about that analogue-digital distinction you refer to. its a major site of debate with media historiography and far from settled. and so much of what you’re up to is veering into comms territory. to wit: http://media.mcgill.ca/en/content/media-democracy-part-i

  2. best posting yet jones! so much interesting stuff to chew on there. we have to talk about that digital-analogue distinction you refer to — far from settled in comms literature. and so much of what you are concerned with here is bringing you into those conversations. eg.:

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