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Archive for January, 2011

Egypt’s Long History

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher and Harvard professor once trenchantly said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  More often than not, that has proved to be true.

With all the excitement and promise of recent events in Egypt, what do most Americans know about that country’s past?  Probably precious little.

Evidence of early civilization in Egypt goes back to the tenth millennium BC.  The first formal system of governance in Egypt was a kingdom dating to about 3150 BC.  From then until the fourth century BC, Egypt was ruled by a series of home grown kingdoms.  Subsequently, Egypt was ruled by Greek, Roman, Persian, Ottoman, French and British occupiers, well into the 20th Century.

Modern Egyptian nationalism began in the early 20th century.  Having become a British Protectorate in 1914, they got a new king in 1917, revolted against British rule in 1919, were presented with “independence” by the British in 1922, got a constitution and a parliamentary system in 1923 and overthrew their king in a 1952 coup d’etat which led to the creation of the “Egyptian Republic”.

The Egyptian Republic of 1953 remained until President Mubarak resigned on February 11, 2011.  During that period, Egypt was tightly and repressively controlled by a series of military officers:  Generals Naguib, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak.  This period was punctuated by a number of significant events that further molded the country:  The nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, the 1967 and 1973 Wars with Israel, the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and the assassination of Sadat in 1981 which led to the accession of Mubarak.

Egypt was under military, political, or economic pressure during that entire period.  Stability, such as it was, was maintained through the military control and repression of the population.  Further, the military is still in control after all the events that have just played out in Egypt. The Sadat assassination in 1981 resulted in the declaration of Martial law, which is still in effect thirty years later.

The exposure of Egyptian citizens over the centuries to the ideals of liberal democracy has been minimal.  The preconditions for liberal democracy – fully protected individual rights and rules for lawmaking and elections, all in a framework of checks and balances – have never been enjoyed by the Egyptian people.

Egyptian military officers can be broadly classified into two groupings:  (1) Those who were trained in or by the USSR before 1970 and subsequent officers who matured under them and (2) those who were trained in or by the US and were largely uninfluenced by senior, Soviet-trained officers.

This makes it likely that, in general, younger officers would be more understanding of and interested in the ideas of western Democracy, an understanding that, given the earlier Soviet influence, would be greatly diminished in the older officer corps.  In addition, since public media are a phenomenon of the past decade, it is also likely that younger Egyptians are equally so disposed, however alien those ideas might be to their elders.  And the elders still run the country!

In addition, it is estimated that the Egyptian military is involved in between 5% and 40% of the economic activity of the country.  They are said to be involved in construction, appliance manufacture, the food industry, automobile assembly, clothing, pots and pans and tourism.  How else would Mubarak have managed to amass a personal fortune estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars?

The senior officers who are now control of the military establishment were beholden for their jobs to Mubarak.  Additionally, they are heavily involved in the economic life of their country through business ventures that make billions and billions of dollars a year.

Despite its ethnic, linguistic and religious homogeneity, Egypt is a country that has its divisions.  The country is now, for the moment, at least, in the hands of a military establishment  that has a vested interest in the maintenance of much of the status quo.  Economically and politically, there isn’t much they are likely to want to change, whereas recent events indicate clearly that change is the driving force for Egypt’s youth.

With luck, patience and time, Egypt may make it through what is very clearly going to be a difficult transition.  In the meantime, our administration and our politicians might better tout “self-determination” for the Egyptians, rather than pushing our ethnocentric, exceptionalist version of “democracy”.

Only real self-determination, whatever that may bring, has the potential to result in any lasting stability for Egypt.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East and as chief of the counter- terrorism staff

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[Originally published in the Randolph Herald.]

In 1775, Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The recent tragic events in Arizona have caused some American legislators to consider whether or not we should be paying more attention to some of the more important people in our country with a view to protecting them from the armed crazies who would try to kill them.

Before we plunge headlong into that activity, it might be useful to consider some of the ramifications of any course of action that is purportedly designed to increase safety.

First, you can be safe, or you can be free. You cannot be both. In the process of acquiring safety, you will have to give up some of your freedoms, and they are not easy to retrieve.

Just think back on the immediate post-9/11 period when our government, in an attempt to improve our security, passed the Patriot Act and amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, both of which directly impinged on Americans’ civil liberties.

The ACLU summarized our losses under that legislation quite succinctly. Overnight we got: wireless wiretaps; statutory authority for the government to get a court order to come into your home without your knowledge and even take property without notification; the ability of the government to obtain many detailed, personal records including library and bookstore records, financial and medical records, and Internet communications without probable cause and without meaningful judicial review.

For those records that could be obtained using “national security letters” there was no judicial review at all. Finally, changes to immigration regulations and the President’s claimed authority to detain “enemy combatants” sanctioned indefinite detention without criminal charge and without meaningful judicial review.

In March 2002, we were given a color-coded terrorism threat advisory scale—green, blue, yellow, orange, red—which had no objective criteria and therefore could not be accurately evaluated. It was a massive government CYA operation that had absolutely no positive outcomes for us or our security. It served only to show that the government was at least doing something about our security.

At the same time, it kept us on perpetual edge and fostered an environment in which additional “security measures” would be more readily accepted, making the population more susceptible to the Neoconservative concept of the “Long War”.

If you want the closest thing you can get to total security, you need to look at the old Soviet model. In that system, a police state was set up, not to provide security, but to remove liberty and opposition to the state. Over the years, informing on others became so ingrained in the people that the elaborate Soviet informant system evolved. Everyone was expected to report anything different to the KGB. That system did a pretty good job of insuring security for the people, but it also completely removed their civil liberties.

If you drive south on I-95 in Maryland you will see widely distributed overhead signs erected by the state’s terrorism tip line (800 number provided) encouraging you to “Report Suspicious Activity”.

Our airports, railroad stations and bus terminals are filled with reminders to report suspicious activity and suspicious packages.

The Department of Homeland Security has provided us with the “Eight Signs of Terrorism,” which urges reporting “suspicious” activities. DHS has also produced a video to outline those signs and provides an elaborate format for reporting them.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with any of these measures. Our federal state and municipal governments would be foolish not to try to enlist its citizens in the struggle with terrorism. Any US citizen would be derelict not to report any activity he or she sees as part of an impending terrorist attack.

The problem is that all of these post 9/11 laws, measures and policies have led and will continue to lead to a diminution of our civil liberties. Once you get momentum in that direction, it’s really hard to pull back. Ask anyone who has lived in a totalitarian state.

It’s your choice, free or safe. You can’t have both.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.

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[Originally published in the Baltimore Sun.]

In September, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that filmmaker Michael Moore had launched a campaign to free Pfc. Bradley Manning, who has been accused of providing most, if not all, of the classified documents being revealed on WikiLeaks. Mr. Manning has not yet been charged with a crime.

At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that he will soon, again, seek the release to Israel of Jonathan Pollard, an American citizen employed by U.S. naval intelligence, who was convicted in 1987 of espionage on behalf of Israel and sentenced to life in prison.

Mr. Pollard has admitted that he received thousands of dollars in cash and valuables as well as a monthly salary from the Israelis. According to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent who led the Pollard investigation, interrogated Mr. Pollard and obtained his confession, Mr. Pollard sold or attempted to sell information to other governments (South Africa and Pakistan, for example). Ultimately, he accepted a plea bargain with the U.S. government that he would be sentenced to up to life in prison for “conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government.”

Mr. Pollard was given Israeli citizenship in 1995. In 1998, the Israeli government confirmed Mr. Pollard’s activities. There is absolutely no question that he committed espionage. Clearly, he is a mercenary who was prepared to sell U.S. secrets to anyone who would pay.

Mr. Pollard’s case aside, we need to ask ourselves: Why are the Israelis running espionage operations against us? Are we not their absolute best friends? Do we not support them with every gift one nation can give to another?

The American intelligence community’s approach to Israel has been hands-off. From the creation of the CIA in 1947, CIA operations officers were absolutely forbidden to target or cultivate for recruitment any Israelis. We were their closest ally and friend on the planet. They kept nothing from us. There was, therefore, no need to collect intelligence clandestinely through human sources.

But Israel did not share that point of view. It clearly was running recruitment operations against us throughout the post-war period. FBI officers told us in the early 1970s that there were Mossad officers all over the country in official and non-official positions who were actively recruiting Americans. Numerous sources here indicate that Mossad is more active recruiting Americans today than ever before.

It seems logical that Mr. Manning will be prosecuted, despite what Michael Moore wants. This is an entirely internal U.S. matter.

The Pollard case is the same — yet it is totally different. Mr. Pollard is an American who broke U.S. law, was convicted and incarcerated. It is not an internal political group that seeks his release, as in the Manning case, but a foreign government that has acknowledged that it runs intelligence operations against us.

What would happen if the U.S. were to accede to Mr. Netanyahu’s request to free Pollard? This is not like the recent return of Russian national sleeper agents to Russia. Mr. Pollard is an American citizen. Among many negative repercussions, we would be telling any current Americans who either are spying for Israel, or contemplating that activity, that there may be a way out if caught.

For Mr. Pollard to be released to Israel, he would have to be pardoned by President Barack Obama. What would the rationale be for a pardon for a self-confessed, mercenary spy? How would our president look to the rest of the world in the aftermath of such an action?

The unspoken question here is whether either the U.S. or Israel sees Mr. Pollard a bargaining chip for progress in the Middle East. If that is the case and America agrees to swap Mr. Pollard for, say, a one-year moratorium on settlements, it would be a terrible mistake. We would be prostituting our legal system for questionable goals that so far have proved unattainable.

In the end, a settlement moratorium and the two-state solution represent the only course of action open to Israel if it wishes to preserve itself as a democratic, Zionist state. It is a course that Israel has to want to follow for its own reasons — not one that is worthy of blackmail or bargaining over Mr. Pollard.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe and the Middle East, as chief of the counterterrorism staff and as executive assistant in the director’s office.

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Getting emotional about Yankee

[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus.]

During this year’s biennial elections, the relicensing of Vermont Yankee became, cynically and unfortunately, a part of the political discussion. Quite probably, this was in the hope that it would boost the political prospects of some individual candidates and that its relicensing would ultimately succumb to negative political pressures.

Lodged somewhere in the collective psyche of many Americans is an almost pathological fear of all things nuclear. It may relate to anything as powerful or poorly understood as nuclear energy, or to the disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Or it may be part of collective American guilt over having razed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Many who share this aversion to nuclear enterprise in any form are unalterably emotionally committed to fighting everything nuclear from the production of weapons to the generation of electricity. With the possible exception of medical technology, there is nothing good for true believers in any nuclear application.

Whatever is behind it, the political, antinuclear mindset is playing a powerful role against the relicensing of Vermont Yankee.

On the other hand, America is a capitalist country in which profit and all its benefits play a critical role. It is in Entergy’s financial interest to extend its license to operate Vermont Yankee for another 20 years. In arguing its own position, Entergy cites the relatively low cost of electricity to Vermont, state taxes paid, jobs produced and, in terms of climate change, zero greenhouse gases. Vermont companies and individuals needing low-cost energy to remain competitive are clearly involved in a ramped-up TV campaign to support these positions. These arguments are valid. But are they really important?

In our current discussion of Yankee relicensing, we are playing a role in the ongoing debate about climate change. Whatever we decide to do, all of the economically feasible, green alternatives available to us can only provide, at absolute best, about a third of our energy needs. That leaves fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and nuclear as the only candidates to fill the remaining two-thirds.

This is not an argument for relicensing Yankee; it is a suggestion that nuclear is is a suggestion that nuclear energy is definitely in our future if we truly want to deal with climate change, our reliance on foreign energy sources, our balance of payments, our standard of living and satisfying our energy needs.

Yankee aside, would our anti-Yankee advocates be prepared to accept a new nuclear power plant in Vermont? How about on the shores of Lake Champlain or again on the Connecticut River, or one of each? Or would it, in true Vermont fashion, have to go into someone else’s backyard?

Coincidentally, with our NIMBY view of the world, how are we progressing on more benign green energy sources? Will the wind turbines prevail in Vermont? Will we license additional wood-chip plants? Will we continue to remove energy-producing dams in favor of migrating fish?

The problem with Yankee, and probably ultimately with any future discussion of nuclear energy, is that all the wrong issues are being raised. The real issue is not one of jobs or taxes or climate change or nuclear energy itself. The only real issue is one of safety.

Is any nuclear power plant safe? One answer to that would seem to lie in the fact that most of the industrialized world is increasing nuclear generation to the point where it ranges from around 30 percent up to 80 percent of total electric production. In contrast, the U.S. is at roughly 20 percent. Yet we are the world’s No. 1 per-capita user of energy.

Is Vermont Yankee safe? Our vision of safety is so influenced by the emotionalism and politicization of the issue that it is difficult to know. The only people capable of giving us a truly objective answer to that question are somewhere in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The views of “experts” on the evils of nuclear power simply cannot stand up to truly objective, current, professional scrutiny. They are simply handy shills for the naysayers.

What can be safely said is that Entergy Nuclear, the proprietor of Vermont Yankee, has not managed its plant or its relationships with the state of Vermont and its residents in an acceptable manner. Misstatements and omissions, conscious or not, have ruled the day.

It is perfectly possible that the real issue with Vermont Yankee is poor, inattentive management, rather than the inherent safety of the plant. In any event, we should not allow ourselves to be significantly influenced by emotional advocates on either side of the relicensing argument. Safety must decide that argument.

Haviland Smith lives in Williston.

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