War in Ukraine: airstrikes, drones and a looming counteroffensive
This week saw heightened tensions in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. A wave of drone strikes hit the Russian capital Tuesday morning, bringing the war to Moscow for the first…
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says U.N. monitors were shot at when trying to get to the scene of the latest Syrian massacre. An American drone strike in Pakistan killed al-Qaida’s number two in command. Eurozone countries contemplated a rescue of Spain’s troubled banks. Matt Frei of the U.K.’s Channel 4 News, Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News and David Sanger of The New York Times join Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The UN Secretary General warns the conflict in Syria could spiral out of control. Congressional leaders investigate intelligence leaks which they say could hurt national security. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta chides Pakistan for not doing more to rein in militants. New pressures on Iran over its nuclear program and the major credit ratings agency downgrades Spain.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me for the week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, David Sanger of the New York Times, Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News and Matt Frei of the UK's Channel 4 News. Throughout the hour, I'll look forward to hearing your questions and comments. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, everybody.
MR. MATT FREIGood morning.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANGood morning, Diane.
MR. DAVID SANGERGood morning.
REHMIndira, we have reports this morning that UN monitors are now seeing the aftermath of this barbarity as UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon called it. What are those reports?
LAKSHMANANWell, the reports have been incredible of two horrific massacres this week in Hama and Homs. And in both cases, we saw Hilary Clinton and Ban Ki-moon referring to them as "disgusting," using that same term and, you know, clearly the international community is fed up. But what we haven't got to is the point yet of what do we do now. I mean, we've been in this impasse essentially for a year and I don't see it dramatically changing. Hilary Clinton sent one of her top envoys, Frederick Hof, to Moscow to talk to the deputy foreign ministers and the idea is to try to push Moscow, which has this strong connection to Syria through being its biggest arms dealer.
LAKSHMANANSeventy-five percent of Syria's weapons were supplied by Russia and also it has an important port in Syria and that's basically its last hold over the Middle East. And Russia so far has been unwilling to back UN Security Council sanctions or strong action that would push the leader, Assad, out and what we've seen is people talking about a Yemeni solution, something that would push Assad out by his own will apparently and supposedly with the cooperation of the Syrian people, but we don't see any movement towards that actually happening.
REHMAnd certainly Kofi Annan and his six-point plan is not working, Matt Frei?
FREII think it's been declared clinically dead, although the death certificate hasn't been issued yet because it's the only game in town. Now, what's really fascinating is that in the last few days, Kofi Annan has been trying to sell a second version of this plan, which is in fact, radically different because it involves setting up what he calls a contact group. A contact group made up of the five permanent members of the Security Council, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia, of course, as already a member of the Security Council, but also crucially, controversially, Iran.
FREIThe idea being that this contact group in theory might possibly massage some sort of transition away from the Assad clan ruling the country. Now, when I spoke to the Russian ambassador at the UN a few days ago, I asked him outright, I said, can you foresee a future of Syria without the Assad family running it? And he said, yes, which really astounded me and I think the Russians have moved their position slightly because the one thing that everyone fears, and that's including the Russians, the Iranians and the Americans, is the breakup of Syria as a nation state. And the one thing they'll all agree on is that military action at the moment is not going to work.
FREIAnd the fact that you have agreement on these two fundamental points is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because it means that there is fertile ground for some sort of an agreement here. It's a curse because it means that when you have people like Senator McCain talking about military action, it doesn't really provide a viable alternative to the status quo.
SANGERI think there are sort of three moving parts here that we've got to be watching in these next few days. The first is, as Matt points out, everybody's afraid of a breakup. I think it was Kofi Annan who said at that news conference yesterday that in the case of Libya, the concern was whether the country would implode. In the case of Syria, everybody believes it would explode. Now, that might be right, that might be wrong, but no one's willing to take the risk.
SANGERAssad's calculations here are sort of fascinating so his game plan for the past year and a half has been pretty easy. He's doing exactly what his father did exactly 30 years ago when he very brutally put down an uprising in Hama and he's been guessing that what worked for dad would work for him. The second is that he has been counting on the Russians, the Chinese and, to some degree, the Iranians to prevent any military intervention. Now, Matt makes the point that the Russians are moving on the question of whether they could envision a Syria without Assad. Whether they're moving on the question of allowing the reasonable threat of a military intervention is still unclear.
FREII don't think they are moving on that point.
SANGERYou do or do not?
FREII don't. I agree with you. I don't think they're moving on that and I think the other really big problem with moving away from the Assad clan running the country is who else is going to replace him because the Assad family is the tip of a military-industrial complex, for want of a better word, that basically has run that country for decades and it's not so easy to find a opposition that can take over.
SANGERAnd one more, just one more point on Assad's calculations. I think Matt's is absolutely right. That so far, so far, the Syrian military which surrounds Assad and which, of course, is part of his same minority Alawite group, they have not cracked. It's a year and a half and all of the internal estimates with the United States. You talk to people at the CIA, talk to people in Europe, they all thought that military would fracture by now. It hasn't happened.
LAKSHMANANI just wanted to say one thing about the idea of a larger contact group on Syria that might include Iran. And that is that the U.S. really opposes this idea. Iran has made clear, and this came up in the Baghdad talks a few weeks ago, that they wanted to broaden the discussions, which have so far been limited to nuclear talks. They wanted to talk about larger regional issues, including Syria and Afghanistan, where they can believe they can be a force.
LAKSHMANANAnd they want to sort of show themselves as being a big power, playing with the big boys, the P5 plus one, the permanent members of the Security Council at the table with them. And the United States is not going to let this happen and neither is the EU3 because first of all, Iran has been a big supporter of the Assad regime, for years. And also a supporter of terrorism and they basically said there's no way we're going to take Iran's advice on Syria.
REHMSo is there anything out there that's likely to alter Assad's behavior at this point, Matt Frei?
FREIWell, this is, again, where we come back to the Russians and if I can just add to what Indira was saying, I think you're right, the Americans, I think Hilary Clinton's already said the Iranians can't be on board with this. But the point is that the Iranians are more (unintelligible) to the Russians in a crucial, you know, integral part of this contact group. The Russians don't want to be seen to be isolated at the table because everybody else will be reined against them. They'd like to have someone who's sort of on their side and the Iranians will do the trick.
LAKSHMANANThey still got the Chinese, though.
FREIThey still have the Chinese, yes, they do. But I think the Iranians will be crucial for them emotionally. Now, but again, getting back to the Russians. Some reports indicate that Assad has already transferred vast amounts of money to Russian banks, is already preparing the groundwork for some sort of exile in Moscow and ultimately that would have to be part of the deal. The Russians would have to say to him, if it came to this, look, mate, you can come and live in Moscow.
FREII know it's not London, it's not Paris, the shoe shopping is not quite the same, but you can, you know, your wife will be happier there than she will be in dungeon in Damascus. This is the only alternative that we can offer you and, you know, that's ultimately the kind of unwritten plan behind the plan for this contact group. But again, it comes down to this issue, does Assad believe the Russians, right, and who is going to be there to replace him.
SANGERAnd does he believe there's a dungeon in his future? And I'm not sure he yet believes that.
REHMDavid Sanger of the New York Times, Matt Frei of the UK's Channel 4 News, Indira Lakshmanan, senior reporter for Bloomberg News. You can join us, 800-433-8850. David Sanger, there's been a lot of talk this week about the New York Times' pieces on America's targeted assassination program and the cyber-war on Iran's nuclear capabilities. There have been accusations that there were leaks to you and other reporters and that those leaks were politically motivated.
SANGERI've heard it all and, you know, it's never good when reporters become part of the news story.
SANGERI can only -- I've been on book leave from the Times for the past year and the article you're referring to was drawn from a book. So I can only speak to my experience in working on "Confront and Conceal," which is the book in question. And the story in question has to do with the remarkable tale of Olympic Games, which is the four-year long covert program by the United States against Iran's nuclear complex involving America's first use of cyber weapons.
SANGERSo start from first principles, you know, we're in Washington. We always like to talk about the leak controversy rather than what the substance is. The substance here is the United States using a very different weapon of war and the country's going to have to, at some point, come to grips with how we use this weapon, just as we had to come to grips with how we use nuclear weapons after 1945. That was a 20-year long debate that included suggestions that we used in Korea by Douglas MacArthur and suggestions that we use against the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It took a while to sort that out.
SANGERIt's taken 10 years to sort out the drone issue and from the drone strike story that you referred to, the Kilda story, as it's called. We are still trying to understand that. And in cyber, we are in completely the infancy stage, which is to say we're at this early moment of trying to figure it out.
REHMDavid Sanger, he's chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, author of the brand-new book, "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and the Surprising Use of American Power." Short break here, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back to the international hour of our Friday News Roundup this week with Matt Frei of the UK's Channel 4 News, Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News and David Sanger of the New York Times.
REHMWe were talking before the break about the accusation that there were leaks from the White House for political reasons regarding the use of drones, the President's statements at the White House news conference this morning saying, the notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive. It's wrong. I'm not going to comment on what are supposed to be classified items. Since I've been in office, my attitude has been zero tolerance for these kinds of leaks and speculation. David Sanger.
SANGERYou know, in your first hour ,Jerry Seib said something at the end there that is -- I think resonates with anybody who sits on these sides of the microphones and has reported these kinds of stories. The concept of leaks makes it sound as if you're sitting on your back porch, you know, having a nice iced tea and someone calls up and says, come on over. We're going to tell you about one of our more compartmentalized operations, okay. I've only worked for the New York Times for 30 years, but it hasn't worked that way for me yet, okay.
SANGERSo in the case of Olympic games, I started working on this 18 months ago and it was after what turned out to be the one big leak in this process, which was the leak of the computer code, what became known as Stuxnet, out of the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant. Because of a programming error, it got propagated around the internet. It was not supposed to happen that way. It was designed by the United States and Israel to stay inside the plant, okay. They made a mistake. It got on an engineer's laptop. It got out on the internet. Suddenly, the whole world saw a giant cyber weapon.
SANGERAnd I looked at this and I said, this is not a one-off thing. This has got to be part of a much larger campaign. And I spent 18 months going around the world, was reporting that was not exclusively in the United States by a long shot, trying to piece together the story of how this thing came into existence. And that's the story you read. So the idea that somebody at the White House just calls you up is kind of silly.
REHMSo, David, there are those who want to conduct a congressional investigation saying that there were leaks. What are you expecting?
SANGERYou know, I don't know what to expect out of this. You know, leak investigations come and go. I can understand and I take very seriously the need to keep classified information that is truly harmful to -- could lead to endangering lives or endangering ongoing operations. I have said publicly, the papers said publicly, that we took the information we had to the administration. We explained to them what the story was. We gave them a long period of time. No one ever asked us to hold the story. They did have requests about certain technical details that we withheld and we withheld them.
REHMAnd, Matt Frei, there were issues of national security raised by those in Congress who now want to conduct investigations.
FREIExactly, and not just Republicans, but also Democrats...
FREI...as Senator Dianne Feinstein most prominently said, that she wants an investigation into this. I think there's something absolutely fascinating about this. And, first of all, I take my hat off to David for the story because it is compelling reading. It's the kind of reading that if you went to a Hollywood director maybe a year ago and you said, I've got this great story, and you outlined all the details, they'd say, come on, you know, this doesn't ring true. Fact is, once again, stranger than fiction.
FREIBut here's the point. For most of us outside the beltway and outside the U.S., it hasn't quite sunk in yet that whatever you make of the details of this story and where it came from and who leaked what to whom, it hasn't sunk in yet that Barack Obama, the constitutional lawyer who ran on a ticket of open government and, you know, whose first act was to promise the closing of Guantanamo Bay has become the Commander in Chief of covert warfare, whether it's drone strikes or this.
FREIYou know, he is trying to find an alternative, some might say sly, back door, cat door route, into this ongoing struggle against extremism around the world. And that is fascinating and to most in Europe would be quite appalling actually. Whether you say it was squeamish on this or not, they are much more appalled by the fact that he's got a kill list than the other side in this country. The Republicans are saying, you're just trying to leak this stuff to make him look like a tough guy.
REHMAnd on the other hand, there are those who might agree with the president that this is the better way to go rather than sending troops in, Indira.
LAKSHMANANWell, I hope that we'll also talk about the drone program because I think that, you know, beyond Stuxnet and Flame and, you know, cyber warfare, the drone program and Obama's really hands-on approach with that is fascinating. And yes, you can argue that it's a way to keep American boots off the ground, but there are so many moral implications too that we're not even touching when we talk about it as him as a tough guy sitting in the White House personally getting involved in the CIA strikes with his kill list.
LAKSHMANANAnd, you know, just going back to the cyber warfare for a minute, I think it's important to think, you know, there are moral and there are strategic implications here.
LAKSHMANANAnd it's not as if the Iranians aren't fast learners. And the Pentagon said a year ago that basically cyber warfare was an act of war and that the United States could respond militarily, if you'll remember this. They put out a report saying the United States could respond militarily if another country took cyber warfare action against us. And so let's not think that the Iranians themselves won't learn from what we've done to them and couldn't release similar bugs on us with potentially devastating consequences. So that's something we really need to think about.
LAKSHMANANAnd also the implications it has for our diplomacy, our efforts at diplomacy with Iran. If we're sitting at the table with them in Moscow next week how are they going to believe that we're actually trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with them if at the same time we're admitting openly that we're engaged in outright cyber warfare with them?
REHMAnd one more comment from the president at the news conference. He says, we're dealing with issues that can touch on the safety and security of the American people. Let's talk about that drone strike in Pakistan, David. Who was the al-Qaida leader targeted? What was the result?
SANGERThis was the number two in al-Qaida. Number two job in al-Qaida is usually a really bad job to have 'cause you're usually the guy who's got to walk around with the cell phone, okay. And so there's got to be like a special life insurance policy for people who are number two in al-Qaida. And, you know, they've gone through a lot of number twos. And of course, the search continues for the man who was number two to bin Laden, al-Zawahiri. But in this...
REHMAnd is he now number one?
SANGERHe has been number one since the bin Laden raid. But the effect of this strike was to, once again, throw in chaos central al-Qaida in Pakistan. In fact, the bigger worry in Pakistan right now, as you heard from Secretary Gates, is not really al-Qaida. It's the Haqqani Network, which has been mounting many of these attacks on the United States.
REHMYou meant Panetta.
SANGERI'm sorry, Secretary Panetta.
SANGERMy apologies. And that in the course of the discussions between Pakistan and the United States, this has been very tough because the Pakistani newly elected democratic government that we want to go support, we keep hearing in Washington voted overwhelmingly about a month and a half ago to ban all foreign drone strikes in their country. And since that time, there've probably been eight, ten drone strikes, including this one.
SANGERNow Indira raised a very, very critical point, which is there is a common element between the drone strikes, the cyber and the Special Forces stuff. This is all part of what President Obama calls the Light Footprint Strategy. And it has become a central part of the Obama doctrine. It's actually why I went off to go write that book. It's about the Light Footprint Strategy.
SANGERAnd the question that it raises, there are moral questions, there are strategic questions and then there are also questions of can this be a success. If a drone is very good at taking out a living room full of terrorists, if a cyber weapon is very good at taking out an underground centrifuge site, over the long term, do you really solve the problem or do you raise such resentments that you drive the Pakistanis to end up supporting al-Qaida more that you drive the Iranians further underground with their nuclear program?
FREII think it's a really fascinating point you raise and, in a sense, if you're going to pursue the Light Footprint Strategy to its ultimate conclusion, what you might get is a country like Pakistan. Pakistan is a state whose running is based on a Light Footprint Strategy. This country's been run by the ISI, by the Intelligence Service for, well, more or less, since its creation. And I think that's why you get these fundamental ambiguities, call them hypocrisies, within Pakistan about everything from their treatment of extremist groups to their attitudes towards the judicial system, to the attitudes towards American drone strikes.
FREIYou know, they allow them on one hand. The military is giving a nudge and a wink to the U.S. saying, okay, drone strikes is something that we can't do ourselves. It's the most effective weapon against the extremists. On the other hand, they have to go -- you know, politically have to say, this is unacceptable. That's what you get when a covert strategy becomes a form of government.
LAKSHMANANI've been working for the last two weeks on a big story on U.S./Pakistan relations that ran last night. And one of the points that came out in that reporting -- I talked to over a dozen U.S. and Pakistani officials for it -- was that Obama has intentionally ordered an uptick, a dramatic increase in drone strikes over the last couple of months because there's an expectation that the Pakistani's are actually going to finally once and for all kick us off the last base to which we have access now.
LAKSHMANANSo remember there were two Pakistani bases from which the CIA was flying drone strikes. Right now, there's only one. And, you know, it's quiet. People don't talk about it, but we are still doing it from there. And the Pakistanis are hopping mad about this. From 2004 until last year, they were basically giving their tacit approval for all of these drone strikes. But it's gotten to the point where it's become a wounded national pride. And I date this back really to the Abbottabad raid against Osama bin Laden. There was such an uproar.
LAKSHMANANYou know, on the one hand, you would think that Pakistan would be delighted and say, thank you so much for taking out the world's most wanted terrorist. But instead, it was seen as, we didn't know about this. Our sovereignty was violated. The U.S. came in without asking us. Plus, the humiliation of Osama bin Laden being hiding there steps from, you know, a Pakistan's version of West Point. So a lot of this has turned on the drone campaign as another emblem of U.S. violations of Pakistani sovereignty.
REHMSo now you have Secretary Panetta saying that he is running out of patience with Pakistan, David.
SANGERWell, the question is do the Pakistanis believe him because the United States has said this to Pakistan many times. And the most recent time regarding the Haqqani Network was a fascinating secret meeting that took place between Tom Donilon the National Security Advisor and General Kayani that took place in October of last year, right after the Haqqani Network had staged a pretty spectacular attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and nearly killed, in a separate attack, 75 or 77 Americans who fortunately got away with very, very light injuries. And I describe this meeting in the opening of the book.
SANGERBut the essence of it was Mr. Donilon saying to Kayani, look, the ultimate responsibility of the President of the United States is to defend Americans and defend American troops. So someone's going to clean up the Haqqani Network and it's either going to be you guys or it's going to be the U.S. And if you didn't like the bin Laden raid, you wouldn't like to see what would be coming, okay.
SANGERSo I think part of what was coming were these drone strikes that were stepped up, just as Indira just said. But there may be more coming because that alone is not going to take out the Haqqani Network. And I think that's the message they're trying to say.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Matt.
FREIBut I think, you know, to borrow a phrase, Pakistan is too big to fail, you know. And that has always -- and even Panetta, when he was operating the Pakistanis, saying we're running out of patience said, you're an essential ally, which, of course, everyone knows. So again, there's no real alternative to the current strategy.
SANGERMatt, let me argue with you. I think they're too nuclear to fail, not too big to fail.
FREIYeah, well, I was trying to be smart, I'm sorry. Okay, well, there we go. We agree. But I think the -- and again, that's the problem. You know, let's say they did something like, you know, you suggested that, you know, the Americans actually went in and took out the Haqqani Network lock, stock and barrel and they didn't trust the Pakistanis to do it for them. You know, there's always that worry that if you push them too hard, if you humiliate them even more you're going to, you know, facilitate the breakup of this nuclear entity.
LAKSHMANANAnd let's not forget we are a long way from where we were 22 years ago when there was really a rupture in U.S. Pakistani relations. And I'm referring to the Pressler Amendment which cut off most economic and military aid for Pakistan because of its nuclear program. And then the U.S. went so far, at the time, as to refuse to deliver a fleet of F16s for which the Pakistanis had already paid $500 million.
LAKSHMANANSo I don't think we're quite at that point yet, but we're close. And it's so bad I think, in part because there's not only such deep mutual distrust, but there's a real lack of understanding on either side and a tin ear, frankly. I mean, the Pakistanis think that we need them more than they need us. I think it's gotten to the point at the White House where the president thinks, you know what? We don't actually need them. If they don't -- if they're not going to cooperate, you know, I think the administration's pretty fed up and willing to figure out other alternatives.
LAKSHMANANWe do have the northern distribution network to get supplies to Afghanistan through Uzbekistan if we don't finally get the Pakistani routes reopened. There are alternatives. That said, I want to say that Pakistanis say -- a few Pakistani national security officials said to me, well, if you guys are so sure that we're sheltering the Haqqani Network and that the Haqqani Network has bases on our soil, then why don't you tell us exactly where they are so we can go take out those basis. They claim that the U.S. hasn't told them.
LAKSHMANANOr they say, if you really knew where they were, you would have taken them out already with your drones. That's their argument.
SANGERThe U.S. answer to that is they actually have provided them with maps, you know, and shown them where they are. But, you know, you raise a very...
LAKSHMANANOr that they see them coming over the border, but don't know exactly where they're going to. That's the other response.
SANGERThat's right. Now you raise an interesting point that the Pakistanis remember very well the cutoff of money during the Pressler Amendment. They also remember how that ended. We sanctioned Pakistan and India after their mutual tests in 1998, their nuclear tests. And then, on about September 12 or 13, 2001, when we needed the Pakistanis, all of the sanctions went away. And they think that sooner or later we will need them again and the sanctions will go away.
REHMI want to ask one last quick question on Syria and that is in regard to Senator Marco Rubio's piece in the Wall Street Journal urging more action on Syria, Indira.
LAKSHMANANI find Marco Rubio's foreign policy just fascinating. And I have to say I went to a speech that he did at the Brookings Institution about a month or so ago on foreign policy. And in a way, I could've said that the headline of that speech was, I'm not Sarah Palin. You know, I actually know where countries are. And he really tried to be serious.
LAKSHMANANAt the same time, as a reporter who covers Hillary Clinton, I found it fascinating that you listen to Marco Rubio and his foreign policy didn't sound that different from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. So I think he was also trying to paint himself as someone who could work on both sides of the fence. And the Syria option he's presented is one that some democrats have also supported.
REHMIndira Lakshmanan, senior reporter for Bloomberg News. Short break. When we come back, we'll open the phones, your questions, comments on Iran, Syria, Greece, Europe. It's endless. Stay with us.
REHMAnd our first email is a question for David Sanger. It's from Susan in Washington D.C. Please ask David Sanger directly, "did someone inside the White House or the government leak information to you and ask to be anonymous? I admire David, but he's dodging the issue left and right."
SANGERI'm clearly not going to talk about sources, other than to say that for a story of this size there are many, many, many sources. And some of them, as we describe in the story, were participants in the decision-making and others were elsewhere and the biggest leak of all, as I said, was technological. I can't go into sourcing for all the obvious reasons.
SANGERI don't think most of your listeners want us to because the critical issue, the critical First Amendment issue for us, is to be able to keep airing issues of public interest that need to be on the agenda, even if the United States government doesn't want them on the agenda. That does not necessarily mean that you are ignorant of national security and as I said before we go to extraordinary lengths to try to make sure that we are not endangering ongoing operations or lives.
REHMAnd here's the follow-up from Joe to David, "what if it should happen that the release of the information which David Sanger and the Times felt had been adequately vetted turns out not to have been and we discover concrete examples of its having undermined our security? Will the Times report on all the possible blowback such an indiscretion might engender?"
SANGERVery good question. Yes, we would cover all of that and you know information, when it gets released, always has some level of unintended consequences and not just what's released in the media things the government says, things the government chooses to say publically. The critical question here is, though, is there a way to discuss the underlying critical issues, in this case, do we want to be using drones, do we want to be using cyber war? What kind of rules do we have for them and still do that without violating national security? And I believe you can. Think of it this way, almost every detail of our atomic arsenal is classified and yet, for forty years, we have had a big debate in the United States about how and when to use nuclear weapons.
SANGERAlmost everything about the drone program is classified and yet, thanks to a press that kept the issue up starting in the Bush administration, we have now had a fairly healthy debate about the rules under which we use drones. And you know what? It's not a secret to the Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians that we are developing cyber weapons. The United States government has admitted to developing them, it's just never admitted to using them. And so it's not as if these States don't believe we don't have cyber offensive capability.
REHMBut, Matt Frei, what happens when others develop and use these cyber weapons and perhaps one lands in Times Square?
FREIWell, obviously, that would be dreadful, but they're not going to develop these weapons because they've read David's book. They're going to develop them because they've got thousands of computer geeks working on exactly the same programs, whether it's in China or obviously, the Israelis or the Germans, who knows? I mean, this is something that's going to become more prevalent, but I think David is absolutely right. If this is going to be a weapon of choice for this administration or indeed for others, it has to be discussed in the open.
FREINot just -- to be fair to the electors out there, to the population, but also to our Allies. I mean, the Brits were pretty upset, my sources told me, when that last bit of information about the Yemeni bomber, the upgraded underpants bomber, who became a double agent, when that came out into the public. And now this was a huge coup for the intelligence services in the West and this man was a British national, you know. The British government was not very happy for this information to be made public because that's clearly compromised a source, a line of attack. And so here's an example of how, you know, you have to tread quite carefully.
REHMAl right. To Burlington, N.C. Good morning, Reed.
REEDGood morning, Diane. You sound great this morning.
REEDJust wanted to ask your panel in regard to this Iran cyber attack, it's been reported that it was done in conjunction with Israel. Is it possible, does your panel think it's possible or plausible that the United States worked in conjunction with Israel on this in order to prevent Israel from unilaterally and militarily attacking Iran on its own?
LAKSHMANANYeah, I think that's very much the belief that President Obama has been trying, in one way or another, to hold off an Israeli military strike. And we've seen it through his diplomacy and the public statements he's made. And when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here visiting the ways in which Obama said, of course, Israel is a sovereign nation, and yet at the same time, the United States is behind the scenes putting more sanctions on Iran with regard to its nuclear program and all sorts of economic sanctions that you could say have nothing really to do with the nuclear program than any previous administration in history.
LAKSHMANANSo sanctions is one thing, cyber warfare is another. I think it's very plausible that the administration was using this as a way to try to hold off a military strike. But then there's the question, how long did it actually delay it? I mean, Stuxnet, if it destroyed a thousand centrifuges, what does that set back Iran? It sets them back a few months or a year? And in the end, again, it brings up the moral questions of, if they're using our own worms that we've sent in against them and modifying them and sending them back to us, it's just a question.
SANGERWell, first, to the narrow question. The CIA estimate that I've quoted in the story in the book is that it set back Stuxnet itself, as it came to be known later, it was not a U.S. government phrase, but set out by sort of computer security experts, set the Iranian program back by 18 years to two months, others think...
LAKSHMANAN18 months to two years...
SANGERI'm sorry, 18 months to two years. And others think that it was shorter than that, but in any case, that's about the estimates of what a military strike might...
SANGERAnd several officials have been, I think, quite clear...
LAKSHMANANDepending, of course, on whether it's an Israeli military strike or a U.S. military strike...
SANGEROr combined. Right. And I think there have been several people who have said before and since this that the reason that the United States worked together so closely with Israel was, in part, to show them that there was an alternative to a military strike that might be at least equally effective.
REHMTo Tyson's Corner, Va. Hadji (sp?) , you're on the air.
HADJIHow you doing, Diane?
REHMJust fine, sir. Go right ahead.
HADJIYeah, I have a comment. The first one is about Syria, the post-Assad Syria. How it gonna look like with all the terrorist groups getting involved in the civil war in Syria and the divided opposition? And my second comment is about the Arab Spring countries. We see those countries, they're trying to establish a democracy with the help of the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar and these two countries are absolute monarchy. How it's possible that absolute monarchy will help establish democracy in another country?
FREIYeah, a tough one, that, isn't it? I mean, at some stage, the Saudis will have to grasp the nettle of internal reform more vigorously than they've done so far. There've been incremental changes there, but at the end of the day, I think even they know, certainly the more enlightened rulers in Riyadh know, that they cannot escape the winds of populism forever. The extent to which they do that, the extent to which their efforts to try to do that, will be derailed by the mess in Syria or elsewhere or whatever happens in the kind of moving tectonic plates of the Middle East in the next few years, is really a very big open question. But I think he's right and at some stage, it's going to come home to roost.
FREIOn the second point, what is Syria going to look like after this transition's over who knows? I mean, I think at the moment we're really judging this on a day by day, week by week basis and really the only priority is to stop the absolute hemorrhaging of the patient, to stop all out civil war.
REHMTo Shelbyville, Michigan. Good morning, Greg.
GREGGood morning, Diane and all. The idea of debating this stuff in the open is critical because everyone seems to think that cyber warfare really is mischievous and causes things to stop working. But thinking beyond that, the world community needs to actually lay out some rules about what may or may not be appropriate behavior because cyber warfare represents the idea to surgically do things through the interconnectivity of manufacturing systems and transportation systems and water purification and power plants and on and on and on, remotely and surgically, and could cause loss of life not associated with a normal battle or disabling a particular thing.
GREGBut there are no rules for cyber warfare, there is no Geneva Convention and is it inappropriate -- do we have to find out after the fact that someone has the capability to do something that, you know, the level of connectivity in the world today through computers into virtually every aspect of life is absolutely amazing and the people that are doing these kind of things know about that.
SANGERGreg is absolutely right. I think that President Obama has been very active, as President Bush was a bit before him, in warning about the need for the United States to build up significant defenses along these lines. The Department of Homeland Security is deeply involved in trying to do that. In the course of my research, I went out and saw some of their facilities where they try to monitor what's coming into the country. But the fact of the matter is, as Greg points out, we've now seen a new kind of cyber weapon. You know, the first decade or so of cyber attacks were attacks that either came in to scoop up information what the Chinese are accused of doing every day in the United States inside the Pentagon's computers or defense contractor's computers and so forth.
SANGEROr there have been attacks to sort of shut down computers. What Olympic Games was all about was a very different kind of attack. It was going through computers to destroy infrastructure, in this case, the Iranian centrifuges. In fact, the U.S. built a mock-up of the Iranian plant in the United States and then attacked it with its own computers to see if the centrifuges would get destroyed. And when they took the rubble from them and brought them to Washington and put it on the conference room in the situation room just in the conference table to show President Bush that, in fact, it would work. But the question then is, how do you design rules around this? And, you know, it took us 20 years with nuclear weapons before we even had the first treaties. And we probably don't have 20 years to wait here.
REHMAll right. To Tampa, Florida. Hello, Albaro.
ALBAROHello, thanks for taking my call. I would like to question why they think that, in your show as well as in the rest of the media, only one point of view has been given in relationship to Syria. I have to welcome the question that the gentleman before me asked about Qatar and Saudi Arabia being projected in all the media, including (unintelligible) as liberators and fighters of democracy.
REHMAll right and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Matt Frei.
FREII think there was one point of view that perhaps we should emphasize a bit more now in our coverage and that's across the board in the Western media and I think that's why I agree with the caller. And that is that if you're an Alawite or a Shiite living in Syria, you see this rather like the Bosnian Serbs did in the dark days of the Bosnian War, the mid-1990s, as a fight for your survival. Even though you've been misruling that country for goodness knows how many decades and you're part of, you know, the ruling clan or you're associated with them, you have benefited through your clan connections, through your tribal connections, you know, in terms of business and power and so on.
FREIYou know, that when this thing is over, when the majority takes over, you're going to be in just as bad a position as the people that you've mistreated all this time. And I think there has to -- and that's part again getting back to Kofi Annan, I think part of this whole transition plan, is to try at least imagine the stemming of the bloodletting that is almost inevitable after the fall of the regime. There has to be some guarantee to the Alawites that they will not be treated in the same way as they treated the majority Sunnis for all these years. That may be hard for some to swallow, but I think without that, there can be no political settlement.
LAKSHMANANWell, I mean, I think that's -- and Bosnia is an excellent example, an excellent comparison. I mean, if we just look at the latest massacre in this village, though, what we saw was scores of women and children who were from a Sunni group being massacred. And, you know, the fingers seem to point to these pro-government Alawite-run militias that have been accused of running around and committing these massacres.
LAKSHMANANSo we see the country degenerating into sectarian violence already, as Matt has made clear. And I think he makes a really good point that looking forward, whether there is going to be a Yemeni solution, where there's a peaceful ushering out of Assad out the door, or something else there needs to be some plan for the future of trying to make sure that there isn't sectarian violence that continues, so I think it's a good point.
REHMAnd finally, in the President's press conference today, he did talk about Europe, he talked about Greece. What about Spain? Matt Frei, Spain's credit rating was downgraded. How serious are Spain's banking troubles?
FREIThe rain in Spain, Diane, never stays on the plain. It washes up everywhere else, as we're about to discover. I mean, well, Spain's banking problems are relatively easy to comprehend, although not easy to sort out because essentially this is a country, an economy, that while it didn't indulge in the same kind of excesses as, let's say, the Greek economy or the Italian economy, it had a massive property bubble rather like Ireland, rather like in the United States. And that property bubble financed by some ill thought out credits by lots of banks is now coming home to roost.
FREINow, the amount of money that they're talking about is, you know, the Spaniards have perhaps asking for $40 billion to save this one particular bank and therefore create a firewall. I'm told by some people that the IMF, together with the European Central Bank, are prepared to give $90 billion to shore it up. Look, the fundamental problem is, and this is a problem that simply won't go away, we created Europe, but we haven't yet created Europeans. And until you have some sort of fiscal or political union that allows people to share the burden financial, fiscal, otherwise, of what's coming down the pike where Germans feel that it is in their interest to help, you know, lazy Greeks, as they might call them, or profligate Italians or whatever, unless they feel that you're not going to solve this crisis down the road. But here's the problem, Diane, the longer the agony continues, the more the ghosts of history are knocking on the door and the less likely that kind of union will be.
REHMMatt Frei of the UK's Channel 4 News, Indira Lakshmanan senior reporter for Bloomberg News, David Sanger of the New York Times and author of the new book "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power." Thank you all.
REHMHave a great weekend everybody and thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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