Space Law

One of the more notable recent events was the launching of a non-government rocket by a company run by Elon Musk to the International Space Station. Apparently Boeing is going to do something similar in the not too distant future. In some ways this is exciting, because one way or another, human ventures into space will increase markedly. I recall in 1969 sitting in front of a TV one morning (I was in Australia) getting direct feed from Parkes to see the first Moon landing in real time. (OK, there was a slight delay due to the speed of light, and probably more due to feed looping, but you know what I mean.) There was real tension because while everyone was reasonably confident that NASA had selected a good site, it was always possible the ground was not as solid as it might appear and it only needed for the lander to roll over and the ending might have been less than happy. Additionally, the landing was not entirely optimal, and fuel consumption was a little higher than anticipated. This may not seem important, but it did at the time. But all ended well. There were several more Moon landings, and apart from Apollo 13, the program was brilliantly successful. The recovered rocks are still yielding scientific information.

Then the program ended. And nothing more happened. We constructed the International Space Station, with reusable shuttles, but somehow this has had limited value. Certainly, it has permitted the testing of the effects of long periods of weightlessness on people and on other life forms. The best part of this was we got international cooperation. Arguably, humanity was going into space and not just various countries. We have sent a battery rovers and space craft through the solar system, and we genuinely know a lot more about our planetary system. When I was a schoolboy, I believe I knew as much about the planets, other than their orbital details, as anyone. That may sound ridiculous, but I believe it to be true because basically nobody knewvery much at all. They guessed on the basis of their observations, and their guesses were largely wrong. So that part of the space program has been a resounding success, but it brings into question, what is the point of acquiring that information if we do nothing with it? If we do, who does? If different parties go to space, what will be the rules they must follow? Who decides? It is much better if we can get this sorted before various parties get there.

There are two schools of thought. One is, we should stay here and leave the rest of the solar system for careful study, or if we do go somewhere, like Mars, again it should be for study, and we should leave it alone. The other school of thought is the solar system is a resource, and we should be free to tap into it. Which brings up the question, who decides? And what happens if someone does something another group decides should not be done? What happens if one government decides to do something, and a private company decides to do something similar in the same place? How are issues such as these to be resolved?

On Earth, we use the courts to resolve many such issues, although for some issues, governments decide, and of course the split between governments and courts varies from country to country. Worse than that, there is often no real logical reason to prefer one route over another, and the decision is made through politics. Again, different countries have different political systems, so two countries might reach very different decisions based properly on the way they conduct their affairs. Often enough, the various countries find that there is an impasse in finding common ground. What then? Carl von Clausewitz’ “war is a continuation of politics by other means” is not where we want to end up.

There is another problem. For a court to resolve something, there has to be law, and law follows from sovereignty, that is, the right to impose the law, AND the means of enforcing it. So, what happens in space? There is no sovereignty, and suppose there were settlers on Mars, why should they not have their own sovereignty? While they might start off as a colony, through needing a lot of support from people on Earth, their laws should not be imposed by people who have no concept of what life is like there. For example, environmental laws to conserve nature on Earth should not be imposed on Mars, where settlers would struggle just to get what they need to stay alive. Additionally, why would Russian settlers on Mars have to obey American laws, or vice versa? We might argue that the United Nations should set the laws for space, but unless all countries interested in exploring space agreed to them, why should they? Why should countries with no interest in space have standing in setting such laws?

Then there is the question of enforcement. The US is creating a “Space Force” so what happens if they try to stop Russians, say, from doing something in space that the US does not like? Settlements on planets are another matter. There, in my opinion, enforcement will have to fall on settlements, if for no other reason than if a crime is committed on Mars, we cannot have the situation where everyone has to wait for possibly a year and a half to get investigators from Earth. And if anyone thinks there will be no crime, I say, think again. The history of colonization is littered with crime. The US had its “wild west”, Australia its bushrangers, and the history of New Zealand has serious crime, the most spectacular being armed hold-ups of gold during the gold rush days. There will also be other opportunities for crime that are a little more sophisticated, such as in my novel “Red Gold

But there will also be serious commercial disagreements, particularly if some want to use something and others want to preserve it. I believe everyone has the right to their opinion, but there have to be rules and a means of enforcing them to avoid conflict. This procedure should be fully established beforeit is needed. There is plenty of time to argue now, but not in the middle of a dispute, and it is wrong to impose restrictions on an activity when huge sums of money have already been spent.

International Tension

There have been two situations on the international scene lately that have the potential to bring the close of 2018 into the likelihood of a serious deterioration in international peace and prosperity, although the first is probably going to be put to one side after more arm-waving and pontificating. This one involves three Ukrainian naval vessels trying to get from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, and in particular to their port of Mariupol, the port for south east Ukraine. These vessels were stopped, some by ramming, and arrested by the Russian coastguard, possibly the navy, and FSB officers. The incident occurred at a place that would be within the territorial waters of Russia, although Ukraine does not recognize Crimea as being part of Russia, which would alter the argument. Ukraine states that it started just outside such territorial waters, but has not provided accurate and detailed coordinates and in any case the Ukrainian ships proceeded into clear territorial waters. There is apparently a 2003 agreement that the Kerch Strait is a shared waterway, which allows free passage.

This has created the usual heat and not much light. Time magazine had an opinion by retired US Admiral Stavridis that makes a number of interesting statements. The first is that Putin more or less engineered this because the Mueller investigation is “coming to a head” (really?) and there was a need for the US to persuade its allies to take a firmer stand with Russia. (How does the second follow from the first?) Also the US should bolster Ukrainian defence, presumably to make Putin regret engineering this. Leave aside the bluster, notice anything? The Ukrainian ships had to enter the waters around the Kerch strait, so Ukraine controlled the timing. That makes it difficult for Putin to have engineered it. A further statement was that Russia needed to secure communications and control this Strait “to truly consolidate Crimea”. Needless to say, what is missing from this article is the fact that Russia has secured communication by building a bridge across the Strait. Access to the Sea of Azov requires passing under the bridge, which involves a relatively narrow piece of waterway. As an Admiral, he should know something about ship handling. Do you want two ships coming head-on into a very narrow choke-point? The Russians argue that anyone can pass through, but they must register the intention so that traffic control can be maintained. That seems reasonable to me. The Ukrainian sailors apparently have said they did not register, and they were ordered to ignore Russian controls. Form your own opinion, but it seems to me that Ukraine was deliberately trying to prod Russia. Why? Well, one theory is that Ukrainian elections are due in a few months, Poroshenko currently would be lucky to get 25% of the vote, so why not generate a foreign crisis? The significant point about this, for me, is the US position as stated by this Admiral: what is stated is at best half-truths, and the really important information is left out.

The second incident was that Meng Wanzhou, the Chief Financial Officer of Huawei, has been arrested at Vancouver airport in order that she be extradited to the US to face unspecified crimes, but ones that probably relate to the fact that Huawei is selling telecommunications equipment to Iran. That is about all we know for sure, but apparently John Bolton knew this could occur in advance and presumably approved of it.

Going back a bit, a number of countries signed a deal with Iran that they would trade with it if Iran agreed not to proceed with the development of nuclear weapons. The US then pulled out of the deal, seemingly on the basis  that Trump believes that if when a deal has been struck, if he then pulls out at some future random time he can add more concessions to make a new deal more favourable to himself. Iran has refused Trump’s rhetoric, which is basically to side with Saudi Arabia against Iran. So the US imposed sanctions against Iran, and has stated it will sanction anyone else who deals with Iran. A number of other signatories did not impose sanctions when Iran has seemingly complied with the deal. The EU has stated that the EU will continue to trade with Iran as long as it maintains its part of the nuclear weapons deal. Thus the usual explanation for Meng’s arrest is that Huawei is breaking US sanctions by supplying to Iran. If this is so, does this not introduce a rather ugly precedent?

Thus we have the situation where if another country continues with a deal that the US joined, but then arbitrarily pulled out of, then the US requires the other countries to follow the US dictates, and if they do not, the US will arrest their citizens. That makes the president of the US almost able to dictate to the rest of the world.

Huawei is having a bad time, thanks to the US. A number of countries have been told by the US they should not implement Huawei 5G technology for undefined security reasons. As far as security goes, why does the US feel its technology is so secure? If it is secure, why are various politicians making continual assertions of election hacking? As it happens Huawei 5G technology appears to be more advanced than any US technology in telecommunications, and this has the ugly theme of if you can’t compete fairly, you will bully the opposition. This to me is the misuse of power. However, China is not really a country that will bow down to bullying. Apparently China had made concessions to Trump to buy more US exports before they knew about this arrest. What is the bet this won’t go ahead? But worse than that, by what right do you arrest a citizen of another country who is following the law of the country they live in just because (a) that country is in a spat with the US, and (b) the person was apparently in a transit lounge. A person cannot follow two contradictory laws, so why does the US think its Presidential edicts prevail everywhere?

The Art of International Negotiations

The methodology of engaging international relations seems to be breaking down. Two issues that come to mind are the US attitude to the International Criminal Court, and Brexit.

Regarding the ICC, on September 10, John Bolton, the US National Security Advisor, announced that Washington would “use any means necessary” to push back against the influence of the ICC. The ICC was established in 2002, and has succeeded in convicting a number of war criminals from Africa and former Yugoslavia, although one can question exactly the nature of the sovereignty of the broken laws. Thus a senior military man could be prosecuted for the actions actually carried out by more junior soldiers, even in the absence of clear evidence of such orders. Obviously, people carrying out, or even worse, ordering murder, torture, etc, need punishing, but there also needs to be some sort of sovereignty, the reason being that, in my mind anyway, justice needs to be blind to the origin or nature of the perpetrators. If it is only the losing side that gets prosecuted, it is essentially victor’s justice, which is usually little better than revenge. Given that the US, Israel, China and Saudi Arabia have refused to ratify the founding document, on the basis that it had unacceptable consequences to national sovereignty, the concept of “international” is clearly questionable.

Now, as far as I know, no US citizen has ever been indicted, probably because it would be futile, but apparently there has been agitation regarding US soldiers in Afghanistan, particularly regarding alleged torture of detainees. Now, the argument then is, if the crime took place in Afghanistan, the fact that the US has not ratified the court is irrelevant, and any perpetrator of a crime against a ratified member can be prosecuted, irrespective of the nationality, or at least that is the view of the ICC. Of course, arresting such a person is another matter. Here, however, there is a further issue. Some of what is alleged, e.g. waterboarding and indefinite detention without due process, apparently occurred with the permission of very senior US officials and politicians, and apparently the President. This raises the question, exactly how does such an organization decide whether the President of the United States has ordered or permitted something that is illegal? But if the United States is exempt, why are lesser countries susceptible to prosecution? Is it a case of might makes right?

In any case, Bolton’s statement that the US would ban any such members of the ICC from entering the US, and it would sanction their funds and prevent them from using the US financial system is certainly a shot across the bow. The question then is, is this the way of going about negotiations? Or does the US feel there is no alternative? It is certainly acting as if the rest of the world is some sort of unfortunate added extra. In terms of international relations, the United States, through President Trump’s recent speech at the UN, has effectively declared it feels it wishes to separate its interests from those of the rest of the world. America first! I for one agree that all is not right with the UN, but I do not believe that attitude helps.

The Brexit negotiations are more confusing. The EU rules meant that when Britain elected to leave, there was a two-year period to sort out all the consequences, but at least the last six months of that appeared to be required to put the agreement in place, which left 18 months to reach the agreement. That has almost expired. The EU has decided that the UK has been “dawdling”, and trying to present the EU with a deal that would have to be agreed at the last minute, or no deal. The problem with that approach is that “no deal” works both ways, and the assumption that the other side is desperate to have a deal may be misguided. However, there are issues on which the EU is quite obstinate. One is that if the UK wants access to the EU markets, Britain must accept the free movement of citizens, and stopping that is one of the reasons Britain elected to leave the EU. There are other demands by the EU: manufactured goods must be by the EU rulebook; the European Court of Justice will have overall jurisdiction; the UK must retain European labour and environmental laws. Now it is reasonable to require such things for goods that are shipped to the EU, but the EU should have no say on goods that do not touch the EU as it is none of their business.

Some seem to predict a total disaster for the UK if they leave with no deal, however we should note that the UK buys £318 billion from the EU, and exports £235.8 billion. So, if all trade stopped, the EU would suffer an extra £82 billion. But the situation is worse than that because Britain’s exports of manufactured goods to Europe include an extensive array of parts, etc. These days, large complicated objects are not made by one company, but rather they are assembled from parts supplied by a large number of different manufacturers. So trade will not stop, and it is in both sides’ interests to keep it going with as few hold-ups as possible.

The other major problem is the Northern Ireland border. Theresa May offered a tolerably straightforward solution, which would allow smooth crossing of the border provided certain “paperwork” (essentially electronic in this case) was properly completed. The EU have responded by saying Northern Ireland must remain fully within the customs union, which effectively means that Northern Ireland would become part of Eire in all but name. No UK prime minister could accept that. As a negotiating stance, President Macron of France has stated the British plan is unacceptable because “it does not respect the integrity of the single market.” Effectively that is saying, either be in the EU or do not trade with it. That is a fairly tough stance. President Macron went further and called some of the Brexiteers liars. Not exactly diplomatic.

There is fairly clear evidence the attitude towards the UK from Brussels has hardened, and they seem to be forcing Britain to opt for “no deal”. Mrs May, being pushed into a corner, has responded by saying that it was unacceptable for the EU to reject her plan and offer nothing in return except “no Brexit”. To succeed in negotiations, both sides need something, and in this case, both sides need trade to continue. Neither side does well out of a failure. But both sides also need reasonably good will, and a desire to reach an agreement. Not a lot of promise there. It is hard to get rid of entrenched pig-headedness.

The Price of Inequality

Recently, the United States has had a glut of school shootings, and you may be wondering what that has to do with the title. I am going to suggest, quite a lot, indirectly. It also illustrates society’s inability to reason. There are continual calls for gun control, and while I agree there is a rather bizarre lack of responsibility in the ability to buy guns in the US, I do not think that is particularly relevant to what has happened. When I was a boy, I had access to a 22 calibre rifle that I used to go rabbit shooting (rabbits are a real pest in Australia and New Zealand because there are no controlling predators) and yes, I went out and shot rabbits, as did some of my friends, but nobody even thought about going out and shooting a person, let alone a bunch of school children. Why not? Because we all were looking forward to joining society, and we had ambitions. Not big ambitions, but we saw our future place. Of course it did not turn out as we envisaged, but it never does.

So, what is different now? My guess is that too many of the younger generation do not see a future they want. In the US, they see the rust belt, they see the jobs have gone to Asia. Of course the more capable ones see a future, but my betting is the shooters are the very disgruntled ones that see themselves heading to the bottom of the heap. They see nothing to live for, so their warped thinking says they should take out some others first.

And here I come to inequality. What can a young person aspire to, if they are of the pessimistic style nature? In many places, house costs have risen hopelessly so as to price out such ownership from the below average income earner, and worse, more and more people are becoming below average. That is because all the wealth has rocketed into the hands of a few. They see the elderly coming to the point where they cannot retire because they cannot afford to. It is all very well to say that the elderly like working. Some do, but many have started a decline in their health and can’t. Too many people spend most of their income balancing a debt problem. Now you may say, that is their fault, and to some extent it is, but what sort of society are we if there is no way out for the tolerably useful?

An added problem is that as the general income declines, and governments seem determined to lower taxes on the rich, who, by and large, pay surprisingly little anyway, then we see a decline in social welfare, like healthcare, pensions, and an increase in education costs. And what is bizarre, and shows that in a democracy you cannot go wrong by assuming the general population is mathematically illiterate, we find the poor voting for a tax cut that will save them the odd few dollars a week only to find their costs for social services have risen astronomically. And a further odd thing about this is that governments tell their people that they are making progress by privatising such social requirements. “The private sector does things more efficiently,” the economists say, without bothering to check whether the private sector is actually doing it for any but the rich. If you don’t believe me, check the US drug prices, and compare them with many other countries with a state-run single buyer system. Of course the private sector is more efficient but that is at making money, its only real objective.

So, what we see are a few who are making money in truly gross amounts by taking from the many. By and large they are not adding anything to society. Since when did credit default swaps increase the general well-being? And this is what the young see. Something needs to be done, but they feel helpless. Except for the unfortunate monster with a gun.

What Does Evidence Prove?

I often hear people say they want evidence-based decision-making, but they then behave in a totally different way. My view is evidence is all observed facts relating to the issue at hand. Only too many people think evidence is that which supports their hypothesis, and that which does not is irrelevant. Thus collecting evidence requires dispassionate thoroughness, while determining what such evidence means requires clear logic. However, not everyone is capable of being truly dispassionate once they have reached a conclusion; they do not like revisiting previous decisions.

Consider the hypothetical statement, John murdered Joe. Joe’s apartment door was open, whereupon another apartment dweller found the body, which had a bullet through his head. Forensics tell you he died of the bullet wound at about 1 am. Joe is dead, which meets the first criterion, and there is no gun left behind. So, was he murdered?

Superficially, suicide can be eliminated, but in principle someone else could have removed the gun, so there are actually two hypotheses consistent with that evidence. The police could test the victim’s hands for gunpowder residue, but suppose they jump to a conclusion and don’t bother? Some innocent could go to jail.

So, what about John? People state that earlier John had a heated argument with Joe in his apartment. John has no alibi; he states he was in bed asleep at the time. They find John’s DNA in the apartment, but apart from Joe’s, nobody else’s. After a lot of questioning, the police find someone who saw a man walking away from the apartment block “early in the morning”. The person looked like John and was wearing a hoodie. John owns a hoodie.

So, what do we have? Strictly speaking, nothing against John. John does not deny the heated argument, and it also explains why his DNA is in the apartment. That no other DNA is there is not necessarily indicative that nobody else was there, but merely that nobody else left enough to be found. Just because you argue does not mean you will murder the other person, and anyone that lives alone is likely to be in bed asleep at 1 am. As for the “identification”, all we have is a man of about John’s height was wearing a hoodie. Such evidence can be consistent with a statement, but it can only prove the statement if it falsifies every other possibility.

Now, a real case. A young couple were at a New Year party near a marina and also present (and relevant to this) were our accused, who was drunk and behaving badly by trying to chat up any female, and a “scruffy man”, who was never identified and was alleged by the police to be the accused. The “evidence” in support of this was somehow they got a scruffy photo of the accused and one person picked this photo out of a photo lineup. He was later to say that the photo indicated the degree of scruffiness but it was not intended as a full identification, and as it happened, this photo did not look particularly like the accused. The two young people were ferried out to a boat at the invitation of scruffy man. The man who ferried them out described the boat as a forty-foot ketch. The couple were never seen again.

The police arrested the accused, and claimed they had been taken to his boat, a twenty-six foot sloop. The accused had been repainting his boat, and the police claimed he was covering up evidence. The accused claimed it was normal maintenance. The witnesses claimed that the water taxi ferrying the victims out left on a given course and gave a time for how long it took to get there. That would put it a minimum of ninety meters away from the sloop. The police maintained there was no ketch, but independently some claimed to have seen it, and their location of it was roughly where this water taxi went. In evidence there was no ketch, the police produced a montage of the whole area, and there was no ketch. The problem then was the various photos were all taken at different times, and all of them well before the party. The police argued the two were locked away in a cabin of the sloop, and there were scratch marks where they had fought to get out. Evidence was that the scratch marks had been there before. Finally, after some time, forensics found two hairs belonging to one of the victims on a blanket taken from the sloop. What do you make of that?

If someone were making deep scratches trying to get out (a futile gesture but that is beside the point) there would be a lot of other DNA there. Ha, the police said, the accused cleaned that up. But if he was good enough to clean up all the DNA from everywhere else, why not get rid of the bedding, because it was almost certain that something would be left behind? In my opinion, the key evidence was where these victims were taken. If you know anything about boats, you know the difference between a sloop and a ketch (one and two masts is one major difference) and the ferryman was a master mariner. Further, if the people who saw the water taxi go out and come back have it going to a different place than the sloop, coupled with the ketch, the police have the wrong boat.

However, the accused was found guilty. Part of the problem was the defence lawyer. Thus when the police asked one witness did you not pick photo C from a photo lineup, the witness had to agree he had. He was later to say that had the defence lawyer asked him was the scruffy man he had seen now in the court, he would have answered no. But the lawyer had no idea what the witness would say, and he relied on his oratory at the end. The trouble was, his oratory was not up to scratch, and he had failed to establish sufficient facts. On the basis that the accused gets the benefit of reasonable doubt, I believe this was a miscarriage of justice, but thanks again to lawyers, his appeals process has run out. Had I been on a jury I would never have convicted, not because I am sure he was not guilty, but because I am sure there is reasonable doubt. However, the emotion of these two young people presumably being killed, together with angry parents, meant the jury almost certainly did not view this dispassionately. Evidence will be consistent with the truth, but it can also lead many down a completely different path.

Flynn Pleads Guilty

Earlier in the year I wrote about Michael Flynn being fired by President Trump. Now the story continues, as he has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Now, if I were writing about this in a novel, it would be important to construct the plot so that there was a reason why Flynn would plead guilty, but in real life, why would that be?

In a novel, one reason might be the noble acceptance that he knows he lied, so he will take what follows on the chin. Strictly speaking, we do not know that this is not what has happened, but the media seems to think he has done a deal with Mueller, and will tell all that will bring down the current administration. That may be wishful thinking, even if Flynn has done a deal, the reason being that while Flynn may have lied, the truth would have had to be sufficiently serious to bring down the administration then.

Another reason may be that he is going to tell what he knows, but given what he has admitted to already, what could that be that will not get him into deeper trouble. Of course Mueller could have dealt immunity, on the basis he tells all and truthfully. That raises the question of what is all Flynn knows?

So, what will happen to Flynn? A detailed account of the Plea Agreement is at https://www.justice.gov/file/1015121/… . As it stands, the sentencing guidelines are estimated as imprisonment for between zero and six months, and if a fine is imposed, that fine will be between $500 and $9,500. As to what Flynn is accused of doing:

(a) On January 24, 2017, Flynn made materially false statements and omissions during an interview with FBI agents who were investigating whether the Russian government interfered with the 2016 Presidential election. These false statements included that following President Obama’s executive order announcing sanctions against Russia, he initially denied receiving a question from the Russian ambassador (Kislyak) relating to Trump’s policy (recall he had campaigned about getting better relations with Russia), then he omitted to mention that he spoke with the Presidential Transition Team (PTT) about this, and received the response that they did not want Russia to escalate the situation by making counter moves. Flynn then passed this request on to Kislyak, and subsequently reported back to the PTT the substance of the conversation. Then, about December 30, Putin announced he would not take retaliatory action.

(b) Flynn made false statements to the effect he did not make specific requests regarding an Egyptian resolution to the United Nations Security Council regarding Israeli settlements. A senior member of the PTT directed Flynn to learn where each government stood on the resolution, and to try to delay the vote or defeat the resolution. Flynn informed the Russian ambassador that the incoming administration opposed the resolution. The Russians responded by telling Flynn that Russia would accommodate the new administration.

(c) When he filed for his company in accord with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, his company did not know the extent to which the government of Turkey was involved in the Turkey project, a project focused on improving US business opportunities in Turkey, and omitted mentioning that officials from Turkey provided supervision and direction over the Turkey project.

My personal view is that Flynn was wrong to lie, but he would have good cause to believe that details of the future policy of the US government is not something to be disclosed to FBI agents. Simply saying, “That is classified,” would have been preferable. Both (a) and (b) are merely acts where he tried to make things easier for the new administration. After all, was it all that bad to ask Russia not to impose some sort of counter punishment on US companies? How is that working against US interests? More to the point, Obama had plenty of time to impose sanctions before the election, but he did not. If that was to make things easier for Clinton, and then he imposed them to undermine Trump, that in my view is just plain wrong. Similarly, the actions to try to improve things for US business in Turkey can hardly be crime of the century. The filing errors were naughty, but this is low-level stuff really. So why did Flynn plead guilty? My guess is he knew there was incontrovertible evidence that he was guilty of some things, including false filing and fibbing, and while he might have been able to defend these to some extent, it would be a lot cheaper to plead guilty, save the legal fees, and most importantly wipe the slate clean.

My guess is also that when this is over for Flynn, he can recover most of his costs by writing a book. I am sure he would get a good deal. So he can’t write? No worries; I am sure a lot of writers would be only too willing to provide their services. Name recognition alone would justify it.

The Trump Enigma

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and I am starting to wonder if “they” are on to something. In my novel “Dreams Defiled”, one part of the plot involved one of the protagonists put into one of the most powerful governing positions on the planet, and of course part of the story involves how she fell from that position. One of her problems was she wanted to get things done, but she did not bother too deeply about building the necessary political links to get things done. She was her own woman. Sound familiar, other than the gender? There were two major differences, though, between her and Trump: she had no ego, and she restricted herself to simply doing. One of the criticisms of her was she did not pay enough attention to her public image.

Which gets me to the James Comey sacking. Look at the uproar, especially from the Democrat politicians that not so long ago were baying for Comey’s blood. Now as far as I am aware, there was nothing illegal about Comey’s sacking. As far as I can make out, major appointments in government agencies in the US are political. However, in my view, Trump showed serious failings in the way he presented this accomplishment. In my opinion, this is an example of when less is more. My recommendation is that Trump should have announced something like this: “I recently sacked General Flynn because he made statements that he admitted misled the Vice-President. James Comey admitted giving misleading evidence to Congress, even though under oath, and the Director of the FBI, above all else, must follow the highest standards of legal procedure. Therefore I have no option but to also sack James Comey. If Flynn does not get the benefit of any mistake, neither does Comey.” After that, say nothing. But instead, Trump and associates gave out a strange mixture of various explanations. What Trump needs more than anything else, in my opinion, is a strong disciplinarian as Chief of Staff, who will tell people, including Trump, when to shut up, and when they are speaking, make sure what they are saying is self-consistent.

So, what follows? People are claiming Trump did that to shut down the investigations into his Russian connections. I doubt that, but if he did he was wasting political power. One of the pieces of advice my fictional protagonist was given is that when put into a very high position you are given a bag of power. The more you use it yourself, the more that power gets depleted. The more you can get others to do what you want done, the fuller that bag becomes. I think that is good advice for Trump. (If you take it, Donald, an acknowledgement would be gratefully received.) As for the investigation, surely nobody thinks Comey was investigating personally? At the Director level, his job would be to ensure that his immediate underlings were ensuring major projects were being carried out, and making sure the political reporting was appropriate. The actual investigation would be done several levels lower, and that will not stop. In fact it is probably out of the hands of the FBI now that an ex-director of the FBI has been appointed as a special Counsel toinvestigate whether there was cololusion.

Following that, there was the tweet where Trump seemingly threatened Comey if he went public. That was appalling, and, for that matter, stupid. Much better would have been for Trump to have reminded Comey (publicly) that his employment contract included confidentiality clauses, and he would expect those to be honoured. Yep, more advice: stop tweeting. It does you no good at all.

Not that it stops there. As expected, Comey took hand-written notes of a discussion with Trump, and these have been leaked to the NY Times. In this, Comey was apparently “asked” if he could put the investigation into Flynn to bed. The significance of that depends on what “asked” actually means. Trump would be out of bounds to order the investigation to stop, but it is not necessarily wrong to ask Comey to hurry up and get to a conclusion. The FBI must only investigate crime, not political “appropriateness”. Meanwhile, how come the FBI is leaking a Director’s confidential notes? That itself is a crime, so who is investigating?

Then, even more bizarrely, the Washington Post, using an anonymous source, claims Trump gave the Russian Sergei Lavrov classified information about ISIS, specifically about ISIS preparing to attack aviation using laptop computers, presumably modified to contain explosive. National Security Advisor General H R McMaster denied anything classified was discussed. My first response to this is that Trump has recently banned laptop computers from being taken on board aircraft destined for the US, so that is hardly secret. But wait, there’s more! Seemingly the Democrats have finally realized that maybe the information was not that confidential, so Nancy Pelosi went on the attack and said Trump had no right to give the Russians information, even if it were in the public domain. I suppose there is something in that; the news media is so full of fake news and political speculation, why give the Russians clues as to what is true? Of course it may have eluded the baying horde that Russia and the US are supposed to be fighting ISIS, not each other. However, now there is more still: the information was not Trump’s to give – it belonged to Israel. Presumably it is better to kill some Russians than get the ownership rights wrong.

Meanwhile, I am somewhat critical of the activities of US agencies. As most will be aware, there has been a major outburst of cybercrime in the form of ransomware. I suspect anyone unaware of this has been living under a flat rock and won’t be reading this, but the point I want to make is that critical pieces of code for this attack were apparently stolen from the NSA. Stealing from the National Security Agency? How secure! After that, it was apparently sold on the web. Did the NSA not know about the theft? Are they not monitoring the web? Exactly what are they surveilling? Perfectly legal (or questionably illegal) discussions between Americans and Russians? Meanwhile, their code helps create the tools to bring havoc to hospitals, etc, around the world. If they are watching all the web why can’t they detect who was using their code and bring the miscreants to justice? This is not one of the highlights of NSA activity.

Hack and be Hacked

Much has been made of hacking over the last few months, so for two reasons I cannot resist commenting. The first is obvious, while the second will become clearer later. However, the issue for me is that while there has been a lot of noise, we are strangely short of light, i.e. evidence. So what can we accept? Obviously, everyone will have their own criteria, but here is my view. The first thing to accept is that spying has been going on from time immemorial. Hacking is simply a more recent addition to the spying (if they are doing it) or intelligence gathering (if you are doing it) toolkit.

The first accusation was that the Russians hacked the Democrats and swung the election, thus appointing Trump instead of Clinton. Apparently there is a document around produced by various intelligence agencies, including the FBI, that says they have high confidence this occurred, although interestingly, the NSA gave it only moderate confidence. Given the political status and the positions of the other agencies, that probably means the NSA doubts it, and the NSA is probably the agency most capable of assessing hacking.

Do you see what is wrong with the accusation? Basically it is a multiple statement, and the simplest error is that if one part is believed, people believe it all. The first statement is, “The Democrats were hacked”. Strangely, there is very little real evidence that this happened, but I am reasonably convinced it probably did. One fact that swings me this way is that an accusation came that their security was so lax that a child could have hacked them. How did the accuser know if he did not try? The second statement is, “Some Russians did it.” Some hacker’s IDs have been published, and while this is hardly proof, I can accept it as quite possible. Another implied statement is, “Putin ordered it.” There is absolutely no evidence for that at all. Maybe he did, although two of the named hackers were more like private individuals, and why would he use them?

However, then we get to the really crunch bit: “the Russians then swung the election.” To me, this is highly implausible, and the only evidence produced is that some unknown hacker provided information to Wikileaks. My question is, even if the Russians hacked the Democrats, how did that affect the election? Is the average American voter a devoted fan of Wikileaks? What did the Wikileaks document say? I don’t know, and if I don’t know and I am reasonably interested, why does the average voter who probably does not care a toss over hacked emails care? My guess is, the Russians are busy collecting whatever intelligence they can, as are the US agencies. They are not trying to influence internal politics, because they will backfire in a big way; instead they simply want to know what to expect. I could be wrong on that.

The next accusation we have is that those dastardly Russians hacked Angela Merkel. Probably true, but then again, the main evidence we have is an admission the NSA did that some time before. Sounds like life in government. Following that, we have Trump accusing Obama of having hacked, or spied, on him during the election campaign. Again, not a shred of evidence has been produced. And again, we have the problem, did it happen, and if so, who did it? My personal view is it is highly unlikely President Obama did that.

The latest accusation is that the Russians hacked Yahoo. Here we at least have evidence of part of the multiple statement: Yahoo confirms it was hacked. The Americans have accused four Russians, two of whom are private sector criminals, and two were part of the FSB, the Russian state security service. This is where it gets interesting. The Russian government had apparently arrested at least one of the FSB men for illegal hacking of Putin. This sounds to me that the accused Russians may well have done that, but they were not acting on behalf of the Russian government, other than that two of them were drawing FSB pay.

The following is a good example why you need firm facts. For those who know nothing about rugby, admittedly a minor sport, the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national team, recently played the Australian national team. The All Blacks arrived at the site of their next game in Australia about 6 days ahead of the game, and apparently they found that the room allocated for team talks was bugged. Most people would jump to the conclusion that the Australians did this, because the Australians would seem to be those with the obvious motive, but seemingly they are wrong. The Australian police, after some serious investigation, found that the perpetrator was the man the All Blacks had hired to monitor security. So you see, jumping to conclusions can lead to quite erroneous conclusions. That is why I argue we need evidence.

So where does that leave me? Actually enthused. After I published ‘Bot War, I needed another project, and I decided to write about espionage and hacking. The trouble was, I didn’t really know much about it, and some time after I started I was seriously questioning whether this was a sensible project. After all the disclosure over these hacking activities, I have been provided with a whole lot of free research. Of course I don’t know the techniques of hacking, but there is enough information out there to at least make the background sort of plausible. So there is some good that comes out of this, at least for me.

Are there solutions to the Syrian conflict?

In my last post, I commented that there was a problem for ceasefires without a solution potentially acceptable to both sides: ” they solve nothing, as both sides try to strengthen their positions, and when one side cannot do much more, it is in their interest to restart as quickly as possible.” Since writing that, the ceasefire has disintegrated and the Russians and Assad-loyal troops are resuming operations against the rebels in Aleppo with more vigour than before. The West accuses the Russians of barbarism, but then again, what war is not barbaric? A number of politicians have attacked the UN for doing nothing to stop this, but in my opinion, that is just simply grandstanding unless the politician also comes up with a possible solution. That raises the question, what are the options to end this violence? Since I write novels with political/economic backgrounds, what can I come up with?

Any option must comply with the major rules of strategy. These include that any strategy chosen must be feasible, and have a realistic chance of success. For the latter, there must be an operational route that can be managed with the resources at hand, and could in principle lead to success. It seems to me there are limited possibilities: one side wins; all sides agree to stop fighting and agree on a common peaceful way the country can continue; one side gives way. Maybe I am too unimaginative to think of other ones, but that list is not very promising.

Suppose one side wins, either though the other side having had enough, or having run out of supply, or through being eliminated. While that would stop the fighting, is it plausible? There is no sign that either side will lay down their arms, and there is no sign that either side will run out of supply, other than through supply not being able to get through. The rebels seem to have unlimited supply through pro-Sunni governments around the Gulf, and from US supplies, much of which probably comes through Turkey. Accordingly, it is in the interests of Russian and Assad-loyal air forces to destroy such convoys. For this option to work, one side has to prevail militarily. If the West does nothing different from what it is doing now, Assad has the best chances of winning, and his chances are better the quicker and more vigorously he can get on with it. The West may not like that, but that is the logic of it.

One option is that the various factions agree to stop fighting, and . . . The problem is, what follows “and”? Someone has to form a government. The rebels could accept Assad, but my betting is, they won’t. The rebels themselves have only one thing in common, and that is a hatred of Assad and his men. They range from soldiers who thought they could dislodge Assad through to al Qaeda, and the West would find the latter even worse. If the rebels were to try to form a government, it probably would not take long before it became an ISIS dominated government. The Alawites would have no option other than to resume fighting, or die because ISIS has shown very little tolerance for any other than those who follow its extreme form of radical Islam. So, if the factions did agree to stop, it would not be long before the Alawites had to resume, except that now they would be far worse off strategically. The UN could claim to guarantee the peace, but the fact of the matter is, the UN are only useful if both sides genuinely want peace, and the UN can sort out minor differences. I would have no faith in them if things got really bad.

Suppose someone “gives way”. Civil wars tend to generate very intense hatred, and the various parties want “justice”. “Justice” means those on the losing side, or the other side, are appropriately punished. The rebels will not trust Assad, and if Assad were to stand down, the rebels, and probably the West, would want Assad either in jail or more likely, his head. So this is not practical for Assad, because if he stepped back, he is a dead man. Further, all his senior aides, and the senior members of the Syrian military would also be dead men, so even if Assad stepped back, the rest would not and the fighting would continue.

The rebels could give way. They would know they could never trust the Assad government either, so they could not remain in Syria. Therefore one option for peace that could work would be for the West to guarantee them asylum, and assist in rebuilding Syria if Assad allows the UN to guarantee the process of extricating the rebels who wish to be extricated. You could argue that the same could be applied in reverse to Assad, but we know that the West would try to get Assad for war crimes the minute Assad is not President of Syria. Accordingly, on questions of trust, only the rebels could be guaranteed believable asylum. That now begs the question, is any country prepared to offer such asylum to a few million Sunni Muslims, many of whom are fairly radical? My guess is, no.

Unless someone can see a flaw in this analysis, the only workable solution appears to be to leave the various parties to slug it out. Yes, that is a terrible option, but it seems to be all that we have left ourselves with. I suppose in principle, an external force could send in an overwhelming military force that removes one of the sides, but I cannot see that as happening either, because that force has to take sides. If the West sent in such a force, either Russia goes away and leaves its ally to its own devices, or it stays, with the risk of WW III. For the West to do that, it would need to commit about three quarters of a million men for at least ten years, and it would have to govern. Practically, the US would have to provide about two thirds of those, or maybe the lot. I cannot see that as either possible or desirable.

So my conclusion is there are no obvious solutions that could reasonably work.

Russian athletes and the Rio Olympics

The Olympic Games in Rio are approaching, and despite a number of protests, some Russians may be present. The International Olympic Committee has been heavily criticized for not issuing a blanket ban on Russian athletes because of widespread doping there. Let me say at once that I cannot condone doping, but there is also a question of natural justice. Basically, the logic says:

Some Russian athletes doped

Doped athletes should be banned from competing.

So, what is the logic conclusion? Mine is, some athletes, and specifically the ones who doped, should be banned, and that includes athletes from any country who have doped. As it happens, the initial call for a total banning of Russian sportspeople has been rejected, instead relying on a dubious procedure in which various sports federations will be required to produce a list of Russian athletes they believe to be clean, which will be checked by an arbitrator from the IOC and a court of arbitration. Any Russian with a doping conviction will automatically be banned, including Stepanova, who has finished her punishment for previous doping. Fair? Then why will there be many athletes in Rio who have previously doped but have completed their punishment. We have uneven rules here.

At one point, the Russian athletes were given an “out”. All they had to do was to prove they had been clean through a sequence of tests in non-Russian laboratories that were run during the last few months. That is impossible to comply with, because nobody can go back in the past and do what has to be done. So why put in such a silly rule? My guess is quite simply there are a number of Russian athletes who have been residing or training in the US, and to include them in the ban would leave whoever issued the ban open to a serious law suit in US courts, and my guess is that there would be a number of major law firms just queuing up to take on the contingency case. That sort of ban could easily cost tens of millions of dollars at a minimum. So the rule was not there to be helpful; it was there to cover backsides. Whatever you think about that, the IOC, by passing the buck down to various sports organizations, has opened those up to the same lawsuits.

There is a further interesting thing about the Russian doping allegation: the criticism is the dopees (if that is a word) escaped notice because the second samples got “lost”. Sure, that stinks, but what is of interest here is that nobody has questioned the laboratories’ analyses (as far as I know). What that means is that Russian athletes that have always had clean first analyses should be in the clear. This is of relevance because the IOC has argued that it must make sure all athletes play on a level playing field. Well, the level playing field means that everyone else should have to go through the same vetting process. That is not happening.

Exactly what went on in Russia is unclear. The fact that a Canadian Professor produced a report, commissioned by an antidoping agency, which accused Russia of state sponsored doping does not mean that the report is accurate. The losing of second samples is indicative of something going wrong, but that does not mean the state ordered it, nor is it obvious that the state had the power to do so. Serious corruption would suffice. The problem is evidence, and what is remarkable about this report is that the details do not seem to have made a significant public appearance. We are told what it concluded, but that does not make it so. I seem to recall high level government “reports” that Saddam Hussein had huge numbers of weapons of mass destruction, and could attack London with a fifteen-minute warning. The existence of a report is irrelevant; it is the evidence backing up the conclusions that is important.

Another point that I would like to see is that if Russians are banned, nobody else can take their place. The reason I say this is that the most vociferous calls for all Russian athletes to be banned appear to have come from callers who could reasonably be considered to have friends, acquaintances, or athletes from their own country on the verge of qualifying. If there were a blanket ban on replacements, other than for clear sickness or something unavoidable, then that would mean that any potential conflict of interest would be removed from those calling for the ban, and even more importantly, from those voting.

To summarize, I have a simple view. All athletes should play by the same rules. Guilt should be personal, and based on the evidence against that person. The judges should be independent of the outcome. Rules should not be backdated. If testing organizations are found to be corrupt, then they should be disqualified and from that point, other independent organizations should be used.