The first law of politics

From Janan Ganesh in the FT:

More than any profession, politics suffers from the myth of strategy. Its practitioners and pundits tend to attribute electoral success to a compelling “message” or “narrative” backed by a “ground game”, a media “operation” and something to do with the internet. There is almost nothing that cannot be achieved if you politic hard enough, it seems.

This is, of course, a fantasy. The first law of politics is that almost nothing matters. Voters barely notice, much less are they moved by, the events, speeches, tactics, campaigns or even strategies that are ultimately aimed at them. Elections are largely determined by a few fundamentals: the economy, the political cycle, the basic appeal of the party leaders. The role of human agency is not trivial, but it is rarely decisive either.

The case for (continuing) counter-narcotics work in Afghanistan

There’s a bit of a debate currently about whether the Coalition in Afghanistan should continue to invest in counter-narcotics work in the country. The problem – as articulated by people on the ground is that much of the work has failed. Opium production is up, American troops are no longer allowed to set foot in poppy fields let alone burn them and in a year’s time drugs won’t be high on the Afghan Government’s to do list – if it’s on it at all.  What we do next matters because it is liable to have an impact in the UK… below is a short piece I did for RUSI. Continue reading

#NSA: Issues for Congress 16th January 2001

From a Congressional Research Service Report for Congress published pre 9/11.

NSA: Issues for Congress: by Richard A. Best, Jr

On reaching that watershed moment:

The National Security Agency (NSA), one of the largest components of the U.S. Intelligence Community, has reached a major watershed in its history. Responsible for obtaining intelligence from international communications, NSA’s efforts are being challenged by the multiplicity of new types of communications links, by the widespread availability of low-cost encryption systems, and by changes in the international environment in which dangerous security threats can come from small, but well organized, terrorist groups as well as hostile nation states.

On the scale of the problem: finding a needle in a haystack:

These links are not necessarily easy targets given the great expansion in international telephone service that has grown by approximately 18% annually since 1992. Intelligence agencies are faced with profound “needle- in-a-haystack” challenges; it being estimated that in 1997 there were some 82 billion minutes of telephone service worldwide.

On new technologies:

Fiber optics can carry far more circuits with greater clarity and through longer distances and provides the greater bandwidth necessary for transmitting the enormous quantities of data commonplace in the Internet age. Inevitably, fiber optic transmission present major challenges to electronic surveillance efforts as their contents cannot be readily intercepted, at least without direct access to the cables themselves.

On having to use communications data because they can’t break codes:

In some cases, NSA must resort to analyses of traffic patterns–who is communicating with whom, when, and how often–to provide information that may not be obtainable through breaking of codes and reading of plaintext.

On oversight and accountability

NSA and counterpart agencies in a number of other countries, especially Great Britain, have come under much criticism in the European Parliament for allegedly monitoring private communications of non-U.S. businessmen in a coordinated electronic surveillance effort known as Echelon in order to support domestic corporations. Some critics go further and charge that NSA’s activities represent a constant threat to civil liberties of foreigners and U.S persons as well. Though NSA has reassured congressional oversight committees that the Agency complies strictly with U.S. law, these controversies will undoubtedly continue.

You don’t need Snowden when you have the CRS.

Introducing the new Conflict, Stability and Security Fund

There’s some interesting stuff in the latest Spending Round, including the new Conflict, Stability and Security Fund which looks rather interesting (not least because the numbers don’t seem to add up and I  have no idea where the other £217 million comes from). That said…

The Government will provide more than £1 billion in 2015-16 for a new Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). This builds on the success of the Conflict Pool by bringing together existing UK capabilities and resources from across government (including conflict resources worth £683 million in 2014-15) and £100 million of new funding.

The CSSF will fund a broader range of activity to help prevent conflict that affects vulnerable people in the world’s poorest countries, and tackle threats to UK interests from instability overseas. This will include actions the UK delivers directly or through third parties and its contribution to multilateral interventions overseas to help prevent conflict and instability, and support post-conflict stabilisation.

These resources will be used more strategically to deliver better outcomes. Priorities for the Fund will be set by the Government’s National Security Council to ensure a strengthened cross-departmental approach that draws on the most effective combination of defence, diplomacy, development assistance, security and intelligence. This will include funding to ensure the UK can respond quickly to crises. It will also ensure longer term conflict prevention work to tackle the root causes of conflict abroad, such as providing military training and capacity building, human rights training, security and justice sector reform, and facilitating political reconciliation and peace processes.

Interesting because the NSC will now set priorties for the fund rather than the three departments did for the conflict pool (you can read their latest guidance here). Will the Home Office and Intelligence Agencies now have seats at the table – with the MoD, FCO and DFID. And what does this mean for DFID in particular? Other GD folk are much better informed on whats happening at 22 Whitehall but I can’t help feeling that DFID is increasingly part of the national security debate – even if some insiders would rather remain at arms length. This can only be a good thing. There are clear benefits to both the UK and priority countries to have access to DFID’s skills, expertise, and presence in countering terrorism and violent extremism as well as tackling organised crime.  The security and development nexus has always been a sore point and the cause of plenty of arguments between sides – the European Commission, as I type,  is having similar issues – perhaps we have reached a moment when things will really change – for the better.

More on the worst corporate scandal you’ve never heard of

A month ago, I posted on the Ranbaxy drug scandal – a shocking tale of systematic fraud by one of the world’s leading manufacturers of generic drugs. After the US regulator had used a whistle blower to bring the company to some kind of justice, I wondered what regulators in other countries were doing to protect themselves from medicines that were being manufactured without any proper safeguard.

Now, thanks to the Telegraph, we have an answer for the UK. And it’s a depressing one, with the regulator repeatedly ignoring emails from  Dinesh Thakur, the executive who had seen at first hand that “lying to regulators and backdating and forgery were commonplace.”

In November 2005, he wrote: “The reason I am writing to you is to alert you that Ranbaxy is defrauding the UK government and the British public and hoping that [you] would be able to do something to stop this crime.”

He also urged the MHRA to contact the FDA’s chief investigator, who he said would be able to verify his claims.

In reply, he was thanked for “bringing this matter to our attention”.

A day later, he warned of “widespread and pervasive wrongdoing at Ranbaxy” and said he could put the MHRA in touch with a former executive at the company who could provide more evidence.

He hoped the MHRA would take action against the company which “has committed so many crimes to make a quick buck”. He wrote: “Given the past experience with this company, I am afraid that they are quite adept at the art of covering up their fraudulent practices and your inspections may or may not provide you with the conclusive evidence you seek.”

In the first half of 2006, Mr Thakur received a reply from an MHRA official that they were “evaluating data supplied to us from other regulators regarding recent inspections … I can assure you that appropriate action will be taken where necessary”.

Mr Thakur made a final attempt to rouse the agency in February 2007. “I wish the MHRA was as vigilant and protective of public health in the UK as the US FDA is in the USA,” he wrote.

As I suggested in my original post, someone should now follow up with the company’s British ex-CEO, Dr Brian Tempest,  now chair of the advisory board of Lancaster University Management School, and too busy to speak to reporters in the superb Fortune story that first exposed this sorry tale.

Posted in UK

Greenpeace on shale. Really?

I have long been bemused by the politics of shale gas in the UK. It’s hard to understand why a Conservative-led government is not trying to get the stuff out of the ground as quickly as possible – there’s potential tax revenue for a cash-strapped Treasury and most believe that George Osborne’s environmental credentials are little more than skin deep (if that).

It’s easier to see why green groups have focused on peripheral issues such as water pollution or earthquakes, rather than climate impacts – it sexes things up for the public – but the addiction to cheap campaigning stunts has obscured the only really important issue:  will pumping out more domestic gas make carbon emissions harder or easier to reduce?

Look at what a mess Greenpeace has got itself into over the issue. It is resolutely opposed to fracking, of course, but, at the same time is determined to maintain that Britain has little, if any, unconventional gas that can be removed at market prices. This is absurd. If there ain’t any gas, why worry about it?

You see how boxed in Greenpeace has become in its most recent press release:

Every analyst, from Poyry, to Ernst and Young and even Cuadrilla says UK shale will have little or no impact on bills.

“MP’s [sic] voting tomorrow on the decarbonisation of the power sector should remember that sending drilling rigs into our rural villages in a desperate hunt for gas could cost them votes. They should instead vote for clean, renewable energy that will bring bills down over time.”

This borders on the mendacious. Every analyst? Play around with Google for a few minutes and you’ll find that this claim is far from the truth. And that includes those analysts Greenpeace mentions by name. Take Poyry. It argues that just Lancashire shale could provide a fifth of the UK’s gas by 2030, reducing wholesale gas prices by £8bn a year between 2014 and 2035, and wholesale electricity prices by 2-4%.  Sounds a big deal to me.

Then there’s Ernst and Young. In a 2011 report, its analysts argued that shale gas would bring undeniable economic benefits to European countries, including by exerting downward pressure on prices (although not as dramatically as in the United States, primarily due to the prevalence of long-term gas contracts in the European market). Ernst and Young is cautious about the prospects for the UK’s shale gas, but still sees the emergent industry as a threat to higher-priced renewables, “combin[ing] the prospect of substantial financial reward for prospectors with carbon gains for regulators if coal is substituted out of the energy equation.”

As for Cuadrilla, it claims that “natural gas from shale has the potential to boost the UK’s gas production, reduce the UK’s dependency on expensive foreign energy sources and to lower gas prices.” It has also been excoriated by – yes – Greenpeace for funding a report by the Institute of Directors which argues that “growing shale gas production could play a key role in reducing potential upwards pressure on gas prices from rising demand in rapidly developing countries such as China and India.”

So that’s three out of three sources that are significantly misrepresented by Greenpeace’s claims. Now I am no geologist, but I suspect that British shale gas is worth worrying about it because there’s quite a lot that can be brought out of the ground, and at a price that will drop as extraction methods improve.

If I’m right, that’s forms part of a much bigger fossil fuel renaissance that has been driven by high energy prices since 2008. We live in a world where a LOT of ‘new carbon’ is being brought into play, just as damage to the world’s climate begins to reach critical levels. Pretending this isn’t happening may garner Greenpeace a few newspaper headlines, but – in the long term – it ain’t going to help.