Beijing implicated in US cyber espionage report

A report to the US Congress accuses Beijing of increasing online espionage, the Prime Minister of Belgium has been appointed President of the European Council, the Bangladesh Supreme Court has condemned the assassins of the country’s first Prime Minister to death. All this and more, in today’s update.
Oliver Scanlan
20 November 2009

On Thursday, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission reported to Congress that there had been a steep rise in attempts to infiltrate and disrupt US government websites. Although the commission noted that these attacks come from all over the world, it went on to highlight the People’s Republic of China as the largest single source. Colonel Gary McAlum told the commission that, at 54,640, the number of ‘malicious incidents’ related to US government websites in 2008 represents an increase of twenty percent compared with the previous year.

The verdict of the cross-party commission’s chairperson, Carolyn Bartholomew, was that ‘China is changing the way that espionage is being done’. The report stated that while many Chinese hackers may not receive official government support, in the event of a conflict they might easily be recruited for the purposes of Information Warfare, designed to hinder a potential opponent’s command and control mechanisms by attacking the computers upon which they rely. The report added that China is the most aggressive country in the world in pursuing espionage activities against the United States. The Chinese government has been quick to dismiss the report as ‘a fabrication’.

The openSecurity verdict: The broad conclusions of the report published today are nothing new. Although the commission has added useful and timely metrics, US security agencies have been warning for years about the persistent and ever-increasing intelligence threat represented by China. Their alarm has been vindicated by a number of high level scandals, most notably the theft of warhead miniaturisation technology by the Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee for several years before finally being indicted in 1999.

In addition, Information Warfare (IW), along with innovations such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and mass casualty terrorism, is a permutation of asymmetric warfare; it is an attempt to challenge the vastly superior conventional forces of the United States by focusing on its vulnerabilities. As such, Chinese hackers might be compared to the privateers covertly endorsed by Tudor England to disrupt the much larger Spanish empire.

Although still in its infancy, China’s fascination with IW stems from the fact that it could prove extremely effective. According to a 2001 study by the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College in cyber attack exercises held in 1997 and 1999, the US military found that hackers, using materials available to the general public ‘were able to effectively prevent the United States from waging war effectively’. The study, entitled ‘Chinese Information Warfare: Phantom Menace or Emerging Threat’ by Toshi Yoshihara, also notes that at least one of the exercises was premised on contingencies on the Korean peninsula, clearly indicating that China was the threat being simulated.

The fact that this is not new, and has serious implications for US security begs the question why the US does not seem proactive in addressing the issue with the Chinese government diplomatically. To some extent, it is true that such efforts are probably discreet, outside the media spotlight; urging China to revalue the Renminbi publicly is one thing, warning it to cease espionage activities under similar circumstances quite another.

Analysts suggest another factor, at least as important, in the ongoing reluctance of the US to actively pressure China over its intelligence activities. Put simply, it is not a priority. China is simultaneously being urged to tackle its enormous trade deficit with the US while still buying US treasuries, is requested to give diplomatic support regarding North Korea and may potentially be asked to support increased sanctions against Iran; its ongoing investment in IW and its use in espionage may be a development the United States, for the time being, will simply have to live with.

Labour peer appointed EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy

On Thursday night, appointments to the posts of European Council president and European high representative for foreign affairs and security policy were announced. After much media speculation that Tony Blair and David Miliband would take up the posts, the final appointees’ relatively low profile surprised many. Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy has been appointed president of the European Council, with the British Peer Baroness Ashton taking the foreign affairs and security role.

Van Rompuy has said that he will be ‘discreet’ in his new role, and has been lauded as a ‘consensus builder’ by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has brushed aside suggestions that Baroness Ashton lacks the experience required of such a high level post, saying that her selection indicated the ‘regard that people have for Britain’. Baroness Ashton herself has said that she will pursue a policy of ‘quiet diplomacy.’

Regardless of the high praise both Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton have received from European leaders, analysts have drawn the inference that the selection of two such low profile candidates by the 27 member states indicates that the new posts will be substantially less important than anticipated For the time being at least, existing heads of state and government, particularly from the more powerful European countries, will continue to exercise the dominant role in deciding European policy, particularly in the sensitive field of defence and security.

Bangladesh Supreme Court condemns ‘Bangabandhu’ assassins to death

In a move that ended a court case begun thirteen years ago, on Thursday the Appellate Division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court upheld death sentences for twelve former army officers convicted of assassinating Sheikh Mujib Rahman, the country’s first prime minister. Popularly regarded as the father of the country, Sheikh Mujib, also known as Bangabandhu or ‘friend of Bangladesh’, was gunned down together with most of his family in 1975, in what was the first step in a military coup.

Five of the former military officers are in custody, while the remaining seven remain fugitives. It is thought likely that the five condemned men will ask the Appellate Division to review the verdict and, if that fails, appeal to the president for clemency. This process may last for up to two and a half months. Current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is Sheikh Mujib’s daughter, welcomed the verdict, while many members of civil society are jubilant at what is seen as the final closure on a dark chapter in Bangladesh’s history.

The original verdict was passed by the High Court in 2001, at the end of Sheikh Hasina’s last term as prime minister. The process was then delayed by the election to power of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) headed by Begum Khaleda Zia. Commentators suggest that this delay was due, at least partly, to the fact that the military coup of 1975 was orchestrated by Ziaur Rahman, founder of the BNP and Khaleda Zia’s husband. Although he did not formerly take power until 1977, he is widely believed to be the chief instigator of the events of 1975, and Bangladesh’s subsequent move away from secularism toward Islamism and militarism. He himself was assassinated in 1981.

Fifteen dead in Afghanistan suicide bombing

On Friday in Farah City in south western Afghanistan, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle struck a crowded area, killing fifteen people, with 31 wounded. A press officer for ISAF said that coalition troops had not been involved, though they were aware of the incident. Farah City is the capital of Farah province, a sensitive desert region on the Iranian border. Along with other provinces previously considered safe, such as Kunduz, it has seen increasing levels of violence in recent months as the Taliban move beyond their traditional strongholds in the Pashtun dominated south and south east of the country.

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