The year in security

openSecurity's briefings team highlight a selection of security developments from the past year and the clues they hold for 2011.

Oliver Scanlan
1 January 2011

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry: footnote to a historic conflict?

Luke Heighton

Established in 1998 by the recently-elected Prime Minister Tony Blair, the stated aim of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry into the events which took place in Derry on 30th January 1972 was, in the Inquiry’s own words “to seek the truth about what happened [...] and to do so fairly, impartially and thoroughly”. Led by Lord Saville of Newdigate, head of the triumvirate of international judges comprising the Tribunal, and assisted by Counsel to the Inquiry Christopher Clarke, QC (now The Hon. Mr Justice Christopher Clarke) and his team, it lasted a total of 12 years, while costing the taxpayer more than £190 million. 

For the families of the 13 people shot dead on Bloody Sunday (a fourteenth, John Johnston, died afterwards), the opening of the Inquiry’s first sessions in 2000 were a small victory; the culmination of years of passionate campaigning. Yet the question as to whether Lord Saville’s investigation into the events of that day would prove more rigorous (one should perhaps say less farcical), than the travesty of Lord Widgery’s perfunctory attempt 30 years previously remained very much in the balance.

From the outset there was, needless to say, a lot at stake for all of the parties. For the families involved, the army, and the government the Inquiry was seen as something to test not only of how they saw one another, and how the world saw them, but how they saw themselves thirty years on. There were those, too, who argued – perspicaciously, perhaps – that Britain’s shiny new PM was far happier conducting inquiries into previous government’s handling of events than he was taking control of his own. Such was the strength of feeling among a great many commentators and politicians alike, both on the ‘mainland’ and on the other side of the water; such is still the belief of some today. That these objections came to be a factor in, as well as a corollary to, the Inquiry’s operations as it sought to gather witnesses cannot be overlooked. 

In the end Saville did get a vast proportion of the witnesses he wanted. 2,500 witness statements were taken in all, and 922 individuals were called to give oral evidence. Among these were marchers, civil right leaders, clergymen, soldiers, former members of both the Official and Provisional IRA, intelligence officers, civil servants, forensic scientists, journalists, current and former members of the RUC/PSNI, an ex-Prime Minister, and – in Martin McGuiness – a former leader of the of Derry paramilitaries who would go on to become deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. The vast majority did their best to give an honest account of what they had witnessed that day in 1972. Others did not. Some did so willingly and openly, others less so. Journalists Alex Thomson and Lena Ferguson, who in the course of their interviews with former soldiers had obtained significant information, made the headlines when they declined to name their sources. As Thomson himself admitted, their decision not to breach these confidences could easily have been taken by the families as an unreasonably obfuscatory move (it certainly was by the Tribunal). But it was not. In the end, Thomson and Ferguson avoided jail, and British journalism was not forced into a showdown in the courts over the right to protect one’s sources.

Nobody who attended a single session of the Inquiry’s hearings could have failed to appreciate the enormous importance of the Inquiry for the families of those killed and injured, those who took part in the march, or for the city of Derry. Nor could anyone who watched the scenes outside the Guild Hall on 15 June 2010, when David Cameron read his response to the Report’s recommendations, fail to be moved. The Prime Minister accepted Lord Saville’s views on the events of 30 January 1972 in their entirety. Finally the dead were exonerated, and utterly so. 

That in financial terms many of the lawyers who worked on the Inquiry benefited enormously is beyond dispute. Some will undoubtedly point to the fact that the thoroughness with which the inquiry was conducted – and thus the force of its conclusions – owes much to the strength of legal talent assembled to act on the Tribunal’s behalf. Sure enough, talent ’aint cheap. Of course, to doubt the dedication, the ability, or the sheer hard work put in by many of those who were best remunerated simply because of the sums they were paid does not make an awful lot of sense. But it is questionable as to whether anyone will ever be able to offer a satisfactory defence of such a prodigious cost to the public purse – one, at least, that will unite the public, politicians and the media in their satisfaction.

It would be nice to never to have need of such and inquiry ever again, and there will certainly not be an inquiry like the Bloody Sunday Inquiry for a long time. Is this a good thing? Well, yes and no. Even quick inquiries done on the cheap have their price. As the Hutton Report into the death of Andrew Gilligan, Lord Butler’s official Review of the controversy over WMD’s and the general lack of confidence in the (still sitting) Chilcott Tribunal goes to show, comes at the expense of widespread disillusion over their efficacy and independence.

Just prior to the Bloody Sunday Report’s publication, Andrew Gilligan wrote in the Telegraph: “Bloody Sunday may have been a pivotal event in Irish history, but the Saville Inquiry may prove to be no more than a historically extravagant footnote.” I’m still undecided as to whether Gilligan is a closet Irish nationalist (Derry was still part of the UK last time I checked), who nevertheless doesn’t think Irish history is particularly important, or whether he just doesn’t think Bloody Sunday’s effect on the following half-century of Anglo-Irish relations, or the act of apologising for it, is meaningful. “Historically extravagant”? I’m not even sure I know what that means. A footnote? Maybe. But footnotes aren’t addenda. Rather they’re the starting point for the historian with an eye for the truth behind the single, simple, dangerously homogenising narrative. They are, in other words, where the real work gets done.

Israel, Palestine and the empty promise of Obama’s Cairo speech

Oliver Scanlan

“I would say we're definitely not back at square one,” such was US state department spokeman PJ Crowley’s summation of the current Israeli – Palestinian impasse. This almost comically weak formulation conveys eloquently a US diplomatic effort that has been inconsistent and half-hearted. Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009, warmly received at the time and now a target for satire, stated emphatically that “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own,” and yet, in retrospect, that appears to be exactly what has happened in 2010.

The climate for re-engaging with the peace process seemed propitious enough. The right wing coalition elected in March 2009 in Israel was fragile and thus arguably susceptible to sustained diplomatic pressure. A year later, the then head of the US Central Command, General David Petraeus, testified before the Senate Armed Service Committee that the ongoing conflict was  harming US security interests in the region. Although Petraeus has subsequently attempted to qualify his statements, potentially in preparation for a Presidential bid on the Republican ticket, his comments were unprecedented for a serving senior US military officer.

They appeared to offer the Obama administration a clear justification for attempting to reign in the Netanyahu government’s settlement activity. Indeed, in late 2009 Netanyahu had already announced a partial freeze on such construction, albeit excluding Jerusalem. But then, when US Vice-President Joe Biden visited Israel to begin negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), he was blind sided by an announcement of fresh housing construction in East Jerusalem. Rapid Israeli diplomatic fire fighting suggested the preposterous notion that Netanyahu had not been informed of the announcement by his Interior Ministry, a thin excuse the US was compelled to accept as a matter of saving face.

Since that day in March, the situation has not improved, with the ending of the partial moratorium scuppering direct talks in October. This is very much a return to square one, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas demanding a renewed moratorium as a precondition for returning to negotiations. Even a tactical intervention in October by Israeli elder statesman Shimon Peres calling for a resolution to the standoff as a way to strengthen Israel’s position vis a vis resulted in little progress. There appear to be two key factors underlying Israel’s intransigence.

The first is that the precarious state of the governing coalition makes it, if anything, less susceptible to pressure. Netanyahu needs the support of the extreme right Yisrael Beiteinu party under Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman in order for his government to survive politically; even if his own personal inclinations were to cease settlement construction in East Jerusalem, which in itself is unlikely, Lieberman would veto such action. Yisrael Beiteinu’s bedrock of political support lies in the poor and marginalised Russian and East European jews who emigrated to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union and who rely on continued settlement expansion as a source of cheap housing.

Secondly, the Obama administration’s grip on the US political sphere has been weakening from the day the Democrats took back the Whitehouse. High unemployment, a radical and emotive health care agenda and the ongoing Afghanistan quagmire have at once alienated his left wing base while reinvigorating and radicalising the American right. The defeats suffered during the mid-term elections have at once compounded and illustrated the weakness of the administration.

On this basis the shrewd political calculation from Netanyahu’s perspective is simply to bide his time until a Republican President ousts Obama from the Oval Office. The statement by PJ Crowley on Friday appears to confirm the wisdom of this move; with fires blazing on the domestic political front, a hard line stance against a totemic and valourised regional ally offers the Whitehouse only potentially huge political costs for deeply uncertain gains. 

In the absence of Whitehouse pressure, Netanyahu has no incentive to move on the settlement issue and, in so doing, risk the collapse of his government. Meanwhile, day to day, the plight of ordinary Palestinians continues to deteriorate, and with every new construction project the viability of East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital and with it the very feasibility of the two state solution itself slides steadily into the abyss.    

‘Stuxnet’ and the dawn of the cyberwar era

Daniel C Giacopelli

Things were breaking at Natanz and, for a year, the Iranians couldn't figure out why. Though the computers at the uranium enrichment facility claimed that all systems were operating smoothly, it was clear that something was going very wrong. Critical mechanical parts were failing in odd ways. Centrifuges stopped working correctly, or at all. The processed uranium was found often to be unusable. Equally mysterious were the problems encountered at the reactor being constructed near Bushehr in the southwest, a delay officially attributed to 'severe hot weather' by the Iranian nuclear chief. Yet, less than a month later, officials from the country's Atomic Energy Organization were scrambling to figure out how to deal with what was quickly being recognized as a deliberate, stealth attack on the facilities. The culprit, a tremendously sophisticated piece of malicious software – or ‘malware’ – known as 'Stuxnet', is now considered to be the most 'advanced and aggressive' ever discovered. Widely thought to be designed by the military or intelligence service of a state, the existence of this ‘cyber weapon’ has profound implications for the future of warfare. 

On 29 November, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad commented for the first time on the issue, saying that the attackers ‘were able to cause minor problems with some of our centrifuges by installing some software in electronic parts. They did wrong. They misbehaved but fortunately, our experts discovered it.’ Yet this optimism contrasts greatly with the most recent reports that Stuxnet inflicted severe enough damage on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme that it will take roughly two years to recover fully. According to a top cybersecurity expert, the attack ‘was nearly as effective as a military strike, but even better since there are no fatalities and no full-blown war. From a military perspective, this was a huge success.’  It is still unclear who was responsible for the attack. Due to the technical complexity of the software, the financial resources needed to create such a weapon, and the logistical mastery required to set the plan in motion, many believe that only an advanced state with a surplus of resources, time and motivation could have pulled it off. Most have pointed fingers at clandestine cyber units within either the Israeli or US military.

The Stuxnet incident was not the first attempt at cyber war against another state. Speaking to Congress recently, the chief of the recently formed US Cyber Command noted the attacks on Estonian and Georgian computer networks in 2007 and 2008, respectively. These ‘denial of service’ attacks paralyzed the networks and, in the case of Georgia, brought down the country’s communication system. Both attacks are thought to originate from Russia. China, too, has been known as a serial cyber intruder, hacking into government and corporate websites and searching for classified information. Stuxnet, however, represents a completely new breed. It is a ‘milestone in many ways,’ says Dean Turner, the head of Symantec Security Response’s Global Intelligence Network. This is because it has the power to not only paralyze, but physically destroy, the industrial control systems of crucial national infrastructure. ‘Stuxnet has highlighted that direct attacks to control critical infrastructure are possible and not necessarily spy-novel fictions. The real-world implications of Stuxnet are beyond any threat we have seen in the past,’ Turner observed.

The widespread reliance on commercial software and hardware for use in critical infrastructure and for military purposes is a contributing factor to the increased vulnerability of governments. This reliance allows states to study these widely available systems and design cyber weapons to sabotage or destroy those of their enemies. Such systems are known to be used in myriad industries, including nuclear and electric power plants, water distribution, oil and gas refinement, waste and transportation management, and chemical production. This increased vulnerability and the technical complexity of modern malware indicate that we’re heading into unknown territory. As one analyst points out, in 2010 ‘we are in the same place as we were after the invention of the aeroplane. It was inevitable someone would work out how to use planes to drop bombs. Militaries will now have a cyber-war capability in their arsenals.’ 

What can be expected as the new year approaches? The UK and the US will almost certainly continue to beef up their cyber defence capabilities. UK armed forces minister Nick Harvey commented recently that a significant level of funding and resources have been allocated towards preventing cyber attacks, which he called a ‘tier-one risk’. On the other side of the Atlantic, turf battles will surely emerge between the new US Cyber Command and the NSA or FBI. Richard Clarke, a former White House official, recommends in his widely-read new book on cyber war the creation of an ‘international accord’ to foster discussion amongst nations about this new threat, and to regulate its conduct. Ultimately, it remains impossible to predict what developments will emerge in the coming year. What is certain is that 2010 marked the widespread recognition that we’ve entered a potentially frightening new era, with new threats and new implications for society at large, and there is little chance of setting back the clock.


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