Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Gambler’s Ruin of Small Cities (Wonkish)

I’m on vacation, keeping vague track of the news but basically taking a break and spending a lot of time communing with nature. But I’ve also been thinking a bit about economics, taking advantage of psychological distance to ruminate on stuff that isn’t closely connected to the news. And one of the areas I’ve been chewing over goes back to my old stomping ground of economic geography.

In particular, I’ve been trying to clarify my thoughts after reading Emily Badger’s stimulating piece on how megacities seem to have less and less need for smaller cities. I found myself asking what might seem like an odd question: what, in the modern economy, are small cities even for? What purpose do they serve? And this question leads me to a chain of thought that’s a bit different from Badger’s, although not necessarily contradictory.

Once upon a time, it was obvious what towns and small cities did: they served as central places serving a mainly rural population engaged in agriculture and other natural resource-based activities.

The rural population was dispersed because arable land and other resources were dispersed, and so you had lots of small cities dotting the landscape.

Over time, however, agriculture has become ever less important as a share of the economy, and the rural population has correspondingly declined as a determinant of urban location. Nonetheless, many small cities survived and grew by becoming industrial centers, generally specialized in some cluster of industries held together by the Marshallian trinity of information exchange, specialized suppliers, and a pool of labor with specialized skills.

Take the (fairly celebrated) example of Rochester, New York. It started as a flour milling center, benefitting from the Erie Canal, then as a center for nurseries and seeds. So it was a resource-based center. Then, in 1853, John Jacob Bausch, a German immigrant, started a company making monocles, which became a major producer of glasses, microscopes, and all things lens related.

So Rochester became a place where people knew about optics, presumably creating the preconditions for the rise of Eastman Kodak, and much later Xerox. This was typical of small industrial cities: even if what a city was doing in, say, 1970 seemed very different from what it was doing in 1880, there was usually a sort of chain of external economies creating the conditions that allowed the city to take advantage of particular new technological and market opportunities when they arose.

Obviously, this was a chancy process. Some localized industries created fertile ground for new industries to replace them; others presumably became dead ends. And while a big, diversified city can afford a lot of dead ends, a smaller city can’t. Some small cities got lucky repeatedly, and grew big. Others didn’t; and when a city starts out fairly small and specialized, over a long period there will be a substantial chance that it will lose enough coin flips that it effectively loses any reason to exist.

I’m not saying that there weren’t patterns of success and failure. Small cities were and are more likely to fail if they have miserable winters, more likely to come up with new tricks if they’re college towns and/or destinations for immigrants. Still, if you back up enough, it makes sense to think of urban destinies as a random process of wins and losses in which small cities face a relatively high likelihood of experiencing gambler’s ruin.

Again, it was not always thus: once upon a time dispersed agriculture ensured that small cities serving rural hinterlands would survive. But for generations we have lived in an economy in which smaller cities have nothing going for them except historical luck, which eventually tends to run out.

Notice, by the way, that globalization and all that isn’t central to this story. If I’m right, the conditions for small-city decline and fall have been building for a very long time, and we’d be seeing much the same story – maybe more slowly – even without the growth of world trade.

Are there policy implications from this diagnosis? Maybe. There are arguably social costs involved in letting small cities implode, so that there’s a case for regional development policies that try to preserve their viability. But it’s going to be an uphill struggle. In the modern economy, which has cut loose from the land, any particular small city exists only because of historical contingency that sooner or later loses its relevance.


Saturday, December 30, 2017

How the Russia Inquiry Began: A Campaign Aide, Drinks and Talk of Political Dirt

WASHINGTON — During a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, made a startling revelation to Australia’s top diplomat in Britain: Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.

About three weeks earlier, Mr. Papadopoulos had been told that Moscow had thousands of emails that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton, apparently stolen in an effort to try to damage her campaign.

Exactly how much Mr. Papadopoulos said that night at the Kensington Wine Rooms with the Australian, Alexander Downer, is unclear. But two months later, when leaked Democratic emails began appearing online, Australian officials passed the information about Mr. Papadopoulos to their American counterparts, according to four current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role.

The hacking and the revelation that a member of the Trump campaign may have had inside information about it were driving factors that led the F.B.I. to open an investigation in July 2016 into Russia’s attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of President Trump’s associates conspired.
If Mr. Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. and is now a cooperating witness, was the improbable match that set off a blaze that has consumed the first year of the Trump administration, his saga is also a tale of the Trump campaign in miniature. He was brash, boastful and underqualified, yet he exceeded expectations. And, like the campaign itself, he proved to be a tantalizing target for a Russian influence operation.

While some of Mr. Trump’s advisers have derided him as an insignificant campaign volunteer or a “coffee boy,” interviews and new documents show that he stayed influential throughout the campaign. Two months before the election, for instance, he helped arrange a New York meeting between Mr. Trump and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt.

The information that Mr. Papadopoulos gave to the Australians answers one of the lingering mysteries of the past year: What so alarmed American officials to provoke the F.B.I. to open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign months before the presidential election?

It was not, as Mr. Trump and other politicians have alleged, a dossier compiled by a former British spy hired by a rival campaign. Instead, it was firsthand information from one of America’s closest intelligence allies.

Interviews and previously undisclosed documents show that Mr. Papadopoulos played a critical role in this drama and reveal a Russian operation that was more aggressive and widespread than previously known. They add to an emerging portrait, gradually filled in over the past year in revelations by federal investigators, journalists and lawmakers, of Russians with government contacts trying to establish secret channels at various levels of the Trump campaign.

The F.B.I. investigation, which was taken over seven months ago by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has cast a shadow over Mr. Trump’s first year in office — even as he and his aides repeatedly played down the Russian efforts and falsely denied campaign contacts with Russians.

They have also insisted that Mr. Papadopoulos was a low-level figure. But spies frequently target peripheral players as a way to gain insight and leverage.

F.B.I. officials disagreed in 2016 about how aggressively and publicly to pursue the Russia inquiry before the election. But there was little debate about what seemed to be afoot. John O. Brennan, who retired this year after four years as C.I.A. director, told Congress in May that he had been concerned about multiple contacts between Russian officials and Trump advisers.
Russia, he said, had tried to “suborn” members of the Trump campaign.

‘The Signal to Meet’

Mr. Papadopoulos, then an ambitious 28-year-old from Chicago, was working as an energy consultant in London when the Trump campaign, desperate to create a foreign policy team, named him as an adviser in early March 2016. His political experience was limited to two months on Ben Carson’s presidential campaign before it collapsed.

Mr. Papadopoulos had no experience on Russia issues. But during his job interview with Sam Clovis, a top early campaign aide, he saw an opening. He was told that improving relations with Russia was one of Mr. Trump’s top foreign policy goals, according to court papers, an account Mr. Clovis has denied.

Traveling in Italy that March, Mr. Papadopoulos met Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor at a now-defunct London academy who had valuable contacts with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Mifsud showed little interest in Mr. Papadopoulos at first.

But when he found out he was a Trump campaign adviser, he latched onto him, according to court records and emails obtained by The New York Times. Their joint goal was to arrange a meeting between Mr. Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Moscow, or between their respective aides.

Sam Clovis, a former co-chairman of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, denies that he told Mr. Papadopoulos that improving relations with Russia was one of Mr. Trump’s top foreign policy goals during Mr. Papadopoulos’s interview for a job with the campaign. Credit Win Mcnamee/Getty Images

In response to questions, Mr. Papadopoulos’s lawyers declined to provide a statement.

Before the end of the month, Mr. Mifsud had arranged a meeting at a London cafe between Mr. Papadopoulos and Olga Polonskaya, a young woman from St. Petersburg whom he falsely described as Mr. Putin’s niece. Although Ms. Polonskaya told The Times in a text message that her English skills are poor, her emails to Mr. Papadopoulos were largely fluent. “We are all very excited by the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” Ms. Polonskaya wrote in one message.

More important, Mr. Mifsud connected Mr. Papadopoulos to Ivan Timofeev, a program director for the prestigious Valdai Discussion Club, a gathering of academics that meets annually with Mr. Putin. 

The two men corresponded for months about how to connect the Russian government and the campaign. Records suggest that Mr. Timofeev, who has been described by Mr. Mueller’s team as an intermediary for the Russian Foreign Ministry, discussed the matter with the ministry’s former leader, Igor S. Ivanov, who is widely viewed in the United States as one of Russia’s elder statesmen.

When Mr. Trump’s foreign policy team gathered for the first time at the end of March in Washington, Mr. Papadopoulos said he had the contacts to set up a meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin. Mr. Trump listened intently but apparently deferred to Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama and head of the campaign’s foreign policy team, according to participants in the meeting.

Mr. Sessions, now the attorney general, initially did not reveal that discussion to Congress, because, he has said, he did not recall it. More recently, he said he pushed back against Mr. Papadopoulos’s proposal, at least partly because he did not want someone so unqualified to represent the campaign on such a sensitive matter.
If the campaign wanted Mr. Papadopoulos to stand down, previously undisclosed emails obtained by The Times show that he either did not get the message or failed to heed it. He continued for months to try to arrange some kind of meeting with Russian representatives, keeping senior campaign advisers abreast of his efforts. Mr. Clovis ultimately encouraged him and another foreign policy adviser to travel to Moscow, but neither went because the campaign would not cover the cost.

Mr. Papadopoulos was trusted enough to edit the outline of Mr. Trump’s first major foreign policy speech on April 27, an address in which the candidate said it was possible to improve relations with Russia. Mr. Papadopoulos flagged the speech to his newfound Russia contacts, telling Mr. Timofeev that it should be taken as “the signal to meet.”

“That is a statesman speech,” Mr. Mifsud agreed. Ms. Polonskaya wrote that she was pleased that Mr. Trump’s “position toward Russia is much softer” than that of other candidates.

Stephen Miller, then a senior policy adviser to the campaign and now a top White House aide, was eager for Mr. Papadopoulos to serve as a surrogate, someone who could publicize Mr. Trump’s foreign policy views without officially speaking for the campaign. But Mr. Papadopoulos’s first public attempt to do so was a disaster.

In a May 4, 2016, interview with The Times of London, Mr. Papadopoulos called on Prime Minister David Cameron to apologize to Mr. Trump for criticizing his remarks on Muslims as “stupid” and divisive. “Say sorry to Trump or risk special relationship, Cameron told,” the headline read. Mr. Clovis, the national campaign co-chairman, severely reprimanded Mr. Papadopoulos for failing to clear his explosive comments with the campaign in advance.

From then on, Mr. Papadopoulos was more careful with the press — though he never regained the full trust of Mr. Clovis or several other campaign officials.

Mr. Mifsud proposed to Mr. Papadopoulos that he, too, serve as a campaign surrogate. He could write op-eds under the guise of a “neutral” observer, he wrote in a previously undisclosed email, and follow Mr. Trump to his rallies as an accredited journalist while receiving briefings from the inside the campaign.

In late April, at a London hotel, Mr. Mifsud told Mr. Papadopoulos that he had just learned from high-level Russian officials in Moscow that the Russians had “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” according to court documents. Although Russian hackers had been mining data from the Democratic National Committee’s computers for months, that information was not yet public. Even the committee itself did not know.

Whether Mr. Papadopoulos shared that information with anyone else in the campaign is one of many unanswered questions. He was mostly in contact with the campaign over emails. The day after Mr. Mifsud’s revelation about the hacked emails, he told Mr. Miller in an email only that he had “interesting messages coming in from Moscow” about a possible trip. The emails obtained by The Times show no evidence that Mr. Papadopoulos discussed the stolen messages with the campaign.
Not long after, however, he opened up to Mr. Downer, the Australian diplomat, about his contacts with the Russians. It is unclear whether Mr. Downer was fishing for that information that night in May 2016. The meeting at the bar came about because of a series of connections, beginning with an Israeli Embassy official who introduced Mr. Papadopoulos to another Australian diplomat in London.

It is also not clear why, after getting the information in May, the Australian government waited two months to pass it to the F.B.I. In a statement, the Australian Embassy in Washington declined to provide details about the meeting or confirm that it occurred.

“As a matter of principle and practice, the Australian government does not comment on matters relevant to active investigations,” the statement said. The F.B.I. declined to comment.

A House Judiciary Committee session last month at which Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified. Mr. Sessions was head of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy team. Credit Al Drago for The New York Times

A Secretive Investigation

Once the information Mr. Papadopoulos had disclosed to the Australian diplomat reached the F.B.I., the bureau opened an investigation that became one of its most closely guarded secrets. Senior agents did not discuss it at the daily morning briefing, a classified setting where officials normally speak freely about highly sensitive operations.

Besides the information from the Australians, the investigation was also propelled by intelligence from other friendly governments, including the British and Dutch. A trip to Moscow by another adviser, Carter Page, also raised concerns at the F.B.I.

With so many strands coming in — about Mr. Papadopoulos, Mr. Page, the hackers and more — F.B.I. agents debated how aggressively to investigate the campaign’s Russia ties, according to current and former officials familiar with the debate. Issuing subpoenas or questioning people, for example, could cause the investigation to burst into public view in the final months of a presidential campaign.

It could also tip off the Russian government, which might try to cover its tracks. Some officials argued against taking such disruptive steps, especially since the F.B.I. would not be able to unravel the case before the election.

Others believed that the possibility of a compromised presidential campaign was so serious that it warranted the most thorough, aggressive tactics. Even if the odds against a Trump presidency were long, these agents argued, it was prudent to take every precaution.
That included questioning Christopher Steele, the former British spy who was compiling the dossier alleging a far-ranging Russian conspiracy to elect Mr. Trump. A team of F.B.I. agents traveled to Europe to interview Mr. Steele in early October 2016. Mr. Steele had shown some of his findings to an F.B.I. agent in Rome three months earlier, but that information was not part of the justification to start an counterintelligence inquiry, American officials said.

Ultimately, the F.B.I. and Justice Department decided to keep the investigation quiet, a decision that Democrats in particular have criticized. And agents did not interview Mr. Papadopoulos until late January.

Opening Doors, to the Top

He was hardly central to the daily running of the Trump campaign, yet Mr. Papadopoulos continuously found ways to make himself useful to senior Trump advisers. In September 2016, with the United Nations General Assembly approaching and stories circulating that Mrs. Clinton was going to meet with Mr. Sisi, the Egyptian president, Mr. Papadopoulos sent a message to Stephen K. Bannon, the campaign’s chief executive, offering to broker a similar meeting for Mr. Trump.

After days of scheduling discussions, the meeting was set and Mr. Papadopoulos sent a list of talking points to Mr. Bannon, according to people familiar with those interactions. Asked about his contacts with Mr. Papadopoulos, Mr. Bannon declined to comment.

Mr. Trump’s improbable victory raised Mr. Papadopoulos’s hopes that he might ascend to a top White House job. The election win also prompted a business proposal from Sergei Millian, a naturalized American citizen born in Belarus. After he had contacted Mr. Papadopoulos out of the blue over LinkedIn during the summer of 2016, the two met repeatedly in Manhattan.

Mr. Millian has bragged of his ties to Mr. Trump — boasts that the president’s advisers have said are overstated. He headed an obscure organization called the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, some of whose board members and clients are difficult to confirm. Congress is investigating where he fits into the swirl of contacts with the Trump campaign, although he has said he is unfairly being scrutinized only because of his support for Mr. Trump.

Mr. Millian proposed that he and Mr. Papadopoulos form an energy-related business that would be financed by Russian billionaires “who are not under sanctions” and would “open all doors for us” at “any level all the way to the top.”

One billionaire, he said, wanted to explore the idea of opening a Trump-branded hotel in Moscow. “I know the president will distance himself from business, but his children might be interested,” he wrote.
Nothing came of his proposals, partly because Mr. Papadopoulos was hoping that Michael T. Flynn, then Mr. Trump’s pick to be national security adviser, might give him the energy portfolio at the National Security Council.

The pair exchanged New Year’s greetings in the final hours of 2016. “Happy New Year, sir,” Mr. Papadopoulos wrote.

“Thank you and same to you, George. Happy New Year!” Mr. Flynn responded, ahead of a year that seemed to hold great promise.

But 2017 did not unfold that way. Within months, Mr. Flynn was fired, and both men were charged with lying to the F.B.I. And both became important witnesses in the investigation Mr. Papadopoulos had played a critical role in starting.


Friday, December 29, 2017

Trump Says Russia Inquiry Makes U.S. ‘Look Very Bad’

After playing golf on Thursday at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., President Trump said in an interview with The New York Times that he thought the Russia investigation “makes the country look very bad, and it puts the country in a very bad position.” Credit Greg Lovett/Palm Beach Post, via Associated Press

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Trump said Thursday that he believes Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel in the Russia investigation, will treat him fairly, contradicting some members of his party who have waged a weekslong campaign to try to discredit Mr. Mueller and the continuing inquiry.

During an impromptu 30-minute interview with The New York Times at his golf club in West Palm Beach, the president did not demand an end to the Russia investigations swirling around his administration, but insisted 16 times that there has been “no collusion” discovered by the inquiry.

“It makes the country look very bad, and it puts the country in a very bad position,” Mr. Trump said of the investigation. “So the sooner it’s worked out, the better it is for the country.”

Asked whether he would order the Justice Department to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, Mr. Trump appeared to remain focused on the Russia investigation.
“I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” he said, echoing claims by his supporters that as president he has the power to open or end an investigation. “But for purposes of hopefully thinking I’m going to be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved with this particular matter.”

Hours after he accused the Chinese of secretly shipping oil to North Korea, Mr. Trump explicitly said for the first time that he has “been soft” on China on trade in the hopes that its leaders will pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

He hinted that his patience may soon end, however, signaling his frustration with the reported oil shipments.

“Oil is going into North Korea. That wasn’t my deal!” he exclaimed, raising the possibility of aggressive trade actions against China. “If they don’t help us with North Korea, then I do what I’ve always said I want to do.”

Despite saying that when he visited China in November, President Xi Jinping “treated me better than anybody’s ever been treated in the history of China,” Mr. Trump said that “they have to help us much more.”

“We have a nuclear menace out there, which is no good for China,” he said.

Mr. Trump gave the interview in the Grill Room at Trump International Golf Club after he ate lunch with his playing partners, including his son Eric and the pro golfer Jim Herman. No aides were present for the interview, and the president sat alone with a New York Times reporter at a large round table as club members chatted and ate lunch nearby. A few times, members and friends — including a longtime supporter, Christopher Ruddy, the president and chief executive of the conservative website and TV company Newsmax — came by to speak with Mr. Trump.

Noting that he had given Mr. Herman $50,000 years ago when he worked at the president’s New Jersey golf club and was trying to make the PGA Tour, Mr. Trump asked him how much he made playing on the professional circuit.

Read Excerpts From Trump’s Interview With The Times

“It’s like $3 million,” Mr. Herman said.
“Which to him is like making a billion because he doesn’t spend anything,” Mr. Trump joked. “Ain’t that a great story?”

“Like Joe Manchin,” Mr. Trump said, referring to the Democratic senator from West Virginia. He said Mr. Manchin and other Democrats claimed to be centrists but refused to negotiate on health care or taxes.

“He talks. But he doesn’t do anything. He doesn’t do,” Mr. Trump said. “‘Hey, let’s get together, let’s do bipartisan.’ I say, ‘Good, let’s go.’ Then you don’t hear from him again.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Trump said he still hoped Democrats will work with him on bipartisan legislation in the coming year to overhaul health care, improve the country’s crumbling infrastructure and help young immigrants brought to the country as children.

Mr. Trump disputed reports that suggested he does not have a detailed understanding of legislation, saying, “I know the details of taxes better than anybody. Better than the greatest C.P.A. I know the details of health care better than most, better than most.”

Later, he added that he knows more about “the big bills” debated in the Congress “than any president that’s ever been in office.”

The president also spoke at length about the special election this month in Alabama, where Roy S. Moore, the Republican candidate, lost to a Democrat after being accused of sexual misconduct with young girls, including a minor, when he was in his 30s.

Mr. Trump said that he supported Mr. Moore’s opponent in the Republican primary race because he knew Mr. Moore would lose in the general election. And he insisted that he endorsed Mr. Moore later only because “I feel that I have to endorse Republicans as the head of the party.”

Mr. Trump repeated his assertion that Democrats invented the Russia allegations “as a hoax, as a ruse, as an excuse for losing an election.” He said that “everybody knows” his associates did not collude with the Russians, even as he insisted that the “real stories” are about Democrats who worked with Russians during the 2016 campaign.

“There’s been no collusion. But I think he’s going to be fair,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Mueller.
In recent weeks, Republican lawmakers have seized on anti-Trump texts sent by an F.B.I. investigator who was removed from Mr. Mueller’s team as evidence of political bias. At a hearing this month, Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, said that “the public trust in this whole thing is gone.”

Although Mr. Trump said he believes Mr. Mueller will treat him fairly, Mr. Trump raised questions about how the special counsel had dealt with the lobbyist Tony Podesta. Mr. Podesta is the brother of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta, and Tony Podesta is under investigation for work his firm, the Podesta Group, did on behalf of a client referred to it in 2012 by Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman.

“Whatever happened to Podesta?” Mr. Trump said. “They closed their firm, they left in disgrace, the whole thing, and now you never heard of anything.”

Mr. Trump tried to put distance between himself and Mr. Manafort, who was indicted in October. The president said that Mr. Manafort — whom he called “very nice man” and “an honorable person” — had spent more time working for other candidates and presidents than for him.

“Paul only worked for me for a few months,” Mr. Trump said. “Paul worked for Ronald Reagan. His firm worked for John McCain, worked for Bob Dole, worked for many Republicans for far longer than he worked for me. And you’re talking about what Paul was many years ago before I ever heard of him. He worked for me for — what was it, three and a half months?”

“I don’t want to get into loyalty, but I will tell you that, I will say this: Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him,” Mr. Trump said. He added: “When you look at the things that they did, and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that, I’ll be honest.”

Mr. Trump said he believes members of the news media will eventually cover him more favorably because they are profiting from the interest in his presidency and thus will want him re-elected.

“Another reason that I’m going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes,” Mr. Trump said, then invoked one of his preferred insults. “Without me, The New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times, but the failed New York Times.”

He added: “So they basically have to let me win. And eventually, probably six months before the election, they’ll be loving me because they’re saying, ‘Please, please, don’t lose Donald Trump.’ O.K.”

After the interview, Mr. Trump walked out of the Grill Room, stopping briefly to speak to guests. He then showed off a plaque that listed the club’s golf champions, including several years in which Mr. Trump had won its annual tournament. Asked how far he was hitting balls off the tee these days, Mr. Trump, who will turn 72 next year, was modest. “Gets shorter every year,” he said.


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Is Nuclear War Inevitable?

Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner
By Daniel Ellsberg
420 pp. Bloomsbury. $30.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un trading threats with words like “fire and fury”; Pakistan deploying tactical nuclear weapons to counter Indian conventional threats; Russia enunciating an Orwellian doctrine of “escalate-to-de-escalate” that calls for early use of battlefield nuclear weapons; and major nuclear-weapons states modernizing their arsenals — nukes are back. The cruel irony: This is happening after eight years of a president who won the Nobel Peace Prize largely for his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.

When the Cold War ended in 1991, nuclear weapons vanished from the minds of most Americans. Together with the Soviet Union, they were supposedly consigned to the dustbin of history. But the emergence of 21st-century nuclear threats — including the fear that terrorist groups will obtain this ultimate W.M.D. — has revived discussion about these devices of destruction. Among professionals, this debate can be found in government documents like the Defense Department’s Nuclear Matters Handbook and journals like the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Popular books like Eric Schlosser’s “Command and Control” and David E. Hoffman’s “The Dead Hand” have exposed a wider audience to these topics.

Daniel Ellsberg’s new memoir, “The Doomsday Machine,” is the latest in this genre. Its title reminds us of a Big Idea captured by the legendary strategist Herman Kahn in “On Thermonuclear War.” To illustrate the problem posed by nuclear arsenals that many embraced as the best way to prevent war and aggression, Kahn imagined a “doomsday machine.” This multimegaton nuclear weapon would be buried deep underground. When detonated, it would split the Earth, killing all inhabitants. But since an enemy would never believe that a rational leader would press the button to set off such a device, the weapon would be connected to a network of sensors. If these sensors detected a nuclear attack upon the United States, the machine would explode and the Earth would be destroyed. Since other states would know that any attack would be suicidal, they would assuredly be deterred.

But what if the sensors malfunctioned? Could sane, responsible leaders bet the planet on weapons that could be activated by an accident, misperception or mistake? Of course not, Kahn explained, but the “mutually assured destruction” capabilities that emerged as a consequence of the United States-Soviet competition were becoming functionally equivalent to a doomsday machine.


Ellsberg, best known for his role in leaking the Pentagon Papers, sounds an impassioned alarm about nuclear dangers and reminds us that the risks Kahn vivified still exist. Despite an 80 percent reduction since the Cold War, American and Russian nuclear arsenals still number in the thousands. Many remain on “hair trigger” alert, posing serious risks of an accidental launch. If all were used in a full-scale war, especially given the possibility of “nuclear winter,” life on Earth could be extinguished. There have been repeated close calls and near accidents, including as recently as 2007 when an American B-52, mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, flew across the United States. In sum, while the doomsday machine has not yet exploded, we may be living on borrowed time.

For those who have not read other recent books on nuclear dangers, Ellsberg provides valuable reminders of stubborn realities. By employing personal stories from his time in the 1950s and 1960s working alongside Kahn and other “wizards of Armageddon” at the RAND Corporation and as a consultant at the Pentagon, he makes hard-to-believe truths more credible.
The book opens with Ellsberg’s reaction to seeing for the first time the casualty graphs in America’s top-secret nuclear war plan. The number of people killed from a first strike by the United States would amount to what he memorably calls “a hundred holocausts” (600 million people). Ellsberg describes the Kennedy administration’s efforts to create more flexible options in the case of war with the Soviets. With Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Kennedy famously put into effect the “no cities” strategy, in which the United States would focus on military targets early in a conflict, moving away from Eisenhower’s massive retaliation approach that targeted all major Soviet (and Chinese) cities.

Ellsberg goes on to outline frightening elements of the American command-and-control system that he observed. Some, like the lack of safety locks (known as Permissive Action Links) on nuclear weapons, have since been corrected. Others, including the ability to launch nuclear weapons after an adversary’s first strike killed the president, remain a necessary evil. Ellsberg devotes two chapters to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the closest mankind has yet come to nuclear war. Though his account retraces well-worn trails, he advances the debate with his analysis of the role that Castro’s independent decision to fire at United States reconnaissance planes may have played in encouraging a worried Khrushchev to respond to Kennedy’s ultimatum.

“The Doomsday Machine” concludes with a passionate call for nuclear risk-reduction measures, including taking the weapons off hair-trigger alert and declaring a policy of “no-first-use.” Though recognizing that nuclear abolition is a distant hope, he argues for urgency in pursuing this goal, because the alternative amounts to fatalistic acceptance of an inevitable nuclear holocaust — a posture that is, in his words, “dizzyingly insane and immoral.” Since President Barack Obama shared that view, one wishes Ellsberg had stopped to wrestle with the obstacles that account for the gap between Obama’s promise and the results he achieved.

One can understand a desire to try to market this book as “Pentagon Papers 2.0.” But for readers of the nuclear classics, including works by Kahn, Thomas C. Schelling, Bernard Brodie and their successors, the attempt to repackage familiar insights as revelations is unpersuasive, as Ellsberg’s citations of long-declassified documents show. Similarly, Ellsberg’s account of having stolen, in addition to the Pentagon Papers, a voluminous cache of highly classified documents about America’s nuclear programs that were destroyed by a tropical storm before he could leak them raises more questions than it answers. For one: Why did it take him more than 45 years to share this story?
To make the central message of his book more persuasive, Ellsberg could have cited the alarm sounded by the “Four Horsemen of the Nuclear Apocalypse” — Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Shultz. In 2007, these four leading Cold Warriors, who served at the highest levels of government under Republican and Democratic presidents, endorsed the goal of “a world free of nuclear weapons” and outlined an agenda to achieve that goal. The argument is developed further in Perry’s sparkling 2015 memoir, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.” Readers will also be surprised that “The Doomsday Machine” lacks a chapter on new nuclear dangers. Atop that list is North Korea, now on the verge of perfecting the ability to carry out a nuclear strike against the United States. President Trump has threatened to attack to prevent this from happening — an attack that would most likely mean a second Korean War that could go nuclear.

These limitations aside, Ellsberg’s effort to make vivid the genuine madness of the “doomsday machine,” and the foolishness of betting our survival on mutually assured destruction, is both commendable and important. And his inability to describe a feasible way to eliminate nuclear dangers does not distinguish him from scores of others who have also been trying to rethink the unthinkable. Especially for young readers, by making earlier generations’ failures clear, “The Doomsday Machine” challenges them to rise to a grand and urgent opportunity.


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Homeland Security Increasingly Means Putting Agents Outside the Homeland

ABOARD A P-3 ORION, over the Pacific Ocean — The Department of Homeland Security is increasingly going global.

An estimated 2,000 Homeland Security employees — from Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents to Transportation Security Administration officials — now are deployed to more than 70 countries around the world.

Hundreds more are either at sea for weeks at a time aboard Coast Guard ships, or patrolling the skies in surveillance planes above the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

The expansion has created tensions with some European countries who say that the United States is trying to export its immigration laws to their territory. But other allies agree with the United States’ argument that its longer reach strengthens international security while preventing a terrorist attack, drug shipment, or human smuggling ring from reaching American soil.
“Many threats to the homeland begin overseas, and that’s where we need to be,” said James Nealon, the department’s assistant secretary for international engagement.

A surveillance mission earlier this month with Homeland Security agents in drug transit zones near South America highlights the department’s efforts to push out the border. Just after takeoff from a Costa Rican airfield, a crew of agents aboard a Customs and Border Protection surveillance plane began tracking a low-flying aircraft that appeared to be headed south toward Ecuador.

The aircraft, which intelligence reports reviewed by agents indicated had no flight plan, flew just a few hundred feet above the ocean — an apparent attempt to avoid detection by radar.

“When they are flying that low, they’re probably up to no good,” said Timothy Flynn, a senior detection agent, watching the plane on a radar screen.

An hour later, and hiding in the cloud cover to stay out of sight, the American P-3 pulled up behind the plane. An agent with a long-lens digital camera snapped a string of photos of the plane’s tail number and other identifying details. Mr. Flynn radioed the information to authorities in Ecuador who were waiting when the plane landed, arresting seven people and seizing more than 800 pounds of cocaine aboard.

Suspected members of the “Yahoo Boys,” a Nigerian criminal ring, were arrested by Homeland Security Investigations agents and the South African Police Service in Pretoria in 2014. Credit Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations

Ecuador may embrace the Homeland Security agents, but other allies say the department’s foreign reach is a stretch.

In Germany, some lawmakers have questioned the department’s counterterrorism Immigration Advisory Program, where travelers at foreign airports are investigated and sometimes interviewed by plainclothes Customs and Border Protection officers before they are allowed to board flights to the United States.

Those American officers can recommend that airlines deny boarding to foreign passengers. A Government Accountability Office report found that the customs officers stopped 8,100 known or suspected terrorists, or individuals with connections to terrorist groups, from traveling to the United States in 2015, the most recent year that data is available.
But Andrej Hunko, a member of the Germany’s Left Party, said the actions amount to an extrajudicial travel ban and accused the United States of moving its “immigration controls to European countries.”

Canadians flooded their prime minister’s office in August with letters and emails protesting legislation to allow American customs officers stationed at Canadian airports and train stations to question, search and detain Canadian citizens. Unnamed government officials told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the volume of mail received was “unprecedented” and took officials by surprise.

The measure passed two weeks ago after Ralph Goodale, Canada’s public safety minister, assured Parliament that the American officers would rarely use their authority to question or detain Canadian citizens. More than 400 Homeland Security employees are stationed in Canada — the most of any foreign country — which Mr. Goodale called a benefit to both nations.

“We face shared threats from drug smugglers, terrorists and human traffickers, and we could do things over the phone,” Mr. Goodale said in an interview. “But there are real advantages to being able to meet and talk to people face to face as you deal with these security threats.”

In Tanzania, Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators were accused in May of using “Mafia-style” tactics for helping to extradite suspects accused of drug smuggling to the United States before their appeal to block the transfer was concluded.

The costs of the Homeland Security operations abroad also have raised questions by critics in the United States.

The P-3 Orion surveillance planes patrol more than 42 million square miles in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean — an area almost 14 times the size of the continental United States. Credit Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations

One congressional report found that the cost of stationing an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent overseas is about four times as expensive as a domestic post. And in September testimony to the House Homeland Security Committee, the National Treasury Employees Union raised concerns about plans to deploy additional customs officers abroad amid “critical staffing shortages at the nation’s ports of entry.” The union represents 25,000 Customs and Border Protection employees.

Lawmakers have asked Homeland Security officials to evaluate the costs and benefits of deploying thousands of employees overseas while the department is looking to hire 15,000 new ICE and border patrol agents in the United States as part of President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.
Kevin K. McAleenan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said nearly 1,000 agency employees are stationed abroad, more than from any other a branch of the Department of Homeland Security. They screen passengers at airports, inspect cargo being loaded on ships bound for the United States and train other nations’ customs and border officials.

Additionally, a special tactical unit of border patrol agents, known as BORTAC, has worked in nearly 30 countries to train in counterterrorism and counternarcotics missions.

Kevin Martinson, the Customs and Border Protection attaché at the United States Embassy in Nairobi, said a training program for Kenyan customs officials and its Rural Border Patrol has led to record seizures of narcotics and other smuggled goods.

Mr. Martinson, who coordinates the agency’s efforts in nine African countries, said the training has also helped Kenya secure its borders and guard against groups like the Shabab, a militant organization based in neighboring Somalia. He said the American-trained Rural Border Patrol recently repelled an attack by the extremists and captured one of its assailants.

In South Africa, Homeland Security Investigations special agents who are stationed at the United States Embassy in Pretoria have targeted drug smugglers, wildlife traffickers and Nigerian scammers. The agents, who work for a division of ICE, are among 300 investigators in nearly 50 countries worldwide.

Steve R. Martin, the special agent in charge in Pretoria, said the unit’s role in a recent operation to arrest Tanzanian drug smuggler Ali Khatib Haji Hassan is a case in point.

Investigators first began looking into Mr. Hassan in 2012, after a member of his drug smuggling group was arrested at a Houston airport. Mr. Hassan, who is also known as “Shkuba” and had operated out of South Africa, was designated a major international drug kingpin last year by the Treasury Department.

According to court documents and interviews with Homeland Security agents in Pretoria, Mr. Hassan ran a global drug smuggling organization that obtained large quantities of heroin from sources in Pakistan and Iran, and cocaine from South American suppliers. Some of the drugs ultimately ended up on the streets in American cities and were traced back to Mr. Hassan’s organization.
He and two associates were arrested by Tanzanian authorities; all three men were extradited to the United States in May and are awaiting trial.

“You have to be on the ground and have the relationships with local law enforcement for this kind of case,” Mr. Martin said. “You can’t just parachute in.”

Mr. Hassan’s attorney, Hudson Ndusyepo, has said the men were illegally transferred to the United States because their appeal to block the extradition was still pending in front of a Tanzanian court. Mr. Ndusyepo did not respond to requests for comment but told a local newspaper in Dar es Salaam that his client had “not committed any offence in USA.”

Operations like the South African drug smuggling case have led the Department of Homeland Security to push to hire more Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents and analysts in embassy attaché offices in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — countries that serve as transit points for drugs and illegal migrants. Customs and Border Protection is also seeking to expand its presence at airports abroad.

For all of its foreign-based programs and far-flung employees, the mission of the P-3 surveillance plane may be the Department of Homeland Security program with the longest international reach.

The plane patrols more than 42 million square miles in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean — an area almost 14 times the size of the continental United States. Customs and Border Protection maintains a fleet of 14 such surveillance aircraft; they are sometimes airborne for as long as 12 hours in drug transit zones.

Last year, the P-3 aircrews contributed to 145 drug seizures, helping American and foreign authorities capture a combined 34,108 pounds of marijuana and 193,197 pounds of cocaine, according to Customs and Border Protection records.

On its most recent mission out of Costa Rica, the surveillance crew tracked a small boat off the coast of Colombia. The boat sat low in the water, with three men aboard.

William J. Schneider, a P-3 pilot, said the boat was likely carrying a large load of cocaine as it made its way north toward Mexico, and ultimately to the United States. The Homeland Security agents notified the Colombian navy of its location, but flew on, unable to stop it alone.
Mr. Schneider said these missions help in “catching drug loads at their largest.”

He continued: “If they make it to the border and get broken down into small packages, it's much harder to stop.”

Correction: December 26, 2017
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified a news organization in Canada. It is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, not the Canadian Broadcasting System.


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