Friday News Roundup — December 3, 2021
NDAA Haggling; “M” Speaks; Tackling Kleptocracy
Greetings from Washington, D.C., where the pileup of end-of-year items is bringing drama to legislating — and heartburn to legislators and staffers. While a deal was reached to keep the government open, attention now turns to the NDAA, debt limit, and what the Build Back Better plan will look like coming out of the Senate. And, while all that was going on in the Capitol, across First Street, NE, arguments at the Supreme Court signal looming changes to the precedents of Roe and Casey, as well as the resulting shifts in the politics of our culture wars.
Joshua penned an op-ed for Breaking Defense, arguing that Russia’s recent anti-satellite weapons test creates an opportunity for Washington to pursue a global moratorium on debris-creating events and ensure America’s orbital architecture is replaceable.
In his book review this week, two of Joshua’s biggest interests — Great Britain and intelligence — collided in his Diplomatic Courier book review of “The Secret Royals: Spying and the Crown, from Victoria to Diana”. “The Secret Royals” is deeply researched and an incredibly rich book that is about more than just the intersection of the crown and the intelligence services. It is also a history of the establishment and professionalization of the intelligence services, the evolution of the constitutional monarchy, and a royal history of global politics.
In this week’s roundup, Ethan looks at the haggling behind the NDAA and where it stands, while Joshua looks across the pond and parses the latest statements from the head of British intelligence. Liam covers how the upcoming Summit of Democracies should be accompanied by meaningful moves against kleptocracy. As always, we wrap with news you may have missed.
Fallout from NDAA Haggling
The post-Thanksgiving is a big time of the year, individually and in the policy world. I staunchly defend that no holiday decor should be posted before that late November holiday, so now that December has arrived, my neighborhood can look forward to my front yard being utterly layered in Star Wars themed Christmas accoutrements and overwhelming holiday lighting.
Most years around the time I’m inflating my Yoda and Darth Vader set pieces alongside my fully illuminated six-foot wide Death Star, the National Defense Authorization Act is being haggled over in congress. This is the one region of legislation where the American taxpayer can reasonably count on congress to be in lockstep, party agnostic. This year, a great deal of external influential factors as well as the standard affair, ‘pet projects’ by lawmakers are making the amendment process an unwieldy affair, one which has as many twists and turns as trying to navigate the labyrinthine line items in a defense budget. The Thanksgiving break truncated the timeline for both houses of congress to come to terms on the bills passage, but stacking against those priorities in no particular order is the continuing battle on the hill to advance various components of the infrastructure bill and U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), colloquially dubbed the China competition bill. This week was alleged to bring some clarity to the defense bills resolution in the Senate chamber, but a great many issues remain at large and are being subjected to further chamber debates.
The overriding issue was the effort at de-linking of the NDAA and the China competition bill, a significant push by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), one that has been stalled in the House since the competition bill was concurred in March of this year. On the topic of House and Senate chamber collaboration, the lower chamber issued a late Wednesday joint statement about reconciling the USICA with separate House legislation, based on discussion between the two bills being merged. The idea that a compromise between defense and competition spending will bolster U.S. security remains the lynchpin argument by House Democratic leaders. The Senate is not without its detractors at the two bills’ fusion, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) calling the USICA “Corporate Welfare”. The defense bill revision will be introduced as an amendment — a ridiculous moniker for a document that often exceeds 1,000 pages — to the House NDAA in debate.
Another important issue at large with the passage of the NDAA is the Pentagon’s comprehensive overhaul of its military justice system with particular regard to how it handles sexual assaults. The utterly dark reality is that sexual assault remains a pivotal issue in military readiness, and it has not gotten better in recent years, with DoD surveys indicating more than 20,000 servicemembers experienced some form of harassment or assault on an annual basis. Leadership (from both parties) in the Senate Armed Services Committee are opposed to the amendment to rescind military responsibility for sexual assault and other serious crimes like aggravated assault and murder, and place those future investigations in the hands of civilian prosecutors.
This is controversial for a variety of reasons; notably, it severely hamstrings unit commanders from their mandated charge of maintaining good order and discipline in the ranks — although the recent years statistics on this epidemic indicate those commanders have clearly fallen short of their responsibilities. But reducing the power inherent to the Chain of Command is no answer to this problem, just like divisive identity politics won’t solve an identity politics problem. Other challenges include the sensitive and classified nature of many areas of the military that could become exposed in these independent investigations. While there is an absolute need to fundamentally change how the military is handling its sexual assault problems, this broader legislative issue is a major sticking point at risk of removal from the NDAA. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) lead the proposal, supported by 66 senate and 150 house co-sponsors of this bill’s intent, who have called on Senate leadership to retain the bill’s provision. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), another supporter of the revision, slung blame for the blocked measure on congressional counterparts who are attempting to foment a quagmire to the unrelated $1.7 trillion infrastructure bill, but that Senate leadership opposed to the military justice overhaul includes Sen. Jack Reed, of his own party. While opening military justice to civilian courts on these issues may not precisely be the appropriate measure — mandating higher accountability to those unit commanders and removing them for failure to curb such behavior is — removal of this provision entirely from the NDAA does anything but promote military readiness.
Hundreds of proposed amendments in debate this week include repealing the 2002 AUMF, an issue near and dear to me and a point I’ve argued for at length in recent years. The move for congress to reclaim its war powers authority from the executive continues to gather momentum this year, with both parties in each chamber voting in favor of repealing the gross overage of presidential war authorities. Sen. Schumer has vowed to bring the vote to the Senate floor before the end of the year, but with nary a few weeks remaining before the calendar year ends and the issue of the NDAA, USICA, and infrastructure bills vying for supremacy in the voting queue, the outcome of this critical issue remains unresolved. Credit going where it is due, the Biden administration has voiced its support to sunset the AUMF, asserting that it no longer reflects the U.S.-Iraq dynamic, this despite the President’s use of the sweeping AUMF authorities to execute airstrikes in Syria absent any relevant military objective or threat to U.S. forces. While regaining its most solemn authorities has its supporters in both parties of congress, Republican leaders like Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID), said that removal of the AUMF sends a back message of a weakening U.S. stance in the Middle East, while Ron Johnson (R-WI) noted that he is sympathetic to the repeal, but now wasn’t the time to do so. The time to do so, by this author’s professional assessment (someone who looks at defense policy now and was once a tool of this same AUMF architecture), was years ago.
So in summary, outside the norm of the Thanksgiving-to-Saturnalia window, a great many items are on the congressional voting table. It’s a quagmire of issues staked to the NDAA passage, and while most of these components have some common sense resolutions, congressional process is anything but sensible or common.
SIS Chief Delivers First Public Address
Sir Richard Moore, the Chief of Great Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) gave a rare public address this week. Speaking before the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in his first public address, Sir Richard outlined the service’s priorities and concerns, expressing particular concern about the the big four — China, Russia, Iran, and international terrorism — and discussed the challenges of human intelligence in a digital world.
According to Sir Richard, “The tectonic plates are shifting as China’s power, and its willingness to assert it, grows.” While Sir Richard addressed the traditional hallmarks of China’s behaviour saying “Beijing’s growing military strength and the Party’s desire to resolve the Taiwan issue… pose a serious challenge to global stability and peace” he also highlighted the other aspects of Beijing’s challenge. “Technologies of control and surveillance are increasingly being exported to other governments by China” he warned, adding that, “we want other countries to be clear-eyed about the debt traps, data exposure and vulnerability to political coercion that arise from dependency.”
Of particular note was the Chief’s warning that “Beijing believes its own propaganda about Western frailties and underestimates Washington’s resolve.” He continued, “the risk of Chinese miscalculation through overconfidence is real.”
The SIS Chief was blunt when discussing Russia, saying “we continue to face an acute threat” from Moscow. Surveying Russian behavior, he noted that “Russian state activities are designed to be covert, or at least deniable” but that “our allies and partners must stand up to and deter Russian activity which contravenes the rules-based international system”. Sir Richard did address the Ukraine crisis, warning “Moscow should be in no doubt of our support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” While this is certainly to be welcomed in Kiev, it is likely to ring hollow in the Kremlin, given the paucity of British military capabilities and the present dynamic in NATO at the moment.
The shortness of this section is interesting. While SIS’ remit is international, the Russia threat transcends national boundaries and has found its way into British politics. Indeed, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) recently criticized the British intelligence establishment for failing to investigation Russian interference in the Brexit debate and elections.
Addressing Iran, briefly, Sir Richard noted Tehran’s regional interference in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and the Gulf, and also warned about its cyber and assassination programs. He added, “we will continue to work to contain the threat posed by Iran to the UK directly and to our allies in the region. That includes contesting Iran’s development of nuclear technology which has no conceivable civilian use.”
His comments on terrorism were fairly bog standard, warning of home-grown terrorism, but also noting that “I won’t soft soap it, the threat we face will likely grow now we have left Afghanistan. Al Qaeda and Daesh will seek to increase their foothold, and to rebuild their ability to strike Western targets.” These are quite candid remarks and ones that have not really been echoed in Washington or elsewhere. Indeed, the instability in Central Asia will almost certainly spread, despite whatever hopes some policymakers are pinning on the Taliban to contain or roll-back the Islamic State-Khorasan.
The most interesting portion of the speech is a theme on which CSPC has been focused throughout 2020 and 2021, the future of intelligence in strategic competition. Sir Richard summed it up quite well, “there is no longer such a thing as an analogue intelligence operation in this digital world.” He added:
Our intelligence targets have online lives. Our officers need to operate invisibly to our adversaries. And we need to be able to run our agent and technical operations in an environment in which “Made in China” surveillance technology is found around the world.
To address this, the Chief noted that SIS is “further expanding our human relationships and networks, investing in our people and our capabilities, and opening up to new partnerships — in the technological arena and with governments overseas — to make common cause on the greatest global challenges of our time.” Paradoxically, SIS must “become more open, to stay secret.”
Sir Richard’s speech, at its core, isn’t particularly ground-breaking. It highlights the natural threats about which SIS would be most concerned. Yet, it is worth noting that expansion of the China challenge and the admission of the challenges new technology presents to the conduct of human intelligence.
It is also notable for what it didn’t discuss. While it would, perhaps, be out of place for the Chief of SIS to comment on domestic matters, Russian disinformation is truly a global challenge and it was not mentioned at all. Equally too, the omission of anything on Britain’s role in a post-Brexit world is interesting to note. Here too it may be out of place (and likely sensible given the present domestic political dynamic with Prime Minister Boris Johnson), but one would think some tangential comment or allusion would at least acknowledge the situation. Indeed, Europe is only mentioned twice, once in the context of Iran and once in the section on Russia.
The Fight Against Corruption Must Not Stop at The Summit for Democracy
President Joe Biden ran on a mandate promising to fight against international kleptocracy and eventually end the United States’ reputation as a haven for hiding illicit funds. a reputation further solidified during the previous Trump administration. Now the Biden administration is due to soon host the upcoming Summit for Democracy, a virtual summit aimed at bringing global leaders together to address global kleptocracy and seeping authoritarianism. Combating global corruption strikes at the heart of great power rivals like China and Russia and restores the United States’ reputation as a bastion of democracy.
China and Russia have continually weaponized corruption by facilitating illicit flows of money and mirky deals to gain influence in foreign nations, from Ecuador to the Solomon Islands. These kleptocratic actions have been crucial elements of Chinese and Russian foreign policy. Their actions greatly danger American interests by impeding on the sovereignty of targeted states and weakening their democratic institutions. As the United States seeks to revamp its foreign assistance following the COVID-19 pandemic recession to various states, it must continue to enlarge its efforts to tackle corruption beyond the Summit for Democracy.
Political institutions that are plagued by systemic dysfunction are much more susceptible to harmful foreign influence because they encourage leaders to selfishly obtain individual wealth and power rather than advance the national interests. Newly formed democratic and authoritarian governments are particularly susceptible to kleptocratic behavior because their institutions are weak or have been controlled by autocrats. Hence, existing activist organizations would often lack the necessary resources needed to hold their own leaders accountable by disclosing corruption. Furthermore, if the information is released to the wider public, the weak and almost nonexistent checks and balances would allow the autocrats to govern without fear of public accountability.
In states like the Maldives and Montenegro, Chinese government-backed investments have advanced Beijing’s strategic interests while facilitating debt burdens, exacerbating local corruption and corroding democratic governance. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is only one of the tools it has used to corrode democracies while realizing its objectives.
In Russia, kleptocracy has also been central to President Putin’s foreign policy, which has been executed through local oligarchs and their affiliate organizations. These actors have continued to influence policy decisions in foreign countries through bribery tactics all of which would make political leaders loyal.
As a result of these efforts, China and Russia expand their influence at the expense of the United States, meaning that corruption should be seen not merely as a domestic issue for foreign nations but a larger and tangible threat to American security interests.
Externally, through the State Department the United States can widen efforts to curb excessive autocratic behavior by promoting independent media abroad. Journalists already contribute greatly to exposing corruption, which is a crucial step towards curbing the influence that foreign actors exert in kleptocratic networks. While the U.S. government already devotes significant resources to media training around the world, the scale of the global corruption challenge justifies the additional investment needed to foster independent journalism and open media coverage.
The United States must also increase and further integrate technology into its anti-corruption strategy. The publication of government data online would make it much more difficult for officials to hide information and enable citizens to press their officials for fairer deals with foreign partners. For instance, in North Macedonia both the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the think tank International Republican Institute (IRI) supported an open finance portal that enabled citizens and activist organizations to monitor national budget transactions. This cross collaboration and its product have been a significant improvement in protecting American interests in a region where both Russia and China have attempted to exert corrosive foreign influence.
However, for the United States to take effective action against global kleptocracy, it must look at itself internally and recognize that its own existing financial infrastructures which are deeply embedded in the global economy have continuously enabled kleptocratic autocracies to thrive. Throughout the post-Cold War era corrupt officials, oligarchs, and state-owned firms from around the world have flocked to Western democracies due to their reputations for being “tax friendly” and preserving property rights. For instance this can be seen in states such as Delaware and South Dakota which have allowed for the annual creation of millions of anonymous shell companies by kleptocratic actors-all of which allow for continual money laundering under the guise of anonymity to occur without interruption. The looming threat of autocratic kleptocracies was felt most strongly throughout the Trump administration from President Trump’s first impeachment trial to his election defeat in 2020 which resulted in Turkey’s finance minister stepping down from his post due to his relationship with Jared Kushner which lost all of its utility to Turkish PresidentErdoğan.
Hence, the Biden administration must enact internal reforms that eliminate the influence of kleptocratic actors domestically in the United States. Through the U.S. Treasury, the United States should advocate for the immediate implementation of the proposed 2015 FinCEN rule which would cover investment advisors and pave the way for a reactionary legislative action against the kleptocratic enablers along the lines outlined in a report by the researcher Josh Rudolph. The Biden administration should also lobby Congress to expand and uphold Corporate Transparency Act of 2019 which would promote financial transparency via eliminating anonymous shell companies and private equity funds.
Without tough legal structures, corruption exposed will always remain corruption unpunished and normalized. Events are now catching up with the Biden administration after the explosive revelations within the Pandora Papers, which revealed the culpability that the U.S. itself has in operating as a platform for underhanded global financial transactions to occur.
A problem like global corruption deserves both institutional champions in the U.S. government bureaucracy and therefore the highest priority within domestic and foreign policy. Climate change, China and Russia present themselves as seismic challenges to President Biden’s foreign policy agenda to restore American hegemony in the global international order. However global kleptocracy may be the one it can successfully defeat.
Liam Miller is a junior studying economics and political science at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. A CSPC internship program alum, he is from Nassau, The Bahamas.
News You May Have Missed
A Gallup survey found that the number who identify their mental health as “excellent” has remained at the 21-year low of 34%. That number had averaged in the mid-40s throughout 2001–2019. The findings suggest that the impact of the pandemic has continued to weigh on Ameicans’ well-being. Respondents to the survey also indicated that those with higher incomes, more-regular church/religious habits, and Republicans/independents indicated higher satisfaction with their mental health.
A 19-year old Florida man is in custody after threatening and trying to extort Florida State Senator Lauren Book with a combination of personal images that had been leaked or stolen from her accounts, as well as doctored images and videos. While the teen had originally demanded money, he also suggested that he would reduce the price in combination for intimate favors with the State Senator. While he thought he was speaking with the State Senator, at that point, he was now negotiating with Florida law enforcement. While the suspect is in custody, this should serve as another reminder of the personal and degrading comments and threats faced by many female lawmakers and public figures.
The suburban Chicago home made famous by the film “Home Alone” can now be rented on AirBNB. Guests will find the home laid out just as it was in the movie, though health and safety regulations mean Kevin McAllister’s booby traps will not be part of the stay. Bookings start on December 7th, for $25 a night — during your stay, keep an eye out for the wet bandits and take it easy on the aftershave.
The views of authors are their own and not that of CSPC.