Sean P. Larkin on The End of Secrets

Colonel Sean P. Larkin, Military Fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations, sits down with Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose to discuss his article, The Age of Transparency, published in the May/June 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs

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A rush transcript is below.

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Gideon Rose: Hi there, I'm Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs. Welcome to another edition of Foreign Affairs Focus. We have the great pleasure today of being here with Colonel Sean Larkin of the the US Air Force, who's a military fellow at the Counsel on Foreign Relations, and author of an excellent piece in the new issue of Foreign Affairs called 'The Age of Transparency: International Relations without Secrets'. So Sean, this is a... Secrecy has been a core element of international life from the beginning, everyone wants to keep their own affairs secret and spy on and figure out what's happening to everybody else, and the thesis of your piece is this is all eroding. So what are the trends that are making this the incoming age of transparency?

Colonel Sean Larkin: So Gideon, what I found really interesting was that the trends are technology-driven but they're also market-driven. There's a tremendous commercial market for data, whether that data is coming from commercial satellite imagery, from drones, from social media, and from any other number of technologies that continue to expand at an accelerated rate. And this has the effect of empowering what previously would have been weaker actors in global affairs to observe what other states do, especially in denied areas.

ROSE: So everybody now has massive overflight capabilities and real time data on what's going on everywhere?

LARKIN: Well not yet, but I kind of project within about 10 years is when a lot of these trends are gonna converge. Right now, there's perhaps 80 commercial satellites orbiting the Earth that can image the Earth. In another five years, there's gonna be about 600, and you'll go from one of the major satellite providers... From me being able to take a picture of a particular area once or twice a day, to that area being observable 70 or more times a day.

ROSE: Okay, let's take an example of how this plays out in practice and see what's different. So in the Cuban missile crisis, we woke up to find that missiles were coming in, some of them were already there, and it's all a big problem and, "Oh my God, what do we do?" Compare that to what's going on with the islands in the South China sea, in which we're seeing in real time the runways being built, the sand being added. It's all happening in front of everybody without the kind of secrecy that it was with Cuba, but does that change the fundamental issue or how we deal with it?

LARKIN: It doesn't change the fundamental issue, but it kind of changes how... The fact that the government has to deal with it in public. One small example is that Fox News exposed the deployment of a Chinese advanced serviced air missile system on Woody Island in the Paracels. And within 24 hours of Fox News revealing this, it had been commented on by both the Chinese and the US. And to compare it to your Cuban missile crisis example, in that case President Kennedy had about six days from the time he was told about the missiles and came up with a plan with the EXCOMM and before he actually made a public statement. So the clock is ticking a lot faster, now there's less time to kind of ponder in private before you have to speak in public, and that has a big impact on how governments deal with these things.

ROSE: So instead of launch on warning, we have to speak on warning?

LARKIN: Perhaps, that is one of the effects.

ROSE: So it's interesting to hear, though, about this transparency because although there are these technological trends, in some ways it seems like the dominant fact of life in recent years has been surprise rather than transparency, whether it was 9/ll coming in, somewhat out of the blue, whether it was Saddam not having the weapons that everybody thought he had. Those things seem to indicate we're not fully transparent yet.

LARKIN: Now that's absolutely correct. And I don't argue in the piece that all secrets will be revealed, but what I argue is that when a state decides to take an action, when they deploy forces, when they send spies over a border, when they change a one to a zero in cyber space, they are running the risk of being exposed. And so their plans and intentions can be kept hidden and some of their capabilities can be kept hidden, but once they decide to act, they're gonna have to deal with, "How are we going to be exposed, how long is it going to take, and what are we gonna do when that happens? Are we going to modify our behavior or are we going to just come up with a better counter narrative to justify our behavior?"

ROSE: Now one of the things this presumably does is it makes it harder to be hypocritical.

LARKIN: Correct.

ROSE: It gets harder to say one thing and do another without being called on it, as it were. Does that affect some actors more than others? Russia is doing things in Ukraine, for example, that it says it's not doing but everybody knows it's doing them, whether it's shooting down the plane, whether it's helping its forces, its allies, and yet they can get away with their own people by just saying that's not true, but everybody else is seeing a different reality. Is that kind of thing problematic for countries?

LARKIN: It's just one of the realities of transparency is both that it's a double edged sword, and it doesn't affect everyone equally when it comes to accountability. So transparent technology is leading to more transparency, but whether or not that leads to direct accountability by the government leaders in question is... It depends. And so for example, the United States and the United Kingdom, or any other democracy that generally adheres to its own laws or to international norms, generally speaking will modify their behavior once some sort of malfeasance or wrongdoing has been exposed. As you point out, Russia has had its counter-narrative disproven very convincingly by a vast amount of information that's available that shows their support to the separatists in Eastern Ukraine, that shows that despite their statements, they bombed more rebel groups in Syria than just Isis, but because their internal apparatus is being able to spin this story so well for domestic consumption that they are fairly immune to the pressures of transparency that would be more effective in other countries.

ROSE: Since the article went to press, the Panama papers have been released, with a leak of documents from a law firm showing all sorts of people investing in tax havens there. Is that an example of the kind of thing that you're talking about?

LARKIN: Absolutely, because although I focused a lot in the paper on the various types of technology that reveal secrets and things that governments prefer to keep secret, you can't deny just the insider threat that we saw with Snowden, that we saw with WikiLeaks, and the technology does also enable the movement of very large amounts of data. Apparently the Panama papers is the largest leak of all time, and so absolutely that's part of this trend, because even if you can see when satellites are coming over and hide your activity, or you can otherwise defeat these various other sensors and social media trends that can reveal malfeasance or government activities, you still have to worry about somebody who's an insider, whether for political or for monetary reasons, decide to reveal your secrets.

ROSE: Is the United States more hypocritical than others, and does the revelation of the actual state of affairs in the world that technology and leaks will produce, will that hurt America especially? Something like WikiLeaks actually seemed to have less impact than many thought because it revealed that Americans were pushing for things in private that they were actually saying in public as well.

LARKIN: Right. I think there's a very good argument to be made that the United States... That our rhetoric and our reality match up pretty well. That what we do and what we say, for the most part, are consistent.

ROSE: That we're actually less hypocritical than a lot of other countries.

LARKIN: Right. That is certainly the position I would take. However, the threat of transparency, if you wanna call it that, also means that it can undermine strategies that rely on secrecy, even if they're perfectly legitimate. If we establish a new safe house in a foreign country, if we send a spy across a border, if we fly an aircraft into an airfield that it's never been to before...

ROSE: If we listen in on Angela Merkel's phone.

LARKIN: Exactly. Any of these things can be revealed, and they can be revealed very quickly. So for anyone, whether their actions are legitimate or illegitimate, if the strategy relies on secrecy, these trends, these technology trends, are something they're gonna have to take into account.

ROSE: So the American attitude towards transparency is sorta like... I think it was Saint Augustine towards chastity in which he prayed, "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet."

[chuckle]

ROSE: Is that sorta the American attitude towards transparency?

LARKIN: There are certainly areas where the US Government operates, military operations or sensitive diplomatic or intelligence relationships, where of course we would prefer to keep those secret, and in many cases they're more affective if they are kept secret. But those are not inconsistent with our values, they're just operational realities that some things you don't wanna talk about in public. But as anyone who's been watching the news for the last several years on any of these conflicts or any operations the US is involved with, a lot of is revealed pretty quickly. It's usually just for tactical purposes that we keep things concealed.

ROSE: Does the new age of transparency help states or non-state actors, or does it affect everybody equally?

LARKIN: I think it is the biggest benefit to the weaker actors in international relations. And they could be smaller states who can't afford big intelligence services, they could be non-governmental organizations like Human Rights Watch, they can be think-tanks or just individual citizens or bloggers. Because they have access to so much information at low cost or even for free, that they just simply wouldn't have had access to before. And the United States actually has the other challenge, is that we build this tremendous intelligence infrastructure that is very focused on gathering secrets through classified means, and so now we have to figure out how to take advantage of this fire hose of open information and to seamlessly integrate it into our more conventional and traditional ways of doing intelligence and collecting secrets.

ROSE: So in some ways, the processing and analysis function is now even more necessary because the raw amount of data coming in is just obscenely huge.

LARKIN: It is, absolutely. And we face that challenge on the classified side with the number of airplanes and satellites and everything else that we operate, but the amount of data created in social media on a daily basis or any other of these open sources is absolutely huge. And somehow we have to combine those two and take the best of both to, in the case of the intelligence community, answer our national leadership's questions.

ROSE: Do you expect fewer surprises down the road?

LARKIN: No. No, I don't. Because the international realm will still be a contest between various state and non-state actors, and everyone will use all this information to their advantage. But what I do see is that states will have to act a little more... They will have to assume that they're acting in daylight, that they're not able to keep everything close to their vest. Ultimately, the cards will be put on the table pretty quickly. So we still may be surprised by the next Crimea-type incursion, but it would be revealed more quickly and authoritatively than perhaps it was in the past.

ROSE: So maybe international relations now is like playing stud poker rather than draw poker.

LARKIN: That's correct.

ROSE: There's more cards up on the table, everyone can see them, but there are still a few things that are key that are kept private.

LARKIN: Absolutely, there's still a game to be played.

ROSE: Colonel Sean Larkin, thank you very much.

LARKIN: Thank you.

 

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