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TBR News March 16, 2018

Mar 16 2018

The Voice of the White House 

Washington, D.C. March 16, 2018: “Sergei Viktorovich Skripal is a former Russian military intelligence officer who acted as a double agent for the UK’s intelligence services during the 1990s and early 2000s. In December 2004, he was arrested by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and later tried, convicted of high treason, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He settled in the UK in 2010 following the Illegals Program spy swap and became a British subject.

Christopher David Steele is a former British intelligence officer with the Secret Intelligence Service MI6 from 1987 until his retirement in 2009. He is also the founding director of Orbis Business Intelligence, a London-based private intelligence firm

Steele later went to for work for Fusion GPS a commercial research and strategic intelligence firm based in Washington, D.C.

The firm was subsequently hired by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee through their shared attorney at Perkins Coie, Marc Elias. Fusion GPS then hired Steele to investigate Trump’s Russia-related activities. According to CNN, Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee took over the financing of the inquiry into Donald Trump and produced what became known as the Trump dossier.

According to an official British analysis, Steele was in contact with Skripal and claimed he used much of Skripal’s information for his Trump report.

When it was learned in Washington that Steele was on Mr. Mueller’s prime list to interrogate, fears that Skripal, who was known to give information to anyone willing to pay for it, was also considered a subject for interrogation under oath, a form of panic arose and the CIA spoke with their opposite numbers in England. The thrust of this contact was that American intelligence and political entities did not want Skripal to be deposed.

Steele had been privately warned about speaking out of turn but Skripal was considered to be a “loose cannon.”

The neve gas used on him and his daughter was not of Russian origin but was part of the British chemical warfare inventory, stored at a secret base located only a few miles from where the nerve material was eventually used.

The media, ever obedient to its master’s desires, at once set up a loud campaign accusing the Russians of the deed.

It ought to be pointed out that since Skripal was in the Russian prision system and under their control after he was convicted of treason, it would have been far easier to dispose of him under those circumstances that to wait until he went to England and became a British citizen.”


Table of Contents

  • Christopher Steele As Seen By the New Yorker
  • Hackers Are So Fed Up With Twitter Bots They’re Hunting Them Down Themselves
  • ‘America’s new Vietnam’: why a homelessness crisis seems unsolvable
  • Russia’s Clash With the West Is About Geography, Not Ideology
  • Lying and Self-Delusion
  • Secrecy News
  • A warm approach to the equinox


Christopher Steele As Seen By the New Yorker

Liberal fantasies beatify the messenger

March 13, 2018

by Philip Giraldi

The Unz Review

The latest salvo in the Russiagate saga is a 15,000 word New Yorker article entitled “Christopher Steele the man behind the Trump dossier: how the ex-spy tried to warn the world about Trump’s ties to Russia” by veteran journalist Jane Mayer. The premise of the piece is clear from the tediously long title, namely that the Steele dossier, which implicated Donald Trump and his associates in a number of high crimes and misdemeanors, is basically accurate in exposing an existential threat posed to our nation by Russia. How does it come to that conclusion? By citing sources that it does not identify whose credibility is alleged to be unimpeachable as well as by including testimony from Steele friends and supporters.

In other words, the Mayer piece is an elaboration of the same “trust me” narrative that has driven the hounding of Russia and Trump from day one. Inevitably, the Trump haters both from the left and the right have jumped on the Mayer piece as confirmation of their own presumptions regarding what has allegedly occurred, when, in reality, Trump might just be more right than wrong when he claims that he has been the victim of a conspiracy by the Establishment to discredit and remove him.

Mayer is a progressive and a long-time critic of Donald Trump. She has written a book denouncing “the Koch brothers’ deep influence on American politics” and co-authored another book with Jill Abramson, formerly Executive Editor of the New York Times. Abramson reportedly carries a small plastic replica of Barack Obama in her purse which she can take out “to take comfort” whenever she is confronted by Donald Trump’s America. Mayer’s New Yorker bio-blurb describes her as a journalist who covers national security, together with politics and culture.

The problem with the type of neo-journalism as practiced by Mayer is that it first comes to a conclusion and then selects the necessary “facts” to support that narrative. When the government does that sort of thing to support, one might suggest, a war against Iraq or even hypothetically speaking Iran, it is called cherry picking. After the facts have been cherry picked they are “stovepiped” up to the policy maker, avoiding along the way any analysts who might demur regarding the product’s veracity. In journalistic terms, the equivalent would perhaps be sending the garbage up directly to a friendly editor, avoiding any fact check.

Mayer tries to take the high road by asserting that the Republicans are “trying to take down the intelligence community.” It is an odd assertion coming from her as she has written a book called “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals,” a development which was pretty much implemented by the intelligence community working hand-in-hand with Congress and the White House. But she is not the first liberal who has now become a friend of CIA, the FBI and the NSA as a response to the greater threat allegedly posed by Donald Trump.

A Steele friend describes the man as a virtual Second Coming of Jesus, for whom “fairness, integrity and truth…trump any ideology.” Former head of MI-6 and Steele boss Sir John Dearlove, who once reported how the intelligence on Iraq had been “sexed-up” and “fixed around the policy” to make the false case for war, describes Steele as “superb.” Other commentary from former American CIA officers is similar in nature. Former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin, who himself was involved in lying to support America’s journey into Iraq, similarly sees Steele as honest and credible in his claims, while a former CIA Station Chief in Moscow is called upon to cast aspersions on the “Russian character” that impels them to engage in lies and deception.

My review of the Mayer rebuttal of criticism of Steele revealed a number of instances where she comes to certain conclusions without presenting any real supporting evidence or accepts “proof” that is essentially hearsay because it supports her overall narrative. She asserts that Russia and WikiLeaks were working together on the release of the Democratic National Committee/Hillary Clinton emails without providing any substantiation whatsoever. She surely came to that judgement based on something she was told, but by whom and when?

Another major blooper in the Mayer story relates to how one unnamed “senior Russian official” reported that the Kremlin had blocked the appointment of Mitt Romney, a noted critic of Russia, as secretary of state. How exactly that was implemented is not clear from the Steele reporting and there has been no other independent confirmation of the allegation, but Mayer finds it credible, asserting that “subsequent events could be said to support it.” What events? one might ask, though the national media did not hesitate and instead reported Mayer’s assertion as if it were itself a credible source in a forty-eight hour news cycle frenzy relating to Romney and Trump.

Steele’s work history also raises some questions. He served in Moscow as a first tour officer for MI-6 under diplomatic cover from 1990 to 1993. Russia was in tumult and Mayer describes how “Boris Yeltsin gained ultimate power, and a moment of democratic promise faded as the KGB -now called the FSB-reasserted its influence, oligarchs snapped up state assets, and nationalist political forces began to emerge.” Not to go into too much detail, but Mayer’s description of Russia at that time is dead wrong. Yeltsin was a drunkard and a tool of American and European intervention and manipulation. He was no agent of “democratic promise” and only grew more corrupt as his time in office continued into the completely manipulated election of 1996, when the IMF and U.S. conspired to get him reelected so the looting, a.k.a. “democratization,” could go on. Mayer goes on to depict in negative terms a “shadowy” former “KGB operative” Vladimir Putin who emerged from the chaos.

Mayer also cites a Steele report of April 2016, a “secret investigation [that] involved a survey of Russian interference in the politics of four members of the European Union,” but she neither produces the report itself or the sources used to put it together. The report allegedly concluded that the “Kremlin’s long-term aim …was to boost extremist groups and politicians at the expense of Europe’s liberal democracies. The more immediate goal was to destroy the E.U…” The precis provided by Mayer is a bit of fantasy, it would seem, and is perhaps a reflection of an unhealthy obsession on the part of Steele, if he actually came to that conclusion. As it stands it is hearsay, possibly provided by Steele himself or a friend to Mayer to defend his reputation.

Mayer also reports and calls potentially treasonous Steele’s claims that “Kremlin and Trump were politically colluding in the 2016 campaign…’to sow discord and disunity both with the U.S.’ and within the transatlantic alliance.” And also, “[Trump] and his top associates had repeatedly accepted intelligence from the Kremlin on Hillary Clinton and other political rivals.” As Robert Mueller apparently has not developed any information to support such wild claims, it would be interesting to know why Jane Mayer considers them to be credible.

Sweeping judgements by Mayer also include “[Steele’s] allegation that the Kremlin favored Trump in 2016 and was offering his campaign dirt on Hillary has been borne out. So has his claim that the Kremlin and WikiLeaks were working together…” As noted above, the WikiLeaks/Kremlin allegations have not been demonstrated, nor have the claims about Kremlin provision of information to discredit Hillary, who was doing a find job at the time discrediting herself.

The account of Donald Trump performing “perverted sexual acts” in a Moscow hotel is likewise a good example of what is wrong with the article. Four sources are cited as providing details of what took place, but it is conceded that none of them was actually a witness to it. It would be necessary to learn who the sources were beyond vague descriptions, what their actual access to the information was and what their motives were for coming forward might be. One was allegedly a “top-level Russian intelligence officer,” but the others were hotel employees and a Trump associate who had arranged for the travel.

Finally, from an ex-intelligence officer point of view I have some questions about Steele’s sources in Russia. Who are they? If they were MI-6 sources he would not be able to touch them once he left the service and would face severe sanctions under the Official Secrets Act should he even try to do so. There are in addition claims in the Mayer story that Steele did not pay his sources because it would encourage them to fabricate, an argument that could also be made about Steele who was being paid to produce dirt on Trump. So what was the quid pro quo? Intelligence agents work for money, particularly when dealing with a private security firm, and Steele’s claim, if he truly made it, that he has sources that gave him closely held, highly sensitive information in exchange for an occasional lunch in Mayfair rings hollow.

Jane Mayer’s account of the Steele dossier seems to accept quite a lot on faith. It would be interesting to know the extent to which Steele himself or his proxies were the source of much of what she has written. Until we know more about the actual Russian sources and also about Mayer’s own contacts interviewed for the article, her “man behind the Trump dossier” will continue to be something of a mystery and the entire Russiagate saga assumption that Moscow interfered in the 2016 U.S. election must be regarded as still to be demonstrated.


Hackers Are So Fed Up With Twitter Bots They’re Hunting Them Down Themselves

March 16, 2018

by Yael Grauer

The Intercept

Once a mere nuisance for Twitter, accounts created by software programs pretending to be human — “bots” — have become a major headache for the social network. In October, Twitter’s general counsel told a Senate committee investigating disinformation that Russian bots tweeted 1.4 million times during the run-up to the last presidential election, and such bots would later be implicated in hundreds of tweets that followed a school shooting in Florida. In January, the New York Times detailed how U.S. companies, executives, journalists, and celebrities often purchase bots as followers in an attempt to make themselves seem more popular.

The fallout for the company has been withering. In Vanity Fair last month, writer Nick Bilton, who has tracked the company closely as an author and journalist, accused Twitter of “turning a blind eye to the problem” of bots for years in order to artificially inflate its count of active users. Meanwhile, disgruntled former Twitter executives told Maya Kosoff, also in Vanity Fair, that the social network was throwing too many humans and too little technology at the problem of bots and other misbehavior. “You had this unsophisticated human army with no real scalable platform to plug into,” one said.

Even if Twitter hasn’t invested much in anti-bot software, some of its most technically proficient users have. They’re writing and refining code that can use Twitter’s public application programming interface, or API, as well as Google and other online interfaces, to ferret out fake accounts and bad actors. The effort, at least among the researchers I spoke with, has begun with hunting bots designed to promote pornographic material — a type of fake account that is particularly easy to spot — but the plan is to eventually broaden the hunt to other types of bots. The bot-hunting programming and research has been a strictly volunteer, part-time endeavor, but the efforts have collectively identified tens of thousands of fake accounts, underlining just how much low-hanging fruit remains for Twitter to prune.

Autodidacts at Automaton Detection

Among the part-time bot-hunters is French security researcher and freelance Android developer Baptiste Robert, who in February of this year noticed that Twitter accounts with profile photos of scantily clad women were liking his tweets or following him on Twitter. Aside from the sexually suggestive images, the bots had similarities. Not only did these Twitter accounts typically include profile photos of adult actresses, but they also had similar bios, followed similar accounts, liked more tweets than they retweeted, had fewer than 1,000 followers, and directed readers to click the link in their bios.

One of the first accounts Robert looked at, which is now suspended, linked to the site datewith-me1.com, which was registered with a Russian email address also connected to instaflirtbook.com, hookupviplocators1.com, yoursexydream11.com, and sex4choice.com. Robert said it looked like various phishing sites had an identical schema and were likely operated by the same person.

So, Robert decided to create a proof-of-concept bot to show his followers that finding these accounts is pretty easy. After determining a set of similarities between the bots, he used advanced Google queries and Google reverse image search to find more of them. He then wrote a few hundred lines of code in the programming language Python to create a bot to hunt down and expose fake accounts. “It took less than one hour to write the first version of @PornBotHunter,” Robert said. “The first idea was to show how easy it was to find these bots by just using Google search.” The bot hunter tweets information on porn bots it has detected every hour, including Twitter handles, profile pictures, number of followers, longevity of the profile, biographical links, and whether Twitter has suspended the account. It also posts lengthier reports about its activities to Pastebin, a text hosting site popular among security researchers. Robert also allows people to report false positives to his regular Twitter account.

Robert is quick to admit that the software is just a proof of concept. He is planning on rewriting it to catch other types of bots as well, ranging from cryptocurrency bots to political bots. He also hopes to create a framework that’ll help people see how many bots are following them on Twitter. Once the project is stable and reviewed, he plans to open source the source code.

Still, it’s fascinating that a tool put together in just an hour is catching bots before Twitter does itself. As of March 1, @PornBotHunter has listed 197 spammy, apparently fake accounts in Pastebin, and 66, roughly a third, have yet to be suspended by Twitter. The others were suspended soon after being indexed by Google or after Robert reported them to Twitter. (A handful of the remaining active accounts, which may have only been compromised temporarily, do not appear to be spam accounts run by bots.)

Meanwhile, in Sweden, a group of five archivists, data journalists, and academic researchers also noticed that many Twitter users were getting inundated with automated accounts sharing sexually explicit links and images. They decided to analyze some of these porn bots through a project called Botjakten (“jakten” means “hunt” in Norwegian). All of Botjakten’s code is up on GitHub.

Botjakten started in mid-January as a crowdsourced project using a simple Google form that allowed users to report suspected bots that had followed or retweeted them. That, along with individuals who reached out to share their blacklists, gave them about 5,000 bots. Although some people provided false information on the form, it gave them a great starting point to look for patterns in location, profile photos, account creation date, numbers of retweets, outbound links, and more. They then wrote software to identify still more bots, querying Twitter’s livestream API with different terms, including sexually explicit phrases and hashtags associated with bots, and visualize the bots’ activity, for example by showing the webpages they linked. (The visualization code was written in the JavaScript programming language, and the bot detection code in Python.)

After a few weeks, the 30,000 bots identified by the Botjakten group’s software suddenly ceased all activity, so they attempted to find more bots by examining accounts that followed those 30,000 bots. This produced 20,000 more bots to track. “It seemed likely that they would follow one another, and we were right about that assumption,” said Andreas Segerberg, who works at the Gothenburg City Archives and teaches digital preservation/archival theory at the University of Gothenburg when not working on the project. Twitter’s API limits the number of requests per minute, so the process was very slow and took about a month.

Botjakten is working on analyzing the data, for example, mapping the online behavior of these porn bots, trying to understand from where they originate, and gathering data on how widespread the issue is. The team hopes to analyze the percentage of bots that have been suspended and the percentage of accounts that were compromised, but have since returned to their rightful owners.

But even though the team put the collection part of the project on pause to focus on analysis, they have seen a second wave of bots that they plan to monitor. Botjakten plans to keep monitoring the bots and eventually publish its findings, then report the bots en masse to Twitter, Segerberg said.

Then, like Robert, they want to look at other data as well. “There’s an election coming up in Sweden in October; that will be something we will keep a close eye on,” said Segerberg.

They’re still not done analyzing their data, but the Botjakten project has already identified similarities in porn bot accounts: images of a small number of adult film actresses, bots that share specific syntax when posting links that point to two websites with sexual content, the use of obscure link shorteners with URLs linking to questionnaire sites that then direct users to one of two dating websites. Aside from the redirects bouncing visitors from one place to another, some sites linked by the porn bots run cryptocurrency miners in users’ browsers, hijacking their computers’ processors to make money for scammers. Some accounts appear to be autogenerated for the sole purpose of spamming users as part of a bot network, while others appear to be hacked accounts from real users. (This can happen when people use bad passwords or reuse usernames and passwords on multiple accounts, since hackers can test those combinations out on multiple accounts after just one is compromised.)Twitter Is “More Proactive Than They’ve Ever Been”

Although bots have clearly become a more prominent issue for Twitter over the past year and a half, freelance bot hunting has something of a history. Security analyst Rob Cook began hunting porn bots in 2016 and recently found about a fifth of the ones he discovered back then are still active. Also in 2016, security firm Symantec discovered that 2,500 popular Twitter accounts were hijacked by porn bots within a two-week span; profile photos were replaced with sexually suggestive images, display names and bios were changed, and tweets included links to sketchy adult dating sites. Research released in March 2017 estimated that a whopping 9 to 15 percent of active Twitter accounts were bots. Information security journalist Joseph Cox followed a trail of Twitter porn bots for Vice’s Motherboard a few months after that and found “a network of over a dozen interlinked dodgy-looking dating websites.”

The ubiquity of these accounts and relative ease with which users and researchers alike can find them begs the question of why Twitter seems to be two steps behind. When reached for comment, a Twitter spokesperson said, “Our team uses a combination of technology and human review to identify and remove content that is spammy and attempts to manipulate the service. This is important, ongoing work that we will continue to prioritize.” The spokesperson further provided The Intercept with information on Twitter’s rules on spam.

When asked why so many accounts continue to proliferate in spite of these efforts — why hackers can build tools to detect active accounts that Twitter hasn’t caught — the spokesperson stated, “There are hundreds of millions of Tweets sent every day, and we use both reports and our technology to help enforce the Twitter Rules. Given the scale we’re working at and erring on the side of protecting peoples’ voices, including types of activity that on the outside can appear spammy, context is crucial when we review content. We employ a variety of techniques to combat spam, depending on the type of behavior we observe on the account; this approach helps us make the most informed, thoughtful decisions. For example, we may be able to help an original account owner regain control of a hacked account, rather than deleting it entirely. Every day we observe new ways people attempt to spam or manipulate content on the service, and our team works hard to ensure we’re enforcing our rules fairly and consistently.” While Twitter insists that it proactively monitors for spammy or manipulative behavior and removes accounts in violation of its spam rules, it would not comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.

In the summer of 2017, Twitter did take down SIREN, a massive spam pornography botnet of over 90,000 accounts that included profiles with women’s names and sexually suggestive photographs with canned sexually explicit phrases in broken English. After Baltimore-based security firm ZeroFOX disclosed the profiles and posts to the Twitter security team, they were removed — but this was after the botnet generated almost 30 million clicks through Twitter, as well as spam emails.

Erin Gallagher, a multimedia artist, writer, and translator, said Twitter has improved in the past couple years. Gallagher would know because she researches Twitter bot networks and diagrams them, showing clusters of retweet networks, hub accounts, and other information, using the visualization software tool Gephi. “In their most recent report, [Twitter] said that in December of 2017, their automatic systems identified more than 6.4 million suspicious accounts per week, which seems bananas, and actually they’ve increased their detection system 60 percent since October,” she told me. “It seems that they’re more proactive than they have ever been.” Further, Gallagher explained that Twitter takes more heat than other social media platforms because it has an open API, which allows independent researchers to access the data and study it. And there’s the possibility that while these porn bots have found a way around Twitter’s detection mechanisms, they wouldn’t have taken steps to circumvent detection from smaller projects of which they’re unaware.

But Segerberg, of the Botjakten project, points out that it’s much easier to create a bot on Twitter than it is to report one. “In essence, there are no captchas or anything when signing up for an account, but it takes, like, five steps to report a spam account.” To do so, Twitter requires users to click on that account’s profile, click the overflow icon, select “report” from the menu, select “they are posting spam” from the drop-down menu, and follow recommendations for additional actions to take. Reporting tweets is equally cumbersome: One must navigate to the appropriate tweet, tap the icon, select “report tweet,” select “it’s spam,” and then follow the recommendations.

Perhaps creating a more user-friendly reporting process and tapping into some of the data from independent projects such as @PornBotHunter and Botjakten could help Twitter improve their processes and find some of the bots they have missed.


‘America’s new Vietnam’: why a homelessness crisis seems unsolvable

Despite approving billions in funds to fight the problem, Los Angeles has seen its homeless population continue to grow. Is there anything politicians can do?

March 16, 2018

by Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles

The Guardian

In Los Angeles, the more the politicians push to solve the city’s festering homelessness crisis, the worse it seems to get.

The city leadership has taken one bold step after another: restructuring the budget to free more than $100m a year in homelessness funding, sponsoring one voter-approved initiative to raise more than $1bn for housing and backing another regional proposal to raise the sales tax and generate an estimated $3.5bn for support services over the next decade. And yet the tent cities continue to proliferate, in rich neighborhoods and poor, by the beach, the airport, the Hollywood Walk of Fame and within view of City Hall itself.

It’s the sorriest urban scene anywhere in America, and the same voters who not so long ago opened their hearts and their wallets to put an end to it are growing increasingly impatient. As the numbers of homeless people continue to rise – the latest figures put the countywide number at 58,000, up more than 20% in a single year – and new encampments spring up on sidewalks, under freeways, and along stretches of river and rail lines, the politicians who not so long ago were earning praise for their courage are facing the beginnings of an angry backlash.

“How many people have we housed?” the Los Angeles Times asked impatiently in a blistering series of editorials late last month. “How many are we on track toward housing? Is Los Angeles setting the national standard for rapid and effective response to a vexing problem? Or are its leaders merely mastering the art of appearances while passing the buck and hoping things turn around? … Who’s in charge here?”

Most infuriating, to the Times and to many others, has been the reluctance of many LA city council members to move forward on supportive-housing projects. More than a year after the money became available, just two of the first 10 sites identified  as easiest to build quickly have broken ground, leaving the others hostage to neighborhood groups anxious about having people with addiction and mental health problems move in next door.

The politicians are clearly feeling the heat from the Times series. Two city council members responded by announcing they were pushing ahead with housing projects they’d previously blocked.


Russia’s Clash With the West Is About Geography, Not Ideology

The Marshall Plan recognized the limits of U.S. power in Europe. To be successful, so must diplomacy with Moscow today.

February 12, 2018

by Benn Steil

Foreign Policy

At his dacha, standing before a map of the newly expanded Soviet Union shortly after Germany’s surrender in May 1945, Josef Stalin nodded with approval. The vast buffer he’d carved out of Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe would now protect his empire against future Napoleons and Hitlers. Stalin then took the pipe from his mouth, waving it under the base of the Caucasus. He shook his head and frowned.

“I don’t like our border right here,” he said to his aides, gesturing at the area where the Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan met the hostile powers of Turkey and Iran.

Over the next year and a half, U.S.-Soviet relations would collapse as Stalin pressured Ankara and Tehran for territorial concessions and U.S. President Harry S. Truman pushed back by sending a naval flotilla to the Mediterranean. In February 1947, a penniless Britain told the State Department that it could no longer defend the Greek government in its civil war with Yugoslav-backed Communist rebels, prompting Truman to pledge U.S. economic and military aid for Athens and Ankara. Stalin, whose country was struggling to recover from Nazi devastation, fell back on defense. His aim now would be to hold the new security zone in Eastern Europe and to prevent the United States from controlling Russia’s mortal enemy: Germany.

In March 1947, the new U.S. secretary of state, George C. Marshall, embarked on six grueling weeks of negotiations in Moscow with his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov, over the future of occupied Germany. With neither side willing to accept the possibility of such a dangerous, strategically situated country becoming an ally of the other, the talks ended in stalemate. Yet Stalin still believed that Truman would ultimately be compelled to concede German unification on Soviet terms — massive reparations and a political structure favorable to the Communists — in order to fulfill his predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Europe within two years after the war.

Marshall left Moscow convinced that cooperation with the Soviets was over. Germany, and much of Western Europe, was edging toward economic and social collapse, and the Leninist dictum “the worse, the better” appeared to be Stalin’s response. The time had come, Marshall decided, for unilateral U.S. action to secure democratic, capitalist government in the parts of Europe still outside Soviet control. In an iconic speech at Harvard University on June 5, 1947, he presented the outline of what would become a massive four-year U.S. aid scheme to support European reconstruction and integration: the Marshall Plan.

Stalin denounced the plan as a vicious American plot to buy political and military domination of Europe. He feared losing control not just of Germany but of Eastern Europe, too. Prior to the launch of the Marshall Plan, Stalin had never been dogmatic about the forms of socialism pursued by countries within the Soviet sphere. Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania were all allowed to form coalition governments of one sort or another. His demand had merely been fealty to Moscow on foreign policy. That would soon change. By the end of 1948, Stalin had fully co-opted or crushed the remaining non-Communist elements in the governments of Eastern Europe.

Truman had wanted to use the Marshall Plan as a tool to reduce U.S. security entanglements in Europe. But the State Department had conditioned the $13.2 billion (more than $135 billion in today’s money) in grants on the recipients integrating their economies, leaving them to object that the loss of self-sufficiency would make them more vulnerable to Soviet (and German) harassment and threats. So the president now acceded to French and British demands that Marshall aid be given a military escort. On April 4, 1949, a year and a day after signing the Marshall aid legislation, Truman signed the founding agreement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The following month, the United States, Britain, and France accepted the constitution for a new West German state. The Soviets responded by creating their own East German state in October. The dialectic of each side’s suspicions of the other having played out as far as it could without war, the European borders of the Cold War conflict would remain frozen for the next 40 years.

Four decades later, on Nov. 9, 1989, frenzied East German crowds gathered at the Berlin Wall yelling “Tor auf!” (“Open the gate!”). When a worried and confused border guard complied, tens of thousands began pouring into the West. Millions more would do so in the coming days.

In Dresden six weeks later, a crowd greeted West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl shouting “Einheit! Einheit! Einheit!” (“Unity!”). Nearby, a nervous but determined 37-year-old KGB officer had spent weeks burning mounds of documents in preparation for possible attacks on his station by angry mobs. The enormous volume of ash destroyed the building’s furnace. Years later, Russian journalists interviewed the former officer about his work in Germany. “We were interested in any information about the main opponent,” Vladimir Putin explained. That opponent, NATO, would continue to obsess Russian leaders in the years to come.

By early 1990, the East German Communists, imploding under the weight of popular revulsion and infighting, were a spent political force, and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had begun to reconcile himself to German unification. What he still demanded was that a reunified Germany not be part of the Atlantic alliance. Continued German membership of NATO, Gorbachev told German and Soviet journalists, must be “absolutely ruled out.”

Gorbachev and his Russian successors have maintained that they were misled over whether the alliance would be permitted to expand eastward. NATO, the Soviet leader said, was “an organization designed from the start to be hostile to the Soviet Union.” “Any extension of the zone of NATO,” he told then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, would therefore be “unacceptable.” Yet when Germany reunified in October, he was powerless to stop the eastern part from exiting the Warsaw Pact and entering NATO.

With the demise of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin continued to press the issue with his American counterpart. The United States, he told then-President Bill Clinton, was “sow[ing the] seeds of distrust” by dangling NATO membership in front of former Warsaw Pact states. For a Russian leader to “agree to the borders of NATO expanding toward those of Russia,” he told Clinton during a 1995 meeting at the Kremlin, “would constitute a betrayal of the Russian people.” Defense Minister Pavel Grachev warned Polish leaders that his countrymen saw the alliance as a “monster directed against Russia.” Foreign Intelligence Service head Yevgeny Primakov, who would later become foreign minister and prime minister, argued that NATO expansion would necessitate a more robust Russian defense posture. “This is not just a psychological issue for us,” he insisted to the U.S. diplomat Strobe Talbott in 1996. “It’s a security question.” Moscow’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy warned that NATO enlargement would make “the Baltic states and Ukraine … a zone of intense strategic rivalry.”

Russia’s resistance left Clinton two sensible options. He could ignore it and insist on expanding NATO in a robust way, under the logic that “Russia will always be Russia” and would harass and dominate its neighbors if not contained by the threat of military force. This was the Republican position at the time, outlined in the party’s 1994 “Contract with America.” The other was to sit tight until Russian behavior belied its pledges to respect its neighbors’ sovereignty. This was former Ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan’s position. But Clinton, being Clinton, chose a third option, which was to expand NATO on the cheap — under the logic that the alliance faced no real enemy. In 1996, Ronald Asmus, soon to become an influential Clinton administration official, argued that NATO expansion costs would be modest since the “premise [was] avoiding confrontation with Russia, not preparing for a new Russian threat.”

“Are we really going to be able to convince the East Europeans that we are protecting them,” asked an incredulous Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn in a speech to military officials, “… while we convince the Russians that NATO enlargement has nothing to do with Russia?” Talbott warned in an internal memo that “An expanded NATO that excludes Russia will not serve to contain Russia’s retrograde, expansionist impulses.” On the contrary, he argued, “it will further provoke them.” But Richard Holbrooke, then Clinton’s special envoy to the Balkans, dismissed this warning. The United States, he wrote in World Policy Journal in 1998, could “have [its] cake and eat it too … years from now … people will look back at the debate and wonder what all the fuss was about. They will notice that nothing has changed in Russia’s relationship with the West.”

Holbrooke could not have been more wrong. “We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries,” the 94-year-old Kennan told the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman in 1998, “even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.” He would prove right. Clinton’s gambit would pit an under-resourced NATO against an ever-more embittered and authoritarian Russia.

Days after the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO in March 1999, the alliance began a three-month bombing campaign against Serbia — which, like Russia, is a Slavic Orthodox state. These attacks on a brother country appalled ordinary Russians, especially since they were not carried out in defense of a NATO member, but to protect the Muslim population of Kosovo, then a Serbian province. NATO’s actions in the former Yugoslavia — in Bosnia in 1995 as well as in Serbia in 1999 — were undertaken with noble aims: to stop the slaughter of innocents. NATO expansion into the former Warsaw Pact countries, however, all but guaranteed that Russians wouldn’t see them that way. Moscow knew that its former vassals, by joining the alliance, had now bound themselves to support Western policies that challenged Russian interests. The farther east NATO expanded, the more threatening it would become.

That seemed especially clear when NATO members began taking unilateral actions hostile to Russia, actions they would never have taken outside the alliance. In 2015, for example, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that had crossed into its airspace from Syria, where it was bombing opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime. “Turkish airspace … is NATO airspace,” the Turkish foreign ministry pointedly told Russia after the attack. Russia took notice. “Turkey has set up not itself” as the actor, “but the North Atlantic alliance as a whole,” said Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in an interview with Time magazine. “This is extremely irresponsible.”

In trying to assure the Russians that NATO was not a threat, the Clinton administration had taken it for granted that legitimate Russian interests, in an era following glasnost and perestroika, would not clash with NATO interests. But this view presumed that the Cold War had been driven by ideology and not geography. Halford Mackinder, the father of geopolitics, would have scoffed at this view. Mackinder, who died in 1947, the year the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan were launched, drew policymakers’ attention to the strategic centrality of the vast Eurasian “Heartland,” which was dominated by Russia. “Who rules East Europe,” he famously wrote in 1919, “commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island commands the World.” It was the ideas of Mackinder, and not Marx, that best explained the Cold War.

Russia’s eternal fear of invasion drove its foreign policy then and continues to do so now. “At bottom of [the] Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is [a] traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” Kennan wrote in his famous 1946 Long Telegram. Vast, sparsely populated, and with huge transport challenges, Russia had a natural tendency to fracture. Looking outward, Russia was a “land which had never known a friendly neighbor.” Its defining characteristic was its indefensibility. No mountain ranges or bodies of water protected its western borders. For centuries, it suffered repeated invasions. That landscape and history encouraged the emergence of a highly centralized and autocratic leadership obsessed with internal and external security. Communists had been just one variety of such leadership, peculiar to the age in which they emerged.

The country’s western borders have always been particularly vulnerable. The European landmass west of Russia’s borders constitutes a large peninsula surrounded by the Baltic and North Seas to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the Black Sea to the south. Russia, in contrast, has few maritime outlets. The Arctic Ocean is remote from its population centers. The country’s few ports are largely unusable in the winter. Turkish waters to the south, like Nordic waters to the north, can be easily blocked. During the Cold War, Norwegian, British, and Icelandic airbases also hindered Russian access to the sea.

But such problems were not limited to the 20th century. In the latter half of the 19th century, Russia had been contained by France and Britain — in the Balkans, the Middle East, India, and China — well before Kennan made “containment” a household word. Its defensive options being limited, its military doctrine has historically been offensive. It has sought to dominate its neighbors as a means of preventing the borderlands from being used against it by other powers. Whereas the West sees Russia’s fear of invasion as groundless, history has shown Russian leaders that foreign intentions are typically hidden or fluid. Each age brings a new existential threat; there would always be another Napoleon or Hitler.

After World War II, the threat was, from the Kremlin’s perspective, capitalist encirclement led by Washington and its West German puppet. The incorporation of Ukraine and Belarus (1922) and the Baltic countries (1940) into the Soviet Union, and the creation of buffer states farther east, bolstered Russia’s security at the expense of the West’s. In 1949, splitting control of Germany created a stable equilibrium, one that survived four decades. Once Moscow lost control of Berlin in 1989, however, Russia’s defensive frontier collapsed, forcing it to retreat to borders farther east than they had been since the 18th century.

In his 2005 state of the nation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who had been on the front lines of Moscow’s covert efforts against NATO during the 1980s, described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Much of his long tenure as president has been devoted to restoring elements of the Soviet Union’s economic space and security frontier in the face of NATO and European Union expansion — and preventing the old Soviet empire’s constituent parts from undermining the interests of today’s Russia.

While military conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine have been attributed to aggressive Kremlin efforts to re-establish elements of the Soviet empire, it is notable that Russia has not annexed any of the breakaway regions — with the exception of Crimea, which houses the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The reason is not merely deniability, but also the fact that annexation of pro-Russian territories would have strengthened the pro-Western forces in the remaining parts of each country. Annexation would undermine Russia’s primary objective, which is keeping the countries beyond the reach of Western institutions seen to threaten Russian interests. The presence of frozen conflicts in the three nations effectively blocks them from joining NATO. The alliance has always rejected aspirants with unresolved border disputes, internal territorial conflicts, and insufficient military capacity to provide for a credible national defense.

In the cases of Georgia and Ukraine, the timing of the Russian interventions coincided with those countries’ achievement of tangible benchmarks on the path to NATO membership. The combined separatist territories, under effective Russian control, now form a valuable protective arc along Russia’s western and southwestern border. Just as Stalin strengthened the Soviet Union’s buffer zone in response to the Marshall Plan, which he expected Washington to supplement with military force, Putin has strengthened Russia’s buffer zone in response to NATO expansion.

Putin’s views are perhaps best captured by a private conversation he had with the former Israeli leader Shimon Peres shortly before the latter’s death, in 2016. “What do [the Americans] need NATO for?” Peres recalled him asking. “Which army do they want to fight? They think I didn’t know that Crimea is Russian, and that Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine as a gift? I didn’t care, until then you needed the Ukrainians in NATO. What for? I didn’t touch them.”

These are not the words of an ideologue. Nor are they a reflection of a uniquely ruthless Russian leader. After all, Gorbachev, no fan of Putin’s, also supported the annexation of Crimea, as well as Russian military action in Georgia. The West, he wrote in his memoirs, had been “blind to the kind of sentiments NATO expansion aroused” in Russia.

Western leaders do not need to sympathize with Russia, but if they wish to make effective foreign policies, they do need to understand it. Communism may have vanished from Europe, but the region’s geography has not changed. Russia is, as it has always been, too large and powerful to embed within Western institutions without fundamentally changing them and too vulnerable to Western encroachment to acquiesce in its own exclusion.

The Marshall Plan, which cemented the Cold War, is remembered as one of the great achievements of U.S. foreign policy not merely because it was visionary but also because it worked. It worked because the United States accepted the reality of a Russian sphere of influence into which it could not penetrate without sacrificing credibility and public support.

Great acts of statesmanship are grounded in realism no less than idealism. It is a lesson America needs to relearn.


Lying and Self-Delusion

March 16, 2018

by Christian Jürs

Admit nothing.

          Deny everything.

         Demand to see proof.

        Refuse to accept it.”

 For some years it has been said that a controversial issue does not gain credibility in the eyes of the public until it has been officially denied in Washington. To this official denial must be added confirming attacks by the media, the official public relations outlet for the government. No one believes them either.

A very significant number of the German nationals belonging to the CIA-controlled Gehlen Organization have been discovered to have belonged to either the Gestapo or the RSHA, the Reichssicherheitshauptamt.  This was the blanket organization for all German State and Party intelligence and counterintelligence agencies.

The fact that an indivual was assigned to the RSHA does not mean that he wasinvolved in anything more sinister than clerical work in an office. But included in this list are a number of individuals whose wartime record indicates their activities were of a criminal nature and their inclusion in any U.S. sponsored and controlled agency has no justification whatsoever.

The American members of this group (the Gehlen Organization was entirely controlled by the CIA from 1948 through 1956)

The Gehlen group was controlled completely by the U.S. Army from 1945 until 1948. It was then taken over and controlled directly by the Central Intelligence Agency under the command of Colonel James Critchfield until 1955-56, when the group was taken over by the Federal Government of Germany and renamed the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) or State Intelligence Service.

The excuse will doubtless be offered by all controlling parties that they had no way of knowing that their ranks contained such a significant number of Gestapo and SD officials, and many who were on the wanted lists called CROWCASS. This acronym stands for Central Registry of War Crimes and Security Suspects instituted by U.S. Intelligence in May of 1945, and eventually discontinued in 1948. These lists were contained in a total of forty books and were responsible for the apprehension of many wanted war criminals. It should be pointed out, that from 1945 until 1948 when the control of the Gehlen Organization passed to the CIA, it was mandatory that all German nationals who were employed by U.S. authorities in occupied Germany had to be checked both through CIC Central Registry as well as the CROWCASS lists!

There is absolutely no possibility that a valid claim of ignorance of the makeup of the Gehlen group can be made at this point in time. In fact, in 1948, all of the CROWCASS files were turned over to Gehlen and the CIA, very effectively blocking any possible inquiry into the makeup of the German-American spy network.

Because Gehlen had no knowledge of the inner workings of the Soviet Union, and being limited in his wartime duties of establishing Soviet order of battle, it was necessary for him to seek the services of German, Croatian, Baltic and Russian individuals who had a much broader background in non-military intelligence.

During the Second World War, Reinhard Gehlen was in charge of the German Army’s Foreign Armies East (Fremde Heer Ost) branch of the High Command. In retrospect, his projected views of Soviet military moves were more often wrong than right, but Gehlen was both ambitious and egocentric, a combination which effectively precluded him from considering any views other than his own.

Hitler eventually fired him for incompetence.

The American military had very little knowledge of the inner workings of the Soviet state because during Roosevelt’s reign they had been strictly forbidden by the President to conduct any intelligence activity against his friend and ally, Josef Stalin. Soviet agents, on the other hand, ran rampant in the United States, spying on every important part of the U.S. government and military establishment. In this, the Soviets were eagerly assisted by a host of American communists who did not view their treachery as such, but rather as their sacred duty to the Soviet Union to whom they owed their entire allegiance.

The defense made, after the fact, by American intelligence agencies to charges of the unrestrained use of foreigners whose activities during the war were brutal in the extreme, was that theUnited States needed as much information on their new enemy as they could develop. Also, the backgrounds of many of their intelligence resources were secondary to their task of developing this intelligence.

Many of the individuals hired by Gehlen had very little experience in the intelligence field, but much in the area of partisan warfare. This combat experience consisted of engaging Soviet partisan and irregular units in warfare with the intention of liquidating them, the same goals, it ought to be pointed out, that the partisans themselves adhered to.

There is also the concept that Gehlen was used by elements in the United States government and military as a foil to convince a reluctant President Truman and the American Congress that Stalin was planning to launch an attack on western Europe. To forestall this attack, these elements urged, it was vital that the United States halt the demobilization of their military and the downsizing of American industry, and reverse the process.

Gehlen’s reports prepared at the behest of his American controllers have proven to be as inaccurate as the ones he prepared for Hitler’s High Command. But in the former case, Gehlen did what he was told to do while the latter case was more an example of ego than mendacity.

Almost no one, except for bureaucratic types, could justify the use by Gehlen and his controllers, the U.S.Army and later the CIA, of such men whose names are now identified with membership in his organization.

Every nation in modern times has special military or paramilitary organizations at their disposal to enforce their will by ruthless and morally indefensible methods. The Germans had their Einsatzgruppen, their Geheime Feld Polizei and their Jagdverbände, the British their SAS, the U.S. their Special Forces and SEALS, and the Soviets their Speznatz units. All of these units were and are being trained in the techniques of control through terror and what, in the end, amounts to the control, repression and often the physical liquidation of the civilian populations of their military opponents.

From 1945 through 1948, this authority was the U.S. Army and between 1948 and 1956, the CIA. What happened later was that the ranks of the newly-constituted Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND, of the West German government, were swelled with a significant number of former Gestapo and SD people who had the added liability of working for Soviet intelligence.

All bureaucracies in all periods encounter the same problems: Maintenance. The actual secrets of the world are so few that one could carry them on small slips of paper in a back pocket. In order to justify acres of buildings filled with tens of thousands of employees, office equipment, telephones, code machines, shredders, computer systems, plastic passes, executive dining rooms, travel expenses and, finally, salaries, all intelligence agencies have to at least give the appearance of performing vital functions for the security of their state. No agency or bureaucracy has ever voluntarily reduced itself, but every one of them finds it necessary to expand itself to acquire more power, more employees, more parking space, and most importantly, larger budgets to be approved by those set above them.

Communism and Soviet expansionism proved to be as vital to the maintenance and growth of the U.S. intelligence and counterintelligence agencies, as capitalism, and U.S. expansionism was to Soviet intelligence and counterintelligence. These massive entities represent the upper and the nether millstone and what is ground between them are those who pay for the follies, the vices, and most important, the bill.


Secrecy News

From the FAS Project on Government Secrecy

Volume 2018, Issue No. 18

March 16, 2018


Last year, the Congressional Research Service generated more than 1,100 new products and and updated 2,100 others, according to a new CRS annual report to Congress.

The annual report describes the Service’s structure, operation, recent activities and new initiatives. It scarcely mentions thorny issues such as the adequacy of the CRS budget, or the challenges posed by the retirement of senior analysts. It does not address the question of providing broad public access to CRS reports at all.

But it does include a useful listing of all new and updated CRS products from the past year, covering an impressive range of issues (in Appendix F).

See CRS Annual Report, Fiscal Year 2017, January 2018 (published March 2018).

Recently, a group of current and former CRS analysts wrote to CRS director Mary Mazanec and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden to raise questions about CRS’s “approach to objectivity and saliency in today’s political environment.”

Objectivity is not the same as neutrality or refusal to express a conclusion, they argued.

“We are concerned that CRS risks falling short of its mission if it holds back the independent analysis that Congress has directed us to provide. Sparking our concern, CRS has appeared to avoid reaching conclusions in some topic areas with high potential for political controversy. In some such topic areas, CRS operates as a neutral compiler of facts and opinions, with little of the expert analysis, appraisal, and evaluation of their credibility that Congress requires. CRS also seems to have avoided a few topics or facets of topics almost entirely,” the current and former CRS authors wrote in a January 12 letter.

In short, they suggested, CRS needs to “recalibrate its objectivity practices.”

Some new and updated CRS reports this week include the following.

Arming Teachers as a Response to School Shootings, CRS Insight, March 13, 2018

Can the Government Prohibit 18-Year-Olds from Purchasing Firearms?, CRS Legal Sidebar, March 13, 2018

The President Acts to Impose Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum Imports, CRS Insight, March 13, 2018

Organization of American States: Background and Issues for Congress, updated March 14, 2018

Northern Ireland, Brexit, and the Irish Border, CRS Insight, March 12, 2018

Russia’s 2018 Presidential Election, CRS Insight, March 13, 2018

Navy Columbia (SSBN-826) Class Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Background and Issues for Congress, updated March 13, 2018


The National Declassification Center released a listing of 134 record collections that have undergone declassification review in the past five months.

The collections include records on the Weapons System Evaluations Group (discussed here), a compilation of records assembled by Judge Merrick Garland when he was special assistant to the attorney general in 1979-81 (discussed here), embassy files from Indonesia, Iraq, and Burundi, and miscellaneous others.

Meanwhile, the Public Interest Declassification Board said that it will soon release a draft report on “modernization of the US national security classification and declassification system.” The Board said it will seek public comments and feedback on the draft report prior to its finalization.


A warm approach to the equinox

March 6, 2018

National Snow and Ice Data Cennter

As temperatures at the North Pole approached the melting point at the end of February, Arctic sea ice extent tracked at record low levels for this time of year. Extent was low on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the Arctic, with open water areas expanding rapidly in the Bering Sea during the latter half of the month. On the other side of the globe, Antarctic sea ice has reached its minimum extent for the year, the second lowest in the satellite record

Winter continues to be mild over the Arctic Ocean. Sea ice extent remained at record low daily levels for the month. Arctic sea ice extent for February 2018 averaged 13.95 million square kilometers (5.39 million square miles). This is the lowest monthly average  recorded for February, 1.35 million square kilometers (521,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average and 160,000 square kilometers (62,000) below the previous record low monthly average in 2017.

Extent was especially low in the Bering Sea where sea ice declined during the first three weeks of the month. The eastern part of the Bering Sea was largely ice-free for most of the month; extent was low on the western side, with the ice edge further north than normal. In the Chukchi Sea, extent also retreated during part of February, with open water developing north of the Bering Strait on both the Siberian and Alaskan coasts. As seen all winter, ice extent continued to be below average in the Barents Sea, and at the end of February, a wedge of open water formed north of Svalbard that extended well into the Arctic Ocean.

Low pressure centered just east of the Kamchatka Peninsula and high pressure centered over Alaska and the Yukon during February set up southerly winds that brought warm air and warm ocean waters into the Pacific side of the Arctic Ocean, impeding southward ice growth. This helps to explain the rapid loss of ice extent in the Bering Sea and the ice-free regions within the Chukchi Sea during the month. The warm air intrusion is evident in the 925 mb air temperatures, with monthly temperatures 10 to 12 degrees Celsius (18 to 22 degrees Fahrenheit) above average in the Chukchi and Bering Sea.

On the Atlantic side, low pressure off the southeast coast of Greenland and high pressure over northern Eurasia helped to funnel warm winds into the region and may have also enhanced the northward transport of oceanic heat. At the end of the month, this atmospheric circulation pattern was particularly strong, associated with a remarkable inflow of warm air from the south, raising the temperatures near the North Pole to above freezing, around 20 to 30 degrees Celsius (36 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. Air temperatures at Cape Morris Jesup in northern Greenland (83°37’N, 33°22’W) exceeded 0 degrees Celsius for several hours and open water formed to the north of Greenland at the end of the month. This is the third winter in a row in which extreme heat waves have been recorded over the Arctic Ocean. A study published last year by Robert Graham from the Norwegian Polar Institute showed that recent warm winters represent a trend towards increased duration and intensity of winter warming events within the central Arctic. While the Arctic has been relatively warm for this time of year, northern Europe was hit by extreme cold conditions at the end of February.

Late freeze-up

This year, the freeze-up started earlier than average over much of the central Arctic Ocean, near average within Hudson and Baffin Bays, but significantly later than average elsewhere. Freeze-up was delayed by more than a month later than average within the Chukchi and Bering Seas on the Pacific side, and within the Barents and East Greenland Seas on the Atlantic side. In these regions freeze-up happened after December. Later freeze-up impacts sea ice thickness, reducing the number of days over which sea ice can grow during winter.

Winter navigation in the Arctic without an icebreaker

The Arctic Ocean is becoming more accessible for shipping. Most of the increase in commercial shipping traffic has been during summer, primarily through the Northern Sea Route along the coast of Siberia. However, this February a commercial tanker, the Eduard Toll, made the first crossing of the Northern Sea Route in winter. Improvements in ship-building and the development of ice-strengthened hull technology is a major factor in enabling winter access. Previous ice-strengthened ships could only navigate safely through 0.5 meter thick ice, compared to the 1.8 meter thick ice that the Eduard Toll cruised through. A fleet of six ships with similar technology is being constructed by a South Korean shipbuilder.

While the Northern Sea Route has tended to be dominated by first-year ice, which typically reaches a maximum of around 2 meters, thicker (3- to 4-meter) multi-year ice would be a hazard even to the newer, stronger ships. According to analysis by the U.S. National Ice Center, this year’s old ice (multi-year ice) has pulled completely away from the coast and the Northern Sea Route is dominated by first-year medium (0.7- to 1.2-meter) or first-year thick (1.2- to 2-meter) ice.

Opposite pole, same near-record low extent

In the Antarctic, sea ice extent reached its daily seasonal minimum, 2.18 million square kilometers (842,000 square miles), on February 20 and 21. This is the second lowest minimum extent in the satellite record, 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles) above the record low, which was set on March 3, 2017. The February average was 2.29 million square kilometers (884,000 square miles), second lowest in the satellite record, and 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) above the record low February in 2017.

Sea ice in the Antarctic is highly variable from year to year—much more so than in the Arctic. This is clearly seen in the February extent values, where low 2011 values were followed by record or near-record highs in 2013, 2014, and 2015. This was then followed by record or near-record lows in 2017 and this year.

Sea ice extent is particularly low in the Ross and western Amundsen Sea region, and along the southern reaches of the Bellingshausen Sea. Patchy sea ice areas along the East Antarctic coast are near-average in extent.









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