7 July 2020

Darkening Mood in Delhi Over China

By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

The Sino-Indian border confrontation may fundamentally alter Sino-Indian relations, if the darkening mood in New Delhi is any indication. Diplomatic and military negotiations have been ongoing since the June 15 clash at the Galwan River, but they do not appear to be yielding much progress. Not only has there been no troop disengagement on the border, both India and China appear to be sending more troops to the border.

China is also reported to be building up forces opposite the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, hundreds of kilometers to the east of the current confrontation. Adding to an already complex situation, Pakistan is sending almost 20,000 troops to territories it controls on India’s western flank opposite Ladakh, confronting India with a possible two-front problem. Pakistani radars are also reported to be active. Citing military sources, reports say that the Skardu air base in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) has been active as well. China is reportedly in talks with cadres of terrorist groups such as Al Badr to possibly stir-up violence in Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian Air Force and the Navy are also reportedly on high alert. 

US, Russia Share a Complex and Bloody History in Afghanistan

By Kathy Gannon

Moscow and Washington are intertwined in a complex and bloody history in Afghanistan, with both suffering thousands of dead and wounded in conflicts lasting for years.

Now both superpowers are linked again over Afghanistan, with intelligence reports indicating Russia secretly offered bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops there.

But analysts suggest that despite these apparent differences, the two adversaries actually have much in common, especially when it comes to what a postwar Afghanistan should look like: Both want a stable country that does not serve as a base for extremists to export terrorism.

“The Russian endgame is an Afghanistan which will neither support jihadi movements in the former U.S.S.R. nor host American bases that might one day be used against Russia,” says Anatol Lieven, a Georgetown University professor in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar and a senior fellow at the New American Foundation.

This Time, Russia Is in Afghanistan to Win

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The recent revelations in the New York Times and other media that U.S. intelligence officials believed a Russian military intelligence unit had offered secret bounties to the Taliban for killing U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan renew deep concerns about the nefarious agenda Vladimir Putin’s Russia has not only in Afghanistan but also to destabilize the West.

The timing of the revelations—the findings were briefed to U.S. President Donald Trump in late February—is significant as it coincided with the signing of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal in Doha, Qatar, at the end of February. It is likely that the Taliban’s murky dealings with Russia were taking place while they were negotiating with the United States throughout 2019 and 2020, calling into question the insurgent group’s commitment to any peace deal.

The agreement provided for a phased withdrawal of NATO forces, with the United States pulling out 5,000 of its 13,000 troops over the next few months. In return, the Taliban claim they would not enable Afghan soil to be used for terrorism. But the obstacles to peace are so profound and numerous that the chances of the deal being honored are slim. A United Nations report stated that the Taliban retained close links to al Qaeda and sought its counsel during the negotiations with U.S. officials. And the Haqqani network, the biggest faction of the Taliban, has been accused by the Afghan government of collaborating with an ISIS affiliate—Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP)—to carry out numerous attacks in Afghanistan in 2020. (The most horrific examples were the suicide and gun attack on a Sikh gurdwara and the storming of the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital’s maternity ward in Kabul, killing nurses, women in labor, and newly born babies.)

In Afghanistan, the Dead Cast a Long Shadow

On the second day of Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic festival commemorating the end of Ramadan, Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s national security advisor and would-be president, visited an inconspicuous burial site in the southeastern province of Paktia and dug up quite a stir. 

The grave belonged to Mohammed Najibullah, Afghanistan’s last communist president, brutally murdered when the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996. Mohib is the first post-Taliban senior government official to ever pay his respects there. The controversial visit had several objectives for Mohib: to court Afghans, especially many nationalist Pashtuns, who recall Najibullah as a charismatic Afghan patriot who launched a national reconciliation process, and also as a reminder of the enduring brutality of the Taliban, who again today stand poised to share power, if not take it outright, as Kabul, Washington, and the Taliban grope their way toward the conclusion of an agonizing peace process. 

Three Kinds of Power


NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLEDonald Trump on the campaign trail was a big man when it came to China. Beijing, he promised, would quickly be brought to heel under a Trump administration. Trump failed to accomplish his China goals, but he is not alone in that: Barack Obama failed in much the same way, as did George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, among others.

The last president to get what he wanted out of China policy was Richard Nixon, who understood that China was a threat and an annoyance to the Soviet Union and wanted to make it a bigger threat and a bigger annoyance, which he did.

One of the problems with U.S. China policy is that Washington does not seem to understand what kind of power it actually has when it comes to China.

There are, broadly speaking, three kinds of power in international relations.

The first is pure power, or hostile power. That is how international relations were largely conducted for much of human history: Henry II rules the Vexin because he has an army there, and the French can’t beat it. The flat assertion of pure power is a primitive and backward way of doing business except in extreme circumstances — but, more to the point, it is an option available to the United States on only a very limited basis. Under a variety of different administrations representing both parties and several different ideological orientations, the U.S. government has found that it can effectively execute only narrow and short-term military programs, because the American people consistently are unwilling to “pay any price and bear any burden” and turn against formerly popular wars once the bills start coming due and the body bags start coming home. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, the United States has repeatedly failed to meet its objective through military action except when those objectives are narrowly tailored military outcomes, as with George H. W. Bush’s masterly performance in Desert Storm. But after a few months, Americans start talking about “nation-building at home” and demand that the money we are spending on military campaigns in faraway lands be redirected toward filling potholes in Peoria.

Chinese Navy’s Missing Aircraft Carrier Found In Shanghai

H I Sutton
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On June 15, I reported that the Chinese Navy’s new aircraft carrier, the Type-003, had disappeared from its purpose-built construction site in a Shanghai shipyard. So analysts had been watching the site closely. Finally its whereabouts appear to be confirmed, in a dry dock not far from the initial construction site. The carrier will now quickly take shape. Along with a host of open-source intelligence defense analysts, I will be watching.

A photograph shared on Chinese social media shows the silhouette of one of the carrier's pre-built 'mega-modules' lined up in the open dry dock. It appears to have been taken from a passing boat. Photographs like this often provide valuable intelligence about Chinese naval projects.

Actually, the new location of the carrier modules was identified by OSINT analysts almost immediately. Using satellite imagery and traditional human reasoning, they identified the likely dry dock where it will be assembled and launched. But it has taken weeks of careful monitoring to get the photo which now confirms it. Partly this is because Shanghai has been covered by cloud for recent weeks so satellite imagery has been intermittent.

Hong Kong Is a Colony Once More

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Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, stood in front of reporters yesterday for the most consequential press conference of her time leading the city. Prior to Lam stepping behind the podium, news had begun to stream in that officials in Beijing had passed a national-security law to be imposed on Hong Kong, the most significant altering of the ostensibly autonomous territory’s status since it was handed back to China from Britain in 1997.

The law, a direct result of Lam’s introduction and mismanagement of a proposed extradition bill last year, which had led to mass demonstrations, was shrouded in secrecy. A draft had not been made public. Even pro-Beijing lawmakers and Lam herself had been kept in the dark about its full contents. She opened her remarks by saying that she wouldn’t be addressing the law, then moved on to speaking about an employment scheme and the city’s handling of COVID-19. When reporters pressed Lam on the law, she declined to say anything other than that commenting on the legislation would be inappropriate.

COVID-19 could change the welfare state forever

Jeevun Sandher
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Governments across the developed world have responded to the COVID-19 crisis by making welfare states vastly more generous. Historical parallels suggest that this munificence may endure even as the pandemic recedes.

Welfare states will only, however, become permanently more generous if voters believe this pandemic poses an enduring risk to their incomes and if they make common cause with the people who have been worst affected.

The most pertinent historical parallel to the current situation is the second world war. After the conflict, governments dramatically increased both the number of people covered by the welfare state and the value of the payments they received. At that time, people were demanding greater social insurance in the face of universal risks and pervasive uncertainty.

Anthony Fauci Issues a New Coronavirus Plea

By Amy Davidson Sorkin
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On Tuesday, Anthony Fauci sat in a Senate hearing room that had been reconfigured for social distancing and listened, mask at hand, as Patty Murray, of Washington, described the consequences of America’s failure to manage its pandemic. The tally of cases was soaring in a majority of states, particularly in the South and West; Murray, speaking by video, quoted a C.D.C. official who had warned that there was “too much virus to control in the U.S.” Murray stated the obvious: “Our strategy hasn’t worked.” What, she asked, did the federal and state governments need to do to turn the numbers around?

“I am also quite concerned,” Fauci replied. He reeled off some of the statistics that Murray had alluded to—“surges” in Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas alone, he said, accounted for half of the new confirmed cases, which now amount to more than forty thousand a day. Later in his testimony, in answer to a question from Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, Fauci said that he would not be surprised if the number of new cases reached a hundred thousand a day. (He declined to make a guess as to how many deaths that would amount to.) Perhaps, Fauci added, some states had reopened “too quickly”; even in ones where the governors and mayors had acted properly, he had seen “in clips and in photographs . . . individuals in the community doing an ‘all or none’ phenomenon”—by which he meant “either be locked down or open up in a way where you see people at bars, not wearing masks, not avoiding crowds, not paying attention to physical distancing.” To halt the pandemic, Fauci said, “I think we need to emphasize the responsibility that we have both as individuals and as part of a societal effort.”

China Hits Out at Foreign Interference Over Hong Kong After Pompeo Attack


The Chinese government has again warned foreign nations not to meddle in its internal affairs amid international condemnation of a new national security law that effectively criminalizes anti-government dissent in Hong Kong.

The law was adopted Tuesday despite ongoing protests in the former British colony. The past year has seen Hong Kong crippled by mass unrest as residents protest against Chinese encroachment on the semi-autonomous city. Activists may now face extradition to China and life imprisonment if they continue their fight for democracy and government accountability in Hong Kong.

The new law prohibits broadly the defined offenses of secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion. China has sought to frame the year of protests as an extremist movement instigated by foreign actors—particularly the U.S.—and has said it will brook no interference in the region.

Chinese missions in the U.K. and New Zealand hit out at their host countries on Thursday. The U.K. administered Hong Kong as a colony until 1997, and has been at the forefront of international protests against the national security law and Beijing's uncompromising response to the year of protests.

Israel Reauthorizes Shin Bet’s Coronavirus Location Tracking

By Amir Cahane

In its attempts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, Israel has employed a measure that has not been used by any other democratic country. Since mid-March, the Israeli government has sought the assistance of the General Security Service (also known as the Israeli Security Agency, the ISA, the Shabak or Shin Bet) in conducting epidemiological investigations by providing the Ministry of Health with the routes of coronavirus carriers and lists of individuals with whom they have been in close contact. The ISA queries its communication metadata database to identify the route of confirmed carriers and the individuals with whom they have been in close contact.

The legal framework authorizing ISA location tracking evolved from emergency regulations promulgated by the government, through a government resolution approved by the 
Knesset’s Intelligence Subcommittee, to a government-drafted bill. The draft Law to Authorize the ISA to Assist in the National Effort to Contain the Spread of the Novel Coronavirus 2020-5780 (Coronavirus Location Tracking Bill) was prepared pursuant to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ben Meir v. Prime Minister. Under the Ben Meir ruling, the government resolution to harness the capabilities of the ISA for coronavirus location tracking (a purpose outside the ISA’s statutory remit, which requires special approval by the subcommittee) could be extended by no more than a few weeks and only to allow for the drafting of a new law.

Why the United States needs a new pandemic-fighting federal agency

By Laura H. Kahn
Many of the viruses and microorganisms that could spark a pandemic or be used in bioterrorism are zoonotic. They are found in domestic and wild animals and have the potential to spill over to people. Yet despite the inextricable connections between the environment and human health, the federal government addresses these areas through a litany of programs housed in several different agencies and funded by different budgetary buckets. The COVID-19 pandemic, stemming as it most likely does from a bat coronavirus, provides a clear example of how animal and environmental health is related to our own. It’s an example the next presidential administration should acknowledge by taking a holistic approach to health security.

President Donald Trump has shown he’s not interested in improving the federal government’s response to COVID-19, he regularly downplays the severity of the worsening crisis and rejects the value of coronavirus testing and other measures to control the pandemic. His performance has contributed to the disastrous rates of infection and death in the United States. Change will likely have to wait for a new president who believes in the importance of government to benefit all Americans.

Why America (and Donald Trump) Are Addicted to Drone Wars

by Michael Horton

As the United States convulses with protests and riots over the killing of George Floyd, assassinations continue to be carried out in our name around the world. Despite few or no signs of success in countries like Somalia, the Trump administration has doubled down on a core tactic embraced by politicians from both parties in the war on terror: the use of drones.

An estimated 155 air and drone strikes have been launched in Somalia since Donald Trump assumed office. This is a fivefold increase over the number carried out during Barack Obama’s last term. There are similar increases in Yemen and Afghanistan where the United States no longer releases data on air and drone strikes. In most cases, increasing numbers of civilian deaths track the frequency of drone strikes.

The myopic U.S. news media devotes little coverage to America’s ongoing drone wars. This is just as it is meant to be. Drone warfare comes with no physical danger for the soldiers and contractors who operate them from their air-conditioned boxes thousands of miles away from those they target. They are invulnerable. It is war by remote control and death by algorithm. 

Trump’s Syria Policy Is Working

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Two years after celebrating victory in the Syrian civil war, the regime of Bashar Assad is facing renewed unrest. A mini-insurgency is under way in Daraa province, the birthplace of the 2011 revolt. Stormy demonstrations are under way in adjacent Suwayda. The economy is hurtling toward the abyss.

What has changed, in two short years? How has Assad’s triumph turned to disaster? The answer is the Trump administration’s Syria policy. The application of quiet but unrelenting pressure is transforming the Syrian president’s victory into ashes. What it has yet to do is persuade Russia to cease backing the Assad regime, which means the strategy remains at a stalemate.

When James Jeffrey, U.S. special envoy for Syria, said on May 12 that his job was to make Syria “a quagmire for the Russians,” the remark went largely unnoticed. Jeffrey’s words were not merely, it turns out, intended to convey a general sense of opposition to Russian designs in Syria. They headlined a series of measures intended to prevent the return of normality to regime-controlled Syria, to foment renewed crisis, and thus to turn Syria from an asset to a burden for both Moscow and Tehran.

Why 2020 to 2050 Will Be ‘the Most Transformative Decades in Human History’

Eric Holthaus
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The 30 years from 2020 to 2050 will be among the most transformative decades in all of human history. Collapsing ice sheets, the aerosol crisis, and rising sea levels will force more people to leave their homes than at any other point in human history. In some places, that means conflict is inevitable.

A study from researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that higher temperatures and shifting patterns of extreme weather can cause a rise in all types of violence, from domestic abuse to civil wars. In extreme cases, it could cause countries to cease functioning and collapse altogether.

This ominous reality of climate change is far from fated, however. A rapidly changing environment just makes conflict more likely, not inevitable. People, ultimately, are still in control. Our choices determine whether or not these conflicts will happen. In a world where we’ve rapidly decided to embark on constructing an ecological society, we’ll have developed countless tools of conflict avoidance as part of our climate change adaptation strategies.

Still, there will be those who choose to live outside the mainstream society who may pose an existential threat to the rest of us. Some groups and a few rogue countries will try to prevent the rest of the world’s transition toward ecological and social justice. They will do this either because of the lingering influence from the dwindling fossil fuel industry, or because of a fascist ideological response to climate change that puts human rights at risk, or out of desperation.

Locusts are putting 5 million people at risk of starvation – and that’s without COVID-19

Emma Charlton
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The most serious desert locust outbreak in 70 years could leave nearly 5 million people in East Africa facing starvation, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC). It comes as many of the countries in the region are already struggling to manage food insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Desert Locusts are swarming across East Africa.
Image: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

The Pandemic Is the World’s Long Overdue Reality Check

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Something may have broken—or rather, begun to break—last month when U.S. President Donald Trump held an indoor rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma in open defiance of the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic and found, to his shock and outrage, that his own supporters had failed to show up. That something is the politics of alternate reality that he and other illiberal populists have ridden to power in recent years.

It has long been understood that totalitarian leaders sustain themselves through the manipulation of reality; that, after all, is the theme of George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Orwell, who understood clearly the power of language to obscure rather than reveal, would hardly have been shocked to see the practice transposed to democracies, but it didn’t fully happen in his day. Perhaps it awaited the shotgun marriage of extreme polarization and social media.

Over the last few years, Trump, Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, and others have carried out an experiment in the mass manufacture of alternative realities in a democratic society. Their success has forced a question: What reality, if any, will prove so terrible that it will expose their game? Americans have experienced a few false starts, including an impeachment trial, that have only proved that much of what transpires in political life does not reach people intimately enough to dispel the shadows. Nothing, however, is more intimate than the prospect of sickness and death.

How a Great Power Falls Apart

By Charles King

On November 11, 1980, a car filled with writers was making its way along a rain-slick highway to a conference in Madrid. The subject of the meeting was the human rights movement in the Soviet Union, and in the vehicle were some of the movement’s long-suffering activists: Vladimir Borisov and Viktor Fainberg, both of whom had endured horrific abuse in a Leningrad psychiatric hospital; the Tatar artist Gyuzel Makudinova, who had spent years in internal exile in Siberia; and her husband, the writer Andrei Amalrik, who had escaped to Western Europe after periods of arrest, rearrest, and confinement. 

Amalrik was at the wheel. Around 40 miles from the Spanish capital, the car swerved out of its lane and collided with an oncoming truck. Everyone survived except Amalrik, his throat pierced by a piece of metal, probably from the steering column. At the time of his death at the age of 42, Amalrik was certainly not the best-known Soviet dissident. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had published The Gulag Archipelago, won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and immigrated to the United States. Andrei Sakharov had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was forced to accept in absentia because the Soviet government denied him an exit visa. But in the pantheon of the investigated, the imprisoned, and the exiled, Amalrik occupied a special place. 

Human Rights Are Under Attack. Who Will Protect Them?

Globally, human rights remain under assault, whether by populist movements desperate to gain power or authoritarian governments eager to maintain it. Technology has opened up new frontiers for curbing people’s ability to express and share dissenting ideas. And broad assaults are underway on institutions like the International Criminal Court, which was established not only to offer recourse for the victims of rights violations, but to establish an international human rights benchmark. Instead, respect for human rights is being replaced by a dangerous intolerance.

Around the world, populist authoritarians have built their movements by demonizing minorities. In Brazil, for instance, President Jair Bolsonaro has reveled in his provocations, calling into question women’s rights as well as those of the LGBT and indigenous communities. With their verbal assaults, these leaders and the movements that follow them are inspiring people to commit acts of physical violence. In just a matter of months last year, Jews were targeted in Pittsburgh, Muslims in New Zealand and Christians in Sri Lanka.

At the same time, the populist rise has invigorated civil society efforts to protect historically marginalized communities, including members of the LGBT community, religious minorities and indigenous groups.

Drone-Era Warfare Shows the Operational Limits of Air Defense Systems

By John Parachini, Peter Wilson

While most countries struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, the civil wars in Syria and Libya have become battlegrounds for foreign states backing different local sides. External powers have intervened in both civil wars supplying advanced conventional weapons that have intensified the conflicts, but not all the weapons have performed as claimed. Perhaps the most startling example of this is how ineffective modern Russian air defense systems have been at countering drones and low-flying missiles. In the face-off between expensive air defensive systems and lower cost offensive drones and low-flying missiles, the offense is winning.

In recent weeks, drones supplied by Turkey in support of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord have reportedly destroyed the Russian Pantsir short-range air defense systems (SHORADS) that the opposition Libyan National Army (LNA) used to protect their forces. The inability of the LNA to protect their forces has turned the tide of the conflict and is a reminder of how difficult effective air defense is in an era of comparatively inexpensive armed drones and precision guided low-flying cruise missiles.

New Mac Ransomware Is Even More Sinister Than It Appears

THE THREAT OF ransomware may seem ubiquitous, but there haven't been too many strains tailored specifically to infect Apple's Mac computers since the first full-fledged Mac ransomware surfaced only four years ago. So when Dinesh Devadoss, a malware researcher at the firm K7 Lab, published findings on Tuesday about a new example of Mac ransomware, that fact alone was significant. It turns out, though, that the malware, which researchers are now calling ThiefQuest, gets more interesting from there. (Researchers originally dubbed it EvilQuest, until they discovered the Steam game series of the same name.)

In addition to ransomware, ThiefQuest has a whole other set of spyware capabilities that allow it to exfiltrate files from an infected computer, search the system for passwords and cryptocurrency wallet data, and run a robust keylogger to grab passwords, credit card numbers, or other financial information as a user types it in. The spyware component also lurks persistently as a backdoor on infected devices, meaning it sticks around even after a computer reboots, and could be used as a launchpad for additional, or "second stage," attacks. Given that ransomware is so rare on Macs to begin with, this one-two punch is especially noteworthy.

Why general artificial intelligence will not be realized

Ragnar Fjelland


The modern project of creating human-like artificial intelligence (AI) started after World War II, when it was discovered that electronic computers are not just number-crunching machines, but can also manipulate symbols. It is possible to pursue this goal without assuming that machine intelligence is identical to human intelligence. This is known as weak AI. However, many AI researcher have pursued the aim of developing artificial intelligence that is in principle identical to human intelligence, called strong AI. Weak AI is less ambitious than strong AI, and therefore less controversial. However, there are important controversies related to weak AI as well. This paper focuses on the distinction between artificial general intelligence (AGI) and artificial narrow intelligence (ANI). Although AGI may be classified as weak AI, it is close to strong AI because one chief characteristics of human intelligence is its generality. Although AGI is less ambitious than strong AI, there were critics almost from the very beginning. One of the leading critics was the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, who argued that computers, who have no body, no childhood and no cultural practice, could not acquire intelligence at all. One of Dreyfus’ main arguments was that human knowledge is partly tacit, and therefore cannot be articulated and incorporated in a computer program. However, today one might argue that new approaches to artificial intelligence research have made his arguments obsolete. Deep learning and Big Data are among the latest approaches, and advocates argue that they will be able to realize AGI. A closer look reveals that although development of artificial intelligence for specific purposes (ANI) has been impressive, we have not come much closer to developing artificial general intelligence (AGI). The article further argues that this is in principle impossible, and it revives Hubert Dreyfus’ argument that computers are not in the world.


Psychological safety, emotional intelligence, and leadership in a time of fluxJuly 2, 2020 | Interview

We are living through a period of extraordinary uncertainty—about our physical safety, our economic security, and the daily conditions in which we will be operating for the next six, 12, 18 months or longer. One consequence: an undercurrent of emotional disturbance characterized by rising levels of anxiety, depression, fear, and stress. At the same time leaders are confronting these challenges on an individual level, they also are responsible for supporting a wide cross-section of people, all of whom have their own range of experiences, emotions, and resources for responding—and many who are paying a psychological toll that is still poorly understood.

To gain some insights into what organizations are faced with and how leaders can respond, McKinsey senior partner and Organization Practice leader Aaron De Smet spoke with three experts: Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and author, most recently, of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth (Wiley, 2018); Richard Boyatzis, a pioneer in the field of emotionally intelligent leadership, professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University, and coauthor of Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth (Harvard Business Review Press, 2019); and Bill Schaninger, a senior partner at McKinsey who led the creation of McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index and who is a coauthor of Beyond Performance 2.0: A Proven Approach to Leading Large-Scale Change (Wiley, 2019). The following is an edited version of their conversation.

Keep the lights on: Three things power companies need to do to harden cybersecurity defenses

by Veronica Combs

IoT device makers and the US government need to collaborate with the industry to make sure digital transformation closes security gaps instead of opening new ones.

Power companies need help from the US government, cybersecurity experts, and supply chain partners to defend against the increasing security risks to public power grids. Dragos hosted a conversation on Tuesday with the World Economic Forum's Head of Centre for Cybersecurity, William Dixon, and four experts on security and the power industry. 

Dragos CEO and co-founder Rob Lee discussed the threat landscape with Annessa McKenzie, vice president of IT and chief security officer at power generation company Calpine, and Dmitri Alperovitch, executive chairman at Silverado Policy Accelerator and the co-founder and former chief technology officer at CrowdStrike.

Security risks for power companies and the electric grid in general are increasing due to adversaries who are getting more sophisticated and aggressive as well as the introduction of more IoT devices into power plants and other industrial processes.

Alperovitch said that bad actors have been focused on coordinated and continuous intrusions into the operational technology networks that run oil and gas companies and electricity generation plants. The fact that attacks have been few and far between may give a false sense of security. 


Trevor Phillips-Levine, Dylan Phillips-Levine and Walker Mills
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At 11:40 am on October 4, 2017, a group of Army Special Forces embedded with Nigerien soldiers came under intense attack by Islamic State militants. Initially, the US operators only put out a “troops in contact” call without further request for assistance. Nonetheless, this call activated the quick response force consisting of Nigerien ground forces, a Nigerien helicopter, and French aircraft. Despite Nigerien ground units deploying only eight minutes after the initial notification, response time was over four hours due to terrain and distance. French Mirage fighter aircraft arrived overhead forty-seven minutes after the “troops in contact” call was made, but were unable to establish radio contact with the US operators. Outnumbered and under withering small arms fire, the US operators and their Nigerien counterparts attempted to withdraw. In the confusion, their convoy became separated. Taking casualties as they retreated, the US forces radioed that they were in danger of being overrun fifty-three minutes after the initial “troops in contact” radio call was made. The militants’ assault was finally broken when French Mirage aircraft performed shows of force over the battered convoy. By the time French helicopters arrived over five hours later to evacuate the remaining US and Nigerien troops, four Americans and four Nigeriens were dead.

Subsequent military investigations revealed several internal failures, including deficiencies in planning, notifications, and oversight. Airpower’s initial absence and, finally, its conspicuous presence, played a critical role in the attack that unfolded and underscored airpower’s immense importance to ground missions. Crucially, because of limited aviation resources at the time of the ambush, it appeared that no airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft were assigned to the mission. When French tactical aircraft responded, they were unable to establish radio communications with the ground forces or identify friendly positions, which prevented them from employing the immense firepower at their disposal. Even still, the presence of airpower likely saved the rest of the lives within the convoy.