This year has held many things, among them bold claims of artificial intelligence breakthroughs. Industry commentators speculated that the language-generation model GPT-3 may have achieved “artificial general intelligence,” while others lauded Alphabet subsidiary DeepMind’s protein-folding algorithm—Alphafold—and its capacity to “transform biology.” While the basis of such claims is thinner than the effusive headlines, this hasn’t done much to dampen enthusiasm across the industry, whose profits and prestige are dependent on AI’s proliferation.
It was against this backdrop that Google fired Timnit Gebru, our dear friend and colleague, and a leader in the field of artificial intelligence. She is also one of the few Black women in AI research and an unflinching advocate for bringing more BIPOC, women, and non-Western people into the field. By any measure, she excelled at the job Google hired her to perform, including demonstrating racial and gender disparities in facial-analysis technologies and developing reporting guidelines for data sets and AI models. Ironically, this and her vocal advocacy for those underrepresented in AI research are also the reasons, she says, the company fired her. According to Gebru, after demanding that she and her colleagues withdraw a research paper critical of (profitable) large-scale AI systems, Google Research told her team that it had accepted her resignation, despite the fact that she hadn’t resigned. (Google declined to comment for this story.)
Google’s appalling treatment of Gebru exposes a dual crisis in AI research. The field is dominated by an elite, primarily white male workforce, and it is controlled and funded primarily by large industry players—Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, IBM, and yes, Google. With Gebru’s firing, the civility politics that yoked the young effort to construct the necessary guardrails around AI have been torn apart, bringing questions about the racial homogeneity of the AI workforce and the inefficacy of corporate diversity programs to the center of the discourse. But this situation has also made clear that—however sincere a company like Google’s promises may seem—corporate-funded research can never be divorced from the realities of power, and the flows of revenue and capital.
This should concern us all. With the proliferation of AI into domains such as health care, criminal justice, and education, researchers and advocates are raising urgent concerns. These systems make determinations that directly shape lives, at the same time that they are embedded in organizations structured to reinforce histories of racial discrimination. AI systems also concentrate power in the hands of those designing and using them, while obscuring responsibility (and liability) behind the veneer of complex computation. The risks are profound, and the incentives are decidedly perverse.
The current crisis exposes the structural barriers limiting our ability to build effective protections around AI systems. This is especially important because the populations subject to harm and bias from AI’s predictions and determinations are primarily BIPOC people, women, religious and gender minorities, and the poor—those who’ve borne the brunt of structural discrimination. Here we have a clear racialized divide between those benefiting—the corporations and the primarily white male researchers and developers—and those most likely to be harmed.
Take facial-recognition technologies, for instance, which have been shown to “recognize” darker skinned people less frequently than those with lighter skin. This alone is alarming. But these racialized “errors” aren’t the only problems with facial recognition. Tawana Petty, director of organizing at Data for Black Lives, points out that these systems are disproportionately deployed in predominantly Black neighborhoods and cities, while cities that have had success in banning and pushing back against facial recognition’s use are predominately white.
Without independent, critical research that centers the perspectives and experiences of those who bear the harms of these technologies, our ability to understand and contest the overhyped claims made by industry is significantly hampered. Google’s treatment of Gebru makes increasingly clear where the company’s priorities seem to lie when critical work pushes back on its business incentives. This makes it almost impossible to ensure that AI systems are accountable to the people most vulnerable to their damage.
Checks on the industry are further compromised by the close ties between tech companies and ostensibly independent academic institutions. Researchers from corporations and academia publish papers together and rub elbows at the same conferences, with some researchers even holding concurrent positions at tech companies and universities. This blurs the boundary between academic and corporate research and obscures the incentives underwriting such work. It also means that the two groups look awfully similar—AI research in academia suffers from the same pernicious racial and gender homogeneity issues as its corporate counterparts. Moreover, the top computer science departments accept copious amounts of Big Tech research funding. We have only to look to Big Tobacco and Big Oil for troubling templates that expose just how much influence over the public understanding of complex scientific issues large companies can exert when knowledge creation is left in their hands.
Gebru’s firing suggests this dynamic is at work once again. Powerful companies like Google have the ability to co-opt, minimize, or silence criticisms of their own large-scale AI systems—systems that are at the core of their profit motives. Indeed, according to a recent Reuters report, Google leadership went as far as to instruct researchers to “strike a positive tone” in work that examined technologies and issues sensitive to Google’s bottom line. Gebru’s firing also highlights the danger the rest of the public faces if we allow an elite, homogenous research cohort, made up of people who are unlikely to experience the negative effects of AI, to drive and shape the research on it from within corporate environments. The handful of people who are benefiting from AI’s proliferation are shaping the academic and public understanding of these systems, while those most likely to be harmed are shut out of knowledge creation and influence. This inequity follows predictable racial, gender, and class lines.
As the dust begins to settle in the wake of Gebru’s firing, one question resounds: What do we do to contest these incentives, and to continue critical work on AI in solidarity with the people most at risk of harm? To that question, we have a few, preliminary answers.
First and foremost, tech workers need a union. Organized workers are a key lever for change and accountability, and one of the few forces that has been shown capable of pushing back against large firms. This is especially true in tech, given that many workers have sought-after expertise and are not easily replaceable, giving them significant labor power. Such organizations can act as a check on retaliation and discrimination, and can be a force pushing back against morally reprehensible uses of tech. Just look at Amazon workers’ fight against climate change or Google employees’ resistance to military uses of AI, which changed company policies and demonstrated the power of self-organized tech workers. To be effective here, such an organization must be grounded in anti-racism and cross-class solidarity, taking a broad view of who counts as a tech worker, and working to prioritize the protection and elevation of BIPOC tech workers across the board. It should also use its collective muscle to push back on tech that hurts historically marginalized people beyond Big Tech’s boundaries, and to align with external advocates and organizers to ensure this.
We also need protections and funding for critical research outside of the corporate environment that’s free of corporate influence. Not every company has a Timnit Gebru prepared to push back against reported research censorship. Researchers outside of corporate environments must be guaranteed greater access to technologies currently hidden behind claims of corporate secrecy, such as access to training data sets, and policies and procedures related to data annotation and content moderation. Such spaces for protected, critical research should also prioritize supporting BIPOC, women, and other historically excluded researchers and perspectives, recognizing that racial and gender homogeneity in the field contribute to AI’s harms. This endeavor would need significant funding, which could be achieved through a tax levied on these companies.
Finally, the AI field desperately needs regulation. Local, state, and federal governments must step in and pass legislation that protects privacy and ensures meaningful consent around data collection and the use of AI; increases protections for workers, including whistle-blower protections and measures to better protect BIPOC workers and others subject to discrimination; and ensures that those most vulnerable to the risks of AI systems can contest—and refuse—their use.
This crisis makes clear that the current AI research ecosystem—constrained as it is by corporate influence and dominated by a privileged set of researchers—is not capable of asking and answering the questions most important to those who bear the harms of AI systems. Public-minded research and knowledge creation isn’t just important for its own sake, it provides essential information for those developing robust strategies for the democratic oversight and governance of AI, and for social movements that can push back on harmful tech and those who wield it. Supporting and protecting organized tech workers, expanding the field that examines AI, and nurturing well-resourced and inclusive research environments outside the shadow of corporate influence are essential steps in providing the space to address these urgent concerns.
Executive editor of The American Prospect, David Dayen, reacts to Congresswoman Katie Porter losing her seat on the House Financial Services Committee.
Firstly, because the Americans burnt York. By burning the White House, the British were demonstrating, “Look, actions have consequences. You burn our towns, we burn what we please in your capital city.”
Second, it was also a poignant lesson in being civilised. The British were demonstrating just as much by what they didn’t burn as what they did. The Americans looted and then burned the whole town of York, individual residences and all. The British only burned American government buildings, and enforced strict discipline to protect private property. The residents of Washington D.C. were surprised and impressed that there was very little crime committed by British troops, and what little there was resulted in immediate hangings of British soldiers. This was Britain’s way of saying “Look. This is how a civilised nation and civilised army behave. We make war with governments, not people. We don’t tolerate our soldiers behaving like bandits.”
This, of course, brought into question the whole American war effort, and what it was really about. Why were we fighting this nation, who were significantly more powerful than us, but still exercised restraint? Who were the villains here?
British restraint also conveyed another lesson, which gets to the final point. The British were saying, “Look, we could hurt you a lot worse if we fancied to do so. Maybe it’s time to stop before we lose all patience and become so inclined?”
The third reason was the irrationality of the whole American venture. The British were really struggling with how to handle what seemed to be an utterly insane policy on our part. Our official pretext for the war was the Orders in Council, with Britain stopping American ships to look for and impress British subjects into Royal Navy service*. However, the British had rescinded the Orders in Council on 16 June 1812, two days before the American declaration of war. Still the Americans attacked. Now, it was two years later, and the Americans were still fighting. The American government was really after Canada, but wouldn’t admit to it, so how was one to negotiate? How do you negotiate with someone who demands that you stop doing something you aren’t doing?
*(Britain did not recognise a person’s right to give up being His Majesty’s subject. However, what is not well known is that service on American ships was the most popular career move for Royal Navy deserters, so much so that the USS Constitution’s crew had more Royal Navy veterans than it did native-born Americans. It was this that prompted the British to target American ships for searches.)
Of course, the British knew we wanted Canada, but that was insane too. The United States of America was at that time a rather insignificant and backwards nation whose entire navy in 1812 consisted of 20 vessels, none heavier than a large frigate, and only 3 of those, 3 lesser frigates, and the rest less than that; whose army at the time consisted of 11,774 troops, 5,000 of them newly recruited; and they were picking a fight with what was one of the two most powerful nations of the day, with over 1000 ships in her navy, 500 on station at any one time, 85 in American waters alone, and a service widely considered the best in the world as well as largest; they had deployed an army three times the size of the whole US Army to the Iberians Peninsula alone, that being hardly the whole of their land forces, and were likewise considered one of the best armies.
Somehow, the American leadership had been mad enough to think that such a contest could possibly have a favourable outcome for them, which was mind boggling in and of itself. But now, two years in, with the Royal Navy firmly in control of the American coastline, the US economy wilting rapidly, half its navy captured or sunk, the rest doing all they could to stay out of British reach, they were still fighting. London was at a loss how to treat such irrationality, so they settled on simply trying to find ways to inflict increasing amounts of pain and demonstrate British power until the Americans finally awoke from their delusional state. Burning the capital was simply one more way to do that, one more chance to say “Are you quite done yet?”
While Madison had finally agreed to start negotiating in January, it hadn’t gotten anywhere, principally because of American fixation on expansion into native lands to the west. As Lord Bathurst put it: “Till I came here, I had no idea of the fixed determination which there is in the heart of every American to extirpate the Indians and appropriate their territory.”
The British still vainly hoped to put in a clause protecting the indigenous peoples from further expansion, thinking that would be a fitting concession to make the Americans learn something from their folly; other than the Duke of Wellington, who quickly grasped that Bathurst was right, and such a thing would never be bargained out of them. So the White House was burned and the fighting carried on.
Accusations of improperly using government resources have trailed the secretary of state, but President Trump’s move to fire the State Department inspector general has handed Democrats a new weapon.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo swatted away questions about his use of government resources again and again last year.
In January, news reports cited unnamed diplomats complaining about his wife, Susan, traveling with him across the Middle East during a partial government shutdown.
In the summer, members of Congress began examining a whistle-blower complaint accusing Mr. Pompeo of asking diplomatic security agents to run errands like picking up restaurant takeout meals and retrieving the family dog, Sherman, from a groomer.
And in October, a Democratic senator called for a special counsel to investigate his use of State Department aircraft and funds for frequent visits to Kansas, where he was reported to be considering a Senate run.
In each case, Mr. Pompeo or other department officials denied wrongdoing, and the secretary moved on unscathed. But his record is now coming under fresh scrutiny after President Trump told Congress on Friday night that he was firing the State Department inspector general — at Mr. Pompeo’s private urging, a White House official said.
The inspector general, Steve A. Linick, who leads hundreds of employees in investigating fraud and waste at the State Department, had begun an inquiry into Mr. Pompeo’s possible misuse of a political appointee to perform personal tasks for him and his wife, according to Democratic aides. That included walking the dog, picking up dry-cleaning and making restaurant reservations, one said — an echo of the whistle-blower complaint from last year.
The details of Mr. Linick’s investigation are not clear, and it may be unrelated to the previous allegations. But Democrats and other critics of Mr. Pompeo say the cloud of accusations shows a pattern of abuse of taxpayer money — one that may mean lawmakers will be less willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt as congressional Democrats begin an investigation into Mr. Linick’s dismissal.
The investigation is aimed at determining whether the act was one of illegal retaliation intended to shield Mr. Pompeo from accountability — which “would undermine the foundation of our democratic institutions,” Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York and Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, leading Democrats on foreign policy committees, said in a joint statement.
Mr. Engel stressed on Sunday that Mr. Pompeo must turn over all requested records, and said, “What I’ve learned about Inspector General Stephen Linick’s removal is deeply troubling.”
Mr. Linick is the fourth inspector general to fall in a purge this spring by Mr. Trump of officials he has deemed insufficiently loyal, but the dismissal is the first to prompt a formal inquiry in Congress, and it has also drawn criticism from a few Republicans.
“The president has the right to fire any federal employee,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “But the fact is, if it looks like it is in retaliation for something that the I.G., the inspector general, is doing, that could be unlawful.”
She called the move “unsavory” — “when you take out someone who is there to stop waste, fraud, abuse or other violations of the law that they believe to be happening.”
Aides to Mr. Pompeo did not reply to repeated requests for comment. The White House did not respond to questions about whether it knew of Mr. Linick’s investigation into Mr. Pompeo when it moved to dismiss him.
Mr. Linick’s office has not commented on that inquiry or on Mr. Trump’s announcement, which started a 30-day clock on the inspector general’s departure. Employees under Mr. Linick generally view him as competent and nonpartisan. Mr. Linick began his current job in 2013, and he held senior posts in the Justice Department starting in the administration of President George W. Bush.
In May 2016, Mr. Linick issued a report sharply criticizing Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, for her use of a private email server, and last fall he played a minor role during the impeachment hearings against Mr. Trump.
A few Republican senators, notably Mitt Romney and Charles E. Grassley, have expressed varying degrees of disapproval of Mr. Trump’s move. But on Sunday, Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, said: “I understand it. I don’t disagree with it.”
He told CNN that he had spoken with White House and State Department officials about the matter. “I’m not crying big crocodile tears over this termination, let’s put it that way,” he said.
Since Mr. Pompeo took up his current post in April 2018, and for more than one year before that as the C.I.A. director, he has been peerless in his navigation of Mr. Trump’s inner world of loyal advisers and domestic politics around foreign policy. While sticking close to Mr. Trump, he has weathered the impeachment process involving Ukraine, questions over the decision to kill a top Iranian general and the fraught diplomacy between the president and Kim Jong-un, the unpredictable leader of North Korea.
But the maelstrom of questions that began over the weekend could present a formidable challenge to Mr. Pompeo’s political instincts and career ambitions. People close to him say he is thinking of running for president in 2024. And more immediately, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, has repeatedly urged him to run for an open Senate seat in Kansas — an important race given that the Republicans are at risk of losing control of the Senate in the November elections.
Mr. Pompeo knows the potential effect of a congressional investigation on a politician’s career: As a Republican congressman, he helped lead the charge against Mrs. Clinton, then the secretary of state, over the deaths of four Americans at a mission in Benghazi, Libya, an issue that hounded her during the 2016 presidential campaign.
For Mr. Pompeo, the spotlight now falls on much more personal matters, including the role of his wife. Other secretaries of state have occasionally traveled with spouses, but some officials in the State Department say Mrs. Pompeo, a former bank executive, has played an unusually active role in running meetings and accompanying her husband on official business.
“She has this quasi-official role, where my friends are called to meetings she is leading at the department,” said Brett Bruen, a former career diplomat and director of global engagement on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. “They know that’s not supposed to happen, because she isn’t in their chain of command. But what can they do?”
Mrs. Pompeo has accompanied Mr. Pompeo on several long trips overseas. In January 2019, she went with him on an eight-day journey across the Middle East — which raised questions among some officials because most State Department employees, including those supporting the trip, were working without pay during a partial government shutdown. Mrs. Pompeo has also flown with her husband on multinight trips to Switzerland and Italy, which included a visit to the secretary’s ancestral home region of Abruzzo.
Mrs. Pompeo, who is not paid by the State Department, has met with embassy families and local figures on some of the trips, and Mr. Pompeo has called her a “force multiplier.”
Mrs. Pompeo also played an unusually prominent volunteer role at the C.I.A. when Mr. Pompeo was the director there; she traveled with her husband, used an office space in C.I.A. headquarters and asked employees to assist her — actions that an agency spokesman defended at the time. Their son used a C.I.A. shooting range recreationally, according to CNN.
Mr. Pompeo’s frequent trips to Kansas last year also drew intense scrutiny. He went four times, three on the auspices of official business and flying in and out on State Department aircraft. To many, the trips appeared to be part of a shadow Senate campaign for 2020 and had little to do with foreign policy, despite Mr. Pompeo’s denials and his refusal so far to agree to run for the seat.
On the last trip, in October, Mr. Pompeo took part in a student event with Ivanka Trump, Mr. Trump’s daughter. And he discussed the Senate race with Charles Koch, the billionaire who is a longtime supporter of Mr. Pompeo, and Dave Robertson, the president and chief operating officer of Koch Industries, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The Kansas City Star ran a blistering editorial denouncing Mr. Pompeo’s frequent trips to his adopted home state, telling him he should quit and run for Senate or “by all means focus on U.S. diplomacy — remember diplomacy? — and stop hanging out here every chance he gets.”
Four days later, Mr. Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel asking it to investigate Mr. Pompeo for potential violations of the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from using their official positions to engage in partisan political activities.
Separately, Democratic lawmakers on a House committee last year began looking at a whistle-blower complaint that Mr. Pompeo, his wife and adult son were asking diplomatic security agents to run personal errands, including picking up Chinese food and the family dog from a groomer. The whistle-blower said agents had complained they were “UberEats with guns,” according to CNN, which first reported on the accusations.
Lon Fairchild, the agent in charge of the Diplomatic Security Service, told CNN that he had seen no wrongdoing. The Democratic lawmakers did not open a formal inquiry.
More broadly, Mr. Pompeo has wrestled with managing the State Department, though he was initially hailed by many employees as a welcome change from Rex W. Tillerson, Mr. Trump’s first secretary of state, who was perceived as aloof and dismissive.
Last fall, current and former State Department officials criticized Mr. Pompeo for not vocally defending diplomats who were testifying in the impeachment inquiry and coming under attack from Mr. Trump, and for his own role in the earlier ouster of Marie L. Yovanovitch, a respected career diplomat, from the ambassadorship to Ukraine.
Since the winter, Mr. Pompeo has also found himself on unsteady ground on policy amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Usually outspoken on policy matters, he seemed to play a more subdued role early in the crisis. Then he chose to pull back from diplomacy with China, where the outbreak began, and relentlessly criticized the Chinese Communist Party for its actions. He pushed spy agencies to look for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that the outbreak began in a virology laboratory in the city of Wuhan, and later said there was “enormous” and “significant” evidence behind the theory even when many scientists and intelligence analysts argued otherwise.
On Sunday, Mr. Pompeo warned China in a statement that he was aware “the Chinese government has threatened to interfere with the work of American journalists in Hong Kong,” which has semi-autonomy. He did not give details, but said that “these journalists are members of a free press, not propaganda cadres, and their valuable reporting informs Chinese citizens and the world.”
China revoked the press credentials of three Wall Street Journal reporters based in Beijing, the first time in the post-Mao era that the Chinese government has expelled multiple journalists from one international news organization at the same time.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the move Wednesday was punishment for a recent opinion piece published by the Journal.
Deputy Bureau Chief Josh Chin and reporter Chao Deng, both U.S. nationals, as well as reporter Philip Wen, an Australian national, have been ordered to leave the country within five days, said Jonathan Cheng, the Journal’s China bureau chief.
The expulsions by China’s Foreign Ministry followed widespread public anger at the headline on the Feb. 3 opinion piece, which referred to China as “the real sick man of Asia.” The ministry and state-media outlets had repeatedly called attention to the headline in statements and posts on social media and had threatened unspecified consequences.
“Regrettably, what the WSJ has done so far is nothing but parrying and dodging its responsibility,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a daily news briefing Wednesday. “The Chinese people do not welcome those media that speak racially discriminatory language and maliciously slander and attack China.”
The three journalists work for the Journal’s news operation. The Journal operates with a strict separation between news and opinion.
Wall Street Journal Publisher and Dow Jones CEO William Lewis said he was disappointed by the decision to expel the journalists and asked the Foreign Ministry to reconsider.
“This opinion piece was published independently from the WSJ newsroom and none of the journalists being expelled had any involvement with it,” Mr. Lewis said.
“Our opinion pages regularly publish articles with opinions that people disagree—or agree—with and it was not our intention to cause offense with the headline on the piece,” Mr. Lewis said. “However, this has clearly caused upset and concern amongst the Chinese people, which we regret.”
Dow Jones is owned by News Corp.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized China’s action, saying: “The United States condemns China’s expulsion of three Wall Street Journal foreign correspondents. Mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions. The correct response is to present counter arguments, not restrict speech. The United States hopes that the Chinese people will enjoy the same access to accurate information and freedom of speech that Americans enjoy.”
China is battling a fast-spreading coronavirus, as well as questions from Chinese citizens and some global health experts about Beijing’s handling of the epidemic, which has included the lockdown of much of Hubei province, with a population of nearly 60 million. Public anger at a perceived lack of transparency surrounding the coronavirus has exploded online, overwhelming the country’s censorship apparatus.
In August, the Chinese government didn’t renew press credentials for Chun Han Wong, a Beijing-based correspondent who co-wrote a news article on a cousin of Chinese President Xi Jinping whose activities were being scrutinized by Australian law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Mr. Xi’s private life and those of his relatives are considered sensitive by Chinese authorities. The Foreign Ministry had cautioned the Journal at the time against publishing the article, warning of unspecified consequences.
Mr. Wong was the first China-based Journal reporter to have his credentials denied since the newspaper opened a bureau in Beijing in 1980.
It has declined to renew the credentials of several reporters, but it is rare for it to expel a credentialed foreign correspondent.
China hasn’t expelled a credentialed foreign correspondent since 1998.
Chinese authorities expelled two American reporters simultaneously in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, though they worked for different news organizations. John Pomfret was a correspondent for the Associated Press while Alan Pessin was Beijing bureau chief for Voice of America.
The simultaneous expulsions of Wall Street Journal reporters Wednesday marks “an unprecedented form of retaliation against foreign journalists in China,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said. “The action taken against The Journal correspondents is an extreme and obvious attempt by the Chinese authorities to intimidate foreign news organizations by taking retribution against their China-based correspondents.”
Censorship has been more strictly imposed on domestic news outlets and social media, and authorities have strengthened internet firewalls designed to keep Chinese people from accessing foreign reporting that Beijing deems objectionable.
On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said it had decided to identify the U.S. operations of state-run Chinese news outlets as foreign missions akin to embassies or consulates, the latest in a series of moves designed to pressure China’s Communist Party into loosening controls on diplomats and foreign media. Employees of those news organizations will now be required to register with the State Department as consular staff, though their reporting activities won’t be curtailed, U.S. officials said.
Mr. Geng, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, called that change “totally unjustified and unacceptable” and warned of unspecified repercussions.
The phrase “sick man of Asia” was used by both outsiders and Chinese intellectuals to refer to a weakened China’s exploitation by European powers and Japan in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a period now described in Chinese history textbooks as the “century of humiliation.”
The Journal’s use of the phrase in a headline, on an opinion column by Hudson Institute scholar Walter Russell Mead that referred to the coronavirus epidemic in China, sparked waves of angry commentary on Chinese social media.
The three Journal reporters are based in Beijing.
Mr. Chin, 43 years old, has worked for the Journal in various roles since 2008 and in recent years covered cybersecurity, law and human rights. A team he led won a 2018 Gerald Loeb Award for its coverage of the Communist Party’s pioneering embrace of digital surveillance.
Ms. Deng, 32 years old, joined the Journal in 2012 and has reported out of Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing. Her recent areas of focus included China’s economy and finance, and the trade war between the U.S. and China. Ms. Deng is currently reporting in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the coronavirus epidemic originated late last year.
Mr. Wen, 35 years old, started at the Journal in 2019 and has been reporting on Chinese politics. He co-wrote the article with Mr. Wong on the cousin of Mr. Xi whose activities were being scrutinized by Australian law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.
All three have reported on the Chinese Communist Party’s mass surveillance and detention of Uighur Muslims in the country’s far western Xinjiang region.
The Islamic Republic is too weak to wage a conventional war on the U.S. — but that doesn’t mean it poses no threat.
How might Iran respond to the death of Qasem Soleimani? Ever since the Trump administration’s January 3 killing of Soleimani, the Islamic Republic’s top military commander, that question has been on the mind of policymakers in Washington and the American public at large.
Iran’s January 8 rocket attack on U.S. military bases in Iraq clearly constituted part of its response, but Iranian leaders quickly made clear that more retaliation is forthcoming. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself has said that, while the rocket attack was a “slap” at the United States, it was “not enough,” and the Islamic Republic will continue its opposition to the United States with the ultimate goal of driving America out of the Middle East altogether.
Doing so, however, is likely to prove difficult for Iran. As a recent analysis by CNBC notes, sanctions leveled by the Trump administration over the past two years have inflicted extensive damage on the Iranian economy. The country’s GDP shrunk by nearly 10 percent last year, and its exports of crude oil declined from a peak of 2.5 million barrels per day to less than 500,000 daily.
Domestic conditions, meanwhile, are deteriorating. Inflation is on the rise within the Islamic Republic and is now pegged at over 30 percent. So, too, is joblessness; nearly a fifth of the country’s workforce is currently estimated to be unemployed. Meanwhile, governmental expenditures have surged as Iran’s ayatollahs struggle to keep a lid on an increasingly impoverished, and discontented, population.
All of this, according to CNBC’s analysis, profoundly limits Iran’s ability “to fund a war” against the United States. But that doesn’t mean the threat from Iran is nonexistent. Iran still has the ability to “ramp up its aggression against the U.S.” through the use of its network of proxy forces in the region.
That network is extensive — and lethal. It comprises not only Iran’s traditional terrorist proxies, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and the Palestinian Hamas movement, but also assorted Shiite militias in Iraq (the so-called “Hashd al-Shaabi”) and even Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Recently, it has also made use of the “Shi’a Liberation Army” (SLA), a group of as many as 200,000 Shiite fighters — drawn from Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere — that has been trained and equipped by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and deployed to foreign theaters such as Syria.
Notably, these forces appear to have been thrown into chaos, at least temporarily, by the killing of Soleimani. Reports from the region suggest that Iraqi militias are “in a state of disarray” after the death of the Iranian general, and aren’t currently ready to strike U.S. or allied targets. Over time, however, we can expect Tehran to regain control and direction of its troops and weaponize them anew against the United States and regional U.S. allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. That is doubtless the top priority of Soleimani’s successor as head of the Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, who has already commenced outreach to Iranian proxies in an effort to reinforce Tehran’s support for “resistance” activities.
Tehran likewise has another potent tool by which to target the United States: cyber warfare. Over the past decade, the Iranian regime has made enormous investments in its cyber-war capabilities and carried out a series of demonstration attacks on targets such as Saudi Arabia’s state oil company and various U.S. financial institutions to showcase its newfound technological prowess. In the wake of President Trump’s pullout from President Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal, Iran reshaped its cyber-activism against the United States, focusing less on offensive attacks and more on gathering information about potential policy from the notoriously opaque new administration in Washington.
But Tehran’s potential to do significant harm to the U.S. in cyberspace remains. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has warned publicly that Iran could carry out a cyberattack against critical U.S. infrastructure in the near future, with potentially significant “disruptive effects.” And so far, neither the Pentagon nor the State Department has articulated much by way of a strategy to deter Iran from carrying out such attacks, or to mitigate the damage they could do. (In the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing, that lack of strategy has become a matter of growing concern on Capitol Hill.)
Perhaps the most compelling reason to expect an asymmetric Iranian response to Soleimani’s killing, however, is that asymmetric warfare plays to Iran’s inherent strengths. Ever since the regime’s grinding eight-year war with neighboring Iraq in the 1980s — a conflict that Iran lost handily — its leaders have exhibited a strong penchant for military asymmetry over direct confrontation. This preference has only been reinforced by persistent Western sanctions, which have eroded the country’s conventional military capabilities and made the acquisition of spare parts and matériel considerably more difficult.
Soleimani was the regime’s principal architect of asymmetric war, and had devoted nearly a quarter-century to building up the Islamic Republic’s asymmetric potency. That is precisely why his targeted killing by the Trump administration represents such a significant blow to the integrity of Iran’s proxy network — and to the prudence of its time-tested asymmetric strategy. Going forward, Tehran may well have to rethink its approach, and could conclude that the potential costs of continuing its campaign of aggression against U.S. forces in the region are now simply too high. If it doesn’t, however, the very capabilities that Soleimani spent his career cultivating will remain the most potent weapons the Islamic Republic has to wield against the United States.