Should the CIA Be Sharing Intelligence That Could Help Hezbollah?

The enemy of the CIA's enemy in Lebanon is still its enemy. But, according to a report for McClatchy by FP contributor Mitchell Prothero, when the CIA discovered that al Qaeda-affiliated rebel groups in Syria were plotting attacks against Hezbollah's strongholds in Lebanon, they shared that intelligence with the Lebanese government -- "with the understanding that it would be passed to Hezbollah." (A U.S. official speaking to FP disputed the notion that the CIA would provide intelligence to a terrorist organization.)

Lebanese officials and a security contractor said the intelligence had included phone calls monitored by U.S. intelligence between militants in Lebanon and the Gulf. "America might hate the NSA right now, but they were able to actually hear the calls and warn us what was said," a Lebanese official told Prothero.

That prompted anger among some national security experts, like Guardian editor Spencer Ackerman and Brett Friedman of the Marine Corps Gazette.



At the Nation, Bob Dreyfuss cast the decision as blowback from the Obama administration's decision to arm Syrian rebels, which was announced in June but now seems to be on hold. "Astonishingly," Dreyfuss writes, "just as the CIA is helping Prime Minister [Nouri al-Maliki] in Iraq battle rebels allied to the Syrian opposition and to Al Qaeda -- now the United States is helping Lebanon squash the same fighters it supports against Assad!"

But why would the United States come to the aid of Hezbollah, a designated terrorist organization? The CIA declined to comment to McClatchy on the intelligence sharing, but "[c]onveying such a warning to the Lebanese government when civilian lives might be at risk would be a normal procedure, people familiar with CIA procedures" told Prothero.

U.S. officials have also been wary of the spread of al Qaeda-affiliated organizations in the Syrian rebellion and could be concerned about the increasing spillover of sectarian violence in Lebanon. By helping Lebanese groups -- even Hezbollah -- crack down on terrorism in Lebanon, Syria's proxy civil war can be better -- if not completely -- contained in Syria's own borders.

The Obama administration "seem[s] to feel that a sectarian conflagration will only end up playing into the hands of the Syrian regime," Elias Muhanna, author of the Lebanese politics blog Qifa Nabki, told Foreign Policy by email. "Whatever support the Syrian opposition currently enjoys among Lebanese Sunnis and others could be significantly dampened by the spillover of sectarian violence into Lebanon. Even if most people blame Hizbullah for opening the gates of hell, the fact that AQ rode right through them in the name of the Syrian rebellion doesn't do the US agenda any favors."

But that's not enough for some critics. "While a stable Lebanon is in the US interest, I have serious concerns about the CIA sharing intelligence, even in an indirect way, with a terrorist organization," Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told FP by email. "The station chief may have bought himself a bit of good will with the Shi'ite terrorist group. But that's not our objective. Our objective is to defeat it -- in Lebanon, where it is based, and now in Syria."

Update: Clarifying some of the nuance lost in Twitter's abberviated style, Spencer Ackerman writes, "I was making a joking commentary about NSA surveillance's utility for Hezbollah, as I've been covering that surveillance quite extensively, and not an outraged policy argument." We've kept the tweets here for their perspective, but Ackerman's intent was not to stake out a policy position.



The Surprising Relationship Between Corruption and Economic Growth

Another day, another ballooning corruption scandal in southern Europe. On Monday, the former treasurer of Spain's ruling center-right Popular Party (PP), Luis Bárcenas, admitted in court to authoring handwritten ledgers detailing the secret flow of cash from private firms to top-level officials in the PP. Bárcenas also alleged, after months of speculation in the media, that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy accepted regular payments from the illegal slush fund.

A day after Bárcenas's damning testimony, the opposition Socialist Party has threatened to call a vote of no-confidence against the prime minister -- a symbolic gesture given the PP's dominant parliamentary majority. And while it's unclear whether the scandal will bring down Rajoy's government, it has played into the common narrative these days about the connection between government corruption and economic stagnation in Europe's periphery. As the BBC notes, the revelations in Spain "have enraged a country in the depths of recession and record unemployment."

But just what is the relationship between malfeasance and economic performance? The answer might surprise you.

Corruption is certainly widespread in southern Europe. According to Transparency International's Global Corruption Barometer 2013, perceptions of corruption and faith in government institutions are on the rise in the region, with 83 percent of respondents in Greece, 70 percent in Italy, and 66 percent in Spain claiming that "government is run by a few big interests." Conversely, few believe their governments are effective in fighting graft, and many blame this culture of corruption for the region's struggling economies. The technocratic governments of Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti both made anti-corruption central to their agendas for economic growth, and the PP's recent troubles indicate that Spain may be headed down the same path.

Yet while corruption is undesirable for moral and symbolic reasons (it erodes faith in government, among other things), some academic research suggests that corruption can be good for economies -- or, at least, not as bad as is generally assumed.

According to a 2006 study by Fabio Méndez and Facundo Sepúlveda, there is no linear relationship between corruption and economic growth in regimes rated as "free" by Freedom House. In fact, the economists find that the "growth-maximizing level of corruption [in free countries] is significantly greater than zero, with corruption beneficial for economic growth at low levels of incidence," while also conceding that abnormally high levels of corruption are damaging regardless of government type.

In addition, a 2008 paper by Toke Aidt, Jayasri Dutta, and Vania Sena finds that the quality of institutions in a given country is a major determinant of the effects of corruption. In countries with deficient institutions, corruption has little to no effect on economic growth, because voters cannot punish corrupt politicians. In countries with relatively strong democratic institutions, the researchers conclude that corruption does damage growth, but also that economic growth itself is a strong guarantor of reducing corruption, because it means that "the resource base from which leaders extract rents expands over time."

"This makes them more eager to hold on to political power," they continue, "and creates a benign feedback loop between economic growth and corruption: high growth reduces corruption which, in turn, increases growth."

Neither paper is a ringing endorsement of corruption, although Méndez and Sepúlveda do note a "growth-maximizing" level of graft, and Aidt, Dutta, and Sena are quick to dispel notions that corruption has a net positive impact on economies. It should also be noted that the academic literature on corruption is mixed at both the theoretical and empirical level, so both should be taken with a grain of salt.

Nevertheless, what these studies suggest is that, by itself, corruption is much less important for a country's economic health than outside factors like the quality of its institutions, the degree of political freedom, and government policy or the state of the national and global economy. As Aidt, Dutta, and Sena put it, "the relationship between corruption and growth is regime specific."

Or, to put it in the context of the current European Union: While anti-corruption measures are probably a net positive in the long run (not to mention an essential PR move in countries rightly seething with anger at their elites), they can also be something of a red herring; in European countries decimated by austerity, teetering banks, and the loss of independent monetary policy, corruption is a secondary issue. And, given the role economic growth plays in reducing corruption, a country looking to clean up its image isn't likely to get there through 9 percent across-the-board spending cuts.