Say It Ain’t So, Phil

From touting thousands of hidden Chinese nukes to inflating Russian threats, a certain open-source "expert" is doing a disservice to those of us who actually try to fact-check our intelligence work.

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Asian Arms Control Project At Georgetown University
Asian Arms Control Project At Georgetown University
Phillip A. Karber meets with his Asian Arms Control Project students at Georgetown University.

A visiting delegation from Ukraine recently provided the office of Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) with photographs that purported to show Russian units operating in Ukraine.

A visiting delegation from Ukraine recently provided the office of Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) with photographs that purported to show Russian units operating in Ukraine.

Some of the images were published in the Washington Free Beacon — and then all hell broke loose. It didn’t take long for someone (in this case, Dan Trombly) to do a reverse image search and discover that the “Ukrainian delegation” had passed off photographs from other military conflicts.

Adam Kredo, who wrote the original piece, followed up with Inhofe’s office. Inhofe was, understandably, upset at having been duped, and issued a statement:

“The Ukrainian parliament members who gave us these photos in print form as if it came directly from a camera really did themselves a disservice. We felt confident to release these photos because the images match the reporting of what is going on in the region. I was furious to learn one of the photos provided now appears to be falsified from an AP photo taken in 2008. This doesn’t change the fact that there is plenty of evidence Russia has made advances into the country with T-72 tanks and that pro-Russian separatists have been killing Ukrainians in cold blood.”

Inhofe is actually right about that last point, but let’s come back to that later.

Who the heck were these clowns, anyway? Rosie Gray at BuzzFeed filled in that little detail, asking Inhofe’s office to provide the names of the delegation. They were happy to slip the list under the front tire of the large bus heading to crazy-town. The final name on it might ring a bell: the American lead of the delegation was one Phillip A. Karber.

If you read my work, you know I don’t think much of Dr. Phillip A. Karber’s oeuvre. He is usually described as a “Georgetown professor.” To be clear, he is an adjunct assistant professor, as I was for several years before decamping to Monterey, but this is the least of the exaggerations we will confront today.

Karber has already provided an explanation for how he accidentally confirmed the provenance of the misidentified images: he says he was confused about which photographs he was authenticating. “In the haste of running for the airport and trying to respond to a last minute request with short time fuse,” Karber told Gray, “I made the mistake of believing we were talking about the same photos … and it never occurred to me that the 3 photos of Russian armor were part of that package or being considered.” Just why there were three mislabeled photographs in the first place isn’t really explained, at least not to my satisfaction.

There seem to be a lot of misunderstandings like this when talking to Karber. If you meet him, he’s a really engaging and personable guy. We have a bunch of mutual friends, which makes this an unpleasant column to write. But it helpfully illustrates a larger lesson, one important enough to make future social engagements very uncomfortable. In this new age of selfies and flashmobs, open-source information lets independent analysts fill in some of the gaps left by government secrecy — and perhaps moderates the distrust that lingers a dozen years after the Iraqi WMD fiasco.

Open-source information is essential if we hope to have informed debates about national security and foreign policy. But not all open-source analysis is created equal. We have to be able to discriminate between quality work and shoddy product. So don’t take this to be a jolly hit piece against somebody who’s got it coming. It’s more than that. At some level, what’s at stake in open-source research is no less than the feasibility of self-governance in a modern democracy.

So let’s review some of these misunderstandings. I’ve repeatedly complained about a study Karber directed that asserted China might — just might, mind you — have 3,000 nuclear weapons tucked away in a vast network of tunnels, instead of the 200-300 that appear in declassified U.S. estimates. I’ve been over this “study” a number of times in a number of venues, but it’s worth rehashing as it illustrates why Karber was leading a delegation of little-known Ukrainians providing open-source intelligence to a U.S. senator.

Just to hit the high points — the Chinese definitely dig tunnels, but some of the images in Karber’s report were taken from Chinese soap operas (which means they are stage sets) or misidentified in one way or another. What really bothered me, thought, was one slide asserting that China might have enough plutonium and highly enriched uranium for 3,000 nuclear weapons. It turns out Karber used a long-debunked essay that was plagiarized from a fantastically incompetent 1995 USENET thread. My colleague Gregory Kulacki actually went to Hong Kong to pick up a copy of the article that started all this nonsense. It turned out that the article had simply reprinted some speculation in Navy International. The whole thing was just nonsense that could have been resolved with an interlibrary loan request. Karber did change his slides — but not the substance of the claim, mind you — just the sourcing.

Must have been a misunderstanding.

By the way, don’t take my word for it that Karber is wrong. Gen. Robert Kehler, at the time commander of U.S. Strategic Command, was asked about the wild claims. “I do not believe that China has hundreds or thousands more nuclear weapons than what the intelligence community has been saying,” he said, adding that “the Chinese arsenal is in the range of several hundred.” To be sure, Karber was always careful to avoid taking responsibility for asserting that China had 3,000 nuclear weapons. He would say he was merely starting a debate … like a man planting a bomb and then scurrying off to watch it explode from a safe distance.

Once I started arguing with Karber about China, lots of folks came out of the woodwork with their own stories. For example, in the 1970s, Karber worked at a defense contractor, BDM Corporation. There he wrote a paper titled The Tactical Revolution in Soviet Doctrine that purported to describe a secret strategy, explained in Soviet military journals, for an unreinforced attack against NATO translated as a “daring thrust.” (You may be wondering why a “secret” strategy would be outlined in professional military journals…. Oh, you and your critical thinking skills.)

A colleague shared an analysis of the paper by F. Charles Parker, then an analyst with Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), that went through the paper’s citations and discovered something interesting. Karber had mistranslated many passages and taken others out of context. Some of the mistranslations were petty, though still damning: Karber, according to Parker, often added “daring” when a Soviet author had merely written “thrust,” sexing up the quotations bit. Other mistranslations were more serious. You can read the whole critique here, but the last few lines of Parker’s critique are some of the most damning prose I’ve read in a long time: “The Soviets are concerned with anti-tank weapons and are conducting tactical discussions in their open press. These articles should be given a great deal of attention by academic and military analysts. Unfortunately, Mr. Karber’s article is not a serious contribution to this effort. It also should be noted that this article is by no means a complete catalogue of Karber mistranslations and quotes taken out of context.”

I am making this paper available online because, you know, it’s awesome.

By the way, guess who funded much of Karber’s work at BDM on assessing Warsaw Pact forces? Andy Marshall’s Office of Net Assessment, at least according to Marshall’s biographers.

I am sure it was all just a misunderstanding, the “mistranslations and quotes taken out of context.” Still, Karber kept at it, despite others pointing out the serious flaws in the paper. (If you want a substantive destruction of the paper, rather than merely the dismantlement of its supporting evidence, you can’t beat Shimon Naveh’s book, In Pursuit of Excellence.) Even so, Karber republished the paper through the Army War College in 1983, without revising it as far as I can tell. He was still warning that NATO nations were not taking seriously the threat of an unreinforced Soviet attack as late as 1985, when a “Dr. Philip A. Karber” presented a paper on NATO defense policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) annual meeting. (Karber wouldn’t get his Ph.D. for another decade, but so what? Another misunderstanding. Perhaps IISS was to blame.)

I still see Karber’s 1977 paper cited, as well as claims that China might have 3,000 nuclear weapons. I guess the joke is on me, wasting all my time doing research.

Why is anyone surprised that Karber is now associated with a delegation of Ukrainians passing off photographs as something they weren’t? Maybe this is another misunderstanding. The reality, though, is that there are few professional consequences in Washington for misunderstandings, especially if you tell someone what he or she wants to hear. Alarmist studies about Soviet doctrine, bizarre estimates of the Chinese nuclear weapons stockpile, and now pictures of Russian brutality — all matters of concern that require no exaggeration — found a ready audience among people who already knew what they wanted to do, and were eager for evidence that would support it.

I guess one can’t complain that Karber flatters to deceive. Just look at one his slides: “Warning!!! … NO claim of accuracy or truth.”



They should put that on his tombstone.

Still, the fact that some of the photographs are bogus doesn’t change the reality that there are Russian military units operating in Ukraine. On this point, I agree with Senator Inhofe. What’s especially galling is that we can show there are Russian forces in Ukraine without resort to misidentified photographs.

My friends at Eliot Higgins’s website Bellingcat have launched a project to document Russian military vehicles in Ukraine. The person most closely associated with the hunt, a Finnish defense analyst named Veli-Pekka Kivimäki, is careful and thorough. He is managing to make a convincing case that there are Russian units in Ukraine — without making anything up.

At my home institution, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, we’re also doing a ton of open-source work, mostly on nonproliferation issues, including Chinese nuclear forces. I recently completed a new book for IISS on China’s nuclear posture making use of a flood of newly available information. While I don’t think China has 3,000 nuclear weapons, my colleagues and I did discover a number of never-completed underground nuclear reactors in China using open-source tools. Along with my colleague Catherine Dill, I revealed the location of one of those reactors, near Yichang, here at Foreign Policy. The fact that these reactors were never completed helps explain why the China produced such a small amount of plutonium. They tried to make more, but failed.

But open source can also be done badly, giving those of us who believe it is the future of policy analysis a bad name. The new year has already brought a false media report about a ginormous Iranian missile that is probably just an elevator and a Chinese training exercise that the South Korean media reported as a nuclear weapons deployment near Mount Paektu on the North Korean border.

That’s what makes Karber so frustrating. In all three cases I’ve described — the study of Soviet military doctrine, China’s interest in underground facilities, and Russian units operating in Ukraine — the open source information had an important, compelling story to tell. Karber just didn’t tell it. DIA’s Captain Parker was fascinated with Soviet debates about anti-tank weapons, Kivimäki is obsessed about documenting Russian activity in Ukraine, and I love finding secret underground nuclear reactors more than you can possibly imagine.

And that’s the thing: We don’t have to make stuff up, because the truth is more interesting than anything we could invent.

The Washington Post / Contributor

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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