TIME intelligence

Snowden Expects to Stay in Russia

Edward Snowden, the former contractor responsible for leaking a massive amount of classified National Security Agency information, believes Moscow will extend his temporary asylum status, which is set to expire in June, his lawyer said

Edward Snowden, the former contractor responsible for leaking a massive amount of classified National Security Agency (NSA) information, believes the temporary asylum granted him in Russia will be extended, his lawyer said on Wednesday.

“Obviously, he misses America and would like to be able to come home,” said his attorney Jesselyn Radack. “We just don’t see that happening in the near future.” Radack said “prospects are good” that the Kremlin will renew Snowden’s asylum status, which expires in June, Reuters reports.

Snowden fled to Hong Kong and then to Moscow after leaking what authorities estimate to be about 1.7 million classified documents revealing extensive NSA programs, including both foreign and domestic mass-surveillance activities that have sparked fierce debate both in the U.S. and abroad. He faces a host of serious charges in the U.S., including theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national-defense information and willful communication of classified intelligence to an unauthorized person.

“If the Justice Department would like to talk, we’d be glad to,” Radack said. “He’s not going to come here to be prosecuted for espionage.”

[Reuters]

TIME National Security

NSA Throwdown: John Oliver v. 60 Minutes

Two interviews with the National Security Administration. One by a news program, one by a comedian. Only one of them came through a winner. Here's a "completely unscientific, utterly subjective" play-by-play. Let the scoring begin

In the debut episode Sunday of his new HBO show Last Week Tonight, Daily Show alum John Oliver grilled former National Security Agency chief Gen. Keith Alexander about the spy agency’s controversial surveillance programs. Oliver won praise for being remarkably tough in the segment, especially for a comedian, but it isn’t the first time Alexander sat down for a nationally-televised interview.

In December last year, Alexander granted unprecedented access to the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” including an extensive interview with the top spook himself. The “60 Minutes” segment on the NSA scored extraordinary access into a notoriously secretive organization but at perhaps too high a cost. The segment was panned for being remarkably easy on the agency, especially for a venerated investigative news program.

TIME wanted to see how tough-for-a-comedian stacked up against easy-for-a-venerated-news-program. So we did a completely unscientific, utterly subjective match up to help weigh the two interviews against one another. (Full disclosure: TIME is currently owned by Time Warner, the same parent company that owns HBO, though that will change in the coming months.)

Behold, the comedian-journalist throwdown of the century (or the week, or the day, anyway): John Oliver v. 60 Minutes.

1. On the reach of the NSA’s programs.

Among the low points of 60 Minutes correspondent John Miller’s interview with Alexander was when Miller asks if the NSA’s phone records collection constitutes spying on Americans and basically answers his own question. “You don’t hear the call?” Miller says, offering Alexander his answer. “You don’t hear the call,” Alexander repeats, to the surprise of no one. Miller didn’t see the point in pressing the issue any further. And while Alexander’s answers were not strictly untrue as a logistical matter, the NSA’s collection of phone metadata, including call duration, timestamp, and phone numbers, is not trivial, which John Oliver proves with one piercing retort.

“But that’s not nothing. That’s significant information. Otherwise you wouldn’t want it.”

Point Oliver

2. On the status of NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

When Oliver asks Alexander what he’d like Snowden to know right now “other than significantly less,” the spy chief says he’d like to show the leaker the immense damage he’s done. Oliver might have asked Alexander to offer any example or evidence rather than the tired old unverifiable claims.

60 Minutes made a journalistic score by revealing a rift at NSA over whether or not Snowden should be offered amnesty if he can stop any more of his leaks from being published. While Alexander said he was opposed to that idea, his subordinate Rick Ledgett, the guy in charge of the task force charged with assessing damage from the leaks, said the exact opposite.

Point 60 Minutes.

3. On whether or not the NSA has broken the law.

Oliver asks Alexander if the NSA has ever done anything illegal, to which the general says no, not in his time at the helm. He goes on to say that though an NSA employee may have made a “mistake” from time to time, “In every case, to my knowledge, everyone except for 12 individuals stepped forward at the time they made those mistakes.”

Oliver to the rescue. “Right. But you can’t say ‘everyone except for 12,’” he says. “That’s like saying ‘I’ve never killed anyone apart from those three people I have buried under my patio at home.”

60 Minutes asks Alexander about a judge in the secret court that oversees NSA activities who expressed concern about the agency “systematically” violating its court-authorized boundaries. Alexander responds, “There was nobody willfully or knowingly trying to break the law,” and Miller just leaves it at that. In fact, at least two judges on the secret court were privately aghast at the regularity of NSA infractions, including one who wrote of “daily violations” in the phone records program over a period of two years.

Point Oliver.

4. On damage to the NSA brand.

Whereas the 60 Minutes report begins to feel a little infomercially, with the unchallenged claims and the correspondent Miller fawning over the brilliance and Rubik’s cube skills of NSA employees he meets on his admittedly extraordinary journey into the bowels of the spy agency, John Oliver drives right at the obvious point that the NSA’s image has been badly tarnished. He suggests a change to the comparatively unblemished name “Washington Redskins,” or to a picture of a kitten in a boot named Mr. Tiggles. Watching Gen. Keith Alexander coo “Mr. Tiggles” and giggle over the picture makes the entire thing worth it all on its own. Also, Alexander’s suggestion that the NSA take on the tagline “The only agency in government that really listens” is, come on, pretty golden.

Point Oliver.

Oliver: 3. 60 Minutes: 1.

Sorry 60 minutes. You just got bested by a comedian in his first day on the job.

TIME intelligence

Cold War Tit-for-Tat 2.0

Russia's new Tu-214 reconnaissance aircraft. Oleg Belyakov

Squabbling—over who can see what—threatens a Colder War

Last week, Moscow canceled a scheduled U.S. surveillance flight over Russia, apparently to keep prying U.S. eyes from scouting out Moscow’s forces huddling along its border with Ukraine.

This week, Washington is debating whether or not to bar a new Russian spy plane, the Tu-214, from flying over U.S. territory as part of the same 22-year-old arms verification regime.

The two actions aren’t linked. In fact, some U.S. officials say Moscow’s cancellation was due to poor weather and will be rescheduled. But it’s interesting that in both nations, there seems to be a push to deny the other from flying an unarmed aircraft, designed to monitor military movements, across its home turf.

The idea sure beats secret American U-2 flights. The Soviets shot down Francis Gary Power’s U-2 over its territory in 1960, triggering an international showdown that could have led to war. The U.S. initially denied the plane’s mission, but was forced to recant when Moscow publicly revealed the plane, and Powers, to the world.

The 1992 Open Skies treaty lets sensor-laden aircraft fly over other nations with 72 hours’ notice (so that sensitive items can be shielded from view) to confirm compliance with arms-control pacts and monitor troop movements. Russia and Sweden are the only two nations that have flown such aircraft over the U.S. according to the Pentagon.

Four members of the Senate intelligence committee recently warned that Russia has built reconnaissance aircraft that will “support digital photograph equipment, sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar, and infrared equipment,” and cautioned against letting them over the U.S.

“We strongly urge you to carefully evaluate the ramifications of certification on future Open Skies observation flights and consider the equities of key U.S. Government stakeholders,” said the letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, signed by Senators Dan Coats, R-Ind., Mark Warner, D-Va., Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. “The invasion of Crimea and Moscow’s ongoing efforts to destabilize Ukraine using subversive methods is sufficient enough to counsel further review, irrespective of any technical concerns that may exist.”

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the House intelligence panel, is also concerned. “Putin’s attempt to upgrade Russia’s sensing capabilities now is particularly problematic,” he said in an Apr. 11 letter to Obama. “I have serious concerns about the technical advantages Russia would gain.”

Sounds ominous. But the treaty’s language already permits infrared devices and sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar.

As for “digital photographic equipment”—when was the last time you loaded a roll of film into a camera? The U.S. government wants to do the same thing as you: “Technology advancements have made film cameras increasingly obsolete and, consequently, the United States is actively preparing for the transition to digital electro-optical sensors,” the State Department says in its assessment of the Open Skies treaty.

True, the U.S. is lagging behind the Russians in this area. “Based on current projections, the earliest the Air Force will fly an observation mission with digital cameras is the fall of 2017,” a member of the service’s International Treaty Compliance Office said last year.

Beyond that, any new capabilities have to be approved by all 34 signers of the treaty—and they must be commercially available to all of them.

The notion that one side has some technological edge that the other must thwart is what sparked the Cold War. These latest warnings, unless there is some missing element not being shared with the public, carry disturbing echoes of that time.

Knowledge beats ignorance. That’s why “trust, but verify” was Ronald Reagan’s superpower mantra. That’s even more true when trust is in short supply.

TIME intelligence

Snowden: Putin Must Be Held Accountable for Surveillance, Too

Edward Snowden, displayed on television screens, asks a question to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a nationally televised question-and-answer session, in Moscow, Thursday, April 17, 2014.
Edward Snowden, displayed on television screens, asks a question to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a nationally televised question-and-answer session, in Moscow, Thursday, April 17, 2014. Pavel Golovkin—AP

NSA leaker Edward Snowden explains in an op-ed why he asked Russian President Vladimir Putin about mass surveillance during a live televised Q&A yesterday, writing he did it to get a response "on the record, not to whitewash him”

Edward Snowden says he asked Vladimir Putin on live TV if Moscow conducts NSA-style surveillance on Russian citizens in order to get Putin’s answer on the record—not, as his critics charged, to be a prop for Kremlin propaganda.

“I was surprised that people who witnessed me risk my life to expose the surveillance practices of my own country could not believe that I might also criticize the surveillance policies of Russia, a country to which I have sworn no allegiance, without ulterior motive,” Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked details of its mass domestic surveillance programs, wrote in an op-ed published in the Guardian on Friday.

Snowden was criticized after he asked Putin during an annual Q&A session on Thursday if Russia spies on its own citizens in a way similar to what the U.S. National Security Agency does. In that exchange, Putin denied Moscow conducts mass domestic surveillance, saying, “We do not allow ourselves to do this, and we will never allow this. We do not have the money or the means to do that.” Snowden was lambasted in some corners for apparently setting Putin up for a denial with a pre-packaged softball question.

But Snowden, who is living under temporary asylum in Russia says he asked the question knowing Putin would lie in his response in order to replicate the famous exchange between U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, in which Clapper falsely claimed the U.S. does not conduct mass surveillance on Americans.

“I asked Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, a question that cannot credibly be answered in the negative by any leader who runs a modern, intrusive surveillance program,” Snowden wrote.

TIME Ukraine

The 600 Years of History Behind Those Ukrainian Masks

An armed man stands next to a barricade in front of the police headquarters in Slaviansk
A masked separatist stands guard outside a government building in Slavyansk. Gleb Garanich / Reuters

`Maskirovka’ has been a part of the Russian military since before there was a Russia

The reporter asked the masked pro-Russian separatist in the Ukrainian city of Slavyansk a simple question: why are you wearing a mask?

“I’m sorry,” he responded, “but it’s a stupid question.”

It sure is for anyone who pays attention to how Russia fights.

The mask-wearing militants who have appeared in eastern Ukraine and taken over government buildings represent the latest face of Russia’s tradition of maskirovka (mas-kir-OAF-ka). It’s a word literally translated as disguise, but Russia has long used it in a broader sense, meaning any military tactic that incorporates camouflage, concealment, deception, disinformation—or any combination thereof.

It describes everything from manufacturing tanks in automobile factories to shielding them under tree branches near the battlefield. It can be used to hide soldiers with smoke screens, and to build warships under awnings. It includes sending soldiers in white uniforms to invade snowbound Finland during World War II and creating mock weapons and bridges in hopes of drawing enemy fire away from the real thing.

The Soviets bought 100mm artillery pieces from Germany before the war. The Germans cranked the Russians’ use of those guns in their planning on how to invade Russian as part of Operation Barbarossa. But when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Soviets surprised them with much more powerful 130mm guns. In a classic maskirovka move, the Russians had scrapped the guns they bought from Germany as they built their own bigger weapons.

Maskirovka (which is rooted in the English word, mask) is designed to sow confusion and frustration among opponents by denying them basic information.

A pro-Russia protester stands at a barricade outside a regional government building in Donetsk
A pro-Russian protester mans a barricade outside a government building in Donetsk. Konstantin Chernichkin / Reuters

The anonymous troops in eastern Ukraine say only that they’re “Cossacks,” but Ukrainian and Western officials believe many of them are led by Russian special forces. Yet the murkiness of their origin and sponsors inflates their menace, and makes it more difficult to figure out how to deal with them. Snipping puppet strings between Ukraine and Moscow may be easier than controlling indigenous separatists operating independently. A combination of both complicates matters still further.

“It’s hard to fathom that groups of armed men in masks suddenly sprang forward from the population in eastern Ukraine and systematically began to occupy government facilities,” U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top commander, said Thursday. “It’s hard to fathom because it’s simply not true. What is happening in eastern Ukraine is a military operation that is well planned and organized and we assess that it is being carried out at the direction of Russia.”

Maskirovka may be conducted in any environment to deny information to sensors,” a 1988 Pentagon study of the technique said. What’s on display in Ukraine is maskirovka in its most basic form: physical masks, known as balaclavas (named for their use at the Battle of Balaclava, a Ukrainian town near Sevastopol, during the Crimean War) are designed to deny humans’ most fundamental sensor—the eye—critical information about the person on the other side (to complicate matters, some Ukrainian supporters also are wearing masks).

If the West won’t come to Ukraine’s aid even if columns of Russian tanks are streaming toward the capital of Kiev, they’re sure not going to lift a (trigger) finger against masked men operating in the shadows.

Think of it as a crafty way of getting your way. Russia is conducting a slow-motion invasion of Ukraine without thousands of troops riding hundreds of tanks. Instead, handfuls of Russian agents are whipping up nationalistic fervor among disgruntled eastern Ukrainians of Russian stock. Beyond the masks, the “troops” wear no insignia to betray under whose flag they’re acting.

It used to be that states waged wars. But since the end of the Cold War, so-called “non-state actors”—like al Qaeda—have loomed large. Now on the streets of Ukraine, non-state actors are acting on behalf of a state.

Maskirovka, Russian military texts say, must be seamless and complete. The Soviet Union used it to sneak their nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba in 1962. But the Soviets didn’t bother to conceal the construction of their launch sites, which led U.S. intelligence to figure out what was happening.

Some Russian scholars say maskirovka dates back to the 1380 Battle of Kulikovo Field, 120 miles south of Moscow. Russian Dmitri Ivanovich divided his mounted fighters into two groups: one stood in the open field, vulnerable to attack from the Mongols’ Golden Horde, while the second hid in a nearby forest. Seeing only the Russians on the plains, the Horde’s soldiers attacked, only to be overwhelmed when the second Russian force rushed from their hiding place.

The technique certainly got Ronald Reagan’s attention.

“The Soviet Union has developed a doctrine of `maskirovka’ which calls for the use of camouflage, concealment and deception (CC&D) in defense-related programs and in the conduct of military operations,” Reagan wrote in October 1983’s National Security Decision Directive 108. “Several recent discoveries reveal that the Soviet maskirovka program has enjoyed previously unsuspected success and that it is apparently entering a new and improved phase.” The Top Secret document, declassified by the U.S. government three years ago, didn’t detail those successes.

Fast-forwarding to today, how can the West combat Russia’s penchant for maskirovka in Ukraine? Seeing as some credit Reagan for prevailing in the original Cold War, perhaps his orders in that 1983 directive offer a clue. “The Director of Central Intelligence,” he wrote, “in cooperation with other Departments and Agencies as appropriate, will:”

The rest of the directive is blacked out.

Think of it as a bit of Amerimaskitovka.

 

TIME National Security

The Guardian and Washington Post Nab Pulitzer For Snowden Coverage

Edward Snowden Speaks To The Guardian
The Guardian/Getty Images

Coverage of leaked information on mass surveillance from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden helped The Guardian and The Washington Post win journalism's most prestigious award

The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism was awarded Monday to The Washington Post and The Guardian’s U.S. edition for their reporting on National Security Agency leaks from its former contractor Edward Snowden.

According to the Pulitzer committee, each media organization was awarded journalism’s highest honor “for its revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, marked by authoritative and insightful reports that helped the public understand how disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security.”

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden first approached documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras with his cache of documents. Poitras assisted Snowden in bringing the documents to The Washington Post and Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian, which first published reports about the leaks. Both papers share this year’s Pulitzer for their ongoing coverage of Snowden’s leaks, which have shed new light on the agency’s tactics and operations, and provoked a vigorous international debate on the rights and wrongs of government surveillance.

In response to Monday’s news, Snowden said in a statement, “Today’s decision is a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government. We owe it to the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation, including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws, and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop what the world now recognizes was work of vital public importance.”

Other winners included the Boston Globe, which was honored for its breaking news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013; the novelist Donna Tartt, whose novel The Goldfinch won the fiction award; and The Oregonian newspaper in Portland, which was honored for its editorial writing.

TIME Mideast Peace

Who is Jonathan Pollard? And Why is He in Jail?

Should the only American convicted of espionage and sentenced to life in prison be released?

He currently resides in a federal prison in Butner, N.C. Jonathan Pollard, 59, is a Jewish-American who passed American secrets to the Israelis while serving as a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst.

In 1985, he was sentenced to life in prison—a sentence that many Israelis and some American Jews consider excessive, cruel and potentially tainted by anti-Semitism. Now the Obama administration is reportedly considering releasing Pollard from prison as an incentive to keep the Israelis in peace talks with the Palestinians.

And so a convicted spy who many Americans have never heard of is back in the headlines because the Mideast peace process is, again, on a precipice.

TIME Military

U.S. Special Ops Planning for Action in Globe’s ‘Dark Areas’

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Getty Images

Seeking “critical” but “non-existent” intelligence for a dozen nations

The U.S. military is always busy planning for war pretty much everywhere, but some places are tougher nuts to crack than others. That’s why the U.S. Special Operations Command is seeking “Geospatial Data on Countries of Interest for Which There is a Critical Need But Non-Existent Data.”

Just who might those countries be? According to a USSCOM announcement posted Monday, the “initial dataset” consists of “Jordan, Djibouti, Burma, Honduras, Iran, Morocco, Nigeria, Trinidad & Tobago, Burkina Faso, S. Sudan, N. Korea, and China (Guangdong).”

That sounds a story list on a cover of an old National Geographic (Guangdong—formerly known as Canton—is a province on China’s South China Sea coast. It is the most populous and richest of China’s 22 provinces, and its two leading cities, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, are among the largest and most important in the country).

“USSOCOM has a mission for Special Operations Forces (SOF) to prepare and operate in dynamic and diverse environments,” the announcement says. “Commercial sources and other government agencies have not yet gathered data and information on some countries of interest for which there is a critical need.”

The goal is to provide the U.S. military with satellite maps that chart people—and their activities—as well as topography. The Pentagon calls it “human geography.” Think of it as Google Earth on steroids.

“Contractor will provide geospatially referenced, rectified, socio-cultural data on a number of countries for which there is a critical need but non-existent data,” USSOCOM says. “Research will include, but is not limited to, data that informs customers of the countries’ ethnography, language, education, politics, religion, and economy.”

Beyond that, American commandos want to gather “locational data on infrastructure points of interest” including military installations, “GSM [cell phone] tower locations,” airfields, “companies conducting mineral/gas/resource surveys,” embassies, refugee camps, “Internet café locations” (as well as “information on owners”) and “smuggling routes” for narcotics, humans and arms. They also want to know about “VEO [violent extremist organization] sympathies versus host government/western sympathies.”

The U.S. military has long been plagued by cartographic complications. In 1983, American troops invading Grenada had to rely on photocopies of tourist maps. In 1999, an Air Force B-2 mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, instead of the nearby Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement after a string of errors, killing three Chinese.

The Special Ops command plans on expanding an existing contract for the data with GeoEye Analytics Inc., a subsidiary of DigitalGlobe, Inc. (the same folks who recently located a fake Iranian aircraft carrier for the U.S. Navy, who launched a crowdsourcing effort to find missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and who provide satellite imagery to Google Maps). USSOCOM’s statement provided no information on the cost of the original contract or the modification, set to happen Mar. 31; USSOCOM officials did not respond to questions about the price.

“Supporting a wide range of defense and intelligence customers, DigitalGlobe is committed to meeting and exceeding their strategic and tactical requirements and expectations,” the Longmont, Colo.-based company says on its website. “From supporting military actions and national security to emergency management and mapping intelligence, DigitalGlobe supports national and international customers to keep their citizens safe and protect precious resources.”

The contract is sole source. “This unique satellite constellation provides high resolution imagery not available from other commercial sources,” the government says. “Digital Globe purchased their primary competitor, GeoEye, in 2013. The only other competitor is Spot Image, a consortium of foreign state-owned interests led by the French Space Agency, Centre National d ’Etudes Spatiales.” Zut alors! Can’t have that.

“For over 20 years DigitalGlobe has compiled an exclusive in-house archive of over four billion square kilometers of high quality imagery used in high-fidelity geospatial information products,” the government adds (the company is currently photographing more than 3 million square kilometers daily). “DigitalGlobe has a unique satellite constellation for collecting data in areas not available through commercial means…The human geography field is in its infancy and data is non-existent for ‘dark areas’ of the globe and of interest to SOF.”

TIME

Preschoolers’ Innate Knowledge Means They Can Probably Do Algebra

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Imgorthand—Getty Images/Vetta

Child development specialists are uncovering evidence that toddlers may understand much more than we think

Give a three-year old a smartphone and she’ll likely figure out how to turn it on and operate a few simple functions. But confront her with an algebra problem and ask her to solve for x? Not likely.

For decades, child developmental psychologist Jean Piaget convinced us that young, undeveloped minds couldn’t handle complex concepts because they simply weren’t experienced or mature enough yet. Piaget, in fact, believed that toddlers could not understand cause and effect, that they couldn’t think logically, and that they also couldn’t handle abstract ideas.

That’s because, he argued, children learn to develop these higher skills through trial and error. But child development specialists are finding out that preschoolers without any formal education may have the capacity to understand more complex concepts than we give them credit for, such as complicated rules for operating a toy or even solving for an unknown in algebra. Some of this is due to their ability to be more open and flexible about their world than adults. But beyond that, toddlers may have the innate ability to understand abstract concepts like quantities and causality, and that’s fueling an exciting stream of experiments that reveal just how sophisticated preschoolers’ brains might be.

MORE: The Brain: What Do Babies Know?

Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at University of California Berkeley and her team devised a way to test how well young kids understand the abstract concept of multiple causality — the idea that there may be more than one cause for a single effect. They pitted 32 preschoolers around 4 years old against 143 undergrads. The study centered around a toy that could be turned on by placing a single blue-colored block on the toy’s tray, but could also be activated if two blocks of different colors – orange and purple – were placed on the tray. Both the kids and the undergraduates were shown how the toy worked and then asked which blocks activated the toy.

The preschoolers were adept at figuring out that the blue blocks turned on the toy, as did the purple and orange ones, but that the purple and orange ones needed to be paired together. The Berkeley undergraduates, however, had a harder time accepting the scenario. Their previous experience in the world, which tends to work in a single-cause-equals-single-effect way, hampered their ability to accept the unusual rules that activated they toy; they wanted to believe that it was activated either by a single color or by a combination of colors, but not both. “The training didn’t seem to give them a hint that the world might work in different ways,” says Gopnik, who published her work in the journal Cognition.

The preschoolers’ lack of bias about causality likely contributed to their ability to learn the multiple ways to activate the toy, but the results also suggest that preschoolers really can think logically and in more complicated ways. Just because they can’t express themselves or aren’t as adept at demonstrating such knowledge, doesn’t mean they don’t have it.

MORE: Developmental Psychology: Baby Monitor

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University, for example, found a similar effect among preschoolers when it came to math. Previous studies showed that if you present infants with eight objects over and over until they got bored, and then showed them 16, they suddenly regained interest and sensed that things changed. Even before they are taught about numbers or amounts, then, infants seem to have a grasp on quantity. “All the evidence so far leads us to believe that this is something that babies come into the world with,” says Melissa Kibbe, co-author of that study.

MORE: High Anxiety: How Worrying About Math Hurts Your Brain

She and her colleague Lisa Feigenson wondered if that innate sense of quantity might translate into an understanding of numbers and higher math functions, including solving for unknowns — one of the foundations of algebra — which often isn’t taught until seventh or eighth grades. So they conducted a series of experiments using a cup with a fixed amount of objects that substituted for x in the equation 5 + x = 17.

To divert the four- and six-year olds’ attention away from Arabic numerals to quantities instead, the researchers used a puppet and a “magic” cup that contained 12 buttons. In one of the experiments, the children saw five buttons on the table. After watching the researchers add the 12 buttons from the cup, they were told there were 17 buttons on the table. In another test, the youngsters saw three piles of objects — buttons, coins or small toys — in varying amounts, and observed the researchers adding the fixed number of contents of the puppet’s cup to each.

After training the kids on how the cup worked, the researchers tried to confuse them with another cup containing fewer (such as four) or more (such as 24) objects. However, the kids understood intuitively that the decoy cup contained the wrong amount of items and that a specific amount — x, the “magic” cup amount — had to be added to reach the sum.

When the children were presented with the straight algebraic equation on a card, 5 + _ = 17, and asked to fill in the blank, their answers were no better than chance; that’s because they were simply guessing. In the puppet and cup scenarios, however, which did not involve numerals, they were able to accurately identify the correct amount, increasing their accuracy dramatically, to between 59% to 79%.

MORE: Study: Employers Assume Women Are Worse At Math

That suggested that the preschoolers had some concept of quantity, and the appropriate amount that they needed to get from a small quantity (five) to a larger one (17). What surprised Kibbe was not just that preschoolers understood the concept of adding “more,” but that they could also calibrate how much more was needed to fill in the unknown quantity.

“These kids had very little formal schooling so far, but what we are finding is that when we tap into their gut sense, something we call the Approximate Number Sense (ANS), kids are able to do much more complex calculations than if we gave them numbers and letters,” says Kibbe of her results, which were reported in the journal Developmental Science. And there doesn’t seem to be any gender differences in this innate ability, at least not among the girls and boys Kibbe studied.

MORE: Your Brain On Sesame Street: Big Bird Helps Researchers See How the Brain Learns

There’s also precedent for such innate pre-learning in reading, says Jon Star, at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. To improve reading skills, some teachers have tapped into children’s memorization skills to make the connection between words and meaning more efficient.

Kibbe’s and Gopnik’s recent work may have broader implications for education, since current math curricula in schools, which focuses on teaching Arabic numerals and on solving equations, may not be ideal for nurturing the number sense that kids are born with. “There’s an exciting movement in psychology over the past decade, as we learn that students bring certain capabilities, or innate knowledge that we hadn’t thought they had before,” says Star.

Though it may be too early to translate such findings to the classroom, the results lay the groundwork for studying similar innate skills and how they might be better understood. ANS, for example, is one of many so-called cognitive primitives, or constructs that young children may have that could enhance their learning but that current curricula aren’t exploiting. Developmental experts are still trying to figure out how malleable these constructs are, and how much of an impact they can have on future learning. For instance, do kids who hone their ANS skills become better at algebra and calculus in high school? “We still need to figure out which constructs matter most, and which are most amenable to interventions to help children improve their learning,” says Star.

MORE: How To Make Your Kids Smarter: 10 Steps Backed By Science

“The hard part is, educationally, how do you build up and upon this intuitive knowledge in a way that allows a child to capture the complexity but not hold them back,” says Tina Grotzer, associate professor of education at Harvard. Tapping into a child’s still developing sense of numbers and quantities is one thing, but overloading it with too many new constructs about algebra, unknowns, and problem solving may just gum up the working memory and end up adversely affecting his learning and academic performance. “As soon as concepts get big and complex, there are all sorts of perceptual, attentional, and cognitive costs and challenges involved,” she says.

Still, that doesn’t mean that these innate skills shouldn’t be explored and possibly exploited in the classroom. Preschoolers may be smarter than we think, but we still have to figure out how to give them the right opportunities in the classroom so they know what to do with that knowledge.

TIME Venezuela

Venezuela Arrests One Mayor and Imprisons Another in a Widening Crackdown

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Venezuelan opposition students take part in a protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on March 19, 2014. JUAN BARRETO—AFP/Getty Images

Intelligence agents arrested the mayor of San Cristobal, a city of 250,000 near the Colombian border, for aiding a "civil rebellion"

Venezuelan intelligence agents arrested the mayor of San Cristobal on Wednesday, while another opposition mayor was sentenced to 10 months in jail for dereliction of duties.

According to Reuters, both mayors stand accused of allowing protesters to barricade city streets, and in the case of the arrested mayor, supporting “irrational violence.”

At least 31 people have died in clashes between protesters demanding the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro and police trying to reestablish control over opposition strongholds.

[Reuters]

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