Category Archives: Intelligence

Deserve’s got nothing to do with it, and other thoughts on the killing of Soleimani

1200px-Qasem_Soleimani_2019-10-01_05

Why have I gone so many days without commenting on the assassination of Qasem Soleimani by the United States?

Because I’m still not sure what to say. I don’t have enough information to say “this was a good thing” or “this was a bad thing.” And ever since I made the move from news to editorial in 1994, I’ve been disinclined to write about anything that I couldn’t offer some sort of judgment on.

What follows is a few of the thoughts that have been going through my head since this happened…

We can’t get around the fact that this is Trump doing this.

First, if this is a classic “wag the dog” move, Trump has miscalculated. Because this incident underlines more starkly than anything else that’s happened in the past three years why it is an extraordinarily bad idea to have such an ignorant and deeply flawed person in the role of commander-in-chief.

Yes, the natural impulse in such a situation is for the American people to close ranks with the president and give him the benefit of the doubt. But how can anyone, other than the blindest of his base, do that with this man? Most people in the country know that he only cares about his own self-interest. There could be a situation in which his interest and the country’s coincidentally line up — the stopped-clock principal — but we know that to him, the country’s interest is simply not an operative variable.

And he lies. About everything. He doesn’t misspeak and then backtrack when the untruth is exposed, the way other people in politics do. He lies with utter abandon, and when the lie is proved beyond any doubt, he doubles down on it.

In a situation like this, in which (I’m assuming here) the American people can’t be shown all the evidence without compromising intelligence sources, it is essential that we have some faith in the truthfulness and judgment of the president, whether we like him or not. That is utterly impossible in this situation. So instead of persuadable people going, “This is a dicey situation, so we’d better rally around the president,” they are more likely to go “Oh, my God, how soon can we get someone else — anyone else — into the White House?”

Forgive me for starting with the political calculation, but the fact that this guy is in this job affects all the other things I have to say.

This is a job for the Deep State.

I can’t trust anything Trump — or anyone who owes his or her job to him — says about the situation. I know I can’t trust Republican members of Congress, either, based on their completely surrender of their minds to Trump. Nor am I terribly interested in what the Democratic presidential candidates think about it. (Yes, their statements may help us choose between them, but their reaction isn’t helpful in assessing the immediate situation, which is what I’m talking about here.)

What I want, what I need, to know in order to form a judgment is what the Deep State thinks. I need the views of experts who have no political dog in the fight.

Is it the consensus of our intelligence community that there was an imminent threat that justified taking the extraordinary chance (given that we don’t know what Iran will do) of killing this guy? Oh, and while I’m asking, what do they think we should do next?

Often in these situations, within a few days after the story has initially broken, there will be a piece — probably in The New York Times — from a reporter with excellent intelligence sources who has interviewed them about the situation and gleaned some sort of consensus from those sources.

This would be a great time for such a story. I’m not asking for the moon — I don’t expect something as definite as, for instance, the fact that ALL of our intelligence agencies agree that Russian interfered in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf. I’m not greedy. I’d just like to know in general what people who know a LOT more about this than I do are thinking. That might help me decide what I think.

Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

When in doubt, quote a Clint Eastwood movie, right?

I don’t think anyone in this country, outside of people like this out-of-work football player, doubts for a moment that Soleimani had it coming.

But he’s had it coming for a long time, and we’ve had the ability to kill him before now, and we haven’t done so. The question isn’t, “Did he deserve it?” The question is, what changed that switched the calculus toward a decision to kill him now? And was that calculation sound?

In other words, someone might be a bad guy, but killing him may be a bad idea. (In fact, as an opponent of the death penalty, I would argue that it’s usually a bad idea to kill someone just for being a bad guy.)

And we just don’t have enough reliable information to know.

No one, but no one, thinks war with Iran is a good idea.

No matter how crazy and bloodthirsty you may think neocons are, I can’t think of anyone in that camp that has ever put forth outright war with Iran as a good idea. (Neo-cons don’t usually count John Bolton among their number.) I’ve never seen the case credibly made that it would be in anyone’s interest, except maybe people on the sidelines who don’t like us, such as Russia or China.

So, you know, we probably need to do what we can to avoid it from this point on… which brings us back to my fervent wish that a normal human being of any party was in the White House right now… Something I heard on the radio earlier today struck me as ironic in the extreme: A Republican member of Congress (I think; I didn’t catch the name) was making the point that the Iranians aren’t totally crazy; they don’t want war with the United States. How weird is that? We’re counting on the ayatollahs to be more rational and mature than the president of the United States

I could say much more, but I figure that’s enough to get a conversation going. Sorry to have taken so long, but as I say, I was hoping to know more….

In case you doubt corporations are taking over the world…

jobs dec 30

I want to say it was sometime in the ’70s when fiction started portraying a dystopian future in which corporations ruled the world instead of the governments of nation-states. Or maybe the ’80s. I have trouble remembering any specific works that had this as a theme, and this list I found only covers books from this century. But suffice to say that it’s a well-established trope, even older than the national emergence of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and their paranoia-based campaigns.

Anyway, I couldn’t help thinking of that when I saw the top two job postings today.

I saw the job titles, and assumed the employer would be the CIA, NSA, DIA or something along those lines.

But no, they’re both for Microsoft. And note we’re talking “Senior Intelligence Analyst,” which suggests there are other intelligent analysts junior to that one, which in turn seems to indicate there are agents out there to collect the intelligence that they analyze…

This is not quite as disturbing to me as it once might have been. I’d much rather have Bill Gates (or some random guy pulled off the street, for that matter) in charge of our foreign policy than You Know Who. And of course, in order to carry out that task, he’ll need good intel. And the great thing is, unlike our current president, he would actually take the facts thus uncovered into consideration…

Oh, as for the last posting you see in that screenshot… it would be fun to do another campaign, and I really, really need to lose the weight… and I met Tom Steyer’s wife a couple of weeks ago and she seemed nice and all, but… I’m still totally in Joe’s camp. So until he calls and asks for my help, I’m sitting this one out…

Uncle Jed, I wanna be one a them double-naught analysts!

cyber threat

I know I’m boring y’all with these, but I continue to enjoy the daily job listings I get from Daybook.

That’s because almost all the jobs they show me are ones I would actually be interested in. And you just have no idea what a novelty that is to me, after the thousands of emails I’ve gotten in the years since getting laid off, almost none of which have any basis in who I am or what my skills are or what I might actually like to do.

But the folks at Daybook get me. I think what did the trick was my stint as communications director for James last year. That seems to have been the missing ingredient. Combined with other things in my background, it suddenly caused the algorithms to start churning out some cool jobs, things I might actually like to do in my post-newspaper career.

Today’s coolest job is “Cyber Threat Analyst.” It might not be as cool as being one of the Navy codebreakers who enabled us to win the battle of Midway, but I guess being the guy who, say, warns the country that the Russians are trying to make Donald Trump president of the United States is as close as it gets these days. (Although it seems maybe that may have been more humint than sigint.)

Never mind that I’m totally unqualified for the position. I’m not planning on applying for it. I just like the sound of it.

It appeals to me the way various fantasy jobs appealed to Jethro Bodine — medieval knight, Army general, double-naught spy. It momentarily engages my enthusiasm.

That’s not much, but it’s something. And I enjoy the momentary distraction…

Good for you, John Brennan…

I very much appreciated this column today from John Brennan, former director of Central Intelligence, headlined “I will speak out until integrity returns to the White House.” An excerpt:

My first visit to the Oval Office came in October 1990, when I was a 35-year-old CIA officer. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait two months before, and President George H.W. Bush wanted to discuss the implications of a U.S.-led military coalition that would ultimately push the Iraqis out.

John Brennan

John Brennan

I remember the nervousness I felt when I entered that room and met a president of the United States for the first time. By the time the meeting ended, his intellectual curiosity, wisdom, affability and intense interest in finding the best policy course to protect and promote U.S. interests were abundantly evident.

Over the next quarter-century, I returned to the Oval Office several hundred times during the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The jitters that accompanied my first Oval Office visit dissipated over time, but the respect, awe and admiration I held for the office of the presidency and the incumbents never waned. The presidents I directly served were not perfect, and I didn’t agree with all of their policy choices. But I never doubted that each treated their solemn responsibility to lead our nation with anything less than the seriousness, intellectual rigor and principles that it deserved. Many times, I heard them dismiss the political concerns of their advisers, saying, “I don’t care about my politics, it’s the right thing to do.”

The esteem with which I held the presidency was dealt a serious blow when Donald Trump took office. Almost immediately, I began to see a startling aberration from the remarkable, though human, presidents I had served. Mr. Trump’s lifelong preoccupation with aggrandizing himself seemed to intensify in office, and he quickly leveraged his 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. address and his Twitter handle to burnish his brand and misrepresent reality.

Presidents throughout the years have differed in their approaches to policy, based on political platforms, ideologies and individual beliefs. Mr. Trump, however, has shown highly abnormal behavior by lying routinely to the American people without compunction, intentionally fueling divisions in our country and actively working to degrade the imperfect but critical institutions that serve us….

I’ll have to stop excerpting there because I suspect I’m already pushing the outside of that ol’ envelope on Fair Use.

Suffice to say that eventually he notes that people question why he keeps speaking out on this subject. They seem to think it’s not fitting for a career intelligence officer to be mixing in politics this way.

Those people don’t get it. And the amazing thing to me is that there are so many people who still don’t get it. They think this is politics as usual — sometimes your guy wins, sometimes the other guy wins.

That’s why we need people such as Brennan who are outside the stupid Democrats-vs.-Republicans game to tell us that the problem we face right now is most assuredly NOT about that game.

For the first time in the history of our nation, the most powerful position in the world is held by a grossly unqualified, unfit, unstable man with no priorities but serving himself and what he perceives to be his personal interests. For the first time in living memory and probably ever, our chief magistrate is a person that devoted public servants such as Brennan cannot possibly respect.

And that has to be said again and again until the people who don’t get that — and amazingly, such people are legion — finally do get it…

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Two: ‘Riding the Tiger’

As yesterday, I’m not going to try to review or summarize the entire episode. You can go watch it any time at the website.

Anyway, I wasn’t able to concentrate on it straight through. For whatever reason, the AT&T Uverse listing had the wrong time, and it was halfway over before I knew it was on. So I watched the second half, then the first. During it all, my real focus was on what was happening in Dominica, as you might imagine. So I went back after — we were up anyway, hoping for news out of the Caribbean — and watched some parts a third time.

But as I did yesterday, I’ll mention one thing that sort of blew me away.

It was that little voice memo that JFK left to posterity a few days after the coup in Saigon that resulted in the deaths of South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm and his brother, Ngô Đình Nhu.

Make no mistake, Diem was bad news. When the U.S. leaned on him to get him to stop oppressing the Buddhist majority in the country, and Kennedy decided to send heavyweight Henry Cabot Lodge as his new ambassador to emphasize the point, Diem waited until the old ambassador left and Lodge had not yet arrived, cut all wires leading to U.S. offices in Saigon, and rounded up thousands of monks and others across the country.

Diem

Diem

Like I say, bad news.

But the coup was badly botched form its inception. A memo was sent by a junior state department official to the generals plotting against Diem that urged them to go ahead. He ran it by JFK — over the phone, while Kennedy was on vacation at Hyannis Port. Kennedy didn’t hear the entire contents of the memo, and OKed it thinking his senior policy advisers were on board. They were not, and many would not have been.

A total clusteryouknowwhat.

But that’s not what impressed me. What impressed me was this a historical footnote that sent shivers down my spine. You might think it a small thing.

When narrator Peter Coyote says, “Three days later, he dictated his own rueful account of the coup, and his concerns for the future,” I thought to myself, It would be amazing if we could hear that account in his own voice, but I assumed that was impossible.

So I was amazed when I actually did hear Kennedy himself expressing his regret and self-blame. Apparently he said it into a Dictaphone or some other recording technology of the time.

You can hear it above. The most powerful part of it:

I, uh, feel that uh we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of August in which we suggested the coup.

I, uh, should not have given my consent to it without a roundtable conference.

I was, uh, shocked by the death of Diem and Nhu… the way he was killed made it particularly abhorrent.

I found what Kennedy said to be stunningly frank. He took responsibility and analyzed his own failings as dispassionately as though he were examining an ant under a magnifying glass. Beyond his trademark “uhs,” which always punctuated his speech, there is no hesitation.

It was even more striking to me giving our current maddening experience with a president who is never at fault, who owns up to nothing, who lashes out childishly at anyone who might suggest that he could be. A man whose grasp of world affairs… well, go listen to his appalling speech at the U.N. today.

Knowing it was to be left to posterity, Kennedy could have tried to burnish his reputation, fix blame elsewhere, obfuscate. After all, it was a complicated situation, and very smart people in his administration were saying the development was on the whole a positive one. But he didn’t. His honesty, and the clarity of his thinking amid such shocking events, is startling.

Three weeks later, he was dead….

jfk consent

Thoughts on the Comey hearing?

Comey, right after he said of Trump's excuses for firing him, "Those were lies, plain and simple..."

Comey, right after he said of Trump’s excuses for firing him, “Those were lies, plain and simple…”

Well, the public part is over, and the senators will move on to the SCIF for the good stuff behind closed doors.

My initial impression: Comey came across as a completely credible witness, and in terms of integrity, honesty and respect for the rule of law, Donald Trump’s polar opposite.

You? Thoughts?

My favorite bit may have been when Comey quoted my ancestor Henry II, as a way of saying he thought Trump’s stating aloud about what he wanted (for the Flynn investigation to be dropped) being tantamount to an order. Although I’m not sure who, in the analogy, was Becket.

Anyway, y’all get started, and I’ll join in later…

Now, the senators and Comey move on to the classified portion of the hearing, in the SCIF...

Now, the senators and Comey move on to the classified portion of the hearing, in the SCIF…

Why wasn’t there a Bond girl named ‘Reality Winner?’

Reality Leigh Winner, from her Instagram page.

Reality Leigh Winner, from her Instagram page.

“Who is Reality Winner?” is today’s most popular headline. Here are versions of that story from:

Her own self-description on her Instagram page simply says, “I lift, I eat, I have a cat.” That’s followed by lots of pictures of herself lifting weights, of food, and occasionally of a cat (although at first glance, there seem to be more dog than cat pictures).

Me, I’m just impressed that there’s someone at the center of a spy story with such a perfect Bond girl name, the sort that might cause James himself to say, “I must be dreaming.” First Anna Chapman (“From Russia with Va-va-VOOM!”), now this.

But I thought it was kind of odd that most of the coverage this morning was about her being charged with the NSA leak. I sort of thought the bigger news (and maybe this was played up bigger last night when I wasn’t paying attention) was what she had revealed:

Russian intelligence agents hacked a US voting systems manufacturer in the weeks leading up to last year’s presidential election, according to the Intercept,citing what it said was a highly classified National Security Agency (NSA) report.

The revelation coincided with the arrest of Reality Leigh Winner, 25, a federal contractor from Augusta, Georgia, who was charged with removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet.

The hacking of senior Democrats’ email accounts during the campaign has been well chronicled, but vote-counting was thought to have been unaffected, despite concerted Russian efforts to penetrate it.

Russian military intelligence carried out a cyber-attack on at least one US voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than a hundred local election officials days before the poll, the Intercept reported on Monday….

You know how a lot of sticklers (particularly of the pro-Trump sort) have protested that it’s wrong to say the Russians “hacked the election,” when they didn’t actually break into our polling system, but just hacked party emails and leaked them and let the chips fall?

Which was true, which is why “hacked the election” was never the best way to say it.

Until now.

Oh, and by the way, it wasn’t some hacker “artist” operating on his own initiative, the way Putin tried to suggest the other day (channeling Trump with his “400-pound hacker“). This was the GRU

Donald Trump, pathological truth-teller?

pinocchio

For some time, I’ve been intending to write a post raising the question, “Is Trump really a liar?”

It sounds like a dumb question because, of course, we’ve never in American history dealt with a man who is such a stranger to the truth. This guy constantly, relentlessly says things that are painfully obviously untrue — things everyone can immediately see are not true, like his ridiculous claims about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. And he sticks to the lies, no matter how much they are debunked.

But is it, technically and even morally, a lie if you believe it to be true? So much of what he says — say, his comments about how upset Andrew Jackson was about the Civil War, which started 16 years after his death — arises from his abysmal ignorance about, well, almost everything. Of course, speaking of the inaugural flap that mattered to no one but him, you don’t have to be an expert to look at a photo and see the crowd was smaller than at previous such gatherings. But he is so delusional about anything that bears on his fragile self-esteem that even there, I suspect he actually believes that the photos lie.

When media report facts, he dismisses those facts as “fake news.” Is that really a calculated, deliberate effort to brainwash his followers into ignoring said facts? I suspect that even there, his own grasp on the fact-based world is so tenuous that he may actually believe that it’s the news, and not him, that is wrong.

Anyway, the point seems rather moot now, because the big story of the past week has been instances in which Trump has rocked the world by telling the truth on himself.

First, all his followers who were out there saying no, the Comey firing (or as the BBC calls it, the “FBI Sacking Row,” which I love) was not about the investigation into alleged collusion between his campaign and the Russians. Heavens, no! What a shocking suggestion! It was really about Comey being beastly to that poor Hillary Clinton. And it was all at the suggestion of Comey’s boss in the Justice Department….

So what does Trump do? He does a network television interview in which he says, no bones about it, that he was going to fire Comey no matter what his advisers said, and yeah, it was at least to some extent about “this Russia thing.”

Then yesterday, the news breaks about him spilling code-word classified information to the Russians, so his defenders rush out to push the line that nothing of the kind occurred, the story is completely wrong, yadda-yadda…

…and what does Trump do? He gets on Twitter in the middle of the night and — to the extent that we can decipher his meaning, given that the Tweets were written in the semi-literate dialect known as “Trumpese” — said yeah, I told the Russians that stuff, and it’s OK that I did.

(At his point, who would want to work for this guy?)

And so we have to consider which is the greater problem with this guy — that he lies, or that he tells outrageous truths and considers himself immune from consequences (which, so far, he has been, especially with his fan base)?

Is he a pathological liar, or a pathological truth-teller?

You can sort of tell Bret Stephens is no longer at the WSJ

Sally

Or maybe you can’t. His title was deputy editorial page editor, but I don’t know how editorial decisions are made at that paper, so I can’t say whether he had any influence over board positions, much less a decisive one. There is evidence to indicate his influence didn’t extend far beyond his own columns — even though, for a period last year, the Journal did seem genuinely interested in stopping Trump.

In any case, the paper’s editorial about Lindsey Graham’s hearings on Russian meddling in our election, flippantly headlined “When the Senate Met Sally” (you can read the whole thing here), was rather lacking in deep concern about what Sen. Graham was (from what I’ve read and heard) legitimately focused on — the Russians.

And it ended with a conclusion that was as pure a Republican talking point as you could find — trying to distract from what the Russians did to how we knew about it, or at least how we knew about Michael Flynn’s role:

So far the only crime we know about in this drama is the leak of Mr. Flynn’s name to the press as having been overheard when U.S. intelligence was eavesdropping on the Russian ambassador. Mr. Flynn’s name was leaked in violation of the law after he was “unmasked” by an Obama Administration official and his name was distributed widely across the government.

We don’t know who did the unmasking, but on Monday both Mrs. Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admitted that while in office they had personally reviewed classified reports about “Mr. Trump, his officials or members of Congress” who had been “unmasked.” Both also admitted that they had shared that information with others in government, though they did deny leaking to the press.

We thought readers might like to know those details in case they go unreported anywhere else in the press. The unmasking of the names of political opponents is a serious concern, and the American people need to know how and why that happened here.

That’s the sort of thing the Trump White House would put out, if it had its act together and was capable of projecting a coherent, consistent message. Which, as we know, it isn’t.

Oh, and by the way… As for that childishly petulant “in case they go unreported anywhere else in the press,” I was fully aware of it before I got to the WSJ. I think I first read of Republicans’ fixation on that point in The Washington Post. Anyway, the Journal knows (or should know) better than to say such things as that. It’s more what you’d expect to see in a Tweet from Trump himself, not serious writing by anyone who knows what he’s about…

graham yates

Trump makes Hillary’s email server look sort of tame

I was in a hurry to get to the Red Cross this afternoon to give platelets (which you should do, too, because there’s a need), so I posted that Open Thread and ran.

In doing so, I made note of Trump’s gross carelessness with national security at his country club over the weekend, but just thought “That’s pretty bad,” and ran.

Once I settled in at the Red Cross and starting pumping the red red krovvy, I started watching something on Amazon and forgot all for the moment. But then, in my second hour, the wifi started acting up, so I switched to reading stuff in The Washington Post that I had missed earlier in the day.

And it seemed that everyone who had stopped to think made the obvious comparison.

Remember Hillary Clinton’s email server? Something I thought was really stupid and insecure, but — unlike what a lot of you out there thought — not quite a disqualifier for office, especially if the alternative was Donald J. Trump?

Well, a lot of very serious folk did think it was a disqualifier. Much umbrage was taken at this criminal carelessness. Congressional committees gathered to investigate, and so forth.

Well, what was that to taking a call about a North Korean missile launch at a table at the Mar-a-Lago club, and dealing with it then and there, discussing the matter and shuffling classified documents in full view of the club’s other guests, the Japanese premier, and the waiters and bus boys? Doing all so openly so that the other guests could give a full account of the proceedings to CNN?

As Dana Milbank notes, Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz’ committee “five days of ’emergency’ hearings probing Clinton’s emails and issued 12 subpoenas,” and is currently conducting an investigation of the cartoon character Sid the Science Kid, but hasn’t shown the slightest interest in probing anything Trump-related, such as the warnings that the National Security Adviser may have been compromised by the Russians, or (so far) this:

Chaffetz thought Clinton’s use of a private email server threatened national security. But over the weekend, Trump proved more brazen: He plotted his response to North Korea’s latest missile test from the main dining area of his Mar-a-Lago Club. Club members posted photos on Facebook of Trump and Japan’s Shinzo Abe discussing the matter and poring over documents in proximity to waiters, club members and guests.

In this open-air situation room, Trump spoke by mobile phone and aides used their cellphone flashlights to illuminate papers — not the textbook way to handle sensitive information. One club member posted photos online of the nuclear “football” and its minder….

Oh, but wait, wait; this just in: Sean Spicer assures us that “no classified material was discussed publicly at the Mar-a-Lago resort over the weekend.”

Whew! That’s a relief. Because you know, he never gets anything wrong.

So, never mind. I’m sure everything’s fine. Aren’t you?

Now, what was the latest on that Flynn situation? It’s so hard to keep up; so much is happening…

All the President-Elect’s Men

Remember the last scene of “All the President’s Men?” If you don’t, you can watch it above.

Pretty powerful. On a television on a desk in the newsroom of The Washington Post, Richard Nixon is seen triumphant, being inaugurated for the second time as president. In the background, across the newsroom, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (OK — Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, really) are not watching the event, because they’re too busy pounding out one of the stories that will bring Nixon down.

We experienced a moment like that tonight. In a prelude to the inauguration of Donald Trump next week, President Barack Obama was delivering a particularly graceful valedictory address — our last worthy, fit president reminding us of the values that America is supposed to be about. The feeling of the passing of American greatness was palpable. We had a good run there, for 44 presidents. Or 43, if you leave out James Buchanan.

Half of Twitter — including me (you can go peruse my Tweets) — was writing about that. The other half was writing about this, which corresponds to the counterpoint of Woodstein hammering away at the story that will doom the new president. Check this out:

Or this version:

Or, if you’re into the salacious, this:

Wow. I mean, just… wow.

This is early. The picture is incomplete. There’s always the chance that, as Trump claims, this is “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!” After all, there’s a lot of that going around lately.

But I have never, ever heard of allegations like this, however flimsy, being made about anyone about to become president of the United States. That alone makes this unprecedented.

The report alleges that, while Trump turned down some sweet deals offered by the Russians, “he and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.” Yeah, and “FSB has compromised Trump through his activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him.”

Who knows at this point what’s true? For their part, though, our top intelligence chiefs found it worthy of passing on to the current and future presidents last week.

Here’s a caveat in The Guardian‘s story:

Despite glowing references from US and foreign officials who have worked with the source, there are some errors in the reports. One describes the Moscow suburb of Barvikha as “reserved for the residences of the top leadership and their close associates”, but although it is a very expensive neighbourhood, there are no restrictions on who can own property there. The document also misspells the name of a Russian banking corporation…

Must give us pause. But speaking of misspellings, The Guardian mentioned “Senator Lyndsey Graham” in the same story.

I don’t know where this is going to go. But it feels like one of those moments. You know, like in the movie…

hqdefault

Of course, we don’t know the Russians DIDN’T win it for Trump, either — and that’s the genius in what they did

As serious people do everything they can to persuade Donald Trump and his followers that they must take the Russian attack on the bedrock of our democracy seriously, they keep stressing, in the most soothing tones they can muster:

We’re not saying the Russians threw the election to Trump. We’re saying they tried to, and that’s something that must be taken seriously, however you voted…

I’ve done the same thing here, repeatedly, although with no discernible effect.

And I and others will keep on saying it, because it’s true: We don’t know, we can’t know, whether Russian meddling actually threw the election to Trump.

Of course, there’s an unstated second side to that coin. If we don’t know Putin decided the election, we don’t know that he didn’t, either.

And that’s the side of the coin that I think everyone sort of instinctively understands, and which therefore makes this conversation so difficult.

Here’s the problem: It was a close election, so close that Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College while winning the popular vote. That means any one of a number of factors could, by itself, account for the losing margin.

In other words, it’s not only possible but perhaps likely that all of the following elements had to be present to get Trump to an Electoral College win:

  • Let’s start with the biggie: The fact that the Democrats nominated the most hated major-party nominee in modern history, except for Donald Trump himself. This is the major factor that, while it couldn’t give him the win (since he was despised even more), it kept him in the game from the start. All other factors after this are minor, but remember: the whole thing was so close that it’s possible that every minor factor had to be present as well.
  • Clinton’s private server. Assuming this had to be present, she doomed herself years ago.
  • Her fainting spell. Here the Russians were, working like crazy to spread rumors about her health, and a moment of human weakness hands them this beautifully wrapped gift.
  • Comey’s on-again, off-again investigations. I’m not saying he was trying to sabotage the election, but if he had been, his timing couldn’t have been better.
  • The anti-qualifications madness sweeping through the electorate across the political spectrum. This populist surge produced both Trump and Bernie. In this election, solid credentials were a handicap. And poor Hillary had a great resume, as resumes have historically been judged.
  • The Russian operation, which gave us a drip-drip-drip of embarrassments (none of which would have amounted to anything alone) with the hacked emails, and a really masterful disinformation campaign as Russians blended into the crowd of alt-right rumormongers.

Could Trump still have won if you took away the Russian efforts — or the FBI investigations, or Hillary’s pneumonia, or any other factor? Well, we don’t know. We can’t know — an individual decision to vote a certain way is composed of all sorts of factors. I can’t give you a breakdown, with percentages, weighting every factor that goes into my own voting decisions — even though I’ve had all that practice over the years explaining endorsements. So I certainly couldn’t do it in assessing the decisions of millions of voters out there. And there’s no way to correlate the effect of any single factor meaningfully with the actual vote totals in the states Trump won.

So we don’t know, do we? The Russians think they know, which is why our intelligence establishment detected them high-fiving each other over Trump’s victory. But they can’t know, either. They certainly didn’t know they’d accomplished their goal before the vote, because they were geared up to sow doubts about the legitimacy of what they expected to be a Clinton victory.

It’s safe to say Trump wouldn’t have won if those other factors hadn’t been present. But I don’t see how we will ever know whether Russian meddling put him over the top.

And as much as anything, that is the most brilliant stroke by the Russians. The effect of what they did can’t be measured. Consequently, they have us doubting ourselves, flinging accusations about motives and completely divided in our perception of reality. We’ll probably be fighting over this for as long as this election is remembered.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I will again, for Bryan’s sake if no one else’s: In the Patrick O’Brian novels he and I enjoy so much, a favorite toast for Royal Navy officers in the early 19th century was “Confusion to Bonaparte,” or just, “Confusion to Boney.”

The ideal codename for the Russian operation messing with our election would be “Confusion to America.” Because there’s no doubt that they have achieved that

"Confusion to Boney!"

“Confusion to Boney!”

Graham to any Republican who discounts Russian actions: “You are a political hack.”

Some excerpts from Lindsey Graham’s appearance on “Meet the Press” on Sunday:

All I’m asking [President-elect Trump] is to acknowledge that Russia interfered [in our election] and push back. It could be Iran next time, it could be China. It was Democrats today, it could be Republicans in the next election….

Our lives are built around the idea that we’re free people, that we go to the ballot box, that we have political contests outside of foreign interference. You can’t go on with your life as a democracy when a foreign entity is trying to compromise the election process. So Mr. President-elect, it is very important that you show leadership here….

We should all – Republicans and Democrats – condemn Russia for what they did. To my Republican friends who are gleeful: you’re making a huge mistake. When WikiLeaks released information during the Bush years about the Iraq War that was embarrassing to the administration, that put our troops at risk, most Democrats condemned it, some celebrated it. Most Republicans are condemning what Russia did, and to those who are gleeful about it, you’re a political hack. You’re not a Republican, you’re not a patriot. If this is not about us, then I’ll never know what will be about us. Because when one party is compromised, all of us are compromised….

graham-still

Will Graham and McCain stand alone against Trump on intel?

Donald Trump’s insistence on doubting intel indicating that the Russians tried to tip the election in his favor is a remarkable instance of his flaws coming together over one issue.

Combine his lack of faith in people who obviously know more than he does (a large set) with his inferiority complex (in this case, his touchiness over the suggestion that anything other than his own wonderfulness won the election for him), and you have a guy willing to sacrifice the nation’s intelligence-gathering apparatus for the sake of his own fragile ego. This, of course, takes petty self-absorption to a level previously unseen in U.S. history.

Which is, you know, a pretty good illustration of why it was utterly insane for anyone to consider for a moment voting for him to be president of the United States. But that’s water under the bridge, right? This is the irrational world in which we now live.

I was a bit encouraged when I saw this headline leading The Washington Post this morning: “Trump’s criticism of intelligence on Russia is dividing Hill GOP.” An excerpt:

McCain will hold a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday on “foreign cyber threats” that is expected to center on Russia. Intelligence officials — including Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Marcel J. Lettre II and U.S. Cyber Command and National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers — will testify, and some Republicans are hoping they will present evidence that Russia meddled in the elections.

“The point of this hearing is to have the intelligence community reinforce, from their point of view, that the Russians did this,” Graham said. “You seem to have two choices now — some guy living in an embassy, on the run from the law for rape, who has a history of undermining American democracy and releasing classified information to put our troops at risk, or the 17 intelligence agencies sworn to defend us. I’m going with them.”

Graham was referring to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder accused of helping Russia leak emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee….

Unfortunately, it’s not much of a split, going by this story. So far, it looks a bit like another case of John McCain and our own Lindsey Graham standing on the side of reason and national security, and too many others cowering, unwilling to tell the incoming emperor the obvious: that he has no clothes, and that it’s not a good look for him.

Sure, McConnell has spoken up in the past, and Marco Rubio might get on board with McCain and Graham. And Paul Ryan, bless him, had the presence of mind to call that Assange creep a “sycophant for Russia.”

But only time will tell whether the GOP Congress will live up to its obligation to check and balance the absurdities of our president-elect…

Apparently, intelligence would cramp Trump’s style

If only George Smiley were available to brief him. And if only he'd listen...

If only George Smiley were available to brief him. And if only he’d listen…

Just to start off the week, which is worse?

  1. Trump deciding he doesn’t need the daily intelligence briefing — even though, you know, there’s never been a president-elect in our history more painfully in need of one. I have to admit I cringed right after the election when it was reported he would start getting these — the very idea of the least discreet man in America being briefed on the nation’s secrets — but Trump not getting such briefings is actually much more disturbing. I mean, if he gets enough of them, maybe, just maybe, he’d start to get a clue. And perhaps that’s why he doesn’t want to get them. Having a clue would cramp his style.
  2. Trump waving off the assessment by intelligence professionals that the Russians tried to hack our election to benefit him.

My immediate reaction, of course, is that absurdity No. 2 is the worse one, because what could be more dangerous than a president who says “No, they didn’t” to evidence that Russia was trying to do such a thing to this country, striking at the very core of our democracy? And of course, we know why he dismisses it: It suggests he is less awesome than he thinks he is, and that he needed help to win. Which makes his stubborn refusal to accept facts even more alarming — because what has concerned us most about Trump, if not his penchant for placing the stroking of his own fragile, unstable ego ahead of every other consideration?cia

If only someone could tell him the bad news in a good way — pointing out that no one is saying the Russians won the election for him (at least I haven’t heard that yet); we’re just saying that Putin may have committed an extraordinarily hostile act against this country, just by trying. Of course, even then, we’d run up against a key goal of the incoming Trump administration, which is to favor Russia — something of which we got another reminder via the nomination of the ExxonMobil guy for secretary of state. And once again, Trump is utterly uninterested in, and hostile to, any information that might contradict what he wants to believe. (He’s like his supporters in that regard, the ones who choose their own alternative-reality “news” sources.)

(A digression: On the radio this morning, someone was wondering why, if you want to cozy up to one superpower wannabe and tick off another, why choose moribund Russia to be your pal instead of the dynamic, growing China? Good question.)

But the more I think about it, the more I think absurdity No. 1 may be the bigger problem.

If I were president, or president-elect, I would consider the intelligence briefing the most important part of my day, most days. My temptation would be to let it take up more of my day, rather than less. On the days that the briefing was boring — just same-old, same-old — I would count my blessings. The worst briefings would tend to be the extremely interesting ones.

Because I have a better grasp of international affairs than Trump does (here we go — comments are on the way telling me he’s smarter than I am because he has more money — but this is one thing where I’m pretty confident, because a guy doesn’t need to know much about foreign policy to know more than Trump), I know how much I don’t know, and I would want to do everything I could to know more.

And as I said, our country has never had an incoming leader who needed these briefings more than this guy. If he had these steady, daily tutorials, he may even begin to develop something we might loosely term perspective.

But he doesn’t want that. He thinks he knows everything, when he actually knows less than Jon Snow — if he knew nothing, he’d be better off than he is “knowing” all the things he “knows” that aren’t true.

Bottom line — while within days I fear we’ll hear something worse and this will be toppled from it’s place of honor, these developments over the weekend I think are the most disturbing signs we’ve seen since the election of just how bad this is going to be…

Donald Trump embraces the left’s ‘Bush lied’ lie. How is this going to play here in South Carolina?

My last post arose from Marco Rubio’s response to what Donald Trump said over the weekend, at that debate I had to stop watching.

Basically, Trump repeated the left’s “Bush lied” lie:

“You call it whatever you want. I wanna tell you. They lied…They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.”

It’s fascinating how starkly that belief continues to divide us, in terms of our perceptions of reality. The Post‘s Richard Cohen wrote:

Of all the surprises, of all the unexpected ironies, of all the unanticipated turns in the Republican presidential race, it’s possible that Donald Trump has been hurt by telling the truth. Trump himself must be reeling from such a development and has probably by now vowed to return to lying and bluster seasoned with personal insult — “You’re a loser” — but the fact remains that when he called the war in Iraq “a big, fat mistake,” he was exactly right. Jeb Bush, the very good brother of a very bad president, has now turned legitimate criticism of George W. Bush into an attack on his family. His family survived the war. Countless others did not.

Hey, at least he called Jeb a “very good brother,” right?

But it fell to The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board to state what really happened, and what did not. As to Trump’s “They lied” assertion:

Despite years of investigation and countless memoirs, there is no evidence for this claim. None. The CIA director at the time, George Tenet, famously called evidence of WMD in Iraq a “slam dunk.” Other intelligence services, including the British, also believed Saddam Hussein had such programs. After the first Gulf War in 1991 the CIA had been surprised to learn that Saddam had far more WMD capability than it had thought. So it wasn’t crazy to suspect that Saddam would attempt to rebuild it after he had expelled United Nations arms inspectors in the late 1990s.

President Bush empowered a commission, led by former Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb and federal Judge Laurence Silberman, to dig into the WMD question with access to intelligence and officials across the government. The panel included Patricia Wald, a former chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals appointed by Jimmy Carter, and Richard Levin, president of Yale University at the time.

Their report of more than 600 pages concludes that it was the CIA’s “own independent judgments—flawed though they were—that led them to conclude Iraq had active WMD programs.” The report adds that “the Commission found no evidence of political pressure” to alter intelligence findings: “Analysts universally asserted that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter their analytical judgments.”…

The Journal‘s headline for that editorial was “Donald Trump’s MoveOn.org Moment.” Indeed. Once again, the extremes meet.

The big question this week is, as W. comes to South Carolina — which has been solid Bush country since 1988 (although not so much in 1980) — to help his brother out, how is Trump’s rant going to play here on Saturday?

Everyone’s asking that question.

In a rational world, it would sink Trump’s chances completely. But when in the past year have you seen the phenomenon of Trump fandom respond to anything resembling reason? Actual Republicans would likely react to this latest by saying Trump’s gone too far. But do you think “Trump supporters” and “Republicans” are the same set of people?

Add to that the fact that the GOP electorate in South Carolina hasn’t entirely been itself since it caught the Tea Party fever in 2010, and the effect of this particular rant may turn out to be a wash. Things are so messed up this year, I’m not going to try to make a prediction…

Putin probably LIKES being accused in Litvinenko death

Russia is issuing denials, but it occurs to me that on a certain level, Vladimir Putin relishes the British report that concludes he “probably” ordered the death of Alexander Litvinenko in London 10 years ago.

All his old pals from KGB days are bound to be jealous. Or scared. Or both...

All his old pals from KGB days are bound to be jealous. Or scared. Or both…

He’s likely to be congratulating himself that the whole world — and especially the part of it that consists of critics of his regime — thinks he gave the order. And having his old KGB cronies believe he did it in such a Dr. Evil kind of way, with polonium-210 slipped into the victim’s green tea, should be enough to have him hugging himself with delight. That impatient Obama can blow people up with drones, but this was real artistry by comparison. What a way for one spy to do in another!

Such reports would be embarrassing to most world leaders, but not to Putin. Really, what penalty is he ever likely to have to pay for this?

At this moment, he’s probably fighting the urge to strip his shirt off and go running through the countryside, holding a rifle. Or not. Fighting it, I mean.

Terrorists able to hide their communications? Thanks, Edward Snowden!

This one is for those you who think Edward Snowden’s betrayal of his country (“Betrayal of his country?” What a quaint concept! How droll! This old guy is really out of it!) did no harm.

Of course, Snowden fans won’t be bothered by it, thanks to the pied piper effect he has on privacy fetishists. They’ll still think it’s a good thing. But it isn’t.

Here’s what’s going on:

Senate Intelligence Committee leaders are vowing to explore ways to grant more government access to secure communications, after intelligence outfits failed to pick up on direct chatter between the perpetrators of the Paris attacks.

Lawmakers said it was time to intensify discussions over what technology companies such as Apple and Google could do to help unscramble key information on devices such as Iphones and apps like WhatsApp, where suspected terrorists have communicated. Those companies made changes last year to their smartphone operating systems preventing the companies themselves from accessing that information…

“It is likely that encryption, end-to-end encryption, was used to communicate between those individuals in Belgium, in France and in Syria,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), following a closed-door briefing for committee members on Tuesday. “It’s a wake-up call for America and our global partners that globally, we need to begin the debate on what we do on encrypted networks, because it makes us blind to the communications and to the actions of potential adversaries.”…

Makes sense. The idea of allowing terrorists to privatize their use of public bandwidth so that they can kill innocents is an outrage, and fortunately one that is easy enough to address — technically, anyway. But there’s a rub, and you probably already know what it is:

Previously, the government could issue a warrant to force tech companies to cough up data from its users. But following the Edward Snowden leaks, and a heightened sense of privacy from the public about the government’s access to personal information, companies began clamping down….

Sure, there are other obstacles, such as Silicon Valley’s greed: As The Wall Street Journal reports,  the problem is “technology companies that sell products based on the promise that corporate data will be secure from hackers and government surveillance.” But politically, I believe that could be overcome, leaving the ridiculous attitude that Snowden has engendered in this country as the main problem.

If we can overcome that, we’ll have taken an important step back toward sanity in our security arrangements.

 

 

Check my back, OK? I think there’s a Russian following me…

IMG_0874

OK, yeah, I know; I shouldn’t make jokes about people’s nationalities.

It’s just that this guy started following me sometime in the last 24 hours, and I tend to click on new followers to see who they are, and I was intrigued by (what I take to be) the Cyrillic text on his feed. (In fact, he may not be Russian at all. I’m too ignorant to tell. Can you tell?)

Then I tapped on his avatar (this was on my iPad), and got this super grainy, black-and-white image that immediately reminded me of the blurry surveillance image of Karla that George Smiley kept on the wall of his office.

And then, the image moved. It stretched and distorted itself to become more blurry, then popped back into shape, then did it all again. I checked; it wasn’t a GIF. It was a PNG. Can PNG’s do that?

I’m not making this up. Look at his feed and watch the avatar on one of his Tweets, just for a few seconds. See it jump? Roll your mouse pointer over it. Does it do it now?

So who is this guy? According to Facebook, he’s a cipher, a complete question mark — unless I ask to be his “friend.” Yeah, right — I do that, and next thing you know I show up on his expense reports to Moscow Centre as a new agent. Then, the next defector we get tells the boys at Langley or MI6 that they’ve turned me, and I’ve got a permanent cloud over me. I’m not falling for that.

And what’s that background image on Twitter? Is that a raven? Is it saying, “никогда больше?”

Again, sorry. I’ve just started reading The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of MI6, by Gordon Corera, and I’m in the chapter about Vienna right after the war, when everybody was trying to recruit everybody else, and so I’m, well, I’ve got this sort of thing on the brain.

Sorry. (If I say “sorry” a couple more times, I think I’ll have established my cover as a Brit.)…

artem

OPM hack provides gold mine for Chinese spy recruiters

Bryan brought my attention to this blog item by a national security expert:

The other day I explained in detail how the mega-hack of the Office of Personnel Management’s internal servers looks like a genuine disaster for the U.S. Government, a setback that will have long-lasting and painful counterintelligence consequences. In particular I explained what the four million Americans whose records have been purloined may be in for:

Whoever now holds OPM’s records possesses something like the Holy Grail from a CI perspective.  They can target Americans in their database for recruitment or influence. After all, they know their vices, every last one — the gambling habit, the inability to pay bills on time, the spats with former spouses, the taste for something sexual on the side (perhaps with someone of a different gender than your normal partner) — since all that is recorded in security clearance paperwork (to get an idea of how detailed this gets, you can see the form, called an SF86,here).

Do you have friends in foreign countries, perhaps lovers past and present? They know all about them. That embarrassing dispute with your neighbor over hedges that nearly got you arrested? They know about that too. Your college drug habit? Yes, that too. Even what your friends and neighbors said about you to investigators, highly personal and revealing stuff, that’s in the other side’s possession now.

The bad news keeps piling up with this story, including reports that OPM records may have appeared, for sale, on the “darknet.” Moreover, OPM seems to have initially low-balled just how serious the breach actually was. Even more disturbing, if predictable, is a new report in the New York Times that case “investigators believe that the Chinese hackers who attacked the databases of the Office of Personnel Management may have obtained the names of Chinese relatives, friends and frequent associates of American diplomats and other government officials, information that Beijing could use for blackmail or retaliation.”

Yikes. I had no idea that this sort of information had been compromised. If you read a lot of spy novels the way I do, you can see how valuable such information would be for someone looking to recruit Americans to spy on America. And even if you don’t, the danger should be self-evident.