Category Archives: Intelligence

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.

A nice definition of metadata, for Rand Paul and others who are still confused

As Henny Youngman would have said, "Take Rand Paul, please..."

As Henny Youngman would have said, “Take Rand Paul, please…”

Stan Dubinsky, the linguist, shared with me this piece that drew me because of the headline, “Take My Metadata.” And not because I pictured Henny Youngman saying that and adding “please.” (I’ve always thought that was a terrible joke, I want to go on the record as saying.) As you know, the headline reflects my attitude regarding what the NSA has been doing the last few years.

But when I read it, I appreciated it most for the definition it provided of metadata:

As a preliminary shot, one could say that in any domain where data has to be recorded, there has to be a scheme of some kind for recording it, and any description of that scheme–data about the way the data is organized–can be called metadata.

Examples will help. The metadata for a book will be the information on the reverse of the title page or in the library-catalog entry: title, author, year, publisher, place of publication, ISBN, and so on (you could add all sorts of other facts). Book metadata is what Google Books has been struggling to correct since its spectacular metadata errors started being publicized by people like Geoff Nunberg and Mark Liberman on Language Log (see here and here and here, for example).

For a phone call the typical metadata would be calling number, called number, time of connection, length of call, and so on. And for an email or a text message, sender’s address, recipient’s address, sending machine, recipient’s machine, date, subject line, and so on.

Crucially, “Call me Ishmael” is not part of the metadata for Moby Dick; that’s the first three words of the content. And “Hi, honey. Are you still at the office?” (or “Lou? Tell Enzo the hit is going down tonight”) is not part of the metadata for a phone call.

It is not clear to me whether Senator Rand Paul truly believes that important freedoms are being stripped away from Americans by the actions of the National Security Agency, which up until midnight on Sunday, May 31, was systematically recording telephone-call metadata for large numbers of mostly innocent Americans. The alternative would be that he is being disingenuous: He simply thinks his status as a possible Republican presidential nominee will be enhanced if he argues against the trustworthiness of government agencies.

But it would demean him to assume that. I think it is more charitable to assume he truly believes what he says. Though that means attributing to him what I take to be a rather stupid belief….

Yes, the examples do help. Thanks.

Oh, and to the critical issue that the writer addressed parenthetically just before that passage: “(And let me warn the purists up front that in this post I am going to be treating data not as the plural of the Latin word datum, but as an English singular noncount noun like airfunfurnitureinformation, or water: I will say the data is stored, not the data are stored.)”

Normally, I would harrumph. But when one is speaking of data in the aggregate, as a massive amount of something, rather than number of things — which is definitely what we’re talking about where the NSA is concerned — perhaps I see his point, and grudgingly decline to protest.

And… I’ll even admit that when most people say “data,” they are speaking of it similarly. But Sarah T. Kinney, my Latin teacher at Bennettsville High School, would rise up and haunt me forever were I to forget for a moment that, by all the gods on Olympus, “data” is a plural, second-declension, neuter noun.

Western hostages killed in drone strike

I don’t have time to say much about this now, but thought some of y’all might, so I’m posting it:

A U.S. drone strike in January targeting a suspected al Qaeda compound in Pakistan inadvertently killed an American and Italian being held hostage by the group.

The killing of American development expert Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto is the first known instance in which the U.S. has accidentally killed a hostage in a drone strike.

The mishap represents a major blow to the Central Intelligence Agency and its covert drone program in Pakistan, which President Barack Obama embraced and expanded after coming to office in 2009….

My first thought — other than a very brief pondering of the WSJ’s choice of the word “mishap” — is to think, Why are we hearing this now? It happened in January. Why now? Why not earlier — or, if there was a good reason bearing on security to hold off, why not even later? Why this moment?

I’ll admit to some suspicion on that point when I read this part of the story:

In addition to the hostages, U.S. intelligence agencies believe American-born al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn was killed in January in a separate incident. U.S. intelligence analysts believe he was likely killed in a CIA drone strike that took place after the one that killed Messrs. Weinstein and Lo Porto….

Remember in the past when an American was deliberately killed in a strike, and it generated a good deal of discussion and controversy? Well, this one will be less noticed, tucked in with the admission of inadvertently killing hostages.

Anyway, have at it…

A weekend spent on the ‘Homeland’ front

This promotional image brings to mind one of the oddest things about this series -- the way this blonde woman so often walks down the streets of Islamabad without attracting a single curious glance, her only disguise being a scarf loosely draped over her head.

This promotional image brings to mind one of the oddest things about this series — the way this blonde woman so often walks down the streets of Islamabad without attracting a single curious glance, her only ‘disguise’ being a scarf loosely draped over her head.

This past weekend, AT&T Uverse (and watch for the ad coming back soon) offered HBO, Cinemax and Showtime for free, so of course I binge-watched “Homeland,” and am now completely up to date.

Any of y’all still watching it?

I have to say that it seems that the original reason for the series has sort of gone by the board, and the program is only about half as compelling as it was.

It’s like… remember the “sequel” to “The Fugitive?” It wasn’t really a sequel in that there was no Richard Kimble. Basically, Hollywood decided that the team that chased Kimble, led by Tommy Lee Jones, was sufficiently compelling that we’d want to watch them chase somebody else.

Actually, you know what? That’s a bad example, because it WAS just as much fun watching Tommy et al. chase somebody else. Good flick.

But I thought of it because there’s a similar dynamic. We started watching “Homeland” because it was riveting to see what would happen with a U.S. Marine who had been captured in Iraq and brainwashed to become a terrorist when he got back home. And, oh, yes, there was this seriously dysfunctional CIA analyst who at first was the only person to suspect him, and then later fell in love with him.

Well, now the Marine’s out of the picture, so we’re left with the story spinning completely around the woman who, in the first couple of seasons, would make me want to yell at the screen, “No, Brody, no! Stay away from her!” I wanted him and his family to have a chance at SOME semblance of a normal life, and she seemed more of a threat to his well-being than the terrorists who had held him captive had been.

OK, to be fair, the series was always about Carrie. But her pursuit, in more ways than one, of Brody was what made us want to watch her initially, because Brody was such an interesting case.

And without him as a focal point for her, there’s a void.

At least, in Season 4, she is taking her meds regularly — except for an episode in which an ISI agent swaps out her bipolar meds with a hallucinogen, which gives her an excuse to be Crazy Carrie again. Not that she’s making the best life choices when she’s fully medicated, but at least she’s calmer.

At least Saul is still around. Mandy Pantinkin anchors the series for me. He gives me somebody sane to identify with.

Meanwhile, the writers have sorta kinda tried to replace Brody with Quinn, the Hamlet of professional assassins. I like Quinn all right, but as a substitute for Brody, he’s lacking. Yes, he’s conflicted, but his conflicts are less monumental than Brody’s.

Anyone else have any thoughts? Anyone else still watching?

Saul, Carrie and Quinn, the Hamlet of professional assassins.

Saul, Carrie and Quinn, the Hamlet of professional assassins.

The ACLU wants to send people to prison. Anyone besides me see the irony in that?

Whether on the left or on the right, no one in the political mainstream is calling for anyone to go to prison over the CIA’s interrogation practices. Most of us just want to make sure we don’t do it any more in the future.

It seems ironic, therefore, that the ACLU, of all people, wants to get all punitive:

This is a shocking report, and it is impossible to read it without feeling immense outrage that our government engaged in these terrible crimes. This report definitively drags into the light the horrific details of illegal torture, details that both the Bush and Obama administrations have worked hard to sweep under the rug. The government officials who authorized illegal activity need to be held accountable. The administration’s current position – doing absolutely nothing – is tantamount to issuing tacit pardons. Tacit pardons are worse than formal ones because they undermine the rule of law. The CIA’s wrongful acts violated basic human rights, served as a huge recruiting tool for our enemies, and alienated allies world-wide. Our response to the damning evidence in this report will define us as a nation.

This should be the beginning of a process, not the end. The report should shock President Obama and Congress into action, to make sure that torture and cruelty are never used again. The Department of Justice needs to appoint a special prosecutor to hold the architects and perpetrators of the torture program accountable for its design, implementation, and cover-ups….

Anyone else see the irony here?

Tom Friedman’s take on torture report

I liked Tom Friedman’s latest column:

Why do people line up to come to this country? Why do they build boats from milk cartons to sail here? Why do they trust our diplomats and soldiers in ways true of no other country? It’s because we are a beacon of opportunity and freedom, and also because these foreigners know in their bones that we do things differently from other big powers in history.

One of the things we did was elect a black man whose grandfather was a Muslim as our president — after being hit on Sept. 11, 2001, by Muslim extremists. And one of the things we do we did on Tuesday: We published what appears to be an unblinking examination and exposition of how we tortured prisoners and suspected terrorists after 9/11. I’m glad we published it.

It may endanger captured Americans in the future. That is not to be taken lightly. But this act of self-examination is not only what keeps our society as a whole healthy, it’s what keeps us a model that others want to emulate, partner with and immigrate to — which is a different, but vital, source of our security as well….

It’s not a unique point of view. Even The Guardian, in expressing its high dudgeon over “America’s shame and disgrace,” acknowledged in a backhanded way that issuing the report illustrates something special about America, even though they were just using it as a way to beat up on HMG:

In one sense, it is a tribute to the US that it has published such a report. It is certainly a huge contrast to the cosy inadequacy of UK policy, practice and accountability – shortcomings that parliament must address.

But I particularly appreciate Friedman’s approach. His headline was “We’re Always Still Americans,” and it came from this John McCain quote at the end:

… I greatly respect how Senator John McCain put it: “I understand the reasons that governed the decision to resort to these interrogation methods, and I know that those who approved them and those who used them were dedicated to securing justice for the victims of terrorist attacks and to protecting Americans from further harm. … But I dispute wholeheartedly that it was right for them to use these methods, which this report makes clear were neither in the best interests of justice nor our security nor the ideals we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to defend.” Even in the worst of times, “we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.”

Whether, of course, we remain Americans, true to our ideals, depends on whether we truly have put this shameful practice behind us.