Category Archives: Intelligence

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.

Was getting bin Laden a sufficient justification for torture?

An "enhanced interrogation" scene in "Zero Dark Thirty."

An “enhanced interrogation” scene in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

I raised this somewhere in this earlier thread, but I was reminded of it when I saw this story in The Washington Post this morning, which addressed one of the first questions that occurred to me when I saw reports about the torture findings yesterday: The report said torture was ineffective, but didn’t it lead us to bin Laden?

That’s just a question, not an argument. I don’t think we should have used torture whether it led to bin Laden or not. I’m with John McCain on this one (by the way, the Post also had a piece this morning about how for once, McCain and Lindsey Graham were in disagreement).

The Post reports that the Senate Intelligence Committee report directly refutes the story we’ve heard in the past, which was dramatized in “Zero Dark Thirty” (the credibility of which took a hit yesterday along with the CIA’s). The report says torture did not lead to bin Laden, or at least that its role was greatly exaggerated. The CIA continues to say otherwise:

In a detailed response to the committee report, the CIA rejected the study’s interpretation of events leading to the killing of bin Laden. It reiterates that coercive measures helped, saying the tactics led two detainees in agency custody, Ammar al-Baluchi and Ghul, to provide important clues to the courier.

It was “impossible to know in hindsight” whether interrogators could have obtained the same information that helped locate bin Laden without using enhanced techniques, the agency said.

“However, the information we did obtain from these detainees played a role — in combination with other important streams of intelligence — in finding the al-Qaeda leader.”

But here’s my BIG question: Even if torture was necessary to get bin Laden, was torture justified?

I say not. Partly because it was wrong, but also because it wasn’t that essential that we find him and kill him — and therefore not worth setting morality aside, if that is ever justified.

As much of a sense of justice, or closure, as it may have engendered in American hearts, as much as it told those who would kill innocent Americans, We will find you, and exact retribution, it was never necessary to the war effort, and it certainly wasn’t conclusive. It was a great coup de main, an exhibition of American arms and prowess (and as I’ve said, sound decision-making by the president in deciding to send in the SEALs, and not tell the Pakistanis we were coming). And bin Laden certainly had it coming.

But it wasn’t like catching the snitch in Quidditch. It didn’t win the game. The conditions that engender terrorism still exist. ISIL has morphed into something more dangerous than al Qaeda ever was, despite its one great coup.

The only thing that would solve the problem is systemic change in the region — cultural, economic, political change. Which is why some of us favored reshuffling the deck by taking out Saddam Hussein, in addition to tossing out the Taliban, overthrowing Qaddafi, and pressing allies in the region to liberalize their societies to the extent that is possible.

President Obama can kill bin Laden and every other identifiable terrorist in the region, with drones where commando raids aren’t feasible. Others will take their place, unless the conditions that produce them change.

But this nation lost its appetite for nation rebuilding several years back. The purpose of this post is not to try to reverse that trend. The point is to say, things being as they are… was it worth using torture to get bin Laden? If that’s even what we did…

The mission that took out bin Laden was a bravura performance by the Navy. But was it worth using torture to bring about?

The mission that took out bin Laden was a bravura performance by the Navy. But was it worth using torture to bring about?

How the CIA torture report story was reported

The above image caught my eye on Twitter this morning, and I followed The Guardian‘s link to this story.

I found it interesting that even though the headline was, “CIA torture report: how the world’s media reacted,” the story led off with how American papers played it — the NYT, the WashPost, the LAT…

If you scroll down in the story, though, you see more international fronts. I found it interesting the extent to which the Arab News played the story down. It looks like it might even be below the fold.

Anyway, I thought I’d pass all this on…

Torture report: CIA was ‘brutal,’ ineffective and deceptive in its interrogations

nyt

This is what everybody is leading with at this hour.

Here’s the NYT version:

WASHINGTON — A scathing report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday found that the Central Intelligence Agency routinely misled the White House and Congress about the information it obtained from the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects, and that its methods were more brutal than the C.I.A. acknowledged either to Bush administration officials or to the public.

The long-delayed report, which took five years to produce and is based on more than six million internal agency documents, is a sweeping indictment of the C.I.A.’s operation and oversight of a program carried out by agency officials and contractors in secret prisons around the world in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It also provides a macabre accounting of some of the grisliest techniques that the C.I.A. used to torture and imprison terrorism suspects….

From the WashPost version:

The 528-page document catalogues dozens of cases in which CIA officials allegedly deceived their superiors at the White House, members of Congress and even sometimes their own peers about how the interrogation program was being run and what it had achieved. In one case, an internal CIA memo relays instructions from the White House to keep the program secret from then-Secretary of State Colin Powell out of concern that he would “blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s going on.”

A declassified summary of the committee’s work discloses for the first time a complete roster of all 119 prisoners held in CIA custody and indicates that at least 26 were held because of mistaken identities or bad intelligence. The publicly released summary is drawn from a longer, classified study that exceeds 6,000 pages….

From The Guardian’s version:

The investigation that led to the report, and the question of how much of the document would be released and when, has pitted chairwoman Feinstein and her committee allies against the CIA and its White House backers. For 10 months, with the blessing of President Barack Obama, the agency has fought to conceal vast amounts of the report from the public, with an entreaty to Feinstein from secretary of state John Kerry occurring as recently as Friday.

CIA director John Brennan, an Obama confidante, conceded in a Tuesday statement that the program “had shortcomings and that the agency made mistakes” owing from what he described as unpreparedness for a massive interrogation and detentions program….

I’m up against a deadline in my day job, but y’all go ahead and start chewing on this, and I’ll join you later…

guardian

On the ‘dumbing down of America,’ starting with SC

It is perhaps appropriate that on the day we learn a reality-TV star (which is actually one of the more flattering things one can say about T-Rav) is vying to become a U.S. senator from South Carolina, Burl Burlingame brings my attention to this piece, headlined “America dumbs down,” which begins with an anecdote from the Palmetto State:

South Carolina’s state beverage is milk. Its insect is the praying mantis. There’s a designated dance—the shag—as well a sanctioned tartan, game bird, dog, flower, gem and snack food (boiled peanuts). But what Olivia McConnell noticed was missing from among her home’s 50 official symbols was a fossil. So last year, the eight-year-old science enthusiast wrote to the governor and her representatives to nominate the Columbian mammoth. Teeth from the woolly proboscidean, dug up by slaves on a local plantation in 1725, were among the first remains of an ancient species ever discovered in North America. Forty-three other states had already laid claim to various dinosaurs, trilobites, primitive whales and even petrified wood. It seemed like a no-brainer. “Fossils tell us about our past,” the Grade 2 student wrote.

And, as it turns out, the present, too. The bill that Olivia inspired has become the subject of considerable angst at the legislature in the state capital of Columbia. First, an objecting state senator attached three verses from Genesis to the act, outlining God’s creation of all living creatures. Then, after other lawmakers spiked the amendment as out of order for its introduction of the divinity, he took another crack, specifying that the Columbian mammoth “was created on the sixth day with the other beasts of the field.” That version passed in the senate in early April. But now the bill is back in committee as the lower house squabbles over the new language, and it’s seemingly destined for the same fate as its honouree—extinction.

What has doomed Olivia’s dream is a raging battle in South Carolina over the teaching of evolution in schools. Last week, the state’s education oversight committee approved a new set of science standards that, if adopted, would see students learn both the case for, and against, natural selection….

If you’re getting the impression that the author of this piece holds that people who hold conservative positions are stupid, you’re getting the right impression. Which, I admit, I find off-putting. I mean, I have trouble understanding why some fundamentalist Christians find it necessary to deny evolution (as a Catholic, I see no conflict between faith and science on this point) — trouble that grows out of my failure to understand why anyone would think such obvious allegories as the Creation story are factual, accurate history — I don’t believe in mocking or sneering at people who believe such things.

Predictably, the piece goes on to describe conservative positions on gun control, global warming and health care reform as evidence of idiocy.

Perhaps the most offensive (intellectually offensive, that is) assertions in the piece is this:

… many Americans seem less concerned with the massive violations of their privacy in the name of the War on Terror, than imposing Taliban-like standards on the lives of others. Last month, the school board in Meridian, Idaho voted to remove The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie from its Grade 10 supplemental reading list following parental complaints about its uncouth language and depictions of sex and drug use. When 17-year-old student Brady Kissel teamed up with staff from a local store to give away copies at a park as a protest, a concerned citizen called police. It was the evening of April 23, which was also World Book Night, an event dedicated to “spreading the love of reading.”

Apparently, this author who thinks other people are so stupid is incapable of seeing the difference between parents being concerned about their children’s exposure to depictions of sexuality and drug use and… the Taliban. Let’s see… on the one hand, you have parents who doubt that a particular book is appropriate for their kids (not whether the book should be burned or anything, but whether it’s appropriate for their kids). On the other hand, you have people who shoot girls in the face for the crime of going to school. Yeahhhh, that’s just exactly the same. Riiiight

All of that said… the overall phenomenon under discussion here is a real one. American history is rife with anti-intellectualism, and there is a downward trend over time, as our politics becomes more democratic, in a bad way. We do, indeed, live in a time and place in which you can win elections by appealing to foolishness over wisdom.

I was referring to an example of this earlier today, cited by Michael Kinsley back in the mid-90s — the polling that indicated that solid majorities of Americans believe we spend too much on foreign aid, that they think, on average, that we spend about 18 percent of our budget, and that they think a better amount would be 3 percent (actually, that that should be the minimum) — when actually, we spend about 1 percent.

It’s OK for the people to be confused on something like that — unless that confusion becomes the basis of actual policy going forward. Which, unfortunately, does happen sometimes.

Anyway, it’s a deeply flawed piece that nevertheless touches upon a real problem…