Category Archives: Intelligence

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


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.)…


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


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…


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…

Snowden wasn’t a spy before. But NOW he is (sort of)

The double-naught spy, in the popular imagination...

The double-naught spy, in the popular imagination…

There’s a little confusion over terms going on in the news the last day or so.

First, Edward Snowden says he wasn’t some “low-level analyst,” but a sure-enough, double-naught spy.

Susan Rice denies it, saying he was no such thing.

Not that she’s necessarily a reliable witness on such things, but she must be in the right of it.

That’s because, even if Snowden actually was, as he claims, an American sent abroad under a cover to collect intelligence, he wasn’t a spy, and certainly not an agent.

“Spies” and “agents” are the people recruited by CIA intelligence officers to collect intelligence, usually regarding their own country. A spy, generally speaking, isn’t someone like James Bond or George Smiley. A spy tends to be someone who is working for someone other than who he claims to be working for.

Kim Philby was a spy — not because he worked for Britain’s MI6, but because while pretending to work for MI6, he was actually working for the Soviets. Burgess and McLean, Jonathan Pollard, Aldrich Ames and Whittaker Chambers were spies.

Yes, it’s a malleable term. When Snowden says, “I was trained as a spy in sort of the traditional sense of the word,” I think what he means is “in the popular sense of the word,” as opposed to the technical one.

Of course, my impression of what the word means is based mostly on spy fiction, so I could be wrong, too. (And occasionally, even in le Carre, the word is used loosely to mean “someone engaged in the intelligence world”). But I don’t think I am.

I’m also a bit puzzled that he believes being a field officer is automatically higher-ranking than an analyst. True, there’s more cachet to being a field man than a desk man; it’s way cooler. (As Jethro Bodine knows, or thinks he knows, they get to do all that “fightin’ and lovin’.”) And Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson held desk men in contempt. And sure, there are certainly analysts who are lower in the organization than senior field people, particularly when they are contractors rather than career officers. But who is higher-ranking, Jim Prideaux, a.k.a. Jim Ellis, out in the cold in Czechoslovakia or George Smiley back at the office in London? Obviously, Smiley. (Not that George didn’t still have some great tradecraft if forced into the field himself, as in Smiley’s People.) It’s sort of like with newspapers. Reporters may have the fun, but editors decide what goes into the paper. Field officers may be posted to romantic, exotic places, but the analysts more directly affect the policies that result from intel-gathering.

Anyway, if Snowden had ambitions of being a spy, he should rejoice, because that’s what he is now. He took American secrets with which he was entrusted and revealed them to the nation’s enemies. Of course, he revealed them to everybody else as well, which kind of blows the whole secrecy thing that we associate with spies. But he should comfort himself that he’s now as close to being a spy as he’ll ever be.

Aw. Maybe you should have added “Mom,” “Apple Pie,” and “George Washington” to the bill’s name

Why not throw in George Washington?

Why not throw in George Washington?

This happened in Washington this morning:

The House passed a bill Thursday aimed at reforming the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records, a policy that came to light due to documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The bill, known as the USA Freedom Act, would shift responsibility for retaining telephonic metadata from the government to telephone companies. Providers like AT&T and Verizon would be required to maintain the records for 18 months and let the NSA search them in terrorism investigations when the agency obtains a judicial order or in certain emergency situations. The bill passed on an 303 to 121 vote.

But privacy advocates, technology companies and lawmakers warned that the version of the bill passed by the House was watered down to the point where they could no longer support it.

“This is not the bill that was reported out of the judiciary bill unanimously,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee who was a co-sponsor of the initial version of the bill. “The result is a bill that will actually not end bulk collection, regrettably.”…

Aw. Gee. Too bad. Although not really, since there was never anything wrong with bulk collection to begin with.

Maybe the problem is with the way you framed the bill, starting with the name. Maybe “USA” and “Freedom” didn’t give it enough oomph. Maybe you should have added “Mom” or “Apple Pie.” Or “George Washington,” or “Fourth of July.”

Do people have no shame whatsoever in naming these things? In what way is “USA” or “Freedom” descriptive of this bill? Yeah, I know the privacy worrywarts consider mining metadata to be a threat to their liberties, yadda-yadda. But a bill designed to do the opposite could make just as good a case that they are the ones defending liberty.

Of course, their “just as good a case” would still be lame and wrong. When we talk about national security or defense, we often say it’s in the service of “freedom,” as a sort of catchall term for “something in the service of the country.” But often, these things that we justify in the name of “freedom” are perfectly justifiable in the names of other completely legitimate, and actually descriptive, aims. Such as, you know, security. And defense.

Take the “Patriot Act.” It was a counterterrorism bill. You could have called it a lot of things, including an anti-compartmentalization bill, as it scrapped some traditional security measures limiting the flow of information in the name of avoiding another 9/11. But that wouldn’t have been very catchy.

But why not come up with something catchy that actually has something to do with the bill? Like the “Remember 9/11 Act.” And if you’re one of the privacy advocates who favors this more recent legislation, why not call it the “Big Brother Act?” Or, I suppose, “Anti-Big Brother Act.” Since you hold to the ridiculous, hyperbolic notion that this program goes beyond 1984 levels of intrusion. Or name it the “Snowden Act,” since that’s whose wishes and worldview you’re kowtowing to.

Or simply, the “Privacy Act.” That should be a big seller.

As for “USA” — every act that comes out of the Congress is a “USA” act, sort of by definition. How generic can you get?

Anyway, I’d have more respect for some of these bills if they showed more respect for the language…

‘Mental Palaces’ are cool, but wouldn’t ‘Mnemonic Mansions’ be more memorable?

This guy only came in third, but he had the best pose...

This guy only came in third, but he had the best pose…

Saw an interesting piece in the NYT about this international Extreme Memory Tournament. I was particularly impressed with the explanation of the method used by the best “mental athletes” — a method that, despite efforts by upstarts to come up with alternative strategies, can’t be beat — to file memories so that they are available during the competition:

The technique the competitors use is no mystery.

People have been performing feats of memory for ages, scrolling out pi to hundreds of digits, or phenomenally long verses, or word pairs. Most store the studied material in a so-called memory palace, associating the numbers, words or cards with specific images they have already memorized; then they mentally place the associated pairs in a familiar location, like the rooms of a childhood home or the stops on a subway line.

The Greek poet Simonides of Ceos is credited with first describing the method, in the fifth century B.C., and it has been vividly described in popular books, most recently “Moonwalking With Einstein,” by Joshua Foer.

Each competitor has his or her own variation. “When I see the eight of diamonds and the queen of spades, I picture a toilet, and my friend Guy Plowman,” said Ben Pridmore, 37, an accountant in Derby, England, and a former champion. “Then I put those pictures on High Street in Cambridge, which is a street I know very well.”

As these images accumulate during memorization, they tell an increasingly bizarre but memorable story. “I often use movie scenes as locations,” said James Paterson, 32, a high school psychology teacher in Ascot, near London, who competes in world events. “In the movie ‘Gladiator,’ which I use, there’s a scene where Russell Crowe is in a field, passing soldiers, inspecting weapons.”

Mr. Paterson uses superheroes to represent combinations of letters or numbers: “I might have Batman — one of my images — playing Russell Crowe, and something else playing the horse, and so on.”…

One of the traits that makes these competitors so good is, paradoxically, their ability to forget — basically, they clean out their mental palaces between rounds, to make room for new memories.

However, they’re not as good at forgetting as they think they are. They will report that they forget everything, right away. But tests have shown that the following day, even after restocking their palaces with new memories, they can still regurgitate three-fourths of the old material.

I suppose this indicates the existence of a mental attic — a far less-organized place where memories collect dust and cobwebs, and you forget that you have them.

The fascinating thing about this method, I think, is that something so seemingly abstract as memory is so dependent on the concrete — objects and images in identifiable spaces. It’s almost like being dependent on your fingers and toes in order to count.

If I were one of these competitors, I’d call my palaces “mnemonic mansions.” That’s more memorable…

Of course, the interior of my palace or mansion would probably look like this.

Why compartmentalization didn’t work with Snowden

OK, now I’m back to being serious about Edward Snowden…

Way back last year when we first heard of him, there was a lot of frantic head-scratching in the intelligence community because espiocrats didn’t see how this low-level employee of a contractor had access to so many different subject areas. Given the way information is normally compartmentalized in intelligence organizations to prevent such broad leaks, he just shouldn’t have known most of that stuff.

The authors of an article in Vanity Fair tell NPR’s Terry Gross of “Fresh Air” how it happened:

The NSA now tells us they’re able to explain why Snowden was able to roam so free through the computers — including many niches he should not have otherwise been able to access. And it turns out, the NSA tells us, it was because they had given Snowden a different assignment, a unique assignment if you will, just because he was in Hawaii.

Hawaii is at the end of a long, long tagline with Washington and it’s not necessarily always up to date on the latest procedures and things that should be gotten from Washington. Further, if there’s ever any type of disconnect between Fort Meade and Hawaii — technically or communications-wise — Fort Meade, the headquarters of the NSA, was very concerned that somehow they would not be able to reach Hawaii: literally [would be unable to] communicate with them in the event of, I don’t know, a nuclear problem or an earthquake or something.

What Snowden was doing was downloading and copying and backing up hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of pages of documents to make sure Hawaii had it all in case something went wrong. … What no one realized at the time, of course, is that he was also making copies for his own reasons…

When I was a student at Memphis State and had a part-time job at the library, I was assigned at one point to haul older periodicals down to the basement and stack them on a vast number of metal shelves down there. The library subscribed to what must have been hundreds of fascinating, esoteric publications. I remember in particular a journal called Conradiana, devoted completely to the study of Joseph Conrad. It sticks out in my mind because I read in it an article from an English teacher I’d had during my one-semester sojourn at USC.

Not until the Worldwide Web came along would I have the opportunity to surf such a wealth of little worlds of arcane knowledge. I would head down with a load of old magazines, and not re-emerge for hours. I didn’t mean to slack off; I would give those publications a glance while filing them, and I would just get lost in them. For me, it was like being Scrooge McDuck, diving into his vault full of money.

Anyway… the moral of the story is, you need to keep an eye on the kid down in the basement with access to all the info…

What, were all Obama’s drones broken that day?

Slate brings this to my attention:

A new video apparently released by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism analysts scrambling. The video, which had been circulating on jihadist websites and was brought to light by terrorist watchdog group Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC), shows what appears to be the largest gathering of al-Qaida militants in years, and is one of the more brazen al-Qaeda propaganda pieces to be released in some time.

Appearing front and center in the video is AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi. Known as al-Qaida’s crown prince, al-Wuhayshi is second within the group’s global power structure….

His appearance in the video is especially notable given that the meeting seems to be out in the open, running counter to speculation that AQAP leaders had gone underground and were communicating solely by courier. …

Huh. That’s not good. Al Qaeda feeling free to have company picnics.

Of course, I was being facetious about the drones. Something people miss is that, amazing as modern surveillance is, it doesn’t see everything.

But this does represent an intelligence failure, apparently.

I blame Edward Snowden. Not that I have any reason to do so; I just choose to blame him. The way Democrats blamed Bush for everything, and Republicans blame Obama for everything. I blame Snowden. Call it Snowden Derangement Syndrome… Some of y’all have already accused me of something like that, so I might as well roll with it…

Art imitating life imitating art imitating life imitating…

USS Nimitz

USS Nimitz

Hollywood makes a movie, a year or so ago, about the Iran hostage crisis. It tells the true story of how the CIA pretended to be making a movie in Iran in order to sneak a handful of the American hostages out of the country.

The real movie about the fake movie that hoaxed the Iranians wins the Best Picture Oscar, which Iran could not have failed to notice.

So… now we see that Iran is building a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier — or rather, a vessel that looks like a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. They do it in plain sight, so we can’t fail to notice. Our intel guys watch it being built ever since last summer, and we finally get to the point that we can’t stand it anymore, and have to say something.

Then, when the United States raises questions as to what in the world Iran is up to, they respond, Uhhh… it’s for a movie! Yeah, that’s the ticket… we’re making a movie… ya know, like ‘Argo.’

Which makes us wonder what they’re really up to. What could be the actual purpose for which making a movie is the transparent cover?

Whatever it is, when they spring it on us, I half expect the Iranians to say, “Argo ___ yourself!”

"I'm, uhhh... making a movie! Yeah, that's the ticket..."

“I’m, uhhh… making a movie! Yeah, that’s the ticket…”

Latest reported NSA capability is pretty awesome

As y’all know, I’ve had critical things to say about Edward Snowden. But I have to say, sometimes we learn about some pretty cool stuff as a result of his revelations.

For instance, if we really have this capability, that’s pretty awesome:

The National Security Agency has built a surveillance system capable of recording “100 percent” of a foreign country’s telephone calls, enabling the agency to rewind and review conversations as long as a month after they take place, according to people with direct knowledge of the effort and documents supplied by former contractor Edward Snowden.

A senior manager for the program compares it to a time machine — one that can replay the voices from any call without requiring that a person be identified in advance for surveillance.

The voice interception program, called MYSTIC, began in 2009. Its RETRO tool, short for “retrospective retrieval,” and related projects reached full capacity against the first target nation in 2011. Planning documents two years later anticipated similar operations elsewhere.

In the initial deployment, collection systems are recording “every single” conversation nationwide, storing billions of them in a 30-day rolling buffer that clears the oldest calls as new ones arrive, according to a classified summary.

The call buffer opens a door “into the past,” the summary says, enabling users to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call.”…

If you told Keanu Reeves about this, you know what he would say

Krauthammer: ‘Ya gotta love’ Graham for adding fuel to Democrats’ fire

Charles Krauthammer is getting a kick out of Lindsey Graham’s reaction to Dianne Feinstein’s accusation that the CIA has been spying on the Senate.

On FoxNews last night, the columnist said the following:

What I like the best about this is that Lindsey Graham, a Republican, comes upon the brawl, and he says that if true, the Congress should declare war on the CIA.

Interestingly, we haven’t declared war on anybody since Pearl Harbor.

Lindsey comes across a fight and he hands out Molotov cocktails to all the participants.

Ya gotta love that guy.

You can see the video above. Graham has said “This is dangerous to a democracy. Heads should roll, people should go to jail if it’s true,” and that “this is Richard Nixon stuff…”

That is a twist. You’ve got Democrats in the Senate flinging accusations at a Democratic administration, and a Republican eggs them on by saying it’s as bad as Nixon. One gathers that Republicans like watching a fight between Democrats the way schoolboys like seeing a couple of girls come to blows on the playground. (I can see Lindsey yelling down the hall, “Democrat fight!”)

Oh… and apparently Graham is enjoying the fact that Krauthammer is enjoying it. The Krauthammer clip was brought to my attention by Graham’s office.