Archive for the ‘Intelligence’ Category

Memories of my youth: The Yom Kippur War 2

October 8, 2017

The war started in early October, 1973. The US made the decision to support Israel with arms shipments, and because of the pace of the war, those shipments had to be airlifted.

Initially, the Military Airlift Command coordinated the movement of US weapons and munitions to east coast airfields, where El Al cargo aircraft would carry them to Israel. That system was soon overwhelmed, and the US decided to fly support directly to Israel, via an intermediate stop in the Azores.

By mid-October there was a constant stream of C-5 and C-141 transports flying across the Atlantic and all the length of the Mediterranean. Of course, the Russians were still running their support flights to Egypt. That meant for a portion of the flight we were sharing the same airspace and ATC frequencies.

An interesting feature of the Russian interaction with the ATC system was that one aircraft, probably the only one with a decent English speaker, would transmit flight data for a number of aircraft flying behind them, all using Aeroflot call signs.

MAC aircrews, being the innovative people that they are, would copy these transmissions and pass them back to the MAC Command Post, giving us useful information on the level of Russian activity.

At one point, a Russian pilot read off a string of position reports faster than the MAC crew could copy them down. When he finished, the young Captain co-pilot mashed the transmit button and said “Aeroflot 1234, could you repeat that list, please.” The Russian, who had no idea he wasn’t speaking to ATC, did so.

Everyone had a smile on their face that day.



Memories of my youth: The Yom Kippur War 1

October 7, 2017

It was early October, 1973. I was newly assigned to the Military Airlift Command’s Indications and Warning Center at Scott AFB, Illinois. I was fresh from a four year tour in Europe and had just finished checking out in the duties associated with the Center. Basically I&W is the discipline associated with looking at various indicators that a country might be going to war, and warning the decision makers about it.

It was about three days before the start of the war. That would make it the 2d or 3rd of October. I was sharing the night watch with a more experienced analyst. We were shuffling through the reams of messages that every center gets — 99.9% about normal day to day activities. There was one report that a Soviet transport was headed south over the Mediterranean, towards Egypt. That was nothing new. Egypt was a Soviet client state at the time, and transports were always overflying Yugoslavia, down the Adriatic, and turning left somewhere south of Greece. They were coordinating with the European Air Traffic Control system, just like all aircraft, military or civilian, and anyone could watch them transiting the various air traffic control zones.

Fifteen minutes later there was another report. That’s OK, they just crossed into a new zone.

Fifteen minutes later there was another report. That’s interesting. All three reports were for different aircraft. Fifteen minutes later, there was another one.

Before too long, there was a parade of Soviet An-12 transports, fifteen minutes apart, all the way from Yugoslavia to Egypt. This was definitely news. You don’t commit that level of airlift unless there’s something big going on. It is, as they say, an indicator, but of what?

We had seen a lot of activity in Egypt. They’d been making deployments along the Suez canal, but they did that a lot. They’d call up reserves, run an exercise next to the canal, and send everybody home. We hadn’t seen a lot of activity in the USSR or Eastern Europe, nothing that would support the idea of hostilities there (besides, you don’t start a war in Europe by airlifting stuff to Egypt). Since the Russians were close military advisors to the Egyptians, they’d likely be the first to know if Cairo was planning a major action. Were the Russians providing emergency military aid to the Egyptian army, or were they pulling their own people out? At this stage, there was no way to know.

We packaged up everything we knew, and asked the Operations Officer to wake up the Vice Commander of MAC, a three star general. We briefed him in his living room, with him in his bathrobe and pajamas. He needed to know, because if a Middle East war broke out again, MAC would be on the hook for delivering American aid to Israel. This was our official warning to the decision maker. He was not only warned, but he knew he had been warned.

Then we went back and prepared the morning briefing. The next day, CIA came out with an estimate that said the activity along the canal was exercises or nuisance probes. We got yelled at, but stuck to our guns. Forty-eight hours later, the war started.

Because of our warning, MAC had a three day jump in preparing for the command to start an airlift to Israel.


Leaks and leakers

June 6, 2017

As you may know by now, The Intercept has published a file of highly classified material on Russia’s attempts to hack the US election system. It turns out the data was leaked by a NSA subcontractor, with the somewhat unusual name of Reality Winner. Evidently she was outed because she didn’t know that, by law, color printers print a set of invisible dots that show when and where the document was printed. Although some have questioned the veracity of the leaked report, Pat Lang is rightfully angered over the damage caused to US Intelligence collection by this leak.

The reports that she did this as part of her own program of resistance to the Trump administration only highlight that she must be incredibly naive, as well as ignorant of the Intelligence background to the information she was handling and the anti-copy features of today’s printers. This is what led her to expose information that it was her sworn duty to protect.

There are those who would say that she and Edward Snowden are in the same class — oath-breakers. There is a difference. She broke her oath of secrecy for momentary and fleeting political advantage. Snowden broke his oath of secrecy because of an oath to a higher power, the US Constitution. The two examples are not comparable.

Memories of my youth: Lost November

April 12, 2017

On April 12th, 1970, one day after the launch of Apollo 13 and two days before Houston was notified of a problem, a Soviet November-class SSN sank in the Bay of Biscay. Four days earlier, there had been a series of fires on board the sub, and it had been taken in tow, in an effort to bring it back to a Northern Fleet port. Unfortunately for the K-8 and her crew, bad weather, and likely bad damage control design, caused it to sink in 15,000 feet of water, carrying her reactor and several of her nuclear-tipped torpedoes.

The crew thinks about returning to the sub

The crew doesn’t really want to climb into that hole

I was at the Military Airlift Command I&W Center at the time, and although it wasn’t our primary area of responsibility, we followed the misadventures of the K-8 with some interest. The sub went down about 175NM west of France’s Brittany Peninsula, and 260NM south of Ireland, and for years afterwards, the Soviets kept a ship loitering in the vicinity, to prevent anyone (read: U.S.) from attempting to salvage the wreck. This became a more or less permanent feature, to the point that it became an oceanic  landmark.  The Soviet cruiser transiting to the Mediterranean is currently located 200NM south of Lost November was a typical phrase in the Naval Intelligence reports of the day.

Trump and Intelligence

December 18, 2016

As a career Intelligence professional (somewhat dated, I’ve been out of the business longer than I was in the business), I’m finding Trump’s relationship with the Intelligence Community very interesting right now. He has deprecated their contributions and rejected the usefulness of their efforts. Many people have said that this is just one more example of his stupidity. I don’t think so. At least, not totally. I think what we are seeing is a good example of what might be called operator bias.

Operators are the people who get things done. It’s the operators in an organization who bring life to its reason for being. In the military, they are the war fighters, the ship drivers, and blue four. In business, they are the CEOs and COOs. Their job is to accomplish the mission, fly the frag, keep the doors open. They chafe at anything that might limit their ability to do this, no matter the firmness and reality of those limits. They are the ones who say never tell me the odds. The ones who say think like a manager rather than an engineer.

Trump is 100% a businessman, an operator. He’s always looking to apply his art to another deal. Anything that gets in the way of that deal is an obstacle, not an ally. And if it persists, it’s an enemy. Trump is hot on the deal of a lifetime, and he’s due to close on it on January 20th. So, how is he going to act when the Intelligence Community tries to queer the deal, as he sees it? He’ll do what any businessman does when faced with an inconvenient fact. He’ll belittle it, downplay it, distract you from thinking about it. He’ll ridicule the source. If forced, he might offer some sort of cosmetic band-aid.

“That high voltage line runs right through the back yard of that house we’re looking at.”
I haven’t seen any two-headed cats wandering around.

“That used car you’re selling seems to be leaking oil.”
They do that when they’re brought in from a cold lot. It will seal right up once you run it.”

“I like this used car you’re selling, but it’s got 150,000 miles on it.”
You shouldn’t be obsessed with mileage.”

Afterwards, a thinking-ahead businessman might take action to — well, not to fix the problem, but to keep it from being a problem for him by suppressing further news of it. To the extent he can, he might retaliate against those who might keep raising the issue.

But it’s not the job of Intelligence to suppress an issue. It’s not part of our ethos, it’s not in our DNA. An Intelligence analyst lives and breaths the concept of Timely Truth, Well Told. In Intelligence, the cardinal sin is to know something and not tell the operators who need to know it. Like logisticians, analysts deal only in facts, but must work for men who merchant in theories. Intelligence, as they say, is our last defense against wishful thinking.

The Intelligence Community is actually pretty good about giving the President what he wants in the format he wants it in, from Reagan’s briefing book to Obama’s briefing Blackberry. If Trump wants his intel in 140-character bites, that’s what he’ll get.

The problem, as I see it, is that it doesn’t matter what the package looks like, Trump isn’t buying the product. He talks to his advisors, and he talks to foreign leaders and maybe he reads the New York Times (because that’s what New Yorkers do, even if they disagree with it) and then he heads off to make deals, and woe betide any Intelligence agency that gets in the way of the deal. And when something goes horribly wrong, as it well might, he’ll deny that it happened, deny that it happened that way, deny that it’s wrong, deny that it’s horribly wrong, and then — he’ll blame Intelligence.

Collateral Damage

February 16, 2014

Collateral damage is a military term of art, a shorthand way of referring to unintentional damage inflicted during military operations. So, a taliban is in the next room, shooting at you, you throw in a grenade, and, in addition to killing the taliban you also set fire to the wallpaper. A machine gun is set up inside a compound, you drop a bomb on it, and you also kill the owner of the house and his family. The Al Qaida number-two-man in Afghanistan is attending a meeting, you hit it with a Predator drone, and find out later it was a wedding party and you now have two clans and fifty cousins declaring blood-fued -feud against the US. Collateral damage, as horrific as it can be, is accepted under the laws of war, as an inescapable side effect of combat operations. The requirement is that you take reasonable precautions to minimize it, and that the level of damage is commensurate with the objective of the action.

In 2013, Edward Snowden decided that many actions of the US government and the Intelligence Community were illegal and unconstitutional, and that the only way to bring those crimes to light was to release a large number of documents for public scrutiny. Although the government has so-far successfully prevented a wholesale judicial review of their practices, some of them have been declared unconstitutional (although not by the Supreme Court), and others have been changed — a tacit admission that they were impermissible under US law. This is good. American government actions are well into the shadowy corners of despotism, and sunlight is the best way to cleanse those corners.

Snowden claimed that he made a serious effort to minimize the collateral damage of the documents, and that he gave them only to western journalists. However, in addition to causing public, congressional, and judicial review, the revelations have had, or are purported to have had, a harmful effect on other parts of the US. Things like loss of sales for cloud computing companies, increased counterintelligence operations against the US by the allies we spied on, and admittedly dubious claims of damage to US national security.  By my reading of the situation, this counts as acceptable levels of collateral damage, given that the counter-terrorist mission of NSA has never done squat to protect us.

There’s a point to this discussion. Snowden was incensed that we spied on Americans, and others, and his actions may have made it harder to spy on those others, any others. And it may well be that various foreign governments will now take the steps they should have taken years ago (’cause we aren’t the only ones with good collection systems), and make it harder to do our collection against them, and other others. If NSA had not been so secretive, if they had been more sensitive to the issues of Constitutional law, if they had asked their lawyers “what can we do to stay within the law” rather than “what can we do to get around this pesky law”, then they might not have provoked Snowden, and they might not have suffered so much collateral damage.

The NSA tells no tale; but even as bulk collection was the foundation of their wealth, so also it was their destruction: they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Despot’s Bane.’ #MT: Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring

How many plots has NSA foiled?

December 23, 2013

TechDirt reports that both Judge Richard Leon, and the The President’s Review Group appear stunned at the lack of evidence for the “54 plots” that NSA has been telling us for half a year now that they have prevented.

As I’ve said before, I’m not stunned. I’m just surprised they didn’t go whole hog and shoot for a higher number.*


*Sorry about the quality. Best I could find.

The Paradox of Warning

August 3, 2013

The Paradox of Warning grows out of the experience of the Indications & Warning community. Say that country B is about to attack country A. If A’s I&W analysts figure this out, and formally warn A’s government, then A might take action to forestall the attack, like putting their troops on alert. When B sees this, they back off, figuring that their attack will be unsuccessful. There is no attack, and A’s government yells at their I&W analysts for giving a false alarm and causing them to spend money on troop alerts. And of course, A’s I&W analysts have no way of proving that there ever was an attack planned, unless someone from B should admit to that. IIRC, Anwar Sadat said that he was on the brink of ordering an attack on Israel six or seven times, and pulled back each time, before finally committing to the 1973 war.

On the other hand, there’s no way to prove that country A really believed they were going to be attacked, and didn’t just inflate the possible threat in order to distract the country from internal political complications, the Falklands War being a good example. On the gripping hand, there’s no way to prove that country A didn’t just inflate the threat in order to demonstrate that they really do need programs like PRISM and XKeyscore.

According to CNN, Sunday is the 27th day of Ramadan, and the day that Muslim extremists consider auspicious for attacks on the US. That may be part of the reason why there’s a State Department travel advisory, and why 21 US embassy’s are closed this weekend.

If there’s a major AQ attack, then the government is proven right. If there’s minor disturbances, even if they are of the kind that can occur any time in that area, then the government will claim to be proven right. If there’s no attacks, then the government will say “See, our precautions worked, and it was all due to our collection programs.” And nobody will be able to tell differently, unless, you know, somebody blows the whistle.

Me? I wouldn’t be surprised to see attacks sometime this month — merde d’occur — but I still don’t trust the government.

Slippery Slopes, Mission Creep, and NSA — Part 3

June 20, 2013

If the whole Intelligence surveillance system comes crashing down around Obama’s floppy ears, the basic cause will be the excessive secrecy surrounding every aspect of the counter-terrorism operation since 9/11. The creators of the system have been so afraid of giving the other side the least possibility of finding a chink in our armor that they’ve defeated its very purpose. There’s been two direct results.

First, is that the average citizen can find themselves caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare wherein they are charged with crimes that aren’t crimes, based on evidence they cannot see. Take TSA and its watch lists. It would appear that anybody in the government can cause you to be placed on the watch list, but nobody can take you off. The reason? Our obsessive fear that if we tell people how they get on and how to get off, the terrorists will exploit that information and sneak into the country and blow up the Boston Marathon or something. That’s not as bad as being on the no-fly list — that list of 20,000 people, including 500 or so Americans for whom we don’t have enough information to arrest but who are so dangerous we can’t let anyone with that name on an airplane. Or, if you’re lucky, you don’t get on any lists at all and you just have to stand in line for hours with your shoes in one hand, while the other one holds up your pants.

What does this have to do with the topic at hand? The fact that inept connecting of dots in a database can result in grievous harm to an individual’s life and reputation, with little hope of redress. Not a US example, but do you think what happened to David Mery in London can’t happen here? Or a 62-year old Catholic nun’s problems with TSA (yes, it was years ago — does anyone believe that anything has changed? Note the “I’d have to arrest you” line).

Second, the secrecy helps create a regulatory vacuum. The secret court judges, hand selected by the same Chief Justice who was responsible for the theft of the 2004 Presidential election, make their decisions in secret, based on secret interpretations of the laws. There’s no oversight of the court. Congress isn’t capable of doing it, because, you know, secret, and besides, no politician wants to be seen as being soft on terrorism. Even those few, few people in Congress who did have misgivings about the effects of the laws and their administration, were only able to allude to their concerns in the most general way possible. And when they are presented with direct evidence of lying to Congress by the DNI, they are strangely silent.

I mis-spoke in an earlier segment, when I said the FISA court had rejected 11 applications last year. It was 11 applications in its entire existence. This, at a time when the FBI Inspector General was charging that the same FBI agents, in sending out thousands of NSL’s with gag orders, had violated the law or internal procedures over a thousand times. In the face of that kind of evidence, we are supposed to believe that the data collected by VerizonVac is protected by internal procedures and that same FISA court? To say nothing of the fact that when it comes time to write the actual SQL query that pulls the data, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of court oversight at all. The next time you look up “FISA Court” on Wikipedia, you’ll get a redirect to “rubber stamp“.

Fortunately for the current regime, the Baby Boomer generation is still around. We were birthed at the start of the Cold War, and grew up with a real existential threat just beyond the North Pole. We learned to trust authority and the government because we could see the threat paraded through Red Square every May Day. We lived through the Berlin Airlift and the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Yom Kippur DEFCON 3 and understood why we needed to live with intrusive laws that were not nearly so draconian as today’s. So we are conditioned to trust the government, and even if we were inclined not to, we’re old and frail and succumb easily to fear. But we’re dying out. The grandparents of today’s generation were Viet Nam era hippies, and their parents knew the Soviet Union as an ailing, flailing empire, bleeding to death in Afghanistan — much like the US today. Today’s generation, like, just for e.g., Edward Snowden, were born into a Soviet-free world. They’ve never known what it means to be thirty minutes away from Armageddon, and they don’t care. They value freedom, they hate hypocrisy, and they recognize (those that have taken time to think about it), that a thousand or ten-thousand semi-literate plotters in some far off hell hole pose no existentialist threat to the USA.

At some point they’re going to wake up, put down their shoes, pull up their pants, and start to fight back, and the recent revelations might just be what does it.

Slippery Slopes, Mission Creep, and NSA, Part 2

June 17, 2013

Mission creep, known in the software world as creeping featurism, reflects the tendency of any successful organization to add more tasks to its list, so as to become more important to the bureaucracy.

Sometimes agencies are smart enough to avoid it. For years, every time there was some sort of spectacular crime, the politicians first reaction was to make it a federal offense, and turn it over to the FBI. The FBI worked very hard to avoid these additional duties, partly because they never came with the resources needed to do them.

Of course, some organizations aren’t as smart as the FBI. DHS, for example, or its mini-me, TSA. They keep expanding the areas in which they are not contributing to American security or safety. DHS does this because it’s in its DNA. Think of it as the administrative equivalent of Katamari Damacy. TSA, of course, because fuck you.

Mission creep is bad enough, but there’s a more insidious flaw, probably best described as “we’ve got ’em, let’s launch ’em“. If you have a capability, and that capability is applicable in some way to the current situation, then there’s an almost overwhelming urge to use it. I’m of the opinion that “treating citizen organization X as if they were terrorists” comes from that. If you have a multimillion dollar “fusion center”, with people sitting around trying to figure out how to keep both thumbs warm, and Occupy X sets up camp in a nearby public park, of course you want to exercise your system by tracking them. Of course you want to show in your reports that you are on to every possible “threat”. Even as I typed this, a new story surfaced, about police using driver’s license photos as a permanent lineup.

As an aside, this is likely the cause of the upsurge in SWAT team deployments in support of the recovery of overdue library books (and I exaggerate only slightly). You have a highly trained, highly paid team of hair-trigger Rambo-wannabes just daring any terrorist to start something on their patch. But of course, there aren’t any terrorists. The overwhelming majority of plots broken up by the FBI have been arguably government entrapment of inept nebbishes. So, even if there’s no terrorists, there’s always drug busts of state-legal marijuana clinics. Or RIAA-targeted CD resale stores. Or various kinds of white-collar crime that can be labeled ‘cyber’, which is almost as bad as WMD and so deserve the SWAT treatment.

To get back on topic, in the last decade or so we’ve spent billions of dollars and millions of man-hours defending against a threat that is barely detectable, so that we can (as Snowden recently said) potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own police. When you have this kind of organization, and something occurs that can be made to be construed as falling within its purview — dissent, whistleblowing, unauthorized leaks — of course the powers that be will attempt to use it to their advantage and the detriment of Democracy. That’s what has people worried. In the back of everyone’s mind is the whispered voice “they came for my metadata, and I said nothing…”.

Quite naturally, everyone in power denies this possibility. It would not be allowed because, in the immortal words of a former President, “That, would be wrong“.

Slippery Slopes, Mission Creep, and NSA, Part 1

June 15, 2013

On the one hand, I agree with Robert Graham about NSA. I worked with NSA people off and on for twenty years. They aren’t evil. While they’re not all “Ph.D.’s with military experience”, they are some of the smartest people you will find in any organization, now that Bell Labs is closed. Read the stories about Bletchley Park, and then think of NSA as Bletchley on an industrial scale. Among other things I can attest to is that they are scrupulous about obeying the law. The problem is with the law itself.

The arguments in favor of that law (when I say that law, I mean all the surveillance laws, from Patriot Act to CISPA) are that what is allowed isn’t that much different from what was allowed back in the wiretap days, see Simon, and that their vacuum cleaner approach is totally unbiased (reading all Americans metadata is better than discriminatorially targeting some, see also Simon). The truth is, the overwhelming majority of that data will never, ever be looked at. Some small percentage of it will be looked at in near-real-time, and could provoke a court order to allow deeper delving. A somewhat larger chunk will be called up for analysis after the fact (say, once a terrorist act has occurred and we’re chasing down the culprits) and could lead to further court orders.

Knowing what I do of kinds of people who work in Intelligence, I’m comfortable with that.


The people at NSA are, of course, part of DoD, which means part of the Executive Branch, which means subject to ultimate civilian control. This is usually seen as a Good Thing. Unless, of course, you have the Attorney General (and the President’s brother) calling you every other day, asking if you have offed Castro yet. Unless, of course, you have the Vice President coming to your cubicle in Langley, demanding that you prove that Saddam Hussein has no WMD. Unless you are the FBI under Hoover.

Did you know that FBI requests for an improved “tie everything together” computer system were regularly turned down by Congress, back in the day? They did it because they didn’t want to give the FBI, and its handlers, any more power over Americans, no matter what the Soviet (remember them?) spy threat, and no matter how big the mafia (remember them? Small scale gunsels when compared to Wall Street and B of A) organized crime threat.

The problem is, to quote that left-wing tyrant Abraham Lincoln, “the first job of a politician is to get elected”. That means defeating your political opponents, and if you are in the bottom part of the political ethics spectrum, that means defeating your opponents by whatever means possible. No American is immune from this threat. The only requirement is that they oppose the current incumbents, and it doesn’t matter if they are political opponents or dissidents.

As we found with lead in the environment, and with CFCs in the atmosphere, the only way to control it is to ban it completely.

This is turning into a multi-parter. Next time, I’ll talk about the implications.

L’affaire Snowden

June 13, 2013

There’s so much going on and so many new aspects of this case being revealed daily that I think I’ll just start a link-list of interesting and insightful articles, with minimal comments. I will update this post as I find interesting stuff. Newer articles will go on top.   give up unless I find something particularly compelling. Particularly since Mike Masnick over at TechDirt is doing such a fine job of covering all the breaking news. Why don’t you go hang out there for a while?

Snowden speaks


and a comment


I’ll let George Takei lead off

David Simon says that from a legal standpoint this isn’t much different from what went on in the pre-Internet age:
and does a point/counterpoint on questions that came up in the comments

Backer of the Patriot Act, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, says it was written to prevent NSA data-mining
…doesn’t think Snowden is a traitor

Background — secrets are only secrets until policy makers need them public
…this is my experience in DC. Biggest leakers are program managers and Congressional staffers

This is why sites like WikiLeaks are necessary

FISA court says DoJ is interpreting the law incorrectly
…and they waited until now to tell us because why?
…oh, because we didn’t ask….right.

NSA’s greatest nightmare
…they’ll get dragged into domestic court issues
…and get sued themselves


About geolocation

About collecting data on Americans
…and a commentary on Clapper

The NSA data-mining program either has or hasn’t helped
…Congressmen say it hasn’t. NSA says it has, but its examples are …flawed.

de-mything the myths about NSA

Has the US become the type of nation from which you have to seek asylum?

One of the advantages of having 6000 items in one’s RSS feed is that I have enough recent history at my fingertips to be worth something. Here’s a few links from last April’s discussion of FISA and CISPA legislation:

A timeline

Worries about privacy

and confusion over NSA

You can’t trust the Feds

Here’s the WH positon

and what one person believes

Why Clapper’s In a Twist

June 11, 2013

DNI James Clapper said on national television this weekend that having the Verizon letter leaked was a “gut wrenching” affair, and that whoever did it had caused grave national damage. That got me to thinking.

What the Verizon revelation did was confirm that NSA had an ongoing program of vacuuming up external data on US domestic phone calls, i.e. it exposed a sensitive Intelligence source, thereby creating the possibility that the source would dry up. Or did it?

A source dries up when the target has control of it and finds out it’s being tapped. If I leak that the US has dug a tunnel under the Berlin wall to a GDR telephone cable and is intercepting Russian and East German phone calls, pretty soon the Stasi is out with a jack-hammer and that source is closed. The Communists are dismayed and surprised, because they didn’t think that could happen.

If the European Parliament publishes an official report that the US is intercepting and analyzing the content of all phone calls between the US and Europe, and that the program is known as Echelon, everybody figures that’s what NSA has been capable of for a long time, and so what’cha gonna do? The source doesn’t dry up, because (a) the users have no real control over such a large, complex system, and (b) they were operating under that assumption already. Maybe they could, with great effort, fix parts of (a), and maybe they occasionally forget about (b), but the fact is, the Echelon report didn’t change much of anything, except maybe EU laws about data protection.

Note the similarities between Echelon and VerizonVac. The user of the source doesn’t have control over the system — and they have no effective alternative. There are some countermeasures they could attempt, but if they were at all competent they already assumed this was happening, and were taking what precautions they could. Given what everybody has believed about NSA for years, they’d be fools if they didn’t.

Leap back to the state of Clapper’s bowels. The professional end of the terrorist spectrum should already be taking precautions. The unprofessional end has the memory and mental processing power of a bird, and won’t be a problem anyway. So, why would the source dry up?

Maybe the VerizonVac source will dry up because their constituents will become enraged at this intrusion on their privacy and demand that Congress do their job and pass laws against this sort of thing.

Maybe the primary reason for the Top Secret classification was to hide the programs’ existence from the American people.

How is it possible?

June 9, 2013
This is what happens when organizations shirk their duties

This is what happens when organizations shirk their duties

Everyone has been beating up on NSA and the White House after the Verizon/Prism revelations, and the Intelligence Community have been presenting carefully weasel-worded defenses. Here’s some examples:

New York Times, Washington Post, Wired, BBC, McClatchy, BoingBoing

People are right to be shocked. People are right to be angry. People are taking it out on the wrong people.

First, as far as I can tell, every single action of NSA and the companies they dealt with, as described, was totally legal, as defined by the laws passed by Congress, interpreted by the Executive Branch, and approved by the Judiciary. BTW, so were the actions of the Stasi, back in the day. Just sayin’.

First, some history. The thousand-page Patriot Act was passed by a panicked Congress in the weeks immediately after 9/11. The act was the cobbled-together wish-list of every federal agency that could justify a seat at the table. Congress passed it without reading it. The other acts, including the review of the Patriot Act, were passed later, in an atmosphere of fear — fear that the other side (of the aisle) would brand them soft on terrorism. Most of this, but not all of it, not by a long shot, was done on the GOP watch, under Bush. Obama inherited a collection of powers, and since when has a President ever voluntarily given up any powers?

Next, and this is the reprehensible part, came the secret interpretations of what the various acts allowed the government to do. Think of them as Presidential signing statements, only secret. The WH claims that these powers are all being exercised responsibly and with strong oversight. Of course, we have to take their word for this. Just like we had to take their word that the FBI wasn’t misusing their National Security Letters, until the FBI Inspector General admitted that no, they’d actually been violating the spirit of the law and the letter of the Constitution. But that’s all stopped now. Trust us.

The judiciary, meanwhile, remained just as pusillanimous as Congress. The special court set up to oversee the requests would look at two thousand in a year, and turn down eleven — roughly one-half of one percent. Some of those requests were amazingly sweeping, like the leaked Verizon document — “give me everything you’ve got for the next three months, at which time you’ll get a new request, and by the way you can’t say anything about this because it will tip-off our target”. The target, apparently, being everyone. In addition, the courts caved whenever the WH would play the “national security” card, which was every time they got thwarted. So, effectively, there was no oversight and no protection for American citizens.

There were a couple of Senators who tried to warn us, but if the WH stonewalls discussion, and nobody violates their oath and leaks the information, then there’s nothing that can be done.

Meanwhile, the defenders of the status quo, AKA President Obama, said

“I think it’s important for everybody to understand . . . that there are some tradeoffs involved. You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

That’s a false dichotomy… trichotomy. We’ve never had 100% security in anything, anywhere, ever. You want to do something to improve the chances than an American will live a full life with their privacy intact? Do something about the 40,000 fatal, preventable, medical errors each year. Everything we do is a tradeoff between convenience and security. Every time you cross the street you are taking your life in your hands. Every time you walk across your living room. You are far more likely to be killed by a doctor or an automobile — or your sofa — than you are by a terrorist.

The people who wrote the Constitution recognized that. They recognized that you can’t trade freedom for security, for soon you will end up with neither. They crafted a system of checks and balances, designed to make sure that no branch of the government — particularly not the Executive Branch — could arrogate to itself enough power to turn America into a dictatorship like they’d left back in the Old Country. The catch was, each branch of the government had to do their damn job. If that had happened. If Congress had read what they voted on. If the GOP wasn’t such a proto-fascist organization. If more than a handful of federal judges had a backbone. IF the government worked the way the founders had intended, we wouldn’t be in this situation today.

Here’s one commenter that says some of what I wanted to say, but says it better. And here’s another, with a timeline that shows how long this has been going on.

The bottom line? We knew this could happen, and we willfully ignored the possibiltiy. The people who did it are in the Executive Branch. The people who enabled it are in the Legislative and Judicial Branches. The people who let it happen are us.

The Afghanistan Estimate

January 16, 2012

The Los Angeles Times has an article on a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was recently prepared on Afghanistan. The picture it paints is as gloomy as anything that came out of the Viet Nam era. Despite local successes against the Taliban in the south, the central government is still considered to be fragile, the security forces are corrupt, and Taliban elements in the east are still finding refuge in Pakistan. The only thing holding up the whole house of cards is us, and it’s all likely to go pear-shaped before the door hits us on the butt.

The Pentagon, and the theater military commanders disagree. If you go back to the NIE’s coming out of Viet Nam, you find the same thing — gloomy NIE’s (unless distorted by pressure from policy-makers), denials from the military leadership at all levels, and requests for increased troop strengths for, as Uncle Owen would say “only one more season”. (more…)

Pearl Harbor Part 3

December 7, 2011

Indications And Warning (I&W) is an obscure corner of an otherwise esoteric Intelligence discipline. It specifically deals with predicting a country’s intention to go to war through observations of their preparations. It was born of the Intelligence failures of the first half of the last century — Pearl Harbor and Korea (and the Chinese intervention there). It grew of age in the second half, watching the Soviet Union and North Korea. It was then subject to a major identity crisis when the Warsaw Pact collapsed, and the problem became one of predicting the terrorist actions of non-state organizations. Most of that is fodder for a different post.

I want to wrap up my Pearl Harbor coverage by looking at the I&W aspects of the problem. (more…)

Last Days of the GSFG

September 9, 2011

Here is a “now it can be told” story from Berlin at the end of the Cold War. It’s typical of the kind of information one really gets in this business, and the kinds of inferences that you have to draw. There’s a whole sub-discipline of Intelligence, called Indications and Warning, that deals with predicting major actions like the withdrawal of the Group of Soviet Forces, Germany.

While I worked I&W most of my career, I wasn’t in the line of work portrayed here (it’s Collections, not Analysis) but I knew folks who were, and at the time the story occured I had just retired from my USAF job at the Defense Intelligence Agency, where I was trying to unravel the GSFG problem from that end. The “liaison mission” mentioned in the article is the USMLM. They drove all over East Germany with big American flags on their license plates, but were prohibited from entering “Permanent Restricted Areas”.

USMLM tour car on the road

My uncle was in the USMLM, back in the late ’40’s, and was one of the people declared “persona non grata” for violating the Rugen Island PRA.

It was just outside of the Ludvigslust PRA that Major Nicholson was shot to death by a Soviet guard in 1985, about four years before this story took place.

Air Spy

June 6, 2011

Here is a BBC infomercial for a recent program(me) on the use of “3D”, AKA stereo, imagery by Photo Interpreters (PIs) in Operation Crossbow, the effort to find and destroy Hitler’s V-weapons.


What makes this interesting to me, is that I trained on a stereoscope exactly like the one shown (I still have it), and I knew PIs who knew Constance Babington Smith (“Babs”), the original “Air Spy” on Crossbow. (more…)